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Ron Howard is 18 years old, hoping to shed some of his cute-kid fame with a slightly more grown up role in a coming-of-age movie about cars, young love, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Opie from The Andy Griffith Show has big ideas. Maybe he’ll be a filmmaker someday himself. Maybe.
He’s one of the only well-known people in the cast of this little film, which also includes actors Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Kathleen Quinlan, Charles Martin Smith, Suzanne Somers, and some guy in a cowboy hat named Harrison Ford.
At this point, nobody is anybody. Not even the writer-director, a skinny, quiet, bearded guy named George. George has only a small, avant-garde sci-fi film in his filmography. Everybody’s just starting out.
“I remember standing in front of Mel’s Diner doing American Graffiti, about midway through our shoot, and George Lucas didn’t ever say much, and he was so overwhelmed by that project, and we were shooting nights, and everybody was sleepy,” Howard recalls now. “He was not a chatty guy. But I was having a great experience working on it. He and I had already made a connection because I had been accepted to USC Film School, which is George’s alma mater, and I spent a lot of time talking to him about THX 1138 and movies, and where they were going, and so forth.”
During that break in filming, in the middle of the night, in the middle of summer, surrounded by vintage cars outside a San Francisco diner that has literally been “retro”-fitted, Howard receives a vision of the future.
“I said, well, do you know what you’d want to do after American Graffiti? And he said, ‘Yeah, I want to do a big science fiction movie. I’m working on a script.’ And I said, “Well, what is it?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s a little bit like Flash Gordon, but it’s not Flash Gordon, but I liked those movies when I was a kid and those comics and things.’”
His plan was to bring state-of-the art visual effects and sound to those old tales of hokey religions, ancient weapons, and heroes with blasters at their sides.
“He said, ‘But, you know, it has, like, the grandeur of 2001, and the realism of those special effects that Kubrick created,’” Howard recalls. “And then he said, ‘But maybe fast.’”
Fast. That’s the race car driver in Lucas. Fast.
“And that was about all he said about it, you know?” Howard says now. “So it didn’t leave me with a deep understanding of what he wanted to go for until I happened to see it. And there it was. And it was kind of mind-blowing.”
Also mindblowing: Closing in on a half-century later, Howard would be making one of those Star Wars movies.
Young Ron Howard couldn’t have guessed his future would include young Han Solo.
And he definitely couldn’t foresee the havoc that would unfold to pull him in to that galaxy far, far away.
The Han Solo movie is in crisis.
Lucasfilm and the two directors hired to craft this stand-alone film about the early years of the most beloved scoundrel in movie history are at an impasse.
Phil Lord and Chris Miller are pretty beloved themselves. They are comedy masterminds who made The LEGO Movie, the 21 Jump Street films, and executive produced Fox’s Last Man on Earth among other hit projects. Everybody likes them.
But what they’re doing with the Han Solo film isn’t satisfying Lucasfilm, and a Star Wars movie is no one’s idea of a place to experiment. The specifics of the dispute come down to a they said/they said.
“I just say over and over again that, yes, it was an incredibly difficult decision that we had to make and obviously it was pretty late in the game, which shows we spent a lot of time trying not to have to make that decision,” says Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. “And I think both Chris and Phil are enormously talented and incredibly funny. When all of this came together, all of us wanted nothing more than to have this be an incredible working experience. And when it was not working out as we had all hoped, it wasn’t out of lack of talent.”
This part of the story has already been told. Over the summer, when the news first broke, sources close to the guys said they weren’t given the freedom or trust to make the movie they wanted to make. Sources familiar with the studio side said they weren’t following the script, were improvising too much, and taking so long to complete shooting that Lucasfilm lost confidence.
Asked directly about it now, Kennedy answers: “I think these guys are hilarious, but they come from a background of animation and sketch comedy and when you are making these movies you can do that and there’s plenty of room for improvisation, we do that all the time, but it has to be inside of a highly structured process or you can’t get the work done and you can’t move the armies of people to anticipate and have things ready. So, it literally came down to process. Just getting it done.”
This is nobody’s favorite topic to discuss. “There comes a point where there’s only so much you can do and then you have to take a different course and that’s where we ended up,” Kennedy says. “So, it’s not like there’s anything I can really add to it because the last thing I want to do is…”
… reopen a wound.
“Yeah, I just don’t want to do that,” she says. “These are really great guys and you know, nobody wanted this to happen. It was just one of those unfortunate things.”
But it happened. The directors parted ways over creative differences — which is the nice way of saying they were fired, a word that seems unnecessarily blunt given how much everybody says they like Lord and Miller.
They moved on to writing and producing a sequel to The LEGO Movie and producing an animated Spider-Man movie with the character Miles Morales as the webslinger.
About a month after Howard finished principal photography on Solo, Lord and Miller took part in an animation panel at Vulture Festival in Los Angeles to discuss their 2002-03 MTV show Clone High. It was there, for the first time, that they addressed leaving the Star Wars film.
“I think everybody went in with really good intentions and our approach to making the movie was different than theirs,” Lord said. “That was a really big gap to bridge, and it proved to be too big.” Lord managed a laugh as he added, “Sometimes people break up, and it’s really sad, and it’s really disappointing, but it happens and we learned a lot from our collaborators and we’re better filmmakers for it.”
He added, “We’re really proud of the work we did on the movie and we wish everybody the best.” Miller suggested that there were no lingering hard feelings: “We’re super well-adjusted, obviously we’re doing great. We’re super drunk right now,” he joked. “As Phil said, we had such a great relationship with cast and crew, we were really rooting for them.”
But after they left, Solo was rudderless. Briefly.
Just two days after announcing the split with Lord and Miller, Lucasfilm announced it had selected its new director. A veteran, an Oscar-winner, and another guy that pretty much everybody likes.
Howard says joining the project wasn’t an easy choice. But it came at a time when he was between directing gigs, focusing on his producing work at his company Imagine, and he was friends with Kennedy and Allison Shearmur, the producer of Solo, who lost her battle with cancer in January. He wanted to do what he could. But he also didn’t want to step on the toes of fellow filmmakers.
“I know Chris and Phil. They’re incredibly talented guys, and all anyone at Imagine Entertainment wants to do is find a way to work with Chris and Phil, and that’s every bit as much the case today as ever,” he says. “But when I learned that this change was happening, it just came in a moment where I was working on lots of new projects for Imagine, and I had not planned to direct anything last year. So then this came my way, and I was talking to Kathy, and the now tragically late Alli Shearmur, an old friend. I was reluctant, but I also began to feel that I could help.”
He enjoyed the script. He was friends with the producers. He liked the cast. He made peace with Lord and Miller.
And so Ron Howard stepped aboard the Millennium Falcon.
“It’s disappointing that any company ever feels like they have to make a change like that,” he says now. “It’s rough on everybody and disappointing for everybody, and I’ve just tried to come in and — of course, Phil and Chris’s fingerprints are all over the movie, given how much they put into it and the time they put into it. I hope fans won’t even think about how the movie was made. They should just lose themselves in it.”
How much of the film is his and how much is theirs? That’s a question fans have been asking, but Howard isn’t answering. Instead, he paraphrases the smuggler himself.
“As Han says, ‘Don’t tell me the percentages.’ Never tell me the percentages,” Howard says with a laugh.
The actual quote is, “Never tell me the odds,” but hey … we all make mistakes.
UPDATE: In this case, the mistake was mine. Ron Howard actually called me back just a few minutes after the interview was conducted and left a message: “The minute I hung up, I though wait a minute, ‘Han didn’t saay don’t tell me the percentages.’ He said, ‘Never tell me the odds.'” I somehow overlooked the message.
Back to the subject of who shot what …
“I don’t really want to explain it. I don’t really want to be specific about that because, again, I don’t even want that to matter to fans,” Howard says. “I could understand why you’d ask, and some might even be curious, but look, everybody who has been involved in this has done nothing but love what this movie could be, and that’s been the vibe around it. I think audiences are gonna feel that love and excitement.”
Apart from having the means and desire to help a production in trouble, there was another factor that drew him in to Solo. “George is like a big brother mentor in my life,” says Howard, who also worked with Lucas on the 1988 swordplay and magic saga Willow. (Solo will feature a cameo from Star Wars stalwart and Willow star Warwick Davis. “That was a treat to reconnect with Warwick,” Howard says. “He’s smart. He’s versatile, he’s funny, and he’s a pleasure and an old friend. So that was a blast.”)
Even though Lucas sold his company to Disney and is no longer actively involved in the films, the legacy of the character and the new slate of movies meant something to Howard. So he said yes to Solo.
“I actually felt like it was gonna be a very unique, creative experience for me. It happened to fit into my life, and I liked the adventure of tackling challenges, and this was certainly gonna be a hell of a challenge — and it has been,” Howard says. “But an exciting one.”
He got a helping hand from old friends, too. Ford spoke with Howard and gave him some insights into the character that he typically begrudges curious Star Wars fans.
Then, just as shooting resumed, Howard got a visit from another familiar face: The guy who first told him about this galaxy, a long time ago.
“He came by to visit the first day that I picked up shooting. George and his wife, Melody, came by to pay a little set visit. It made me feel great,” Howard says.
Lucas, the father of Star Wars who handed it off to another generation to become the grandfather of Star Wars, even gave him some advice that sounds straight out of the Obi-Wan playbook.
“He told me just trust my instincts, you know?” Howard says with a laugh. “I know he kind of fundamentally feels like, first and foremost, [these films are] sort of for 12-year-old boys, and yet even he knows that it’s grown so far beyond that, and the fans have grown with the series in a great, important way. So he didn’t offer a lot of advice except, ‘You’ll get this.’”
That brief set visit became a longer one. And a longer one.
“He had intended to just kind of stop by and say hi, and he stayed five hours,” Kennedy says. “There’s even one little moment in a scene that — I can’t tell you what, sorry — but in the scene on the Millennium Falcon where George said, ‘Why doesn’t Han just do this.’”
In other words, George Lucas helped direct a small part of Solo.
“It actually is a funny little bit that will probably get a laugh,” Kennedy says. “And Ron happened to be by the monitor and not inside the Falcon and he goes, ‘Oh that’s a great idea,’ and ran in and said, ‘George wants us to do this.’ So that was pretty cool. I think George felt pretty great about that. He could revisit these characters, and I think he felt so comfortable, obviously with Ron being there, that it was just fun for him.
Lucas’ final wisdom for his old American Graffiti actor: “just enjoy this.”
“And I really have enjoyed it,” Howard says. “It’s a fun tone. And of course, with the Kasdans writing it and it being a young Han Solo movie, there’s this swagger, and there’s this sense of humor and this kind of youthful emotion and intensity.”
Howard even found a little inspiration from one of his recent films. “I found myself sort of drawing upon the movie Rush, and that intensity. After all, in another universe, Han would’ve probably been a Formula One race driver or something, you know? He has that kind of sensibility and talent.”
Fast. That’s how George Lucas described Star Wars to Howard back in 1972. Fast.
That also describes just how quickly 45 years can go by. Strangely, you can end up close to where it all began.