Cinema history is littered with ‘what if’s’. What if Terry Gilliam has helmed the first Harry Potter movie? What if George Lucas had directed Apocalypse Now? What if Jonathan Demme had got his hands on Hannibal?
It’s the same with the Star Wars films. Many other directors have been asked to helm these movies over the years. Some thought about it for a bit and then said no, others turned it down instantly.
So here are eight big-name movie directors who came near to helming a Star Wars picture… Maybe somewhere, in some parallel universes far, far away, these films actually exist...
Steven Spielberg, The Phantom Menace
Imagine – a Steven Spielberg Star Wars movie. Aw man, it sends great pleasure thrills all the way through us.
You’d think that the sensibilities of America’s greatest director and the world’s most box office-busting movie franchise would be a match made in movie heaven, but Spielberg was, it seems, reluctant to take over something his old buddy George had created.
"It's not my genre," he told Access Hollywood. "It's my best friend George's genre." Of course the two had already teamed up for the Indiana Jones series, but it seems being a director-for-hire wasn’t something Steven Spielberg wanted to do in 1999. Shame.
David Lynch, Return of the Jedi
Of all the Star Wars ‘what ifs’, this is the one that sends our imaginations into overdrive. What kind of Star Wars film would David Lynch, the crown prince of weird, have made?
"I went to meet George Lucas," he reveals in the book Lynch on Lynch, "who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, and I’ve never even really liked science fiction. I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing."
Lynch went on to direct Dune, his only overt science fiction movie, soon after turning George Lucas down, while Lucas eventually gave the Return of the Jedi gig to the more mainstream Richard Marquand.
While Lynch and Star Wars may not have been a natural fit, we can’t help but wonder how much stranger, how much creepier, how much **better** Return of the Jedi might have been had Lucas got his man.
Guillermo del Toro, The Force Awakens
Horror and fantasy visionary Guillermo del Toro is the man behind some of the most visually resplendent genre films made in the last 20 years, including Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and the forthcoming The Shape of Water. He was also assigned, at one point, to direct The Hobbit, before backing out. Well, it turns out that del Toro was also one of the names approached for Episode VII, as it was called back then.
"We got one phone call to my agent saying, ‘Is Guillermo interested?'" del Toro around the time of The Force Awakens’ release. "And basically I have so much stuff already of my own. It was very nice to be asked, but believe it or not, I'm busy enough."
What would a Guillermo del Toro Star Wars film have been like? It might well have had more exotic alien creatures than in JJ Abrams’ human-heavy version, and it certainly would have found a place for del Toro’s regular collaborator Doug Jones, who has – so far – appeared in six of the director’s movies.
David Cronenberg, Return of the Jedi
Now this one takes some imagining. David Cronenberg, that master of icky body horror, apparently received a phone call from George Lucas in 1981 sounding him out about directing what would turn out to be Return of the Jedi.
"Instead of saying 'Oh my God, yes!'" Cronenberg told The Hollywood Reporter, "I said, 'Well, you know, I don't really do other people's material.' Click. I don't know how far it would have gone, but it ended there."
It’s an odd fit, for sure. Cronenberg is known as a director of adult-themed horrors with an emphasis on bodily transformation and infection, like The Fly. We can’t really imagine him directing Ewoks.
Brad Bird, The Force Awakens
When The Force Awakens was first mooted, Bird’s name was one of the names being bandied about by fans.
It’s not hard to see why – as the director of The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Bird’s sunny family-friendly, sci-fi-friendly disposition would have been a snug fit with the sensibilities of Lucasfilm. But, sadly for Bird, his own film Tomorrowland was about to start shooting, and so was unable to sign on for the Star Wars gig.
Ron Howard, The Phantom Menace
Ron Howard and George Lucas go back a long way. In fact, Ron Howard, back when he was a jobbing actor, starred in Lucas’ first cinematic hit, the coming-of-age comedy-drama American Graffiti.
He’s recently wrapped on Solo: A Star Wars Story for Lucasfilm (having replaced directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller), but his Star Wars career could have started way back in 1999 as Howard was one of three big-name directors that Lucas approached to helm the first of the prequel trilogy (which Lucas ended up directing).
"He didn’t necessarily want to direct them," he told the Happy Sad Confused podcast. "He told me he had talked to Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, and me. I was the third one he spoke to. They all said the same thing: ‘George, you should do it!’ I don’t think anybody wanted to follow-up that act at the time. It was an honour, but it would’ve been too daunting."
David Fincher, The Force Awakens
Although at first the idea of a David Fincher Star Wars doesn’t seem to make an awful lot of sense, remember that there’s more to the director than Se7en, Fight Club and recent Netflix smash Mindhunter. He’s also the man behind the whimsical The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the character-fuelled The Social Network, so he’s not always about stygian explorations into dark side of modern society.
That said, his favourite Star Wars film is The Empire Strikes Back, and the director felt that wasn’t where Lucasfilm wanted to go when they asked him to helm The Force Awakens.
"I talked to Kathleen Kennedy about it," the director told Total Film. “It's tricky. My favourite is The Empire Strikes Back. If I said, 'I want to do something more like that,' then I'm sure the people paying for it would be like, 'No! You can't do that! We want it like the other one with all the creatures!'"
Matthew Vaughn, The Force Awakens
The Kingsman director seems to have a deep-seated aversion to working on already established franchises. He walked off X-Men 3, said no to Bond and turned Lucasfilm down.
As we’ve come to realise with the amount of firings over at Lucasfilm/Disney, Kathleen Kennedy wants a team player, and that means a director who’s willing to collaborate with, and maybe even sometimes obey, his producers. That doesn’t sound like Matthew Vaughn to us, who prefers to produce his own projects and kick-off his own franchises.
Remember to book your tickets for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opening in Cineworld on 14th December.