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In 'Solo,' a Battle for the Soul, and Tone, of 'Star Wars'

Actors Joonas Suotamo, from left, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, director Ron Howard, actress Emilia Clarke, actor Alden Ehrenreich, actor Donald Glover, a person dressed as the character Chewbacca and actor Paul Bettany pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film "Solo: A Star Wars Story" at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, May 15, 2018.

When J.J. Abrams was a Star Wars novice, Lawrence Kasdan, the writer of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, had some advice for him: Star Wars is not important.

"But what is important is the way people feel about it," said Kasdan. "And they are very committed to it. What they're committed to is a certain kind of film."

The question of what constitutes a Star Wars film — how it should feel and what it should sound like — was at the center of the battle over the Han Solo spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story and the dispute that resulted in directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord being replaced in mid-production with Ron Howard. Though the pace and improvisational manner of Lord and Miller's direction was part of the clash, the main issue was, simply, tone.

Lord and Miller, the filmmaking duo of irreverent, highly meta comedies like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, wanted to push Solo into Guardians of the Galaxy territory. Kasdan did not.

"You can have fun with the tone but you never make fun of the tone, in my world," Kasdan said in an interview alongside his son and co-writer John Kasdan, the morning after the Solo premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. "We live in a very meta culture and there's a tendency to make fun of these things before they're even anything."

FILE - Phil Lord and Chris Miller seen an event for "The Lego Movie" at the Bricksburg Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, California, Dec. 4, 2014.
FILE - Phil Lord and Chris Miller seen an event for "The Lego Movie" at the Bricksburg Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, California, Dec. 4, 2014.

The pains of finding the balance between recapturing the feel of Lucas' original trilogy and allowing a new generation of filmmakers to put their own stamp on Star Wars may be the most pressing creative issue before Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Beneath the billions of dollars in box office and merchandise, there are hints of a growing existential crisis in the far, far away galaxy as it gets further and further removed from George Lucas' original vision.

Splits among fans

The first spinoff, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, saw Gareth Edwards booted for Tony Gilroy. Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was to helm 2019's Episode IX before Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams was brought back in the fold. And even Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, which according to critics succeeded the most in freshening up Star Wars with a distinct filmmaking sensibility, was very divisive among fans.

Some applauded Johnson's changes and some reviled them — and the split hurt business. The Last Jedi grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, but ticket sales fell sharply after the first two weeks of release and it made only $42.6 million in China. Solo came to Cannes — the world's largest film festival — with an eye toward boosting global awareness.

Much of the conversation leading up to the release of Solo has been estimating how much of the film is Lord and Miller's and how much is Howard's. But the highest percent might belong to Kasdan, who initiated the film's premise years ago, and who — when the comic tenor started shifting — felt some ownership of the film.

"There is that, no question. I got excited because I wanted it to sound like a certain thing. It's all about sound and tone and voice," Kasdan said. "We were very excited to get Phil and Chris onto the movie. It was a very difficult movie and they shot a lot of it. And it was a struggle to maintain that voice and hear that tone."

Guardian of the soul

When George Lucas exited any active role in the science-fiction soap opera he created, that left Kasdan as the primary — and most widely respected — connective tissue between the past and present of Star Wars. The 69-year-old Kasdan, who also co-wrote The Force Awakens, has emerged as something of a guardian of the soul of Star Wars.

FILE - Directors Ron Howard, left, and George Lucas attend the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 22nd Annual Hall of Fame Gala in Beverly Hills, California, March 11, 2013.
FILE - Directors Ron Howard, left, and George Lucas attend the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 22nd Annual Hall of Fame Gala in Beverly Hills, California, March 11, 2013.

"Larry, having had written Empire and Jedi, just figures into this equation differently than any writer could," said John Kasdan. "He's in a very funny and challenging position, to be kind of the keeper of the flame and to help usher it into a new era with new filmmakers."

Lord and Miller, who have taken executive producer credits, have only spoken publicly once about the fallout. In November, Lord said there was simply a "really big gap to bridge and it proved to be too big. 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."

Reviews for Solo have been a little tepid (70 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes as of Thursday) but critics have been impressed by how little evidence there is of the film's schizophrenic production. John Kasdan believes the finished product is actually aided by "the tension between Larry's sensibility and Chris and Phil's sensibility."

"It was brutal and painful but what also came out of it are moments like the Han and Chewbacca meeting," says the 38-year-old writer.

Advance tracking has estimated a possible weekend opening of around $170 million, suggesting fans remain excited for the film starring Alden Ehrenreich in Harrison Ford's iconic role — and perhaps more crucially, Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. (Kennedy, sensing the clamor for Glover, has naturally suggested a Lando spinoff could happen.)

The popular Howard also helped stabilize Solo. He shares some continuity with Lucas, too, having worked with him on 1973's American Graffiti and 1998's Willow. A longtime friend of Howard's, Lucas even stopped by the set on the director's first day.

"George has a real understanding of what the medium can do in terms of really transporting audiences — which I discovered in great detail when I came onto Solo. I began to see how dimensionalized the tone is," said Howard. "It's playful but it's also thematically centered and serious. It's visual and imaginative and yet there's something connected to our past experience, in a way."

Ultimately, the elder Kasdan doesn't think the soul of Star Wars is anything too deep — nothing about the Force or political metaphor, anyway.

"What drew me to it was there was this guy who walked into the cantina," says Kasdan. "A gunslinger with a great sidekick."