In case you were under a rock last week, Lucasfilm and Kathleen Kennedy fired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller weeks before filming was set to wrap on the next Star Wars anthology film. They then brought in world-famous narrator — and director — Ron Howard to get Han Solo back on track. Rumors are still flying faster than the Millennium Falcon as to what happened, but consensus seems to be Lord and Miller thought they were making a comedy and Lucasfilm thought that was a bad idea.
Of course, fans of all stripes lost their minds. Star Wars fans aren’t known for our even-keeled personalities or ability to roll with the punches. Plus, Lord and Miller have a cult following after their successes such as 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie. The duo has a specific style of irreverent comedy that manages to poke fun at tired, dated, and trite concepts while also managing to give them the kind of heart that keeps their work from sliding into parody. All of this meant the knives were out for Kathleen Kennedy. How dare she fire men who just want the creative freedom to make their movie? And how dare Lawrence Kasdan try to become the shadow director?
Parsing through the outrage on social media, a weird theme began to pop up. Harrison Ford ad-libbed his famous response of “I know” to Carrie Fisher’s “I love you” in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and therefore Lord and Miller should be allowed to do whatever they want because obviously Lawrence Kasdan — who wrote The Empire Strikes Back — is a buzzkill. Only that’s not entirely true. Like most urban legends, the story of how the famous exchange came to be has been warped until it barely resembles the truth. Luckily, Yahoo found the receipts as to what really happened.
[Orginally] Later Han kisses Leia, she says, “I love you. I couldn’t tell you before, but it’s true.” But he doesn’t say, “I love you” — his line is “Just remember that, ‘cause I’ll be back.”
On the day he shot the carbonite scene in June 1979, director Irvin Kershner was actively making changes to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s script. Amazingly, there’s a complete record of when and how these changes occurred, because unit publicist Alan Arnold was recording everything on audio cassette. In a conversation between Ford and Kershner transcribed in Rinzler’s book, the director and star agree that the love scene needs to be less florid. “I think she ought to just say, ‘I love you,’ as I’m passing by her,” Ford suggests to Kershner. Later in the conversation, he makes the change to his own line, saying, “If she says, ‘I love you,’ and I say, ‘I know,’ it’s beautiful and it’s acceptable and it’s funny.”
So yes, Ford did write the line. No, he didn’t improv it on the spot. It was blocked out and written ahead of time and one of many ways the scene was filmed. That’s not to say improv can’t work in the Star Wars universe. Oscar Isaac’s famous “So who talks first? You talk first?” was ad-libbed on the spot. That was partially due to Poe Dameron’s role being expanded in reshoots to accommodate his new character arc. Donnie Yen’s response to having a bag put over his blind character’s head in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was also improv as were many of Alan Tudyk’s lines for K-2SO, the repurposed Empire droid.
The problem with the untitled Han Solo film — based on what sources are leaking — appears to be that Lord and Miller didn’t just want to have the actors improv a line or two here and there, but were going off-book constantly. From THR:
[S]ources say they relied too heavily on the improvisational style that served them so well in live-action comedy and animation but does not work on a set with hundreds of crewmembers waiting for direction […] The source close to Lord and Miller acknowledges they have always worked in an improvisational style and not just to add comedic elements. “They collaborate closely with their actors and give them creative freedom that, in their experience, brings out the actors’ best performances,” this person says. “Lawrence Kasdan would not allow this and demanded that every line was said word for word. To appease him and the studio, Lord and Miller would do several takes exactly as written and then shoot additional takes.”
Creative freedom is great, but when dealing with legacy characters like Han Solo, there is little wiggle room. Harrison Ford carved out a very specific voice for that character, one that would leave any future actor stepping into Han Solo’s shoes a blueprint for how to talk, how to walk, and how to react to any given situation. Guy Henry, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One spoke to the difficulty of replicating a famous character. It’s a delicate balancing act. One that can handle the off-book line or two, but not days of improvisational takes.
Was it ideal for Lucasfilm to fire Lord and Miller this close to the finish line? Obviously not. But maybe it’s a better make that hard choice now than to accidentally forever tarnish the legacy of Han Solo.