The Curious Case Of The ‘Return Of The Jedi‘ Director

Return of the Jedi
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A few weeks ago, Colin Trevorrow — who directed what is, right now, the third highest-grossing movie of all-time, Jurassic World — was tapped to direct Star Wars: Episode IX, a movie that won’t even come out until near the end of President Trump’s first term. This caused a bit of an uproar, bringing the topic of the lack of blockbuster opportunities for women directors to the forefront and wondering why a director with only two movies on his resume (albeit, one of them a huge financial success) was getting Star Wars.

(For the former issue, it seemed unfair to make Trevorrow the poster boy for what is an industry-wide problem. Then, Trevorrow decided to comment on the issue, which did not go over well. At least he’s kind of earned his scorn now.)

Regardless of all that, it’s interesting to compare what’s happening now to the way the directorial duties were handled with the original trilogy. Had the Internet existed when the original trilogy was produced, the Internet would have been very mad. Put it this way: A lot of people still think that George Lucas directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

After directing Star Wars, Lucas couldn’t direct the film’s sequel and get Lucasfilm off the ground at the same time, so after re-writing Leigh Brackett’s draft of The Empire Strikes Back (which was then polished up by Lawrence Kasdan), Lucas hired his old USC professor, Irvin Kershner. Lucas would not direct another movie until 1999’s The Phantom Menace.

Kershner, who was 56 when Empire was released, had no experience with blockbuster movie-making or even special effects, really. It was an offbeat choice, but Kershner, along with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, made a character-driven story that just happened to be surrounded by effects, as opposed to the opposite. In retrospect, hiring these two now makes all the sense in the world and, of course, The Empire Strikes Back is considered the best Star Wars movie. Neither Kershner nor Suschitzky would ever be involved in another Star Wars film.

Kershner turned down Return of the Jedi. In 2010, shortly before his death, I interviewed Kershner for Vanity Fair and I asked him if he regretted that. Kershner replied, “After working for two years and nine months doing Empire, and having it take so much out of my life and having given me so much, I felt that it was a complete experience and it was time to move on.” (Kershner did admit that, had the prequels been made a little sooner, he would have been up for directing one of those installments.)

Lucas was then on the search for a new director for Return of the Jedi. David Lynch was considered, but for reasons that seem obvious today, Lynch declined and directed Dune instead. Soon after, a little-known Wales-born director named Richard Marquand was hired to direct what was then called Revenge of the Jedi.

Now, when thinking of the heat that Trevorrow received after his announcement, could you even imagine the Internet response to Richard Marquand being announced as the director of what was the most anticipated movie of all-time? Back then, I remember being aware that Lucas wasn’t the director. But I really didn’t know what that really even meant, and I just assumed Lucas was calling all the shots on Empire and Jedi anyway.

I was partially right.

The Empire Strikes Back was filmed in Europe while Lucas stayed behind in California in an effort to try to keep Lucasfilm from going bankrupt. Other than writing the second draft of the script, which looks nothing like the first draft (Lucas isn’t officially credited and doesn’t get enough credit for this), he was fairly hands off during Empire. Of course, this drove Lucas nuts when Empire blew past its shooting schedule and went over budget. Kershner may have been an odd choice to direct Empire, but he wasn’t a pushover. Empire is very much Kershner’s movie. So, for Jedi, Lucas wasn’t going to let that happen again.

To this day, Return of the Jedi is the only Star Wars movie filmed partially in the United States. As opposed to Empire, Lucas was present… a lot. And to get a little wonky about film-making, Kershner didn’t film a master shot – “a single shot that includes the complete scene from its start to the finish.” Meaning the way Kershner filmed each scene was the way Empire was going to look, period. Kershner is the true auteur of the Star Wars universe. This did not please Lucas. A couple of years ago, I asked Joe Johnston (director of Captain America: The First Avenger and the man who created Boba Fett) and he admitted, “I think George was occasionally frustrated with the coverage Kershner shot. He refused to shoot a master, a cardinal sin in George’s book.”

In response, Lucas forced Marquand to shoot a master shot. So, no matter how Marquand may have wanted a scene to look, Lucas now had the ability to edit it any way he wanted. When reading about Marquand’s experience on Jedi in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Return of the Jedi, it’s really a wonder why Lucas didn’t just direct Jedi himself.

From accounts, it does seem like Marquand was a nice guy (he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma) and a capable director (he was an Emmy-winner), but was in over his head with Jedi. Not because of the material or any of the challenges of directing a Star Wars movie, but because Lucas was literally standing right there the whole time. How do you not defer to Lucas when he’s looking over your shoulder and this is so obviously his creation? This is what brings me my greatest hope for the new Star Wars movies — not because Lucas is gone, but more because, like Kershner, with Lucas “not around,” filmmakers are going to feel a bit more freedom to do what they want to do as opposed to what they think Lucas wants.

Again, speaking to Johnston in 2013, he continued, “George’s attitude has always been that the film is made in the cutting room, and production is a process of assembling the raw material. My guess is that George saw Marquand as a guy who could go out and amass the great-looking footage that George would mold into the film in post.”

And the actors didn’t respond as well to Marquand as they did to Kershner, especially Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. (Fisher is quoted in Rinzler’s book saying, “I didn’t understand the character.”) In 2010, I asked Jeremy Bulloch (who played Boba Fett in Empire and Jedi) about Marquand’s style, and Bulloch said, “[Marquand] said, ‘Jeremy, you know, you were in the last one, you know what to do. Don’t you?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, I do,’ but it’s always lovely to have the director say, ‘No, no, no, that’s wrong.’”

According to Rinzler’s book, Marquand looked at Jedi as an opportunity to further his career, just like every filmmaker today looks at Star Wars like that. Marquand would go on to direct a few more films, including the Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close thriller, Jagged Edge. Sadly, Marquand would die from a stroke at the age of 49 in 1987.

Regardless, Marquand still remains the most unlikely of Star Wars directors – which is probably fueled by his untimely death, in that he wasn’t around long enough after to really reflect on his experience like Kershner did. And no matter how much the Internet freaks out over all future Star Wars directors, nothing would be able to match the hypothetical Internet shock of Richard Marquand.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.