Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard All Turned Down ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’
Independent of whatever faults he may have as a filmmaker, you’ve got to give Ron Howard points for originality. The man’s cultivated an eclectic filmography over his decades-spanning career, trying his hand at everything from biopic hagiography (A Beautiful Mind) to low-key erudite drama (Frost/Nixon) to Americana action epics (Apollo 13) to, uh, whatever How the Grinch Stole Christmas might like us to believe it was. Excepting his adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, driven possibly by the lure of a massive payday, Howard has kept away from franchise properties and brand-name blockbusters.
He spoke to this very topic in a recent appearance on the Happy Sad Confused podcast, commenting on his varied selections in feature projects. If he had been interested in doing so, Howard could’ve altered the course of recent box office history. In the interview, Howard commented on his brief flirtation with directing Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace:
[George Lucas] didn’t necessarily want to direct them. 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 honor, but it would’ve been too daunting.
Speculating on how Star Wars could’ve played out differently is an American pastime, like baseball, or leaping to conclusions. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg were both approached to direct Episode VI; if that had come to pass, we’d be living in an entirely different world. How oversight from Howard would’ve changed (salvaged?) The Phantom Menace can only exist in our imaginations, but a heightened presence from Warwick Davis, the star of the Howard/Lucas collaboration Willow, may have been in the card. Davis made but a brief cameo in the prequel trilogy through a few brief cameos, but Howard has never been shy about his fondness for the actor. The podcast interview also granted us another gem of a soundbite from Howard:
I’ve had opportunities over the years [to make superhero movies]. I really feel like you shouldn’t make a movie as a kind of exercise. You have to be all the way in. I was never a comic book guy. I like the movies when I see them, especially the origin stories. I never felt like I could be on the set, at 3 o’clock in the morning, tired, with 10 important decisions to make, and know, intuitively, what the story needs. For me, I’d be copycatting and not inventing. I’ve never said yes to one.
The man makes a fair point. To the outside observer, a gig directing one of Marvel’s big-budget monstrosities may seem like the holy grail, but some artists just want to do what they feel like doing with minimal corporate oversight. Who knew?