Over the holiday, The Force Awakens became the fastest film to cross the $1 billion-gross marker. It's been an unequivocal success by both critical and popular standards: It currently stands at 94 percent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes, and it's broken various records in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and across Europe, according to the Associated Press. So given the movie's unprecedented numbers, it may come as a surprise that director J.J. Abrams will cede control of the franchise to Rian Johnson for Episode VIII. Why won't J.J. Abrams direct Star Wars Episode VIII?
The rebooted Star Wars trilogy has been mapped out for the next three films as well as its various spinoffs, including the upcoming Rogue One. Rian Johnson, best known for his work on Brick and Looper, both with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will take over for Episode VIII, and Colin Trevorrow will direct Episode IX (though screenplays for both films are currently listed under Johnson's name). Abrams has laid the groundwork for the next two installments, but he will serve only as an executive producer on VIII.
Although Abrams hasn't made an official statement explaining why he will not direct the future Star Wars episodes, current fan hypotheses propose that the franchise is a massive time and energy commitment for a director with hands in so many different projects. Abrams already spent several years on two Star Trek movies, and focusing on Star Wars for the next five years would remove him from other opportunities that may present themselves.
But in the absence of an explanation from Abrams himself, there are rumors that he's already regretting his decision to take a back seat for future episodes. He expressed reluctance before even taking on The Force Awakens, stating that because of his allegiance to Star Trek and his own fandom of Star Wars, he wouldn't be the best-suited for the role, according to Slash Film. "I’d rather be in the audience not knowing what was coming, rather than being involved in the minutiae of making them," he said at the time. Yet he treated The Force Awakens with both the reverence and humor of a life-long fan, to the film's credit. Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, eventually succeeded in roping Abrams in, and his direction for the film lays strong groundwork for Johnson and Trevorrow to come.
Now, a friend of Abrams and The Force Awakens actor, Greg Grunberg, recalls Abrams saying "It’s so good, I wish I were making it," of Episode VIII, according to Variety. (This deserves a grain-of-salt disclaimer, since it's not a statement coming directly from Abrams.) Johnson has been working on the screenplay, with a projected release date of May 26, 2017. Throughout the process of making The Force Awakens, Abrams shared rough material with Johnson to ease the transition between the two directors. Yet original series screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who also worked on The Force Awakens, has noted how "weird" the next installment is sure to be under Johnson's guidance: "If you've seen Rian's work, you know it's not going be like anything that's ever been in Star Wars," he told the Los Angeles Times.
The Washington Post did note that exiting the trilogy was Abrams' choice, much as he may be reported to regret that decision now. If Brick is any indicator, Kasdan's assertion that there are few more disparate directing styles than those of Abrams, Johnson, and Trevorrow might bear out. Kasdan co-wrote The Force Awakens with Abrams, so he's had a front seat to the changes the trilogy underwent in the transition from Lucas to Kennedy and Abrams. As for the spinoff films, Gareth Edwards has been tapped to direct Rogue One, and Kennedy has noted she plans to seek out a female director for additional movies. So Abrams' departure may actually leave an opening for rising filmmakers to make their mark. He's had his moment, and maybe it's time to open up the pitch to lesser-known directors without quite the resume Abrams has already cultivated.
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