Since the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, the space opera has become a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. And while working on a Star Wars film would seem to be a boon to any filmmaker's career, several well-known directors have passed on the chance to direct Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and the rest of the gang. Even J.J. Abrams, director of the upcoming The Force Awakens, initially turned down the job because he wanted to stay loyal to the Star Trek franchise.
"There were the very early conversations, and I quickly said that, because of my loyalty to Star Trek and also just being a fan, I wouldn't even want to be involved in the next version of those things," Abrams told Empire magazine. "I declined any involvement very early on. I'd rather be in the audience not knowing what was coming, rather than being involved in the minutiae of making them."
A few weeks later, however, Abrams made a deal with Disney to helm Star Wars: Episode VII. But here are 10 other noted filmmakers who turned down the chance to direct a Star Wars movie.
1. DAVID LYNCH
In 1980, David Lynch gained commercial and critical acclaim for The Elephant Man, which earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Afterwards, George Lucas approached Lynch about directing Return of the Jedi. The filmmaker turned down the offer because he didn’t understand the movie and wasn’t a big fan of the science fiction genre.
“I went to meet George Lucas, who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, and I’ve never even really liked science fiction,” Lynch said in an interview. “I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.” Oddly, Lynch ended up turning down Return of the Jedi to helm the film adaptation of Dune in 1984. Return of the Jedi was (unsurprisingly) a huge hit, while Dune was a box office bomb.
2. STEVEN SPIELBERG
David Lynch wasn't George Lucas’ first choice to direct Return of the Jedi; that honor belongs to Steven Spielberg. But because of a credit dispute with the Directors Guild of America, Spielberg was unable to accept the job because of his clout and membership in the organization. As a result, Lucas left the DGA after they fined him $250,000.
In 2002, Spielberg revealed that he wanted to helm a Star Wars prequel film, but this time around, Lucas turned him down. “I've asked [Lucas]. He won't let me do one. I wanted to do one 15 years ago, and he didn't want me to do it. I understand why—Star Wars is George's baby. It's his cottage industry and it's his fingerprints. He knows I've got Jurassic Park and Raiders. But George has Star Wars and I don't think he feels inclined to share any of it with me."
In addition, when Disney announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm and plans to release Episode VII in 2015, Spielberg once again turned down an opportunity to helm a Star Wars movie. "No! No!,” he told Access Hollywood. “It's not my genre. It's my best friend George's genre."
Fun Fact: Spielberg was uncredited as a second unit director on 2005's Revenge of the Sith. He helped Lucas design a few of the actions sequences during pre-production, namely Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber duel. He wanted to experience using Industrial Light & Magic’s pre-visualisation software and techniques.
3. GUILLERMO DEL TORO
Horror and fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is responsible for some of the most creative genre films made in the last 20 years, including The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy movies. In 2012, Disney and Lucasfilm called del Toro to find out if he was interested in making Episode VII.
"We got one phone call to my agent saying, 'Is Guillermo interested?'" del Toro told The Playlist. "And basically I have so much stuff already of my own." Though he did add that, “it was very nice to be asked, but believe it or not, I'm busy enough."
4. NEILL BLOMKAMP
Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium was produced by Simon Kinberg, who has been heavily involved with the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise since Disney acquired the property from Lucasfilm in 2012. Kinberg broached the idea of making a Star Wars movie with Blomkamp, but the filmmaker declined because he wasn't comfortable with the idea of adapting someone else's work, especially as part of such a beloved film series.
5. DAVID CRONENBERG
After the box office and critical success of Scanners in 1981, Lucas approached David Cronenberg to helm Return of the Jedi. "I got a phone call once asking if I was interested in directing one of the Star Wars sequels,” Cronenberg told The Hollywood Reporter. “And instead of saying 'Oh my God, yes!' I said, 'Well, you know, I don't really do other people's material.' Click. I don't know how far it would have gone, but it ended there."
6. BRAD BIRD
After making such widely popular animated movie as The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) for Pixar, Lucasfilm reached out to Brad Bird about joining up with the Star Wars franchise to direct Episode VII. He turned them down because of a scheduling conflict with his own project for Disney, Tomorrowland, which he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof.
“I’ve known Kathy [Kennedy] for a while and I know George [Lucas]," Bird explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “And they did come to me. But the problem was, the schedule they had in mind made it impossible to do ... unless I dropped Tomorrowland.”
7. MATTHEW VAUGHN
British filmmaker Matthew Vaughn was in talks to direct Star Wars: Episode VII ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. Allegedly, he left X-Men: Days of Future Past, after making X-Men: First Class in 2011, to direct Episode VII, but a deal with Disney never got as far as initial negotiations. Reports allege that there were "creative differences."
8. DAVID FINCHER
In 2012, Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy spoke with David Fincher about the possibility of directing Episode VII. While the meeting didn’t turn into the job, Fincher revealed what he wanted to do for a Star Wars movie.
"I talked to Kathy about it, but I think that it's a different thing from ... I don't know what Disney-Lucasfilm will be like," Fincher told Total Film. "It's tricky. My favorite is The Empire Strikes Back. If I said, 'I want to do something more like that,' then I'm sure the people paying for it would be like, 'No! You can't do that! We want it like the other one with all the creatures!'" (It's worth noting that one of Fincher's earliest gigs was as an assistant cameraman and matte photographer for Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on Return of the Jedi.)
9. PAUL VERHOEVEN
Before Irvin Kershner landed in the director's chair for The Empire Strikes Back, producers were interested in bringing on Paul Verhoeven, as they were fans of his Golden Globe-nominated World War II picture Soldier of Orange and felt he could take on The Empire Strikes Back as his next project. After Verhoeven showed producers his follow-up film, the highly controversial Spetters, he never heard back from Lucasfilm again.
10. IRVIN KERSHNER
Although Irvin Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, he turned down the opportunity to direct its follow up, Return of the Jedi. Despite the critical and commercial success of Episode V, Kershner felt that he had spent enough time in the Star Wars universe.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Kershner explained, “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.”
BONUS: QUENTIN TARANTINO
While Lucasfilm never actually asked Quentin Tarantino to helm a Star Wars movie, the director expressed some very strong feelings about Disney when Entertainment Weekly asked him if he’d ever be interested in the job. “I could so care less,” he said. “No, sorry. Especially if Disney’s going to do it. I’m not interested in the Simon West version of Star Wars.”