Acclaimed director David Cronenberg recalls his decision not to direct Star Wars sequel Return of the Jedi, and his lack of regret about it. Certain directors tend to come to mind right away when the topic of best living filmmakers is brought up, names such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Guillermo Del Toro. Also sure to pop up somewhere on many such lists are directors with more eclectic resumes than the above, such as surrealist master David Lynch, and Canadian helmer David Cronenberg, who made his name directing some of the strangest horror films of the 1970s and 80s.
Cronenberg’s feature debut came in 1969, and he’s now directed 21 films in total, his most recent being 2014’s Maps to the Stars. In the years since, Cronenberg has experienced issues getting his projects funded, and at one point said he was considering retirement. Cronenberg burst onto the radar of most with his early horror and sci-fi efforts, including Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, and a 1986 Jeff Goldblum-led remake of The Fly. The director would eventually pivot away from genre movies in the 2000s, choosing to make more conventional dramas and thrillers such as A History of Violence. Still, these later films are unmistakably Cronenberg works, and have also garnered many rave reviews.
Whether or not his time as a director has ended, Cronenberg’s legacy as a filmmaker is assured, as evidenced by the decision of Los Angeles’ currently unfolding Beyond Fest to celebrate his career. Naturally, Cronenberg is in attendance, enabling fans to both watch his work on the big screen and hear from the man himself about it. During a recent conversation with EW, Cronenberg reflected on what would have easily been his highest profile project ever, if he’d actually taken the job. Back in the ’80s, Cronenberg was asked to direct Return of the Jedi for Lucasfilm, and needless to say, his reaction surprised the studio.
I still recall getting a phone call. Somebody said that they were from, I guess it was Lucasfilm, and asked me if I was interested in — at that point it was called Revenge of the Jedi, actually, until somebody pointed out that it was against Jedi philosophy to think in terms of revenge. But, anyway, I was asked if I would be interested in considering that, and meeting with everybody, and I said, with the arrogance of youth — relative youth, anyway — I said, ‘Well, I’m not used to doing other people’s material.’ And there was like a stunned silence and then ‘Click’ — hang up. Basically, that was as close as I came to that.
For most other directors, giving the above “arrogant” response to the offer of directing a Star Wars sequel might seem like an inexplicable, regrettable move. However, Cronenberg has always been a filmmaker who follows his own path, and has never taken gigs solely for the paycheck involved or potential mainstream recognition. His answer may have been brutally honest, but it was definitely just that, honest. As Cronenberg expounds on within his comments to EW, he looks at directing a franchise film similarly to helming an episode of a popular TV series:
In a way that’s like doing one episode in a well-established TV series. The casting is fixed of the main characters — the look of it, the tone of it, people’s expectations for it, are all fixed. You are not involved in the creating of that. And therefore you’re a little bit more like a traffic cop than you are like, for me, what a creative director can be. So that’s why it wouldn’t have interested me, really. […] I mean, there’s the lure of money, and having a big budget, and having excitement around the film you’re making — but on the deep creative level, it would for me be frustrating, I think. Just frustrating.
Return of the Jedi would of course go on to be directed by Richard Marquand, and become easily the most divisive entry into the original Star Wars trilogy, at least until George Lucas’ prequel trilogy came along to redefine what divisive meant when it came to the space opera franchise. Would David Cronenberg’s version have been better? Maybe, maybe not. After all, as Cronenberg stresses above, he’d have only had so much control over the final product, with most going to Lucas and the other producers.