Star Wars is the second highest grossing film franchise in the world – second only to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the past 40+ years, nine directors have worked on theatrical Star Wars films, including George Lucas, J. J. Abrams, Ron Howard and more. We’re going to explore the careers of every Star Wars film director and their greatest works. By the end, we’ll have a comprehensive knowledge of some of the most respected and sought-out filmmakers in modern Hollywood history.
- STAR WARS (1977)
- STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
- STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)
- STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)
George Lucas is the visionary behind Star Wars. Without him, there would be no Skywalker saga, lightsaber battles or anything in a galaxy far, far away. Lucas directed four Star Wars films and crafted the mythology of that universe, just like J.R.R. Tolkien did with Middle-Earth decades before.
Lucas didn’t know it then, but his Star Wars script would go on to become one of the most influential screenplays of all-time.
But seeing as we’re focusing on Star Wars directors, let’s look at Lucas’s directing style. George Lucas is a director who loves big set-pieces, expressive props and putting his characters front-and-center, even in the middle of action.
Let’s look at a few different videos to see George Lucas in action. This first video shows Lucas working on the first Star Wars – which was just called Star Wars before it was later amended to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
When I think of auteur directors, my mind doesn’t immediately go to George Lucas – but I suppose it’s true that Lucas is an auteur. Lucas had his fingerprints all over Star Wars, from conception to execution. Perhaps one of Lucas’s best decisions was to hire the talented artists and technicians who went on to establish the Lucasfilm subdivision company: Industrial Light & Magic.
ILM created some of the most iconic miniatures of all-time, like the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon. In fact, the team at ILM was so good that it became one of the most in-demand in Hollywood. They secured contracts on Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones series, the Harry Potter series, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series – just to name a few.
The point I’m trying to make is that through charisma, sheer luck, or a combination of both, Lucas surrounded himself with some of the most talented professionals in the industry.
Let’s jump ahead 22 years to pre-production of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace; Lucas’s second-directed Star Wars film.
The Phantom Menace proved that hype is perhaps the greatest antagonist of any Star Wars film. Reviews at the time of the film’s release were mixed, but in the decades since, many critics have been more favorable.
There’s a moment in the documentary where Lucas discusses Ewan McGregor’s (Obi-Wan) hairstyle with a hair-designer and ponders whether there should be colors in his braids to symbolize how many years he’s been a padawan. That’s the type of attention to detail that defines Lucas’s approach to filmmaking.
I’m not one to bash on George Lucas for his work on the prequels, but Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones is rough, like objectively not great. This next video looks at what went wrong with Attack of the Clones and how Lucas missed on some of his biggest ideas.
Attack of the Clones replaces a lot of the epistemological themes from The Phantom Menace and the original trilogy with a plot much more focused on politics and interpersonal relationships. I think one of the biggest reasons why Attack of the Clones floundered is because Lucas lost sight of what made his other Star Wars movies so great – complex themes combined with a clear plot.
Lucas’s third (and last) Star Wars movie was Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. In honor of Revenge of the Sith, let’s watch a video that explores everything great about the film.
Revenge of the Sith marked a return to form for Lucas; which is a shame because it’s the last film he directed. If you want to learn more about the film, check out our Revenge of the Sith script teardown.
George Lucas isn’t just famous for creating Star Wars though. Here are some of his other most iconic directorial works.
THX 1138 (1971) & AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
Lucas directed two acclaimed features and several short films before Star Wars. His directorial feature debut THX 1138 is widely regarded as one of the best sci-fi movies of all-time. While his second feature, American Graffiti, frequently makes appearances on the lists of the best movie soundtracks. This next work shows some of Lucas’s greatest works before Star Wars.
In addition to his directorial credits, Lucas served as writer and EP on the first three Indiana Jones movies as well as a consultant on a variety of other films. Lucas also founded Pixar, which he sold to Steve Jobs in 1986; Skywalker Sound, THX, and LucasArts.
In 2012, Lucas sold all Lucasfilm companies to Disney – which at the time made him the second largest shareholder of Disney behind the estate of Steve Jobs. For better or worse, the franchise has now been passed on and we will see how Lucas's legacy lives on.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
After the surprise box-office success of the first Star Wars, Lucas could’ve chosen pretty much anybody to direct its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back – but he chose Irvin Kershner, a man who had never directed a big-budget film. Why? Well, Lucas grew to hate the pressures of Hollywood after his work on the first film so he wanted somebody outside of the studio system to direct the film – oh, and because his good friend Steven Spielberg wasn’t available.
Kershner may have been an unlikely choice to direct The Empire Strikes Back, but he’s proof that sometimes the unlikely choice can be the best choice. This next video explores some of the reasons why The Empire Strikes Back is considered one of the best films ever made.
One of the most critically lauded aspects of The Empire Strikes Back is its emphasis on character over plot. In the Director’s Commentary of the film, Kershner said, “I like to fill up the frame with the characters' faces. There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face.” This point is proven throughout The Empire Strikes Back, like when Leia says “I love you” and Han says “I know” and when Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father.
The Empire Strikes Back is an incredibly well-directed movie – one that many consider the highlight of Kershner’s career.
HOODLUM PRIEST (1961)
Kershner directed films other than The Empire Strikes Back but few were as well-received. However, there is one other film that he directed that received rave reviews (and a Palme d’Or nomination) – Hoodlum Priest.
In addition to his work as a director, Kershner acted in films like The Last Temptation of Christ and served as a lecturer at USC and MITH.
RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Lucas hired Richard Marquand to direct Return of the Jedi after Irvin Kershner decided he didn’t want to return for the last of the original trilogy films. Marquand had developed a good reputation in the cinema industry for working on BBC series prior to his work on Star Wars.
But although Marquand certainly had the talent to direct Return of the Jedi, I’d say he didn’t do a great job with the picture. Perhaps that’s unfair to say considering Lucas had such a big role in the film’s production, with some reports saying that he was frequently in control of the set.
Few would argue that Return of the Jedi is the weakest film of the Star Wars original trilogy – but hey, it’s hard to maintain the prestige of two masterpiece science-fiction films.
Marquand directed seven other films before his untimely death at 49.
EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1981)
Marquand’s most acclaimed directorial feature is probably Eye of the Needle, a 1981 spy thriller that starred Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan.
As I alluded to earlier, Marquand directed a variety of programs for BBC before he directed feature films, including Search for the Nile and Cameron Country.
J. J. Abrams
- STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS
- STAR WARS: EPISODE IX - THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
In 2012, Disney purchased LucasFilm with a plan of making new Star Wars movies. Shortly after, the company chose J. J. Abrams to spearhead development of a new trilogy. Abrams was an obvious choice for Disney considering he had successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise and created series like Alias and Lost.
Abrams’s first Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, marked a return-to-form for the franchise and was met with widespread praise from fans and critics.
Amongst other things, The Force Awakens received acclaim for its well-rounded cast and use of practical effects. Although the plot of the film wasn’t groundbreaking by any means, it was novel enough to keep things moving while introducing us to new characters and some long-lost friends: Chewie, C-3PO, Han Solo, Leia and Luke Skywalker.
With a production as big as The Force Awakens, the director tends to serve the role of a ship captain more than anything else. Abrams was certainly the ship captain for The Force Awakens – and he did a great job of steering the film through tumultuous waters.
J. J. Abrams also directed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – the last film in the “Skywalker Saga” and maybe the least consequential film of all-time. For a good laugh, check out the satirical video below.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an incoherent mess – a point made worse by the fact that Abrams started the trilogy out so strong with The Force Awakens. If you want to learn how to avoid tropes and cliches in screenwriting, do the exact opposite of The Rise of Skywalker.
But there’s no point in harping on Abrams here considering he’s already received criticism for his co-writing and directing The Rise of Skywalker.
STAR TREK (2009) & MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)
There’s no doubt about it: J. J. Abrams is a hard-worker. Just look at his credits on IMDb – the guy has his name on dozens of projects. I think that’s a testament to his reputation in Hollywood as somebody everybody likes to work with. He just happens to be a talented director as well.
Before J. J. Abrams was an acclaimed film director, he worked on shows like Felicity, Alias and Lost. Abrams won two Emmy Awards for his work on the pilot episode of Lost – which is considered one of the best pilots of all-time.
STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII - THE LAST JEDI
Perhaps the poor pacing, lack of character depth and seemingly random events were detriments; but rather than pile on the damage, let’s focus on one area where Rian Johnson really shined as a Star Wars director.
In this next video, we break down the blocking and staging of the “throne room” lightsaber battle in The Last Jedi.
First of all, let’s give it up to the actors, stunt doubles and choreographers who put this scene together – and for Johnson for shooting visceral action with truly minimal mise-en scene. The Last Jedi may not be my favorite Star Wars movie but it was visually-bold.
LOOPER (2012) & KNIVES OUT (2019)
Rian Johnson has directed a few good movies, but his two most famous (besides The Last Jedi), are Looper and Knives Out. Looper is a 2012 science-fiction film that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hitman who has to kill his future self. Wait, what?
Yeah, Looper is a pretty wild movie, but nonetheless very good.
Knives Out is perhaps Johnson’s most accessible film. Let’s watch him break down a scene from the film.
Johnson didn’t receive any major awards for his directorial work on Knives Out but he did receive an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
As for Star Wars, Disney announced Johnson was going to return to write a new trilogy and direct the first film – but recent rumors have thrown that trilogy into question because no timeline or additional info has been given.
The Rogue Agent
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)
If we’re not counting the Star Wars Holiday Special (which we aren’t), then Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the first live-action Star Wars feature outside of the Skywalker Saga.
Rogue One was a Star Wars film for Star Wars fans, recreated with an attention to detail that remains unrivaled in Disney’s Star Wars films.
I think one of the reasons why Rogue One works so well is because Gareth Edwards understands what makes the Star Wars universe special – rich themes, endearing characters, cool props and expressive costume design. This next video explores everything that’s great about Rogue One.
Gareth Edwards is a huge Star Wars nerd who said he’s seen the original trilogy 300 times! So for him, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to create a film that leads directly into George Lucas’s first Star Wars film.
Rogue One is a crowd pleasing Star Wars film that’s more mature than most of its third-generation contemporaries.
MONSTERS (2010) & GODZILLA (2014)
Gareth Edwards directed two monster-movies before he directed Rogue One – the appropriately titled Monsters and Godzilla, the former of which was made with a crew of just five people. For more on Edwards’s guerilla filmmaking tactics and digital editing expertise, check out the video below.
I think most people would agree that considering his talent and appreciation for the world of the films, Gareth Edwards would be a natural choice for another Star Wars film.
SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)
You may have heard the term script doctor used before in reference to somebody who patches up scripts, but have you ever heard of a film doctor? Well, there is a precedent for film doctors in Hollywood – Stanley Kubrick was brought in to patch up production of Spartacus in 1960; ironically a year later Kubrick bowed out of production of One-Eyed Jacks forcing Marlon Brando to take over.
In June 2017, six months into production of Solo: A Star Wars Story, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and Ron Howard was brought in to finish the film. On his first day on set, Howard was aided by George Lucas who agreed to help in an advisory role.
In the end, Lord and Miller relinquished their directorial credits to Howard and retained EP credits. Solo released to good-not-great reviews from fans and critics. Let’s watch a short featurette that brings us behind the scenes of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Although Solo wasn’t as well-received as Disney hoped it would be, critics praised Howard’s steady direction and Alden Ehrenreich’s performance as that scruffy-looking nerfherder Han Solo.
APOLLO 13 (1995), A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), FROST/NIXON (2008)
Other than George Lucas, Ron Howard is the most accomplished filmmaker who’s directed a Star Wars movie. I think it’s fair to say that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was thrilled to have him fill in for Lord and Miller on Solo.
Howard won two Academy Awards for his work on A Beautiful Mind and received another two nominations for Frost/Nixon. In his 40+ years in Hollywood, Ron Howard’s movies have earned more than two billion dollars at the box-office.
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (2008)
If there’s one Star Wars director who shares George Lucas’s directing sensibilities, it’s Dave Filoni. Filoni has only directed one Star Wars film, but he’s directed numerous episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels and The Mandalorian. In Filoni’s Star Wars works, you can see an abundance of appreciation for the world Lucas created and a deep reverence for the themes of the prequels.
But Filoni’s only directorial Star Wars feature was Star Wars: The Clone Wars 2008 movie. Let’s refresh ourselves with a trailer.
The Clone Wars wasn’t the best Star Wars movie but it established the world that The Clone Wars TV show would expand on. The Clone Wars TV show is widely regarded as some of the best narrative Star Wars content ever made.
AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
Dave Filoni hasn’t directed any feature films other than Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but he has directed episodes of various TV shows, including Avatar: The Last Airbender. This next video looks at Dave Filoni’s amazing career and why he’s such a great Star Wars director.
Filoni is so knowledgeable about the Star Wars universe that he serves as a fact-checker on major productions for Lucasfilm.
UNTITLED STAR WARS FILM (TBD)
On “Star Wars” day 2020, Lucasfilm announced that Taika Waititi was chosen to direct and co-write a new Star Wars film with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Waititi is no stranger to the Star Wars universe – having appeared in a minor role in the first season of The Mandalorian and having directed the season one finale.
Not much else is known about Waititi’s Star Wars film and it likely won’t be released until 2023 at the earliest.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, THOR: RAGNAROK & JOJO RABBIT
Waititi may only be 45 years old, but he’s already an incredibly accomplished filmmaker. In 2020, Waititi received a nomination for Best Picture for Jojo Rabbit and won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In this next video, we break down motifs and directing techniques in Jojo Rabbit.
It’s clear by looking at Jojo Rabbit that Waititi is an immensely talented director. As of now, it appears his Star Wars movie is next in line to be produced – so the world will have to wait with bated breath to see the work of the next Star Wars director.
Editing Techniques From Star Wars
Editing plays a huge role in every Star Wars film. If you want to learn how to edit like the Star Wars greats – up next we break down a few techniques for how you can cut, frame and transition with passion and purpose. By the end, you’ll know more than just the “Lucas wipe.”