This week, it was revealed that Victoria Mahoney had been hired as the official second unit director for the ninth Star Wars film, which is being helmed by JJ Abrams. Ava DuVernay, a friend of Abrams and the director of A Wrinkle in Time, announced the hiring on her Twitter feed, declaring it to be "historic news."
Mahoney made her directorial debut in 2011 with Yelling into the Sky, which debuted in competition at the 61st Berlin Film Festival. Since then, she has directed for television, including DuVernay's series, Queen Sugar.
The second unit director is in charge of a separate shooting unit from the first crew. Their job is usually to film scenes like action sequences and "pick-ups" such as cutaways, establishing shots, and inserts simultaneously with the main shoot. Second units are particularly common on big-budget blockbuster fare, especially those with tight budgets or schedules. This is an oft-overlooked element of filmmaking, and a job that comes with its own unique set of skills.
A second unit director must be able to stick to the primary director's style and techniques, all while maintaining control of the production with the knowledge that your work will probably never be truly credited to you by audiences. The second unit must be invisible in that regard. The job can be a leg up for directors looking to make their way to the big time. Andy Serkis was second unit director on The Hobbit trilogy, for example. For Mahoney to be hired by Abrams, a very accomplished and distinctive director whose work has helped to define the modern blockbuster, she must be highly trusted by both her primary director and the team in Lucasfilm. Star Wars Episode IX is prepping for a summer shoot, and is scheduled to be released on December 20, 2019, so Abrams and Mahoney have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.
Mahoney's hiring is exciting news for Star Wars and for women in the film industry. However, this only further highlights the ever-growing elephant in the room at Lucasfilm. We are now close to six years into this new era of Star Wars, following Disney's acquisition of the brand. In that time, the franchise has been revived to critical greatness and record-breaking numbers at the box office. George Lucas is out of the scene, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has shepherded in a new crop of directors to steer this mighty ship. So far, the results have been mixed, and much has been made of the internal conflicts and firings. Yet throughout all this, there has been a constant: all of the directors have been white men. Whether they stuck around or not, every name chosen by Kennedy has fit that painfully narrow mold. Mahoney is a refreshing exception, but as a second unit director, she still won't get to be the brains of the operation. That's not to diminish the important work she'll do with the film, but it does bring a spotlight down on Lucasfilm's complete lack of progress on this front.
The lack of female directors working in major cinema in Hollywood has become impossible to ignore, and solutions have been maddeningly incremental in terms of progress. There have been major steps forward, from Patty Jenkins helming Wonder Woman to Ava DuVernay becoming the first woman of color to direct a $100m+ movie. These still remain exceptions to the rule, and the excuses for reinforcing this narrow status quo sound more and more dated with each passing year.
Kathleen Kennedy has previously been called out on this problem, and her responses have raised more than a few eyebrows. First, she claimed that "we want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they’re set up for success" and that "you can’t come into them with essentially no experience." This didn't make much sense given the franchise's willingness to let people like Rian Johnson and Phil Lord and Chris Miller sign onto a multi-million dollar blockbuster without any prior experience in the genre. Outside of Lucasfilm, this pattern of giving indie director with minor budgets a nine-figure CGI bonanza has become the norm—from Taika Waititi to Jordan Vogt-Roberts to Alan Taylor to the man who kickstarted the superhero age, Jon Favreau. Later, Kennedy clarified these comments and said, "If somebody actually moves through the process of making movies and wants to make a Star Wars movie, and shows that they have actually stepped into the role on that level, of course we’re going to consider a woman." She then claimed that she'd talked to many female directors who had the potential to direct a Star Wars film.
That was in 2016. Since then, we’ve seen Colin Trevorrow step down from directing Episode IX and be replaced by Abrams. Lord and Miller were fired from Solo and, almost immediately, Ron Howard took over. Favreau is now involved with the Star Wars franchise, as are Benioff and Weiss from Game of Thrones. The opportunities remain plentiful in Lucasfilm, yet those seemingly numerous female directors who could step up to the role are absent (as are directors who aren’t white).
Lucasfilm has a director problem that goes beyond gender and race. The franchise is trying to walk a thin tightrope between adhering to an old-school studio standard of filmmaking and opening itself up to be an experiment of sorts for fresh voices in cinema. Gareth Edwards of Godzilla fame was hired to direct Rogue One, seemingly because he had the potential to be that vibrant new blockbuster voice, but the producers didn’t like what they saw and had Tony Gilroy essentially redo the movie in reshoots and on the basic script level. Lord and Miller’s hiring implied the franchise’s desire to take a more comedic approach to a classic character, but that was not what Lucasfilm wanted, so they replaced them with a director who is the epitome of following the rules. Trevorrow leaving Episode IX was practically an invitation for Lucasfilm to bring in fresh female talent, but they fell back on Abrams anyway. They want the allure of the new, but are eager to stick to the old.
There are various problems with this approach, but the major issue is that this reinforcement of the same old ways explicitly excludes directors who aren’t white dudes. If you only want those blockbuster voices, the people you know can pull this kind of thing off, then you’re never going to look at women directors because the vast majority of them don’t have that experience. They don’t get those opportunities because they’re consistently told that they’re “not ready.” No experience means no opportunities, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Hollywood has starved us of generations of female directors because of this skewed ethos that simply doesn’t apply to white men. It cannot be fixed by pretending it’s the only rule in town. It’s something that can only be remedied by studios like Lucasfilm, Disney and Warner Bros. taking the necessary changes, looking for those women and providing them with the necessary opportunities. Disney and Marvel Studios are slowly making progress, as are Warner Bros. (including their recent hiring of Cathy Yan for the Harley Quinn movie and DuVernay for a film adaptation of The New Gods). By contrast, Lucasfilm seem hopelessly out of date.
The hiring of Victoria Mahoney is exactly what we need more of at Lucasfilm, but it can’t just be crumbs of progress. We can’t see one step forward then three steps back. A studio like Lucasfilm, with the almighty backing of Disney, has the clout and the financial sturdiness to take chances on women who have the ability and drive to explore the universe of Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy says she’s talked to many women directors about this. Perhaps it’s time for her to schedule a few meetings.