Character is Destiny: The Art of Solo

Phil Szostak’s latest art of Star Wars book shows Solo’s roots in New York punk, classic cinema and western expansion. Stewart Gardiner takes a journey into pre-Star Wars Americana.

Since Rian Johnson was so generous with his time and input on The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, that art of book in particular doubled up as a very early making of document. Circumstances around the production of Solo: A Star Wars Story were obviously less conducive to such an approach. The timescale required to produce these books is significant and the directorial changes could’ve easily derailed a less disciplined writer and team. Not so for Phil Szostak, Abrams Books and Lucasfilm. It’s a small miracle that The Art of Solo is such an informative and cogent read. One could be forgiven for thinking there was no behind the scenes drama at all.

The Director(s)

Art of Solo

Directorial input is almost non-existent in the finished product. At least, in terms of them being mentioned beyond the suitably vague “the directors” – utilising as it does that rather delicious plural. It’s a smart approach, perhaps the only sensible way of tackling things. What ended up on screen seemed very much to be Ron Howard’s vision and digging into the conception and design does nothing to dispute that. It is as if Howard reached back into the script and concept art and pulled out the Star Wars movie that it always should have been. Which infers that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had indeed gone too far off track from the blueprints.

Lucasfilm design supervisor James Clyne is on hand to provide intelligent, thoughtful and interpretative takes on various aspects of pre-production. He therefore fills the directorial gap in proceedings and is able to construct a narrative of what the filmmakers were aiming for. Co-writer Jon Kasdan is also a vital presence who ably demonstrates the screenplay’s development. Szostak makes sure that the story never feels less than it has a right to be, while also not delving into the production dramas which wouldn’t sit right in this publication.

Cultural and Visual Ground Rules

Art of Solo

Clyne’s foreword is particularly enlightening, setting the scene for the visual and anecdotal details to follow. He notes that “Seventies pop culture was a natural source of inspiration. Hard-hitting music from the Ramones or Iggy Pop and the early street artists of New York City were part of the conversation.” Debbie Harry of Blondie is also mentioned as a visual influence on Qi’ra. “There are flickers of pre-Star Wars America in everything from the industrial wasteland of the Corellian shipyard to Han’s animal-skin Vandor winter coat,” continues Clyne. “We established cultural and visual ground rules to fuel the imagination, but always kept our art tethered to the original Sagas.”

It’s this approach that stays absolutely true to George Lucas. Lucas also looked outside of science fiction for many of the influences upon Star Wars. Which is something that Rian Johnson did brilliantly on The Last Jedi and Dave Filoni continues to do on the animated television shows. Star Wars would be in a sad state of affairs if the filmmakers only looked to Star Wars for inspiration; despite the apparent surface contradiction, that just wouldn’t be Star Wars. Although tell that to those idiotic so-called fans who want to remake The Last Jedi by fan committee (I can think of nothing worse and indeed nothing less artful).

Essential Humanism

Art of Solo
Han Vandor Jacket Version 1A; Credit: Glyn Dillon

Solo wasn’t Jon Kasdan’s first time working with his father Lawrence Kasdan on Star Wars. The two collaborated on Han’s death scene in The Force Awakens. “I would not have been excited to work on a young Han Solo movie had the character not died in Episode VII,” admits Jon Kasdan. “It’s hard enough for a new actor to be compared to Harrison Ford ever, but to be compared to him while he’s still playing the part in other movies being made simultaneously, that seems like an unfair burden to put on any actor or any movie.” Wise words and Alden Ehrenreich’s take on the character was indeed successfully allowed freedom to blossom on screen, presumably under the expert guidance of Howard.

Jon views Han’s death as essential to moving forward. “Not only that,” he clarifies, “but there are undercurrents in this movie that point very directly to his inevitable fate forty years later. If character is destiny (and both Larry and I believe it is) Han’s was written long before the moment his son stabbed him through the heart with a lightsaber. It’s that essential humanism in him that is at once his greatest strength and his undoing.”

The story they wanted to tell is where Han’s cynicism comes from. This was achieved through sending him on a journey into the figurative west.

Cinematic Influences and References

Art of Solo

A detour as list:

McCabe and Mrs Miller

The Driver

Thief (1981)

Heat (1995)

Charley Varrick

The Wages of Fear

Sorceror

Out of the Past

The Getaway (1972)

The Wild Bunch

Only Angels Have Wings

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Godfather: Part II

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Outsiders

Grease

Paths of Glory

All Quiet on the Western Front

2001: A Space Odyssey

Manifest Destiny

Art of Solo
Worm 02; Credit: Ivan Manzella

Westerns and Western themes helped shape the project from its earliest days. Han’s journey is a linear one that represents “the journey across America into the frontier, traveling east to west.” Clyne expands upon this idea. “There was a lot of discussion about westward expansion, manifest destiny, and this Americana of planting down in the East Coast but eventually making your way to the West Coast. It’s a very Western kind of trope. It’s the story of America.” Szostak notes at the book’s conclusion that Savareen ”represents the end of the road for both Han Solo’s and the audience’s symbolic journey across America.”

Star Wars, contrary to reductive beliefs thrown about in some quarters, is a complex work that adopts and adapts a plethora of influences from beyond the confines of a specific genre. Despite being set a long time ago, more recent history is never too far away; neither is the present. Han escapes from the pre-Star Wars 1970s America of Corellia, a planet that has been suffering under the rise of fascism, which is unfortunately all too close to today’s America under Trump. If only everyone could escape into the sunset of the west like Han.

The Art of Solo: A Star Wars ™ Storyby Phil Szostak, and Lucasfilm Ltd. © Abrams Books, 2018

© 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization

Article featured image: Deadwood Streets Version 1B; Credit: Patrick Faulwetter and James Clyne

Stewart Gardiner

Unreliable narrator. David Lynch nerd. Star Wars fan. International assassin. Arthouse and classic film. Co-editor-in-chief at Future of the Force. Writer at 25 Years Later.

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