When George Lucas was on the hunt for someone to bring the much anticipated Return of the Jedi to life in the early 1980s, he thought of two young directors that were laying the foundations of their distinctive and unique styles that now, 35 years down the line, are instantly recognisable to cinephiles the world over. At the time, however, those young directors had only made a handful of films. The first David, David Cronenberg, had directed several TV shorts and a small number of relativity low profile films by this time, the most notable being The Brood in 1979, and the (head) explosively inventive Scanners in 1981. The second David, David Lynch, had put out the surreal and darkly comic Eraserhead in 1977 and followed that up with the relatively normal, eight-time Oscar nominated The Elephant Man in 1980.
The early promise and distinct character shown by the pair led Lucas to not merely consider them as possible choices to take on the mantle of drawing the Star Wars trilogy to a close, but to go as far as to actually offer them the director’s chair. Unfortunately, the young directors shut him down pretty quickly on the matter, both of them turning down the role almost right away. It’s not exactly a surprise that they did, as their sensibilities definitely lie outside the cinematic sphere of operatic space-western melodrama, but it’s still pretty incredible that they were even considered, and the revelation goes a little of the way to absolving George Lucas of his multitude of sins in the intervening years.
It seems that Cronenberg was the quicker of the two to turn down the offer, summarising the experience in the following, pretty brief recollection:
“A long time ago I was approached for one second to do a Star Wars movie, which at that time was called Revenge Of The Jedi and then became Return Of The Jedi. I was approached by Lucasfilm about that and it didn’t take them long to realize that maybe that wasn’t a good idea. You’re really restricted by the format that’s been established. So for a really inventive or innovative director, that’s being put in a straitjacket. And the visual style has been established and the characters have been cast – I mean, you’re not involved in casting the leads, which is of course, for a director, a hugely important thing.”
So Cronenberg rejected the offer as it would have been a very restrictive creative process, and the final result wouldn’t really have been his vision. It makes a lot of sense, as there’s not much point in hiring a director who’s gaining notoriety for innovation and creativity, only to pile on dozens of restrictions, demands and pre-decided elements, shackling the exact thing they’ve been hired for in the first place. It’s what led Edgar Wright to walk away from Ant-Man in 2014. It’s also not particularly surprising as Cronenberg’s most recent film involved an iconic body horror special effects scene that was created by filling a rubber head with animal entrails, then exploding it all by firing a shotgun into the head from underneath. Not entirely appropriate for what is fundamentally, despite the millions of adults that enjoy it, a franchise of children’s films.
Lynch echoes the sentiment that the project wouldn’t have really been his vision had he accepted the gig, which was about as much as he said about the matter for a long time. In the book Lynch on Lynch (part of Faber’s highly recommended directors on directors series), he merely gives the following lines on the offer: “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. I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.” Funnily enough, Lynch’s next project was the poorly received but undeniably distinctive Dune, so he clearly wasn’t entirely averse to trying his hand at science fiction in the ’80s (though he’s stated that he had such a miserable experience making Dune that it put him off ever making another sci-fi film again). It just seems that Return of the Jedi wasn’t for him. He’s opened up a bit more about his encounter with Lucas in recent years, however, recounting a tale of super tight security, Ferraris and Wookiee-induced migraines.
Although neither of the directors had any plans for the direction of the film, we can imagine what the results could possibly have been. Would David Lynch have revealed that Emperor Palpatine was a cow foetus wrapped in a cloak all along? Jabba the Hutt ranting about Heineken and huffing amyl nitrate whilst calling Princess Leia ‘mommy’? Would he have replaced Yoda with a dwarf that talks backwards? Oh, wait… Or, under Cronenberg, would Luke Skywalker get his rocks off watching a Stormtrooper fatally crash his speeder bike? Would Han Solo slowly turn into a giant fly and start gobbing all over the Rebels’ doughnuts? Would Leia explode Boba Fett’s head with her mind?
Whatever might have been, it would almost certainly have been either wildly different and far darker than the final result, or a significantly diluted version of the director’s style, defeating the purpose of hiring them to begin with. In all likelihood it would’ve been the latter, which does help soften the crushing of our dreams of a Lynchian nightmare version of Star Wars. The video above presents one possibility of what might have been, though we like to think that in some parallel universe, there exists a film where Luke just flies his X-Wing in a very straight line, far far away.