30 Years Before ‘Solo,’ Ron Howard Directed the Cult Classic ‘Willow’ (Flashback)

Willow Set
Dan Brinzac/New York Post Archives via Getty Images

As we prepare for the release of the newest Star Wars Story (and Lando -- maybe just Lando), ET is looking back at ‘Willow’ and the history of Ron Howard’s collaborations with George Lucas.

“It was, like, 3:30 in the morning, ’cause that was all night shoots on American Graffiti, and I remember saying, ‘Well, do you know what you're gonna do next?’”

ET recently invited Ron Howard and his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard to interview each other about their upcoming blockbusters, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, respectively. She had pointed out that her father’s relationship with the galaxy far, far away goes back to a time long, long ago: 1962 by way of 1973’s American Graffiti, to be exact. The classic coming-of-age film premiered almost 45 years ago, but Howard can still recall asking his director what projects he had lined up.

George Lucas went on to describe what would become Star Wars, a movie that fundamentally changed cinema and science fiction forever. Lucas told Howard about being inspired by the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of his youth, as well as the groundbreaking special effects Stanley Kubrick had showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to Howard, Lucas added, “‘But I want the spaceships to go fast.’”

Like, for instance, a spaceship named the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs? This conceptual detail would eventually reverberate across five decades, leading to Howard teasing that he might have filmed A New Hope’s most infamous offhand anecdote for Solo. If 2018 wasn’t a big enough year for Howard already, this week also marks the 30th anniversary of Willow, his first directorial collaboration with Lucasfilm.

Warwick Davis (already a Star Wars mainstay at the time, having starred in Return of the Jedi and a couple of Ewok-centered TV specials) played the movie’s titular hero, a farmer and amateur sorcerer tasked with returning a child to her village. While squaring off against the evil forces in close pursuit, he encounters Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan, a Jack Sparrow-esque mercenary, in addition to the assortment of trolls and fairies one might expect in this genre.

While doing press for Solo, Howard said the iconic Star Wars character often reminded him of Madmartigan. He also revealed there have been minor discussions about a follow-up to the movie that would center around the (presumably) now grown infant character. Whether or not these talks amount to an actual sequel, fans can look forward to an unexpected nod to the film’s villainous four-legged creatures in Solo. Calling it a “bizarre TWIST OF FATE,” co-writer Jon Kasdan pointed out how the movie’s Corellian Hounds had actually been inspired by the Devil Dogs in Willow long before Howard came on board as director.

“It's a classic fairy tale myth. It runs alongside the same lines as a lot of the mythology that's gone on for thousands of years,” Lucas told ET on the New Zealand set of Willow in 1987. Lucas had come to Howard with the idea for a fantasy epic, eventually developing the story together with screenwriter Bob Dolman. “It's about magic. It's about the mystery of life and what it's all about.” Myths and folklore from across the world inspired Lucas just as much as sci-fi and Kurosawa films had, an admiration that permeates throughout his entire filmography. In his interview with his daughter, Howard revealed that he and Lucas had also discussed Willow with famed myth scholar Joseph Campbell, who became a fan of the movie before they had even begun filming.

Having already directed Splash and Cocoon, both of which were box office successes, Howard realized this particular fantasy tale would present an entirely new set of challenges. Thankfully, his producer and collaborator was considered sort of an expert in this area. “He's done this kind of movie. This was my first time dealing with these kind of logistical problems,” Howard told ET while promoting the film in 1988. With the original Star Wars trilogy and the first two entries of the Indiana Jones franchise under his belt, Lucas became a valuable resource to have around the set. “I'd be out there directing. Setting up shots. Horses running through. Actors doing scenes. And it was a relief to be able to look and say to George, ‘You saw that last scene. What do you think?’”

In 2017, Howard took over directing duties of Solo after Phil Lord and Christopher Miller left the production on account of “creative differences.” Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy talked to Entertainment Weekly about Howard’s first day of filming and the special appearance from one of his most influential collaborators (sorry, Brian Grazer, Tom Hanks, Clint Howard, etc.) In the middle of shooting a scene on the Millennium Falcon, Lucas ending up pitching an idea to Howard on the fly. Judging from what Kennedy says happened next, it appears the two filmmakers may have slipped back into their previous dynamic from Willow. “And Ron happened to be by the monitor and not inside the Falcon and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’ and ran in and said, ‘George wants us to do this.’”