Ron Howard first appeared on the big screen at the age of 18 months, in Ron Ormond’s 1956 western, Frontier Woman. In the five decades since, Howard has earned two Oscars and two Emmys and has compiled more than 100 television and film credits as an actor, writer, producer and director. Though the role of cinematographer is one he’s never tackled directly, his behind-the-camera prowess has been impressive enough to earn Howard the 2007 American Society of Cinematographers Board of Governors Award, which is presented annually to an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to advancing the art of moviemaking.
Before the February 18th event at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, the moviemaker behind such modern classics as Night Shift, Splash, Parenthood, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code and the upcoming East of Eden spoke with MM about his venerable career.
MM: Do you recall when and why you first thought about becoming a writer and director?
RH: I was being interviewed by a reporter from Time or Newsweek when The Courtship of Eddie’s Father was coming out in 1963; I was nine years old. He asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had never thought about that before. I told him that I wanted to be an actor, writer, producer, director and cameraman—I was fascinated by the whole process. What really struck me was how much fun everyone was having hanging around the camera crew and sneaking peaks through the viewfinder on those old Mitchell cameras. I also loved hanging around with the actors. It didn’t take me long to realize that the director was the person who was in the middle. A lot of the early directors on “The Andy Griffith Show”were actors. I made that connection.
MM: Your first outing as director was in 1977, on a Roger Corman film called Grand Theft Auto. What did you learn?
RH: I was daunted at first by the action sequences with crazy car crashes. We were working on a very fast schedule and Roger Corman insisted that directors diagram dialogue and action scenes. When I studied the diagrams that I was creating, I realized that I could treat the cars in action sequences as though they were characters.
MM: Let’s fast forward a few years to Night Shift in 1982.
RH: Night Shift was the film where I learned how the energy of a location could influence the tone of a story. We shot exteriors in New York and that was frightening at first. I felt like we had to work fast because the police were holding up traffic and we were losing daylight. I was so relieved when I looked at the dailies. It was a little rough around the edges, but you could feel the energy. It was okay that I didn’t have complete control of the environment, because the actors were performing and responding to the atmosphere. Jimmy Crabbe (ASC) was the cinematographer; he had great aesthetic sensibilities. I learned a lot from Jimmy about how camera angles can help tell the story.
MM: In 1985 you directed Cocoon, which was shot by Don Peterman, ASC.
RH: Don was constantly pushing me to not be too literal about the way scenes were staged or the choices that we made when lighting different situations. I learned that the visuals don’t always have to be totally realistic. We did four pictures together.
MM: You have created some pretty realistic movies. How about Backdraft?
RH: Backdraft was a kind of a survival effort on everybody’s part. It was about a fire in Chicago and the fireman who responded. I was so relieved when we wrapped that we only had a few singed eyebrows and no serious injuries. I really pushed myself visually on that film. I really wanted the acting and the intensity of the environment to look and feel realistic. There were many cinematic problems to solve.
We went into production without all of our questions answered, but with faith that we would find ways to deal with the fire safely while pushing the boundaries. Mikael Salomon (ASC) was willing to put on a fire suit and take the camera into the fire with the actors. The problem-solving was exhilarating and the results were incredibly rewarding. I don’t think I would have had the nerve to tackle something like the weightlessness of space in Apollo 13 if we hadn’t done Backdraft first. It’s a different type of picture, but the risks were similar in that we were telling stories in extraordinary environments that had to feel real.
MM: How about sharing some memories of shooting Apollo 13?
RH: First and foremost, I think of the conversations I had with the astronauts who had actually walked on the moon. That was an extraordinary privilege that taught me that there are people who accomplish great things who are nonchalant about them. Steven Spielberg gave me the idea of staging scenes in a weightless environment, but later, when we were doing it, he said “I didn’t think you would take me seriously.”
MM: How about Far And Away, an epic 1992 Western period film that was produced in 65mm format? That must have been a different type of experience.
RH: It was kind of a romanticized road picture, like looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Mikael (Salomon) pushed me to use the 65mm format. The re-creation of the land race was an amazing experience. We had 13 cameras ready to roll when the sun came up. I was sitting on a crane and looking down when we set the race in motion looking at the 700 riders with their horses and wagons. It was a bit like crawling into a time machine. It didn’t cost that much more to shoot in 65mm. There is more intimacy, like adding another dimension that pulls the audience deeper into the story.
MM: A Beautiful Mind was another totally different type of movie.
RH: It was a great experience working with Roger Deakins (ASC, BSC). A Beautiful Mind deals with three significant aspects of John Nash’s life. We chose distinctly different visual styles for each segment: The first was nostalgic, the middle story had a film noir look and the third look was harsh reality, when John Nash is having periods of clarity and sanity mixed with a constant threat that his schizophrenia will take over. The differences between those looks are so subtle that the audience only noticed it on a subconscious level, but it made an impact on how they perceived the story.
MM: You are prepping East of Eden, your fourth film with cinematographer Salvatore Totino, ASC.
RH: The Missing was the first film that we did together. Sal gave us classic imagery with psychological and emotional overtones. I think he succeeded in taking it to another level with Cinderella Man, where we wanted to take the audience back to the 1930s depression and put them in the boxing ring with Jim Braddock. It was kind of a fairy tale that had a dark side. I wanted it to be evocative of that period, kind of like those Depression era photographs and newsreels.
MM: You’ve worked on over 100 films now—as an actor, director or producer. But do you still feel like you’ve got something to learn?
RH: All the time. There are so many variables that come into play that you can’t ever predict the outcome of a film. Some people might be right more often than others, but there are so many variables that the unpredictably of success is a frightening, fascinating, exhilarating reality of working in this medium.
MM: Do you have any final words of advice for young and aspiring moviemakers?
RH: One summer I decided to build a playhouse for my kids. I’m not handy, and I don’t know that much about tools, but I thought my kids were old enough to help me and that they’d get a kick out of seeing their dad flailing around. I slowly but surely began to learn the fundamentals. Then, one day a neighbor came by with a carpenter who helped me immensely with the difficult part of finishing the playhouse project. I realized that he understood the fundamentals and knew how to use the tools. I was getting it done, but it was taking me forever and thwarting my creativity in a lot of ways.
MM: You don’t have to explain the moral of that story. We get it. (laughs)