As told to Nancy Mills for USA WEEKEND
I was 4 when I acted in my first big movie, The Journey. I made it in Vienna with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Yul was supposed to play such a tough guy that when he took a shot of whiskey, he bit the glass. He wanted me to know that it wasn’t real glass and that I should never do that. I was sitting on his knee, and he made me bite into the glass — it was made out of sugar — to show me it wasn’t real.
I grew up in the business, and I developed a real passion for storytelling. Over the years I’ve broadened my tastes and sensibilities, but I’m still the kid who grew up at the foot of a piano bar, not at the Philharmonic. My love and understanding of film comes from a populist sensibility. That’s the kind of people my folks are — they were born in Oklahoma — and that’s what feels comfortable for me.
Years ago when I was acting, I asked my dad how to handle questions like, “What’s it like to be on TV?” He said, “It’s a job. It’s a responsibility. Ask them if they have a paper route. If they do, they have to get up early in the morning, fold the papers, put the rubber bands on them, load them into the sacks and go deliver them, and then their job is done for the day. You have to get up in the morning, learn your lines, go to work and deliver them, and then you’re done for the day. It’s not all that different.”
He had a real simple, unspectacular, unimpressed, work-a-day point of view about it all that he imparted that still kind of holds water.
I’m very interested in the ways family units are challenged and tested, the kinds of choices people are forced to make in relation to keeping their personal goals. I often seek these themes out and underline them in the movies I do.
In A Beautiful Mind, I wanted to explore mental illness and create a better understanding and insight for audiences. Sadly some of us have to endure mental illness, and every family is touched by it.
I’ve been asked how I feel about people watching movies on their cellphones, and I tell them, “That’s not what any director hopes for.” For me, it’s less about the image size than the inevitability of the stop/start watching. Feature films are designed as single-sitting experiences which build emotionally. They work in movements, the way a concert is supposed to be.
Bottom line, though, is that I want people to see the film. More than the cinematic experience, what really means the most to me are the themes and ideas, the feelings of what the story offers — whether it’s fantasy, comedy, romance or dark drama. Ultimately it’s up to the audience as to how they watch it.
It’s fun to be a director. When you’re making a movie, you often go on an adventure. I had that experience with Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and Backdraft. Now I’m having it again with my new film Rush, which will be out in September.
It’s based on a true story about two really remarkable, highly individualistic race car champions in the 1970s — Niki Lauda and James Hunt. They had a fascinating rivalry. The movie offers a real blend of cool, cutting-edge action and very intense characters.
After that, I’m not sure what’s next. I’m working on a half-dozen projects, and I love them all.
Sometimes I wish I were working in old Hollywood, when directors made three movies a year. They didn’t take as much responsibility for preparation and post-production — areas that I find vitally important, so I wouldn’t want to give up that much control. But I have to live with a film for anywhere from 16 months to three years. Something has to compel me to become creatively greedy. It’s not about the genre because I enjoy them all when they’re good.
I think Robert Redford’s Sundance experiment (The Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival) has done so much to broaden the general audience’s taste and ambition for what they want in story and level of sophistication. American films are still a medium that aims to please. We’re not the only filmmakers in the world making populist movies now, but it’s ingrained in the American psyche.
For more from Ron Howard including his must-see movies for the next generation, look inside the February 22-24 issue of USA WEEKEND Magazine in The Meadville Tribune on Feb. 24.