Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, we’ll take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you a man who was one of Hollywood’s best known child actors before graduating to George Lucas’s American Graffiti and the sitcom Happy Days. But his acting is only a small portion of a career that’s included over 50 credits as a director and 100 as a producer. Yes, we’re talking about the Ron Howard. His directing credits alone reads like a one man Netflix. Need a comedy? Try parenthood or splash. Drama? How about A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon? Fantasy? Willow. There’s Backdraft and Rush for action and Cocoon if you want emotional sci fi mixed with breakdancing senior citizens. Which all makes a little more sense when you learn he had an eye on directing from the time he was a kid.
Ron Howard: Well, my dad never directed film, but he directed a lot of theater here in L.A. and he even used to run an improv group. And so as a little kid, my earliest memories are actually watching my dad direct summer stock. And then he also, you know, acted and continues to act. So I think I was always aware that there was this other job. But really on The Andy Griffith Show, so many of the directors that we had had been actors and they would start sort of saying to me, I bet you’re going to mind being a director someday. And I didn’t really take that to heart, but I did find it fascinating to understand what everybody else was doing. And I loved it all. You know, it was a The Andy Griffith Show on the culture around the show was very hardworking and yet playful. And there was this sort of energy which was very creative and also collaborative. So actors were allowed to participate. Even I was as a kid, you know, allowed to speak up in rehearsals and things like that. The writers were very present. So you could see what that process was all about. There were a lot of laughs, but there was also this feeling that, you know, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do every joke, every moment, every scene. And Andy was just leading by example. Made it matter for all. All of those eight seasons. And when it was over, I realized that I’d loved every aspect of what I was seeing and the people that I was kind of growing up with and that the director was the person who basically got to play with everybody. And the job started to look good to me, really, when I fell in love with movies. As a fan, which didn’t really happen until, oh, I don’t know, probably like The Graduate, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. There was this tremendous couple of years there. In the heat of the night. Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde. And it was just my early, early adolescence. And it just. The Professionals was a fantastic movie, Dirty Dozen, just just blew me away. And I began to really read about directors and understand that filmmaking could transport audiences. And I never really thought about it. I mean, I as a kid growing up, I don’t even really think about what it meant to be an audience member. You know, I mean, the only thing I watched other than The Andy Griffith Show was like Felix the Cat cartoons early in the morning.
Eric Conner: By the time American Graffiti rolled around, Ron Howard had already appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. But that didn’t make getting the role of a lifetime any easier.
Ron Howard: The casting director was a guy named Fred Roos, who was Frances Copel is coproducer, a great guy, and he had been the casting director on, among other TV shows, The Andy Griffith Show. So I think he really lobbied for me, but it was a very arduous casting process. Over a period of time. There were like six callbacks. In fact, the first interview was just a quick meeting. And I remember going in and no one knew anything about it. No one had seen a script. And all my agent said was, you know, it’s a musical. And so I went in everybody, you know, sort of between the age of, I don’t know, you know, fifteen and 30 were they were all trying to go in and meet on this project. And I met George Lucas, who I knew a little bit about because I was still in high school, but I’d been accepted to USC Film School and THX 1138, was already lore. And so every people you know in my circle knew George, but I’d never met him. He’s very quiet. He talks a little bit more now than he did then. And I said, George, well, I didn’t say George. I said I said, I think I should disclose the fact that I really can’t sing. And I know I was in The Music Man, but I think they cast me because I couldn’t sing.
Clip [Gary Indiana]
Ron Howard: I don’t know if you need singing, I hear it’s musical. Can’t dance either. And he said, well, it is a musical, but there’s no singing. You don’t have to worry about singing. But the reason later when I asked him about it, was that he had written a screenplay and conceived of the whole thing based on music. And so each of those scenes was written with one of those songs in mind, and most of them were the songs that he was able to get the rights to. And the original title was Rock Radio is The American Graffiti. And so in his mind. It was a musical and the soundtrack was a key character.
Eric Conner: Once you’ve seen the non-singing musical American Graffiti, you simply cannot imagine it without its remarkable soundtrack.
Ron Howard: You know, it hadn’t been done before. I mean, there was a lot of music, a lot of Hank Williams and things like that in Last Picture Show and a few popular tunes in like Summer 42 nostalgic tunes. But the odd thing was that in making the movie in 72, to me this was ancient history. It was just a strange thing. And, you know, the last the postscript explaining how much we’d moved on and what we had moved on to, which was really, you know, a revolution and Vietnam and political upheaval and all those things had so changed the culture that 10 years later this was really beyond, you know, even my sense of really understanding these these tunes were ancient, ancient. And so the oldies radio was not what it is today. And in fact, it surprised everyone the way the soundtrack sold. And everybody just thought it was a movie that was going to play in the drive ins. I mean, it was really was made for $650,000. There were no stars. You know, Fred Roos lobbied for me. We went through this process of six different callbacks over a period of months, improvs, tests. He was very meticulous. He later told me that he cast the cars as meticulously as he cast the actors. Those details really mattered to him.
Eric Conner: As a director on only his second feature, the force was already strong with a young George Lucas and his low budget, do it yourself approach to making American Graffiti was unlike anything Ron Howard had previously experienced.
Ron Howard: It was revelatory to me to be around this movie because I had grown up really within the Hollywood system and it was very much a completely male dominated system. There were a couple of high profile female film editors. There were no executives at that time. Very few female producers and crew members, you know, the women were maybe this script supervisor, maybe wardrobe and hair, and that would really be about it. It was a male dominated, not here on American Graffiti. And there were hippies actually working on movies. And I still came from a world where all everybody looked like they were kind of a sailor or a cowboy or Madison Avenue. And that was the look. But it was his attention to detail. And he, because he didn’t talk to the actors very much. But later, when I got to know him better and we always did have a kinship. He knew I was going to USC, he knew I wanted to be a director. And I one time I was in fact, we were doing the scene sitting there in the booth there at the diner toward the end of the movie. And I said, well, how’s it going? You know, you’d only say much about the scenes except terrific. And he had a pattern. He would do three takes of every angle, and that was it. And he’d say terrific every time and then move on. So you really didn’t have any idea and he, he wasn’t giving any direction, particularly unless something was going horribly wrong. And he his only real rule, he was doing a kind of a documentary style, even known very little of it was hand-held, was that there were no marks. And the whole lighting approach that Haskell Wexler design was revelatory, the low light levels, it was nominated for best cinematography because it was an absolute cutting edge breakthrough approach. He used Super 16. He split the 35 millimeter frame in half, and he wanted the grainy look. He wanted the darkness, that naturalism. And there were no marks. So instead of stepping in and knowing that this was your shot, and now it’s your close up or over the shoulder or whatever, it was always two cameras shooting and you never really knew what lens was working and he wouldn’t tell you. And he just wanted you to do the scene and wherever you would move, one time, Dreyfuss walked over by some lights and the camera operator cut. And George, the only time I ever heard George get upset about anything, he said, you never cut. We’re not cutting. I don’t care. I won’t use that part. And he later told me, he said 28 days schedule. He cast the actors very meticulously. He felt like we owned our characters and he was going to make all of his directorial decisions in the editing room. And unlike a film today, he had a full year to edit the movie before it was released.
Eric Conner: Despite the immense talent behind the scenes and on the screen, the studio still thought they had a bomb on their hands. Fortunately, Lucas and the movie had their own Godfather as protection. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola.
Ron Howard: Almost every director, I mean. Ninety seven percent of the directors have to leverage their way in. For me, it was acting. And George Lucas had kind of a godfather there in Francis Coppola, a big brother who helped him with THX 1138, helped him with American Graffiti. I mean, here’s how much he helped him. The studio hated this movie. It’s kind of a famous story that the head of the studio at the time really hated it and he went to a preview and he said, you know, you should be ashamed. This isn’t even professional filmmaking because again it was it was gritty. It was low light. It was no. No stars. An unusual narrative framework. And he said, I don’t even know what we’re going to do with this. And Francis, fresh off of The Godfather, is famous. And this is true. I wasn’t there. But I know it’s a true story. He took out his checkbook and he said, I will write you a check for seven hundred fifty thousand dollars right now for this movie. If you don’t believe in it, I’ll buy it because you’re wrong. And he meant it. And they backed away. And they wound up having it, you know, one of the most profitable movies, but more so than ever. You should be making your own stuff and just putting it out there. And the other thing is writing. It’s so important to write. It’s great to be able to go out and stage scenes and make a three minute short or get a funny joke that you can build into a cool little film. That’s all great. But the writing is so important, so valuable, even if you’re never your own screenwriter. And the other thing that I would say, and I say this to every class that I talk to and all my daughter’s friends who are making their way in right now is one spec script is, you know, just join the 189 million people around the planet who have one screenplay. The way you prove something to an agent or someone is, is if you have six screenplays, you know, if they think you’re a writer, then they’re not only interested in your screenplay, but they’re interested in you, your passion and what your voice and talent might be.
Eric Conner: For Ron Howard, American Graffiti was like going to film school before he went to film school. It was a fabulous and surreal experience, one that even he wasn’t quite so sure would turn out right.
Ron Howard: For me, it really was a kind of a coming of age story. I mean, I was suddenly I was in San Francisco, I just graduated from high school. Went up to San Francisco. Our job was to stay up all night, whether we were working or not. You had to stay awake and stay on that pattern. So, you know, you’d wander into San Francisco, you’d get kicked out of the strip clubs if they caught you. Or you’d wander by and watch whatever George was filming. There were no individual dressing rooms or chairs. There was one makeup and wardrobe trailer, and that’s where everybody hung out. It was extremely low budget, you know. I mean, it was like doing a Corman movie. Only we had this great script to work with that we all really believed in. And we believed it was something fresh and original still when it took off the way it did. It surprised everyone and it was astounding. So it was all upside for me, because seeing the way George didn’t pay attention to the actors and paid so much attention to the background, the frame, the texture, seeing how bold Haskell Wexler and everyone was with the look, seeing the way the music was used, seeing the different styles of acting come into play. It was mystifying to me. I didn’t know what they were really getting. I just was trusting the screenplay. But when we wrapped, we all saw like about 10 minutes of cut footage and it was clear that there was just something that really had not been done before. And now, look, you watch the movie and it’s nostalgic and it uses the music. And it’s like a lot of other TV shows and a lot of other movies, but it really was absolutely cutting edge.
Eric Conner: Audiences came to the film in droves, turning this pre-indie indie into one of the biggest box office hit to the year. Its success even gave a second life to a pilot that Mr Howard had assumed was already dead and buried.
Ron Howard: I mean, this was a huge thing for me. And although I had done a television series after The Andy Griffith Show and I’d done a lot of other movies and TV guest shots on TV shows and, you know, films for Disney and things like that, this American Graffiti was fantastic for me in that regard. And in fact, Happy Days didn’t come from American Graffiti. I had done the pilot for Happy Days before American Graffiti. It didn’t sell. But it was I think one of the things that George might have looked at also in thinking about casting me. And then when American Graffiti was such a big hit, then they dusted off this failed Happy Days pilot sort of rewrote it, reinvented it a little bit, invented the Fonzie character a little bit, trying to be like Big John. I mean, originally they were supposed to be more that kind of a character. And then those bastards made me audition again. But I, I got the part, you know, really pissed me off. I mean. But, you know, I never felt that I had a great deal of range as an actor. I mean, I thought I was a good, solid actor. But I really believed by the time I was in my teens that my future in this medium really was behind that camera. And there I could probably go further, take more risks. I somehow intuitively, I just I felt like I was limited.
Eric Conner: Only a few years after American Graffiti, Ron Howard got the chance to direct his own feature film for low budget maestro Roger Corman. Mr. Howard attempted to over-prepare for this big break and he quickly discovered that was actually a problem.
Ron Howard: You know, my first film was we started shooting the day after my twenty third birthday. And I was in it in order to get it made. It was for Roger Corman, Grand Theft Auto. But I was very insecure and the first few movies. I was very, not dictatorial in a nasty way, but the budgets were tight, schedules were tight, and I just sort of told everybody what to do. And I felt like my preparedness was my safety net. And and it was it was kind of my insurance policy against exposing myself to the crew or the actors. But I was not really happy with the performances that I was getting and the work that I was doing. And I just began to loosen up a little bit and listen a little bit more. And I began to develop this point of view that that I wanted to come with a plan. Yes. A well-prepared, well thought out plan. And that if nobody else had a better idea on that day, our plan would succeed. But I wanted to create an environment that would allow for inspiration and stimulate that. And my films improved immediately when I relaxed it. Now, the problem with it is that when you create that it’s still not a democracy, you still have to decide. People accept no a little more readily. If they know you’re ready to say yes, then it’s not a point of principle or ego. It’s just a process and it gets a little bit easier. But nonetheless, you do create a kind of a soundtrack of a lot of people with a lot of opinions, and it sometimes can be a little overwhelming. But if you’ve established that suddenly it’s not so hard to just turn around and say, everybody, shut up. We’re doing it this way. But you sort of don’t have to. It requires a little extra measure of patients, but it yields a great benefit to me. And I also love that creative energy, probably because I did sort of grow up around it. But for me, I mean, I like making movies about families and teens, mostly because I I understand those dynamics. And so the teen spirit means something to me. I enjoy exercising that.
Eric Conner: This former child actor really knows how to make his youthful exuberance for cinema appear on the screen, and that includes how he approaches working with his cast.
Ron Howard: I would say it’s the combination between creativity and maintaining enough of a relaxed state so that you can respond to input, whether that’s direction or whether it’s a change in the scene. You know, that’s coming from one of the other actors or it’s a new line of dialogue so that it’s a kind of a a real deep, interesting, creative understanding of the character. And then there’s sort of this ability to be free, be loose and be creative and be able to respond in a spontaneous way. It’s one of the reasons why I think that improvisational training, whether you think you ever want to be in a comedy ever. It’s so, so valuable. Vince Vaughn, brilliant improvisational actor, but he really is an actor. I mean, you know, we all know him as a big comedy star, but very interesting for me to see that he is alive in every single moment that the camera is rolling. And I don’t care whether it’s a more serious scene or whether it’s a comedic scene or whether he’s on script or improvising dialogue, because that same sort of sense of absolute connection to the moment in a spontaneous way and trusting that makes him alive. Whether he’s doing the script. And you know he often does the script verbatim. It’s not like he’s constantly only improvising, but that’s a remarkable talent and that’s something that I think that you can build the muscle for. I think it’s important to do it.
Eric Conner: Despite his years of experience as a performer, Ron Howard’s been mostly reticent about throwing his hat back into the acting ring. But that might be because of an agreement with his wife.
Ron Howard: Now that my children are all raised, my wife Cheryl is giving me the green light to take acting jobs if I want. Every once in a while, somebody would offer me something and she would say, Oh, really? Between your directing, you wanted to one movie after another. Imagine films. You know I love you, but I never expected the mini mogul thing. Do me two favors. Don’t dabble. If you have three weeks to be in somebodies movie, you know, would you mind hanging with the family? Maybe. And please don’t do MTV. Don’t do videos. Your future career doesn’t depend on you doing videos. And those were only two requests. I thought they were very fair. But a while back to all the kids raised and she said, yeah do whatever you want now. I don’t care. But now nobody cast me so.
Eric Conner: Considering he was an actor, it’s ironic to learn that Mr Howard finds the whole casting process really stressful.
Ron Howard: I love making films. I really do, I continue to. It’s as interesting as ever. Maybe more so in a lot of ways. But the two areas that I dread are the casting and then the promoting. I just find that is embarrassing and you’re being judged and it’s all very uncomfortable when you’re promoting. But the casting, I really lay awake nights agonizing over it and it really does help. I don’t always do it, but it really, really helps to video the auditions or even the meetings, because for me, I’m kind of falling in love with everybody who walks in. I’m rooting for everybody who’s there, you know, and I don’t really have a great perspective. I have a reaction and I don’t discount that. And I keep notes. But it is great to be able to step away from it and just review the tapes. And there are some people like Clint Eastwood. He won’t meet an actor. He only only looks at what their audition offers. And then he carefully builds his cast around that. And he trusts that if they were that good in their audition, they’re gonna be that much better when they’re filming. But I could live with that in our scene would work. And that’s a pretty good fundamental approach. I think you have to be methodical. You can’t just cast your friends. You know, you’ve got to build chemistries. And in meeting them, I think the only thing you want to look for are personalities so that if you think somebody is, you know, can’t listen, that’s why it’s nice to do auditions and actually gives some notes, see if there’s some flexibility there. You know, if you find that they have some personality trait that you think’s gonna be incompatible with other actors or with you, you have to take that pretty seriously. But it’s crucial to be methodical about the casting.
Ron Howard: Though once the tension of casting has passed, Mr Howard greatly appreciates collaborating with his actors. When it came time to rehearse the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind, this veteran director even sought out advice from his friends in the biz.
Ron Howard: Right before A Beautiful Mind. I’d always done a lot of rehearsal, but I’d always thought about just solving the the logistical problems, the staging so that we wouldn’t get stalled when we were filming. So was creative. But a lot of it was pragmatic. But I started thinking about the complexity of beautiful mind and this rehearsal period that we were gonna have. And I actually I don’t do this all this often, but it was a great day for me. I called on the same day Marty Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols separately. And I said, when you’re rehearsing, what do you look for? And it was very interesting. They all sort of had different points of view. Lumet was a little more pragmatic, but there was one common thread. Mike Nichols expressed it the most articulately, he said, if you can discuss the scenes and of course, discover any problems in the writing, any snags that the actors have. But there’s another thing that you should be doing, and that is by asking enough questions about the actors and the characters, you need to begin to understand the bridge between the actor and their character so they have their own subconscious connection. But if you can begin to understand it at some key moment, you might be able to say, oh, this is like when you were in the third grade and your dad, you know, thought you were lying and you weren’t, you know, and you can help bridge these moments, these key moments when the actors stall out or when they hit some kind of an emotional wall. And I thought that was incredibly helpful. But it’s it’s really all of them basically said help the actors trust that you understand their characters and their take on the characters. And you’ve been able to also influence that so that there’s clarity between you.
Eric Conner: Ron Howard’s more technically ambitious films require a tremendous amount of collaboration and trust to make them fly in directing Apollo 13. The director used a combination of new school wizardry and old school magic to recreate the awe, wonder, and tension of the almost doomed mission.
Ron Howard: Apollo 13. We used models. It’s one of the last films to use models and the digital technology was available. But it’s such a hardware movie that Rob Legato, the visual effects supervisor there at Digital Domain, really believed in using models and the only digital enhancement really are things like the ice in the launch and some particles around the explosion and and some things like that. And then we were able to shoot master shots inside an airplane called the KC 135 that did these parabolas, which is the way astronauts used to train and they still run certain scientific experiments. You can gain about 20 some seconds of weightlessness. And I found out that they used to bolt the Gemini capsules down and practice opening the hatch for EVA’s. That’s when they leave the capsule for the spacewalks. That’s the way the astronauts would practice opening the hatch and exiting. And when I realized that, yeah, of course, if you bolt set down, it will look solid and move with the aircraft and everything else is floating. And so we did the masters that way. And then we did the close ups in the coverage on a set with the actors on usually on teeter totters or just moving around, but after they’d been weightless. They really knew how to act it and recreate it and it was. So that was fun. When I’m preparing a movie, you know, it depends a little bit on the nature of the film. I didn’t have to invest a whole lot of energy planning the shots on Frost/Nixon. I certainly did. I shortlisted it. I had points of view about each of the interviews. You know, I had ideas about trying to shoot each one in a different way, sort of suggesting a different aspect of that interview, sometimes isolating the actors, the characters from the crew and the camera so that you’d sort of forget that it was a television show other times featuring the cameras. So you’d remember that it was all still showbiz, you know, depending on on each of the scenes. So the visuals are important and I’m always planning, but I it’s usually a gradual thing. I start taking notes in the margins of the script. I start talking to the cinematographer when were out scouting locations, and I create these building blocks. And then when I go to shot list, I then think editorially and I build around key compositions or visual ideas that I know we’re going to want. And then I sort of build whether we can link the two ideas with a single camera move or do we need the coverage? What kind of control am I going to want later in the editing room of the rhythms of the scene? That dictates how much coverage I need to do and those kind of things. But they’re gradual step by step. I divide my time usually between script and actors and logistics.
Eric Conner: Even though Ron Howard gets to work with some remarkable and expensive digital effects in films like Solo and in The Heart of the Sea, he cautions against letting the technology overpower the story.
Ron Howard: You know, look, it all boils down to a story and it always does. And Zemeckis said the smartest thing about five or six years ago is that a digital technology spectacular. He embraces it. He’s on the cutting edge of all of it. But he said now everybody can do everything. So spectacle in and of itself is not going to be commercial and it’s going to all the more put the pressure back on the writers, the actors, the storytellers to try to take people on a journey that’s borne out of character and narrative. What I really like about films, though, is that it’s broadening so much internationally, regionally, in terms of the subject matter that, you know, yes, the big formulaic movies are probably the only thing that the studios feel really safe about investing in. But that doesn’t mean that other movies, other tones aren’t succeeding in their own right and influencing the mainstream in ways that are are meaningful. And I think technology really is the filmmakers friend and is creating a more and more stimulating experience for audiences. But I also have reconciled myself to the fact that it’s not going to always be a big screen experience. You know, you’re going to tell your stories and people are going to find them in the way that’s most convenient, most interesting, most, you know, for them. I’m not a person who believes you should try to force people to not watch the movie on their iPhone. If they want to watch the movie on the iPhone. You know, at least they’re watching your movie and it’s your story. So I’ve reconciled myself to that.
Eric Conner: After two Emmys, two Oscars, 60 years in the biz, and enough credits to fill up most of Hulu. What advice does Ron Howard give to achieve a career with longevity?
Ron Howard: Keep writing and keep shooting. Really? I mean, Charlie Martin Smith, the guy who played Terry the Toad, is a very successful director. He did a movie that Sam Peckinpah directed, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And Bob Dylan was in it acting in the movie. And Charlie said that Dylan was constantly writing. He told Charlie he tried to write a song every day and he thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. I don’t write every day. In fact, I’m just fooling around with trying to write a screenplay again. And it’s really scary. It’s really hard. But I do try to make notes. I try to keep just dealing with stories, dealing with characters and cause I’m involved in imagine films. So there’s always a lot to read there and a lot to respond to, but it really is just a matter of carrying on. And I do think that if you have a circle of friends and you can call people up and say, hey, read this, I’m stuck. And experiment. Don’t don’t be afraid to write a draft that you think you’re probably gonna throw away. And as far as the shooting goes, keep shooting and keep editing. It’s so important to really get a great sense of your own editorial style and the way you want to shoot for the editing room, because that’s where, as George would say correctly. That’s really where you make the films in the editing room.
Eric Conner: We’ll try to remember that advice when cutting this episode together. We went to think Ron Howard for his wonderful legacy of storytelling, for speaking with our students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.
David Nelson: This episode was based on the Q&A, curated and moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is me, David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and Eric Conner. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.