There is always a calmness to Ron Howard that you don’t normally get from A-list directors. When they call him Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy, they, whoever ‘they’ might be, aren’t exaggerating. The former TV star of seminal classics such as The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, whose latest directorial film is the dark Western The Missing, never seems to lose his temper.
Well at least that’s the perception. “The times of my life when I have lost my temper, I haven’t found to be particularly productive,” Howard explains in a New York hotel room. “So I do get upset, but you have so little time that investing a few minutes in being pissed off is pretty wasteful what you really have to do is solve the problem. I do get upset, but I feel better if we start working on a solution rather than kicking over a ladder and yelling at them.”
Perhaps for that reason, only such an even-tempered fellow could work with some of Hollywood’s bad boys and live to tell about it: Russell Crowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Val Kilmer don’t exactly have the reputation of being quiet and malleable on a film set, but somehow Howard is both able and willing to work with those guys, and more than once in the case of Crowe, as they’re about to re-team for Cinderella Man.” I find that everyone approaches this job differently, but one common theme is that everyone wants to be good in their movies. And I want that, so I think I’ve earned a certain level of trust and respect, so that when I have something to say it’s listened to, but I’m also not dictatorial but very collaborative. I tend to create an environment where it’s sort of an ongoing discussion, and then I edit and decide. They don’t always agree with my decisions, but it’s such an open sort of process that I’ve found it much easier to say no after you’ve thoughtfully considered options. Or let’s try two or three things and take it to the editing room.”
Of course, Howard concedes, there are also difficult collaborations, as he witnessed as an actor when working on John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist. Howard witnessed the animosity between the legendary star and his director, Don Siegel, which in some way would shape Howard’s own approach to directing years later. “That was ugly”, Howard recalls. “I remember the time because I knew I always wanted to be a director and I remember thinking: Oh my god, I hope I’m never in this kind of circumstance. But I did learn something from it, and Don Siegel’s own personality clashed largely because they were a little bit too much alike, and he wanted to make a show of sort of taking charge of the movie and not letting John Wayne influence it.. He wanted to make a different kind of western, since there was kind of this clash of ego, personalities and sensibilities as it related to the movie, and had they worked some of that through ahead of time, I think there would have been a lot less pressure on the set. So when I sense that, on my set, the conversations begin in earnest.”
Some three decades after Howard co-starred in what would emerge as one of Hollywood’s last great westerns, Howard has re-shaped that most classic of American genres, with The Missing, a dark re[working of another Wayne classic, The Searchers. The film is set in 19th-century New Mexico, and revolves around a father (Tommy Lee Jones) who comes back home, hoping to reconcile with his adult daughter Maggie (Cate Blanchett). Maggie’s daughter is kidnapped, forcing father and estranged daughter to work together to get her back. Howard was lured to The Missing after The Alamo, which was to star Russell Crowe, fell apart. “When I decided I would be one of the producers of The Alamo and John Lee Hancock would direct, I was intrigued by a number of projects, also knowing I was eventually going to make Cinderella Man with Russell, and I was fully prepared to just kind of wait until that movie came along. But this script just fascinated me,” Howard says. “I’ve always been interested in that period in history. I thought that the characters were very surprising to be in a “western” and I felt the father-daughter estrangement story was something that, dramatically, would be a great opportunity. I was also fascinated by the fact that these two characters were struggling with their feelings, because they didn’t have the Freudian vocabulary which hadn’t been invented yet, so they had no Dr. Phil to explain the abandonment issues. I hadn’t seen characters behaving that way in a movie before, so I just found it to be engrossing.”
Howard has always maintained that it had been a lifetime ambition for him to direct a Western, [“I would say that it wasn’t a burning desire, but kind of a low-grade itch”]. yet ironically, ‘western’ is not a definition the studio releasing the film is all that keen to emphasise. Howard says that he merely loves that particular period in American history, “not so much the genre and studios are not excited necessarily about releasing a film that could be labelled as a western. They find it a limiting label from a marketing standpoint, so I’m glad they decided to make it.”
Harking back to Costner’s Dances with Wolves, Howard also made a conscious decision to allow his Apache characters to speak in their native tongue. “It gets back to the old notion that fact is often more interesting than fiction and so I think it’s an added element of entertainment value to help transport the audience in a way, and say this is what was going on 120 years ago, here’s where it was different. Look at all the circumstances where it was very much the same and unchanged? Also, in terms of trying to make it a suspenseful film, I always said that I’m going to shoot this, not as a homage to classic westerns, but from a psychological standpoint. The fact there is no cell phones, no automobiles, no police station around the corner, helps a story like this be all the more frightening.”
Ron Howard has come a long way since those eons ago where he bounced off the screen as the epitome of American classic innocence, from The Music Man to Happy Days. As a director, Howard’s maturity is evidenced by a body of work as diverse as Night Shift, Splash and Parenthood, through to the acclaimed likes of Apollo 13, Ransom and his Oscar-winning triumph A Beautiful Mind, for which he finally received Hollywood’s ultimate accolade: the Best Director Oscar. Howard agrees that the Oscar win has somehow legitimised his career as a director and enabled him to make a film as risky as The Missing. “I think it did help.” He smiles when recalling that particular Oscar night. “I thought I’d been as cool as a cucumber the whole night and when it was all over, and the Best Director and Best Picture categories were completed, we left the stage, Tom Hanks had his arm around us. I never have stomach problems, but I had the most burning feeling in my stomach and this unbelievably painful back cramp and I realized that I’ve probably never been so tense in my life.” Yet a tension he almost enjoyed, at least in retrospect.
Asked whether he would go back and give acting a try again after all these years, Howard isn’t ruling it out. “It would be fun, my kids are getting older now and I’m spending less time parenting. But then there are all the other films at Imagine, and I can never make all the films I want to make. I crack open my Notebook and sort of look at the list of notions, subjects or scripts that I know exist that I’d like to do someday, and it’s like I’m already starting to run out of time.” Having done a Western, Howard says that”I wouldn’t mind doing a really, really funny musical comedy, that wasn’t just kind of warm and humorous, but actually laugh out loud.”