Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Ron Howard.
I have a pet theory that Ron Howard is like Spielberg without all the cinephile love. They’ve both done broad genre work, fantasy adventure, and prestige films that earned Oscars. They’ve had giant successes in just about every realm, and they’ve also had monumental failures. They also both continually push to learn new things, both from a content standpoint and technical perspective.
It’s also impressive that Howard has evolved so thoroughly that we often don’t even think about him as a child actor who emerged to continued success. For several generations, Howard has always been a sophisticated filmmaker with a wry sense of humor and a keen ability to deliver a fist-pumping moment of Hollywood satisfaction. Every once in a while, the realization that he’s been in the industry since he was six hits home and puts his career into both a surprising and completely sensible context. Of course he’s done what he’s done…and yet how many child actors can make the same claim (or have enjoyed the same enormity of success)?
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a guy who just can’t grow a beard as well as Spielberg.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Ron Howard
1. It all boils down to complexity
“I believe audiences are ready to embrace the complexities of the film, but it still boils down to heroism. The simplistic approach is not appropriate and it’s not interesting. We know there will be limitations and controversies.”
It seems benign, but there’s something slightly revolutionary in what he’s saying ‐ a challenge to the flat studio thinking that some might accuse Howard of falling prey to alongside an optimistic pronouncement that the Hero’s Journey (which is older than any other story structure put down on paper or stone) continues to have freshness if you work to find it.
Howard has put hero’s on their journey through space, through the fantasy world of Nockmaar, through their own schizophrenic minds and many other landscapes. In looking at four decades of directing, it seems obvious that he’d have a positive view of the possibilities of a standardized structure.
So more than just the statement, his history as a filmmaker itself ‐ even through the mild misses or outright failures ‐ should be a reminder that there’s life to breathe into an ancient technique. Don’t fear it, and don’t shy away from challenging your audience within something that should be familiar.
2. Take a chance every year and a half
“I was talking about careers with Andy Griffith, and as uncontroversial as he was, he felt that to be true to yourself, you’ve got to be ready to anger people once in a while. When I was 16, Henry Fonda told me, ‘If you love movies, become a director; if you love acting, keep your focus on the theater.’ In either case, you’ve got to be willing to take a huge risk every 18 months, or else you’re not really trying. They both suggested that, even in a popular medium like film, the audience can sense when you’re manufacturing instead of creating.”
I wanted to chart this out through Howard’s own career, but I’m unclear as to whether the madcap action romance Grand Theft Auto is the non-chance starting point or if the sex comedy set near dead people Night Shift is the non-chance follow-up.
If we take The Da Vinci Code as a decidedly safe bet, that makes both Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon “chances,” and that feels right. The funny thing is that Howard’s timeline almost equates to taking on risk every time you make a movie. Something to consider.
3. The high concept commercial stuff might be a challenge, too
It’s admittedly easy to judge the fluffy stuff or look at success through the powerful magnifying glass of hindsight, but Howard makes some excellent points about the ridiculousness of his mermaid love story that can apply to his senior citizen space movie, his morgue prostitution comedy and his Matthew McConaughey reality TV film.
It may seem disheartening to recognize that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in commercial filmmaking, but what it really means is that, done right, you can do all sorts of crazy things and still find a large audience.
4. But then there’s the downside
“I want every movie to have a big audience. I’m always hopeful that it’s going to be discovered, and audiences are fantastic that way because every once in a while they surprise you. I didn’t think ‘Beautiful Mind’ was going to be that kind of global success. I really, really didn’t. I didn’t think ‘Cocoon’ was going to be that; I thought it was a small story about some senior citizens meeting aliens. But to me, it was a very personal thing.
But, you know, ‘Black Swan’ will come along out of nowhere and suddenly be an event. ‘King’s Speech,’ I mean, this is the great thing about movie audiences ‐ and the terrifying thing about being a studio executive or a movie investor ‐ is that it’s not manufacturing. And audiences will surprise you as often as not. And that’s good news.
But it also means that sometimes you’ve given your heart and soul to something that you truly believe in and the audience looks the other way. And you have to be tough enough emotionally, and I think singular enough about why you’re in this, why have you chosen to put a year or so of your life into a story. [The size of the audience] can’t be the driving decisive element.”
Fortunately, he finished the thought by pushing the idea of curiosity-satisfying as the ultimate element that drives a creative endeavor. So grow some thick skin, but realize that it’s not all bad news if you’re looking after the thing that propels you.
5. Make sure you’re ready for the unthinkable results of success
“For me [‘Willow’] was a huge physical challenge, the most complicated challenge I’ve had. It was my first time dealing with multiple production units. The logistics of it were intense. I don’t know that I’ve ever been involved in anything as complicated or as arduous since, to be honest. And yet everything about it was driven by this kind of spirit of imagination and visual discovery, and it was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities of this fantasy. I was trying to always trying to center the emotions in relatable, human ways. It was a big turning point for me in a lot of ways. I learned a lot technically and also just about the logistics of making movies on a large scale, and it gave me a kind of confidence moving forward. It was 140, 150 shooting days by the time we finished all the green-screen, and there were the multiple units and everything.”
Right now you might be shooting with your friends on weekends; you might be running a 30-person crew and hustling to rock out a month-long shoot before the money you borrowed on top of the money you borrowed all runs out; you might be leading a well-oiled machine that has made a handful of features together.
But are you ready to manage hundreds of people and millions of dollars for half a year? The dream is blissful, but the reality is a bit more of a nightmare of responsibility, and it’s important to realistically gauge your own aptitude. When you finally find the success that you’ve been working toward, will you be ready to graduate to the next level?
6. Let the six-year-olds talk
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
There’s a sensibility that giving a gritty project to Ron Howard (i.e. The Dark Tower) is a great way to have its rough edges all smoothed away, and that’s not unfair. However, a deeper look at his career and its gambles (and oddities) reveal a creative force that’s far less safe than we typically assume. It’s not that he doesn’t make unusual movies, it’s that he’s made them work on large audience scales.
Inclusiveness, exploration, and curiosity seem to be central to his filmmaking philosophy. That necessitates a heavy burden for sensibilities (which not everyone naturally has), but it also allows for the director to grow and learn on a daily basis. That can be a very powerful thing.