Capone grills Ron Howard on FROST/NIXON, Obama, Dan Brown, and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT!!!
Published at: Dec. 5, 2008, 4:35 a.m. CST by quint
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
I've been following the FROST/NIXON project since before there was a FROST/NIXON project. A couple of years back, I interviewed Michael Sheen for THE QUEEN. At the time, he was at the tail end of performing Peter Morgan's penetrating play on the London stage and preparing for the inevitable Broadway run. Just reading about the subject matter and the talent involving in putting on the theatrical version made me think it would make for a perfect film, and apparently I wasn't the only one. Ron Howard also thought it would make for a great movie as well, something he was able to tuck into his schedule between THE DA VINCI CODE and next summer's ANGELS & DEMONS, and it's great to see him get back to a project where he can cut away the fat and get down to some gritty storytelling.
Howard has given us more enjoyable films over the years than most directors can dream of. Yes, I'll go back as far as GRAND THEFT AUTO and NIGHT SHIFT as examples of some of his truly entertaining beginnings. But works like COCOON, SPLASH, WILLOW, and PARENTHOOD are a huge part of my cinematic upbringing. To me, APOLLO 13 marked a turning point in the way people perceived Howard's movies and his abilities as a director. Not every movie after that was great, but the anticipation level for each new Ron Howard film was always high. RANSOM, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, CINDERELLA MAN, and, yes, even THE DA VINCI CODE were "event" movies. FROST/NIXON feels like there's less riding on its success, which makes it all the more significant. The film features perhaps the greatest collection of acting Howard has ever assembled. There's also a subtlety and depth to the story that Howard hasn't given us to the this degree before. Sure, this is a movie about a legendary, although nearly forgotten series of interviews, but it also dives in to how much every player has riding on the final product. Sure that element would have been in Morgan's screenplay, but Howard makes sure it isn't lost in the army of great performances.
Over the years, Howard has been described as a director with no style. I contend that his style is being able to adapt to the material and not forcing a style on a film. It opens him up to find great stories, rather than try to find stories that suit an established way of making films. It explains why one of his best works is 2003's THE MISSING, a movie few people saw but works extraordinarily well in its brutality and stripped down style.
One of Howard's most recent masterpieces was something he did in an effort to get Barack Obama elected. If you haven't seen his endorsement video, check it out since it's the first thing we talk about. Enjoy Ron Howard!
Capone: Hi Ron. How are you?
Ron Howard: I'm good. So which guy are you on Ain't It Cool News?
Capone: I'm Capone.
RH: Capone, okay. Great.
Capone: I know you have some history with our site and Harry.
RH: Yeah, I've met with Harry a couple times, going back to THE GRINCH and again on THE MISSING, I think. And I bumped into him in San Antonio once, and that was fun. I've got the site bookmarked.
Capone: That's good to hear.
RH: Sometimes I don't like what people have to say there, but what the hell. [laughs]
Capone: So how does it feel to be the man who single handedly got Barack Obama elected president?
RH: [laughs] Man, I dreaded doing that. I got the idea at about five o'clock one morning, and I went "Oh, fuck!" It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do; I've never publicly endorsed a candidate. I've given financial support and maybe in a couple of interviews, maybe acknowledged who I was going to vote for. But I've never orchestrated anything like that. But I started living with the idea and I knew it wouldn't go away. It would cut through in some way. And when I talked to Henry [Winkler] about it, and then most importantly Andy [Griffith], and I realized they were both big Obama supporters and they were looked for the right way to express that. I decided to go ahead with it. Meanwhile, I'd talked to Judd Apatow about it, just tested it on him. He thought it was really funny and thought it would be really effective, and he said, "You've got to talk to Adam McKay who's really political." Adam was a huge advocate of it, and he said, "We've got this tiny little infrastructure here at Funny or Die that can support this on a production side. So if you choose to do it, we'll do it and put it on the site." I pitched the idea to him, and he said, "I'll write it up." So he wrote it up, but then I wasn't going to do it. Obama was doing much better in the polls, and all of the sudden things shifted again, and I just said to myself, "If on November 5, he wasn't elected, and I had this idea and didn't do it, I'm always going to be disappointed in myself." And that was the litmus test.
And I understand when people say celebrities should stay out of it. I've said that. [laughs] And as I said in the piece, I hope I never feel compelled to do another endorsement, but I felt strongly enough about this.
Capone: I spoke to Michael Sheen about two years ago when he was in the midst of the London run of FROST/NIXON, and getting ready to move it over to Broadway. What was your first connection with this material?
RH: I was talking to Peter Morgan while I was mixing DI VINCI CODE in London. No, I was there for the Hans Zimmer scoring session. And I met with Peter on another project, and ultimately he turned out not to be able to write it. But I said, what else are you working on, and he mentioned THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. And he told me about THE QUEEN, which hadn't come out yet and that sounded pretty interesting to me. LAST KING OF SCOTLAND sounded great. And then he said, "I'm going to do this play about Frost-Nixon interviews," which I remembered because I was one of those 400 million people glued to the set at the time. But I think my eyes glazed over at the time, because I remember thinking, "Hmm, a full play? Maybe a one act, but what else would it be?" I didn't think anything of it until it was written and running in London, and I had a chance to read it, and I thought it was great. I was so surprised by it, by how funny it was and how tense it was and how fascinating and cool all the behind the scenes machinations were. And I also realized that other filmmakers were getting ready to bid on it. So I talked to Brian [Grazer, Howard's production partner and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment], he seemed really intrigued by it--I'm not sure if he'd read it at that point or not, but he liked what it was about. And my wife Cheryl and I literally jumped on a plane to London so I could see it. I literally was so enthralled by the production, very theatrical. But even as I was watching it, I was beginning to sort of develop a point of view of how the adaptation could work and how we could make it more cinematic. And I walked out of the theater onto the sidewalk, called Brian, called my agents and said, "I not only want to bid on it, I'll make it my next movie." I just had faith that Peter and I could sort out the adaptation and agree on that. And whatever the casting decisions might be, I felt like I could make a really compelling movie with Michael [Sheen who plays David Frost] and Frank [Langella, who plays Richard Nixon]. So I made that commitment, Peter decided to send it to me at Imagine and Working Title.
Capone: So was there ever a question in your mind about having Frank and Michael not play these roles? I have to imagine there was some degree of pressure to go in a more high-profile direction in terms of casting the leads.
RH: Oh yeah. Well Michael quickly came out in THE QUEEN and was fantastic, and he was great in the play, so he became a pretty obvious choice to go with from the beginning. I think the studio always hoped that we could find a big established movie star name to play Nixon. And I was open to that conversation, but again I felt like it had to be right. At one point, Frank called me and said, "I hear the studio really wants to go in another direction, and I'm a big boy, but should I audition for this somehow? Should I put myself on tape? Is there some way for me to throw my hat in the ring?" And I said, "Well, you're on my list, Frank. And I think you're auditioning every night, and I think you're best play here is to just take it to New York. I think you're going to get all types of acknowledgement when you're on Broadway with it. You don't need to compete by putting yourself on tape." He was incredibly gracious. And in the end, that's how it all worked out. All the conversations just stopped, and it became so clear that even on some sort of karmic level, it was the right thing to do, to have Frank do it. And the studio asked me knock a few more millions off the budget, but they at least supported the idea. And I was glad I was able to gain their support.
Capone: Obviously FROST/NIXON didn't cost nearly as much as the film you did before and the film you did after…
RH: Right [laughs].
Capone: …but was this a nice palate cleanser for you between the two Dan Brown projects?
RH: Absolutely, without a doubt. In fact, it was really invigorating, and it was creatively so right for the movie. I mean, I never want to spend a nickel more than we need to. Of course, a lot of the cuts in the cost of production for this project started with my salary [laughs], so that was a step in the right direction right off the bat as far as we were concerned. And it was great to use the same team. Salvatore Totino is the cinematographer, Todd Hallowell was the line producer, same editors and production gang. We brought FROST/NIXON under budget and under schedule. It sort of invigorated everyone, and I think the fact that we were working with Michael and Frank also made things incredibly efficient and tight because they had such command of these characters. Everyone tried to live up to their standards. The style that I envisioned for this movie and developed with Sal was to just not rehearse at all but just set up a couple of cameras--either hand held or long lens on a dolly track--and just start shooting. And let the camera operators discover the scene in a very spontaneous, organic way. And it was my job to then work from there to sort of build the bridge pieces together, so that we would get something that would build dramatically and create the suspense. It was incredibly liberating. I broke and bent a lot of axioms and rules that I tend to follow in films, and it was really refreshing and exciting.
Capone: Oliver Platt mentioned to me earlier today that you gave each actor research to do so it was possible for them to improvise as well in an educated fashion.
RH: A lot of improvising. My idea was, plays tend to be presentational. And my idea was to make this experiential for the audience as possible. You weren't going to have that excitement of sitting in the theater with the actors, so I wanted to make the cinema of all this to try to draw the audience into an intimate relationship with the actors and what was going on. I wanted it to feel very spontaneous and very organic and yet there's the great piece of writing that you want to fully utilized--Peter Morgan script. So I got Oliver and Sam [Rockwell], I cast them because they are improvisational actors, and I said, "Here's the great writing, but feel free if you see a gap or a moment, make a comment, throw it in, whatever." So it was very loose, and it was there this sense of discovery and freshness in every take, and even a little danger. And when it came to the political stuff, they did do so much research that when we did those training sequences [a dry run for the interview where Platt takes on the Nixon role as Frost lobs questions at him], that was all improvised. It wound up being so smart and so edgy and funny and biting that I had expected to just use a few seconds of it, and I ended up making a whole sequence out of it. I was really proud of those guys; they breathed a lot of life into the story, and a lot of what they did helped move the project away from something that felt more like a play that was being filmed and toward something that felt vibrant and immediate, like a movie.
Capone: A lot of your "Arrested Development" actors have had quite a bit to say about the possibility of a big screen version happening. What's the update?
RH: Yeah, we're closer than ever. Mitch [Hurwitz] is really focused on it, the cast seems really interested, the studio [Fox Searchlight] seems to be on board, and God know they've got a narrator who's just chomping at the bit. [laughs] So we don't have a script yet, but we all want it and we want it to be good. We're pushing in that direction and all really pushing together for the first time in ages. So, I think we've got a very good chance of it happening.
Capone: That's great. Was it nice to go back to a filmmaking style driven almost entirely by dialogue?
RH: Well, I love actors, and I love making all kinds of films, and I never want to impose a style or a stamp on any movie. I want to always discover what I think the story needs in order to realize its possibilities for the audience. In this case, it was so much about the acting, and that was exciting for me. If I had to choose one thing in my life, only one kind of movie you could make and one kind of theme you could direct, it would always be a powerhouse acting opportunity. So for me, every day was like that. It reminded me of BEAUTIFUL MIND in that regard. And the scenes were always challenging enough and intricate enough that you could never ever go on some sort of autopilot--let's do a master and a couple over-the-shoulders and we've got it [laughs]. Plus, I just didn't want to stage it that way. I wanted it to have its own kind of feel. I didn't want it to look, again, like it was being presented too much.
Capone: You just said something that opens up a whole new avenue of questioning. I'm not sure we have time…
RH: Go ahead, ask.
Capone: You said a couple times that you don't like to impose a style on your films, and that has been something that has been said about you in the past. You could watch five different Ron Howard films and not know they were all directed by the same person. You seem to strive for that and seem proud of that accomplishment.
RH: Very proud of, because who cares who directed it? [laughs] To me, you're sitting there watching the movie, and is it effective or not? Is it memorable? Actors who can adapt to different tones and styles are characterized as chameleons and are respected for that. So I suppose I've tried to think of myself as a filmmaker in a similar way, but even that is a little more self-conscious than is true. Really, I just want the movie to be effective. Because of when I was acting on television series for 17 out of 20 years there--from 1960-1980, you're basically doing the same things over and over again in slightly tweaked, slightly repackaged ways. And as soon as I realized I was going to get to make more than one or two movies, the one conscious thing I did was say I don't want to be typed, and I don't want to type myself. I want to use this as a way of exploring the medium and world. I want variety. And if I'm going to do that, I can't be trying to impose myself on it. I've got to sort of check that at the door and work on behalf of the story.
But I've never be critical of directors who put their stamp on all of their movies because I'm a fan of that too and sometimes appreciate that, but it's just not my approach.
Capone: Ron, thank you so much for talking to us.
RH: My pleasure. Take care. Bye bye.