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Extended interview: Ron Howard on directing

(CBS News) Ron Howard's life story is a Hollywood fairy tale in itself: beginning as a toddler with bit parts in movies and TV, he became familiar to a generation of TV viewers as Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show." That was followed by his starring role on "Happy Days," and the George Lucas film "American Graffiti." He was able to parlay his star profile to directing features, including "Night Shift," Splash," "Cocoon," "Willow," "Parenthood," "Backdraft," "Far and Away," "Apollo 13," "Ransom," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Missing," "Cinderella Man," "The Da Vinci Code" and its sequel, "Angels & Demons," and "Frost/Nixon." It was the 2001 drama "A Beautiful Mind" which won Howard Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. His latest film, "Rush," recreates the word of Formula One racing in the 1970s.

In this web-exclusive extended transcript of his interview with CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips, Howard discusses the transition from acting to the director's chair; his fascination with Formula One racing; and the influence of Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" on his career.

Mark Phillips: Was there a reason why you stopped the acting completely?

Ron Howard: I just loved directing. I loved it. And the first one I directed, I had to be in [to help finance it]. I didn't enjoy that. I didn't feel I was quite a strong enough actor. I felt in a lot of ways [directing] was a more complete reflection of who I am, what I like to do.

I acted as a kid. I always liked it, but I don't really have a performer's personality. I like being responsible, by the way. When you're an actor, you often feel victimized -- you see the end result, 'Oh, they didn't use this take, they didn't use that take, how come?' There's no 'how come?' with the director. There's only one person to look at. Walk over to the mirror if you want to know why. But I prefer that.

That's a process of discovery. I didn't know much about boxing before 'Cinderella Man,' and yet I got the late, great Angelo Dundee to come in and be our technical advisor and start talking about the science, the psychology of it, and finding ways to convey that cinematically, get it across to the audience, whether it's music, side effects, camera speeds.

Filming a race scene from the Ron Howard film, "Rush." Universal Pictures

Phillips: Is that part of what attracts you to do these movies, is to get into something about which you knew almost nothing before?

Howard: It satisfies my curiosity. And then it's really, really thrilling when you can find a way to convey something cinematically for audiences that maybe hasn't been ever dealt with in that kind of detail before. Or you can combine something that technically has been cool and exciting but has never been combined with a rich drama or humor or heart in the same way.

Phillips: People wouldn't necessarily say that the shot of a suspension part would be a riveting bit in the movie.

Howard: But it is if you link it to the character and their psyche and their relationship to the car and this moment in this track. Everything's always about page-turning, right? What's next? So, if you create questions for audiences, then they'll want to know the answer. Or they begin to formulate possible outcomes. That's the game we play when we're hearing a story unfold. That's part of what sucks us into a movie.

Phillips: One of the criticisms of Formula One racing is it's become too much of a parade -- nobody passes anybody, or it's too technologically-driven, all that kind of thing. Whereas you had to turn it into this almost Greek-like drama, two antagonists in this arena.

Howard: Well, of course, that's what you do when you're making a movie: you take the highlights, even in a true story things that happened, and you collapse them down into moments and scenes. So, things that may have taken laps become a lap. Relationship issues that might have unfolded over weeks, you do it in one big, powerful scene.

Some people say that motorsports are just not as thrilling today. But what they're really saying is nobody dies -- it's not as gladiatorial. People still do, as we know in the U.S. from last year, and continues to happen. [But] there are people that like to say, 'Formula One in the '70s, that's when sex was safe and driving was dangerous.' But I don't think you could say to these Formula One drivers or their families today that what they're doing is exactly safe.

Phillips: Did you know anything about cars and car racing before you set out to do this?

Howard: I love sports. And I've been to some races. I was a slot car kid in the '60s. Made my own little slot cars and stuff, but not avid. I've been to one Formula One race. George Lucas has always been a friend and kind of a mentor -- directed me in 'American Graffiti,' later we did 'Willow.' He always talked about Formula One; he wanted to be a professional racer..

He really always felt like that was the elite category where technology meets competitive greatness. So I went to a race with George in Monaco. Very exciting. And I didn't think much more about it except it was cool and sexy and very dangerous, very visceral.

But when Peter Morgan, who I'd worked with on 'Frost/Nixon,' let me look at 'Rush,' this new project that he had written on spec, I knew enough about Formula One to know, here's what happens, you hear it and feel it before you even lay eyes on the car. Now there's something unique about that. That was the first thing I began thinking about: [how to] translate that cinematically in some way. It's not narrative -- it's atmosphere and intensity. And the characters were great, a fantastic set of opponents.

Phillips: Were you aware of the whole Hunt/Lauda story before?

Howard: Not at all. But Peter Morgan's a pretty good writer! (Laughs) The way he can describe it to you, one is one of the handsomest men in the planet, true icon, playboy, and who's the opponent who stands in his way above all others? This kind of Austrian, myopic careerist whose nickname is The Rat.

Phillips: It seems to me that one of the most difficult things to do, it happens in sports coverage: there's a kind of 'holy cow!' factor with auto racing -- the sense of speed, the sense of danger, the high nervous level at which this all happens. It seems that's something that often doesn't come across if you just sit in there in your living room watching it on TV.

Howard: I still have to capture the action just like you do covering sports. But it's the thing that they don't do, and that's what filmmakers can do. And I made that my job. It kind of goes to the psyche of the driver and what you can share of that. You know, with 'Beautiful Mind,' I interviewed a lot of mathematicians and I was trying to understand, well, what's the eureka moment look like? What does even math feel like? I don't know. I don't understand it. And I did a lot of reading. Finally one thing really worked for me. I was reading about Tesla, [who] would have these sort of daydreams where he would imagine formulas, blueprints coming together. So I was able to use that in a few places in 'Beautiful Mind' to try to be cinematic and offer some understanding.

So I was thinking about ["Rush"], and a lot of drivers talk about eye, hand, foot, car, road. More than opponents, really. It's this constant movement. And they also talk about the car like it's a part of them, an extension of them. Maybe a little more like a horse and a jockey.

So I began to think about that. So when I would cut away in 'Rush,' an insert of a wheel or a part vibrating, it's cool, but they're not just inserts. They're connecting to a moment that either just happened or is going to happen or it might even relate to the psyche of the driver. [It] was beyond just race coverage; it was about how do you draw people into the minds and hearts of these drivers? And that creates tension.

Phillips: Formula One is not that big a deal in your primary market, in the States.

Howard: No, it really isn't. But I really came to love it. I mean, I know that sounds like the thing to say. But the first time I really began to understand it, I was actually interviewing Niki Lauda. And I went with him into a race. He's still a commentator. But he does his work before and after the race and then, of course, has to watch the race. So, I had this great opportunity to watch a race sitting next to Niki Lauda. So, we're in one of those trailers watching it, really, on television, watching the coverage. And it was stunning, because within the first five minutes of the race, he's talking about the outcome. But things are changing. And he's talking about the tire changes. He's talking about the technology. And he begins to say this guy's gonna pass him in two laps. And he was right. He was always about three or four minutes out in front of the commentators. He was just uncanny. And now when I watch a race, you know, yeah, I'm riveted. Might as well be the NBA playoffs, which is saying a lot for me. (laughs)

Phillips: Motor racing movies have had a particular niche audience in the past but not a broad generalized audience. What would've been some of the most successful ones? I guess 'Grand Prix.'

Howard: I like the comedy, 'Talladega Nights.' That was pretty, pretty hilarious.

Phillips: Did you look at those and think, 'Now I'm going to make this different kind of movie that starts inside the minds of these two antagonists'?

Howard: Well, this is inspired by real characters and real events. It's now the fifth movie that I've done that is based on reality.

A scene from "Apollo 13." Universal Pictures

I had a test screening for 'Apollo 13' very early on. I looked at these preview cards and they were great, But there was one 'poor.' One out of 360 people. So I went to that card first, of course! (laughs) A 23-year-old male. He wasn't giving much detail -- big, broad, strokes, just negative comments. Finally I flipped over to the side where it said , 'Please give us your thoughts about the ending.' And he said, 'Terrible. More Hollywood BS. They would never survive.' Well, 'course he didn't know it was a true story.

I was so grateful it was a true story because it's a very emotional ending, and yet, for this guy and probably a lot of people, it just would have been too much. It would've been outlandish if they could have possibly survived. Well, 'Rush' has a lot of those kinds of moments.

Phillips: It seems that there's almost a tension between the two kinds of movies that you do. You're famous for being a successful, mass-market filmmaker. But you've also done more niche-y types of films as well. Does that matter to you whether a film is going to play in 10,000 cinemas and theatres, or 50?

Howard: Well, I've been at it long enough to be aware and to be able to recognize the difference. Although I don't think of myself as a very accurate prognosticator.

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.

For me, I have to be curious about it. I have to be fascinated. I have to be enthralled by who I think the collaborators [are] going to be on the film -- the actors, the producers, the cinematographers. These things affect my life and my creative growth and my experience, and they do satisfy that curiosity that I think pushes me along more than anything.

Phillips: You say that your career hasn't been an exercise in trying to do everything and ticking the various boxes that you tick. But the selection almost indicates that your range is as broad as it could possibly be for a director -- with the factual, historical narratives of an 'Apollo 13' or this Hunt/Lauda racing story, but you also do 'The Da Vinci Code,' which many people would argue is as far from reality as you could possibly get.

Howard: It's a particular brand of fiction that carries with it certain expectations and all that, but [which is] fascinating to me. Even the history of it, whether the basic premise you think is true or not, to understand it well enough to depict it was a fascinating creative journey for me. And I like history. And so suddenly it was a good excuse to delve into a lot of history that I hadn't really looked at before.

Phillips: Are you also attracted to the challenge of making something that on the surface appears to be a quite difficult thing to pull off?

Howard: Well, yeah, probably on some sort of masochistic level. That is I think how you get stronger -- you take chances. I was in a television series with Henry Fonda between 'The Andy Griffith Show' and 'Happy Days.' It was a short-lived show called 'The Smith Family.' I spent a lot of time actually getting to know Henry Ronda. My dad, Rance, had toured in 'Mister Roberts' with him, and so even though Hank kind of kept to himself, he made himself available. He was interested in the fact that even at 16 I was making Super 8 movies and writing scripts and things like that. And at one point he said, 'You know, if you're going to do this, you have to do something that terrifies you about every 18 months or two years or you get too comfortable, you go on autopilot and you're not growing anymore.' And if you look at his work, he kept getting braver and braver and braver. I always try to keep that in mind as well.

Phillips: Obviously your early fame came from your roles as a childhood actor in 'The Andy Griffith Show.'

Howard: I wanted to direct then but I just couldn't get anybody to agree to it! (laughs)

Phillips: But in 'Happy Days' you insisted on directing.

New World Pictures

Howard: No, I didn't direct any 'Happy Days.' I had an opportunity to. But we had this genius of a comedy director, Jerry Paris. And I didn't want to rob the rest of our cast or any of our episodes of his talent. But by that time I was directing during our hiatuses. It would take us about eight, nine months to to do a season. During that time I'd start preparing something. My first movie was for Roger Corman ("Grand Theft Auto") And I would shoot it during our vacation period, and then start editing it, and finish up while I went back to 'Happy Days.'

I did that for about four years in a row where I would make either a feature or a TV movie during our hiatus. So by the time I left 'Happy Days,' I was experienced when I did my first feature with Brian Grazer where we teamed up on 'Night Shift.' Even though it was big, it was important, it was my first studio movie I actually was very, very comfortable in the director's chair.

My dad directed theatre, and he also used to run an improv workshop out of our house on Monday nights. I used to see him interacting, and a lot of the directors -- I think almost all of them on "The Andy Griffith Show' -- had been actors. I loved being around that show, and they were very inclusive. You know, they allowed me to be in on rehearsals or when script notes were being discussed. I mean, it was just a fantastic learning experience, and it was fun and disciplined. I became fascinated with all of it -- the sound boom operator and the mixer, the camera people. I began to see that the director was the person who was getting to hang with everybody. And that was what attracted me.

But in the mid-'60s I remember going to see 'The Graduate' and 'Bonnie and Clyde.' Those movies were revelatory to me. And I actually began to understand that being the director was something else. It wasn't just sort of gently guiding.

I started watching 'The Graduate' over and over again, and began thinking about the way Mike Nichols shot things, which certainly had nothing to do with the way anything was ever photographed on 'The Andy Griffith Show'! (laughs) or anything else that I had ever been around.

I was hooked, sort of as a movie fan. And then I realized that the movies that I was really, really loving had another component, had a point of view. Who did that? And I decided that was an interesting job.

Phillips: What was it about 'The Graduate'? A lot of people were very impressed by that movie, not just for the obvious reasons. But what was it about it as a movie that you thought was groundbreaking?

Howard: It was at that moment both rebellious and hilarious, and the music was great. It looked and sounded and felt very, very different from everything else.

Sometimes there's something very comforting about a film unfolding more or less as you expect it to. And a lot of people, you know, that's their litmus test. That's really, really what they want. Well, for me, as an audience member, I want to have a fulfilling experience. I don't want to be frustrated too much. But I love it when it feels like it's something fresh. When I feel I'm seeing the world a little differently. I'm being entertained in a little different way. Pixar does this over and over again with animation -- it just ain't coming at you quite the way you expected it to. And I love that. And so as a director when I can find that, I run toward it. And yet I still try to make it a satisfying, fulfilling audience experience, because that's important to me, too.

'The Graduate' was a full-on entertainment. I mean, it's hilarious. I was 13. It was sexy. You know, 'Is there a Mrs. Robinson around out there for me?' (laughs) So it was provocative. Again, it was aggressively entertaining. It was not existential snobbery at work. And yet, it was smart. It made its points.

Phillips: It captured a time as well.

Howard: Definitely captured the Zeitgeist. You know, that wasn't looking back. That was capturing a moment, which is a hard thing to do with movies that take a long time to make.

Phillips: You've done so many different kinds of movies. Some people might say not all of them had that much ambition, that they were mainstream pictures designed to get lots of people into lots of theatres to watch them. Is that just because that's the way the business is and you have to do that sort of thing?

Howard: In just about every instance -- you know, there've been a couple movies that I've taken on because I thought, 'Boy I think there's really an audience for this. And I think I know how to do it. And this'll be great business. And I'll apply what I know and I'll get what I get out of it creatively.' But that's only happened in a couple of instances.

Phillips: Which ones are those?

Howard: I probably felt that way about 'The Grinch.' Although as we started the adaptation, I became pretty fascinated by it. And and the big thing is, I talked about interesting collaborators. Well, I really did want to direct Jim Carrey creating that kind of physical comedy. And I wasn't disappointed, he's a genius. But I went into it because every company wanted to try to do 'The Grinch,' and we could do it. And I thought it was a good idea.

And probably 'Angels and Demons,' because 'Da Vinci Code' had been a big success. I love working with Tom Hanks. I had a fun experience. I liked where 'Angels and Demons' was going to take us, which was to Rome. (laughs) And behind the scenes at the Vatican -- I knew that the historian in me would find it fascinating. And I just didn't want to give that up. I had sort of started the Dan Brown/Robert Langdon franchise, and I just wanted to stay a part of it.

But everything else that I've done I've really thought, I believe I can do something special with this. Now, in some instances I don't think I got there. I don't think it became special. I don't think it achieved what 'The Graduate' achieved or what 'Talladega Nights' achieved (laughs). But again, you have to be tough enough to carry on.

Phillips: Do you have to have the big selling movie? You knew because of the success of 'Da Vinci,' 'Angels and Demons' was a sure thing.

Howard: Uh-huh.

Phillips: Is it important for a director every now and then to do the big, commercial movie just to prove you are that force in the business?

Howard: No, not at all. I mean, there are so many directors who are respected, [that] doesn't interest them. And they don't go there. And they've got fantastic careers doing exactly the kinds of movies that they want to do and that we all want to see them do.

No, I have an actual appetite for that kind of canvas and for those kinds of stories. And and even a thing like 'The Grinch,' if I didn't think I had a point of view and something to offer, I wouldn't have done it. But I hadn't spent the previous 20 years dreaming taking 'The Grinch' to the big screen. When I realized that my big dream was going to come true - 'Night Shift' was a success, 'Splash' was a success, I got the job to do 'Cocoon,' suddenly I was underway. And I knew my name was rising up the lists. I was going to have a career. I was going to be able to direct movies until I screwed it up. And I became a little bit intimidated by that and frightened.

Phillips: Why?

Howard: Well, you know, suddenly you have really a lot to lose. When you're young and you're striving, it's all uphill and it's easier to climb. Then when you get and look around you sort of say, 'Wow, the altitude's kinda thin up here!'

Phillips: And if you do a stinker they say, 'He's lost it.'

Howard: That's a real fear. I then began to think about the people who ran 'The Andy Griffith Show,' or Garry Marshall (who was running 'Happy Days'), Jim Brooks, brilliant show runner for 'Mary Tyler Moore' and 'Taxi.' I know all really well. And I know that they all suffered every time there was a weak episode. But they would also go into every season knowing that if they were going to make 24 episodes, maybe five or six would be great. Maybe. You know, a few weren't going to work. And most of the others were going to be, like, fantastic attempts that mostly worked. And that would be a great season.

And I began to think, 'Okay, I've gotta liberate myself or I'm gonna be too conservative in my choices [and] not take chances.' Remember what Hank Fonda said. I've got to find a way to be forward-thinking, ready to take those kinds of risks. And so I adopted that point of view to my whole career. It's all a season of television! (laughs)

Phillips: You managed to parlay this into a career that's one of the most consistently successful careers as a Hollywood director. And at the same time, maintain something like a normal family life.

Howard: It's normal to me. (laughs) Well, I'm lucky in a lot of ways. And in my family life, my home life, is where I count myself the luckiest.

Cheryl and I have been together since high school. She saw it all evolving. She was a writing fellow at AFI herself. She's a published novelist. She loves movies. Loves television shows, and iskind of a creative secret weapon for me in a lot of ways. I'm grateful for that, and lucky.

Phillips: There's this very cute little anecdotal thing of-- giving your family cameos in all the pictures.

Howard: Well, now everybody's grown and they have their own schedules and lives so they don't show up in them as much. My wife is in them all. And she's not an actress and doesn't really, really relish being in them. But we started doing this when I was making my first serious Super 8 movies. The first movie that I made to be entered in a festival I needed people. I had to recruit her, and she played a part. I needed a saloon girl because it was a western. And so 16-year-old Cheryl Alley was the saloon girl (laughs), whether she liked it or not. The Kodak Teenage Filmmaker Contest. Came in second! Felt pretty good about that one.

And so she always had to be in them because I always needed somebody to fill in, and later I realized as I began to have that career that she'd just been in everything. It's my only superstition -- doesn't have to be a big part, but I want her to be in all of the films. And she has been.

2002 "Sunday Morning" profile: Ron Howard: Too good to be true
Watch: Fall movie preview's complete movie coverage

To watch the trailer for Ron Howard's "Rush" click on the video player below.

For more info:

  • "Rush" (Official movie website)
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