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Tribeca: Ron Howard On Proving Himself to Bette Davis and the Future of Filmmaking

Tribeca: Ron Howard On Proving Himself to Bette Davis and the Future of Filmmaking

If you’ve ever wondered how Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard got to be the man you know today, then the actor-turned-filmmaker’s recent Tribeca talk with NBC news anchor Brian Williams will certainly give you an idea on his life in the entertainment industry. Detailing significant parts of his career (going all the way back to his days as Opie) to his perception of some of the key factors in the future of film, television and the business as a whole, Howard provides some insights for anyone who hopes to follow his success. Read some of the highlights below:

He has no intention of fighting technology. “Why fight technology at all? The audience is always gonna tell you what they like best. And you, as a storyteller, as a communicator, are going to be required to adjust to that. Your taste, your aesthetic, is certainly going to influence that, and you may choose to diffuse that, maybe decline using that format. But to actually decry, to sort of say ‘we should lobby against it…’ You know, we’re all just doing things and absorbing stories in a different way. At the end of the day, I am a storyteller. And if I think the story has value and I think it’s interesting, then my next job is trying to understand out how to best tell the story, and now, what format? Because there’s no shame in turning around and saying ‘Yes, I like to make movies, but you know where this would really live? The internet.'”

He hates it when people watch his movies on smartphones. “I was on a plane, three people watching ‘Rush.’ Isn’t that great? Yeah, three people all at once. I went to the bathroom and I saw they were all watching it. And I noticed that no one was actually looking at the screen. And then one of them was just fast-forwarding and just stopping every so often just to get an idea of what happened next. And I said, ‘That son of a bitch is gonna claim he saw the movie!’ So yeah, I was having to hold myself back.”
His experience working with John Wayne and the greats. “The thing that ultimately happened was a couple of days into shooting, there was a big scene and a lot of dialogue. And I like to rehearse. And I asked him if he wanted to run lines. And then we started running these lines and we were working on it and what struck me is, I always kind of thought that he’s a total naturalist, you know even those pauses and things is probably just him forgetting his line and remembering again. But then you realize this is a carefully sculpted, shaped performance each and every time. I’ve worked with Bette Davis, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda. Here’s the thing they all have in common: even in their seventies, all worked a little harder than everybody else.”
His experience on the set of “Andy Griffith.” “Everyone was allowed to contribute. Even in rehearsal period, I get to witness this balance, this sort of joy we had in creating, this professionalism at work. And I, as a child, would sit around and listen to them talking about the script, working out kinks in the script. And I was even allowed to speak up. And I remember that first year I was six — and I was a little irksome because they weren’t accepting any of my ideas — I remember once during rehearsal, I don’t remember what the line was, I hesitated and I said ‘I don’t think a kid would say it that way.’ And I pitched my little rewrite and [the director] said ‘Great, say it that way.’ And I think in a lot of ways I try to apply that tone, that sort of inclusive yet focused approach, to the movies that I’ve directed.”
His view of current entertainment quality. “I think [we’re] at a high point in television quality. ‘Breaking Bad’ was tremendous. There are shows that I wanna see that I haven’t begun to. I really think the creative process is more exciting than ever, and there are more and more people doing great work and we’ve had a great awards season this past year. It’s kind of mind-blowing, people all over the world are making great creative choices, pushing American filmmakers.” 
What energizes him and lights his fire. “Well, on one hand, digital technology is so exciting for me. While I don’t consider myself a techie at all, I love the fact that I can get so much closer to what’s in my mind on the screen than I ever could before. And there was always this gap, and that gap is narrowing to the point where, [Robert Zemeckis] was quoted as saying ‘We can no longer dazzle people, it’s back to story. And it has to be character and it has to be story.’ I love that.”
How he got his foot in the door. “At that time, TV actors, particularly kids off of sitcoms, that wasn’t the fertile ground they were looking to for directors. I really had to blackmail my way into my first directing opportunity. Roger Corman, famous B-movie director, he wanted me to act in a movie called ‘Eat My Dust.’ And I had a script that I had written that I wanted to make into a character study. I thought maybe if I had raised half of the 300k dollar budget I could get it made. I told my agent please don’t come with me to this meeting, ’cause I wasn’t going in there to talk about money. I was going in to talk about my dream. I went to Roger Corman and I said ‘I know you’re the one person who’ll give first-time directors a chance. Please read this script and if you’ll co-finance this, I’ll act in ‘Eat My Dust.” And he read the script and he said ‘Well, this is like an art house movie, this is a character study, not what I do. But you do ‘Eat My dust,’ I’m gonna let you write a script. If I like that I’ll let you make it and if all that fails, I’ll let you direct the car crashes or second unit or something on another movie.'”
How he proved himself to the likes of Bette Davis. “She didn’t much like that there was this 25-year-old from a sitcom that was gonna be directing her. I was talking to her on the phone and I said ‘Well, Ms. Davis, I’ll protect you as the director and I’ll make sure that you’re prepared and your performance will not suffer.’ And she said, ‘I disagree, Mr. Howard.’ I said ‘Ms. Davis, please just call me Ron.’ And she said ‘No, I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not.’ And then [on set] I gave her a note. And she tried it, and it worked for her. And on that rehearsal, she said ‘You’re right. That works much better. Let’s shoot.’ And at the end of the whole thing, I said ‘Well, Ms. Davis, great first day, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ She said, ‘Okay, Ron, see you tomorrow,’ and she patted me on the ass.”

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