At the moment, it would seem Ron Howard has a lot to fret about.
On Tuesday, the forever young-looking baby boomer who still embodies the boyish charm of the Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham TV characters he immortalized, turns 40.
Just three weeks from now, the child star-turned-top drawer-director’s latest movie, “The Paper,” an ensemble comedy drama set in the world of tabloid journalism, opens.
And, despite any success he’s had with all-American mainstream comedies, he’s yet to prove he can make deeper meaning movies and must feel the urgency to stretch like Steven Spielberg, who after decades of hit popcorn pictures has only just arrived on the serious front.
Well, apparently, Howard doesn’t feel much personal or professsional pressure, though his close friends and associates will tell you there’s no one more driven and competitive than he.
“He is very happy with his lot in life,” says producer Brian Grazer of his best pal and partner, who’s directed such popular films as “Parenthood,” “Cocoon” and “Splash” and, more recently, the less successful outtings “Backdraft” and “Far and Away.”
Howard, says Grazer, “doesn’t see 40 as being any kind of threshold in his life. And even though he really wants ‘The Paper’ to do well, he doesn’t think any one movie is going to (adversely) affect his collective body of work.” The producer says Howard is “convinced he’s going to live the career and life of a Billy Wilder, where he’ll still be vital and shooting when he’s 80.”
Ask Howard if he’s concerned about aging or any unrealized career goals, and he’ll convincingly tell you he’s in no particular hurry. This is a guy obviously very comfortable in his own skin.
Even arriving 30 minutes late for a lunch interview last week at a posh New York restaurant, he appeared relatively unrattled and confident that his sincere-sounding apology for being detained by a TV taping was enough to pacify a reporter.
Ordering tomato juice with a lemon slice, he eased into a conversation about the advantages of living 3,000 miles away from the Hollywood madness with his wife Cheryl and their four children, Bryce, 13; nine-year-old twins Jocelyn and Paige; and Reed, 6. “I wanted to find a place to raise the kids that is not dominated by the entertainment buisness,” explains Howard, who grew up in Burbank, California and says it was his wife of 19 years who “ultimately twisted my arm” to move to the East Coast in 1985.
Still, Howard considers himself bicoastal, being he travels twice a month to Los Angeles, where his and Grazer’s movie company, Imagine Films Entertainment, is based. “I really enjoy the time away and I also have a wonderful time when I go to L.A.,” says Howard, noting, “I work my ass off but I also socialize like crazy.”
From his perspective, Hollywood hasn’t changed much over the years, but for the “enhanced media coverage,” which he believes has made L.A. “an even more nerve-racking place.” Such intense focus on Hollywood admittedly makes him nervous. “If you’re in the middle of it, it feels like your value is being measured on a daily or weekly basis.” Taking particular exception to the way boxoffice results and TV ratings are reported, Howard bemoans: “Every mistep becomes a big story, so you feel a little more vulnerable.”
Mostly, the press has been very kind to Howard. That is until last year when he found himself and his expensive Irish epic “Far and Away” attacked, with some critics accusing him of being a David Lean wanna-be. The film, which cost $60 million before marketing, grossed around $60 million domestically and $130 million worldwide, but was widely characterized as a colossal disappointment. “It was pretty painful,” recalls Howard. “I kept thinking what am I going to do when I have an actual, bonafide flop-which is more or less inevitable?”
Howard may criticize the media for falling prey to what he calls “the easy story,” but as the former co-editor of his high school paper and someone who once considered pursuing journalism in college, the filmmaker has great respect for the Fourth Estate.
It’s why he jumped at the chance to make a film on the subject when the right script came along. During a fortuituos meeting with David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”), he learned the writer was close to completing a script with his brother Stephen Koepp (a senior editor at Time Magazine) about 24 hours in the life of a newspaper.
“The Paper,” said the director, “was very much what I was looking for having done two movies (‘Backdraft’ and ‘Far and Away’) where the directorial challenges were more logistical than anything else...I was eager to do a movie dominated by strong performances hopefully given by great actors.” He got his wish with an ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and Randy Quaid.
“What I liked about the script was I found the human situations to be born of a very relatable truth,” says Howard. “The dynamic of pressure that the characters were feeling in their personal and professional lives was something that I found funny and emotional.” The issue of deadlines, he viewed as the perfect metaphor for what people go through in real daily life. Perhaps still stinging from the press beating he took over “Far and Away,” Howard brought “The Paper” in at $31 million, about $1.5 million under budget and eight days ahead of schedule. The film shot entirely in New York, mainly in a Manhattan office building that doubled as the authentic looking newsroom for the story’s ficticious paper the New York Sun. “We created our own strucutre for the Sun based on an amaglamation of what we were observing at the Daily News and the New York Post,” said Howard, who did a month of on-site research, sitting in on editorial meetings and picking the brains of journalists, including the Post’s former editor and columnist Pete Hamill.
While hanging out at the Post, the paper went through a tumultuous period when new owners and staffers flew in and out the door at lightning speed. He wound up spending more time at the News when a number of Post reporters defected there. One of the most compelling incidents he observed was when a News reporter got a tip from a secondary source that Darryl Strawberry was going to be investigated by the IRS. “They were literaly pacing and pulling their hair out and pushing back deadlines,” recalls Howard, “but all they had was a secondary source.” They knew they had “the perfect New York City tabloid story, but they also said ‘if we’re wrong, it’s terrible...but, dammit I wish I knew if the Post was going with this.”’
The paper finally held the story and broke it exclusively two days later when it could be substantiated. “It was really interesting to see these guys suffer with this choice. It was an ethical question, but also a question of the competition.”
Both Grazer and Howard know “The Paper” is not a movie that can be easily sold on concept alone, but rather on word of mouth. To that end, Perry Katz, marketing chief for the film’s distributor Universal Pictures, said the movie will be screened extensively for press and opinion makers and on March 18 will open for an exclusive run in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Chicago. The next day Universal will sneak the picture in bout 800 theaters, then follow on March 25 with a wide release. Howard admits that while several of his films, probably “The Paper” more than the others, touches on some serious issues, he hasn’t really taken the full plunge dramatically yet. “I keep sort of sticking my toe in and doing sequences with no bells and whistles and no structured jokes...I’m just kind of testing a lot of different areas as a director as I go along.”
He asks, “Do I want to do a ‘Schindler’s List?’ Yeah, but I don’t have that project on my shelf like Steven did for 10 years.” There are however, a couple of movies Imagine is developing that are “much more serious,” though not exactly issue-oriented. One Howard is seriously considering directing next (pending the right cast), is tentatively called “13" (formerly “Lost Moon”), based on the true story of the near disastrous 1970 Apollo 13 moon mission. Former Newsweek editor Bill Broyles and Al Reinert adapted the screenplay from a book by astrouaut James A. Lovell Jr. (commander of the Apollo crew) and Jeffrey Kluger.
Howard, who choses to only direct one film every summer, is also considering “The Postman,” to star Tom Hanks; a remake of “Treasure Island”; and a thriller set in a South America prison called “Caged.” He’ll also quench a longtime thirst to make a movie about the controversial subject of capital punishment when next year he directs a movie version of John Grisham’s soon-to-be published book “The Chamber,” about a guy on death row who’s exhausted his final appeals and the lawyer who comes to his aid turns out to be his grandson.
And while he eventually wantd to direct an issue-oriented picture, he says, “I’m also not stumbling over myself to search for that particular quality. I’m not looking for the Oscar movie.” His gameplan is “to just patiently go about the business of making as many good movies as I can and I don’t think I can manipulate it beyond that.”
Howard says while he hasn’t “entirely given up on my drive to be all things to all people, I feel it’s fading.” He says he looks forward to the decade of his fifties, “when I can use everything I’ve learned to really push the limits a little more and be less cautious.”