Ron HOWARD has been trying to make an old-fashioned western ever since he started putting film through a movie camera.
In high school, his student films covered everything from cowboy laments to Wild West shootouts. One of his formative movie experiences was acting in 1976's "The Shootist" opposite John Wayne. In the middle of his professional career, he directed 1992's "Far and Away," but that film was more land-rush love story than Louis L'Amour gunslinger yarn. At last, Howard was going to helm "The Alamo," only to leave as the film's director over budget and creative disputes.
But as he had for 20 years, Howard refused to pack his saddlebags.
"Every time we are about to renew our contracts, Ron brings up a western," says Brian Grazer, Howard's longtime producing partner at Imagine Entertainment. "I always say, 'OK, OK,' " says Grazer, who admits he's no fan of the genre. "But I never thought he'd actually do one."
Now Howard has directed "The Missing," a turn-of-the-century drama filled with horses and cows, cowboys and Indians, bullets and arrows. It tells the story of a plainswoman named Maggie (Cate Blanchett) visited on the eve of a kidnapping crisis by her alienated -- and rather alien -- father, Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones).
From a distance, the film (opening Nov. 26) shares all the trappings of a classic western: The only thing that appears to be missing is a cattle drive. On closer inspection, though, the movie seems far less interested in frontier than in family. Its lead characters may fear rattlesnake bites, but their real worries center on the venom of failed relationships.
For all the period accouterments, in other words, "The Missing" is actually not so much an 1885 hostage saga as a deceptively contemporary tale of estrangement and reconciliation.
Perhaps Howard hasn't made his first old-fashioned western after all.
Forgetting 'The Alamo'
Many things had to go right -- and a few to go wrong -- for Howard to end up making this film.
Coming off "A Beautiful Mind," which won best picture and best director Oscars, the 49-year-old filmmaker spent several months flirting with "The Alamo," the story of the 1836 siege of the Texas garrison. Howard started assembling his dream cast (Russell Crowe was going to play Gen. Sam Houston, Ethan Hawke would be Lt. Col. William Travis), and construction commenced on a sprawling, $10-million "Alamo" set. Howard envisioned the film as a bloody R-rated epic that would cost more than $125 million.
But the Walt Disney Co., which was financing "The Alamo," had different ideas. Its executives wanted to spill much less blood and much less money. Also, having also been pilloried by the media for taking some creative liberties in chronicling mathematician John Nash's life in "A Beautiful Mind," Howard kept worrying about interpreting another true story.
"It's a daunting subject," Howard says of "The Alamo." "I spent a lot of time with historians, and I began to understand how controversial the story was inevitably going to be. I had to make some hard decisions."
He chose to walk away (John Lee Hancock took over as director, and Disney last month postponed the film's release to spring). Howard's next movie, it appeared, would be months away, directing Crowe in the Depression-era boxing story "Cinderella Man" for Universal and Miramax.
At nearly that very same time, a screenplay of "The Missing" started circulating around town. Based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Tom Eidson, screenwriter Ken Kaufman's adaptation drew early interest from Clint Eastwood. When Eastwood didn't quickly commit, Howard seized the material.
He promptly marched the script over to Universal, his home studio and the maker of almost all of his and Grazer's movies. Because "The Missing" didn't have a big cast, it would cost half of "The Alamo's" budget, or a little more than $60 million, almost a bargain these days. With just a few locations and hardly any sets to build, Howard could prepare, film and edit the movie before he began work on "Cinderella Man."
And then Universal said no, that'll be the day.
The studio felt the story was too reminiscent of "The Searchers," John Ford's 1956 rescue drama considered by many the greatest western ever made. "I was surprised and a little bit disappointed," Howard says.
He took "The Missing" to Revolution Studios, which committed on the spot. The director then set off not only to make his movie but also prove Universal wrong. "I really hope," Howard says, "that the movie goes out and makes them wish they had said yes."
From "Stagecoach" to "Lonesome Dove," classic western narratives place hard-charging men opposite long-suffering women. People don't discuss their emotions; they act on them. Eidson's 1995 novel, on the other hand, features as its center an old drunk dying of lung cancer who has abandoned his family, which includes his fiercely independent adult daughter. As parent and child work to reconcile their fractured relationship, they talk about their feelings. A lot.
Eidson based his story in part on the life of his grandmother, who homesteaded 160 acres in Kansas, and another grandparent, who contracted tuberculosis and left his family so as not to infect them.
"I know about tragic alienation among family members," Eidson says. "It's kind of a personal story. It's not accurate in factual history but in emotional history."
By virtue of living in the late 19th century, the film's characters aren't able to express themselves in Dr. Phil speak. "Psychiatry hasn't been invented yet," screenwriter Kaufman says. "So it's all about the problems you have today, without the language to describe it."
Adds Blanchett: "That's what I warmed to when Ron was first talking to me about the film. It's all of this kind of unspoken, unsentimental, subtextual emotional stuff. It's really spare."
That sparseness was not limited to the film's dialogue. As both Howard and Kaufman saw it, the novel's barren landscape and terrifying kidnapping drama didn't detract from its characters' personal struggles with separation and appeasement, but rather reinforced them.
"I've read a lot of diaries of farm women and mothers, and there are always two types," Howard says. "The ones who were breaking down, and this almost Zen-like woman, who had a deep understanding of what she needed to endure. They had this will. They wrote in their diaries, 'Baby Joseph only lived five days. I buried my third child. But Annie, my 12-year-old, and Sam, my 3-year-old, are very helpful.' They just recorded it and moved on. So while the engine of our story is a suspense-rescue drama, I felt there was a great opportunity [to deal with frontier women]."
As Kaufman adapted Eidson's novel, the story's emotional strains grew beyond Samuel and his daughter, Maggie. Kaufman added several touches: Something has fractured Maggie's romantic affair with Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart). Maggie's daughter, Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), can't wait to escape her mother's reach. And even the cavalry can't be trusted. "I've witnessed a couple of adult father-daughter relationships that are just incredibly painful," says Howard, saying that his wife, Cheryl, and her father were estranged for a period of time.
"Our family is rich with really smart, intelligent, strong-willed females," says Howard, who has three daughters and one son. "Nine of every 10 waking minutes, I love it. But they're tough. I loved the potential [in the screenplay] for the relationships to really take off, in a relatable way. I love the fact that the teenage daughter who is butting heads with the mother proves herself to be vastly more capable than anyone would have ever guessed."
Not his usual fare
If you wanted to have a conversation about the dark side of Howard's moviemaking career, it would probably be a pretty quick chat. Yes, he's dealt with mental illness ("A Beautiful Mind"), menace ("Ransom") and catastrophe ("Backdraft"). But the overarching theme of Howard's movies is joyful resolution.
"The Missing" has several heroic moments, to be sure, but it is by far Howard's grimmest movie, particularly as measured by its violence, for which it is rated R.
People are tortured. Others are hacked into pieces. The film's unsettling villain (Eric Schweig) practices dark magic that in some cases incapacitates and in others blinds and kills. Even a glimpse of frontier dentistry is stomach-turning.
"There were a few places where I felt we needed to just be shocking," the director says. "It's not nearly as graphic as you think it is. But it's scary as hell."
Many westerns lavish such cinematic praise on their landscapes you want to pack the car and visit the locations on holiday. Howard and "The Missing's" cinematographer, Salvatore Totino, made New Mexico look like a vacation from hell.
"It's harsh," Blanchett says. "And filming was quite harsh as well. I grew up watching westerns, because it was the genre my father liked. But I don't remember seeing a lot of snow. Beginning a day in snow and moving into the heat was fantastic ... [but] it's always man and woman against nature. The savageness and unforgiving nature of the landscape is really emphasized in the cinematography."
That constant inhospitality is what Howard hopes will help define his film.
"I was explaining the movie to [writer-director] John Sayles the other day and he said, 'It sounds a little bit like "The Searchers."' And I said, 'Yes, it's a lot like "The Searchers." Except for characters, scene and storyline,' " Howard says, somewhat defensively. "I just hope people will look at it as an original work and not sort of be looking to make connections [to other movies], because they are not there. It is not an hommage."
And certainly not your father's Ron Howard movie, either.