As one of the most acclaimed directors working in cinema today, Ron Howard has developed insights that can aid any filmmaker—from an award-winning auteur to a newbie filming on a smartphone.
Follow your heart before your head. Look for a story that triggers inspiration for you. You should feel an emotional connection rather than an intellectual one, and find visualizing the story—even dreaming of the story—irresistible. Be sure the story has the potential to offer something fresh and interesting to audiences and be worth their time and money. Evaluate your idea for freshness; then, look for a series of powerful moments within the story. Identify, understand, and build to those scenes. If you’ve earned it, audiences will feel the impact and want to discuss and revisit that feeling.
Seek an array of voices to break down a script. You must expose a script to extreme scrutiny. A simple and useful tool is a read-through with actors, with the screenwriter present, followed by a feedback session. Howard puts his trust in the actors’ process in the read-through, acknowledging the “x-factor” that you can gain from that first look at how an actor naturally interprets the character.
Embrace collaboration with screenwriters. On most films, both the screenwriter and director have strong visions for what the final version of a film will look like. In most cases, this is ultimately the director’s purview, but that doesn’t mean the director should be a tyrant. When it’s time to rewrite a script, Howard adapts his working style to the writer’s. Sometimes the process looks like working side by side; other times it is a series of conversations and then freeing the writer to write alone. Learning about a collaborator’s work style helps Howard create an environment in which each person excels at their craft, ultimately giving their best to the project. He’ll often defer to the writer on rewrites because he trusts that writers have lived in the ideas and themes of a script for so long that they understand it on a creative level that goes beyond the intellectual.
Audiences seek a blend of the fresh and the familiar. Howard believes that almost all stories are made of something old and something new. His goal as director is always to keep each story fresh and relevant even if the themes, characters, plot, or genre are familiar. In Splash, the genre was familiar—it’s essentially a 1930s romantic comedy—but the fantasy element of the girl being a mermaid was new, adding comedy and surprising visuals. Howard knew the plot for Cinderella Man was familiar, but when he came across the Popeye “Out to Punch” cartoon in his research, he laughed at how similar it was to the story they were telling. It pushed him to tell the story in as visceral a way as possible and to root the story in Braddock’s struggle to pull his family up and out of poverty. Meanwhile, Howard felt that the screenplay for Cocoon was promising but that it didn’t connect with audiences on a human level. His wife Cheryl has a degree in psychology and often worked with geriatric patients, observing that as humans we never really grow out of our high school psychology. Howard applied this teenage psychology to the senior citizens in the film as they began to return to youth, making the characters more relatable. With Apollo 13, Howard started with a journalistic approach, intensely researching the true story. He was primarily excited about the cinematic ways to take the audience along with the characters. As he got deeper into the project, the emotional themes that he unearthed surprised him and contributed to his attachment to the movie.
Embrace the collaboration necessary to make a film in today’s environment. The legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa shared the idea of working in a group of three with Howard. Think of a triangle made of three collaborators—the writer, director, and producer, for example. You drop a creative problem in the middle and bounce it around until you have a solution. This structure is also useful when voting ideas in and out. When filming A Beautiful Mind, Howard, Russell Crowe, and writer Akiva Goldsman worked as three to find a way to “play fair” in revealing the schizophrenia of Russell Crowe’s character, John Nash, to the audience. Akiva’s expert knowledge of the illness and Russell’s idea to gradually increase the effects in his performance gave Howard an idea he could work with as a director.
Set up your cinematographer to succeed, and they will more than return the favor. It is crucial to feel confident about your creative compatibility with your cinematographer. Have a conversation about other films they’ve done and what you visualize for your project. You want the cinematographer to feel the film the same way you do. Give them something tangible to react to, like a script, and let them talk about how they naturally begin to visualize the film. When you begin working with the right cinematographer, don’t be intimidated by the photography. Talk to them about what you want audiences to feel and trust them to push the language of cinema in your project. Howard first learned how to use light as a character in his films on the set of A Beautiful Mind from his director of photography, Roger Deakins. Deakins reflected the psychology of the characters in each sequence with his lighting techniques. In Splash, cinematographer Don Peterman pushed Howard to not sell the romantic comedy genre short and still make it visual by playing with telephoto lenses, long lenses, super wide shots, handheld, and low angles. Variety is energizing to audiences. Salvatore Totino taught Howard about using different lens sizes and different generations to demonstrate how different textures can give an audience different feelings.
When it’s time to edit, be brutally honest. Howard urges brutal honesty in the editing process. It’s when you have to leave the story you hoped you were shooting and instead look at the raw material you actually have. Be open to the possibilities that the footage offers. It is necessary to tell your editor your basic expectations for your working relationship. Do you want to direct the editor to your sense of how scenes should be put together or do you want to open it up to the editor’s instincts? A good editor is proficient, professional, hardworking, able to take direction, and has good, solid taste. A great editor is all that plus an upgrade to superb taste and a creative eye—available to spot new ideas to present to the director. Howard emphasizes the value of showing your edit to an audience for feedback. You might be surprised by the way moments of confusion for the audience can lead you to a new, more creative version of a scene. It’s also helpful to watch films you love with the sound off to pinpoint inspiring edits. Prepare yourself for the first cut to be brutally long, difficult to watch, and potentially even heartbreaking. Then, do the unsettling but essential work of opening up problems to discover solutions—you might even find a little thrill in the results.