Over the course of a 30-year career behind the camera, Ron Howard has released an array of films, from such dramas as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Frost/Nixon” to action films like “Backdraft,” comedies such as “Parenthood” and those that touch on several genres at once, like “Apollo 13.” His latest, “In the Heart of the Sea,” opening Dec. 11, examines issues of morality and spirit within the context of a historical seafaring epic.
This fascination with multiple platforms for storytelling has earned Howard box office success, as well as two Oscars, four Emmys, a Directors Guild of America Award and a host of additional laurels, including his second star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that he will receive Dec. 10.
If there’s a unifying element in Howard’s film career, it is his adherence to the story at the core of each project.
“I’m always attracted to stories on a thematic level, or a set of themes,” Howard says. “I feel like if I can identify them, understand the questions they raise, and if I think I have the answer, offer that. And if not, I try to discover that.” In his search to uncover the truths of his stories, Howard has found that his curiosity can bring to light deeper issues that in turn, inform and expand the development of the project in ways beyond simply cementing plot points. “In the greatest situations, you develop more questions than you can actually address,” he says. “You wind up discussing aspects of the human experience that you wouldn’t otherwise have time to (address), and that’s fascinating and sometimes surprising.”
Brian Grazer, Howard’s longtime producing partner and co-chairman of their production company, Imagine Entertainment, notes that Howard’s focus resonates with audiences.
“The canvas (of a film) always comes first,” Grazer says. “I’ll say to him, ‘Don’t you have to live inside these characters?’ And he’ll say, ‘No, I’m a filmmaker. I make movies about stories.’”
In investigating the world of the story, Howard gives his characters dimension to breathe and grow into memorable figures — the troubled math genius John Nash in “Beautiful Mind,” the obsessive racers in “Rush,” even the Grinch, whose malevolent exterior hides a wounded heart in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” As Grazer says, “He has a unique skill of bringing his understanding of humanity — that it’s not black and white, but gray — into characters. That creates multidimensional characters in interesting movies that he’s able to conquer.”
Howard’s fascination with storytelling began when his primary career was still acting. He began appearing in films and on television at the age of 5, and found initial stardom as Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960 to 1968. The role became emblematic for Howard, and he continued to play wholesome young men in “American Graffiti” and on “Happy Days.” As Howard became aware that his acting career was on a singular track, he began looking outside its borders for other means of fulfillment. He found it in directing.
“Virtually all of the directors on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ had been actors, and my father, (actor) Rance Howard, directed a lot of theater, so that was a natural progression in my mind,” he says.
At the same time, Howard was delving deeply into the new American cinema of the period — films like “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Conversation” — which piqued his curiosity.
“I began to see these movies could transport you in a way that I never felt from watching a TV show, and a director’s role was at the center of that,” he says.
His career behind the camera began with short films featuring his family, including brother Clint, who’s a character actor. Film studies at USC gave him additional experience before Howard made his feature directorial debut with “Grand Theft Auto,” a low-budget action film for producer Roger Corman, in 1977.
But even with a movie under his belt, Howard felt the same degree of limitation he had found as an actor was creeping into the directorial projects he was offered.
“I worked on the kind of films that people would let me tackle, which were comedies or youth-oriented projects, because that’s what people could wrap their heads around for me to direct,” he says. “I had been typecast as an actor, and I didn’t want that to be my experience as a director.”
So Howard let interest and instinct be his guide, and he began to explore more complex concepts in his films. He’s still asking the big questions in his latest work. “In the Heart of the Sea,” which concerns the real-life case of a whale sinking a 19th-century ship that inspired “Moby-Dick,” allowed him to touch on both global and personal issues.
“The story was so relatable and modern, because whale oil was the energy industry of its time, and it was doing a lot of good. It was lighting the world,” Howard says. “But what was the price? This brutal industry of hunting whales. And as much as these men could reconcile themselves to it, when the whale attacked them, they all wondered if it was punishment. It made me wonder if there was an aspect to humanity that even as it engages in brutal behavior, they have to ask the question, ‘Am I crossing some line here?’ I wanted to infuse our story with those questions.”
As Howard continues to investigate the human heart in his films, his interest in telling stories draws him to other media. Efforts to this end include the revived “Arrested Development” for Netflix, documentaries like “Made in America,” about the eponymous music festival founded by Jay Z, and the National Geographic Channel science series “Breakthrough.”
“Film is an emotional medium,” he says. “And emotion trumps intellect (in storytelling), but the two have to be there. If you can link those two things and create an experience that for audiences that grips them, that’s the key.”