Curiosity has been anything but a killer for that ageless cat, Ron Howard, who with fellow Imagine Entertainment chairman Brian Grazer has let his thirst for understanding guide the projects he directs.
But only on rare occasions has that curiosity propelled Howard into the documentary world. Serving as an executive producer and director on National Geographic Channel’s small-screen “Breakthrough” series provided an irresistible opportunity for an exception.
“It hasn’t been as drastic an adjustment,” Howard says. “I have done, I guess, five or six movies inspired by real events, starting with ‘Apollo 13,’ so I’ve had some experience over the last 20 years. I like the narrative structure you inherit. In an interesting way, it generates another level of creativity.
“It’s exciting to see what I can apply of my past experience and my sensibilities — more than I expected — but also what I am learning.”
It was a juggling act. Howard didn’t have a discrete block of time to devote to “Breakthrough,” because of his work helming Tom Hanks starrer “Inferno” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” the adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book on the crew of a troubled whaling ship in the 1820s.
When Howard had to settle on one subject for the single episode he would direct, he chose to explore how science is tackling the question of aging.
“It’s such a universal subject, very inescapably human, and I felt like people young and old consider it and are affected by it,” he says.
Though the content is understandably wide-ranging, there is a linchpin of a plot point that, he says, spoke to the dramatist in him: an attempt by leading scientists to persuade the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to classify aging as a specific area of research for which treatment drugs could be approved.
“We were able to focus in on something that felt like a potential turning point — and I wasn’t necessarily expecting that,” he says. “I was surprised at the complexity and the emotional and intellectual endurance required of the health community and science community to decide to tackle these things. It’s heroic in a way.”
To humanize the subject, he focused a subplot on a scientist and his wife, and their difficult choice of how aggressive a treatment path they would take toward dealing with her life-threatening condition.
“That story and the heartbeat of that couple, I found incredibly poignant and relatable,” Howard says, “because it’s so easy to get lost in what’s going on in the clinic and the lab, that it becomes more of a concept than an urgency.
“I never wanted to lose sight of what it means, the ticking clock in all of us, in all of our families, that yearns for more knowledge, more insight, a better strategy.”
Howard and his team also found Laura Deming, who began studies at MIT at age 14 — and then dropped out to work full time as the youngest researcher on aging anywhere.
“You can close your eyes and wish all you want for some dramatic twist or turn, but you’ve got to deal with the truth as you record it, as you see it,” Howard says. “But that’s also the beauty of working with true stories … whether movies as an adaptation, or documentary, where you have to be all the more rigorous of sticking with the truth. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s more dramatic. And you don’t have people rolling their eyes and saying that would never happen. It invites an audience to engage and lean in in ways that are much different from (movies).”