Ron Howard certainly falls into the category of a national treasure beginning with his role as America’s favorite kid, Opie, on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Since that time, that little kid from Duncan, Oklahoma, co-starred in a variety of episodic television shows as well as directing Emmy-award winning programs. He made his feature film directing debut with “Grand Auto Theft” subsequently working with some of the most famous Hollywood actors, including Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, and Bill Paxton. He has directed some of the film industry’s most memorable films including, “Cocoon,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Cinderella Man,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “Apollo 13,” which garnered the Best Director Oscar.
Your reporter sat down with this brilliant director for an exclusive interview to discuss his latest film, “Pavarotti,” a documentary on the life, times, and struggles of one of the world’s most famous tenors. A CBS Films Polygram Entertainment Brian Grazer presentation, the film is an Imagine Entertainment and White Horse Pictures production and is scheduled to open in select cities on June 7.
The following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
You’ve made two successful documentaries: “Made in America” and
“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.” Why a documentary on Pavarotti?
Ron Howard: I was drawn to his personal and professional journey, which I thought was inspiring and very dramatic and a great human-interest story. He had missteps and foibles but at the end of the day, I felt there was an interesting paradox with this very common, earthy guy performing at that high level for so many years. The film is a blend of his life and what I could reveal about opera, what it takes to sing opera, and what opera can mean on an emotional level. I could offer audiences something a little surprising. That’s what drew me to make the film.
When you were doing your research and interviewing people, did you discover something that surprised you?
Ron: It was interesting to understand the way he navigated in the world. So on one hand, he was not an innocent, but he wanted people to like him and he wanted to make people feel comfortable. At the same time, he was a shrewd businessman and he cared about the deals. I was surprised at the way his career sort of flattened out. He went into a period of a kind of a malaise wherein he cancelled appearances and was just down in general in the wake of some romances that didn’t work out. His marriage was really over but he didn’t feel he could get a divorce. Being Catholic and Italian made a divorce highly problematic for him and his family.
Was it easy to get cooperation from his family?
Ron: I didn’t interview his first wife Adua Veroni because I don’t speak Italian and I was directing “Solo – A Star Wars Story” at that time. I think the family was incredibly courageous. They gave us all a gift – not by just offering insight into Luciano – all his foibles and all his disappointments – but also by giving us an object lesson in forgiveness. I didn’t expect that. None of us expected that to come out of those interviews and it wasn’t just Adua, it was also the daughters.
Did someone in Pavarotti’s life impact him in a positive way?
Ron: I was surprised that Princess Diana, who I had an opportunity to meet a couple of times over the years and actually talked to her, had a deep effect on him. Her dedication to philanthropy seemed to reinvigorate him in a way and he took that on himself. That was something that came out of the interviews.
What is it about documentaries that you find particularly exciting?
Ron: I always enjoyed them and they satisfy my curiosity. They’re related to a lot of the narrative stories that I’ve done – the ones that are either based on real events or they’re fiction and meant to depict the world like the movie “The Paper.” I wanted the journalism to feel realistic even though it was a fictional story. There’s a lot of research involved. I always found that fascinating and as I’ve done that, it’s made me more and more curious about what it would be like to make a documentary and take on that responsibility. In the three films I’ve done, I’ve had fantastic collaborators who were helping me understand that discipline. I find it very satisfying. It’s a departure in some ways from what I do when I’m directing a scripted narrative piece, but they’re more related than I expected it to be.
What is the difference between making a narrative film vs. a documentary?
Ron: Basically, you’re skipping over the production side with a documentary and going right to post. Whenever I’m in post production, I always forget about what it was like to shoot and just look at what we have and try to explore what its virtues are and what it can be. Actually, the big difference is that the story has to kind of define itself for you based on the acquired footage and what the interviewees have to say. So, you have your goals, you’ve done your research, you start thinking about what the story is going to be, but you can’t be sure. It does sort of present itself. When you’re working on a scripted project, you have a lot more editorial control over what it is you want to say and how you want to work with the story to say it. In this case, Pavarotti’s spirit informed every interview and even if they were acknowledging warts and disappointments, the take-away was always that the scales dipped dramatically to the positive. His spirit, and his sense of giving were pure and something everyone respected and appreciated.
Your film definitely fulfills his wish to bring opera to the masses.
Ron: Thank you. If we accomplished that, I’d feel that we have helped Luciano Pavarotti to fulfill his agenda.
Thank you so much for a gracious interview.
Ron: Nice interview. Thank you.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in which Ron Howard discusses transitioning from actor to director, how he chooses his scripts, and his directing approach.