The Right Direction
Ron Howard goes mano a mano with industry multitasker Steve Martin to recall his fifty remarkable years in the business photographs by Sebastian Kim
SM: So you started acting at six on The Andy Griffith Show. Your dad, Rance, was also an actor.
RH: My dad was a good teacher. He’d never been to Strasberg, but he’d taken enough classes to understand the fundamentals—just to listen and really think about what the other person is saying and then talk. With Andy Griffith, there was an open, collaborative spirit. Andy created it that way, and I’m forever grateful, because it shaped my entire creative life. One of the things he would allow is a conversation like this.
SM: Right. Yes, Andy...he doesn’t have one dramatic moment to shine, just a solid consistency.
RH: For a kid, growing up in an environment where all the actors were allowed to actually witness the problem solving all around us—and even be encouraged to participate—was spectacular. There were a lot of laughs, but nobody ever fumbled through a scene. Nothing was ever phoned in.
BEYOND HAPPY DAYS...
RH: I chose to do Happy Days because of Vietnam. I was a film major at USC, but I had a horrible draft number, and I felt if I was employed by Gulf + Western [then owner of Paramount], they would find some way to keep me out of the jungle. Then the draft went away, Happy Days went on to be a success, and I was happy to have the job. I went out and bought a 16mm Moviola and set it in our living room. [Then new wife] Cheryl and I had a little apartment in Los Feliz. She thought it was crazy, but I thought soon I would start making a movie on the weekends. When Roger Corman wanted me to do Eat My Dust, I had some film to show him.
Happy Days turned out to be vital in a number of ways. Its success gave me the leverage and profile that was invaluable in making people listen no matter what I wanted to say—even the uncomfortable reality that I wanted to talk about directing. It made Roger Corman want me to direct for him. It exposed me to Garry Marshall and his style of leadership and introduced me to Tom Miller, one of the show’s executive producers who had actually been mentored by Billy Wilder. He was astute and articulate, and between setups, it was inspiring to talk to him. Garry is a natural teacher—and I am a natural student. Every time he had a lull in his day, he’d be making me laugh and teaching me something about the business—especially the value of editing and the way comedy is like algebra and needs to be constructed, plus invaluable stories about pitching to the network and actually selling. I saw him as the consummate problem solver. If he needed to be forceful, he was. He would check his ego at the door and be charming. It was unbelievable to see him handle the success of the show and channel peoples’ energies in a most constructive way.
At one point, when the show was transitioning, my renegotiations with the network were kind of annoying. Garry was extremely supportive. He said that moments like this, when you are dealing with disappointment, is when you are defined as a person. He would just say, “You are doing great,” and pat me on the back—really one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me. It was kind of an acknowledgment and a good piece of advice all at once, a show of respect. The choice to leave Happy Days was a big one, because the show was still top 10, and my contract was finally up, and the network was offering me a lot of money to stay. By then I was producing and directing TV movies. It was a real watershed moment, but creative opportunities and control were the driving considerations, not the financials.
SM: Those moments where you leave steady work to go out on your own are always frightening, but they’re always necessary.
THE ROGER CORMAN FACTOR...
SM: I’m curious about the years just prior to Night Shift.
RH: Roger Corman gave me this deal— I had to act in Eat My Dust in order to get a chance to direct Grand Theft Auto. He had seen a couple of my 16mm short movies and had read this script my father and I wrote—kind of like an indie movie. And he said, “That’s pretty good writing, but it’s about people, and it’s not a genre movie. It’s not really what we do here.” Then he looked at my short films and said, “But I think you can direct. If you act in Eat My Dust, I’ll let you write an outline for a script. If that works out, I’ll let you direct it, but you’ll have to be in it. If none of that works, I promise I’ll let you direct the car-crash unit in one of my films.” Well, that was as close to a firm deal as I’d come. I remember standing out on Sunset and telling my agent, “Don’t come to this meeting,” because I was going to take his bargain. I didn’t care how much I was getting paid to act in Eat My Dust if I was going to get a chance to direct. And it was a big hit.
SM: So you accidentally became a movie star?
RH: Well, it worked out!
BEHIND THE LENS...
SM: I ask myself, Why don’t I direct? I don’t think I have the stamina. I might shortcut something just to go home. That’s my biggest curiosity about directors—this stamina.
RH: Well, I think you have to have it; otherwise, it’s too miserable. And I’m finding it easier to direct. I’m less tired at the end of a movie, even though I still wake up in the middle of the night. That’s why acting is a great jumping-off place for directing. I think most experienced, intelligent actors could probably do a very decent job of directing a television show or film if they chose to. But they might not like it. And if they are miserable, they’re probably going to make lousy choices, because the clock is ticking. Even if you’re an “A” director with a lot of latitude and final cuts, you have to move through the day and get the shots. That means hundreds and hundreds of choices, and some are compromises.
SM: One time I directed two short episodes of this sitcom with Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrine [Leo & Liz in Beverly Hills]. It was the first time I’d ever directed anything, and on day one, people said, “How fast do you want the car to go?” and I said, “Uh...I don’t know. We’ll have to see.” Day two, they said, “How fast do you want the car to go?” and I said, “Uh, 25 miles per hour?”
RH: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, I know.
SM: I’ve found that the best directors I’ve worked with are the ones who understand acting, and the worst did not know how to talk to actors.
RH: I think probably if I get nostalgic about any of the films I’ve done, the best part is that creative interaction with actors. It’s incredibly exciting for me to not know the answer but be a part of the conversation that leads to it.
THE BIRTH OF PARENTHOOD...
RH: Originally, I wanted to direct this movie almost like The Kentucky Fried Movie—some sort of broadly satirical sketch. But then we said, “Let’s make it real—funny but real.”
SM: I remember when I first saw the movie, I came out thinking, Uh, everybody was so good in it, except me. I’m driving home beating myself up, and then I’m like, Wait, Ron Howard didn’t hire six really good actors and one lousy actor. I must be all right.
RH: I’d never worked with a superstar before—I mean, I’d been cautious about getting into a situation where I could find myself pushed around. So a lot of things were very exciting about Parenthood, but it was also a little daunting because it was new territory.
SM: I feel the same. Sometimes when I’m about to go on Letterman or host the Oscars or play an instrument on-stage, I think, Wait, I’ve done this a thousand times. One joke I think of when I have to make a speech is if I were to say, “You know, I’m not really used to getting up in front of people...”
TELLING TRUE TALES...
RH: Apollo 13 was a pivotal directing experience for me, because we were trying to be so truthful. At a certain point I realized I couldn’t allow myself to embellish. So instead of imploring [the audience] to be reached by this moment or that, I just trusted the narrative. And it worked.
SM: I think when I read something or watch a film that’s supposed to be historical, I always think, Was that exactly the way it was?
RH: I remember when one reviewer was upset because of a scene in Apollo 13 where the wife of Jim Lovell was nervous about him being stranded in space, and her ring fell off in the shower and she lost it. The movie was criticized for having a really manipulative moment, but it absolutely happened! I had one preview card on Apollo 13 with just this comment: “More Hollywood bulls--t. They would never survive.”
MIND OVER MATTER...
SM: How did you first become interested in the idea for A Beautiful Mind? What made you think people were going to be interested in math?
RH: How to make people interested in math was something I figured out later. Akiva Goldsman did a fantastic job [on the screenplay]. Both of his parents are shrinks, so he came up with the idea that the delusions were characters. I thought it could work if it was more a study of an illness than a story of a life. I viewed the illness as evil. I felt the journey was conquering that. I began to see it as a rescue story. That was familiar, because I’d made the same discovery in Apollo 13. And I found it moving as a husband-and-wife story.
SM: What was the sense of achievement like when you and your team won the Oscar for Beautiful Mind?
RH: It meant a great deal...but I was disappointed Russell Crowe didn’t win. It wasn’t so much, “You like me, you really like me,” because I’d felt liked for a really long time. I’m fortunate that way. You know, we had this funny moment after I’d gotten the director’s award, and I was waiting in the wings because the next one up was Best Picture. Tom Hanks was announcing Beautiful Mind winning. Brian [Grazer] hopped up onstage, and I came out from the wings, collected the awards, walked off—and immediately, I was hit with the most severe stomach cramps I’ve ever had without actually vomiting.
RH: It was burning, and my back was killing me, and I realized it had been four hours of tension being released. They told us to wait, that they were going to take us to the pressroom. I said, “Boy, my stomach hurts,” and Brian reached into his tuxedo pocket and pulled out Tums. It was like a Life Savers commercial for middle-aged men with stomach problems.
THE FROST/NIXON FOCUS...
[As we go to press, the movie has just landed Howard Oscar noms for Best Picture and Director.]
RH: This film is interesting because you’re dealing with transcripts. It turns out all the big lines, all the turning points, are virtually verbatim. So the first half of the story is about David Frost staging the event, getting Nixon to say yes, trying to get the money, failing to get the money, putting up the money himself—his struggle more as an entrepreneur than anything else.
SM: Seems like that would be some-thing you could get money for.
RH: Well, the networks wouldn’t go with Frost. They wanted their own anchors to do it. And he wanted to be the interviewer. He wound up being the first one—although we don’t quite make this point—to create a fourth network. He linked together a bunch of television stations and said, “We’ll just be our own network for a night.”
SM: Ahead of his time!
RH: I got a great bunch of film actors to take the supporting roles. I really wanted to look at the interview from other perspectives, even just fleetingly, so that if an audience couldn’t relate on a human level with characters as iconic as David Frost and Richard Nixon, they could feel something through the eyes of Kevin Bacon or Oliver Platt or Sam Rockwell—and with [writer] Peter Morgan’s blessing, I encouraged them to improvise.
SM: Tertiary characters improvising?
RH: Yes, in and around what was written. It breathed a kind of spontaneity into it. I’d never worked that way, so it was an interesting challenge.
STORYTELLING WITH STYLE...
SM: Most filmmakers make a certain type of film—you might see a Martin Scorsese film and just know it’s Scorsese. My primary observation about you is the diversity in the films you do.
RH: Well, that’s really high praise. You know, some people write about my films and find it a little frustrating. They seem to yearn for an author’s stand, but I would find it a little embarrassing to try and impose that on a story. I admire Billy Wilder. Of all the greats, I think he’s the greatest. I’m not so sure Stalag 17 and The Apartment looked the same. Or Witness for the Prosecution and Some Like It Hot. When I choose to make a film, that’s my statement, you know? Obviously there are themes and values, but it winds up being a reflection of me in a way.
SM: I think one of the hardest things to do is transition from one label to another, and you did it through stealth. In a sense, the smartest thing—
RH: Is not to talk about it too much.
IMAGINE THE FUTURE...SM: I’m curious how you and [producing partner and co-owner in Imagine Entertainment] Brian Grazer met.
RH: We met in the office of Deanne Barkley, who ran television movies at NBC. She said, “Wait a second. You guys should meet, because one of these days you’re going to be honchos in this business.” I was having a hard time cracking the studio system as a director, even though I was doing these TV movies, and I had done the Roger Corman film. Brian initiated a “lunch,” and he pitched a couple of ideas, one of which was Night Shift.
SM: Is that how you became joined at the hip professionally?
RH: During Splash, we started talking about how wonderful it would be if we could pool our energies and get some development money, so we could take an idea we believed in and at least get a screenplay without having to pitch movies. At that point, I always felt that when I went in to talk about features, I was dealt with in a very polite, respectful way, but there was a slight undercurrent of condescension. I didn’t know how to speak the language. Brian understood how to get by that first wave of doubt. We became friends in the trenches of getting these first two movies made—Night Shift and Splash.
SM: How do you deal with, “I want to do this movie” but one of you doesn’t?
RH: Uh, the other one says, “I don’t know why you want to make that.” He makes the argument—once. And if the other person says, “I hear you, but I love it,” then there’s no more whining. I wouldn’t expect Brian to throw himself into something he doesn’t love, but he’s there to produce it, support it, and I’m likewise. Anything Brian’s excited about, I’m delighted we’re doing it.
SM: Is there pressure of, “I might make a mistake with my own company”?
RH: It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes I feel like I owe us a hit. But in the last 8, 10 years, I’ve really been choosing movies because I’m fascinated by them and I believe they can be good.
THE END OF AN ERA...
RH: A few movies back—it was The Missing—it dawned on me as I was about to make the last tweak, Someday, I’m going to be sitting here, whether I’ve admitted it or not, and I’m gonna know this is my last movie. I wonder what that will feel like. It was weird that it hit me out of nowhere, and I did not like the feeling. I don’t see an end in the foreseeable future, but it was interesting to have that moment. Steven Spielberg once said to me, “When did The Andy Griffith Show start?” I said, “Oh, 1960.” And he’s like, “Wow, you’re like the Cal Ripken of our business. You’re the ironman. You’ve had this high profile for all these years, and you’ve maintained it.”
SM: I get no feeling from you that you’re on your last film.
RH: I feel like I’m just getting the hang of it. I’ve got a tremendous appetite for this process, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I think back to Akira Kurosawa, and it’s so exciting that he still made a really good movie at 80. So my mantra has always been, I want to be the first guy who directs a movie at 100.
SM: Well, I think in your case, one of your longevity secrets is variety. Just think what you’ve got there: childhood actor to actor to director to director of many different types of films. I feel like you see your future the same way I see mine. You’ll just never stop voluntarily. I think you’re, what, 55?
SM: Back when we grew up, people retired.
RH: Yeah—why would you want to?
SM: Well, depends on what you’re retiring from, you know?
STEVE MARTIN is a Grammy-winning musician and bestselling author, actor and comedian. His Pink Panther 2 is just out, and his bluegrass CD, The Crow, is now on amazon.com.