Ron Howard began his career as a child actor: most notably on Happy Days and The Andy Griffith Show. He used that to effortlessly segue into one of the most storied directing careers in Hollywood history. His work includes the likes of Apollo 13, Cocoon, Willow, Backdraft, The Da Vinci Code and A Beautiful Mind, for which he won the Oscar. He turns his attention to the Star Wars universe this Friday with Solo: arriving in the midst of a troubled production to complete the project and put Han Solo’s early adventures onscreen in the manner they deserve. He spoke about the project, and its challenges, at a recent press day for the film.
Question: You’re no stranger to big movies, but how was making a Star Wars movie different from your previous efforts?
Ron Howard: It’s the level of anticipation, really. It’s unlike anything I’ve done, even some pretty big titles with a lot of audience interest going in. I’m at a point in my life where I like experimenting. I like taking chances. I’m not too worried about the outcome. Then I signed onto this, and the moment it was announced, it was suddenly, “Ron don’t fuck this up!” It was similar to a Beatles documentary I took on a while ago. Suddenly, you have expectations on you. Star Wars is huge. It’s very important to a lot of people. And they have a right to certain expectations. It’s our job to make sure we meet them. That was the biggest difference.
Q: What got you excited about this, besides the fact that you get to make a Star Wars move.?
RH: I’m very excited about the character relationships. This is a little bit different than the other movies: it’s this one guy’s adventure story. In some ways it’s similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Larry [Kasdan] also wrote. It is a single hero’s journey. There’s a lot of fun in that journey and there are a lot of twists and turns, but it’s really about that character.
Every movie is about characters and on that ground, I felt pretty confident. What surprised me was how complicated and exciting and fun it was to stage the big action scenes, which is something that I hadn’t done in a long, long time. And they were complicated and sometimes it was hard. But that’s where making a Star Wars movie really helped. It became exciting. It became a challenge. How do we make these action scenes be cool? How could we make them worthy of Star Wars and worthy of a character like Han Solo. And that brought it back to the character. What does this tell us about Han Solo? How does it affect his point of view. It sort of defined the way the action scenes would be cut. And the big surprise for me is what a blast it was, to do this action.
Q: Were the effects a challenge? You had both practical effects and CGI here…
RH: As great as visual effects and CGI is, you always want to go with practical, in-camera effects first. With the Millennium Falcon and the great sets and so forth, the approach here always was to try to get as much in-camera as you could, and then build. That’s what’s so magical and amazing about ILM and what they can do: they made the experience as palpable and immersive as it could possibly be. It’s a blast. The people around a movie like Solo are so dedicated to not just what’s existed before, but what else they could do within that framework, within that universe. It’s unbelievably stimulating for a filmmaker. Bradford Young did a great job. The look, which is a little different than, than the movies have looked before and an esthetic, you know, that I thought was incredibly exciting.
Q: You came to this project late. Can you talk to us about some of the challenges that such a position entailed?
RH: The heavy lifting was really done by the time I came on board. Larry and Jon had written a great screenplay and the casting had preceded me. That was all locked down. I wouldn’t have come onboard without that: it would have been a disaster. I love collaborating. Film is a collaborative process. And when you have the Kasdans and this cast rallying behind you, the opportunity was right there: the chance to deliver something audiences can really enjoy. So it was always just, “what can this scene be? What else can it be? What are the other choices?”
I’m a fan like a lot of us are. I watched those first movies, and what George Lucas gave us all with the same sense of amazement. But I’m not encyclopedic. I don’t know everything about this universe. I haven’t seen everything. I haven’t read everything. So I came into this situation and immediately started working more off of instinct than anything else. I immediately said, “I’m going to treat this like it’s a true story.” I’ve done a lot of true stories. And I always have technical advisors around. So I go for the heart. I go for the drama, the excitement of the narrative, of the story. Then I let the technical advisors tell me what I might be overlooking or what parts of this universe need to fit in the right way. And that’s honestly the way I approached this.
Q: And you still found a role for your brother Clint. [Editor’s note: Clint Howard is a successful character actor who often appears in his brother’s films.]
RH: Well, it was pretty damn easy. When I came on, there were still a few things that needed nailing down, and they gave us a chance to explore. L3 [a prominent droid played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge] is a fairly angry character. I was talking with the Kasdans and we agreed that she needed somebody to be pissed off at. And I said, “My brother!” He is kind of easy to be pissed off at. And he’s kind of funny when he’s doing it.
I love working with him. He’s a great character actor. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s a great team player and he’s not in all my movies because if there’s not something really juicy and fun for him to do, then of course, I don’t cast him. But in this case I knew it would be fun.
Q: Warwick Davis is here too.
RH: What a great guy. He did Willow with me, but he’d been an Ewok before that. He’s one of those people I mentioned earlier, who just knows Star Wars. He’s a tradition and another master. He helped out with a lot of it. He loves it. He worked with the droids and some of the little things. Lucasfilm is smart enough to bring him in and not only play a character, but also help with coaching and figuring out some of these behaviors. It’s part of what makes Star Wars so special: that idea that every little background character on the screen has a story to tell. He’s a really creative guy and an old friend. It’s great to reunite with him.