The child actor turned Hollywood power player on not being pigeonholed as a director and on his new film, the great-white-whale epic "In the Heart of the Sea"
Author Phoebe Reilly Illustration Roy Knipe
‘‘I had no idea there was an origin story for Moby-Dick,” says Ron Howard between bites of salad. It’s lunchtime on the other end of the phone. “And I’m a fan of history. But I missed that.”
Howard’s not alone: Most people believe Herman Melville’s tome about the great white whale to be rooted in myth. The director-producer’s new film, In the Heart of the Sea (out this month), aims to correct that misperception, while at the same time thrilling audiences with the overwhelming size of the sea creature.
Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name, In the Heart of the Sea depicts the tragic fate of the Essex, a ship that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, leaving its crew adrift for months and ultimately inspiring Melville’s Great American Novel. Chris Hemsworth, who stars as first mate/hero Owen Chase, brought the script to Howard after the two worked together on 2013’s Formula 1 racing drama Rush. “I didn’t think the concept was a marketing no-brainer,” says Howard. “But the story spoke to me.”
This describes Howard’s directorial approach in a nutshell. Though he epitomized an aw-shucks idealization of childhood in the ’50s and ’60s, playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, Howard has spent the majority of his career behind the camera, making films that are both commercially and critically successful.
Among his hits are the early Tom Hanks vehicle Splash, the complex historical drama Frost/Nixon, the Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind, and the blockbuster space odyssey Apollo 13, which brings me to my first question….
Hemispheres: You’ve made movies now about both the sea and outer space. Which fascinates you more?
Ron Howard: The whaling industry was largely responsible for exploration and discovery. They were the astronauts of their time! But the ocean is, to me, more visceral, and in some ways more threatening. For that reason, it’s very dramatic, and has always been an environment that I really wanted to use in a movie. I was interested in this dangerous tension between nature and man, and the shock [the sailors] felt when nature turned on them.
Hemispheres: Did you have Jaws in mind while working on this?
Howard: I felt it was more like King Kong, because this is a story about nature being pushed to its limits and retaliating. That’s what the crew of the Essex wrote in their journals. They wondered how this could have happened to them. Was this the whale turning on them? Was it God using the whale as a tool? Was it the devil? To them, it was unnatural, because it broke the laws of man’s dominance.
Hemispheres: Jaws, along with Star Wars, is credited with ushering in the era of the blockbuster following the auteur-driven early ’70s, which you participated in as the star of American Graffiti. What was your reaction to that shift?
Howard: I was excited about it, because it drove more people to the movies at a time when the industry was a bit under siege. There were a lot of studios on the brink of closing. Jaws and Star Wars kind of proved that there was a new kind of big-screen experience to be had that wasn’t Cleopatra or The Sound of Music. It’s like the fantastic boom in television right now—the discovery that these shows become like novels.
Hemispheres: Does this era of prestige television tempt you to return to the small screen?
Howard: I don’t want to get involved with something that’s going to take five or six years to tell. Movies suit my sense of adventure. Because I was an actor on television for my childhood and early adulthood, the experience of working on a movie was like going on a voyage. For me to settle in with a set of characters and really commit to running a television series, I’d have to love those characters to death and be in a position where I didn’t mind staying in one place creatively and physically.
Hemispheres: In that case, are you at all troubled by TV’s ascendance?
Howard: It’s challenging. People’s appetites just keep shifting. But I’m sensing a comeback. There are places for movies like The Imitation Game or Black Swan or American Hustle; these are sophisticated stories. And technology is making it possible to make a movie like The Martian or In the Heart of the Sea. I’ve been wanting to make a movie set in the ocean for 30 years, but I would always balk because I didn’t really feel I could do it justice. The fact that I believed I could deliver on the most ambitious version of a movie set in the open water that I ever contemplated—that’s a signal to me that the medium is going somewhere interesting and powerful.
Hemispheres: Your films are so distinct from each other. Night Shift, Cocoon, Ransom, Far and Away, How the Grinch Stole Christmas … there’s no unifying thread, genre, or style. Is that a good or a bad thing for a director?
Howard: I’m a little bit of a moving target. I know that’s been a little bit confusing for people sometimes. They go, “I liked The Grinch, I wonder what his next movie is … Frost/Nixon? Hmm.” There are some stories I’ve tackled that wound up being commercial that I didn’t necessarily believe there was an audience for. Other times, I thought there was an audience, and I was underwhelmed by the box office.
Hemispheres: Do you think critics and audiences respond better to directors with distinct styles, like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson?
Howard: Well, it’s easier. But I was always an admirer of Billy Wilder, and somewhere he said something to the effect of, “I realize I would have made a lot more money if I stayed with one genre like Hitchcock or John Ford, but I love all kinds of stories. They’re irresistible.” And I relate to that. Ultimately I don’t really think of what an audience expects of me. I’m a little bit elusive, but I ask people to trust that if they see my name on a movie, I’ve given it all that I’ve got.
Hemispheres: During your career, you’ve seen TV go from black and white to color, and movies from film to digital. What do you consider the most significant development of the last 50 years?
Howard: I’d say DVDs, which made it much easier to watch movies when, where, and how you wanted to. It created a boom in the industry. And also the growth of the global market, which has meant bigger audiences for the American market but also the expansion of many countries’ local film industries. It’s influenced people’s taste, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and this is reflected in everything: television, cable, movies.
Hemispheres: But, of course, your films aren’t made for the small screen.
Howard: If I had any frustration it would be that so many people who complimented me on Rush—and told me how exciting it was and that they didn’t think they’d care about Formula 1 racing—didn’t see it on a big screen. I’m grateful that they caught up with it, but I really wish they had gotten the full charge of seeing it at its best. I know In the Heart of the Sea is memorable, but it’s all the more so if people see it in the right venue.
Hemispheres: Has having a daughter in the business influenced any of your decisions as a director, whether in terms of seeking out better parts for women or responding to recent reports of wage disparities in Hollywood?
Howard: It’s been a tremendous awakening for me. I didn’t realize all the additional pressures on a woman in the business, and that sort of vague, fuzzy double standard that regrettably I have to admit exists. It’s not clean, because it’s such a free-market business. It’s driven by the demands of the audience and what they want to see, and that drives everybody’s salaries, so it’s not something you can be all that clear-cut about. But I certainly am more empathetic and understand what the extra challenges are for women, what the outside pressures are that men don’t really have to face.
Hemispheres: What’s been the key to evolving within the industry?
Howard: You have to remain fascinated by the process. Yes, there’s deadline pressure. Yes, there’s judgment. There’s winning and losing. But all of that is a small price to pay for a life of creative problem solving.
Phoebe Reilly has written for New York magazine, Spin, Nylon, and RollingStone.com. She resisted the urge to ask only questions pertaining to Backdraft.