Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Eat His Dust

By Marjorie Baumgarten

MARCH 29, 1999:  Gee, here's the real skinny: Ron Howard, in person, is every bit as sweet and nice and inquisitive and relaxed as his public persona appears to be -- at least if my 15 minutes of conversation with him last week is any true gauge. So often when encountered in real life, celebrities, through no fault of their own, fail to meet our falsely inflated expectations, our media-fed illusions of who they should be.

Anyone born in the post-television era has grown up knowing Ron Howard intimately because of his iconic starring roles in two hit TV series, The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. This presumed familiarity might seem like a trap, but there Howard was, sitting across from me, laughing genially, and tossing back kernels of popcorn one by one from a big bowl thoughtfully placed in front of him by solicitous handlers. But more than the TV shows, I was interested in learning more about Ron Howard the filmmaker, the director whose career I have followed since his debut in 1977 helming the Roger Corman car-crash spectacle Grand Theft Auto. Others that followed include Night Shift, Splash, Cocoon, Parenthood, Backdraft, The Paper, Apollo 13, Ransom, and several others.

Howard and a sizable entourage of his new movie's all-star cast (among them Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Ellen DeGeneres, Elizabeth Hurley, Sally Kirkland, and Martin Landau) flew into Austin by private jet for the premiere of EDtv, which opens today in theatres across the country. It was the night following the L.A. premiere and they were all clearly tired but gracious. The screening at the Paramount Theatre was a benefit for the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund (presented by the Austin Film Society, SXSW Film, and The Austin Chronicle), though there was some doubt during the planning stages whether Universal Pictures would sanction the Paramount as its venue of choice because of its less-than-state-of-the-art sound system. However, Howard was encouraged to screen there by McConaughey, who has attended many a premiere at the theatre, and Landau, who performed on its stage in the early Eighties. Then Harry Knowles and his aint-it-cool-news Web site got into the picture by posting an impassioned open letter to Howard citing the reasons EDtv should premiere at the Paramount. Howard responded to it within 24 hours and he, McConaughey, and Universal soon became the inaugural donors to a campaign to upgrade the Paramount Theatre's technical facilities.

Austin Chronicle: First of all, we'd like to thank you, Universal Pictures, and Matthew McConaughey for the financial donations you made toward the permanent upgrade of the Paramount Theatre's sound system.

Ron Howard: My contribution was really modest, although I did a little arm-twisting (laughs). But when I started talking to Matthew about it, after I logged on and saw this open letter from Harry Knowles, that was the first I had heard about the whole dilemma. And then I talked to Matthew and could see that he was really into doing something about it.

I'm really excited about the screening tonight because I'm dying to see the movie with an audience someplace other than Los Angeles or New York and I haven't had any screenings. I can't change anything, it's no longer a work in progress, but I'm real eager to see how it plays, if it plays any differently.

AC: EDtv's central cast members, apart from McConaughey, are all TV veterans, which is an interesting twist on the movie's theme of reality television. Did you intentionally cast actors who, like yourself, were familiar with the price of TV fame?

RH: That is sort of an odd coincidence, although on some subliminal level these folks had that working for them as we were trying to decide on casting. But I haven't done a comedy in a few years and it was really nice to be able to get people who could contribute so much. I think that had more to do with it than anything. People who were a good fit, for whatever reason, and people who could create on their feet and make the movie funnier. They brought a lot to it.

AC: In casting, you've always shown a great loyalty to your family and people you've worked with before.

RH: Yeah, there are people I love to work with. Donny Most is in this and I've been meaning to work with him for a long time, but I always thought it would be kind of a distraction. But here it's almost an in-joke, so it works pretty well.

AC: Your brother Clint is in it ...

RH: Thank god.

AC: ... as always.

RH: Well, not as always, because in Ransom [Howard's last movie] ... he wasn't in Ransom and I started hearing from his fans. You know, he's got a Web site too. He's a cult favorite. And there's a terrific role for him in EDtv. He plays a director, kind of a hairy wiseass director of this TV show who doesn't even seem to think it's much of a good idea. He's really just kind of sour about it all the whole time. So Clint's a valuable cutaway for a wisecrack at various times. His reactions get some of the bigger laughs. [Clint Howard is the character highlighted in the film's trailer complaining about his hair plugs.]

AC: It must be so difficult to be an A-list director at this point in your career and have this whole other world that just relates to you as Opie or Richie.

RH: I know. But if I felt like it was creating any sort of problem or barricade, if it was putting a ceiling on the kind of work I could do, then I think I would be very frustrated by it. I think if it creates a limitation anywhere it might be in some factions of the media where there might be sort of a TV-snob thing that runs almost subconsciously, but I don't really believe it exists. I believe that I'm pretty much allowed to work with whoever I want to work with under any circumstance, and that's great -- to be able to work with De Niro, Steve Martin, Cruise, Hanks.

AC: Some actors have done some of their best work with you. For instance, Daryl Hannah never had a gift equal to Splash.

RH: Thank you, thank you. (laugh) I love actors and I love what actors can bring to a movie. I mean, they really are the director's best friend and not to be feared.

AC: Given your background, you must have a special affinity for actors.

RH: Yeah, I do, I like to coach them along. I think I do understand. It's fun to coax them. What's really fun for me about EDtv is that Matthew McConaughey not only holds down the center of the movie, but he really creates a very entertaining, realistic, but engaging and funny character. And you really haven't seen that from him before. In Dazed and Confused, he was funny, but in a very narrow, specific way. This is a guy who has to be at the center of the movie. He's got to be romantically interesting and comedic, he's got to be physically funny, he's got to be a wiseass at times, and he's got to have some genuine moments of pain, and so it's a very ambitious role and I'm so happy with the way Matthew comes off in the movie.

And Matthew certainly related to the subject matter. When Matthew was having a meeting with my partner Brian Grazer about something else altogether, he was pouring out a Coke and spilled some. And he's kind of looking around for a napkin and couldn't find any and Brian got distracted and turned around to take a phone call or something and he heard this slurping sound. He turned back and Matthew was just kind of slurping the Coke up off the table and wiping it with his sleeve. And Brian came to and said, "This guy is loose and funny and he'll do anything. There may be a side to this guy that is Ed."

AC: Did you make a conscious choice in advance to do comedy this time around?

RH: I had been looking to do a comedy but there was no hard, fast rule in my mind; I don't pick by genres ultimately, I pick by stories. But it sure was great to get back to making a comedy. It's just fun to hear an audience laugh. And also the day-in, day-out work of trying to communicate what you think is interesting about the story, but communicate it through laughter, is really fun. It can be maddening at times, but when those actors get rolling and the material's good and the timing of the camerawork is clicking, you can have a lot of laughs when you're making a film.

AC: By the way, you were robbed on Apollo 13. [Although the movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, its director, Ron Howard, was not nominated].

RH: Well, thank you. I appreciate you saying that. But, you know, I'd love to pick up a "golden boy" as Mel [Gibson -- who won the Best Picture and Best Director awards that year for Braveheart, during the same time he was in production as the star of Howard's next movie Ransom] dubbed them, but I just decided a while back that that's not something you can target, you know. Because you spend a year and a half working on a film, and if you're really lucky you're getting to work on stories that mean something to you, that you think are interesting and involving. Not everyone has that luxury, but I do. And that's what's important. And if you started saying, "Well I guess I understand the movie but what I really think is that it's an Oscar contender," I think that would be a misguided way to choose a movie.

AC: You've also been doing a lot of producing through your company Imagine Entertainment. To what extent are you involved in these projects?

RH: I'm more a friend of the court, kind of a consultant. I contribute sort of "as needed" and throw my two cents in on the story and the marketing campaign and those kind of things, but every once in a while there will be a little creative or business emergency and I really come in focus. But otherwise, I don't focus on the other projects too much.

AC: What's happening with Imagine's project, How to Eat Fried Worms, which is listed in the trades as filming in Austin sometime in the future?

RH: That one I am working on. I have very high hopes. Paramount is doing it along with Nickelodeon and they tell us they remain very interested and Tommy Schlamme wants to direct it and so it's in rewrites right now and we hope it gets made. I think it will.

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