Ron Howard has been on movie sets since he was 18 months old. He became a child star playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show throughout the '60s. He then became a household name starring as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days in the '70s. But his lifetime of experience on sets was the very reason Howard thought he might not achieve his true dream: Directing.
"People didn't go from sitcoms to becoming A-list moviemakers in that time," he recalls. "People were patting me on my head and thinking it was cute that this kid actor thought he could one day be a director. There weren't a lot of kid actors that even lasted beyond their childhood and sustained adult careers. So, I could see why they were skeptical, but I found that attitude patronizing, reductive, and frustrating."
Not only would Howard go on to become a filmmaker — making his feature directorial debut with 1977's Grand Theft Auto — but he has directed some of the most popular and acclaimed films of his generation: Movies like Splash (1983), Parenthood (1989), Backdraft (1991), Apollo 13 (1995), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), Cinderella Man (2005), and Rush (2013), to name but a few. He won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture with 2001's A Beautiful Mind, earning two more dominations in the same categories with 2008's Frost/Nixon.
Below, Howard shares with A.frame the filmmakers that fueled his drive to direct, as well as the five films that have most influenced his own work. "Please don't ask me to prioritize these," he says. "It was tough enough to narrow it down to five!"
Directed by: Frank Capra | Written by: Sidney Buchman
I had read Frank Capra's autobiography, The Name Above the Title, which galvanized my passion to overcome all obstacles and become a filmmaker. I was probably 17 when I read this book, and I'd been making short films and telling anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a director. But, finishing that book, I not only began to be a student of Capra, but I really threw down the gauntlet and said, 'I don't hope to be a director. By God, I am going to be a filmmaker.'
I watched a lot of Frank Capra movies. This was pre-videotape, so you'd have to set your alarm and get up at 3 o'clock in the morning to watch the movie, which I did. And the one that just knocked me out was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was this blend of values that I really appreciated and understood. It was funny. It was heartwarming. But underneath it, it really packed a punch. It was cautionary and critical of politics in its own theatrical way.
I recognized that there were so many different ways a feature film could actually entertain and engross. For the most part, the movies I had been exposed to were broad and funny, with a moral to the story, but a sweet one. Not much darkness, not much edge. And here was this other thing that was so muscular and political, and yet, really engrossing to watch, and entertaining, and made me laugh as well. That struck me and inspired me.
A few years later, I found out that one of the camera operators on Happy Days — this salty old veteran named Sam Rosen — had been a camera operator in the filibuster scene. They had three cameras on that day because Jimmy Stewart couldn't do that many takes, and Capra wanted to get it covered knowing that Jimmy Stewart would blow his voice out doing that. Sam described that scene unfolding. I already loved it, but I went back and watched it again and it just remains one of the great scenes in movie history.
Directed by: William Friedkin | Written by: William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist, I just love as a fan. It scared the crap out of me and my then-girlfriend, now wife, Cheryl. I don't know how many times we stood in line for two hours in Westwood to see The Exorcist. That's what you had to do in those days, and we did it over and over again. It slowly dawned on me that I loved this movie the way I loved the Roger Corman horror movies that I would see in the drive-in, but it was so elevated, through this sophisticated writing and these excellent, nuanced performances.
It went from sort of cheap thrills to, by about the third time I saw it, I realized that it was just great contemporary cinema. And it was all the more terrifying because the horror just felt so every day, so regular, so part of our contemporary society. Of course, the filmmaking and the music is next-level. What Friedkin did with that, it was one of the movies announcing a new level of urgency and power that a Hollywood movie could carry with it.
Directed by: David Lean | Written by: Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson
Bridge on the River Kwai is a movie that I literally studied and saw over and over again. The first couple of times, I didn't realize it was based on actual events. And then, I learned that it was, and that impressed me. I loved history, but I didn't think about history as a jumping off point for great drama and great performances. But the complexity and the paradoxes in the characters really stayed with me, and the fact that the movie was inspired by real events shaped my thinking about what true stories could offer audiences.
It took years and years for me to develop the courage to tackle a story based on true events. I was terrified. I felt like it would limit my creativity. I'd been working in the worlds of Cocoon and Splash and Willow, and I thought I'd be limited in the way the characters could behave and what they could really say and do. When I did Apollo 13, I wrote on my script: Just show it. That became my mantra. Tom Hanks had such confidence in the story, and he loved the space program and the organic drama around it, and I began to trust it.
And then, I began to screen the movie and I realized that yes, an audience would hold its breath at a hesitancy over flicking a switch in a command module if they understood the context, and they understood what it meant to the characters. That was a really important turning point for me. But I don't think I ever would've gotten there had movies like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia not convinced me of the value, and power, and the cinematic potential, and the drama that could be had around a movie based on real events.
Directed by: Milos Forman | Written by: Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman
Just a great f*****g movie! Cheryl and I had to jam into the very front row, sit with our necks pressed back. And we left and we literally turned around and got back in line to see the midnight show. The only other time this happened was with Star Wars.
It was a great book, it was a great play, and Milos Forman made it into a fantastic movie. It has everything for me. It's not only an unbelievable ensemble performance, but this bravura central performance from [Jack] Nicholson, this rebellion made so accessible, and so winning, and so intense through him. It just crackled with energy. It stirred your belief in rebelling against a corrupt system. It was tragic, and yet, out of that tragedy came this sense of sacrifice, because the chief makes it out thanks to McMurphy.
It also has one of my favorite scenes. I'm a huge baseball fan, and when Nurse Ratched won't let them watch the 1963 World Series — which is the game I was listening to when I fell in love with baseball — and Nicholson is inventing the game: 'Koufax's curve is breaking like a f*****g firecracker!" I laughed and cried in that scene. I'd like to see if I ever made a movie that came close, but I haven't yet. I'm still trying.
Directed by: Jan Troell | Written by: Bengt Forslund and Jan Troell
That one surprised the hell out of me. When I saw Jan Troell's Emigrants, and then later, The New Land — the two go hand in hand — it just transported me back into history on the most human level. It demonstrated to me that a movie didn't have to be in English for me to be engrossed, that I could lose myself in a movie despite the subtitles.
It dramatizes the workaday struggle to survive under these difficult circumstances that were not just physical but emotional, being isolated out there on the prairie, but also being in a new land that isn't their culture. It's beautifully shot in what was then ultra-naturalism, with lots of long lenses and handheld work that really felt unlike staged Hollywood scenes that were brightly lit and carefully choreographed. It's beautifully acted by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. I just loved it, and I saw it over and over again. And it tuned my antenna to another way of staging scenes, and using sets, and that the subtlety of performances could pack the same kind of wallop that more theatrical, more histrionic moments often yielded.