Production

Production: Director Ron Howard

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Ron Howard is an American film director known for directing Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Frost/Nixon (2008). Thus, many of his films are based on true stories – such as the high stakes of the Apollo 13 mission, and the conflict between interviewer David Frost and president Richard Nixon.
Howard is interested in telling true stories through his films since he likes history and journalism, but he has also found that “if audiences know it’s based on truth, they’re more accepting”, meaning that he has been able to explore emotions and ideas which could seem surreal (Ron Howard – The Power of True Stories, 2019). For example, in Beautiful MindHoward decided to portray the people mathematician John Nash sees due to his schizophrenia as defined characters who interact with Nash and the world around them to more effectively show the truth of Nash’s perception of the world and help the audience understand it (Duncan, 2007).
Howard also helps the audience understand the truth of the Apollo 13 mission in a similar way by showing not only the astronauts in space on the mission, but also focusing on the characters in mission control, as well as the astronaut’s families at home so that audiences are able to get a feel of “what it was like to be there” from watching the overall experience of the mission (Apollo 13: Behind The Scenes (ft, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ron Howard), 2014).
Hence, Howard focuses on characters in his films to help him portray the truth, making the themes of family and teamwork the main themes used throughout his work (Ron Howard – The Power of True Stories, 2019). However, at the centre of these films is usually a character reaching for their own, singular goal – such as Nash trying to come up with his own original idea, and Frost trying to get Nixon to confess.
This is because, to Howard, “all stories are really about coping, and what we the audience feel about how the characters are dealing with the challenges they’re facing. Why does a person cope with a situation…in a certain way? I now try to distill every story to that” (Rafferty, 2009).
This is why I decided to research Howard for this unit, as, although our film does not tell a true story, I feel like focusing on the main character is important to make how she sees the world – the fact that she envisions her character as acting out the situations she’s writing in the real world – more believable for the audience. Thus, to help them understand this, I aim to focus on the main character, and how she faces obstacles when reaching for her goal of finishing her novel, through my directing style, influenced by Howard.

Collaboration & style

Howard sees the director of a film as someone who needs to be tough enough, clear enough and knowledgeable enough about what the story needs that I can make quick judgments as to whether or not something in fact realises the full potential of the moment” (Rafferty, 2009). For this reason, Howard always has a vision for each aspect of his films, however, he has learnt that instead of pushing for collaborators to simply just carry out this vision, that more possibilities emerge – which make the film better – through collaboration (Rafferty, 2009).
For example, when working as the director on Angels & Demons (2009), Howard filmed action scenes on locations in Rome, but only had access to these locations for a short period of time (Rafferty, 2009). Thus, although not typically part of his process, Howard decided to have a storyboard artist draw up storyboards before the screenplay for the film was finished, using the novel the film was based on as a reference (Rafferty, 2009) – (see fig. 1).
Due to this, instead of giving the storyboard artist his shot list, or the script, Howard briefly discussed the tone he was aiming for, deciding to see what the artist came up with (Rafferty, 2009). From this experience, Howard found that it benefits the film to see others’ interpretations and use his own vision as a foundation – something to build on but not necessarily to stick to (Rafferty, 2009).
Fig. 1 Angels & Demons storyboards (2009)

Due to how Howard sees collaboration in this way, he has said that “it’s still important to me not to impose a style, a personal stamp, on a film” (Rafferty, 2009). Thus, although his films have common directing trademarks – such as types of shots used – each has a slightly different visual style.
Within A Beautiful Mind, Howard took this further, collaborating with cinematographer Roger Deakins so that each act had a different style (Rafferty, 2009).

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

The style of each act of A Beautiful Mind therefore mirrors what happens in mathematician John Nash’s story during that time period. Hence, Howard decided that, during act one when Nash is a student at Princeton searching for his original idea, he wanted the style to be formal to reflect a sense of academia (Rafferty 2009 – see fig. 2).
For act two – as Nash begins to work at The Pentagon – Howard decided to use the style of a “Cold War noir spy piece”, using lots of moving shots centred on Nash, such as follow shots, and even a shot which circles all the way around him (Rafferty, 2009) – (see fig. 3).
In contrast, Howard decided to use a more washed out, grey lighting style during act three of the film, as Nash faces his schizophrenia diagnosis and the truth about his job at The Pentagon (see fig. 4). For this reason, Howard decided to use an actual location for the small house where Nash ends up living so that the camera angles would feel boxed in, as during this act Nash is boxed in by the truth, having to face it (Rafferty, 2009). Thus, Howard mainly shot the actors at eye level during this act to help focus on their reactions and emotions (Rafferty, 2009).
Fig. 2 A Beautiful Mind act one (2001)
Fig. 3 A Beautiful Mind act two (2001)
Fig. 4 A Beautiful Mind act three (2001)
It can therefore be seen that Howard’s decisions for this film were based on focusing on Nash. Howard decided to do this because of how the character changes psychologically, emotionally, and even physically so much over the course of the story (Applebaum, 2014). This made the film from Howard’s perspective “a performance-driven movie”, causing lead actor Russell Crowe to suggest that they film in chronological order to help with this (Applebaum, 2014).

This focus on Nash was from Howard’s aim to make the film personal to Nash, having “as much of it from his point of view as possible” by showing his journey to “create a sense of his psychological state, his intellectual state, and his creative process” (Duncan, 2007).
Howard does this in act one by using a time lapse as Nash works on this theory at Princeton, showing his process of working and his mindset towards his work through Nash seeming to work constantly, even as the season changes, with his initial flurry of thoughts symbolised by a flurry of snow (see fig. 5-8). Using a shot which frames Nash from outside the window reflects how he is trapped by his own goal, almost obsessive in his drive to achieve it, a shot commonly used by Howard.

 Fig. 5 A Beautiful Mind time lapse (2001)
 Fig. 6 A Beautiful Mind time lapse (2001)
 Fig. 7 A Beautiful Mind time lapse (2001)
Fig. 8 A Beautiful Mind time lapse (2001)

Howard also frequently uses camera movement along with point of view shots to place the audience in the position of the characters, as well as shots to direct the audience’s attention to characters. For example, in the scene from the clip above when Nash first enters The Pentagon, Howard pans up from Nash’s shadow to reveal him, encouraging the audience to continue focusing on him by using a follow shot as he approaches the board. This focus on Nash is furthered by a circular shot which tracks around him as he takes in all the information, the audience even hearing his thoughts in muffled voice-over.
The audience are then put in his position of taking in all the information by a point of view shot which shows the board and the numbers from Nash’s perspective, some of these numbers being highlighted to show how Nash is seeing and understanding the information. Overall, Nash’s reaction is central in this sequence, with him often appearing in single shots which are close-up on his face or in a medium shot. This is because at this point in the film how Nash reacts to this information and decides to use it determines the direction of the story.
The change in Nash’s psychological state due to his paranoia from this information is shown later in the film when Nash locks himself in a room in his house and looks out of a window, through the blinds, convinced someone is after him (see fig. 9). However, Nash’s fractured mental state is symbolised here, as, when Nash stops looking through the blinds in his house, he turns around to see his students – shown to the audience through a POV shot – and finds he’s in his classroom, as do the audience (see fig. 10 & 11).
Howard further shows how Nash’s mental state affects his life through closed over the shoulder shots when his wife, Alicia, comes to visit him at the hospital (see fig. 12 & 13). Nash is trapped by his thoughts, and Alicia is trapped by his belief in them.
This causes Nash’s life to start to fall apart, leading to Alicia breaking the bathroom mirror in anger. Howard uses this broken mirror in a shot where Nash is reflected in the shattered pieces as he takes it out as rubbish, reflecting his mental state, and current situation (see fig. 14).

 Fig. 9 A Beautiful Mind transition (2001)
 Fig. 10 A Beautiful Mind transition (2001)
Fig. 11 A Beautiful Mind transition (2001)
 Fig. 12 A Beautiful Mind closed over the shoulder shots (2001)
Fig. 13 A Beautiful Mind closed over the shoulder shots (2001)
Fig. 14 A Beautiful Mind shattered reflection shot (2001)

Overall, the style and shots used by Howard throughout the film aim to convey Nash’s journey – and how he changes during this – to the audience.

Apollo 13 (1995)

Howard also focuses on the journey of the characters in Apollo 13. However, even though the astronauts in space on the mission are the centre of the narrative, their families, as well as the people working in mission control are also focused on.
This is something Howard researched by touring the Space Centre in Houston where he met those who had worked in mission control, changing his perspective on their job as he realised how emotionally invested they had been in the rescue of the Apollo 13 astronauts, allowing him to begin “to see the movie in…much more human terms” (Director Ron Howard talks with Jimmy Carter about Apollo 13, 2015).
This was important as the filmmakers aimed to capture the realism of the mission and the experience of “what it was like to be there” (Apollo 13: Behind The Scenes (ft, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ron Howard), 2014). Due to this, in post-production some things had to simplified, cut, or condensed so that the storytelling only involved what the audience needed to know to be able to understand, and what was necessary to create suspense, in order to fit the film – and the experience of the mission – into two hours (Director Ron Howard talks with Jimmy Carter about Apollo 13, 2015).
How Howard worked to achieve this can be seen in the sequence above through how he chooses shots to show the audience the set-up for the launch as mission control prepares, as well as those which convey the claustrophobia of the small capsule which is launching the astronauts into space.
For example, Howard uses close-ups and quick cuts of the controls and characters in mission control to create the suspense of counting down to the launch as preparation for each element of the launch is completed. The shots become tighter as the launch gets closer to happening. These shots also help the audience understand how these characters are responsible for the logistics of the launch, and thus the mission, setting up how reliant the astronauts will be on the people in mission control whilst they are in space.
Howard also chooses to frame the astronauts in tight shots, not showing all three of them at the same time, but instead panning between them to show the claustrophobia of the capsule. This allows the audience to better understand what the astronauts are experiencing as they are able to get an idea of their surroundings. This fits with Howard’s aim of wanting to capture what it was like to experience the mission and convey this to the audience.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Howard used his experience from making Apollo 13 to help with adapting Frost/Nixon, originally a play, into a film (Gold, 2008). This is because within the play the story’s climax – where Nixon admits his wrongdoing to Frost – happens with both characters seated (Gold, 2008). Yet, Howard believed that “the tight quarters and the intensity, particularly in the second half, are a huge dramatic asset” (Gold, 2008).
Thus, he drew on how he captured the claustrophobia of the capsule in Apollo 13 whilst deciding how to film these scenes (Gold, 2008) – using lots of close ups and tight shots to capture the characters’ reactions and how they are battling with each other, backing each other into corners with their questions and answers (see fig. 15 & 16).
Howard also drew on his experience from directing Cinderella Man (2005), which tells the story of the boxer James Braddock, as during this film he learned that a lot can be realised by the audience from watching how the secondary characters react (Gold, 2008). Therefore, although the main focus is Frost and Nixon, Howard also chooses to focus on how the secondary characters react, not only to reveal things to the audience, but alsojust to work in opposition to the formality of the piece as a play” by having many of these reactions by the secondary characters be improvisation (Rafferty, 2009) – (see fig. 17).
Howard chose to do this as Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) had also portrayed their characters in the play, thus, because they had been performing these parts for so long, Howard wanted to regain some “spontaneity and urgency” so that all of the actors were able to portray their characters in a way which showed their knowledge of them (Horn, 2008). To further encourage spontaneity, Howard also never allowed Sheen and Langella to rehearse together, aiming to “break up the rhythms of the play as much as possible” (Horn, 2008).
When adapting the play Howard, and writer Peter Morgan – who wrote both the play and the film – decided to add new scenes to make the movie more personal to the characters (Horn, 2008), wanting the movie to be the experience of the play, but with more depth and detail to show more of “the human interest side” of the story (Ron Howard on Frost/Nixon interview, 2010).
A scene that was added due to these aims shows Nixon playing a piano near the end of the film, just before the final interview (Horn, 2008). Howard uses two close up shots of piano keys to act as a transition between where Frost is – celebrating his birthday but feeling defeated by Nixon – and where Nixon is – feeling hopeful because of his past victories, despite the interviews not being over yet (Horn, 2008) – (see fig. 18-21). Connecting the characters in this way near the end of the film acts as a moment of contemplation for the audience, allowing them to reflect on what has happened and what the ending may be.
Scenes like this were important to Howard as he thought that if the audience could “feel they are sharing the experience with these characters…the more they forget that they know the outcome. It makes it feel suspenseful” (Horn, 2008) – thus, even though some of the audience may know the ending from watching the interviews they can still become invested in the story through this focus on the characters.
Howard also focuses on the characters through shots which then pan or tilt to reveal them, such as the close-up of the piano keys which tilts to show Nixon (see fig. 20 & 21). Doing this allows Howard to show the audience important details of the scene whilst still retaining a focus on the characters.
Howard furthers this by using shots which show the characters from behind, and then pan around to reveal their emotions. For example, when Frost receives a phone call, he believes it’s his girlfriend, who he is expecting a call from. Howard at first shows him from behind, as he begins to hear Nixon talking, panning to Frost’s face to reveal how he reacts to hearing Nixon, focusing on his surprise in close-up (see fig. 22-24).
Therefore, it can be seen that Howard’s aim for Frost/Nixon was to focus on the characters, allowing the audience to experience the journey with them – as with A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13.

 Fig. 15 Frost/Nixon close-up (2008)
Fig. 16 Frost/Nixon close-up (2008)
Fig. 17 Frost/Nixon reactions of the secondary characters (2008)
 Fig. 18 Frost/Nixon piano transition (2008)
 Fig. 19 Frost/Nixon piano transition (2008)
 Fig. 20 Frost/Nixon piano transition (2008)
Fig. 21 Frost/Nixon piano transition (2008)
 Fig. 22 Frost/Nixon pan to reveal emotion (2008)
 Fig. 23 Frost/Nixon pan to reveal emotion (2008)
Fig. 24 Frost/Nixon pan to reveal emotion (2008)

Trademarks

Overall, Howard’s directing style frequently uses shots and techniques such as:
  • Putting the audience in the character’s positions – through camera movement, such as follow shots, and point of view shots, sometimes containing whip pans to simulate the character turning to look at something
  • Shots outside windows – characters are trapped by their own mentalities/goals
  • Close ups which pull out to reveal the characters/the scene – Howard’s focus is on the characters
  • Close ups of equipment/elements of people i.e. glasses, hands
  • Transitions – time lapse, dissolve, two similar shots acting as transitions – i.e. the two close-ups of piano keys in Frost/Nixon acting as a transition between Frost’s location and Nixon’s
  • Shots from behind the characters – these pan around to focus on the characters/reveal their reactions
  • Closed over the shoulder shots – the characters are trapped either by each other (as in Frost/Nixon), or by their beliefs and thoughts (as in A Beautiful Mind)
  • Reflection shots
Therefore, it can be seen that Howard’s directing style aims to focus on the characters by conveying their journeys and experiences to the audience.

Influence

Howard’s main aim for the audience to experience the journey with the characters influenced how I chose for my directing style to be focused on our main character, Monica. I intended to do this initially to make how she sees the world – the fact that she sees Vera in the real world, despite Vera being a book character – believable to the audience. However, this aim changed when I considered how in many of Howard’s films a character is reaching for their own goal, and he often shows this, as is most apparent in A Beautiful Mind, by making the films personal to the characters, crafting aspects of the film – such as lighting and framing – so that they show the character’s psychological state (Duncan, 2007). Therefore, looking at Howard’s directing style instead began to help me convey my main aim for my directing style, to show Monica’s state of mind to the audience.
For example, the shot where Howard pans around Frost to reveal his emotion when Nixon calls inspired the decision of my first shot, as I chose to also pan around Monica as she writes happily, starting from behind with the camera panning around to show her expression from the front, revealing her happiness. This allowed me to concentrate on my other aims for this shot – to use movement to convey Monica’s emotion, and include a two shot of her and her laptop to show her love of writing – whilst still focusing on character.
Howard’s directing style also helped me to continue focusing on the characters, since I knew I wanted to show the champagne flutes at the start of the first party, as I felt that they were an important aspect of establishing the scene. Panning up from these to show writer #1 allowed me to draw the audience’s attention back to the characters and retain their attention by making the next shot follow writer #1 – techniques Howard often uses. Yet, to convey Monica’s state of mind at the party, I decided to use a medium shot where the other partygoers could be seen at the edge of the frame. This was influenced by Howard’s use of over the shoulder shots which show that the characters are trapped by each other, or by their thoughts and beliefs. I decided to use an over the shoulder medium shot for Monica at the party to show how she is trapped by the other partygoers in this moment, since they cause her to act as if she fits in, despite the fact that she feels as if she doesn’t.
To show how Monica feels trapped by another writer’s expectation that she will end her book well, I was influenced by a shot from First Man (2018), directed by Damien Chazelle, which frames the astronauts in the capsule that will take them to space from a profile angle in a close-up (see fig. 25). However, I found that Howard also frames the astronauts in Apollo 13 in a similar way (see fig. 26), which could suggest that both directors had similar intentions, or that Chazelle was influenced by Howard when making First Man, as both films deal with similar topics.
Since Monica’s writer’s block lasts a long time, and she is intent on finding a way to beat it, I aim to hold the wide shot which ends scene four, into scene five, inspired by the time lapse in A Beautiful Mind which implies that Nash works constantly, despite the seasons changing. To further show how Monica is trapped by her ambition and her writer’s block, I could frame the wide shot which begins scene six by framing Monica from outside the window, as Howard does in this time lapse from A Beautiful Mind, and in other instances when his characters seem trapped by their goals and the conflict caused by them.
Once Monica is forced to write, I intend to use shots which pan around her in a circle, inspired by A Beautiful Mind, and how Howard allows the rotation of the shot to quicken as Nash’s thoughts do. I also aim for the shot size to get closer and tighter each rotation, similar to how Howard has the shots become tighter during the preparation for launch in Apollo 13 as the launch gets closer to happening, in order to create suspense.
Overall, when making decisions for my own directing style, I considered what Howard said to be the job of the director, to know enough about the needs of the story to be able to make decisions, and aimed to make each of these “realise(s) the full potential of the moment” (Rafferty, 2009).
Fig. 25 Claustrophobia of the capsule in First Man (2018)
Fig. 26 Claustrophobia of the capsule in Apollo 13 (2017)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Angels & Demons storyboards (2009) [Illustrations] At: https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0903-Fall-2009/DGA-Interview-Ron-Howard.aspx (Accessed on 3 March 2020).
Figure 2. A Beautiful Mind act one (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 3. A Beautiful Mind act two (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 4. A Beautiful Mind act three (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 5-8. A Beautiful Mind time lapse (2001) [Film stills, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 9-11. A Beautiful Mind transition (2001) [Film stills, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 12 & 13. A Beautiful Mind closed over the shoulder shots (2001) [Film stills, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 14. A Beautiful Mind shattered reflection shot (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 15 & 16. Frost/Nixon close-up (2008) [Film stills, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 17. Frost/Nixon reactions of the secondary characters (2008) [Film still, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 18-21. Frost/Nixon piano transition (2008) [Film stills, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 22-24. Frost/Nixon pan to reveal emotion (2008) [Film stills, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.

Figure 25. Claustrophobia of the capsule in First Man (2018) [Film still, DVD] In: First Man. California: Universal Pictures.

Figure 26. Claustrophobia of the capsule in Apollo 13 (2017) [YouTube, screenshot] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=59&v=lMtWWls4oas&feature=emb_title (Accessed on 24 May 2020).

References

Apollo 13: Behind The Scenes (ft, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ron Howard) (2014) [Online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdgELXIeY3I (Accessed on 3 March 2020).

Applebaum, S. (2014) Ron Howard interview. At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2002/02/15/ron_howard_beautiful_mind_interview.shtml (Accessed on 3 March 2020).

Director Ron Howard talks with Jimmy Carter about Apollo 13. (2015) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBKwgZij2NQ (Accessed on 4 March 2020).

Duncan, P. (2007) Ron Howard – Director of A Beautiful Mind. At: https://www.dvdtalk.com/interviews/ron_howard_dire.html (Accessed on 3 March 2020).

Gold, S. (2008) ‘The Interview That Was a Play Becomes a Film.’ In: The New York Times 31/10/08. At: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/movies/moviesspecial/02gold.html (Accessed on 6 March 2020).

Horn, J. (2008) ‘Ron Howard on ‘Frost/Nixon.’ In: Los Angeles Times 10/12/08. At: https://www.latimes.com/la-en-howard10-2008dec10-story.html (Accessed on 6 March 2020).

Rafferty, T. (2009) ‘The Professional’ In: DGA Quarterly. At: https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0903-Fall-2009/DGA-Interview-Ron-Howard.aspx (Accessed on 3 March 2020).

Ron Howard on Frost/Nixon interview (2010) [Online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwKwF93yqgQ (Accessed on 6 March 2020).

Ron Howard – The Power of True Stories (2019) [Online video] At: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi13220889?ref_=nmvi_vi_imdb_7 (Accessed on 3 March 2020).

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