Flying solo

Can director Ron Howard make Solo Fly?

  • Published 25.05.18
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The cast of Solo: A Star Wars Story aboard the Millennium Falcon

Are you ready to have your mind blown? Sometimes Ron Howard uses swear words. 

Yes, most of the time, this 64-year-old filmmaker is the wholesome, good-natured guy we saw in decades’ worth of film and TV roles, the reliable director of movies like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind whose calm, cheerful voice narrates the manic action of Arrested Development. 

But asked a few days ago why he took over directorial duties on Solo: A Star Wars Story, the latest entry in the Lucasfilm science-fiction franchise, many months into its shoot, after the original directors had been ousted, Howard let his mask of decency slip, if only briefly.

TAKING CHANCES

With some hesitation, Howard said of his decision, “It was, a little bit, kind of a, what the ****”... here he let fly an expletive, then immediately expressed contrition. “I don’t know how you print that,” he added softly.

If Howard can save Solo, once a seemingly surefire summer hit now clouded by tales of behind-the-scenes disarray, it would cement his reputation for unflappability and show he can succeed at any scale, in any genre. (Early reviews for the movie, whether enthusiastic or tepid, largely agree that Howard navigated it away from outright disaster.) A box-office win would also be welcome after the so-so performance of his recent films. 

And a victorious outcome would validate the understated philosophy that has guided Howard, one that he said has allowed him to “take chances, in my own way”.

He has transcended early directorial efforts like Splash and Night Shift — not to mention the stigma of being a child actor — to become a respectable Academy Award winner. He is a co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, the production company behind his films as well as shows like Empire and Genius. 

Yet Howard said, “I have a risk-taking side that I’m kind of quiet about.” He may not share Han Solo’s addictions to hyperfast vehicles or seat-of-the-pants escapes, but he cannot resist an exploration into that character’s origins because, as Howard said, “I don’t naturally relate to that.”

It was only last June that Howard took the reins on Solo under circumstances both calamitous and hazy. Filming on the project (which also features Donald Glover as the young Lando Calrissian) had started the previous January, and as the end of principal photography approached, Lucasfilm made a stunning move. 

The film’s directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose credits include 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, were fired and replaced by Howard, who would finish the Solo shoot and handle post-production. 

Amid reports that Lord and Miller had clashed with Kathleen Kennedy, the Lucasfilm president, the outgoing directors said at the time simply that their departure was because of “creative differences,” adding, “Unfortunately, our vision and process weren’t aligned with our partners on this project.” Not much further explanation has been offered. 

Without commenting on what she thought Lord and Miller got wrong, Kennedy spoke in an interview about what she felt Howard did right. She said she sought him out because the film needed “somebody who is going to be non-threatening and very collaborative and, most importantly in this case, somebody who really, deeply understood actors and performance, and the cast could very quickly feel comfortable and safe with.” She added, “Ron just exudes that.”

Howard also has long-time ties to Lucasfilm and its founder, the Star Wars creator George Lucas, that reach back to the beginning of his filmmaking career. 

Howard said he was intimidated by the perfectionist passions of Star Wars fans and a galaxy populated by “characters who were bigger than life, but you had to believe existed. (But) “It’s a pure adventure story. There was a lot of fun in seeing Han as a speed freak and the Millennium Falcon as the machine that he immediately connects with”

ACTING TO DIRECTING

Howard is, of course, a show-business scion, a son of the actors Jean Speegle and Rance Howard. By the age of eight, he was singing Gary, Indiana in the film version of The Music Man, and to this day he says he receives the occasional 4- or 5-cent residual check for his work on Happy Days. 

It was on another, less celebrated show, the early 1970s comedy-drama The Smith Family, that Howard was taken aside by its star, Henry Fonda, who encouraged him to pursue his passion for being behind the camera.

In 1973, Howard starred in American Graffiti, Lucas’s commercial breakthrough about joy-riding teens in the 1960s. The two men bonded and Howard admiringly observed Lucas’s working process, which he described as “meticulous and freewheeling, all at once — it was lateral thinking that George followed, and it worked for him.”

Over the years, Howard had the visual effects for his films like Cocoon produced at Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic studio, and he directed the 1988 fantasy movie Willow, which Lucas conceived and produced.

But when Lucas asked him about directing one of his Star Wars prequels, which were released between 1999 and 2005, Howard declined. “It was such a massive commitment,” Howard said. “It’s not something I was pining for.”

A father of four (including actress Bryce Dallas Howard), Howard is sufficiently close to Kennedy and her husband, the producer-director Frank Marshall, that he credits them with coming up with the name of his son, Reed. 

So when Kennedy approached him about stepping in on Solo — with about two weeks to prepare — Howard said he agreed “more as an act of professionalism, with a measure of friendship involved.”

His choice to accept the assignment, Howard said, was not driven by the lacklustre reception to his recent films, like the 2015 period drama In the Heart of the Sea or Inferno, his 2016 adaptation of the Dan Brown novel. “If you don’t have some missteps and disappointments, you’re probably not really trying,” he said. 

A PURE ADVENTURE STORY

If anything, Howard said he was intimidated by the perfectionist passions of Star Wars fans and a galaxy populated by “characters who were bigger than life, but you had to believe existed — there was no winking at the camera, nothing meta going on.”

But he was won over by the Solo script, written by the veteran Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan Kasdan.

“It’s a pure adventure story,” Howard said. “There was a lot of fun in seeing Han as a speed freak and the Millennium Falcon as the machine that he immediately connects with.”

Howard was reluctant to discuss Lord and Miller’s earlier work on Solo or what he felt he needed to change. “I don’t want to go into it specifically,” he said.

Before diving in, he did have one helpful conversation with Ford, his long-ago co-star in American Graffiti, who talked him through the fundamentals of Han Solo.

Beyond what Lucas had provided on the page in the original Star Wars, Ford said there were some “unspoken elements that caused me to play the character the way I played him,” details he shared with Howard.

“Ron had the wit to start that line of inquiry,” Ford said, “and I told him what I thought. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it with anyone before.” (Asked to specify some of these elements, Ford fell back on his reputation for reticence. “I’m out of the business right now,” he said.)

Howard did not bring any of his own producing partners or creative collaborators to Solo, and he used the cast and crew that were already in place. The actor Michael K. Williams, who was not available for reshoots, was replaced in the role of a villainous crime lord by Paul Bettany, who previously worked with Howard on A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code.

The script was not overhauled; Howard said it remained “structurally the same and every scene remained fundamentally itself.” Lord and Miller are still credited as executive producers, and, Howard said, their “fingerprints are all over it, in significant ways.”

Still, there was trepidation on the set when he arrived. “It was definitely a possibility that whoever was going to take over was going to have a different point of view on the role,” Ehrenreich said.

IT’S A TIME TO PUSH IT WHILE I STILL CARE

Instead Ehrenreich said that Howard had a similar perspective on vintage actors — Steve McQueen, John Wayne — that he was using as archetypes for his approach to Han Solo, and that they generally agreed on how he should play the character.

“We could trust him,” Ehrenreich said. “Everyone felt very rejuvenated and very enthusiastic about working on the film.” 
Bettany said that on Solo and elsewhere, he has seen Howard navigate challenges with “a resilience that only comes from a fundamental feeling of security about yourself.”

But a smooth finish to the film is no guarantee that Solo will land comfortably with viewers, many of whom know about Lord and Miller’s ejection and assume it means the movie is damaged goods. 

Kennedy, who has not hesitated to make prominent personnel changes on Star Wars movies like Rogue One and the forthcoming Episode IX, said that on Solo, “we’re going to have to live with a certain amount of optics that don’t necessarily sound particularly positive.” 

She said she believed people would ultimately come away focused on “their experience in the movie, and hopefully not obsess about how we got here.”

Howard said he, too, was concerned about overcoming early perceptions, but not too much so. On any movie he makes, he said, “I feel like, well, at least 80 per cent of the audience, I know I’m not wasting their time. Sometimes more than that, if I’m lucky.” 

He has since moved on to many other projects: The day after he wrapped on Solo, he was in a meeting on a documentary he is directing about Pavarotti, and he is continuing to develop films adapted from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, as well as a possible limited-series TV show based on Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.

While no one would begrudge him if he chose to scale back his efforts, Howard suggested that his continuing to keep so busy was its own form of rebellion. “My kids are grown,” he said. “I’ve got good energy. I’ve got the support of a company. To me, it’s not a time to play it safe. Why would I do that? Instead, it’s a time to push it while I still care, and have the energy to care.”

Dave Itzkoff 
(The New York Times News Service)

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