I have always been a huge Ron Howard fan. Not necessarily for his role on The Andy Griffith Show, but for the making of Splash. I love Tom Hanks and John Candy, and the twist on the classic boy-meets-girl comedic tale, along with all the underwater filming, was simply fantastic. So, needless to say, I was very excited to be given the opportunity to review Ron Howard’s Masterclass.
This is my takeaway, my gift from Mr. Howard.
“Those things that you sometimes fear are actually can wind up being the forces that push you to a higher creative plane.”
Isn’t that always the way? Safe and familiar routines seldom generate anything new or fresh, nothing to capture interest, neither in real life nor on film.
“I think that freshness is very important when you are evaluating your idea because the execution can be outstanding on a character level, but if it’s not presented in some way that feels fresh either through the cinematic approach or the setting, then it’s going to be sort of downgraded in people’s minds.”
A great story, whether a movie on the screen or tale in the pages of a book, is greater than the sum of its parts. As a creative, you owe it to both yourself and your audience to make it the best work you can do. You have to love it and own it.
“Story is king. And there’s this overarching understanding of the story, and then the details underneath it, that are going to make it possible for you to execute and maximize the possibilities of that story.”
But how exactly does one person create a great story? Actually, Mr. Howard equates the inherent greatness of a story to the amount of collaboration that goes into it.
“When it comes to collaboration around your project, I would say try to keep the kind of mental-emotional equilibrium so that you’re open and you hear everybody. But ultimately, you listen to yourself.”
Mr. Howard shares all of the great things he has learned over the years on collaboration, and how wide to cast your net. Ultimately, it comes down to collaborative triangles.
“… I was invited to this dinner with the great Akira Kurosawa, and one of the things he began talking about was working in teams of three. And he believed in the power of that triangle for a very simple practical reason. It was that ideas could be quickly voted in or out. Odd numbers work.”
But even while collaborating, and working with a triangle for all of the important decisions, he still reserves the final right of veto power.
“The director is the keeper of the story and ultimately it’s the director’s taste that’s going to determine the creative choices that are made.”
So where do all these creative choices come from? Mr. Howard explains in greater detail about how he gets all of the people on set involved. He says that you never know when someone will see an idea and say, ‘wow, that would be perfect for this scene — I know how to make that happen!’
“I have learned more from cinematographers than probably anyone else in the big collaboration of making movies and television shows.”
Cinematographers create movement through a story with the use of setting and Mr. Howard confides that anyone wanting to learn how to do something should check out YouTube. He has also learned much from European cinematographers on working with light, especially with a limited budget.
“[Production designers] can be a real secret weapon in terms of helping to elevate the visual possibilities of a story and help define the tone, perhaps in ways that surprise you as the director, and elevate the visual palette and impact of a movie.”
Initially, Mr. Howard speaks of wanting to make the score of Frost/Nixon full of music of the period, but he was convinced to tone it down, and the result was a more serious and dramatic piece than he ever thought possible.
“Preparation is about broadening your understanding of the things, the factors, that can influence the story and can broaden the possibilities of that story.”
A few lessons cover scene deconstruction — specifically from Raiders of the Lost Ark (a film he watched on a plane without the benefit of headphones), Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind. The viewing of Raiders initially inspired him to begin analyzing other great movie scenes and helped formulate this teaching process. The chase scene from Raiders showed where doubles were used, how motion scenes were filmed, and perspectives of ‘first set’ versus ‘second set’ filming. Apollo 13 analyzed the models and where the CGI was added, and A Beautiful Mind showed how lighting, scenery, and perspective aided in demonstrating the progression of the main character’s mental illness.
“Casting is vitally important. And it’s a process not to be trifled with, to be taken very seriously.”
“The directors really, really needs the actors to be strong. And, especially in film, there has to be some kind of connection between the actor — the performer — and that character that you can just readily accept.”
Mr. Howard emphasizes often the benefits of having not only a critical eye but listening to your gut when it comes to casting. What can someone bring to a role? Conversation with actors — even outside of auditions — can prod your intuition to help you make the best choices in casting. However, he notes that actors themselves can bridge the gap between their own personality, and the character they were meant to play.
“… I think that experienced actors have a kind of access to facets of their personality and emotions that other people don’t — non-actors just don’t appreciate, they don’t understand.”
“But I think it’s important to be aware, not be oblivious, of the fact that actors work in different ways.”
A large portion of the class is devoted to a re-creation of a scene from Frost/Nixon with four stand-in actors. By watching these scenes, I learned a great deal about how Mr. Howard works with actors without micromanaging, looking for peak efficiency.
During this recreation, Mr. Howard shows us various styles of staging — for rehearsal, feature staging for masters & coverage, alternative staging possibilities, Steadicam staging, staging for indie shoots, and a review of the styles. I found it extremely interesting that every time you change a lens, the actor needs to accommodate for the characteristics of that camera, and that the use of “business” props (even something as simple as a clipboard), can add credibility to a performance.
You simply must watch it to get the full effect for each style — it’s an amazing process to watch him walk through.
“A good editor is proficient, is professional, is willing, hardworking, and doesn’t have a lot of ego. Is willing to follow direction. And has good solid taste. A great editor is somebody who has all of those qualities and yet can look at a scene in a slightly different way. Has superb taste. And a creative imagination that inspires him or her to re-edit the scenes in a way that the director didn’t present.”
What matters at this point is what you have to work with. I can speak here from my own writing perspective — editors are not the people that decide the final cut. However, even with simple writing, a good editor can suggest ways to make a story more provocative, more engrossing, and challenge you to make a good story into a great one.
“[Editing] is the place where you execute your final rewrite. Because there are so many creative decisions still to be made during the editing, and so much that you learn about the story is that you want to tell.”
Mr. Howard tells of the value of screening before an audience and warns that the first cut will break your heart. Every creative feels the sting that comes with criticism, but it is imperative to not take it personally. Instead, use it to make your story even better.
“I have endeavored my whole life, to try to demystify the process of directing. If you start to look at it piece by piece, scene by scene, sequence by sequence… it is a lot less mysterious. Because these stories, they are mosaics. And the more you understand that the more exciting it is.”
Ron Howard’s Masterclass: Ron Howard Teaches Directing is comprised of 32 lessons that span over 7.5 hours and includes workbooks you can download in pdf format.
Ron Howard is a veteran director with nearly 50 years of experience in directing films. His credits include Splash, Cocoon, Willow, Parenthood, Backdraft, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels & Demons, Rush, Inferno, and Solo: A Star Wars Story.