Space Commander: Ron Howard enters the 'Star Wars' realm with 'Solo'

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"Former child actor" has become an unfortunate shorthand for those cases of a young TV or film performer hitting bottom after finding they can no longer make a go of it in a notoriously fickle career arena. Yet plenty of former child stars have simply gone on to ordinary, regular lives. A few—your Leonardo DiCaprios, your Drew Barrymores—have kept working in the field. And others turned to directing and producing, sometimes stepping in front of the camera, like Fred Savage and Seth Green.

But in a really rarified realm, you find Ron Howard—both a Television Hall of Fame inductee and a two-time Academy Award winner. After beginning as a child actor in the late 1950s, including on prestige series like "The Twilight Zone," "Route 66" and "The Fugitive," Howard, 64, played the lead character's son, Opie Taylor, for eight years on "The Andy Griffith Show." He continued working steadily, including a cast role on ABC's 1971-72 Henry Fonda seriocomedy "The Smith Family," then starred for six years on the sitcom hit "Happy Days."

And happy they were: While still doing that show he made his feature-directing debut, following a handful of shorts, with producer Roger Corman's Grand Theft Auto (1977). Howard continued directing after "Happy Days," doing a trio of TV movies, helming the Michael Keaton cult classic Night Shift (1982), and then rocketing to well-received hits like Splash (1984), Cocoon (1985) and Parenthood (1989), as well as the fantasy Willow (1988), among others. The following decade saw movies like The Paper (1994) and Apollo 13 (1995), burnishing a reputation for populist prestige films. He won directing and producing Oscars for 2001 Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, and earned two more nominations for 2008's Frost/Nixon. He had a hit trilogy based on Dan Brown best-sellers, starting with The Da Vinci Code (2006).

His movies this decade have met with mixed results. The Dilemma (2011), a comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, was a rare critical and commercial flop, as was In the Heart of the Sea (2015). But he earned three Emmy nominations last year in directing and producing categories for the miniseries "Genius" and the acclaimed feature documentary he directed for Hulu and which was also released theatrically, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years.

He seems poised for another well-received hit with Solo: A Star Wars Story. Howard's classical directing style well serves a wonderfully classical tale of scrappy young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich in the role Harrison Ford made famous), who with nothing to lose goes through several baptisms of fire on his way toward becoming the gold-hearted rogue of Star Wars (1977) and its sequels. Like the original movie, Solo is as much a western as a science-fiction saga. Along with the western genre's overarching theme of civilization, for bad and good, taking over the frontier, it's got a train heist, saloon card games and even a showdown.

That seemed a good jumping-off point for our conversation with Ron Howard about Solo, on which he replaced the original directing team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and its sequel) when their vision and Lucasfilm's differed after six months of shooting. We spoke with Howard, in Los Angeles, by phone—with an interesting interruption.

Film Journal International: I have to start by telling you what an affecting performance you gave in [director Don Siegel's 1976 western] The Shootist, John Wayne's last film [in which Howard played a cocky young would-be gunslinger learning hard truths about the world].

Ron Howard: Thank you—that was a great life experience. I learned a hell of a lot and grew a lot through that, both in terms of getting to know John Wayne and working closely with him, and through Don Siegel. I was just about to [direct] my first feature and I found Siegel really inspiring, and he made himself very available. I had a lot of great conversations with hm. He was remarkable.

FJI: It honestly hadn't occurred to me, the parallels between your character [Gillom Rogers] and Han Solo before he became Han Solo. In a lot of ways, Solo feels like a classical western.

RH: The Woody Harrelson character, Beckett, feels very much like a gunslinger character. So that vibe and that ethos certainly influence the movie—and ethos is a key word here because, to me, this is an adventure story about all of the influences that shape a young guy. The events, the danger, but also the personal relationships that are going to begin to mold this young guy into the iconic character that we'll come to know later on.

FJI: Alden Ehrenreich [who was cast in May 2015, prior to Howard's arrival in June 2017]: I first noticed him in this teen supernatural movie called Beautiful Creatures, where he just stood out. And then in Hail, Caesar!, playing the Old Hollywood cowboy star—getting back to that theme—he was so incredibly good in this down-home, honest but still quirky role.

RH: People have known about him for a while. My daughter Bryce [Dallas Howard, a star of the Jurassic World franchise] was doing a directing workshop, eight or nine years ago now. They brought in actors to participate in this workshop with people who were in the directing program, and Alden was one of them. I remember her saying, 'Dad, there's this unbelievably charismatic guy—he's so talented.' Alden Ehrenreich—that's the first time I heard his name. And then he kept showing up on casting lists and Francis Coppola cast him [in 2009's Tetro and 2011's Twixt] and Warren Beatty cast him [in 2016's Rules Don't Apply]. Y'know, Francis Coppola cast young Al Pacino, young Robert De Niro, young James Caan in movies; he has a good eye. Then the Coen brothers [for Hail, Caesar!].

I think Alden carries the [Steve] McQueen thing, but also a little of the [Paul] Newman twinkle. I kept thinking of those guys that I'd seen in these cool ’70s car movies and connecting them with Han. I also thought a lot about a movie I did a few years ago, which was Rush, a true story about Formula One racers. And James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth, was a real person I connected to the spirit and vibe of young Han. [Race-car driver] James Hunt, with all his bravado and rebelliousness and charisma, really started to click and succeed and have his champion years when he connected with this one great machine. And I felt like some of the things I learned about that next level of speed and achievement was something I could carry over into the Han relationship with the [spaceship] Millennium Falcon.

FJI: You spoke with [talk-show host] Stephen Colbert about your first day on the set…

RH: It was on the backlot at Pinewood [Studios in the U.K.].

FJI: Did you have a formal meeting with the cast, to talk about the changeover in directors?

RH: There were informal one-on-ones, more than anything.

[Howard politely interrupts because he's been informed of a "surprise guest." He later calls back.]

RH: The reason I was interrupted is that Harrison Ford came by and surprised Alden. He wanted me to come there and be part of it. He just sort of showed up [with a crew from the entertainment-news program] "Entertainment Tonight" and no one [at the press junket] knew he was coming. He just told Alden how much he loved the movie and loved what Alden had done. Pretty mind-blowing.

FJI: And really nice of him and very surprising, given his love-hate relationship with the role and his kind of taciturn nature in general.

RH: I knew Harrison had seen it—he'd even spoken to me and he was beyond supportive. He was effusive. I'd never heard anything like that from him—he plays his cards pretty close to the vest. I had told Alden that Harrison really liked what he did with the character and that he liked the movie, but I certainly couldn't say anything publicly about it because no one speaks for Harrison Ford but Harrison Ford. It was remarkable that he volunteered to show up and do this. He was funny, he was cool and he meant it. It was really a great moment for Alden.

FJI: People can surprise you. So getting back to your first day on the set. You told Colbert the scene involved Lando Calrissian [Donald Glover] flipping a blaster to Han. It sounds like your first day was that battle scene on the mining planet. Would I be correct in deducing that?

RH: Yes, you can say that.

FJI: There's been a lot of press about the your revelation that you had turned down directing Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace[the first of three ill-received prequel films Lucas himself would direct].

RH: I want to clarify that it wasn't like I read the script and said no, not for me. [Star Wars creator George Lucas and I] were kind of casually walking and he said casually, "I think we're going to do…" the first [i.e., prequel] three movies. "Would you want to do one of them?" And I said, "No, George, you should do them. There's no one else who should touch them but you." I later found out that other directors he had asked to join in—Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis—had said the same thing, basically, so George was stuck directing when I think he had hoped to simply produce them.

FJI: And I understand Lucas came to visit you on the set, and made a suggestion you incorporated into the movie.

RH: Yeah, he came by my first day directing first unit and it was a really great show of support. It meant a lot to me and he was completely hands-off, hanging around by the monitors—he and his wife, Melody—and at one point he leaned in and said, "You know another thing Han Solo would do in this situation?" And I said, "What?" And he sort of acted it out [laughs] and it was cool. George embodied Han Solo. And I immediately turned around and said, "I think we ought to try that next." We did, and it gets a nice reaction.

FJI: So as we wind down: Is Solo just Grand Theft Auto on a larger scale?

RH: Grand Theft Auto and Rush, with a little dash of Willow. Those are the three that I'd say.