Friday 16 November 2018

Ron Howard's rescue mission for Solo: A Star Wars Story

After the production of Solo, the new Star Wars movie hit the rocks, the producers turned to hit-maker Ron Howard to save the day

Star Wars cast and crew (left to right) Thandie Newton, Ron Howard, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Alden Ehrenreich, Chewbacca, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson
Star Wars cast and crew (left to right) Thandie Newton, Ron Howard, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Alden Ehrenreich, Chewbacca, Donald Glover, Emilia Clarke and Woody Harrelson

Julia Molony

It was mid-way through 2017 when reports of trouble on the set of Solo: A Star Wars Story started to emerge. Much of the footage had already been shot when the ocean liner-sized film production based in Pinewood Studios in England ran aground after weeks rocked by stormy waters.

The project, the original story of the beloved Star Wars hero Han Solo, was thrown into crisis and the two directors at the helm, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were fired. In the scramble that ensued to hire a new captain, the producers at Lucasfilm must have been looking for a safe pair of hands.

They then turned to veteran film director Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon and Apollo 13. Here was a man with a long illustrious career and two Oscars (Best Director and Best Picture for A Beautiful Mind) to his name. But while his track record in storytelling is assured, he'd never taken on a mega-budget franchise film of this scale.

Howard came to Star Wars as an admirer, rather than a die-hard fan - which was helpful, he says now, in his quiet hotel room, tucked away from the noise of the Solo promo circus going on outside. It meant he wasn't overly reverent. He could bring "a little bit of objectivity to it".

The problem with Lord and Miller, his predecessors, he explains, came down to "creative differences" between them and the company who hired them. The pair have built their reputation turning out family-friendly crowd-pleasing comedies with an identifiably tongue-in-cheek tone. The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, placed them among the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. But their signature approach proved to be ill-suited for a Star Wars movie. "It's like a culture. If you are making a movie that takes place in Paris, you want to get to the right street corners. And recognise which side of the river you are on and things like that," says Howard, adding that despite this, he found the existing team extremely receptive to new ideas.

Directing a Star Wars movie represented a whole new proposition for Howard, who has become best known for producing films that deal in psychological complexity. "It hasn't been a specific ambition," he says, to take on a blockbuster. "And yet, of course I've always had a little creative curiosity around the ways these movies transport an audience and can entertain you."

He agonised for a little bit about whether to do it. When the "opportunity appeared, I was very very cautious about it. But I didn't have a lot of time to react, which was maybe a good thing. And I really liked the story. And I liked the cast. Smart, young, charismatic cast. And I felt strongly that Alden (Ehrenreich, the break-out star who takes on the role of Solo) could pull this off."

The deciding vote was cast by his beloved wife Cheryl. She "knows me better than I know myself", he says. And she told him: "I think if you pass on this, you might wind up having regrets."

He can handle pressure and professional risk much more than "regrets" which he says are "something I never want to live with. I'd rather take a chance and be disappointed by an outcome, than feel like I didn't try. It was a bit of a leap but an interesting one."

Cheryl was his high-school sweetheart, has known him since the iconic family comedy of the 1970s Happy Days and she remains, after almost 43 years together, his most important sounding board. "She's amazing. And creatively adventurous herself, she's a novelist and has always been kind of a creative secret weapon that I've been able to lean on, too." The pair have four children together, and though two of their daughters, (Bryce Dallas Howard and Paige Howard) have followed their dad into showbiz, they appear to be as close to the mythical, happy-go-lucky all-American family as it's possible to be.

Perhaps it's this grounding which has allowed Howard to thrive and to survive, optimism intact, in an industry populated by sharks. Since his earliest days playing Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, Howard has been loved by the public and within his industry for his upbeat equanimity. It's not an easy task, to take on a semi-completed film as a rescue job, especially for a director who is used to finding projects and nurturing them from inception. How did he handle it? "I think the range of my experience has put me in a position to be able to come in quickly and not be intimidated by the logistics of it."

He gives a gracious nod to all the work that Lord and Miller had already put in. "I was very grateful for many of the aesthetic choices, certainly the cast, and a lot of the scene work, certainly the humour, that Chris and Phil had already brought to the project."

Does the pressure of a doing a job like this take its toll?

"I don't think it takes much of a toll," he says cheerfully. "I'm managing to stay healthy and happy. But I work hard and I try to be as prepared as I can be. I try to create as much structure around what can be a very chaotic process as possible."

Ultimately, he copes well in the filmmaking world because it's what he's always known. He first started out as a child actor while still in short trousers. "I've been in the business, doing this work, on these sets since I was four years old. So for me, it's a very comfortable environment. Sometimes it can be stressful, but it's familiar. And I sort of trust a process of collaboration and that kind of creative problem solving. And I'm always eager to share it with audiences. And in my career, more often than not, audiences have connected with the work. Sometimes they don't. That's part of the high-wire act and the thrill of the adventure. And at the end of the day that's what I think of all of these projects as - creative expeditions and personal adventures. I'm a pretty timid guy out in the real world. So I wouldn't be jumping out of airplanes or deep-sea diving or flying aerobatics or anything like that. The movies kind of provide an impetus to have these sorts of experiences."

If he's risk averse in his private life, it's at work that he feels it's "imperative" to let rip a little bit. "If you want to stay vibrant.

"I think it's a really interesting time in narrative movie making. And when I say movie making, motion pictures, I'm including television now. Because to me it's all blending together in really interesting ways. If this is your career, your life's work, it's a pretty fascinating moment. If you love a story, you can find the way to tell it. That's an exciting time."

Solo: A Star Wars Story is out now.

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