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Interview with Ron Howard, Director of "A Beautiful Mind"
by Rebecca Murray and Fred Topel




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RON HOWARD (Director)

How many of the incidents in the film were things John Nash did, and how many had to be cinematized?
Much of that had to be cinematized. First of all, Nash is not particularly communicative about that sort of thing, and not particularly forthcoming. He's not grumpy about it, but I found other mathematicians who were a little more articulate about the creative process. I thought it was my job to try and put the audience inside this character's head, and try to offer some insight. I borrowed from a few areas including a biography I was reading about Tesla, which was kind of interesting. He used to be able to visualize his inventions coming together in his mind. He could literally see it click and sometimes he could even see problems in the engineering of his concept, even in his mind. I thought this was pretty remarkable. I talked to a lot of mathematicians about it and some had sort of visual clues for me, others not. I started borrowing on phrases that people used to describe those sorts of break-throughs, those insights. Like, “Suddenly the clouds lifted, the light went on, it was like a bolt of lightning, in a flash I saw it - those sort of things.” I began to use those and try to work with that idea.

What surprised you the most about dealing with Nash?
At first I thought he was very, very fragile, and as I said, he's a bit elusive, not terribly forthcoming. I thought that his life struggle had been so difficult that he was somehow wounded. As I came to meet with him and talk to him more and more - and also read more about him - he's always been a bit cryptic and sort of disconnected in his communications. If you stay with him long enough and keep talking to him, his answer will loop around and find its way back with real clarity. I began to feel better and better about where Nash is today. He seems to be quite healthy and highly functional.

Was there ever any evidence that his code breaking ability was ever tapped for anything useful?
All that is classified and also a period of his life that he doesn't have a lot of real clear recollections. It's hard to say whether he's not supposed to say, or whether he just doesn't quite remember. I don't think that anyone was ever really able to do much in the way of digging up much that was concrete or specific about what he was doing or what it was it entailed.

Was the Ed Harris character a fabrication of his illness?
I'm trying not to talk too specifically about the way we presented some of the twists and turns in his life, and some of the struggles that he went through and dealt with as a result of the mental illness. But we have done a lot in terms of sort of creating symbols and impressions of what his experience was like. Many, many aspects of his life have been simplified, shaped, and made into a movie story.

You've been very careful in the press release to say that it was inspired by events in the life of John Nash.
Absolutely because we never set out to make a bio pic. But it is an extraordinary story and you couldn't tell this story if it was fiction. It's one of those that is so strange and ultimately very triumphant, it has to have been real or else you'd find it contrived and totally incredible. So it's sort of the headlines of his life, key pivot points - periods of his life - that the movie lands on and deals with that do, I think, capture the spirit of his journey and his relationship with Alicia.

This is a much riskier project than your last one - “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Why were you so passionate about getting this made?
Although “The Grinch” was risky because it cost about three times as much (laughing). I'm thrilled that the studio wanted to make the movie, and accommodations were made. I made the movie efficiently and people reduced their salaries and cooperated to a degree. Primarily, we had a wonderful screenplay and a green light from the studio, without a commitment from a star.

Russell Crowe doesn't suffer fools gladly on film sets. How did you and he get along?
We got along well. I had many conversations with directors who had worked with Russell before. I had a sense of what his process was going to be like. Each and every one was saying the same thing, “Don't miss this opportunity. There's a kind of intensity, don't mistake it for intractability or obstructionist behavior. It's all about trying to be as good as he can be and well worth the collaboration.” I hope I get to work with Russell again. We got off to a great start and worked very well together. First of all, we were seeing the movie the same way and that helps, we weren't in conflict. We also had a wonderful screenplay, which we had confidence in. Secondly, I think it was pretty obvious to Russell that I was there to try and do everything I could do each and every day to provide him the opportunity to excel and to realize the potential of each scene. I'm not loud about it, but I'm pretty dogged.

Do you have any plans for the DVD?
Only some scenes that were left out that I thought were poignant and powerful, but didn't work within the flow of this movie. Not to say there should be a director's cut - this is the director's cut. I'm very happy with the cut, but there may be some scenes that people might find interesting. Also a few of the visual effects while not dazzling and stunty, are sort of interesting in the way they are constructed with a lot of detail and thought. I think that might be sort of interesting to include.

We don't think of this as a special effects movie. What are some of the scenes you are referring to?
Some of these epiphanies did entail visual effects and took a far amount of planning, not only on the visual effects side, but also conceptually, and working in hand with the mathematician, with the visual designer, with Akiva Goldsman and myself, all putting our heads together and trying to sort these things out. I wanted them to be subtle on the one hand but have a relationship with each other, as well. That was interesting to work on. Some of the other shots were a little surprising.

Can you tell us about some of the scenes you took out?
There was one scene that featured my father that wound up being cut; he did a great job.

You cut your own father?
Sure, absolutely, I'm a cold-blooded bastard (laughing). It's the movie first! But I'm going to include that scene because it's right on theme. In it, my father's a schizophrenic who Nash observes. The schizophrenic is ranting and raving to no one. The psychiatrist mentions to Nash, “That person's reality is his own. It's not that it doesn't exist; it exists for him. We can't perceive it.” I thought that was an interesting insight.

If you don't have time to participate in a DVD, would you rather a DVD still come out without your participation?
Well, sure, I do participate in terms of knowing what is happening with the DVD. Certainly not in the case of “Willow,” which is George's movie - he produced it - but with “The Grinch.” There's a lot of material with “The Grinch.” It might be a few years down the line when I get a chance, but maybe there will be another Collector's Version that we could come up with, or I could participate in more.

Do you have anything you could do for a “Parenthood” DVD?
That's a good question. I'm beginning to look back at a lot of the movies, I want to review some of the outtakes and some of the gag reels and think about putting together some of the interviews. As a fan, I really appreciate all the extra material that is included on a well thought out DVD.

You've done an enormous variety of films. Is there a common factor?
If there is one, I think it's a kind of a curiosity that I have for characters and the way they cope, particularly with loss or the threat of loss. I'm always intrigued by a character who thinks they are going down one path and suddenly has to face the possibility of a complete change, of an overwhelming loss. Even comedicly with a movie, such as “Parenthood,” to me that was very much about thinking that you had it very much under control and then finding out that you just don't. The whole experience of being a parent, and coping with that. Of course, “Apollo 13” was completely about that. They thought they were going to the moon and they were confronted with the threat not only of losing that dream, but the loss of life. I found that was very much apparent with “A Beautiful Mind,” as well.

It's true of “The Grinch” as well.
I find that fascinating in a human-interest sort of way. It's kind of what life's journey is always about. The unpredictability and then the coping with those trials.

Audiences still see you as that “young actor.” Do you still get asked about that earlier work?
Everyday. Everyday of my life if I step outside of my house. My wife doesn't ask me about it too much, thank God (laughing).

Do you get sick of it?
It depends on what people have to say about it and want to know about it. I'm really proud of that and I think that I can afford to be really nostalgic about it and really appreciate what those shows gave me, and what they meant to my life. I've been able to carry on and pursue the big dream, which from about the age of 8 or 9, was to become a movie director. Had I felt crippled by those experiences, they'd be bittersweet. But thankfully, I've been able to have the adult life I dreamed of.

Do you think you are a better director because you were an actor for so many years?
Undoubtedly. Look, I wouldn't have been a director, I wouldn't have thought about being in the business, I'm sure. I discovered it through acting, through observing people carrying out that job and saying that seems to suit me better than being in front of the camera. I just felt like the total involvement looked fascinating and intriguing and when I began to do it, I just fell in love with it. I don't have a show business personality. Had I grown up in the Mid-West and my father had not had the courage to leave the farm and decide to go be an actor, which is what led our whole family into the theatrical world, I probably would have been a basketball coach.

Why do you avoid acting?
I have turned down every offer that's come my way and I haven't pursued any opportunities, but it would be fun to do some acting again. The only resistance has been that, first of all, once I became a director, it was such a revolution in my life and in people's minds that I didn't want to confuse the issue at all. I really just wanted to go and use every working hour to pursue this. It's great work; I love it. Then I began building a company and I also have four kids and a real devotion to trying to be as responsible and loving a father as I can be. I really haven't felt that I can afford to take the time to act. If I had three weeks to go be in somebody's movie, what I really ought to do is go hang with my kids or go help Brian more with Imagine. So I haven't been able to take advantage of any opportunities that have come my way. But, things are settling down a little bit - I'm not exactly sending out resumes - but I wouldn't mind doing some acting.

You also said that if someone you worked with wanted you for a week, it would be difficult to say no.
It would be difficult, and that probably still holds true. Russell still claims he is going to direct a movie and he says he's got a part - a seven-line part - for me. One day, he was really miserable, just shivering. It's one of those things where it's 30 degrees and he has to wear a summer cotton shirt - that's what actors are always faced with. He was standing there and I walked over in my nice warm parka with the right hat, a set of gloves on, and I said, “Here's the deal. When I'm doing my seven lines for you, you can dress me any way that you want. I'll be on time, and as miserable as I am, I'll be there for you.” And I laughed and he said, “Okay.” As I walked away he says, “I just cut you to six lines.”



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