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Ron Howard talks about the Heidi Montag and 'SNL' presidents Funny or Die videos

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Oscar-winning director Ron Howard recently made a couple of hilarious videos for Funny or Die starring the SNL presidents and Heidi Montag as a way to help support the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Howard talked to EW.com about the brilliant minds behind the videos (embedded after the jump), what it was like to work with Heidi, why he likes working on the Internet, and what’s going on with that Arrested Development movie.

EW: Where did you get the idea for doing these clips?

RON HOWARD: During the campaign, I did a spot for bringing out the vote and supporting Obama, with Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler. It was this idea I had. I needed a little help and a little infrastructure to get it going. Judd Apatow guided me to Adam McKay and Funnyordie.com. The support was great and really helped me bring that to fruition. And then I happily stepped out of the political frontline. (Laughs)

A couple months ago, I met Elizabeth Warren. We were talking about this Consumer Financial Protection Agency. She made the point that the Consumer Product Safety Agency prevents us from having lead in toys and hairdryers that blow up, and that sort of thing. Our financial well-being needs looking after, as well. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into lobbying efforts to try to prevent this Consumer Financial Protection Agency. She was frustrated by it.

The composer Hans Zimmer, who I work with a lot, is very close with [Simpsons producer James L.] Brooks. We started talking about what we could do. I brought in Adam McKay. Jim Brooks brought in Al Jean from The Simpsons.

Quite the brain trust there!

We started cooking up ideas. Brooks kept saying, “We need a direct plea to call the senators and register concern.” So Mike Farah, one of the producers at Funny or Die, thought of Heidi. It was quickly written. We found out that Heidi wanted to do it. I said that I’d show up and direct it. It was fun! She was incredibly well-prepared, she was excited about doing it, and she believed in the idea.

I never really followed her one way or the other…

Nor did I.

I was totally surprised by how she took the air out of herself.

It was great that she was willing to have a little fun with her persona. She understood the concepts, that there are these risks in borrowing, in letting interests run up on the credit cards, and hidden costs and charges. She realizes, along with all the stars that participated in the Presidential Reunion, that it’s great to use comedy to raise a point.

The Daily Show does this nightly, and brilliantly. The first time I ever saw Elizabeth Warren was in a Jon Stewart interview. She’s just a very grounded, very common-sense person, who is very centrist and pragmatic in her ideas, and is fighting hard for this Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Aside from the message of the video, what is it you like about doing these videos, as a filmmaker?

They’re playful. They’re quick. When people are doing something, and it’s not careerism and it’s not for money, it tends to feel a lot like playtime. The Funny or Die people are hilarious, and it’s great that they’re willing to use the site in this way from time to time. These [videos] are like political cartoons that are meant to entertain and stir people’s curiosity and thought process.

It was fun to hang out with Heidi and her gang and make this. She was so excited about it, and really professional. She enjoyed it for all the right reasons and liked what I had to say and liked the chance to be in front of a camera and really create a scene.

Where was it shot and how long did it take you to do it?

It was just a quick afternoon shoot. It was up in the Hollywood hills, a house that Funny or Die had rented out. I think the owner occasionally rents it out for movies and TV shows.

Tell me about the Presidential Reunion skit. Each time another actor playing a president comes in, it’s like, “Oh my god, they got him, too!”

It was pretty epic. I think everybody was attracted to the issue and felt this was a viable way to frame some of these questions and get people thinking. Dana Carvey told me that there had been numerous attempts to get them all together, and that none of them had been very successful. Some of [those attempts] had been potentially lucrative, commercials and that sort of thing. Schedules would never work. The impetus wasn’t really there for people.

In this case, it all came together in about a week. People were flying in. There were a lot of garment bags in the dressing room. That was a long day. The Heidi thing went very quickly and was fun, just her. The Presidential Reunion was kind of like shooting a little movie. It was about a 15-hour day. Pretty much never stopped laughing.

Do you have more videos that haven’t gone up yet?

There were a lot of funny ideas, but these were the two that we managed to get made in a timely fashion. There could be something else down the road. We all enjoyed it. I think it’s possible that at some point we’d connect again, if we had a point that we felt was worth raising, that wasn’t necessarily getting people’s attention.

Since you’re new to this medium, how do you feel about it? A lot of people see these things, and these videos go viral. Probably not as many people who will see one of your movies, but on something like the presidents skit, I bet it’s kind of close.

It’s certainly like an opening weekend. It’s gratifying and exciting. Ten years ago, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and I were trying to launch a site called POP.com. We poured a lot of energy into it over a year and a half. The technology really wasn’t there to make it happen. You couldn’t move the camera, because it would pixelate and take even longer to stream. There were just a lot of limitations, and ultimately, we abandoned the project.

Since I began using the Internet, I’ve really felt like this was an aspect of its application that would be very stimulating creatively, and provide a grassroots forum, a chance for people to express themselves without spending a lot of money. And it’s proving to be that. It’s fun to participate. A movie takes a year or 18 months to come together. A TV pilot, that’s three or four months. Here, we have a really stimulating meeting, and Adam McKay and Al Jean [start] writing the sketch. Eighteen hours later, we have a sketch. We all read it, throw in our two cents. They do a quick rewrite. Within seven days, we have this extraordinary array of people participating. It’s pretty fun.

It was that same brain trust on both videos?

It all grew out of that. Funny or Die has some writers also. There was an urgency to the project, so everyone kind of jumped in. The Funny or Die team is great, and the experience that they’re gaining is just fantastic. I worked with all of them on the piece that I did for the campaign, and it’s fantastic to see just how much they’ve grown, how funny they are, and how active they are. They’re just unbelievably prolific. They’re doing three, four, five of these a week. It’s exciting, it’s creative, it’s dynamic, it happens fast, they get quick response. It’s a great use of the technology.

Tell me what your next project is on the big screen.

I can’t really announce it yet, but I’m in really serious conversations with Vince Vaughn about a comedy. It’s looking promising.

Any news on Arrested Development? I’m contractually obligated to ask.

Mitchell Hurwitz is writing. Actors are standing by with bated breath. So is the studio. [Hurwitz] has been really caught up with some TV projects, but he’s coming free, and seems to be throwing the majority of his attention to the project. There’s a narrator that wouldn’t mind getting to the microphone one more time, as well.

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