Though it’s been a whopping seven years since religious symbology professor Robert Langdon has appeared on the big screen, Inferno director Ron Howard says he’s banking on the new film — the sequel to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, both movies Howard also directed — being worth the wait.
“It’s about making a movie when we all believed and agreed we had something exciting, fun, and worthy to share,” Howard told EW of the gap between Da Vinci Code films.
Circling Langdon’s mission to prevent a madman (Lone Survivor’s Ben Foster) from wrecking havoc on the world in an warped plan inspired by Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s writings, the suspense thriller features plenty of surprises and twisty turns, including a performance by series newcomer Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) that Howard calls “on another level.” Here, Howard talks how Jones’ character sets a new precedent for the franchise, how he bumped up the film’s action, and his plans for a potential fourth film in the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why take on a third Dan Brown film, especially one that has more of an action bent than its predecessors?
RON HOWARD: Movies are a lot of work. I think audiences are more and more demanding, and storytellers who care therefore have to be more and more ambitious. I think its nothing but healthy for the medium, whether it’s big screen movies or what’s happening on television or internet. So I felt like, the story was simply calling for it.
As a director, I love exploring. I sometimes confuse critics especially by venturing into areas where they’re not quite sure how to compare my latest movie with previous movies. But for me, I love the medium, I love the work. It’s fun, it’s thrilling, taking some creative risk is a blast. So this movie is a pretty good example of that from a technical filmmaking standpoint. It’s a good example of me thinking about how to push the envelope for audiences, building upon what Dan Brown has given us, building on what I think is really appropriate for this particular story. I wouldn’t want to force something on a movie and put some kind of stamp on something in an inappropriate way, but when I find the possibility to explore and offer audiences something that I think is developing an idea in a cool way and a fresh direction, that’s incredibly exciting.
And I have to say, we had blast on this movie, we really did. It wasn’t like oh, we gotta, we’re obliged to do another one of these movies. This was us being able to say, “This is a great idea, this is a movie we’d want to see. Let’s go tackle it in as exciting a way as we can imagine.”
The film, adapted from Dan Brown’s book of the same name, is inspired by Dante’s 14th century description of hell. Were you a fan of his work before helming Inferno?
No, not beyond whatever high school or college reading I did. Going back and really studying it and re-reading it and analyzing it, I realize now Dante was not only defining hell for western civilization and Christianity, but he was inventing the horror genre [with] all his vivid descriptions of the punishments of the sinner. It’s everything you’ve seen repeated in every great shock moment in a cool horror film.
This time around, Langdon isn’t quite the genius he was in previous films — as seen in the film’s trailer, he’s suffering from amnesia. It’s not every day you see a hero crippled nearly beyond recognition.
One of the great ways to define a powerful, dynamic character is to strip that character of some of his or her strengths and powers and then see them regain those powers. That’s one of the things that [Tom Hanks, who plays Langdon] loved about the character. Here’s Robert Langdon with a genius level IQ, and yet he’s locked. He’s at sea. He’s not sure what role he has in all this. Not only is his memory limited at this point, but he’s even unsure about his own moral position in all of this. That uncertainty creates so much suspense when you know this character is used to having all the answers. The other thing that was fun was that Felicity Jones’ character is every bit Langdon’s intellectual equal.
The female characters this time seem a little more complex than in previous franchise films.
I thought so too. And you know, while the leading ladies in the previous films are powerful, strong, and intelligent, Felicity’s character is on another level — she’s on Langdon’s level. It’s a collision of geniuses.
Shooting took you all over the world: Istanbul, Budapest, Turkey, Florence, and Venice. Did you receive any pushback from local authorities or officials about shooting in any specific locations?
It’s always a careful process of navigating these places and these historic locations. It’s part of the logistical challenge of creating these movies, because you want to bring the audience to this real place as often as you possibly can. In some instances you have to replicate portions of it, and we have done that in the past. In this case, not so much. We got a lot of cooperation everywhere we went and that allowed us to shoot faster. I went for a very modern contemporary street movie thriller in a way and so with that, we were also able to move more quickly. It was a look and feel that I worked with in the Formula 1 movie Rush.
In the first film, the Catholic Church took issue with certain aspects of the storyline. Did you find in the filming of Inferno that there was anything that could potentially raise similar criticisms?
Yes. Well, not from any institution because this [film] isn’t about theology, but about this very immediate issue and a very controversial subject of overpopulation and what to do about it. And in this particular case, we have an example of a crisis that society does not know how to or is unwilling to face in a unified way, and you have a rogue actor who is taking it upon himself to solve it in a very dangerous and catastrophic way. I think whenever society fails to tackle an important challenge, they expose themselves to that kind of action, whether it’s from an individual to a small group that hijacks the problem and attempts to enforce a solution. So you know what? I think that’s why audiences seeing this movie will feel there’s an immediacy to this. That’s what makes this much more of a contemporary action thriller than the previous movies, which were more philosophical.
Is there any chance you might direct a fourth Robert Langdon film should Dan Brown write the source material? [Ed. note: This interview was conducted before Brown announced plans for Origin, the fifth novel in his series featuring Robert Langdon.]
Well, I think I’m allowed to say that Dan Brown is working on another Robert Langdon novel. He’s a friend, he’s a wonderful guy, he’s an executive producer on the movie. But he’s always very secretive about what it is that he’s doing. So I don’t have any insight. I have no teasers to offer up but we’ll be waiting along with the rest of the world with bated breath to read the next Robert Langdon mystery.
Is that your way of saying “yes” to the possibility of directing another installment?