Ron Howard never really thought he’d add documentarian to his résumé.
“I always had a bit of an itch to try it, but I was always intimidated by it,” the veteran director tells EW. “I love directing scripted movies and television, and I wasn’t sure the two things could be compatible.” But after a series of events that included seeking advice from Jonathan Demme and getting the offer to make a documentary about Jay-Z’s Made in America music festival, Howard decided to take the leap a few years ago.
He’s now on this third documentary, Pavarotti (out June 7), and he tells EW he intends to make nonfiction filmmaking a “semi-permanent” part of his career going forward. There are several factors that have contributed to the success of Howard’s documentaries, from his producing team, including long-time creative partner Brian Grazer, to the public’s interest in his subjects.
But the greatest secret to their inimitable style — what makes them Ron Howard films — is his background in narrative storytelling and the use of that framework with a more objective lens. Howard explains to EW that for each project, he has looked to previously existing fictional films to inspire his story structure.
“With Made in America, I said, well, it’s like a Robert Altman movie, it’s like Nashville — we’re going to follow a lot of threads and find the themes and weave them together,” he says. “With The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, it’s a survival story. This is just their touring years, so at a certain point, [they] had to get out with their lives intact, their psyches intact. That’s a little bit like Das Boot, it’s an adventure story. All they have is each other, and they’re going on this journey.”
When it came to getting inside the life story of renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who was famous for bringing opera to the masses, there was a natural pre-existing framework to construct his story around: opera itself. “You don’t have to be an opera lover to be engaged by him,” Howard says. “As I began to watch his performances and listen to the arias and understand the thematics, I began to see that we could actually use those arias to help tell the story. If we found performances where he was roughly living through a period of time that we were dramatizing, we could almost make an opera about Pavarotti using those arias.”
To get more of the details of how Howard crafted this intimate portrait of a larger-than-life figure, EW sat down with Howard to discuss musical genius, interviewing Bono, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your first documentary was in 2013, now this is your third, and you’re working on a fourth. What made you want to delve into this nonfiction form of storytelling? How does it differ from narrative filmmaking?
RON HOWARD: Brian [Grazer] knew that I was curious. Brian had produced a couple of documentaries, Inside Deep Throat and Beyond the Mat, and had fun with them. The producer, Steve Stoute, [was] talking to Brian one day and they said, “We’re going to do this music festival, and we were thinking about covering it.” They wondered if I’d be interested. They were only a couple of weeks away from doing it, so it was kind of a late decision. He asked me about it, and it happened to fit beautifully in my schedule… [I asked Jonathan Demme about balancing fictional filmmaking and documentary filmmaking,] and he said, “Oh yeah, you can definitely do both. Because you come and go with a documentary. In fact, your objectivity is useful. So editors keep going and then you come in with a burst on energy. If you can’t do the interviews, somebody else does them. You still help work up the questions. When you can do them, you do them.” It’s this thing you have this ongoing relationship with, and then finally you have to focus in and make the movie, once you gather all the interviews and all the information. He said, “You should take a chance and do it.” He really encouraged me. So I did. I took that leap.
In a narrative film, you’re looking to put your directorial stamp on it, and we talk a lot about auteurs and knowing a film belongs to a certain artist. But in a documentary, the director’s point of view should be secondary to the subject to a degree — did you find that to be true?
I wound up being able to put much more of myself in Made in America than I ever expected. I learned so much because the world of Jay-Z’s festival was not a world I knew anything about. I was a complete fish out of water. But that turned out to be kind of the good news. I got to satisfy my curiosity, exercise different filmmaking chops, and I was able to put a lot of myself in it. I found this the same kind of experience with The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. Then the question was, what’s next? It’s been the same process of gathering information, doing the reading, exploring themes, and trying to find a narrative to help shape it into a real movie story.
How does making a documentary compare to making a fictional feature about a true subject, like Rush or A Beautiful Mind?
It’s a little different exercise. It’s still incumbent upon you to find what it is you’re fascinated by, and that’s what you’re sharing. It’s very much a cousin to the scripted projects that I’ve done based on real events. It’s still a process of discovery and sharing. It’s more limited and therefore more rigorous, because you can only share what you can back up, either with archival footage or somebody’s interview statement that is not necessarily saying what you want to say. It’s saying what must be said based on what you can gather. I still want to shape it into a movie experience.
With Eight Days a Week, you had such popular, well-known music to take you through the story, and obviously Pavarotti was all about bringing opera to the people, but was it a greater challenge to select which songs to underscore which emotional beats?
It was this simple: I started saying, “Well, what are these songs about?” So they’d get me the lyrics, and I’d say, “Wow, oh, sad clown is singing because he’s not sure he wants to perform, but he does.” Pavarotti went through that period of his life. Let’s find a performance where that’s what he’s going through. “Oh, this is about discovering love!” Well at this point, he’s rediscovering romantic love. Let’s find a performance where it parallels that moment in his life. So then I said, “Well we’ve got to put the subtitles of the arias in the movie because I want audiences to understand what that song is about.” He was great at connecting himself emotionally with what he was singing about. It’s not just technical. It’s soulful. By finding those performances — and fortunately, he was highly filmed — we were able to work with the performances and offer audiences who don’t know much about opera or don’t think they even care, to understand that’s a great art form. It does express very relatable human emotions in powerful ways. They really do make your hair stand up on end.
Were you a big fan of opera and his work? Or did it just land on your desk and open your eyes to those things you just expressed?
It opened up my eyes. I recognized that opera was powerful. I’d been to opera. I knew what it was to feel the audience break into an ovation based on the feeling somebody had created through their voice, and what opera could be, but I didn’t have any deep appreciation. I was more fascinated by him as a performer, his journey, and his pursuit of excellence. One of the big surprises for me was that he was not a prodigy. He had some good DNA — his father was a good amateur, semiprofessional tenor, but his mother had the wisdom to say, “Give up your job as an elementary school teacher.” She empowered him to do that. Even after that, it was six years of study before he could be that artist who could actually be noticed and make the breakthrough.
Was there one bit of footage or one interview that you felt really unlocked who Pavarotti was for you?
There were three or four moments. One is Bono’s interview. He’s so expressive and communicates so much about what Pavarotti meant to him and therefore should mean to all of us. What Pavarotti stood for as a man and an artist, and how that could be experienced through watching his performances and listening to them. I think Bono was probably inadvertently talking about himself a little bit too. The interviews with [Pavarotti’s] daughters, who talk about the pain, the disappointment, the distance they would sometimes feel, and yet, also this deep connection. There’s this paradox there. And their sense of loss now that he’s gone and they miss him. [It’s] not anger over what they went through, it’s disappointment that turbulence cost them time with him. There’s something really profound in that. I found that very, very moving.
You can certainly feel the emotion in their interviews and with his first wife.
She talks about how time heals, and you begin to see the whole person. It’s a lot of wisdom in their words. I appreciated that. That was brave. And wise. As people, we can learn a lot through their interviews. I also thought that some of those really raw home movies where Nicoletta, his second wife, is videoing him and she’s kind of prodding him a little bit. She’s asking, “What about Pavarotti the man?” And his reaction to that — it’s just a reminder that when you live your life, no matter how fully, no matter how successful, you expect a lot of yourself. That you’re going to disappoint even yourself. That’s just life. But that he could own that, and you could see it in his eyes. I found that really moving.
Why do you think Pavarotti broke through in a way so many classical artists just don’t manage to do?
His charisma. In his own way, he’s very telegenic, and that was kind of an X-factor, a superpower. The fact that he could talk about himself and be a great interview and be entertaining and funny would probably open people up to a second listen. I also think that he knew he wanted to take it as far as he could take it. While the criticism hurt, he was not going to let the critics and the mainstream sense of propriety around opera limit him. I think he paid for that. In the last 10 years or so of his life, critics were hard on him pretty regularly. In that Nicoletta interview, he said, “I was always criticized,” so here’s a guy, when he says he was always criticized, we also know he got a lot of glowing reviews. But it’s the negative ones that you feel, and I can attest to that. Yet, he had the courage to say, “Well, damn it, too bad. I’m not going to let that change what I’m going to do with my time and my energies and talent.”