The Oscar Nominated director talks about Frost/Nixon
As he celebrates 50 years in the entertainment business, director Ron Howard has quite a CV, having adapted bestselling novels like The Da Vinci Code, explored the lives of many in biopics such as A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man and recreated famous moments in history with classic films like Apollo 13.
Howard’s new movie, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s hit play Frost/Nixon, continues that tradition, with Howard examining the political climate in America during the ’70s following Watergate. Here, the childhood actor-turned-director talks about the film, for which he recently received an Oscar nomination.
Q: How much did you know about the Frost/Nixon interviews before seeing the play? A: I was well aware of the interviews, but I had no idea of all the drama surrounding the staging of this event. I really didn’t know too much about David Frost, whose irrepressible drive is really the engine that makes the story so interesting.
Q: How did you find out about the play? A: I actually had knowledge of it and talked to Peter Morgan even before he finished writing the play. And he teases me to this day, saying that I had kind of a blank stare when he first mentioned it to me.
Q: When did you first see FROST/NIXON on stage? A: I first saw it in London, at the Donmar Warehouse, which is an intimate venue, just a few days after it opened. I’m glad I saw it in that small theatre because I got to see Frank Langella and Michael Sheen at a short distance, essentially giving film performances. Later, when the venues changed and the theatre got bigger, the performances got bigger too.
Q: What was it about the play that made you want to shoot the film? A: I remember having such a surprisingly, involving, entertaining and emotional experience watching the play. A lot of the choices were very theatrical, and I knew it would be a challenge to find the cinematic equivalence to try to get those values out of the story and onto the screen, but I was so impressed with what they did that when it was over I immediately called my agent and the producer Brian Grazer to tell them that I would make the movie. Right there and then I decided that it would be my next film.
Q: What attracted you about the story? A: I think it was the blend of these two really unique and unexpected characters in conflict. They are both flawed, but also have real virtues. There are no good guys and bad guys here! So, we have complicated characters blended with a look at that specific event and moment in time; and yet, without any political agenda to it! The film is not dogmatic and it trusts the audience to remember, observe, and think for itself. And it is very entertaining, which altogether makes a very rare combination.
Q: Was it clear for you that the two main roles had to be played by the same actors? A: Yes, and I was very excited to work with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. I knew we would explore other possibilities, but part of me always felt that it had to be them, and I am so happy they did the movie in the end. Michael Sheen had won popularity after THE QUEEN came out, so the studio was satisfied and convinced we wouldn’t find a better Frost. In the case of Frank Langella, by the time the play got to New York it was clear that any other actor trying to get into the role of Richard Nixon would be playing catch-up and walking in the shadow of this Tony award-winning performance. And I felt the audience had to get the benefit of what this great actor had to offer to the role. Usually, the studio trades-out the stage actor; but I was really happy I got them both in the film.
Q: What were they both like to work with? A: They were great to work with! And, of course, they had this amazing chemistry after having done the play. Interestingly, they were friendly and got along very well, but they didn’t spend much time together because they didn’t want to have a comfortable chit-chatty off-the-set relationship going on. So, they kept a little distance between each other, which I felt was very helpful.
Q: Even though the story is dominated by the clash between the two protagonists, the supporting characters play an important part in the film too. A: Well, one of the first ideas I had that night at the Donmar Warehouse, was that we could breathe more life into the supporting characters and create more connections with the audience. I thought it would be really great to see this drama play out from their perspective too. So, I started talking to Peter Morgan about that and we flushed out those characters a little bit, rebound some things and did more research. The writing was so good that I was able to get Kevin Bacon to come in on a supporting role. Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Matthew Macfadyen were excited about it too, and Toby Jones (who was also great) was Peter’s idea. It was really fun to put this cast together.
Q: How would you describe Peter Morgan and the relationship you had with him? A: He is funny, very talented and has incredible insight into people. And what he sees and understands about what is going on in the world around him is really remarkable. This is Peter Morgan’s idea and he nurtured it for years, and we had a great collaboration.
Q: What environment did you try to create on the set? A: I tried to create a busy environment with the tremendous foundation of Peter’s great writing. I asked him not to change the text too much, as I liked so many of those scenes, and we encouraged improvisation to make it more immediate. I wanted to create a very naturalistic, spontaneous kind of feel to the movie. So, we never rehearsed -because the main cast had rehearsed enough already- and I even wanted the camera operators to sort of have to discover these scenes in a way. There were a lot of my rules or principles and my own patterns that I bent or broke doing this film, but I am happy that I did!