ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard. First, he won our hearts as a child and teen actor playing the beloved TV character’s, Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham, then he started directing hit and critically acclaimed movies from Splash and Cocoon to Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.
Yes, my guest today is actor, director, producer, and Academy Award winner Ron Howard. Often working with his longtime Imagine Entertainment partner, Brian Grazer and the industry’s top talent as well as its up and comers, Howard has produced more than 120 films and shows, and he’s directed or acted in more than 130, all while maintaining reputation for being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. His latest directorial effort, Thirteen Lives, is streaming on Amazon now. And I spoke to him at the Masters of Scale Summit this fall, just before he went on stage to talk about the impact he wants his films to have on the world, whether it’s de-stigmatizing mental illness or celebrating cooperation and volunteerism. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
So your parents were in the acting business. Did you always think that you would follow in their footsteps?
RON HOWARD: Well, before I ever thought about it, I was actually involved. So at age two, they were doing Summer Stock and if they needed a baby for a play, I’d be the baby. But by the time I was four, I was acting, and, of course, I didn’t have anything to say about it, particularly, other than they recognized that I enjoyed it. It was a positive experience for me. And that is my earliest recollections, are having a lot of fun.
And my dad realized I had an aptitude for it and was a naturally gifted teacher, and he really began to teach me not to perform, but to actually understand what the scenes were about. So we got in the old Plymouth and drove to Los Angeles, and he got me with his agent. And basically said, “I have no idea if this will go anywhere, but let’s just see.” And the first couple of jobs were actually on live television shows. And he was so good at preparing me, and it was just so anxiety free for me that the local casting agents took notice, and I wound up working a lot that year, which ultimately led to The Andy Griffith Show.
ALISON BEARD: So many child actors do go off the rails. So how did you manage not to do that?
RON HOWARD: Well, a lot of it had to do with them. They were fairly strict, not in any kind of harsh way, but fairly helicoptering way.
ALISON BEARD: Before that was a thing.
RON HOWARD: Before that was a thing. And of course, I was well known, and I think they had a lot of anxiety about security and other things. But at the same time, we always lived in the home he could afford. And as a struggling workaday actor, that meant we were in neighborhood of three bedroom, one-bath houses there in Burbank, California, and not gated communities or anything like that. But I just grew up enjoying it. I enjoyed being around the process.
You come to understand the art form, you understand the discipline involved, but you also understand this kind of comradery. And for me, it was a lot of energy that I could observe, even on The Andy Griffith Show, around this creative problem-solving, which was fun. And I could see the grownups really hustling, straining, arguing to try to get things, even on a show that looks as kind of relaxed and down-home as The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, there was a lot of laughter, but there was also a lot of hard work.
I was lucky in that I did not have this adolescent confusion that a lot of kids who do go off the rails have. And even when work was a little less forthcoming for me as I got older and went through the “awkward” adolescent stage, which kid actors go through, where acne and child labor laws are not your friend, at that point. They can hire somebody who’s over 18, who looks kind of like you and they don’t have to restrict their work hours and things like that, I knew I wanted to continue with it. And by the time I was 15, I also knew I wanted to be a director.
So I had this advantage of never feeling cheated by this experience. I always felt advantaged by it. And I think that was a huge step in the direction of having as a constructive, a sort of mental health outlook as one can have in that wacky business.
ALISON BEARD: And I definitely want to get to your transition to directing, but let me first ask you, as that child working with all of these amazing actors and directors, who did you learn the most from? And what did they teach you?
RON HOWARD: I learned a lot around The Andy Griffith Show, not from any one director, but most of the directors had been actors, and had a very comfortable way with the actors. And so the scene direction, the problem-solving was built around character. It wasn’t that sort of broad sitcom, hit the marks and say the jokes and belt them out loud, kid. It was much more about the truth in the scene, which is what Andy Griffith always advocated. It was born out of a place of honesty, and his kind of recollection of what it was like growing up in the South when he was a boy. And I think that was great training for me.
There was a guy named Robert Totten who directed me in some stuff at Disney, not any kind of household name, but he had directed his first film at age 21. That was an inspiration for me. There was a director on The Andy Griffith Show named Bob Sweeney, who would take me to task. I mean, he actually expected a lot of me, in a very loving, respectful way, but he was teaching me kind of the power of concentration and focus.
ALISON BEARD: At what age?
RON HOWARD: Eight, nine. And-
ALISON BEARD: That’s pretty cool.
RON HOWARD: Yeah, it was. And my dad was there a lot, and he was teaching me basically the simplest version of the method, Stanislavski. It was all about putting yourself into the character, into the situation, and understanding it on a kind of personal emotional level as much as you could. And then executing the written material through that lens and through that filter. He never explained it that way, but he was helping me build the bridge between whatever Opie the character was going through or any other part that I might be playing, and me, Ronnie, and how I would feel and what it might be like.
So to this day, I feel like I’ve got almost a hypersensitive, empathetic pathway. It drives my wife Cheryl crazy, because even when people piss her off and are clearly in the wrong, and I’m saying, “Yeah, but you never know what they might’ve gone through today.” And so we have some funny conversations that way.
ALISON BEARD: And it’s not like you ever played villains, but you still know how to do that. You know how to tap in. So you said that at age 15 you knew you wanted to direct.
RON HOWARD: Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: Why?
RON HOWARD: Well, at age 10, one of the directors on The Andy Griffith Show who had been an actor said, “I see the way you’re looking at the camera and I see the way you’re following the rehearsals, even when you’re not in the scenes. I have a feeling you’re going to be a director.” And I began to fall in love with, when I was around 12, yeah, that’s about right, 1966, with the movies. And this was a time kind of cinematic revolution, The Graduate, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde.
These films were sort of a little bit neo-realist, borrowing a bit from Europe. They had a bit of anarchy and rebellion. And I began to understand that there was this other thing beyond half-hour sitcoms that was filmmaking. And the person behind that was, first and foremost, the director, and I wanted to play in that sandbox.
ALISON BEARD: How do you make the transition from being this very famous child and then teen actor to directing?
RON HOWARD: Well, at that time, things were very much sort of siloed. Actors didn’t really direct very often. Once in a while, a high profile star like Paul Newman or somebody might leverage their way into directing something. But they weren’t hyphenates, in the way that they had been more in the silent era. People like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, others have directed a lot of their own films.
People especially didn’t come out of situation comedies and become feature directors very much. So when I would say I wanted to direct, I was met with a lot of patronizing pats on the head, and, “I bet one of these days you’ll get a chance.” And I didn’t want to hear about that. I was ready to go. So I went to film school. I was accepted at USC Film School, and I was in the first class of freshman. But that was interrupted by being cast in Happy Days, which was a good money job.
And I didn’t want to take that for granted. And so I took that job thinking, “Most series don’t go, The Andy Griffith Show was a fluke.” I’d do a year or two and come back to film school. And the show just kept going and going and going. And so I took it upon myself to begin making short films on the weekends. And more ambitious ones, with sound where I had to go rent equipment and get a crew to come and work with me and to write my own scripts.
And that led me, ultimately, to an opportunity with Roger Corman. Roger Corman, sort of famously king of the B movies, but so influential in terms of contemporary cinema. He launched Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jim Cameron, Jonathan Demme, who gave me my first movie, Joe Dante, so many really important directors.
In ’77, he let me direct a movie, if I would star in it, and it was called Grand Theft Auto. Actually, I had to blackmail on my way in. First, I had to act in a movie called Eat My Dust. And I said, “I will only do Eat My Dust if you give me a chance to direct.” And he gave me some hoops to jump through, like the movie would have to make X amount of money, which meant I’d have to go out and promote, Eat My Dust beyond being in it.
And then we have to write a script, and if they like the script and the budget and blah, blah, blah. So there were a lot of ifs, but it was the closest thing to a commitment that I’d ever seen. And I took the gamble. And while Grand Theft Auto was not the serial comic masterpiece that I was dreaming of trying to launch my career with, it was a hell of an opportunity to get some experience.
ALISON BEARD: And then right after that, you do Night Shift, you do Splash, so you have-
RON HOWARD: Well, in between, there was a visionary executive at NBC in charge of television movies. Her name was Deanne Barkley. She was the most powerful female executive in the business at that time, in a time when there were really no women with the levers of power.
She really believed in the idea of actors transitioning into directing. She gave Michael Landon a lot of opportunities, and Beau Bridges chances to direct and others. And she saw Grant Theft Auto and had a meeting with me, and said, “Would you like to direct movies at NBC? In fact, would you like to produce them? Would you like to come up with the ideas? There’s an open door here.”
And lo and behold, I made a television movie for Deanne Barkley for three straight off seasons from Happy Days. And I learned so much about filmmaking, but also taking responsibility for an entire production, which I did, financial risk, which I did. And put me in such a stronger position just a few years later when Brian Grazer and I would form Imagine Entertainment.
ALISON BEARD: Do you think that she wanted to help actors make that transition, because she thought actors were better at managing other actors when they became directors?
RON HOWARD: I think she believed in that. She wanted the movies to have heart. I think she felt like that actors could channel that and very quickly work well with actors. And I also think she was going after people who had TV names. I think it was also a way to bring some status and profile to some of the TV movies.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So then you do get to Night Shift and Splash, and they are hits.
RON HOWARD: Yes.
ALISON BEARD: So how did that feel?
RON HOWARD: First of all, it was validation. Night Shift was a bit of a rocky road. Michael Keaton makes his movie debut in that movie, and he’s fantastic in this character called Bill Blazejowski. The movie wouldn’t have been green lit without my friend Henry Winkler. I had now left Happy Days, but we remained such good friends, and he was kind of like a big brother for me. And he really came through. And at this point, when we couldn’t get the movie made, he agreed to come in and play this role. And it really got the movie green lit. So I’m forever grateful for that.
But it also launched this partnership with Brian Grazer. Both Night Shift and Splash were Brian’s original ideas. And the work he did as a young guy who had never gotten a feature film green lit before was remarkable. But there was something about the two of us, again, we’re baby boomers. I was late 20s, he was 30. They were actually looking, like, “Who’s going to tell us what the baby boomer audience really wants?”
And we were there with just enough credits behind us and enough experience and enough kind of chutzpah to push ourselves to the front of the line. And we clicked. We’re very different guys, but similar sensibilities, creatively, tonally, and those first two successes were undeniably meaningful.
Then I did a third film, which was an even bigger success. It wasn’t with Brian, it was a very established producing team. They brought me on to do a movie called Cocoon, which wound up being nominated for some Oscars and Golden Globes, another top 10 grossing movie without stars. So people thought I knew something, I had to pretend I agreed with them.
ALISON BEARD: So there must have been a lot of pressure. You have these hits out of the gate, and then how do you follow that up?
RON HOWARD: I remembered a story that I had read about in an autobiography of the great Hollywood icon, Frank Capra. He had struggled early in his career, had successes, but never got to the Academy Awards, which meant everything to him. And once he did with It Happened One Night, that was the first movie to kind of sweep the Oscars, in his book, he wrote a chapter about then being paralyzed and frozen.
In fact, a Christian Scientist, according to him, knocked on the door one day, when it was in the papers that he was dying, undiagnoseable disorder. And she apparently came in and said, “I think you’re just afraid, please consider this,” and left. And he started to say, “Damn, I think she’s right.” And apparently two or three days later, he was up and out of bed and credited her sort of knocking some sense into him, and him regaining the courage to take that chance and go forward.
Well, I felt a bit of that panic after this trifecta of movies. And I was beginning to have that anxiety, and I thought of Capra, but I also thought, I come out of television, in those days, you were making 24 to 26 episodes a year. And people, they give everything that they have, but they don’t all work. And that’s okay. You hope that out of 24 shows, maybe a third of them are really special.
There may be three or four that are underperformers, and then you hope the rest are really good tries. Maybe they didn’t get all the way there, but they were a great effort. And I said, “I think I’m going to be able to do this for the rest of my life. And I think I’m going to have agency over what I do, but I don’t want to freeze. I want to work. I’m not going to put that pressure on myself. I’m just going to give every movie everything that I have.” And that’s what I’ve done for the decades since.
ALISON BEARD: And had a lot of hits.
RON HOWARD: Yeah, I don’t know what the ratio is. We’ll see, we’ll added it all up.
ALISON BEARD: You’re not tracking the ratio. That’s good. That’s good.
So let’s talk about cast and crew building. You found these amazing actors. They were Michael Keaton-
RON HOWARD: Tom Hanks.
ALISON BEARD: … Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, Wilford Brimley was in Cocoon.
RON HOWARD: Yes.
ALISON BEARD: I remember Cocoon-
RON HOWARD: Yeah, he was remarkable.
ALISON BEARD: … and really loved it. And again, actors that were around, but no one saw as movie stars at that point. So how do you find people like that, amazing talents, but then who also work really well with other actors?
RON HOWARD: Well, you never know about that. I mean, people have reputations, and you can ask around, and sometimes directors will give you honest answers about people, and sometimes they won’t. It’s like any sort of reference. But I have found, and even early on in one of my TV movies, I directed Betty Davis. She was in her 70s, but she was still Betty Davis, multi-Oscar winning diva. And she wasn’t crazy about me directing. She thought I was this young guy from a sitcom, and I really had to struggle to earn her respect, which I ultimately did by leaning in, in my own way. Also, not trying to dominate, but using a kind of creative logic, that problem-solving that I had witnessed as a kid of rolling up your sleeves and saying, “Oh, this isn’t quite working. How might it work? What should we do? What do you think?”
And she wound up being very complimentary of me, by the end, and gave me a lot of confidence. I was able to carry that over into experiences like Cocoon. And I approached everyone differently, because I applied something that I had learned coaching kids basketball, which is something that I did. I loved it. And I did it partly because I knew I wanted to direct. I thought, “Well, if I can learn to manage a bunch of kids, I might learn something about handling temperamental actors down the road.”
And lo and behold, it was helpful, because what I prided myself doing as a coach was understanding what each kid kind of naturally could do on a court. And so it was a lot of fun for me to take a kid who couldn’t really dribble, but had good footwork, enough coordination that I could make him into a defensive specialist. And then by the end of the year, lo and behold, he could dribble and shoot. And I would do the same thing with actors around their character, building their confidence in their character, and my ability to work with them in a scene.
It’s not perfect. There’s friction, including Wilford Brimley, he was kind of tough on me. And I had to certainly deal with him very differently than I dealt with anybody else in that film. And it was sometimes unpleasant. But he was also elevating the tone of that movie, because he was a great, great improvisational actor and brought a naturalism and an honesty to our sci-fi, serio-comic premise that would not have been there without it. I recognized both things. He was tricky, and he was also exactly what the movie needed. And I made it my business to navigate that and not let him become toxic to the point where he would make it difficult for the others to flourish.
ALISON BEARD: And so what about a crew, building a crew? I know that you’ve started a new networking platform for the film and television industry, so people can staff sort of more creatively or expansively than they have in the past. So talk to me about how you have-
RON HOWARD: I’ve got to give credit to Brian Grazer on that, who was touring Y Combinator in Silicon Valley. He felt like, “Oh, first of all, every movie and television show is a startup, and so that’s a bootcamp for startups. Let’s do that for writers and potential showrunners.” And we immediately found that it really democratized the system, because people were submitting projects and ideas and themselves from all over the world. It was a very diverse, interesting, fresh set of voices. And we did that for a few years, and then along with Tyler Mitchell, our CEO at Impact, decided to roll that over and use this app that we had created to actually make it possible to track below the line talent.
It’s a way of making people know who you are, where you are, allowing them to reach out to you. So that, you might be in Spain or Wichita, Kansas, but if you have talent and you’re a good photographer, cinematographer, you have experience as a key grip or anything, you might be able to let the world know that you’re available. And whether they might say, “Oh, we’re looking for people in the Midwest. We don’t have to bring somebody from Hollywood.” And we’re just finding that that’s really beginning to have a nice impact on hiring patterns.
ALISON BEARD: And I had read one thing you said where it used to be you sort of asked people like, “Oh, who do you know?” You used people-
RON HOWARD: The production managers and line producers would have their kind of go-to list, which is okay, but like anything, it gets a little stagnant and a little limited. And it’s exciting when you can keep refreshing the talent pool for a television show. And by the way, what’s going on behind the camera, it does affect the outcome of a film. It does affect the culture around the making of a film or a television show. And so casting the crew is vitally important.
ALISON BEARD: How do you balance between that team you’ve worked with before that’s a well-oiled machine versus bringing in those fresh perspectives?
RON HOWARD: There’s certain roles on a production where I’ve always felt like, as much as I love people I’ve worked with before and am eager to work with again, I really want to cast that in a bespoke way for each and every film. I want to be influenced. And I think the film sometimes needs a very specific perspective, that’s in music, particularly, cinematography, production design, wardrobe design.
ALISON BEARD: And after those early successes, you and Brian must have just been inundated with scripts, with actors who want to work with you, crew that wants to work with you. So how do you decide which projects to pursue?
RON HOWARD: Well, our process early on was always to just back each other up, but to confer with each other. So neither of us had a kill button on the other person’s project. In fact, all we would do is support one another, but we would tell each other the truth. So if Brian had something that I just didn’t believe in, I’d tell him and vice versa. And sometimes the other person would go ahead with a project and sometimes we’d say, “Ah, he’s right. I’m going to pull back from that one.” And so that was just following our instincts and our gut. And of course, there’s always a process of gaining the support of your studio. And even though we had a lot of green light capacity and capability at that time, we still treated the studio executives and the gatekeepers really as partners.
That’s always been a way that I’ve worked. I’ve had a lot of latitude. I continue to have a lot of creative control, final cut. I also really like to engage with the executives. I’m not one of those people who thinks that they don’t know. I may disagree with them, and I may ultimately want to try to use my position to counter their comment or their note, but I also always want to keep the channels open, because they’re smart people and they have a lot at stake too, and they want it to succeed. And I really think you’re sort of cutting off your nose to spite your face if you just shut that out.
ALISON BEARD: You strike me as someone who’s sneakily persuasive.
RON HOWARD: I can be pretty persuasive. Again, I go back to that idea of sort of logical problem-solving, which is, for example, I have a basic principle, I call it the six of one rule. And if I’m working with somebody, let’s say, a cinematographer, and the cinematographer wants to approach a scene in a certain way, it’s not the way I visualized it. But when I hear that cinematographer out and hear why he or she wants to pursue the scene that way, I then take into account the storytelling values. What do I need for the scene? Does it conflict with that? Does it support that?
If it does achieve everything that my idea would’ve achieved, and sometimes more, and it becomes very obvious that you say, “Yes, great idea.” But if you don’t and it’s gray and it’s six of one, half a dozen of another, I always try to go that artist’s way. Because then I think there’s a kind of an X factor in the execution. It’s organic. They’re not responding to a director. They’re expressing themselves. So whether it’s the actors, the writer, key people on the production side, the editors, composers, absolutely, I have that final call and I use it a lot, but I find that it’s much easier to say no when people also recognize that you’re very eager to say yes.
ALISON BEARD: When you’re managing complex projects like a film. Amy Edmondson, who’s an HBS professor, talks about that. She actually did a case on the Thai cave rescue. So you’ve-
RON HOWARD: Oh, really?
ALISON BEARD: … just done a film-
RON HOWARD: Yes.
ALISON BEARD: … about the Thai cave rescue, Thirteen Lives. The film was also extraordinarily complex in terms of the expertise you needed, the water tanks you had to have. So when-
RON HOWARD: Also the cultural authenticity, which was vitally important. You get-
ALISON BEARD: So that was my question, when you have all of these things in different directions, the culture, the water, the tanks, the actors, do you delegate?
RON HOWARD: Well, delegate, yes, but not blindly. Again, I use the word deputize.
ALISON BEARD: And that’s not just from The Andy Griffith Show.
RON HOWARD: No. I give them more than one bullet. It’s empowering them to participate, but you got to be thorough enough yourself to focus on what it means to the overall story. So you have to hear their points of view, hear their arguments, and then again, sort of make a value judgment. But that’s with people coming to you about vernacular in a language you don’t speak. It’s also technical specifics around diving or race car driving or firefighting or going to the moon or any of the other movies that I’ve done that dealt with process in a really specific way.
ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, thank you so much for your time. It’s really been a pleasure talking to you.
RON HOWARD: Hope it’s useful. Hope it’s helpful.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, thank you.
RON HOWARD: Thank You.
ALISON BEARD: That was director, producer Ron Howard, who I spoke to at the Masters of Scale Summit.
If you like this episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant, and our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.