Director's Chair: Ron Howard — <I>Pavarotti</I>
Issue: May/June 2019

Director's Chair: Ron Howard — Pavarotti

Many people would probably give their right arm for Ron Howard’s career; after all, he’s done it all in Hollywood. The former child star of The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days not only successfully made the tricky transition to adult actor (at 22 he starred opposite John Wayne in The Shootist and was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor), but went on to establish himself as an Oscar-winning director and producer (for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind) and as one of Hollywood’s most beloved, commercially-successful and versatile helmers. 

Since making his directorial debut in 1977 with Grand Theft Auto (when he was still playing Richie Cunningham in Happy Days), he’s made an eclectic group of films about boxers ( Cinderella Man), astronauts ( Apollo 13), mermaids ( Splash), symbologists ( The Da Vinci Code franchise), politicians ( Frost/Nixon, which won him two more Oscar nominations), firefighters ( Backdraft), mathematicians ( A Beautiful Mind — which also won him a Golden Globe for Best Director and BAFTA noms for Best Director and Picture), Formula One racing ( Rush), whalers ( In the Heart of the Sea) and the Fab Four ( The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — his first documentary). 

Born in Oklahoma with showbiz in his DNA — his parents were both actors, Howard “always wanted to direct” and notes that “producing gives you control.” In 1986 he co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Brian Grazer, a powerhouse in film and TV (Empire, Arrested Development) production, and his TV projects include the Genius series for National Geographic.

His latest film is Pavarotti, a documentary about the iconic tenor who became one of the most successful and beloved opera singers in history. It features seminal performances, his greatest hits, and intimate interviews, including never-before-seen footage and appearances by such fans as Princess Diana, Bono and U2, Nelson Mandela, Spike Lee, Kofi Annan, Stevie Wonder and Sting.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Howard talks about making the film, the challenges involved and his love of post.

What was the appeal of doing this?

“Part of it was that I had so much respect and admiration for Pavarotti and his art form, and the great thing about a documentary is that it allows you to explore stuff you may not be that familiar with.”

Was it easy or hard getting cooperation from his family and friends?

“Before Nigel Sinclair even brought the idea to me — and he’s a terrific producer who I worked with on the Beatles documentary and he also helped finance Rush — he had a pretty good sense that the family would cooperate. They were interested and curious about it, and if we had an approach that made sense to them, they’d be on board. And that’s what happened. They also had some footage that was rarely if ever seen before, and that was really valuable. There was stuff shot from the wings in the bit about ‘The High C’s,’ and that blew my mind that we actually got it. And then there were all the superstar fans, like Bono, who were all so eager to participate. And that tells you so much about Pavarotti the man. Don’t forget, he was a performer, so if there was a camera shooting him behind the scenes, he’d usually be ‘on,’ and he’d put on the charm, but then we also got the home footage where he’d be far more introspective and thoughtful about his life.”

How much research did you do?

“A ton, and we kept digging as we made it. That’s the thing about documentaries. They’re so different from scripted. And there’s that scary moment where you’ve been working on it for a year or so, and you’re kind of feeling, ‘Wow, what story are we going to tell? What exactly do you believe in here? What do you really think about your subject?’ And even with this, which is largely archival interviews, you have to have a sense of what your story is, and what the dramatic focus is going to be and the points you’re going to make. And I found the same thing with the Beatles doc, and when I mention this worry to veteran documentarians, they just nod. They know I’m a rookie at this, while they’ve been living with that for a decade or two. But we found it in the end.”

What most surprised you about him once you began delving deeper into his private life?

“I guess like most people, I would have assumed he was this child prodigy, that everyone listening to him sing at age 13 or 14 was saying, ‘Just get out of the way, he’s the Second Coming!’ But that wasn’t the case at all, and I really appreciated that there was actually a lot of self-doubt early on, which continued for a while. His father, who was also a great tenor, didn’t even want him to sing professionally. And I really liked the idea that once he decided to commit — and he was 20 and an elementary schoolteacher at the time, it still took him five or six years before anyone started to notice him.”

You shot all over the place — Italy, Britain, LA, New York, Montreal, but I assume you had different DPs and crews getting all the establishing shots and so on?

“Exactly, as I was here working on other projects at the same time, and I’d discuss what was needed and so on with the DPs and wait for all the footage to come in and then we’d start building it up from there.” 

Where did you do the post? 

“We did most of it here in LA, with a bit of it in New York, and we went through a process that I apply to my scripted movies, where you get the basic editing done and get a version you can show people, and then we have a series of small screenings and the audience fills out questionnaires with a ton of questions. And after that we also have a few regular test screenings. So I put it through the exact same rigorous process I do with a big, high-profile scripted movie.”
Does that process change the finished film a lot?

“Sometimes. It changed this a little, more a case of reinforcing what we already had, which was very gratifying. What we found was that people really were moved by some of the challenges he faced, and they understood the complexity of some of the relationship drama. They weren’t judgmental. They were fascinated, and they connected to it, and I was beginning to see right away that sophisticated opera lovers really appreciated our approach, and that people who were more like me, who recognize that it takes genius to do what he did but who don’t know that much about opera or Pavarotti, also found it surprisingly engrossing. So I hope people take a chance on this film and get to see just what an amazing talent he had and how he brought so much joy to so many people.” 

Do you like the post process?

“I love it, especially the edit and pulling the movie together. It’s my favorite part of making movies.”
It was edited by Paul Crowder, a musician who cut your first documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. How early was he involved and what did he bring to the mix?

“Paul lives in LA and so does Nigel Sinclair, and they were involved from the start. As with the Beatles film, it really helps to have an editor who’s very musical, and Paul, who’s also a director, brings all that — his musicality, sense of rhythm and pace. Documentaries kind of start with these buckets, where you collect ideas, and the editor isn’t necessarily trying to weave it all together yet. He’s looking at themes, ideas, sequences, and at footage and quotes that might serve those aspects. And then I’d sit with Paul and his assistant, and you have this running conversation, and start and stop and go back, and think about other sequences and other interviews, and it becomes this fascinating give-and-take that’s really stimulating.”

The film constantly cuts back and forth in time between archival and interview footage. Talk about the editing challenges.

“A lot of the archival footage was very poor quality and problematic, and then we’d have to agree, ‘Are the ideas in it worth it?’ And the recordings were bad, and we didn’t want to fake that and use audio from records instead. And then we had a few clean-up VFX by Meme Motion to tighten up the grain.”

Obviously the sound and music are central characters. Talk about working on them, and the challenges involved. 

“Oscar-winner Chris Jenkins did all the sound mixing and he’s quite brilliant. A lot of the sound quality in some of the home movies and footage of Pavarotti’s performances wasn’t always that good, but he was able to really work on it and bring out the best in all of it. We did it all at Abbey Road with Dolby Atmos, and we also re-recorded some of the arias, to make it as rich musically as possible.”

The DI must have been very important in terms of getting a uniform look, as some of the archival footage and home movies are pretty grainy.

“We did it at Technicolor with colorist Maxine Gervais, and technology is a big friend to storytellers. Some of the footage may have been unusable, but we were able to salvage image quality and improve so much.”

What’s your view of the Maestro today?

“He truly was this larger-than-life person who approached everything and everyone with so much zeal and enthusiasm, this total joy, and it was so infectious. People were drawn to him, even when they were disappointed in him, and we were able to get old lovers to come on camera, and people he’d hurt were around his death bed, because there was something very honest about him...In fact, it was hard to get anyone talking about ‘the warts and all’ stuff. People acknowledged, ‘Yes, there was turbulence and hurt,’ but they weren’t interested in all that.”