Interview: Ron Howard Talks ‘Pavarotti’ & Documentary Filmmaking

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With modern classics like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Rush in his filmography, Ron Howard is one of the most revered directors of his generation. He’s also one of the most versatile and prolific. In addition to crafting Hollywood blockbusters, the 65-year-old spends his spare time making documentaries. He cut his teeth with 2013’s Made In America (a film about Jay-Z’s music festival) and then delivered The Beatles: Eight Days A Week. Next up is a documentary about opera legend Luciano Pavarotti.

I recently had a chance to interview Ron about the making of Pavarotti, which opens in theaters on June 7, and how opera itself (namely, the arias Pavarotti sang) helped shape the film. The famed director also explained why he gravitates towards documentaries about music and opened up about his process. Other topics of conversation included the growing popularity of theatrically-released documentaries, the difficulty of conveying the incredible skill of opera singers and future projects. Find out more about Pavarotti below.

You have really embraced documentaries of late. What prompted that?

I have always enjoyed them and admired them. I also really admired a few filmmakers who moved back and forth between scripted and documentary. Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme and Marty Scorsese. I really just appreciated this. I am on the board of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County. One day, I had an opportunity to do the Jay-Z documentary, but I was tentative about it. Very reticent. I wasn’t sure I could really do it, but I talked to Jonathan [Demme] about it and he really encouraged me to take the lead. I’m really glad I did.

It’s great because it’s never my full-time job. I can still go do scripted stuff, but I’ve always got a fascinating project to work on. Sometimes I can go do the interviews, sometimes somebody else goes and does them. It doesn’t matter. You’re viewing them, you’re getting together as a group and talking about the project. It’s this other passion that is just this slow-burn toward production that I find incredibly fulfilling and stimulating. I think it inspires better work for me in the scripted work that I do because it’s another way of looking at story.

The common thread with all of these has been music. Is that your great passion or is this just a coincidence?

First of all, a little bit of an acknowledgment on my part that if you have music, you know there’s going to be something really exciting and compelling to watch. It’s a great foundation, a way to make sure that what you do is entertaining and engrossing and involving and has a reason to exist. And then to the extent that you can develop the characters around the music in an interesting way. That’s the goal. But I’m doing a documentary right now about the aftermath of the fires in Paradise, California that destroyed 95 percent of that town.

That sounds fascinating.

But it’s not about music. We don’t know what the story is yet, so it’s a completely different undertaking. We have camera crews going up there every two or three weeks. Sometimes I can go, sometimes I can’t. But they all have their agenda and their list of subjects to interview and meet with, and we’re just gathering material and we’re going to tell the story and share what it is we’ve learned. So it’s a very different kind of undertaking. We’ll see how that turns out.

There has been something of a resurgence in theatrically released documentaries with films like Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Why do you think that is?

I think I know why. First all, starting with HBO 25 years ago, there has been now a couple of generations who has just learned to really value documentaries. I also think that in the world of so many hours of ambitious, interesting entertainment that is being generated, there’s something very inviting about a feature length treatment of a subject that you know or think you’re interested in. It doesn’t cost the studios. It’s not a huge gamble, so they can take a lot of risks. It’s a modest investment and yet, audiences are over and over again saying, “Yes, that does interest me.” They have learned to look for documentaries.

I think Netflix has helped a lot too.

Well, I do agree with you. It’s another reason why I don’t think movies will die. You could fall in love with documentaries on HBO or on Netflix and yet still, one comes out and you say, “Wow, it’s in the theater? Oh, maybe I’ll just go check it out.” It’s like VHS didn’t kill movies. Cable movie channels didn’t kill movies. In some ways it creates new fans.

You can’t beat the experience of being in a theater.

I really hope that people will give Pavarotti a chance in theaters because we made it, mixed it. It is supposed to be a great, almost live experience for the audiences.

When was the seed first planted to make a documentary on Pavarotti?

The idea came to Nigel Sinclair, the producer. He was also the one who brought to me the idea of working on The Beatles: Eight Days A Week. We had a great working experience on Eight Days A Week, so I just wanted to find another story to do with him and his team. I feel like we do good work together. Nigel brought the idea of Pavarotti because he felt like the record company would support it and the family was open. We would need to talk to them and explain our point of view, but he felt like they were open.

When I started reading the lyrics of the arias and recognized what those songs really meant, I began to see that we could really build a musical — a sort of an opera about Pavarotti using these arias that were telling his story at certain times in his life. That became a guiding principle that I thought was cinematic and could offer audiences something pretty fresh and interesting.

What’s your process when it comes to making a documentary?

All I’ve done is adopt the standard operating procedure. I don’t have my own version of how to do this. Several things happen all at once. First, it’s research. Then, through the research, you begin to get lists of people you could interview. Of course, you also collect archival footage. You begin looking at it and editors start to put it into buckets, thematic buckets: childhood, late-in-life, family, business. You start looking at that and talking about ways that it could be intercut.

Then, the editor and a team start dealing with that and coming up with a story structure. It’s this ongoing discussion and trial-and-error experimentation, viewing, getting together, talking about it. It’s a lot more academic. When you’re making a movie or a television show, it’s like going on an expedition. This is much more like building out a thesis paper.

The footage that Nicoletta Mantovani filmed of Pavarotti speaking directly to camera affected me the most. Did you get that early on in the process?

Yes, we did. When I talked to Nicoletta I realized that there was some footage that hadn’t been seen before. They weren’t just the home movies, but other people’s movies of performances and things like that that were fresh and interesting and offered insight. But that Nicoletta home-movie footage, with those interviews, they were really powerful and so revealing. They immediately became, in our mind, a way to start the movie and end the movie.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the documentary as an opera novice is how you explained the basics of the art form and the broke down Pavarotti’s technical genius.

Oh, thanks! That was an early goal of mine. When I began to realize that it was a real feat. It was almost athletic to be able to achieve these notes. I didn’t really appreciate it until I started doing the research and hearing people talk about it. We thought of all kinds of cinematic ways of trying to dramatize it, but, ultimately, we decided to have the best opera singers tell us what was involved. Pavarotti himself talked a little bit about it too, he was a teacher as well.

Technique was something that he really understood. He didn’t talk it a lot. He didn’t talk about it a lot in interviews. Mostly in interviews, he was busy being charming and charismatic and we’re grateful for that. But, as far as understanding the technique, the best interview was when he talks about Joan Sutherland, feeling her back and stomach as she sang. That’s a great moment. But I was so glad that other artists were also able to talk a little bit about the technique.

The documentary almost played like a feature film to me, the way it culminates in the triumph of the 3 Tenors performance. Do you think that comes from your other work?

I think so. As the narrative takes shape for the documentary, I still look at it structurally. I still look at it in terms of sequences with questions and answers within the framework of the story. I have the support in that regard, of Mark Monroe who’s a producer and a writer, and also great at finding those thematic threads, those connections that allow things to add up for the audience. It’s a really good team.

When it came to Pavarotti’s personal life, how did you decide what to put in and what to leave out?

There is a decision, but you don’t make it in advance. I’d say in a scripted piece, you could decide more in advance, but in a documentary, you have to listen to those interviews. The interviews suggested all across the board an admiration, an affection, a respect for Pavarotti. Some of them acknowledged disappointment, frustration, and even heartbreak in their relationship with Pavarotti, but the negative was never the predominant feeling. It was always a complication in a relationship that they were very grateful to have had. I think that became the pervading tone.

Were you surprised that Pavarotti was something of a ladies’ man?

Well, he was a big star and he was charismatic as hell. So it turns out that the ladies care more about that than they do body shape. But I don’t think he was a player. I don’t think it was like a rock and roll thing of there being a bunch of groupies around. I think he fell in love. I think he was dazzled, romantic, and would have relationships, more than one. But I don’t think it was more than one at a time. That’s not what we were picking up on.

Did you ever see the movie that he did, Yes, Giorgio?

I saw it when it came out. It was terrible. Although, I remember at the time seeing it and saying, “Wow.” There are some scenes where he could really act and then other scenes where he was just awkward and not good. I remember thinking I was little disappointed because he was so charismatic even in those American Express commercials. I thought he might be more consistently good. But I didn’t think he was uniformly bad. I just thought he was incredibly uneven.

Do you think acting is something he could have pursued further?

Yeah. He could have learned it. I don’t think he took it that seriously. But when you look at him on television doing those interviews, I think if he had a real passion for it, I’m sure he could’ve been a very interesting actor.

What’s next for you?

I’m getting ready to do Hillbilly Elegy for Netflix. It’s a memoir. It was a bestseller for two years in the US, and it’s culturally relatable to me in terms of similar sort of family backgrounds.

Can’t wait to see it. Thank you for your time.

Thank you!

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