Marking his first comedy since 2001’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Ron Howard has made Chicago the site of his latest, The Dilemma.
Howard, who is embracing a new directing style with improvisational takes he had dubbed “free takes,” talked with ComingSoon.net about the difference between comedies and drama, changing the script to match the Chicago setting and finding his diverse cast, which includes Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder.
Q: Can you talk a little about the scene that’s shooting today?
Ron Howard: We’re doing a scene at B&V, which is a place that is Vince and Kevin’s place of business. Kevin plays an engine designer and his partner, Ronny, is more of a salesman. They’ve got this independent project with a very tight deadline. Lots and lots of pressure. Their company is on the line and there’s this moment that is kind of a threshold moment where Vince’s character has to sort of decide how much of this secret he’s just discovered he wants to tell. He doesn’t really know all the details, which is kind of the comedy of the story. He never really knows. He’s constantly putting the puzzle together. Or trying to. It gives him this uncertainty. It’s this real pressure of both guys knowing that something is bothering the other one. No one really knows what. This is a scene where they’re both sort of fishing around and both kind of trying to figure that out.
Q: Where is this in the film?
Howard: Kind of the early middle. This is kind of raising the stakes.
Q: You obviously have a lot of freedom to choose projects. What struck you about this script?
Howard: I thought that the characters were really interesting. They were relatable and under a lot of pressure. The Valentine character is a fantastic character for Vince. He really brought it together. It was really sort of tailored for Vince or designed with him in mind. I thought he’d be great in it and he’s fantastic. He’s just incredibly creative and inventive and has just brought a lot to the character. I’ve been interested in trying to find a comedy to do again. I sort of missed it in certain ways. I looked around and realized that it had been a decade or more since I’d done one. It was always hard to find stories that I felt were, in and of themselves, fresh enough and intriguing enough so that, directorially, there would be some fun to have with that as well. This is kind of a comic psychological thriller. The characters are great. The scenes are funny. But the situations ring true and they lend themselves to a kind of cinematic urgency and visual approach that is a little bit different than you would do in a straight-ahead character comedy.
Q: It sounds like maybe the closest thing you’ve done is “Night Shift”, which is one of your earliest films.
Howard: As I got into it and started working on the rehearsals with Vince and Kevin, that really came to mind. And when we started filming it and I started looking at what we were doing and the energy of it, I began to draw that connection as well. Which I really hadn’t, prior to getting underway with the movie. When I went home over the Fourth of July weekend, I actually threw “Night Shift” into the DVD player, which I hadn’t done in maybe ever since it came out and watched it. I really feel that, even though the stories aren’t similar, there’s the brushing up against certain circumstances that are a little bit edgier and watching people navigate it. This is really, in what I hope is a really funny and entertaining way, is kind of a gauntlet for this Ronny Valentine character. The world is putting the screw to him. He’s a regular guy with his own kind of perspective on things, but he’s very relatable. He’s got his foibles. He’s got his flaws. He’s been battling them. Things are looking pretty good, but damned if the rug doesn’t just get yanked out from underneath him and he doesn’t know what the hell is quite happening to him. It really is a story of this guy trying to figure it out and it turns out that everyone is trying to figure him out, too. That’s what smart about it. We don’t all know. We can’t know what’s really going on with people. It puts all the characters in a fun pressure-cooker. But it’s relatable. It’s an honest drama as well. It’s playing in the real world.
Q: Why shoot in Chicago?
Howard: Both [Vince] and [screenwriter] Allan Loeb are from Chicago. It seemed natural. I think, as I’ve come onboard, I’ve been more interested in a making it about a place. So I’ve pushed that a little bit. Vince has been a great guide in that regard. We didn’t have the Blackhawks in the movie in the first draft or Weiner Circle. Now we have key scenes in those environments. I also think that [cinematographer] Sal Totino is really enjoying shooting here. He only ever shot commercials here before. I loved it 20 years ago doing “Backdraft”, which used the city in a very different way. But it’s been great. The other thing that I really like about it is that there’s kind of a — Vince’s term — but a very modern set of relatable relationship issues. We’re doing it in a very “Midwestern badass” way. It has a different flavor. That has really emerged through the rewrites. Though the rehearsal. We’re getting a little bit more comedy out of it, but it’s also giving it all a different flavor. A different vibe. I’m really happy about that. If this story played out in New York or LA, I think it would maybe have a little more familiar sound and rhythm. That’s something I hadn’t necessarily bargained for. I just knew that I liked Chicago and that it was different. It’s just one of those things that has really evolved and emerged that I’ve really enjoyed. It’s hard to find movies that are basically genre movies that have a chance to feel fresh and unique. I think this does and I think it really uses Vince and Kevin in ways that is not flying in the face of what people want to see them doing and are comfortable seeing them doing. I hope — we’re still shooting. I haven’t gone to the dreaded editing room yet, but I think it’s sort of pushing the boundaries of that in a way that’s going to be entertaining for people and fun to see.
Q: Can you talk about the “free takes” you’ve been doing?
Howard: Yeah! We worked real hard on the script. Allan did a great job. We kept grinding it on through rehearsal. Vince and Kevin were both very involved in that. Queen [Latifah] came in and brought her stuff. Lots of good ideas. Jennifer [Connelly] and Winona [Ryder] saw what the environment was and began contributing on their end. It was open, but it was a good, tight store. So it’s not just a modular kind of comedy with gag-driven set pieces that you’re trying to get to. It really is a story that builds upon itself and that’s part of the fun of it. But within the framework of all that, even with all that hard work, there’s a lot of improv and stuff like that in even getting to the final rewrite. But I was really interested in doing some improv and Vince, of course, always does that. He encourages it and is excited by it. Kevin is undaunted by that kind of thing. It’s a little bit of a ride for Winona and Jennifer who are not necessarily geared that way. Channing [Tatum] jumped right into that and did great with his character. So did Queen. Basically, we’ve got a great script that we like and in any given angle, if we think there’s a chance or if Kevin or Vince or I want to try something, we just sort of do a free one. Sometimes we’ll do the free ones and then we’ll go back to a tight one. A scripted one. Sometimes what they’ve done in the improv skewing slightly what they do with the scripted version. We know that that’s good and tight, but there’s another neat little spin on it. It’s a creative way to go fast and not really bog down the schedule. Even when they go off in the corner to some subject that you wouldn’t ever deal with, almost invariably there’s something in those free takes that I feel like we’re going to be glad to have in the editing room. Just again to breath as much of a modern kind of contemporary slice of life into it. This is not a set-up punchline kind of comedy. I really wanted all that honesty.
Q: Do you play to Kevin James’ physical comedy strengths as well?
Howard: A little bit, but it’s not really a vehicle for that. But there are a couple of places where we get some good stuff for that, and Vince has some good physical stuff, too, but this is not tailored really for that.
Q: Can you talk about casting both Winona and Jennifer. Jennifer hasn’t been in a lot of comedies.
Howard: No, she hasn’t. We met a lot of women and talked to them and thought about it. Winona was kind of surprising to me in that she emerged as this really interesting choice for her character. I think it sort of broadened the character in a really big way. She was probably written as more of an archetype. Since she doesn’t play into that and is an interesting person onscreen anyway, I think she’s done a lot with that character. Jennifer I’ve always wanted to work with again. Vince is a fan. While their story is important and it’s a love story and you want to care about it, it’s not really trying for a rom-com vibe. So her power and strength — and in life, you know, she has a great sense of humor and we tapped into that — but her character doesn’t have to carry the movie comedically. But she does have to bring a real perspective and dimension into it and help raise the stakes in as much as you’d like to see she and Vince work it out and land on their feet in their relationship. You’re rooting for them. But she’s also smart enough and strong enough that you don’t really want to get on her wrong side either. That gives tension. Again, this whole thing is really about creating tension. It begins with four great friends and you can see why they’re close. It tests them all. It doesn’t just test the Vince character. It tests them all in real ways and ways that are real in terms of drama and also carry over into some pretty funny circumstances.
Q: Can you compare it to directing her in “A Beautiful Mind”?
Howard: Well, she’s great and, you know, certainly we talked about the differences before getting into it. The thing I’ve probably been most impressed with is that that was very tightly scripted and, sure, we deviated a little bit. I’m always open to that. But that was a real triumph of thought, planning and execution. Russell Crowe was the one who really had to gamble and experiment everyday with what he was doing because he was dealing with the mental illness and we weren’t sure where that should lead us in each scene. But as far as Jennifer’s character, it was all pretty clear. Here, it’s so much about reacting to her guy, Ronny. So when we drift into those free takes, that’s alien territory for her. And she’s been great. She’s been generating a lot of comedy and also just riding with whatever’s going on. Making it real and taking the scene wherever it goes. I’ve been really impressed with it. But it’s a very different kind of character and a very different set of scenes. So it’s been really fun to work with her this way.
Q: Can you elaborate on the “Midwestern badass” description? Does that mean there’s a focus on the bromance between Vince and Kevin?
Howard: Well, the friendship is huge in it, but the relationships are really central as well. It really is about all their relationships. All of them in one form or another. Whether it’s romantic, whether it’s going back to the past, whether it’s friendship. The love stories matter. We’re just kind of not dealing with them in a predictable way.
Q: How do you avoid those pitfalls?
Howard: Well, it’s not really there in Loeb’s story. So in trying to develop the tone and the style of it, it goes the way that you shoot it and light it and the rhythms of it. There might be a joke that comes to mind but maybe it feels a little more of pushing an element of the story into a direction that’s more familiar. So we’ve tried to avoid that and be funny in ways that really do sort of ride with our story. That’s been fun. Vince is a good cop for that sort of thing. Kevin, too. Great collaborators that way. Where are we taking the comedy in this? The guys want it to be funny and I do, too, but we want it to be something that’s true to this and this set of circumstances. This dilemma (laughs).
Q: Can you describe a specific scene where you or the cast went through that?
Howard: I would say that it has something to do with — I don’t want to be specific about the scenes anyway and I’m still working on it — but my feeling is that the way they, particularly the Vince character, because he’s the one whose head we’re inside sort of the most. Really, he’s in all but like 3/8ths of a page of the movie. His own little “Heart of Darkness” journey up-river. But it’s really the way that that character tries to get to the bottom of what’s going on around him. He’s a bright guy. He’s an educated guy. They’re not overgrown adolescents. They have jobs they care about and are with women that they care about and are involved with. So it’s the processing of what it is that he’s facing and what he’s figuring out that’s kind of badass. It’s the conclusions he arrives. The way he deals with them. The way he confronts them. It’s not the kind of neurosis we’re used to seeing when they lead character is confused. It’s just a completely different energy even though he’s pretty f–ed up and confused in his own way. It just registers differently.
Q: Your brother has a role in this one, we hear.
Howard: Yeah, there’s a pretty good part. A good role. There’s a point where Vince wants to go to this arboretum and rent out a corner of it. My brother plays the guy who manages the place. He loves his flowers. He’s very proud of the facility. He’s trying to be helpful but is a little bit thrown by the guy’s energy. There’s a real kind of surprising twist that plays out in that location. Clint is kind of in the middle of that.
Q: There’s a role for your cinematographer, too?
Howard: Yeah, Sal kind of winds up in a poker den. Our cinematographer. He’s very proud to be there. Very happy. “Sopranos” being his favorite show
Q: Audiences have expectations for both Vince and Kevin as comedic actors. What new sides are we going to see?
Howard: I just don’t think it’s that people are going to be shocked. They’re funny. Their personalities are present. But in this kind of reality-based way, the comedy just keeps coming from these very real places. Their performances are very grounded. Kevin is dead-honest in this. So is Vince. Yet it’s a heightened situation. So they get to some pretty comedically intense places. It’s just kind of, as I said, a broadening of what you might expect them to do. There’s just maybe a little more dimension than a straight-ahead broader comedy, I guess.
Q: How quickly did your comedy muscles come back?
Howard: Well, the guys told me I was great. Pitching well. Giving them good notes and stuff like that. So that made me feel good. I’ll tell you, one of the things that sort of pushed me a little was when I was screening “Frost/Nixon” and did this little college campus screening when we were about 98% locked. We were basically done, but I took a couple of weeks and hit a couple of colleges almost every weekend for awhile. To show the unfinished cut and temp music and all that. I was sort of using my Q and A afterwards as a focus group. I did make some refinements afterwards as a result. But in addition to our regular preview screenings, it was fun to see the movie play. Especially the first hour of it, which has a lot of laughs. It was fun. I remember how exciting it was to sit in the audience and know that there’s a funny moment coming. There’s a comedy turn. You’re waiting, waiting, waiting and you see how it lands with the audience. With some audiences, it’s a little more than others. For me, that was a throwback. I hadn’t really been going to movies with that in mind in a long time. It was fun and just reminded me that it’s rewarding. But it wasn’t like I had some sort of all-point bulletin out. I wasn’t even developing a comedy for myself. Everybody else at Imagine develops things that they love and that we like, too. In a couple of instances, I’ve latched onto things that I just didn’t develop from the very beginning. This is one of them.
Q: The comedy landscape has changed a lot. Have you noticed difference in the filmmaking process?
Howard: Not so much. Not as much as I expected, maybe. But I like that then. In other words, I liked working with Michael Keaton. I liked what he brought to all three of the movies we did. We did a lot of improv in those movies. Actually less “Night Shift” than people think, but he brought a lot to it. But in “Gung Ho” and “The Paper”, he had a kind of green light. The free idea really existed then with Michael because he’s good at it. I was reminded as I started working on this of one time that I used it not so much for comedy, but just in general to try and pump as much authenticity as I could into the story as possible for “Coccoon”. Because Wilford Brimley is kind of wonderful as am improvisational actor. He’s remarkable at it. It wasn’t always to try and get laughs, though he did generate laughs with some of his lines. But a lot of touching, interesting scenes in that movie that felt so honest and so real were born out of his improvs and I encouraged everyone else to sort of join in on that. So, for me, this is something that I kind of had in mind anyway as a way of approaching this kind of character story. Especially a character comedy. But what I liked about this is that it lends itself to a look and a feel that’s not like “Parenthood”. It’s not like “Night Shift”. It’s not like “Splash”. It’s not as cinematically contained as that. By the way, I don’t want to put too much drum roll on this. It’s a subtle thing. But from a directorial standpoint, that’s significant. Although the scene you see today is pretty straightforward.
Q: Cheating is a subject usually reserved for drama. How hard is it to play it for laughs?
Howard: Well, again, we don’t shy away from the pain that the circumstance generates. We just also never ignore the irony of it and the potential for comedy. So the pressure that it throws on the characters to question everything that they all understand or trust about one another goes even beyond the cheating aspect of the story and really gives us great stuff to work with. But the thing that Vince and Kevin, I think, both really liked about it, is that it really is a story-driven movie. This is plot. Plot is crucial. It has to keep moving in the same way that it would have to on “Ransom”. You have to keep wondering what’s going to happen next in ways that are both funny and that make you curious. I think the story unfolds in ways that are going to surprise people and make them talk, which is why I’m a little reluctant to talk about it and what the characters are really facing. But it’s all food for comedy so I get to sort of use that language. It’s not satire. We haven’t scored it yet, but I get to use music and such as language to help propel the story. I hope.
Q: Do you think it may remind audience members of their own painful experiences?
Howard: I don’t know. I mean, “War of the Roses” was a pretty funny movie and also pretty painful. So if you get that kind of high-pressure adult situation right, I think you can have fun with it.
Q: You mention the dreaded editing room earlier.
Howard: I actually like the editing room. I have a great relationship with Dan and Mike! But you really get to discover what you really have. And every once in a while it surprises you in ways that can be really frustrating.
Q: Is it creatively inspiring to have these free take to place with?
Howard: Well, it’s always creative. It’s always where you finally make the movie. It’s also where you face things you might have overlooked or things you wish you had another chance at. That’s the cold water. Is it “All That Jazz” where Roy Scheider is playing Bob Fosse and he looks at the movie “Lenny” and says, “Why’d he do that?! Who told him to do that?! I did! I’m the son of a bitch that let him do that!” That’s the way it is in the editing room to a certain extent. When you have people who are as creative as this cast, I’m sure I’ll run into situations where I’ll wish I had just pushed them for one more take or, I’ll think, “God, if I had thrown this at Vince then, we would have had another hilarious approach to this scene.” So I’m sure there’ll be some of that. But I’ll start throwing them up in front of audiences right away. That’s what you do with comedies. They’ll start telling us what’s funny and what’s not and where the story bogs down and where it doesn’t. I’ll have a lot of footage to work with because, again, Vince calls me the collector. But that lets you pick and choose and build around the great nuggets and still get back to the script. It’s a big editing job ahead. But a fun one. It should be fun.
Q: Are there lessons you learned about working on comedy as far back as “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days” that you still apply?
Howard: Definitely. I haven’t thought about them in a long time but my instincts are to try to find what’s funny and still rings true as much as possible. So that’s probably why I was inclined to take on a story like this as opposed to something that’s broaders and more slapstick and more kind of heightened. I think “Happy Day”s certainly got big and broad but, from the cast standpoint and I think even the writers — outside of the fact that Fonzie could snap his fingers and make things happen, jukeboxes turn on a girls show up — it was otherwise a kind of heightened version of the real world. “Andy Griffith” was certainly that. I remember as a little kid, six or seven years old, Andy saying, ‘I know it’s funny, but this just doesn’t ring true. We can’t sacrifice the characters just for a joke.’ That was the tone and style of that show as opposed to, say, “Beverly Hillbillies” which was using kind of rural country people to great comedic effect. But that’s a different tone. That’s a different style. And I’m not, by the way, a comedy writer. But I’ve grown up around comedy and I’m a really good audience. That’s why a situation like this working with Vince and Kevin and Queen and the others who are more dramatic actors is really fun for me.