Ron Howard interview: Inferno, conspiracy theories

We chat to director Ron Howard about his latest film, Inferno, conspiracy theories, and the place for cinema in the 21st century...

Renowned symbologist Robert Langdon’s back for another mystery to crack, but Inferno sees in less than great shape. At the start of the movie – once again adapted from a hit Dan Brown novel – Langdon wakes up in a Florentine hospital with a head injury and no idea of the past few days’ events. Worse still, there’s a man-made super-virus hidden somewhere, and only by solving a series of clues left in classic works of art can Langdon track it down before the pestilence wipes out half the planet.

Director Ron Howard, who’s now on his third Langdon movie, attacks Langdon’s apocalyptic visions with evident relish. The location of the virus is somehow linked to Dante’s epic poem, the Inferno, and this, mixed with Langdon’s fractured mental state, lead to some blood-curdling images of souls in torment.

When we sat down with Mr Howard in a London hotel to talk about the forthcoming movie, these hellish sequences seemed like a great place to start; before we knew it, though, the director was soon chatting about Hans Zimmer’s pleasingly against-the-grain electronic soundtrack, the appeal of conspiracy theories, and the place for cinema in a new century dominated by YouTube, Netflix and box-sets.

I really liked your apocalyptic visions. I got the sense that you enjoyed making those.

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Well, it’s the first time I ever got to explore those kinds of visions in any serious way. I hadn’t planned on it – it wasn’t really in the script. There were some hallucinations suggested and things like that, but as I was actually doing my homework – unlike I probably did in high school when I was supposed to read Dante’s Inferno – I realised that he’s respected and well known because he defined hell for western civilisation. But the other cool thing is, he was actually inventing the modern horror genre. Because when you start reading the tortures of the sinners, it reads like the coolest horror flick that you’ve ever bumped into. So while we’re PG-13, and we can’t go all the way there, I certainly felt like it was a great opportunity to apply that – and organic to apply that.

And that sort of began to suggest another sensibility. It guided Hans Zimmer into something that was cooler. I think the fact that Langdon was in this mindset made it a little more of a psychological thriller than the previous two. I don’t know, that seemed to suggest another kind of editing pace.

People seem to think it’s a little more tense and faster-paced than the previous two, and I think it grows out of what Dan Brown gave us to work with. 

And as you say, with Inferno, you have so much to draw from: there’s a whole line of artists inspired by it, like Gustave Dore’s engravings and things like that.

Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, Botticelli, he [painted the Inferno map], and it’s simplistic, but it’s gory! [Laughs] And a little pornographic. There were a couple of things we didn’t even make apply. But I also just love the fact that artists are driven by personal fires of rage or insecurity or hope. What inspired Dante? Well, his hatred of what other families and other politicians and socialites had done to he and his family. It was a time of political upheaval, and real revolution. And he had this profound unrequited love for Beatrice. What did it lead to? One of the defining works of literature in western culture. But what was fuelling it? His intellect, sure: he was a genius. But his also his heart, his gut, his balls, you know? That’s interesting to me. So it’s one of the fascinations with doing these Dan Brown movies. They’re broadly entertaining, they’re meant to be fun, that’s what they’re all about – but part of the fun is actually, in an engaging way, you’re inviting people to learn a few things, and consider some of these controversies. If they care to. Otherwise, it’s good fun.

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I’ve been thinking about the popularity of Dan Brown’s novels, and the timing of them. They’re about conspiracy theories and secret societies, and I wondered whether you thought, in a post-9-11 world, whether those are comforting in a way. It cuts the world down to size a bit.

Yes. Tom Hanks actually talks about that very eloquently, and so does Dan Brown: conspiracies help you come to terms with things that you can’t otherwise relate to, and terrify you. Then again, there’s the other school of thought: just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. So the other thing that guided the aesthetic in terms of this thriller is the fact that it wasn’t an issue based in the past – it’s not philosophical or theological. It was about over-population – a contemporary, urgent crisis, and the fact that society doesn’t know what to do. It’s created a vacuum, and a fanatical, violent reaction is underway. As Dan says, in our era, due to technology, a single actor can create unparalelled havoc. That’s a terrifying, very real proposition. So, you know, Dan is working with something that is pretty much in the zeitgeist, whereas previously, something like the lineage of Christ isn’t something a lot of people were considering.

The modernity of the issue at hand suggested a more contemporary kind of thriller: edgier, more modern, less classic. The others were a little more Hitchcockian. This is a little more immediate, and kind of like a European thriller.

Yeah. You mentioned Hans Zimmer’s music before, and I liked the way the electronic aspect of his soundtrack runs slightly counter to the classical setting, but it works.

I was probably expecting – and sort of anticipating, even agitating for a little more orchestra, and a little more of what we heard from the other scores, because I loved those scores. But when Hans saw the movie, he said we’ve done something very different here, Ron. It is more contemporary and psychological, and we can deconstruct those Langdon themes and really use them in interesting ways, and do something cool. As soon as I started hearing it, I understood what he was talking about and I thought he’d really given us a great score. 

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Can you talk a little bit about the process of adaptation? Because obviously, the final third is quite different from the book.

Yeah well, you know, we agonised over it. Including conversations with Dan. But David Koepp [screenwriter], the studio, the creatives, [producer] Brian Grazer, myself, Tom… the feeling was, that ending worked great for a novel, but the complexity of it required a tremendous amount of explanation. I think I felt like that was something we got bogged down with a little bit in the previous movies, and when we found a way of narrowing the focus of the third act, it felt more satisfying on a movie level. And I really want – my obligation is to the movie audiences. And sure, it may create some controversy and so forth, but I didn’t feel like the differences in the third act were central to the big themes that he was presenting, and neither did he. As much as he was satisfied with what he did in the third act, he understood that it wasn’t that cinematic. I wanted to pack a bit more of a direct punch at the end and be able to give audiences more of a movie resolution.

That’s adaptation isn’t it? You have to make it work cinematically, in the end.

And shorter. It’s very interesting. When I work on Dan’s books, everyone says they’re instant adaptations, but they’re not. We never could get an adaptation of The Lost Symbol that made us believe it was going to be an exciting movie-going experience. And some day maybe we will or somebody will, because it’s a terrific novel: if you look online, people rate it very high. Readers love it. But even Dan appreciates that a literal adaptation would have to be a mini-series for television if you were going to be really dutiful about it. I feel the same way about some of the movies based on real events that I’ve done. I could’ve done an entire television series on the Nikki Lauder, James Hunt racing season. There were so many twists and turns that I couldn’t do. And Apollo 13 – there could’ve been six hours, not two and a half.

But at the same time, I love both of those films because they’re movie-going experiences. They work on a big screen. Do you think that’s why we need cinema in the days of box-sets and Game Of Thrones?

Yeah. Look. [Pauses for thought] Storytellers have to adapt for their audience over and over and over again. And they’re always applying technology in new and exciting ways. I’m sure the stories got a lot more interesting when there was a campfire to sit around. I’m sure when they learned to draw on the cave walls, that enhanced everything. Can you imagine the first time they figured out how to mechanically raise somebody up through the stage and make them appear, or drop them down on a rope or a wire? It blew everybody’s minds, I’m sure.

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So you know, audiences are gonna tell us what they want to see. So I personally, and I think a lot of people are finding there’s almost a renaissance in, and appreciation for, that single viewing experience. That doesn’t mean you don’t want to see the next season of Fargo. It doesn’t mean you don’t love The Night Manager and you want to see it all over one weekend. But it does mean that a story that has a beginning, middle and end, and gives you resolution on the very evening you sat down to watch it, wherever you watched it, has value. We as storytellers just have to learn to work with these various formats. 

And, here’s the luxury: if you get excited about a story and you think it’s only 12 minutes long, you now can go out and get a sponsor or somebody to help you pay for it. You can figure out how to make it and actually get it to people. It won’t just be your friends in your living room with a Super 8 projector. You can actually get a lot of people to look at it, and if it’s good, they’ll notice it.

If your story requires a hundred hours, you go sell it to Netflix, or you go sell it to HBO or somebody, and you tell the story that way. If it’s a good, tight two-hour narrative, then there’s a place for that as well. And that’s cool. That’s really cool. It gives studios, investors and distribution outlets total fucking nightmares, because they don’t know how much to invest in what, and that trickles down to talent, because they don’t know what to pay. So there’s all of that, but that’s just commerce. Those are economic patterns, marketplace pressures that influence things. But in terms of being a storyteller? This is the greatest moment of my life, in terms of what’s possible.

The Dark Tower, which you’re working on at the moment, has the sprawling narrative possibilities you just described.

Nick Arcel’s done a really great job with the movie. It’s early days in the edit, but we’re all confident and excited. The screenplay had reached a point where Stephen King thought it reflected the universe in an interesting, thoughtful and cool way. Idris [Elba] and Matthew McConaughey are really strong in it, so that’s really going well.

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The television side, now, we’d like to get going as well. That’s still being formed – there’s no partners set yet, except it’s all the same creative team: Akiva Goldsman, myself and Brian at Imagine, and the people at MRC.

Ron Howard, thank you very much.

Inferno is out in UK cinemas now.