Ron Howard interview: The Dilemma, Arrested Development, The Dark Tower & more

As The Dilemma gets ready to launch into UK cinemas, its director, Ron Howard, talks to us about the movie, Vince Vaughn, comedy and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower…

Cards on the table, I loved the fact that Ron Howard is back doing comedy. Parenthood remains, for me, a terrific ensemble film, and I’ve a lot of time for The Paper, Splash and EDtv, too. The Dilemma, then, stars Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, and as it arrives in UK cinemas, Mr Howard spared us a little time for a chat…

Slight spoiler warning: we don’t discuss the actual ending of The Dilemma here, but we do touch on it. If you want to see it cold, then it’s best to revisit this interview once you’ve watched the movie.

It’s been a long time for you since you were in the comedy genre on the big screen. The last time you were making comedy movies, EDtv and The Paper, they were good films that never really found a big audience. So, what drew you back now?

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A little bit of it was people were in my ear, saying wouldn’t you like to find a comedy. And even some of the people from the contemporary comedy scenes – directors, writers and actors. Being around Arrested Development, as an exec producer on that, reminded me just how much fun it was creatively to spend time in rooms with people who were that funny, and generating those kind of laughs.

I do really like serio-comic movies that treat real difficulties in a real way. And so, when I found this story, I thought it was contemporary, it was a little thought-provoking, it wasn’t providing any answers, but it stimulated conversation, I felt. Great performance opportunities. And a story that, tone aside, propelled itself along in a way that left you wondering what was going to happen next. And I thought that that was an entertaining collection of qualities.

You didn’t take some of the obvious choices with this one. I thought it was a little bit dark, and I don’t think there’s a nice, tidy ribbon wrapping everything up in the way people may think.

One of the things I also liked about it that it is messy. It’s a little uneven. I’ve lived enough to see that things tend to work this way. But it’s also not the end of the world. People have horrible disappointment, and yet there are other aspects of their lives that they can hang on to that allow them to navigate that turbulence.

The other thing is that I really like that it’s all from Ronny Valentine’s [Vince Vaughn’s character] point of view. He’s in everything from one little sliver of a scene, and so we don’t know any more than he knows. And that’s vital.

To my mind, yes, it deals with all these relationships, and it deals with them rather seriously in places. But it really is a kind of serio-comic, although a psychological thriller. This guy’s running kind of a gauntlet. A very vulnerable guy, he’s not your rock solid guy on both feet. He’s a reformed gambler, he’s had a tough time with women, business has been difficult. And he’s Vince Vaughn. He’s that kind of a guy.

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I thought Vince Vaughn’s character’s journey could almost be the grounding for a stage play. It also struck me that, for long periods, you hold back the comedy for him. He’s left to do a lot of dramatic heavy lifting as the film heads to the end of its second act, and into its third.

He’s a very good actor. And one of the things I really enjoyed, and this is partly what I signed on for, was the excitement of the improvisation. So, we had a strong story, good script, it kept getting better during the rehearsal process. Vince was a big part of that.

Other actors joined us in rehearsals, and contributed to a lot of it. But I was excited by the fact that, not only did the comedy highs get higher, but I felt that the more honest moments became truer. And it was very contagious.

Vince has that ability, but everyone picked up on it. It’s basically a story of these friends being tested, but particularly some of the stuff that Jennifer Connelly’s character said really came out of rehearsals, and reflects her point of view in ways that are interesting.

A lot of women have said that I like those scenes. There were laughs in those scenes, but they really paid off, they added up. So, I hope that the movie entertains on a lot of different levels. And I hope it doesn’t confuse people, because in the marketing, of course, they’ve really tried to sell it as a full-on comedy, because that’s the simplest marketing idea to follow. And the movie gets plenty of big laughs.

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I wouldn’t call it a comedy with drama, but I hope people have an appetite for that kind of a ride.

You’ve made a fundamental error I think in your collaborations with Jennifer Connelly, in that you’ve never had a scene with David Bowie singing in her bedroom.

[Laughs] Yeah!

Obviously, you’ve got a strong background in television comedy, right up to your work on Arrested Development. What I’m curious about, though, is how you, as a director, go about protecting a joke? And whether that works differently in television and film?

Well, television, particularly as it becomes more and more serialised, comedies no longer have to tie the stories up neatly within 20-plus minutes. Arrested Development had evolving storylines, as did both versions of The Office. We’re seeing that more and more.

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That allows it to be really, whatever the tone, almost literary. You’re just really exploring what these characters have to say, and if it’s a comedy, how they can make you laugh. And the narrative is not so much the key.

Whereas in a movie, whichever way you slice it, you do really have to have the audience wondering what’s going to happen next. This is one of the things that I liked about this story. Whatever the tone, I like the fact that you get to go on a ride with this guy before he realises what’s going on.

The Hollywood trend at the moment is to go back 20, 30 years, and you’re seeing original directors revisiting projects that they’ve done before. Is there any temptation to revisit any of those earlier films in any form?

None. None whatsoever!

You’re not a sequel guy, really.

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I’m not really a sequel guy. I did Angels & Demons after The Da Vinci Code, because I like working with Hanks, and I felt it was a really different sort of world that we were visiting. That was, of itself, interesting.

If I get involved with these Dark Tower projects with Stephen King, that could be as many as three movies, and hours of TV. But oddly, I don’t even look at that project as a movie and a series of sequels I see it as a really fascinating epic tale, and I wouldn’t want to miss any of it as a storyteller, if I had the opportunity.

Ron Howard, thank you very much!

The Dilemma arrives in UK cinemas on Friday 21st January.

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