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Director Series-Ron Howard

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Director Ron Howard has long had a fascination with the Depression, hearing about it from family and friends while growing up in Oklahoma, and shooting his first amateur movie about the topic in high school. “There was something about those faces,” Howard recalls about the people he photographed and interviewed. “They were so shell-shocked.”And he’s always been fascinated by the legendary Jim Braddock/Max Baer slugfest in 1935, hearing about it first from his father, Rance, who traveled several miles to the local pool hall to hear it on the radio.In his latest film, Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, Howard was able to explore both fascinations in this gritty, Damon Runyonesque biopic. In fact, it was Runyon himself who came up with the “Cinderella Man” moniker for Braddock, a fighter who epitomized America’s volatile rise and fall during that troubling era.Here Howard talks about how it the Universal/Miramax picture came together, and about his collaboration with production designer Wynn Thomas, cinematographer Salvatore Totino, costume designer Daniel Orlandi and long-time editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill.Below the Line: How did you and your team go about recreating the look of the Depression?Ron Howard: Obviously one of the early discussions with Wynn Thomas was how to recreate the era. He loved the script and responded to my point of view on the material, which was, let’s make the boxing great, let’s get the world to be authentic and let’s understand in a very detailed way what it was like to struggle through that poverty. Wynn did a tremendous amount of research and came back with all kinds of details that were really significant. Salvatore Totino came in after that and also suggested that we spend a lot of time looking at the neo-realist post-War Italian films that dealt with that kind of struggle to pull yourself out from the rubble of the war. And so it was an interesting process. We did something that really influenced us all on a daily basis: We got documentaries from the era and Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, which was made in the ’70s, boxing footage—both archival and Hollywood films—films made about New York that were made between the ’30s and ’50s to try to get the feel, the sense of language, the sound. And we had other things like Ironweed and Grapes of Wrath, of course. We had five different TV monitors and it was the PA’s job to keep sticking a new tape in. For weeks we had these things going, and I was really pleased by the effect.BTL: Since most of that footage was in black and white. Did you feel you were then free to creatively compose in color?Howard: Yes, we kept talking about these black and white films. And then, how are we going to get that gritty feeling? Wynn came up with Depression-era still photography in color. It was actually very interesting to look at the clothing and see that there was a lot more color in the kids’ clothing than previous treatments would have indicated. It was important to me that we develop a shared aesthetic that was inspired by reality and not some interpretive sense that each of us would individually draw from what existed in our minds. And it really helped.BTL: What it was like recreating New York of the era?Howard: A lot of it was about finding great locations, and certainly Hooverville [the shantytown in Central Park] was a challenge. The reason we were in Toronto was because… we had an exterior of a building [that looked like] Madison Square Garden. It was fairly easy to get period correctness. Having Maple Leaf Gardens [there] was a blessing. It’s the only arena of that era left and the only arena of that size that we could control over a period of months right in the middle of baseball and hockey season. The waterfront was there for us, so it was mostly about finding the Braddock apartment building, which was crucial.BTL: The changing color palette is so striking, opulent and gritty, sometimes all within the same scene.Howard: One of the things that both Daniel and Wynn kept doing when Salvatore and I kept wanting to squash it was reminding us how one of the ways people survived was to wear brightly colored dresses and sweaters. And they used them as accents, they pushed me to use them in ways that were truthful and real and less theatrical.BTL: Let’s talk about the boxing. Turns out that you gained seven extra weeks when Russell Crowe dislocated his shoulder. How did you use that to your advantage in choreographing these extraordinary boxing sequences, and how helpful was digital technology?Howard: I hope people notice those fights and how inspired the editing really is. It’s pretty incredible. The Avid is definitely an asset because it’s much easier to experiment with really short cuts. There are just one- and two-frame pieces. And they developed a way of suspending time and extending moments and then accelerating them. And so digital technology definitely helped us put the film together and influenced what we could do. We spent a lot of time analyzing the different fights and differentiating the fights, and that really was where the benefit of the extra time was. We scouted and re-scouted the locations, defined the storyboards and spent the time revisiting decisions and to keep exploring. We were pretty close to ready had we gone off on schedule.BTL: How did you go about differentiating the fights?Howard: I had this idea on Backdraft to approach the fires differently and I wanted to do a similar thing here where he had a different mountain to climb with each fighter he faced. So I developed these metaphors and allowed that to influence the approach to each fight. The first fight was the Feldman fight and I wanted to shoot that in a fairly bland, very straightforward way outside of the broken-hand moment. But the detail that I wanted to get across was a shift in his perception as a result of pain.The Griffin fight was sort of his farewell cruise. The weather’s fine and he gets to wave to the fans, and his opponent is like a squall that comes up out of nowhere and threatens to do him in. So he has to adjust, he has to cope or he’s going to be devastated. And then he gets the sail up and catches the breeze and sails out of there alive.John Henry Lewis was like shooting the rapids, to use the water metaphor again. Overwhelming, explosive and fast. When I read accounts of Lewis, he was more like a modern fighter who relied on speed. He was able to beat Lewis by cutting the ring down. I wanted to make that feel really fast-paced and make it very hard for Jim to find his target and to show editorially, visually, how the “sweet science” works and how slow Jim Braddock could beat Lewis.Lasky was a big raw talent and was expected to fight for the championship. I kept equating that to climbing the last bit of a cliff and then getting to the top and realizing there’s no more foothold and you have to punch your way through. I kept shooting Lasky like he was a wall that had to be dealt with forcefully.With Baer I wanted it to be a culmination; and so everything that Jim had faced on his comeback trail Baer had, except for speed. In terms of coping, he could apply everything he had faced. But the wildcard was that Baer had killed two people in the ring. Visually it was the kitchen sink. I wanted to do the most intense version of what the audience had already sampled.BTL: Salvatore must have been in his element here, operating a camera and getting as close as he could to the action.Howard: Sal’s got a lot of guts, so when I would talk about the details of the fighting he’d want to get that. He’d put on body armor and would become like a fighter himself. He was great for the details and sometimes when he’d be using a hand-held camera I would give him direction just like an actor in terms of what the emotion was in the scene. And then I’d find him inventing shots, connecting shots between witnesses and combatants, boxing in the corner, b
oxing from one fighter to next, boxing to the crowd… and so many of these spontaneous moments wound up in the movie.Actually, we did a lot of testing [during Russell’s recovery]. There were two kinds of testing with a digital camera. [Executive producer] Todd Hallowell, Sal and myself shot two stunt guys doing choreographed material unrelated to the movie. And then we got real boxers in and taped them sparring. So one was choreographed with an eye toward putting it together and the other was spontaneous. Dan Hanley took that and started experimenting with it and we discovered a lot of great shots. I decided we would use a bit of both in planning the fights. There was one fight, however, that Russell never had time to learn the choreography on, the Lasky fight, and that’s 90 percent sparring with a lot of real hitting.BTL: How were you able to incorporate the real Baer fight into the film?Howard: Dan and I kept trying to lay out the choreography, but it wasn’t getting through. Finally, I said what we should do is cut together a version of the real fight, and I knew I was going to distill it down from 15 rounds to seven. We put together all the best punches and all the best moments into the form that I wanted it to take—like a template—with a little embellishment. So I think taking the time to experiment with spontaneous, freeform video and the choreographed video and to put it together and try some things was incredibly informative.

Written by Bill Desowitz

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