Ron Howard is one of Hollywood's biggest directors, but lately he's been delving outside of studio blockbusters to take on other kinds of projects. "My kids are grown, and I feel that I can afford the time to just be a little, you know, a little more experimental," he tells Rolling Stone. The 58-year-old recently trailed Jay-Z for an upcoming documentary he's directing about the rapper's role in the Budweiser Made in America Festival due out in 2013; he's mentoring James Murphy on his first directorial project; and he'll soon return as the narrator of the upcoming season of Arrested Development. Says Howard of the comedy series' new season, "It's hilarious and it's also really bold in terms of the approach to catching the audience up on the characters, and simultaneously sort of weaving their stories in and around a new set of predicaments."
So did you have fun hanging out with Jay-Z?
I really did. The whole thing was interesting for me. I've never interviewed anybody, first of all. I'm pretty good at the initial instincts, and the very first time that I met [Jay-Z] some months back, we met with him in his office and there was just something that I really respected about him. I think he's pretty true to himself and pretty clear about what he thinks. Kind of the opposite of mercurial, I'd say. I don't know what the opposite of mercurial is, but he's I think tremendously focused. I've been around a lot of artists who are also good at business and . . . one minute they'll sound like an artist and the next minute they'll sound like the characters in Mad Men. Jay-Z's a very good businessman and he talks about it and enjoys it, but he doesn't shift. He has a sense of what he thinks people might appreciate, because he sort of trusts that if he appreciates it, there are people out there who will as well. And that's what's interesting to me: that he's accomplished in those areas but I don't hear that sort of cynical, world-weary quality.
And when he's onstage, the confidence he has with the microphone is pretty amazing.
I got to watch in the pit, right on the edge on the stage. I understood something that I never even really had thought about before. He really communicates, whereas I think some of the other hip hop artists – they were great performers and they were dynamic and charismatic – but on a consistent basis, every idea seemed to be a communication. I always thought that about Sinatra. It's a connection. It's a story they're telling you. And I was kind of knocked out by that. I've never seen Eminem live, but in our movie, 8 Mile, I felt like that was happening.
You interviewed Odd Future. What was that like?
I like their videos. I'm laughing one minute, then my jaw drops the next. But I think they're so wild and great and I really like them. [Tyler, the Creator] and I just started talking and he just kept looking at me kind of like squinting and saying, "You're sick. You're sick." [Laughs] I kind of knew it was a compliment, but I was joking later and said, "I thought I looked fine!"
I was trying to describe them to somebody. It's kind of like there's the Marx Brothers and National Lampoon . . . this group chaos thing. It's pretty exciting to see that brand of anarchy and self expression adding up to so much. Jay Z, actually, was really interested in them. He said to me that he, you know, Roc Nation, wanted to sign them and they went down the road discussing it, but ultimately Odd Future didn't want to be signed. They wanted to be self-reliant, self -contained.
Were there any highlights from the festival?
I think getting to talk to D'Angelo.
That's a very rare interview.
Yeah, and I don't think he's done very many. I wouldn't characterize it as probing, but, because it was on the subject of the event, I was glad to be able to share with him what I was hearing from everybody – which is that everyone was so impressed with his reemergence and a kind of new level of musicianship. I heard that from several people. And I passed that along to him, so more than sort of the interview I was glad to be able to communicate that to him, and he was, I think, flattered to hear that. But you know, he's really focused and hard at it, and I think he's really glad to be out there.
It was also fun to see Run-DMC. I talked to them both and they barely rehearsed. I remembered that when Henry Winkler and I, four years ago, did this Funny or Die sketch for Obama. It was so funny, because I was wearing this hair piece, Henry was wearing kind of Fonzie wig and we fell into it and I swear to God, I honestly déja vû'ed and thought I was back in the Arnold's parking lot doing a scene. It was so easy. So when I saw those guys, they just nailed it. I just thought, "Well, yeah, you know, sometimes when a thing becomes a part of a fabric of your life, your history, that doesn't get so rusty."
When you were younger, because of Happy Days and American Graffiti, people associated you with music of the Fifties and early Sixties. What do you listen to?
I've never been much of a consumer and we didn't listen to much music in the home except kind of at Christmas time, so it was all Bing [Crosby] and Nat King Cole and the Everly Brothers. But it never became a passion. I didn't really listen to music when I was doing homework or when I when I work on a script. I tend to drift to NPR and news.
It's interesting that you're working with James Murphy, too.
Oh, yeah. My kids are grown, and I feel that I can afford the time to just be a little, you know, a little more experimental about what I do with my time away from the movies and the TV shows, which are still my main drive. James Murphy just came through this project, Canon's Imagination. This is year two of that, and last year we did it and my daughter Bryce directed the film, and people send in pictures targeting their own photographs for certain narrative categories. And then the public votes and they narrow it down to 10, and last year I chose one from each category and handed it over to Bryce and she had to direct a movie. And it was successful. It was a great creative experiment. With James Murphy, we wanted somebody from the music world, and of course he's so creative and visual and a really talented and intelligent guy. So I'm actually dying to see what he does with this exercise. I think I'm going to be inspired by him. Theoretically, I'm supposed to be offering some guidance and support, but I think he's one of the ones I'm sort of most curious about seeing work with this whole program.
Would you ever work with Jay-Z again?
I would do a documentary about Jay-Z. Yes, I would. I mean, that's not what this is particularly, but he's central to it. But if I had a chance and I thought I could do it justice, you know, I think he's a great subject. He's a great subject. Definitely.
How is it going with Arrested Development?
It's going great. There's a really good article that somebody did, an interview with Mitch Hurwitz. It's pretty funny. It's hilarious, and it's also really bold in terms of the approach to catching the audience up on the characters and simultaneously sort of weaving their stories in and around a new set of predicaments that are, you know, a brand new sort of five-alarm fires or however many alarms, whatever the maximum number of alarms is. I should remember that from Backdraft, but I don't.