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Ron Howard on Einstein’s Genius & the Future of Filmmaking

We spoke with director and producer Ron Howard, whose new TV series Genius — about the life of Albert Einstein —debuts tonight on NatGeo.

By Dan Costa

In Austin last month for SXSW Interactive, I had the chance to sit down with a number of tech industry execs for my interview series Fast Forward, including Chris Becherer, VP of Product at Pandora, and Thad Starner, Professor of Computing at Georgia Tech.

I also spoke with with director and producer Ron Howard, whose new TV series Geniusabout the life of Albert Einstein — debuts on NatGeo Tuesday night, April 25. Read our Q&A below (edited for clarity and length).

Dan Costa: I’ve seen the first episode, and it’s pretty dramatic stuff. What was amazing to me is that I learned in that first episode so many new things about Einstein, including the fact that he had a first wife.

Ron Howard: Well, look, I think that’s why we chose Albert Einstein as a subject. Genius is based on Walter Isaacson’s book and a script by Noah Pink. We felt that Einstein was the perfect jumping off place. Over the years, without ever really understanding the physics, I’ve always been fascinated by Einstein, and I’d say [my co-producer] Brian Grazer has as well.

I’ve read a number of movie scripts, but none of them really did service to the story. They were always snapshots. This idea of doing 10 hours for NatGeo at a time when they wanted to move into scripted series, wanted to be more ambitious than ever about their premium programming…was just a great fit, and suddenly, we could really delve into the story.

Ron Howard, Genius

It’s still frustrating. We still had to make a lot of editorial choices, but there was so much drama and so much there that I didn’t know, even having been interested over the years. Certainly…to be able to really dimensionalize [his relationship with first wife Mileva Maric] and put that into a perspective. His relationship with his family. His immigration struggles. Who knew about all of this?

What fascinated me the most was the amount of pressure that he had to deal with, some of it from institutions, some of it from within his own family, some of it generated by himself and his own kind of Bohemian, free thinking kind of lifestyle. But how close we all came to actually not being able to benefit from the genius that this man had to offer, because politics were working against him, or he was the wrong religion, or he inadvertently insulted the wrong bureaucrat [was fascinating].

Yes, the first episode ends with an interrogation that determines his ability to come to the United States. I don’t know when that was filmed, but it seems like it has a special resonance in our political climate today.

And it comes back during the course of the series, because episode one kind of launches a number of aspects of his life. It features Geoffrey Rush as the senior Albert Einstein, and also Johnny Flynn as the younger Albert Einstein, and they did a fantastic job as artists, as actors, of creating a single cohesive character. It was great… to watch, as one sort of handed the baton to the other.

Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein in Genius

But it’s why I wanted to direct Episode One, because I wanted to try to create that balance, and also a look and a feel that would make the story cinematic and humanistically accessible. But there are so many twists and turns in his life, and politics was just thrust upon him. He became a kind of philosopher and a political figure, but not what he had in mind for himself at all. And yet I think his own sense of logic and duty really demanded that he get involved.

Cosmetically, you really did make the two of them look like Albert Einstein. Even though the two actors don’t resemble each other in real life, I can totally believe they were related.

Well, we cast Geoffrey Rush first, and we were very thrilled to see that he wanted to tackle the character. He’s a great artist, an Academy Award winner, and one of those chameleons [who was] very interested in how much [he could] look like Einstein.

Johnny Flynn as the younger Albert Einstein in Genius

But we also had to cast somebody for younger Albert, who had a similar kind of bone structure. Johnny Flynn, who doesn’t look anything like Albert Einstein, really, does have the right-shaped face. He auditioned, he won the role, [and] he’s got so much nuance. He’s a really successful musician as well. He’s got a fascinating dual career going on, but a tremendous actor. He won it through his audition, and our makeup artist team was able to blend them and make it happen.

He also plays him with a bit of an edge, a very polite edge, but a bit of a punk rock sensibility, because Einstein was in contrast and rebellion against all these different forces from his family to the German government, to even conventional standards of relationships.

That’s right. Another aspect of Albert Einstein’s life that some knew, but I certainly didn’t, [was that] his relationship with Mileva Maric was probably one of the most dramatic and complicated elements of his life. But I would also say that without Mileva and that relationship, and her intellect, and her support of him and belief in his ideas and ability to help him develop and flesh out those ideas, I suspect the miracle here wouldn’t have ever happened.

Samantha Colley as Mileva Maric in Genius

You mentioned a couple times that this was a 10-hour project. We’re seeing more and more of these 10-hour initiatives. You’ve done it before, and it really opens up a new way of storytelling that gives actors more freedom, writers more freedom, directors more freedom to tell a broader story. Do you think we’re going to see more of this in the future?

Without a doubt. Miniseries have been around for a long time, and I’ve always kind of envied that. I mean, going back to even the 70s, there were a couple of great, sprawling World War II miniseries. But you know, they were for network television, and they couldn’t compete with the authenticity of feature films, and the budgets were very, very limited. So, over the last 15, 20 years, starting with From Earth to the Moon, which we were a part of with Tom Hanks for HBO, and then Tom and Steven Spielberg did Band of Brothers, the miniseries changed, and it became this sort of novelistic thing, and standards and practices on television, cable, etc. allowed an honesty and a similitude that allows a storyteller to be very immediate, very modern, and very forthright.

So, suddenly, it’s this tremendous outlet for storytelling. I think there are a lot of stories that were made as movies before that now the filmmakers would look at it and say, “Why limit this to two or two and a half hours when we could have six hours, or eight hours, or 10 hours, and really tell this story?” I look for the day when the great, great classic novels aren’t condensed and the visual arts version of it is not a sort of Reader’s Digest version [but] the full novel.

I think technology is also enabling some of that type of storytelling. Those old miniseries in the 70s were broadcast in one week and were probably never aired again. To watch them again, you’d have to go to the video store and rent them. Now, you put out the episodes, they can be DVR’d, binged at once, watched on-demand at any time, or discovered a year or two later.

My wife fell in love with The Wire three weeks ago.

And you haven’t seen her since.

Well, it’s incredible, so you’re right. Speaking of people who have always sort of embraced kind of the nexus between storytelling and technology, mentor and friend George Lucas has been saying for many years now that storytelling was all going to be one giant library. It was going to be about shelf life, and if your idea was worthy, somebody would find it at the appropriate moment in his or her life. And if it wasn’t good enough, then it would be forgotten. That was going to be the new challenge over and above an opening weekend [box office tally] or [TV] ratings on night one.

It’s so true, and you’ve also got a different source of financing for these movies, where you look at a company like Netflix or Amazon, which is really just trying to build up its content portfolio. But it’s looking to get that money back over 10 years, 20 years, not just a single season.

And through subscriptions, and so there’s another imperative driving them, and what that does is it creates a market for a certain kind of story. It trains audiences to expect stories told in new ways and exciting ways, and it then creates a situation where a CEO like Courteney Monroe [at] National Geographic says, “What does premium content mean? Well, who are our competitors?” Suddenly, National Geographic is saying, “How does our brand compete with Netflix? Showtime? HBO?” Whatever it might be, and that’s a very exciting proposition for them. I mean, Courteney has a tremendous ambition and excitement for it. Peter Rice at Fox feels the same way about that possibility.

Ron Howard

So, for storytellers like myself and our team at Imagine Entertainment, and my partner Brian Grazer, this is a chance to reach audiences in a new way and in a more ambitious way. It’s really rewarding.

So, again, sticking with technology, here at South by Southwest there are a ton of directors and exhibits of AR storytelling, virtual reality storytelling. Have you seen anything that really impresses you, and is that an avenue that you want to pursue for your own creative work?

Both, maybe led by Brian Grazer. We have a real interest in it, and yes, I’ve had some really cool experiences. Have I seen an entire story unfold in a way that I found thoroughly gratifying, that I, as a consumer would become addicted to? Not yet, but it seems very promising to me, and the technology is exciting. So, in our own ways, we’re definitely exploring and pursuing that.

I ask everybody that I have on the show if there’s a particular gadget or technology or service that you use that you feel has changed your life and makes your life better.

Smartphone, because I’ve got a big family, I’m involved with a company, I love to direct, I’m involved in [organizations like the] Jacob Burns Film Center. [But the smartphone] allows me to … go to whatever corner of the Earth I need to go to, and still stay in contact in a very immediate way, and also grab information.

Brian Grazer does these curiosity conversations, and he wrote a book, The Curious Mind. One of [these conversations] was [with] Ray Kurzweil, [who said] “Well, we’re all going to be hooked in, and blah, blah, blah,” and I said, “Well, that blows my mind. What’s that going to be like?” He said, “Why should it blow your mind? You have it now if you go on Google.” At some point in our existence, we’re not going to have to go to a computer and type anything, it’s going to be there for us. Well, that’s pretty trippy for me still, but this little mobile device is so engaging.

Look, it’s a double-edged sword. We all know that it also is probably creating sort of more attention-deficit issues, and more disruption of thought and so forth, and so we have to learn to work with it. And generations much younger than me will probably do a better job of really knowing how to use tools like this in the most productive ways, both for them emotionally and mentally, and also in terms of productivity.

For more Fast Forward with Dan Costa, subscribe to the podcast. On iOS, download Apple’s Podcasts app, search for “Fast Forward” and subscribe. On Android, download the Stitcher Radio for Podcasts app via Google Play.

Originally published at www.pcmag.com.



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