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The first movie I ever saw was a Western called Frontier Woman. The reason I saw it was my dad played the villain in it, my mom played a little part in it, and, the fact is, I was even in it. It was my first gig, at 18 months.
They needed a crying baby, so they rolled the camera, gave me a little toy truck to play with and then took it away from me. That made me cry, and they got the shot they wanted.
Later, I remember going to the drive-in to see the film. I watched my dad get shot and fall forward over the bannister, the way villains in Westerns always did.
I understood it was pretend, but it was pretend trying to create something that felt real. My dad hadn’t really been shot because he was watching the movie with me. It was all fun and games, and it still is.
At age 4, I saw my first major movie, Around the World in 80 Days. It was absolutely transporting. I remember it vividly to this day. That’s when I began to fall in love with the moviegoing experience.
Fifty-four years later, I still love movies. It’s my wife Cheryl’s and my primary hobby and outing. It’s what we do on a date: We go out to the movies. I appreciate the theater environment. Although audience members sometimes make the experience uncomfortable, I’d rather take that chance.
There’s something unique and meaningful in a group experience. You’re sitting in a large audience, and there’s a moment when everyone cheers or everyone laughs or everyone cries. You’re all emotionally in sync.
When a movie transports me in an emotional way, it inspires my imagination or my intellect. I love to lose myself in the characters or the world the director is creating. It’s rare and wonderful. I’m a good audience.
As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I’m not supposed to talk about my current favorites, but I will say 2012 was a very good year. A decade from now, people will be comparing movies with Argo, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook and Les Misérables.
Even though the economics of the film business have become so challenging, there was some extraordinary work last year. Executives, producers, writers — everybody — they’re all redoubling their efforts so that these films really soar. There’s lots of pressure, but the good news is that the movies I’ve mentioned, along with others like The Impossible, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild are not safe choices. They’re bold.
Filmmakers are trying to be ambitious and fresh, and they’re betting on the idea that audiences want to see something that’s not like everything else. They want movies to be engrossing, good and entertaining, not manufactured, regurgitated ideas.
Americans didn’t invent film. But we made it a medium for the masses, not for the elite or for academics. We moved it to populist entertainment.
Movies came at a time in American culture when there was a kind of restless, energetic ambition, a desire to tackle the world. That created anxiety, and people wanted escapism. They wanted jolts, emotions, thrills, laughs and tears. Hollywood has always made movies that audiences want to see, going back to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton through Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Star Wars and E.T., right up to today. American films are still a medium that aims to please; it’s ingrained in the American psyche. And populist doesn’t mean it can’t be artful, powerful and significant.
I’ve been asked how I feel about people watching movies on their cellphones, and I tell them, “That’s not what any director hopes for.” For me, it’s less about the image size than the inevitability of the stop/start watching. Feature films are designed as single-sitting experiences which build emotionally. They work in movements, the way a concert is supposed to be.
Bottom line, though, is that I want people to see the film. More than the cinematic experience, what really means the most to me are the themes and ideas, the feelings of what the story offers — whether it’s fantasy, comedy, romance or dark drama. Ultimately it’s up to the audience as to how they watch it.
What really means the most to me are the themes and ideas. I choose the films I make because the ideas can entertain and give the audience something to ponder. I’m working on a half-dozen projects and I love them all.
Where will I be on Oscar night? Probably at home having pizza, popcorn and takeout food. I’ll put my feet up and hang out with some pals who like movies, too.
Ron Howard is an old hand at the Oscars. He has won two, as director and producer of 2001's best picture, A Beautiful Mind. Movies he has worked on, including 1962's The Music Man, 1973's American Graffiti, 1995's Apollo 13, and 2008's Frost/Nixon, have 50-plus nominations and 10 wins. His next film, Rush, a true story of two 1970s race-car champs, arrives in September. For this article, writer Nancy Mills interviewed Howard; the interview has been condensed and edited.