Ron Howard & Brian Grazer On The Beatles, ‘Dark Tower’ And 30 Years Together

Associated Press

As their Imagine Entertainment partnership hits 30 years, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s focus has been the comparatively short but white-hot run of The Beatles. In Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years, Howard has directed a lively and surprising documentary about the formative years of a band that burned brightly and then was burned out by the burden of incessant fame that touring brought the young foursome from Liverpool. The docu premieres in theaters September 15 and on Hulu two days later.

That Howard and Grazer are working on that platform is a sign of their ever-evolving company, which has allowed them to continue growing after their Universal deal went by the wayside. Now funded by a $100 million investment from the Raine Group, they are still making big studio films — the latest Dan Brown novel adaptation, Inferno, bows October 28 through Sony — and TV series — 24 is being rebooted for Fox — but the partners have had to be wily to overcome hurdles on films like the mammoth adaptation of the Stephen King fantasy novel series The Dark Tower. Kicked to the curb by Universal and Warner Bros, the hoped-for franchise start finally happened through a combination of indie funding from MRC that led Sony Pictures to co-finance and distribute. That pic bows February 17.

AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, 1973

DEADLINE: Ron, those of us who go back long enough to remember your still photo in the closing credits of American Graffiti would have pegged you to be a Beach Boys guy.

HOWARD: Well, I was a Beach Boys guy, but I was won over. In ’64 as the radio stations were creating this duel between The Beatles and The Beach Boys, I slowly but surely got won over by the Mop Tops.

DEADLINE: You focused on performance footage from the early days to show the progression of the band from obscurity to white-hot fame, and conveyed how the latter led to the band’s eventual breakup. You bypassed the apocryphal tales that included the influence of Yoko Ono on John, and other things we have all heard. Why did you take that track?

HOWARD: They pioneered a lot of aspects of what a mega rock career is, now. This came to me as Jeff Jones and the team at Apple Records collected more and more footage from fans and some bootleg soundboards that they believed could be used to enhance the live performance footage that had been seen before. That is how it came to me through Nigel Sinclair, who they’d talked to about producing it. They wanted to focus on the touring years. At first I thought that was going to be a disadvantage, but as I researched it, it became a huge narrative advantage. That point in their career was like an odyssey, an adventure story. The more I understood it, it became more like a survival story. Along the way, it became a coming-of-age story. Them, as men, and unbelievable artists who evolved from pop stars to musical mavericks who redefined the medium.

Beatles Eight Days A Week

DEADLINE: Biggest surprise?

HOWARD: I learned so much about them. There is seven or eight minutes of new footage but because I’m not encyclopedic about The Beatles, that’s not what meant the most to me. What excited me was this period of growth and what it said about that period in our history and the upheaval of the cultural revolution that was going on, and their role in it. And the way they were affected and the way they affected it. I decided it could be the kind of story where, if Brian and I had tackled this as a scripted re-creation, we’d want to go along on the journey with The Beatles and make people understand what it was like to be there. I began to see that the footage accomplished that. Not just the concert footage, but some of the behind-the-scenes footage. The biggest surprise? The integrity they had, as artists and individuals, and how they applied it.

GRAZER: Ron and I, together, have had this unique partnership for 30 years. Two guys. That has had its own complications but it’s pretty awesome. This was four guys, with equal votes and equal power, who produced this miracle alchemy. It blew my mind that four people could get along and become such musical phenoms as a single unit. Ron did an unbelievable job communicating that. The other thing was, I’ve known Paul McCartney socially a long time, but to work through his filter, which is so perfection-istic, was a joy. He just has A+ taste. What a privilege for Ron and myself.

DEADLINE: This was once upon a time in their lives, for Paul and Ringo Starr. George Harrison and John Lennon passed on, but how do Paul and Ringo look back on those days, coming of age with fame only Elvis Presley had experienced? Does it play back for them with fondness and nostalgia, or something less pleasant?

HOWARD: It was all those things and I think this film came along at a time in the lives of Paul and Ringo where they could look at this with a kind of perspective they hadn’t been willing to, before. We did two different interviews and I noticed a real change from the first interview to the second one, with both guys. They saw the cut footage, they began to see the approach I was taking, and the kind of insight I was looking for, and they really opened up in the second interview. Talking quietly to Paul, after, he said, “You know, I usually resist talking about The Beatles. It was a time in my life I was proud of, but it was a time in my life. Now, I finally feel like I’m entitled to celebrate that.” In a way, that reluctance was a way of looking forward, and Ringo has that same thing. I was very fortunate that I could interview them at a moment when they were more open than ever to giving us honest answers. Sometimes, it seemed honestly thrilling to them and sometimes it was daunting and exhausting and even frightening. The interviews reflect that in very specific ways that hadn’t been so much, before.

Film and Television

DEADLINE: You seem well suited to understand those years. You grew up in the business, and you had palpable highs, early on with Andy Griffith and Happy Days. It must have been daunting to wonder if you had peaked by age 18. What connection did your experiences create with Paul and Ringo?

HOWARD: Well, nobody can really compare themselves to what The Beatles went through. When Paul says “there is a period of time when I didn’t want to dwell on The Beatles, I wanted to look ahead”…well, I could certainly relate to that. Also, when he said that at a certain point I can look back with appreciation and not be threatened by what was, I also relate to that. The partnership with Brian, what I have been able to achieve as a director these 30 years, has put me in a similar position. I continue to grow and that makes it easier for me to look back with nothing but nostalgia and good feelings. Once or twice in the height of Happy Days excitement, which had more to do with Henry Winkler as The Fonz than ever had to do with me, we were kind of like a boy band for a year or so and we would go out on personal appearances and feel the limousine rocking, and the grabbing at your clothes and people trying to steal your cap. That happened to me; I always liked to wear a hat, even when I had hair. I realized I had like four instances of that, and they had like 4000. It was their absolute way of life. Nobody can compare themselves to what The Beatles went through. It was wild.

DEADLINE: I won’t put you in the position of comparing yourselves to The Beatles, but what ingredient in a collaborative partnership has allowed both of you to last 30 years, while they barely lasted a decade?

GRAZER: Great partnerships need respect and the only way to have respect with as intimate a relationship as a partnership like that is if you have a shared value system, and a shared sense of what is good qualitatively. Trust comes with that respect. That is the cornerstone of our relationship. With The Beatles, from the get-go, it was four people, writing songs, trying to agree, and it seems at some point implausible with that many people.

HOWARD: Given how talented they were, and how much they had to say, it reached a point where they were no longer going to be able to fully maximize their artistic ambition and potential, as a group. Eventually, they just had to move beyond that and follow their own voices. It was impossible to maintain the harmonics of four equal creative voices. With Brian and I, given the way we have been able to support each other and use Imagine as individuals and as a team, it has offered endless possibilities for growth and exploration. We can support each other’s taking creative risks and trying new kinds of projects and new points of view. With all the platforms that now exist, the company has been able to expand our sensibilities and be as ambitious as we want to be.

sigourney weaver beatles

DEADLINE: There is a photo of a young Sigourney Weaver at a Beatles concert in the film. How in the world did you find that?

HOWARD: Paul Crowder, our editor, was sorting through all the fan footage, because the fans were very important to me. I kept saying I wanted to look at it from three perspectives: from inside the bubble and how The Beatles viewed the odyssey; outside, and what the social pressures were; and what they meant to fans of that era. We began searching and searching and found this footage and we literally blew it up and he said, “I think that’s Sigourney Weaver.” We asked. Lo and behold, we were told yes and she did an interview. Whoopi Goldberg came about because I was going on The View. I’ve known her for years and she asked what else I was doing and I told her and she told this story about how she’d seen them and it made me emotional and I told her I’d like to put a camera on her at some point. It all grew out of wanting to look at a phenomenon from three perspectives.

DEADLINE: That led to a discussion of how they broke the segregation barrier at concerts in the Deep South.

HOWARD: I didn’t know about Jacksonville, Florida and The Beatles’ stand about segregation there. I knew they became anti-war advocates at some point in their lives. It became an important part of the movie and we then found Katie Oliver and some other fans who were there and experienced how The Beatles made a difference.

DEADLINE: You raised indie financing and moved away from the traditional studio deal at Universal. You once took the company public and found the administration and shareholder stuff draining. How is the private equity working out?

GRAZER: Doing this was a way of building our company and avoiding that. We’re not a public company and the foundational design of this allowed for the hiring of people who could do that stuff seamlessly. We have named a COO Steve Shikiya and we are ready to bring on someone else at a high level. It is less of an infrastructure you would need to service a public vehicle and we’ve made sure to hire quality to execute the business outside of us, so we don’t have to burden ourselves with it.

HOWARD: We’ve got five different movie projects coming out, this year or next. The Beatles, Inferno in October, Dark Tower in February, Lowriders in May, and then American Made, which Doug Liman directed with Tom Cruise, in September. And more on the runway. Our television has been fantastic and we find a way on the movies. I’m pleased with the diversity.

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DEADLINE: One inevitability of lasting 30 years is that your films get remade. Other then old, how does the prospect of a Splash remake make you feel?

GRAZER: It made me feel good, I’m excited to work with Channing [Tatum]. There have been like 100 different approaches before, but this feels like a good way to do it.

HOWARD: It has come up a couple of times and we never thought it was right, at all. This one just struck a nerve with me. I like Channing, I worked with him before and he has grown so much as a talent. It was so much fun to hear them pitch it. I was sitting around with my family and told them about it, and Bryce said, “Dad, that’s meta.” I guess that means it’s a good thing.

DEADLINE: It wasn’t easy, but The Dark Tower finally got done, with Nikolaj Arcel behind the camera and Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey starring. 

HOWARD: Akiva Goldsman first pitched it to me while we were making A Beautiful Mind and the rights weren’t available. JJ Abrams was working on it at first and then Akiva told me JJ was involved in so many projects he let it go. We started talking about what it could be. I read all the novels and we broke them down. He presented this idea to Stephen King, and this is insider material you might not get, but it was about introducing the Horn of Eld into the very first story. He knew it would allow us to use elements of the novels in a new combination that would give us the latitude to be true to the essence of the novels, but also re-balance and refocus the narrative in a cinematic way. That was the jumping-off point that began this process. When MRC and Modi Wiczyk became involved, that discussion deepened and we focused more on the Jake Chambers-Roland relationship at the very center of the first movie as a way of launching the universe. We simplified the story line, made it less expensive as a result, but we still utilized a lot of those important structural adjustments that Akiva and I had devised going back years ago. One of the things we did was put together a team of Dark Tower researchers, devotees of the books. We wanted to restructure the novels to be most cinematic and Stephen King agreed completely and understood the journey we were on immediately and supported it. We used this group to inspire our thinking and stay in the universe of Dark Tower.

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DEADLINE: And then you found Arcel.

HOWARD: Just about the time Akiva, Modi, Brian and I we were going to give up, Tom Rothman at Sony came aboard and that was an important turning point and that led to Nik. He grew up on the books and always loved them. He really was a great choice to approach the story in the most humanistic and cool way, focusing a lot on the Jake-Roland relationship. He understood the importance of that and connected with both characters. He’s also a strong original filmmaker with great taste. He and his writing partner tackled a rewrite and Nic has done a terrific job staging it.

GRAZER: We’ve definitely been working on it at least 10 years, but we found the perfect way to make it. It’s economical, and forced us to focus on the scenes that were the heartbeat of the story. It’s still a big landscape, but the scenes are more bull’s-eye than maybe it was back then. And we have the hippest cast with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. We never had that cast.

HOWARD: Akiva Goldsman and our Erica Huggins never gave up on it, and Stephen King was just so patient. We kept trying drafts, searching for collaborators. We finally got there with MRC’s Modi and Tom Rothman at Sony. Modi really got these books, and he characterizes himself as a Tower Head. Nik Arcel did a great job directing. We were very excited on that first day and we are very pleased with what we’re seeing. We’ve believed in this for so long.

Idris Elba The Dark Twoer 2-shot

DEADLINE: You flirted with several actors to play Roland Deschain, who’s depicted in King’s books as this white, blue-eyed gunslinger. Idris Elba was a surprise, based on how readers probably imagined their hero through seven novels and a novella.

HOWARD: Back then, we came close to making it with Javier Bardem at one point. I’ve always felt that the essence of Roland was not necessarily the carbon copy of Clint Eastwood, even though that was what they used as the model on a lot of the book covers. The existential Western hero, played by Clint in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and Hang ‘Em High and those Sergio Leone Westerns, that was what inspired young Stephen King to begin with. But I never felt it was necessarily a look as much as an essence. So did Stephen. In this iteration, when we began thinking about candidates, Idris just felt like a really exciting and dynamic possibility. Idris brings this crucial combination of coiled danger, quiet charisma, undercurrents of complexity and nobility, and a kind of timeless cool. These are the elemental qualities of Roland, in my mind, and I think Idris carries it incredibly well. Then there is McConaughey. I had always thought he would be a tremendous Walter.

Matthew McConaughey Dark Tower 2-shot

DEADLINE: The Man in Black.

HOWARD: I worked with him once and long have been a fan since he emerged on the scene. So is Akiva, who wrote the script for A Time To Kill. He and I always believed Matthew would be a great trip and it was a dream come true when he said yes. He brings that combination of diabolical amorality mixed with an intelligence and his own logic that he adheres to, relentlessly. And a kind of wry wit that kept readers and will keep the movie audience off balance in a very entertaining way. You never know what to expect next from the Walter character. Matthew mixes that with an undercurrent of impending violence and danger, in a very watchable way.

DEADLINE: The original plan was so ambitious, with three movies and a TV series interspersed between. How has that evolved?

HOWARD: It hasn’t, really. We’re developing the television part, now. We don’t know what platform it will be on at this point, but we’re developing the content in hopes for more movies that will cover the epic and the characters involved.

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