Ron and Clint Howard on The Dilemma, Improv and What's Up With Arrested Development

To hear Ron Howard tell it, the key element of his new film The Dilemma is surprise: Tonal twists from comedy to thriller to drama and pathos back again, frequently without warning and with little indication of which character will turn up where -- or how or why they'll do it. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that I walked into a chat with the filmmaker to find his younger brother, the actor (and Ron Howard stock player) Clint Howard would be joining. Score!

After all, here you've got around 100 years of combined Hollywood experience, a couple guys who have seen and done it all: Won an Oscar? Check. Work experience with Uwe Boll? Check. Driven the ski boat that helped coin "jump the shark"? Check. Witnessed more industry trends and developments than any sibling pair since Harry and Jack Warner? Check. (Sorry, Weinsteins! It's not like Harvey was on The Andy Griffith Show and Bob was on Gentle Ben or anything.) I mean, in one year in the early '80s, these guys gave us Night Shift and Evilspeak. This is serious.

Maybe too serious, in fact. Talking about The Dilemma with the Howards does present a... dilemma, for better or worse: The tale of best friends Ronnie (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) and the secrets that wedge their ways between them -- starting with Ronnie witnessing (and soon stalking) the adulterous acts of Nick's wife (Winona Ryder) -- is ambitious but ultimately minor Howard. But it's still the work of a guy clearly taking chances in a movie for adults that doesn't shove 3-D down your gullet, and you soon come to deeply appreciate the guys in tandem. As the conversation weaves from improv techniques to Ryder's transcendence to what the hell is really happening with a big-screen adaptation of Arrested Development (which the elder Howard brother co-produced and narrated), the easiest impression to take from Ron and Clint Howard together is a resilient, almost phenomenal sincerity. And so! It goes like this:

I want to start the way the movie starts and just ask point blank: How well can you really know somebody?

CLINT HOWARD: No, I don't think you can know somebody -- even a spouse. I think there are dark place in peoples' minds or ideas that float around in peoples' heads that the closest people will never know about.

RON HOWARD: I agree, but I think you can -- with near certainty -- get close enough to somebody to know what they will do in a very reliable way. Maybe not in the most extreme circumstance, but I think I could tell you pretty well how Clint would react to this, that or the other. Or my wife Cheryl.

CH: Well, you've got a better marriage than I have. I can't figure out my wife at all.

Let's talk about the tone, especially as it alludes to the idea of knowing somebody. There are secrets being kept from the audience as well as the individual characters. How did these dynamics evolve for you along the way, and how do you think you did?

RH: Well, it was a good strong script by Allan Loeb. I didn't develop it; Brian Grazer, my partner at Imagine, it was his idea. And in fact, it was born from an idea when he saw a woman with red hair walking down the street being kind of affectionate -- and my wife Cheryl has red hair, shoulder-length red hair. And he spotted her and said, "Maybe that could be Cheryl?" But this person was being very affectionate to a big buff guy who was definitely not me. Brian got a little worried about it, but when he saw the woman turn, he saw it wasn't Cheryl. And so he told me about it, and we had a laugh.

Then he started mentioning that to other people, and it always started off a round of pretty spirited conversation. He mentioned that to Vince Vaughn, and together they cooked up this movie. They brought in Allan Loeb, really developed it on their own. I knew about it -- it was there at Imagine -- and when I read it, I really wanted it. My antenna was tuned to try to find a kind of contemporary, unusual, edgier sort of comedy because I'd had a really good experience working in and around Arrested Development. So a couple of years ago, it reminded me that I really missed directing comedy -- people working toward generating laughs. And yet I didn't want it to just feel, sound, echo other comedies that I'd done, [but] other tones.

Vaughn's character, Ronnie, embodies many of those tones; you do have to figure him out. Who is this guy?

RH: He's a wonderful guy; he thinks in his own unique way. He's one of those guys who kind of says and does the inappropriate, kind of extreme thing, but it's always from a place of trying to achieve something that makes sense. Even to us, which is why he can attract someone as grounded, intelligent and lovely as Jennifer Connelly. He's on the brink of actually popping the question. He's this elusive guy who's had a gambling problem at one point in life, but things are looking really good. He's really at this point of turning a corner in a lot of ways. So it's a story of this particular person having the rug pulled completely out from under him. It's not really, "What would you do?" It's, "What would this guy do? What does it mean to him and his emotional stability? How does he respond?" And of course we want to deal with it in a comedic way, but we found that the more honest we were about it all, and the more truthful it seemed, that the funnier the spikes were.

How did you develop that character with Vince Vaughn? How did he evolve?

RH: Well, Vince is a fascinating guy -- incredibly talented. He's not really a comic. He's not a guy who thinks only about how to be funny. He really thinks in terms of ideas and the world around him. And he's got a really particular, unique point of view about things. But it's fun! It's smart, it's interesting. And so talking about this idea and how it might unfold turned out to be very creative, and it did keep evolving. But all the other actors joined in -- not only in the rehearsal process, but also in the filming. It's not like scenes would entirely change, but we would do the scripted scenes, and I would really invite these free takes. And people could put their own stamps on it whether it was comedy or even in some of the more emotional, dramatic scenes where people like Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder made huge contributions by bringing even more truth to their characters. Clint's scenes with Vince were largely improvised. Weren't they?

CH: Well, you had warned me -- well, not so much warned me -- but said the plan was to do a lot of improvising. And one of the reasons why I think Ron sort of asked me to do this part was because he honestly trusts me and understands I'm willing to stand there toe-to-toe with anybody and give it my best shot. I've been doing this a long time, and I think he had confidence in me that I wouldn't fold under pressure. So we did the scene scripted, and then we started playing. I've had some luck in my life acting with improvisational actors, and I felt such a great vibe with Vince. I think he felt the same way because he gave me stuff, and I bounced stuff off him. When he realized I could play ball with him, then we started playing.

That's interesting. How or with whom did you hone your improv chops?

CH: It's not so much honing my chops. It's just getting the opportunity, like on the Austin Powers movies. That was pure improvisational inspiration from Mike [Myers] and Jay Roach, the director. And also [Adam] Sandler. I've had the good fortune a few times of working with Camp Sandler. Those guys certainly understand filmmaking, but they also understand finding the surprises through improvising. And another thing is working on low-budget movies. You can take more chances to a degree. When you're working on a movie like this which is a fairly big-budget piece of work, and there's a lot at stake, actors tend to want to go in there and throw strikes. On the small little independent movies, you feel a little more comfortable and confident that you can play around a little bit. So I've had plenty of experience on the smaller movies getting to improvise.

How did that interactivity among the actors inform Nick, played by Kevin James?

RH: Because the Nick character was born of Brian Grazer saying, "What would I do if I saw the wife of my best friend and business partner cheating?", the relationship is a little bit... You know, Brian's a little emotional, mercurial, his mind moves quickly from subject to subject and possibility to possibility. I'm a little more dug in, myopic, and quietly wound up and emotional about what I'm doing. So the characters reflected that in a way. This is not a classic Kevin James character in that Vince is the one who's more physically funny in the movie. And Kevin is driving an idea, and the comedy kind of comes out of that anxiety -- the sense that this is a really bright guy at a really emotionally vulnerable time. Kevin really loved that about the script. He signed on, and it was for the opportunity to stretch himself a little bit. This was a chance to work with Vince and a chance to have a different role in a modern comedy. He gets his laughs and stuff, but he also creates some nice emotional moments. He really is proud of that.

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  • The Winchester says:

    Knowing the idea for this came from the Grazerhead just piqued my curiosity, bumping it up from "Maybe Netflix it" to "Possibly sneak into after True Grit".