Ron Howard might have been a little distracted when Emmy nominations were announced on July 13 — because less than three weeks earlier, he’d agreed to take over the directing chores on Lucasfilm’s untitled Han Solo movie. But he also had good reason to pay attention, because he ended up with one nomination for directing the first episode of the limited series “Genius,” and another for his documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.”
As a director, he might have felt more at home on the “Star Wars” spinoff than on either of the television projects. Although he’d started his career on TV as a child actor, for years he hadn’t had much interest in directing for it.
“I loved the two-hour medium,” he said of the lure of feature films. “Between 1960 and 1980 I was on a television series for 17 and a half out of those 20 years, between ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘The Smith Family’ and ‘Happy Days.’ But I was very interested in the cinema, and in telling stories that way.”
But after directing “Splash,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Frost/Nixon” and about two dozen films, Howard found his interest in television growing over the years, as his and Brian Grazer’s company Imagine became increasingly successful in the medium.
He also began to see the advantages of long-form TV. “I’ve always loved miniseries, going back to ‘Roots’ and ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ and ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ and been envious of the sophistication of their storytelling,” he said. “And that creative envy has only grown as so much great work has been happening on television.”
With “Genius,” in which Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn play Albert Einstein at different ages, Howard said the challenge was creating a cohesive character out of two performances, and also not shying away from the difficult theorizing that was at the heart of Einstein’s accomplishments.
“Brian and I talked about our experiences on ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ where science and our lead characters were so linked,” he said. “We wanted to make that a compelling aspect of this story, not back away from it.”
As the director of the first episode, he said, he also wanted “to set an aesthetic approach to the show that would endure over the 10 hours.” For that, he turned for inspiration to the fact that the show was being broadcast by the National Geographic Channel.
“Making this for NatGeo definitely defined my approach creatively,” he said. “We started talking about the magazine, and I thought, ‘What does the magazine mean to me at its best?’ It was immersive, educational but fascinating, and it was always visually compelling. That kind of raised the bar on what I wanted to achieve.”
With “Eight Days a Week,” meanwhile, he had to fight overfamiliarity. “I certainly felt incredibly challenged by how much has been seen of the Beatles and how much has been written about them,” he said. “But we did have some new footage and some great behind-the-scenes material, and we were able to re-edit things that were sort of familiar to focus on particular ideas.”
The same team that made the Beatles doc, he said, is now working on a film about Luciano Pavarotti. “I’m learning a hell of a lot about opera,” he said. “I really need to not only explore his life, but also the world of opera, the meaning of the music and what it takes to be able to perform at that level.”
Looking back at the subjects of his two Emmy-nominated films. “The parallels were kind of undeniable,” he said. “It had to do with personal integrity and commitment. Society would keep saying, ‘Why are you not seeing it our way?’ And both the Beatles and Albert Einstein said, ‘Because I don’t get your way. Your way of thinking is incomplete.'”
Read more from the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.