Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and the Future of Humanity

Published November 11, 2016

Ron Howard and Brian Grazer first met almost 40 years ago. “We were the two youngest guys to have offices at the Paramount lot back in 1979,” Howard explains. After engaging in one of Grazer’s famous “curiosity conversations”—a practice he does every two weeks where he meets with a person who interests him from any and every field to learn their “secret”—they worked on their first film together, Night Shift, with Howard directing and Grazer producing. “It was a big thing for both of us, our first studio feature,” Howard continues. “It was a real gauntlet to get a movie made when you don’t have that much on your résumé. When that followed up with the movie Splash, which was also a Brian Grazer idea, and a very difficult movie to get made, the friendship was cemented. We had a lot of laughs on that movie.”

If you’ve paid attention to recent film and television, chances are you’ve seen a Howard and Grazer production: there’s Parenthood (1989), Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Arrested Development (2003-2006, 2013) Cinderella Man (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006), and The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years (2016), and the upcoming National Geographic Channel series Mars and Genius, to name a few. They also frequently work on separate projects, with Grazer producing the likes of Friday Night Lights (both the 2004 film and the 2006 series), Empire (2015), Eight Mile (2002), and 24 (2001-2010). “I’m really about men or women that contain the embodiment of heroics,” Grazer tells us. “I get very emotional about capability.”

On Monday night at 9/8 central, the first episode of Mars will air in the U.S. It is something of a documentary-narrative hybrid, featuring interviews with space enthusiasts such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk, and Andy Weir, interspersed with a fictional drama following the first crew to land on Mars in 2032. “We were all collectively attracted to the subject of Mars, the hope and optimism that lives in it, the space adventure,” Grazer says. “We were the first people to sort of pioneer this [hybrid] on any network—it was really fortuitous that we uncovered this idea of doing a mixed cinematic narrative. I was really psyched. We did it first, so that was exciting. Sometimes you just have to be first.”

We spoke with Howard and Grazer separately over the phone. To go directly to Grazer’s interview, click here

EMMA BROWN: When did you first become interested in space?

RON HOWARD: Of course, I was completely enthralled by the space program as a kid—particularly Apollo 11—and was glued to the television like most of the world. Then I stopped thinking about it too much. I was a little disappointed that they weren’t going on to Mars at the time, but I didn’t think much of it. I was more interested in becoming a director at that point in my life and falling in love, things like that. When Apollo 13 appeared as an opportunity and I began to tackle that in as authentic a way as I possibly could, I really became enthralled by the philosophical side of space travel, and why we need to explore—what it means to us here on Earth—all of those things. I became a huge proponent. Then we became involved in From Earth to the Moon, a mini-series about the Apollo era for HBO. When this project came to Brian Grazer and I, I felt like it was another great opportunity to find a creative way to inspire people to believe in that possibility and discover the excitement, the drama, and the nobility of that possibility of deep space exploration and colonizing Mars.

BROWN: You mentioned the philosophical side of space exploration. Why do you think it’s important?

HOWARD: I think it’s in our nature to try to get beyond that next horizon. I think that when we as a species are scratching that itch we’re actually following an evolutionary compulsion that is wired into us. I think good things come of it. That’s the philosophical side. I’ve come to believe, however—especially through working on this project, to be honest—that there’s a very real argument that the minute we are capable of going to a planet, whether it’s Mars or another one, and inhabiting it, that we really should. The sooner we become a multi-planet species, the safer the species is, and the stronger the guarantee that we’re going to continue to evolve.

BROWN: Do you think that there are other forms of life people might encounter in planetary exploration?

HOWARD: I assume there is. But most of the people that I talk to about it or who I read suggest that the universe is so big that we are very likely so far away from a life that would be humanoid or intelligent. However, I think more and more scientists are becoming convinced that it’s very likely that life forms of some kind exist all around the universe not so far from us.

BROWN: Is there anything that frightens you about space exploration?

HOWARD: Nothing. Beyond the obvious threat to those who are courageous enough to make the attempt. I’m sure there’ll be loss of life along the way, and we shouldn’t be glib about that, and robotics are going to play a huge role in paving the way and that’s exciting and important. But I think that I’d be more frightened by our retreating from that adventure.

BROWN: Would you go into space if you had that opportunity?

HOWARD: Probably not. I’m not that adventuresome soul dying to do that. My wife Cheryl would, and she dreams of it. Her father was an engineer that worked for a company that made some parts for the Apollo mission, so for her that idea of getting to space and being able to look back at our planet from that perspective is something that she really, really has always dreamed of.

BROWN: When you were approached initially about Mars, was it already a mix of fiction and nonfiction?

HOWARD: It was initially a documentary and it all happened very quickly. Once the people from RadicalMedia brought the project to us, they had already had an initial, exploratory conversation with Elon Musk, which was entirely about a documentary. Elon made very clear that he didn’t want a documentary about him or just Space X, but that he would support something that he felt was constructive and authentic about going to Mars, because that was a very important subject to him. Brian Grazer and I have done a fair amount of work with the team at Radical, so when John [Silberberg] came in and Justin Wilkes brought the idea to Brian, he called me and asked if I’d be interested in working on it. I had met Elon and liked him and believed in what he was doing and Brian had felt that way as well.

Within no time—I mean like thirty-six hours—Brian had discussed the idea with Peter Rice at Fox, discussed the idea with Courtney Monroe at National Geographic, who we’d already done another documentary series for last year called Breakthrough. A bigger idea had already been hatched, and that was this idea of doing dramatization, not just quick cutaways like you see on the History Channel, but real characters, real stories. Some of this was influenced by Ridley [Scott]’s movie The Martian, which captivated all of us and was very successful. But we began to discuss the viability of this hybrid. We then went one step further; we started interviewing people about the project, including Elon, but others. We began to see that the story of colonization was the aspect of the adventure that we could deal with. But that was really kind of abstract, and we were mostly dealing with it in interviews. We began to think about dramatizing that, and suddenly we were compelled to—it was the only way for audiences to feel it in a powerful way. It was just so cinematic. I went back to Elon Musk to explain that we were operating not on the basis of the question “Should we go to Mars?” or “If we did, how would we go?” But instead we were operating from the premise of, “Oh, we went to Mars. And this is what it took to get us there.”

BROWN: Did Mars lead to Genius or were you already discussing Genius?

HOWARD: No, we weren’t discussing it, but when the Walter Isaacson book came to us through a company called Odd Lot along with a bible for a series and a first episode written by Noah Pink, and we immediately just took it to National Geographic because we had this great relationship. We’re finding Courtney Monroe to really be very ambitious and an excellent executive and leader—her leadership has meant a lot. That felt like the right home for us, and we immediately felt like it could be a series and that we could deal with a different genius each season. We decided to launch it as a series, but to use Albert Einstein and the Walter Isaacson book as our jumping-off place. So we have high hopes for it and it really plays into Brian’s curiosity and my love of the drama of discovery and human interests of that breakthrough thing.

BROWN: That seems like so much to have going on. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

HOWARD: No, my kids are raised! So I have discretionary time now. [laughs] I don’t have hobbies, this is what I love. So while making movies like Inferno that we have coming out next month, which is the third of the Dan Brown Robert Langdon mysteries which began with The Da Vinci Code, I have the time and I enjoy the creative stimulation of the various projects. We have a great team: we have great executives, we have wonderful collaborations with other production companies. It’s making a lot of things possible right now and that’s very rewarding and creatively stimulating.

BROWN: Are you someone’s who’s always searching for the next story and trying to option things?

HOWARD: Yes. And also, Brian, through just the way he lives, his radar is always tuned more to culture in the near future and the way society works and the way popular culture takes shape. That informs the story ideas that seem to come to us through our executives more than anything. And we respond to different stories for different reasons. It’s a business of ambition and disappointment. I’d be lying if I said that there aren’t times where it’s frustrating because there’s a project that I might have wanted or didn’t get. The projects that I have in development now are very diverse and really, creatively exciting—from a Neil Gaiman book, The Graveyard Book, to Disney, to Neil Stevensen’s great, great science fiction novel Seveneves, which is challenging but incredibly exciting. There’s a number of other projects from books that have yet to be published but offer really interesting, suspenseful character scenarios for me to work with as a director and for Brian and I as producers to tackle. It’s a very interesting time, for sure.EMMA BROWN: I was watching some interviews with you, and you were talking about your curiosity conversations, and how you are interested in meeting these people because you want to know their secrets. Does everyone have a secret?

BRIAN GRAZER: Yeah, everyone has a secret. I probably interviewed 2,000 people over 35 years every two weeks. They’re usually experts in some field, or they’re just committed to a belief system. For example, I met Blake Griffin, who’s, like, the number one basketball star athlete for the Clippers, but I actually said, “Who’s your manager?” His manager was not really a manager ever before, he was one of 100 assistant D.A.s in Philadelphia. I found him really interesting—”How did you commit yourself to such a thing, waking up at 4:30 in the morning for $11,000 a year?” He said, “I felt like I was making a difference.” That really resonated to me. I have these kinds of moments every time I meet these interesting people, in the same way I did with Elon Musk when he had just started Tesla, and pointed out what his real commitment was. He pointed to the other side of the building, and said, “I’m doing this, but what really matters to me is SpaceX.” I said, “What is SpaceX?” He said, “It’s going to be a factory and kind of a mission control together.” I understood what that meant, because I had produced Apollo 13, and that was a deep passion to him. Trying to create and build rockets that really mattered, and potentially, build rockets that were going to go to Mars.

BROWN: Did this project come from that conversation?

GRAZER: It was in part inspired by that conversation, or seeded by that conversation, because all the conversations that I do, they don’t really have an agenda to them, other than trying to understand that secret that you just referred to: the heartbeat of what that person is. When Mars was introduced to me by RadicalMedia, I thought again back to that meeting I had with Elon Musk, and it really punctuated the importance of it all. Elon Musk had already spoken to Radical, and he was a big part of what this was all about.

BROWN: You’ve said in the past that you started doing these curiosity conversations right out of college, and the first one was with your old college professor. How has the dynamic has changed as you’ve become more well known? Has it made it more difficult in a way to have these conversations with people?

GRAZER: Usually people say it differently. Does it make it more difficult? … No, not really. Now that I’m more well known, I think we’re able to just dive right in and get to the real content of what’s going on in this person’s life. This is a quick digression. Only about two months ago, I was getting a massage from a new masseuse. Even though I’m in my 60s, I surf and I’m pretty athletic, and I said to the masseuse, “I have a pretty good body, don’t I?” And she goes, “Pretty good, but I have a guy that’s 85 years old that has a better body.” I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding. I’d like to meet him.” She said he had started the internet, and I didn’t believe that, but he did. His name was Leonard Kleinrock, and you’ll see that he did have the first communication on the internet. I went to his house and met him, and he explained to me why he didn’t go into create a commercial endeavor, and he stayed a professor.

BROWN: Do you feel like curiosity is something that you can learn?

GRAZER: Yeah. I think it’s something you can perfect. I think we all have a base, and if you focus on it, pay attention to it, nurture it, and exercise it, like any kind of brain activity, you can make it into a superpower.

BROWN: When you were growing up, did you ever have a dream of being an astronaut?

GRAZER: No, but I romanticize and covet people that have heroics. I made a movie about firemen, because it’s a selfless job, and you go save people’s lives. Astronauts, I have a high regard for them. But I didn’t want to be one. I’m interested in noble purposes. I actually think that Mars, the ethos of what this is all about, has a noble purpose. It’s exciting, like the show itself, but ultimately at the center of it there’s some nobility to it.

BROWN: Does the idea of space exploration or becoming a multi-planetary species frighten you at all?

GRAZER: It doesn’t frighten me. I think there are a lot of values in why we’re doing it, and in some levels it’s also geopolitical. That, I think, is not the primary reason, but I think there’s a lot of countries that are deploying money to space exploration, to space travel and potentially Mars. I think there’s geopolitical strategy involved and we want to be ahead of it.

BROWN: Ron Howard says that he does believe that there are other forms intelligent life out there in the world, but we’re probably so far apart that we’ll never interact with them. What do you think?

GRAZER: I would guess that, I’m sort of a person of evidence, so I think to myself of the map of it, and why not? Wasn’t Ingrid Sischy sort of the beginner, the progenitor of your magazine?

BROWN: Actually, it was founded by Andy Warhol, but she was the editor-in-chief for 18 or 19 years.

GRAZER: I knew both of them. I also did an interview. I interviewed Pharrell, like, 10 years ago. This intersects with this. I thought the interview with Pharrell, because he asked me to do it, would be about music and all he talked about was space. It was such a fucking trip. That’s all he talked about, and he knew a lot about it. It really stuck out to me.

BROWN: You should’ve brought him into Mars.

GRAZER: I should have, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it. It’s never too late. We’ll probably do more of these Mars adventures.

BROWN: When people ask you what a producer actually does in interviews, you have this very succinct answer about having a creative vision and a fiscal vision. Do they ever get in the way of each other?

GRAZER: Yeah. [laughs] They begin in the way of each other. They coexist in opposite directions, and then you have to, as a producer, intersect them so it’s financially and creatively in alignment.

BROWN: You’ve talked in the past about how there’s always going to be someone that says no to you—that Steven Spielberg was initially turned down for E.T. You’re so established now, does that really still happen to you though?

GRAZER: Yes. Sadly, yes. [laughs] No matter how much I’m succeeding. But it’s okay; it’s just sort of part of the job.

BROWN: When do you know when to pursue something or when to drop something?

GRAZER: Usually, if I have complete clarity of the thematics of the idea, and I believe the thematics have universality to them and a redemptive quality, then I don’t ever give up. A Beautiful Mind, I just wouldn’t give up. I started that movie with the premise of, “I want to try to make a movie that could help destigmatize mental disability.” I started doing a movie that wasn’t A Beautiful Mind with that theme in mind with Brad Pitt. Before we could make the movie, sadly, our story had a tragedy in it, and we had to abandon it. Then I started from zero again.

BROWN: When you become interested in something, how long does it last? Is there something that has maintained your interest for 30 years?

GRAZER: 8 Mile took 10 years for me to just think about it and socialize it and incubate it. They last a long time. Friday Night Lights took me 11 years to make, because it was about three things, and I had to convince people that the thing that mattered the most was not football, but it was about how fragile a boy’s identity is in their late teens. With 8 Mile, I met ODB—Ol’ Dirty Bastard—right before he died. Basically I realized that the establishment had treated hip-hop as an inferior subculture, and I wanted to try to find a thesis to try to prove that it was a culture, not a subculture. 

MARS PREMIERES MONDAY, NOVEMBER 14, AT 9/8 CENTRAL ON NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL.