NEW YORK — Ron Howard's 40-year directing career almost ended before it began. His first day directing a feature film, the high-octane road movie "Grand Theft Auto," came the day after his 23rd birthday.
"I thought I was going to be fired by lunchtime," remembers Howard. "The second day felt more comfortable. By the wrap party, it had fulfilled all my expectations for how the job would energize me and satisfy me."
Howard's continued exhilaration for the challenges of filmmaking are evident in an online course he developed that debuted Thursday. The class, featuring 32 roughly 10-minute video lessons, is part of the online tutorial series MasterClass, an instructional program that gives paying students access to the advice and teachings of famous experts. (Customers can learn ball-handling from Steph Curry, jazz piano from Herbie Hancock, or screenwriting from Aaron Sorkin.)
Howard's class gives a window into the director's filmmaking approach, shortly before he debuts one of his greatest directing challenges: "Solo: A Star Wars Story." Howard, the Oscar-winning director of "Apollo 13," ''A Beautiful Mind" and "Parenthood," came into "Solo" midway through production to replace the directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who departed over creative differences.
The experience, Howard says, was a learning one. It also was a production that depended heavily on Howard's personal directing talents — of positive energy and eager collaboration. Howard, among the most widely-liked directors in Hollywood, needed to turn around a massive and wayward production.
"When I think back on it, a lot of the principles of collaboration of creating those kinds of dialogues that lead to good decisions, I exercised that experience a lot on the challenge of coming in on 'Solo,'" Howard said in a phone interview.
"There's no single way to skin this cat," says Howard of directing. "But I found that I was at my best both contributing to and leading talented people, trying to create an environment where collaborators could really flourish and participate, and then having the courage to be the editor-in-chief of these ideas and make it that kind of benign dictatorship the process seems to require."
Movie directing is famously impossible to watch someone do — there are thousands of decisions made over a year or more. Many of the anecdotes related by Howard in his MasterClass are bits of guidance that he — a child actor turned filmmaker — received over the years from fellow filmmakers.
Uncertain of how to stage the action scenes of "Grand Theft Auto," Roger Corman urged him to consider the cars like characters in a scene. For advice on rehearsing the cast of "A Beautiful Mind," he sent out an "S.O.S." to Martin Scorsese, Sydney Lumet and Mike Nichols. An impressionable dinner with Akira Kurosawa gave him the suggestion of working in teams of three, since odd numbers are good for resolving disagreements.
One of Howard's most trusted friends and mentors was George Lucas, who directed him in "American Graffiti." Howard would also later direct "Willow," from Lucas' story. Though Lucas no longer has any direct role in the new "Star Wars" films, making "Solo" was a new and deeper connection in their lifelong relationship. Early in Howard's shooting of "Solo," Lucas visited the set and even advised on how to shoot a scene.
"George has a real understanding of what the medium can do in terms of really transporting audiences — which I discovered in great detail when I came onto 'Solo,'" says Howard. "I began to see how dimensionalized the tone is. It's playful but it's also thematically centered and serious. It's visual and imaginative and yet there's something connected to our past experience, in a way. It's almost like retro sci-fi, and yet it's cooler than hell and cinematically cutting edge."
Howard, who taped his class about a year ago, finished post-production on "Solo" on Friday — about a week early, he cheerfully points out. (The film opens May 25.) Even after a grueling editing process, he remains as thrilled by moviemaking as he was when he began.
"It's endlessly fascinating. They are adventures. They're like a voyage. Some are more satisfying than others. You might get frostbite on one and break a toe on another, but they're these great life experiences," says Howard, chuckling. "I mean that metaphorically because I've never gotten frostbite or even broken a toe on a movie."