Filmmaker Ron Howard Talks Einstein’s Genius and the Legacy of Apollo 13

The story of the famous physicist’s flight from Germany is the award-winning director’s latest science-themed project.

Executive Producer Ron Howard directed the first episode of National Geographic's new 10-part dramatization of the life of Albert Einstein himself. (National Geographic)

Ron Howard earned his first screen acting credit at the age of five and directed his first feature film, Grand Theft Auto, when he was 23. In the four decades since, he’s become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed and prolific filmmakers, including winning an Academy Award for directing the 2001 Best Picture Award-winner, A Beautiful Mind.

To Air & Space readers, he is perhaps best known as the director of 1995’s Apollo 13. Howard achieved the microgravity effect in that film by building a set inside NASA’s KC-135 “vomit comet” and filming actors Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton in 25-second increments of weightlessness. Though he continues to develop projects in many different genres, space and science remain consistent interests. Howard was a producer on the HBO series From Earth to the Moon, and is slated to direct a feature adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Seveneves, wherein the moon explodes, with disastrous consequences for Earth. William Broyles, Jr., the screenwriter of Apollo 13, is adapting the book. Howard’s latest project is the National Geographic TV series Genius, a 10-part dramatization of the life of Albert Einstein. It follows the pioneering physicist through two critical phases of his life, around the turn of the 20th century and during the 1930s.

Howard spoke with Air & Space by phone last week.

Air & Space: It’s a coup for Air & Space to have an audience with the director of Apollo 13, among many other films.

Howard: When I was considering Apollo 13, just doing the research and exploring the viability of the movie, I visited the National Air and Space Museum. I actually have a lot of extended family [in the D.C. area]. I stood in front of the display that talked about Apollo 13, which was then kind of a little-known mission, and I talked to my whole extended family about it. They were so riveted by it. It confirmed my belief that you didn’t have to be a space enthusiast to find the drama in that story. It was an important lesson for me.

It links to Genius in a way, in that it was the first project I did that was based on real events—the first one I directed, anyway. Over the years I’ve been involved in many more of these projects. I find them increasingly satisfying because it gets back to that old idea that fact is stranger than fiction. If you really want to understand people going through extreme challenges it’s great to look at real people and real events. It gave me confidence to do A Beautiful Mind [about mathematician John Nash], and now this one dealing with Einstein.

And also Cinderella Man [about boxer Jim Braddock] and Frost / Nixon [about journalist David Frost’s televised interview with Richard Nixon three years after Nixon resigned the presidency]. So that leads me to a question: In the case of Albert Einstein, this is a man whose name and face are much more present in the culture than [astronaut] Jim Lovell or Jim Craddock or John Nash. Those guys aren’t on T-shirts and bumper stickers like Einstein is, 60-plus years after his death. Do you feel like you need to combat that sort of cartoon version of him, to present Einstein as a real person?

Not combat it, but certainly extend beyond that. That was the surprise of Noah Pink’s teleplay for the initial hour, and of course Walter Isaacson’s book, which offers a look into this incredible human being, with strengths, weaknesses, foibles and personality. And who not only achieved what he achieved, but also survived a number of challenges—some of them self-inflicted, through his personality and his nature, and many of them thrust upon him from the outside, from political and academic institutions, and social mores and trends. 

I look at the iconic Einstein, those images that we’re all familiar with, and I think of a very important figure who also turned out to be an interesting philosopher. But I had no idea that the world didn’t recognize—I mean, I’d heard stories about him not being a great student, but that was about it. I had no idea how close society came to not being able to benefit from his genius.

Howard (at right, in the baseball cap) prepares to shoot a scene with Johnny Flynn (seated), who plays Einstein as a young man. "Genius" also stars Geoffrey Rush as the middle-aged Einstein. (National Geographic)

The first episode ends with Einstein trying to emigrate to the United States and being questioned by an embassy official who tells him the skeptical questions he’s asking are coming straight from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Covering the rise of the Nazi party and his decision to flee to America as a refugee makes the show surprisingly timely.

I don’t think we ever expected it to be prescient. We thought it was dramatic and enlightening, but as we were working on it, it became more and more clear that there were echoes now of what Einstein and the world lived through decades ago.

Twice in that first episode Geoffrey Rush as Einstein says to his wife, played by Emily Watson, “It’s okay. He didn’t win.” Referring to Adolf Hitler in the federal elections of 1933.

It was an opportunity, I felt, to touch on a question that many people have—I have many friends who had family members in the camps. Most did not survive, but there are a few who did, whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet. The question I’ve never had the nerve to ask is, “Why did your family remain [in Germany] as long as they did?” 

When I read [Walter’s Isaacson’s 2007 biography Einstein: His Life and Universe] and began to get some perspective into Einstein’s life and what his colleagues were feeling, the decisions they were making during the rise of fascism, I thought it was useful to take somebody who is not just part of the story and who needs to be built into the drama of our narrative, but I thought it was important to underscore that. Here is an incredibly brilliant man, not very nationalistic, but he remained there with a cloud of threat hanging over his head for about a decade, hoping things would get better. That’s very human.

If I can return to Apollo 13—unfortunately, Bill Paxton passed away two months ago. I know it’s been 22 years since you cast him as astronaut Fred Haise, but do you remember what specifically made you choose Paxton for that role?

Tremendous personality. He already had a great reputation. He was very creative. I wanted all of the astronauts to be distinct. I thought he would reflect on a regional level Fred Haise and his background. [Haise grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi; Paxton was from Fort Worth, Texas.] But mostly I cast him because I knew I was going to get a great collaborator. He brought so much energy and passion and excitement. He really elevated his role and the movie as well.

Obviously the legacy of the Apollo Program is well represented at the National Air and Space Museum, but I think it’s your movie that lives on in the gift shop. The “Failure Is Not an Option” merchandise is everywhere.

Beautiful!

Okay, but as someone who has spent his entire life in the arts, first as an actor and then as a filmmaker, does that phrase ever chafe a little? As an artist, you have to have some freedom to fail, don’t you?

[Laughs.] Fortunately, we’re not in life-or-death circumstances, so it doesn’t really apply. There’s another axiom that says, “If you’re not failing once in a while, you ain’t really trying.” [Filmmaking] is definitely a medium that can’t be fully mastered. You have to make that mental and emotional adjustment and try to be Zen-like about it. And take solace in the fact that even projects that disappointed in some way upon their release, if hard work has been done, they will find their audience. They’ll speak to the people who appreciate the reasons the creative team got behind the project to begin with. That’s comforting.

The second episode of Genius airs tonight on National Geographic. 

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