Ron Howard On Filming ‘Hillbilly Elegy’: “I Thought Of It As An Emotional Epic” – Interview With The Director And Co-Star Glenn Close

Pete Hammond
·12-min read

EXCLUSIVE: “My mom was from a very small town and my dad was a farm boy, and when I read this book I recognized that I had really been looking for a story that I could tell that would allow me to apply my own sensitivity to this aspect of our American culture that I really relate to through my family in a way these folks think and communicate and make the decisions that they make and live by the codes they live by,” Ron Howard told me earlier this week just before one of his Hillbilly Elegy stars Glenn Close joined us on a conference call to talk about their much anticipated new film that will be debuting on Netflix November 24th right in time for Thanksgiving (it will also begin a theatrical run two weeks earlier). “I just understood all of that, and I’ve been looking for a story that I could apply that to for a long time, but I didn’t want it to be a crime story or something sensational because that’s not really what it’s about. It’s more about endurance and carrying on and navigating the world as it changes and shifts.”

The film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of his own Southern Ohio Appalachian family as he shuttles between a drug addicted mother (Amy Adams), a feisty and life-changing grandmother affectionately known as Mamaw (Close), and his own journey to becoming a man, is a tricky one to adapt, and Howard with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape Of Water) uses a non-linear approach to telling it, weaving in the 14 year old J.D. (played by an excellent Owen Asztalos) and the adult he became (a very fine Gabriel Basso), through various points of his life. Haley Bennett plays sister Lindsay, Freida Pinto is girlfriend Usha, and Bo Hopkins is Papaw. The book was hugely successful but not necessarily an easy one to translate to the screen, which may be why Vance resisted many overtures until Howard eased the reservations he had.

“He did have reservations, but he was willing to talk about it, and I explained that what I recognized in the book that I wanted to work with as a movie really didn’t have much to do with the sociology, the sociopolitical aspect of the book. I didn’t view this as any kind of polemic or societal overview. I certainly wanted those particular pressures and disappointments and challenges to be present in the film and to have it, but I wanted to understand everything through these very rich and yet very relatable characters,” Howard explained.

Whatever doubt Vance may have had seemed to vanish once he saw the cast in action, particularly Close’s transformation into his Mamaw. Howard said when the family came to visit the set they were blown away, particularly Vance. “Glenn has done everything in her power to create a character based on home movies and photos and conversations and what not, but she didn’t have a chance to meet Mamaw, and I looked over and they were stunned, and I didn’t know quite what to make of it, and then I realized oh, they’re crying, and JD said, ‘I will call every member of the Academy and just tell them, if it means anything, that she has somehow captured the absolute essence of my grandmother and I can’t believe it’. I think they all have sort of mixed emotions about their lives first, you know, being sort of scrutinized through a book and now a movie, but they also all share this tremendous appreciation that this woman who they adore, who otherwise just would’ve sort of drifted off into obscurity, but was so remarkable in their lives, is present on screen.”

I told Close I don’t think the Academy members will be needing personal calls from the author. Her performance is extraordinary in every aspect from the physicality of Mamaw (real home movie footage is shown during the end credits) to the tough but loving earthy woman she was. I am not sure how critics will react (formal reviews are embargoed until November 10 so I will be weighing in more at that time) but I am willing to bet this will be a very big hit for Netflix, perhaps their biggest crowd pleaser in a year in which they are serving up a lot of promising awards contenders. It is a sometimes raw, sometimes funny, unflinchingly honest, richly human, and ultimately deeply moving film that takes Howard into areas he hasn’t often travelled in his impressive five decade career behind the camera (and a filmography that started with acting at age 5 in 1959’s The Journey opposite Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr).

“This was sort of a different filmmaking undertaking for me in a lot of ways. It’s surprising. I haven’t made that many films about families, although I connect to family, relate to family, feel I really understand family, but Parenthood, Ransom to an extent, A Beautiful Mind which is sort of about overcoming a disease to actually let love flourish and form a family, and this one, they all have genre elements attached to them, and this is just about the truth, and as much as that family desperately wanted people to understand how meaningful Mamaw had been in their lives, I began to recognize that we’re all influenced by these turning points, and to me that became the film, ” he said. “It was identifying these turning points which are totally relatable because they’re not mind-blowing, but in JD’s life they’re epic, and I wanted to try to approach this film with a kind of a truthfulness and an unselfconscious approach that would create this opportunity for the actors to bring the characters to life and for audiences to forget that they’re watching a movie and lose themselves in this and begin to understand the importance of these turning points. Some of them were triumphant, some of them very challenging, and so that became my job. This kind of unselfconscious honesty building these moments that I hope actually register as seismic as they were in JD’s life and the Vance family’s life, and so I began to think of it as a kind of an emotional epic, and I needed to stage and shoot so that those small things, like him getting a great test score, would actually be a moment of real triumph, which it was. It was for Mamaw and it was for JD, and define these disappointments as potentially life shattering, which they were, and so that was, for me, a different sort of filmmaking process than from anything that I’ve really done.”

For Close, a seven-time Oscar nominee (Netflix will be campaigning her in Supporting Actress for this) and most recently winner of a boatload of awards for her devastating performance in The Wife, this was also about hitting different notes. “Oh, boy. It’s what I long for, you know, to explore new territory in a character, and Mamaw, I came to her very humbly because I thought she was an incredible woman, and the more I heard about her from her family, how tough she was, how funny she was, how larger than life she was, how, you know, she smoked sometimes two cigarettes at a time, that I really wanted to do her justice. So, the thing that I’m most grateful for in that whole process was Ron’s support, and then working with my wonderful Matthew Mungle, who’s a legendary special effects guy, but he did (Oscar nominated Makeup) Albert Nobbs the same. Very finessed work and just very subtly changing somebody’s face, and then Martial Corneville, who’s done wigs for me now for practically my whole career, their input was everything to me, and then Virginia Johnson, our costume designer, “she said praising the team who helped create Mamaw on screen.

“You know, my dad was the town doc in Big Piney, Wyoming, for the last 25 years of his life. You know, fourth generation, hardworking, land rich, cash poor, high desert, basically agrarian cowboy culture, and so for years I’ve gotten this incredible respect for the dignity of people who just are working as hard as they can, and I have kind of a family culture of, as Mamaw says, ‘the only damn thing that counts is family’, and I learned a lot of those people that my dad got to be dear friends and doc to. So, I think that’s really helpful.”

A big part of the film’s success also belongs to Amy Adams playing a largely unsympathetic drug-addicted mother of J.D., a role that required a lot of big emotional scenes and swings for the fences. “It’s one of the rare times where I actually got my top choice, but the material I think offered opportunities that were challenging but enticing,” Howard says. “There’s no vanity in anybody’s performance in this movie, Glenn and Amy in particular, and I’m not just talking about looks. I’m talking about baring your soul. I mean, in Amy’s case, and same with Glenn, these characters are not entirely sympathetic people because they’re real, and none of us are entirely sympathetic, particularly under the kinds of stress tests that these folks, due to their circumstances, due to the nature of their character and their background, that they face. So I really wanted artists with courage. I wanted that help, and I got it. It was just unblinking truth, honesty, and connection to these moments and just trying to bring them to life, whether they were winning, endearing or funny or painfully flawed.”

Close used the word “courageous” in describing what Adams had to do in some scenes, moments where she had to be threatening, and the star says all actors have in their DNA that they want to be loved, so playing those kinds of scenes are hard. She related it to working with Mike Nichols on a stage production of The Real Thing where she wanted everyone to like her character but couldn’t explain herself to the audience. Nichols told her with wonderful writing it will all come out in the wash if you remain true to it. “Ron has said the same thing. If you remain truthful to that character because that’s what captures people emotionally is the sense of truth, and it will all come out. It will all add up. You can’t compromise on saying ‘like me, like me, like me.’ You have to just play it, and it was a beautiful script that we had trust in. We trusted the script and we trusted Ron, and he had around him wonderful people that added to that trust, but to be an actor is a huge act of trust, and not only in the making of a film, but how it’s going to be edited afterwards. You give everything over to someone, and I felt that we were in hands that would take care of us, no matter how our characters at one moment to the next might be behaving, and that’s tremendously important, “she said.

This is the second film collaboration for Howard and Close who previously worked together on 1994’s The Paper. When I reminded them of that, Howard again began to sing Close’s praises and uniqueness as an actor. “Glenn’s always great. On The Paper the character she took, the part was originally a guy. It was a guy’s part, and I just said ‘Glenn, I think it’d be great if it was a woman and great if it was you’, and she said ‘okay’. So, she’s nothing if not a high-wire artist,” he laughed.

As for taking this best-selling book and doing it for Netflix, a first feature-wise for Howard, it has been a great working experience. “Well, the plan was always to have a theatrical release like The Irishman or Marriage Story, and others in previous years. I don’t really know how many theaters are going to be open and what they’re going to do, but November 11th my understanding is that it’s going to be released (in theatres) and it was meant to be a wider, larger release, but it is what it is,” he said with the resignation that the COVID-19 pandemic is dictating the near future of theatrical releases.

“They were great to work with. I’ve known Ted Sarandos for quite a long time because he’s the one who came to me and said ‘do you think Mitch Hurwitz and the Arrested Development team would want to do new episodes? The show is incredibly well regarded on Netflix and we want to start making episodes and we’d like to experiment by doing some new episodes’, and so that was really my first awareness of Netflix and the way they worked, and they treated Mitch and the team with just a lot of support and respect. I’ve known Scott Stuber for years. Brian Grazer and I worked with him at Universal for a long time, and his support, along with Tendo Nagenda, it was just everything you could ask for. Absolute professionalism, good ideas, and the best kind of collaboration you could have with a studio. So I really felt like their passion for what I thought the adaptation could be never waned and this was a very, very positive experience. I heard that from Peter Morgan (The Crown) who is a good friend of mine, and Spike Lee, and just others who I’d talked to who also said they had really positive experiences, and I just have to echo that.”

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