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2008-12-15

Filmmaker Ron Howard on His New Film "Frost/Nixon"

Guests

Ron Howard, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and one of the most popular American directors of this generation. His previous films include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash, Parenthood, Backdraft, Cocoon, Willow and The Da Vinci Code. He began his career as an actor and starred in a number of hit films and TV series, including The Andy Griffith Show. The latest film he directed is just out; it’s called Frost/Nixon.

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Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard’s new film is about the only American president who was forced to resign from office, Richard Nixon. The film is called Frost/Nixon and is set in 1977, three years after Nixon’s resignation. It recreates a famous set of televised interviews where Nixon broke his silence for the first time since leaving office. He was interviewed by British talk show host David Frost for more than twenty-eight hours. The interview ended with Nixon making a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the Watergate scandal. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

We turn now to a new film about the only American president forced to resign from office, Richard Nixon. The film is called Frost/Nixon. It’s set in 1977, three years after Nixon’s resignation. It recreates a famous set of televised interviews where Nixon broke his silence for the first time since leaving office. He was interviewed by the British talk show host David Frost for more than twenty-eight hours. The interview ended with Nixon making a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the Watergate scandal.

    RICHARD NIXON: [played by Frank Langella] These men, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, I knew their families. I knew them since they were just kids. Oh, yeah, but, you know, politically, the pressure on me to let them go, that became overwhelming. So, I did it. I cut off one arm, then I cut off the other, and I’m not a good butcher. And I have always maintained what they were doing, what we were all doing, was not criminal. Look, when you’re in office, you’ve got to do a lot of things sometimes that are not always, in the strictest sense of the law, legal, but you do them because they’re in the greater interest of the nation.

    DAVID FROST: [played by Michael Sheen] Right, wait. Just so I understand correctly, are you really saying that, in certain situations, the president can decide whether it’s in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal?

    RICHARD NIXON: [played by Frank Langella] I’m saying that when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s Frank Langella playing Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen playing David Frost. The film is directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard, based on the hit play of the same name by the British playwright Peter Morgan. Ron Howard is one of the most popular American directors of this generation. His previous films include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash, Parenthood and Backdraft. He began his career as an actor and starred in a number of films and TV, among them The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. Frost/Nixon is the most recent film he directed. Ron Howard joins me here in New York at our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

RON HOWARD:

Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN:

Why Frost/Nixon? Why did you get involved with this?

RON HOWARD:

It was, you know, such a remarkable discovery by Peter Morgan. The drama that was swirling behind the scenes is — was so surprising, and I think what it revealed about both individuals and also television as a medium. And it also turns out to be just a very entertaining story.

AMY GOODMAN:

I mean, it’s a remarkable story. First of all, you start off with David Frost, who’s watching Nixon resign. He’s in Australia.

RON HOWARD: Right, doing his television show. At that point, he was doing his TV show in the US and Australia and in London. And he was just, you know, on this constant swirl. His show was canceled in America. And he had been, you know, this rising star, but he had begun to plateau. In fact, he was the first — what’s interesting about Frost is that he was the first mega television star in England, and — but it was a comedy show. You know, he came out of comedy. And some of the guys who wound up being Monty Python were actually writers on that show. And it was kind of like — you know, it was political satire. It was sort of like The Daily Show or something, you know. It was called That Was the Week that Was.

AMY GOODMAN:

I wanted to go to another clip of Frost/Nixon. Here, the Nixon critic, James Reston, who’s played by Sam Rockwell —

RON HOWARD:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

—- who is employed by David Frost to do some of the research, a real fierce Nixon critic -—

RON HOWARD:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

— tells David Frost what he wants to achieve with the interview.

RON HOWARD:

Yeah.

    JAMES RESTON, JR.: [played by Sam Rockwell] I’d like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.

    DAVID FROST: [played by Michael Sheen] Of course. We’ll be asking difficult questions.

    JAMES RESTON, JR.: [played by Sam Rockwell] Difficult questions? The man lost 21,000 Americans and a million Indochinese during his administration. He only escaped jail because of Ford’s pardon.

    DAVID FROST: [played by Michael Sheen] Yes, but equally, going after him in some knee-jerk way, you know, assuming he’s a — he’s a terrible guy, wouldn’t that only create more sympathy for him than anything else?

    JAMES RESTON, JR.: [played by Sam Rockwell] Right now, I submit it’s impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon. He devalued the presidency, and he left the country that elected him in trauma. The American people need a conviction, pure and simple. The integrity of our political system, of democracy as an idea, entirely depends on it. And if, in years to come, people look back and say it was in this interview that Richard Nixon exonerated himself, that would be the worst crime of all.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s James Reston, the researcher for — and wrote books on Nixon —- for David Frost. And throughout the film, there’s the tension there, too -—

RON HOWARD:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

—- of where Reston wants him to go and where David Frost, you know, constantly flashing this smile, sporting women on his arm, big celebrity interviewer -—

RON HOWARD:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

— is sort of dodging where he plans to go with this interview.

RON HOWARD:

Well, you know, and I think for the playwright, Peter Morgan, who’s essentially a — you know, he’s a film writer. This was the first play that he had written since college. He also wrote The Queen and The Last King of Scotland and a number of terrific BBC projects, as well.

AMY GOODMAN:

About the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Blair.

RON HOWARD:

Yeah, yes, yes. And also The Deal, which was a great TV movie about Blair and Gordon Brown. You know, but great writer. He saw a documentary about David Frost back in 1993 that was celebrating a lot of Frost’s achievements, and one of them was, you know, the Nixon interviews, which I think, to this day, is still the most highly viewed, highly rated news interview of all time. But he — what Peter Morgan identified was that there was more conflict behind the scenes than maybe Frost, in his book, admitted. When he began doing research on the subject and interviewed James Reston, Reston’s point of view was quite a bit different in terms of how harrowing the journey was and how anxious he was about whether Frost was going to go far enough and actually achieve an admission. And without it, he just felt it was going to be, you know, a pointless softball.

AMY GOODMAN:

Talk about how Frost got this interview. It might surprise a lot of people, when we’re talking the money which got him —

RON HOWARD:

It surprised me. And, you know, I don’t know enough about modern journalism to actually know whether this kind of thing still goes on, but he paid $600,000 to Richard Nixon for the interviews, but —- and plus, by the way, a profit participation in the overall enterprise, which was, you know, kind of inspired on an entrepreneurial level. The producer in me really appreciates what Frost pulled off at that time, essentially creating a fourth network for these interviews, which was unprecedented at that time. But -—

AMY GOODMAN:

I mean, it’s really interesting, because if Nixon makes it boring, if he is a windbag, if he tries to stall, he makes less money.

RON HOWARD:

Well —

AMY GOODMAN:

You could look at it that way.

RON HOWARD:

Absolutely. And, you know, the interesting thing in talking to people, you know, all around the interviews is that everybody’s got a little different perspective on what went on, what was achieved, why it was achieved. You know, did Nixon realize he had to make an admission? If so, how far did he want to go? Did he at all? It’s, you know — certainly, it remains controversial.

But I keep going back to what I felt in 1977, when I watched these interviews. It was incredibly cathartic, and it was very significant to me. And, of course, you know, it generated a lot of attention. And at the time, the whole narrative of, you know, “Is Frost worthy?” and then, “Yes, he really did get something,” was the story as covered by the American media at the time. But it really is, you know, an absolutely fascinating story, and, you know, boy, I was perched on the edge of my seat watching it in ’77. And when I went to see the play, in a lot of ways, I was sort of reliving the whole little journey of kind of watching, wondering, “Gee, should I actually — are we being too tough on Nixon? Should we forgive him?” to “No, absolutely, you know, this is — he abused power.”

AMY GOODMAN:

This is another clip. This is Colonel Jack Brennan, Nixon’s chief of staff, played by Kevin Bacon, reassuring Nixon that the Frost interview would work in Nixon’s favor.

    JACK BRENNAN: [played by Kevin Bacon] Frost is just not in your intellectual class, sir. You’re going to be able to dictate terms, rebuild your reputation. If this went well, if enough people saw it, revised their opinion, you could move back east way, way earlier than we expected.

    RICHARD NIXON: [played by Frank Langella] You think?

    JACK BRENNAN: [played by Kevin Bacon] I’m certain.

    RICHARD NIXON: [played by Frank Langella] It would be so good to go back to where the action is. You know, the hunger in my belly is still there, Jack. I guess it all boils down to Watergate, huh?

    JACK BRENNAN: [played by Kevin Bacon] That’s nothing to worry about, sir. It’s not as if there’s going to be any revelations. The stuff’s been combed over a million times. No one has pinned anything on you.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, there you have his chief of staff saying to Nixon, “do it.”

RON HOWARD:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

So, Nixon’s getting paid $600,000.

RON HOWARD:

He also had a book coming out, you know, so also in his mind, he was getting ready to promote his memoirs.

AMY GOODMAN:

Let’s talk about paying — journalists paying for interviews and what was happening at that time.

RON HOWARD:

Well, Eisenhower had been paid for interviews, post-presidential interviews. So had Lyndon Johnson. And I believe the year before, Haldeman was paid something — I don’t know, I’ve heard between $25,000 and $50,000 for CBS interviews. And, supposedly, there was, you know, an offer out there for $250,000 or $300,000 to President Nixon for a CBS interview, as well. So, Frost was really just upping the ante. And Nixon’s agent was Swifty Lazar, famous Hollywood agent.

AMY GOODMAN:

Say who Swifty Lazar is.

RON HOWARD:

Yeah, the famous Swifty Lazar. And, you know, he did his thing.

AMY GOODMAN:

And he got him the $600,000. So, that’s interesting, because you see David Frost trying to pitch the interviews, that he is going to pay a fortune for to the networks, and they’re saying “no,” and they’re saying, “we don’t pay.” But Mike Wallace was going to pay at CBS.

RON HOWARD:

Yeah. Yes, well, I think we had one of the networks didn’t want to pay, and they actually turned it down on that basis. But the other — most — I think, primarily, it was that, you know, David Frost wasn’t — he wasn’t their guy. And they didn’t want to air something that someone else was producing and generating with no editorial controls and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN:

Now, Chris Wallace was on a panel recently —

RON HOWARD:

Well, he was in the audience. I was on the panel. It was a screening in Washington, D.C., with Jim Reston and Peter Morgan and myself.

AMY GOODMAN:

Chris Wallace of Fox News, who is the son of Mike Wallace.

RON HOWARD:

Yeah. Well, he, by the way, really liked the movie, which, as a director, was kind of first and foremost in my mind. But on the panel, we were all admitting that, you know, in our minds, there were parallels between the abuses of the Nixon administration and the Bush administration. And he challenged that idea. Or he felt it was wrongheaded to make that comparison, because Bush’s — the decisions he was making were in defense of the country, and Nixon was, you know, all about trying to be reelected. And he just wanted to make that point. It had nothing to do with the film, though.

AMY GOODMAN:

It’s very interesting. The exact quote, I’ve got it here. This is Chris Wallace.

RON HOWARD:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

"It trivializes Nixon’s crimes and completely misrepresents what George W. Bush did. I think to compare what Nixon did and the abuses of power for pure political self-preservation to George W. Bush trying to protect this country, even if you disagree with rendition or waterboarding, it seems to me is both a gross misreading of history, both then and now."

RON HOWARD:

The man who was moderating — and I’m forgetting his name right this second, sadly, but it’s the man who wrote the Kissinger/Nixon book who’s a historian, you know, he quickly jumped in and said, “Well, historians are really waiting, very anxious to sort of see what we can learn about the Bush administration, and we don’t know all that much yet.” And again, great to — I mean, for me, thrilling to make a movie that stimulates some thought and conversation. And for me, yeah, I draw that connection. I drew it when I read the play. I — you know, before the play, if I think about Nixon and Bush, you know, it’s — my intent is tuned in that way. Some do, some don’t. Not at the center of the film, but glad it seems to provoke some thought.

AMY GOODMAN:

Now, you did an interesting ad going back into your old characters, when Barack Obama was running for office. Why don’t we go back? And you had your old friend actors from The Andy Griffith Show and also from Happy Days. Let’s go to it.

RON HOWARD:

Sure.

    RON HOWARD:

    For the last eight years, our country has been going down a divisive and wrongheaded path, which is why it is so crucial that we vote for change. And I’m talking about real change, the kind of change that will allow us to trust our government again, which is why I’ve chosen to vote for Barack Obama. As some of you might remember, I began my career as an actor. But over the last twenty-five years, I’ve worked hard to establish myself as a respected director and even a serious filmmaker. So, as I said, I’ve never done this before, and I hope never to do it again, but I guess you could say I’m feeling pretty desperate these days. So, as a demonstration of my sincerity, this is for you, America.

    OPIE TAYLOR: [played by Ron Howard] Hey, pa.

    ANDY TAYLOR: [played by Andy Griffith] Hey, Ope. You look like you’ve got something on your mind, son.

    OPIE TAYLOR: [played by Ron Howard] Pa, why are people so set on staying on the same road that’s been messing us up for so long?

    ANDY TAYLOR: [played by Andy Griffith] Well, Ope, people are funny. Sometimes change scares them. They’d rather keep doing the same old thing that’s been messing them up than change to the thing that could help them.

    OPIE TAYLOR: [played by Ron Howard] When I’m a grown-up, I sure would like to vote for somebody as good as Mr. Obama.

    ANDY TAYLOR: [played by Andy Griffith] Well, if you stay healthy and strong, avoid any felonies, stay away from the butterfly ballot, I’ll bet you’ll get a chance.

    RON HOWARD:

    OK, I’ve just acted like an eight-year-old kid from a forty-year-old television show. Please don’t let this be in vain. But I know a lot of you are thinking that I’m just following some liberal Hollywood trend. That’s not me. And besides, if I was anything less than sincere, would I do this?

    THE FONZ: [played by Henry Winkler] Hey, Cunningham, finish your homework?

    RICHIE CUNNINGHAM: [played by Ron Howard] Sure, Fonz. Hey, how did your date go with the Rodriguez twins?

    THE FONZ: [played by Henry Winkler] Triplets. And, man, can they salsa!

    RICHIE CUNNINGHAM: [played by Ron Howard] Ah, gee, Fonz, I sure hope our country gets itself back on track.

    THE FONZ: [played by Henry Winkler] You know, I’ll tell you something. Eight years ago, I thought to myself, “OK, we’ve got these presidents of the United States, Cheney/Bush. We should give ‘em a shot. Pffth. Was I wr...wr…I was so wr...wro…

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s just an excerpt of that piece.

RON HOWARD:

Well, I had the idea I wanted to do something on behalf of Obama. I had never done a public endorsement of a candidate. And when I found out that Henry Winkler and Andy Griffith were supportive of the idea too, it was irresistible.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’ll have to leave it there. Ron Howard, thanks for joining us.

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