Ron Howard discusses Richard Nixon and his Oscar nominated film, Frost/Nixon
HH: If you’ve listened to this program, you know that I worked for Richard Nixon from 1978-1980, and then again from ’89-’91. I knew him pretty well, I knew him very well in those years. So when Frost/Nixon came out, I sort of was going to be skeptical. What would they do with Jack Brennan? What would they do with the old man? And I loved it. Joining me now to discuss it, Ron Howard, the director/producer of it. Ron, welcome back, good to talk to you.
RH: Thank you, good to talk to you, Hugh.
HH: Congratulations on the movie. What did you learn about Nixon that you didn’t know when you started?
RH: Well, you know, little things, like I didn’t know that he loved music, and that he’d really trained as a musician as a kid. And I knew a bit about his history. Going through the Nixon Library was exciting and enlightening, and I realized on a lot of levels how socially progressive he was, and what a true visionary he was.
HH: Well, he did all the environmental stuff, the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and all that stuff. But when you started out, Ron, were you like so many people hating Nixon? Were you one of the guys who was glad he was trashed and out of power in 1974?
RH: Well, I was, you know, no. In fact, I had voted for Nixon, kind of reluctantly, because that was the first election that I could vote in.
RH: Yeah, and there was a big movement in, you know, McGovern and so forth, and so on the youth side, that was exciting. But at the end of the day, I wanted to go for the incumbent, and I just trusted that he would get us out of Vietnam, which he did. And so I was shattered and thrown by Watergate, but I never felt like I had any kind of comprehensive sense of what had gone on. And the Frost…oddly, the resignation, you know, was a kind of a low point. The Frost/Nixon interviews actually had meant a lot to me. I had really studied them and watched them, but I had not gone into those interviews as a Nixon hater, nor did I go into the film as a Nixon hater. But I did feel at the end of those interviews that, you know, he had abused power, and it was appropriate that he resigned. And so I went on a, as I was watching the play, I found myself going on a very similar sort of journey, but respecting Nixon, sort of rediscovering his virtues as a political leader and as an intellect, but also coming to terms with the fact that his own characteristics in a way had dragged him down. And I think that’s what Frank Langella identified in the character, is that it really all sort of came from his childhood, and sort of just who he was.
HH: When you went to the Library, did you go upstairs in the house he was born in, the little attic with the four brothers? Did they let you upstairs?
RH: Yes, they did.
HH: Isn’t that amazing?
RH: And Frank Langella had done that as well, and in a way, the beginning of understanding the character, you know, for him, he claims, sort of began sitting in that upstairs loft.
HH: That is exactly…now Langella is amazing, physically, just physically, he got it, and I speak as a guy who spent hundreds of hours with the guy.
RH: Yes, I know, I know.
HH: How did he do that, because I mean, it’s very weird.
RH: Well, the weird thing is that, you know, Frank Langella has nothing in common with Richard Nixon – physically, politically, from a, on a personality level, none whatsoever. But he’s a great artist, and his performance is an absolute display of that creativity, and he just, you know, he understood, he came to understand the man on a very soulful level, and that’s the way he approached the character. And it’s really something to watch.
HH: Now I want to ask you about Reston, because one of the reasons I like the film is that you did include Reston, who is a Nixon hater.
HH: From start to finish. I mean, the guy loathes Nixon, probably can’t even say his name without spitting it. And so I thought you kind of did the fans of Nixon, of which I am one, a favor by demonstrating to the audience that there were these people for whom no amount of Nixon hatred was enough. When he was buried, a guy was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, “I’m coming out to make sure the SOB is dead.” And Reston stands for that.
HH: And I think that actually reflected…were you aware that there were such people?
RH: Oh, sure, sure, sure. And you know, absolutely, but what struck…and I wanted to reflect that, of course, but what impressed me, and one of the things I did, that I really wanted to sort of include in the movie version, as a sort of an evolution from the play, was you go around, you meet people who worked for Nixon, and they’ll acknowledge the foibles and the character defects, and they’ll even be disappointed about it, and view him as a tragic figure, some of them. But all of them, and I’m sure you fall into this category, well I can tell you do, maintain this deep, abiding respect for him. And they felt it then, and they feel it to this day. And I really wanted that to be a part of this film as well, again, not to make an apology for Richard Nixon or try to create some sort of cinematic sympathy for him, but empathy, yes. Let’s understand him as a whole human being.
HH: Now you did that. In fact, there’s a scene where you’ve got the actors who are playing Diane Sawyer, Ken Khachigian and Frank Gannon in the other room leaning into the camera, afraid he’s going to mess up, because they realize that he’s got some communication differences, and they want his intellect to come through. That’s what most of us…
HH: …wanted to come through. And at the end of this, did you get a sense of, and I think it’s hard for people, how terrifically smart Nixon was?
RH: Well, that’s another thing you learn. You know, when you look at…he was a true scholar, and you look at his library, and they actually gave him a copy of the De Gaulle book, and let Langella look at it. And it’s anointed, you know, and you look at these books…
HH: Oh yeah.
RH: …and he didn’t just browse or read or chit-chat or grab the newspaper. I mean, he was a student forever. And that’s something that I think all too often may be lax in our executive leadership.
HH: Oh, yeah, with a terrific, terrific memory. So let me ask you about the controversial part, which is the conversation between Nixon and Frost which the Nixon people say does not happen, didn’t happen in real life.
HH: Why use that device?
RH: Well, we said, of course, we say it didn’t happen. I mean, it’s an example of creative license, but creative license born out of research and a desire to offer a more comprehensive sense of both of these characters. And of course, the president was known for some of these rambling, late night phone calls, and not that he was any kind of a heavy drinker, but by all accounts, very light-headed. And you know, I mean if he had a couple of drinks, and if he was taking any sleep medication or anything like that, which he was also, would sometimes do, these calls, he wouldn’t always remember them the next day. And so when Peter Morgan bumped into that in the research, he was looking for a way to have a really personal confrontation between he and Frost off the record that would allow him as the writer, and us as the audience, to really understand that as different as these guys were in personality and outward appearances, they had so much in common. And that was sort of thematically on a humanistic level, one of the elements that he really wanted to include.
HH: Before I ask you about David Frost, one last question. Do you think the country would have been better served if Nixon had stayed as president through the end of his second term, Ron Howard?
RH: Well, you know what? I honestly was not politically astute then, nor have I studied the question to be able to answer that. But I do, I do feel that all, that abuse of power is something that sort of can’t be overlooked. And so I think it was important that, I ultimately felt that the resignation was important in terms of establishing a set of ground rules for the executive office.
HH: Last question, David Frost gets his due here, and I kind of, I think I like the movie so much because someone who interviews for a living is taken seriously. And interviewing is difficult work.
HH: You’ve been interviewed a thousand times, but I’m been doing probably thousands of interviews a year for the last few years. Have you talked to Frost since this came out? What did he think of his portrayal? Did he get his due in his view?
RH: Well, the only thing that frustrates him at all, and he’s enough of a showman and a producer, a film producer himself and a television producer, to understand the drama in it. From his perspective, and look, I don’t know if this is him wanting to shape it this way now, or if he’s the kind of indomitable personality that never sees a negative thing on the horizon and just kind of keeps carrying on. I’m not sure. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the latter. But he doesn’t feel like he was ever on the ropes the way the story characterizes it. Now you talk to people, you interview people, and there was some that really thought he was on the ropes. It was a very controversial thing.
RH: I mean, when Peter Morgan talked to anybody who was willing to talk who was around those interviews, and he was getting, you know, a dozen different stories in terms of how the interviews were going, who was winning, how was Frost doing, how was the president doing. But there were those in the Frost team who were, just felt like that Nixon was completely having his way with him at the end.
HH: I think that’s generally true. Ron Howard, I’m sorry we’re out of time, congratulations on a magnificent movie and capturing Nixon in some ways that I’ve just never seen done before. Thanks for joining us.
End of interview.