Few Americans have been part of the entertainment conversation longer than Ron Howard. He was a welcome guest in home across the U.S. in his Andy Griffith Show days and, of course, as Happy Days‘ Richie Cunningham. Today, he’s become maybe even more famous on the other side of the camera as an Oscar-winning filmmaker behind movies like Frost/Nixon, Rush, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Solo.
This year, he turned his attention to Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in rural Appalachia. RELEVANT spoke with Howard to talk about his love of adapting true stories and why he was so drawn to this one in particular. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On what drew him to the project in the first place
I found the book very interesting, but what caught my eye and peaked my curiosity were the family members. One thing jumped out at me — because my family roots are in Oklahoma, a small town in Oklahoma, Duncan and the farm country, my dad was from a farm — I called my great grandmother “Mawmaw.” I thought that was just her nickname. I didn’t realize that there it was a broadly-used, cultural name for grandmothers. That was one of the things that caught me right away when I read the book.
When I started talking to J.D. about it and learning even more about his family story and frankly hearing his voice, his accent, his cadences, it just felt very, very familiar to me, even though my people are from the Midwest and his, Kentucky and then in Ohio.
I’ve been interested in trying to find a family story that dealt with rural America in a way that I could connect with and relate to. I began to believe that Hillbilly Elegy was it, and I’m really glad I had the opportunity to make the movie.
On what it is about true stories that he finds so appealing,
I think that maybe as I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’ve found that there’s something very powerful in choosing a subject where you can witness something extraordinary. It happened. You can present it to an audience not as fiction, not as something you wish could happen, but as something that has occurred. I think in the relationship between the storyteller and the audience, that understanding allows the filmmaker to take even bigger risks with characters when it’s based on reality.
I discovered it with the first movie that I took on, Apollo 13. I also found one other thing: When audiences know it’s based on a true story, they tune in in a slightly different way. It’s a different exchange. It’s still meant to be exciting, exhilarating, emotional, dramatic and entertaining, but you connect with audiences’ heart, and minds in a slightly different way. That appeals to me.
On what we viewers can see of themselves in the characters.
When I read the book, I didn’t believe that there was a movie in the big sociopolitical overview. I enjoyed reading what J.D. had to say, what he thought, but it was the family that intrigued me. What I felt I could relate to, of course, was some of the cultural specificity and understanding the specific reasons behind economic hardship that that family faced and some of the cycles of dysfunction and abuse and addiction and whatnot, which was very powerful.
But I really hoped that people understood that I was not looking broadly at an entire generation or society. This is J.D. Vance’s family story and to the extent that it does reverberate in people’s lives, I think it goes far beyond Appalachia or the rust belt. In addition to that cultural specificity, you do have this universal shared sets of experiences. I was enthusiastic about the possibility of just offering new perspectives on this shared humanity. I hope it does resonate with people from all corners of the country and the planet.
On some of the misconceptions about rural Appalachia Howard hopes the movie addresses.
When I was a kid on The Andy Griffith Show, Andy used to get very upset about the Beverly Hillbillies, because he’d say “That’s farce and that’s OK, but we’re not the Beverly Hillbillies.”
He didn’t mind that The Beverly Hillbillies was successful or anything. It didn’t bother him. But when the writing would push things in a farcical direction, he would say, “Look, where I come from, those people, they’re plenty funny on their own. We don’t have to reach that far for it.”
Barney could still have one bullet, that was OK. It was grounded in something that he believed was still authentic. Earnest T. Bass could come to town and throw rocks through the window. He believed that was OK. But he didn’t like these other things.
A lot of it is just a personal lens, right? It’s a personal filter, but I always appreciated that, for him, there was a real dividing line.
All these years later, I certainly was trying to avoid tropes. I interviewed people, country Western singer-songwriters and documentarians who had focused a lot on the region. I wanted to understand what the tropes were and how that could be avoided.
But ultimately, I kept going back to the research that J.D. was handing me. His home movies, him taking me to Jackson, Kentucky and showing me the Holler and showing me where he hung out and the house that he’s spent time in and picking up a turtle and that he found he was so delighted because he just loved when he was a kid finding turtles on the road and Middletown, Ohio.
Again, I decided to relieve myself of the responsibility of trying to offer some broad overview. I just said, “Well, What was J.D.’s Holler? What was J.D.’s Jackson, Kentucky? What was J.D.’s Middletown, Ohio, his Rust Belt experience?” To the extent that it resonates with other people’s experiences, great. I know it’s authentic because it is. But it’s not going to be everybody’s experience from Appalachia or the Rust Belt. I recognize that, as well.
On how Hillbilly Elegy fits into the thread of his career.
Well, it is my first family story that is based on real events …Well, Cinderella Man was arguably a family story, as well. But I care about characters, I’m not that interested in bad guys. I’m really interested in the way people work together to try to achieve something.
When you talk to J.D., he does not think of this as a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. He thinks of it more as a rescue story. He feels that he simply would not have been able to achieve any of these ambitions, any of these goals without the important women in his life — especially Mawmaw and his sister Lindsay, and then later Usha. Even his mother Bev, despite all of her difficulties, was able to be there for him in a couple of times and just allow the right thing to happen.
I think that really interested me, that this was a story about people who could have difficult lives packed with regrets, some of which they own some of which they feel the victims of circumstances, but at a particular moment, they may have the opportunity to make a huge difference in the life of somebody who they care bout and change the course of a family. Those are the kinds of outcomes that I tend to try to look for. Maybe there’s a pattern in that, people coming together and actually together achieving something.
On how J.D.’s Mawmaw ended up saving him.
J.D. himself leaned very heavily on his Papaw. In his mind, his grandfather, Papaw, was a great guy. After he passed, he began to recognize that Papaw had made some regrettable decisions along the way. It wasn’t until he was older, that he began to realize that it was, in fact, the women in his life who had made the difference.
When we were beginning to adapt the book, I said, “What were the two most dangerous periods in your life? I have to narrow this story down. Where were you in the most distress?”
J.D. cited these two times: when he was 13 and 14, and then again, when he was at Yale. I was surprised by the Yale answer. I had thought it might’ve had something to do with the Marine Corps, which was so important to him. He said, “Well, the Marine Corps was important, but it was primarily, almost a hundred percent positive. Once you got out of bootcamp, it was really a great growth experience for me and an opportunity I’m grateful for.”
But it was Yale where it almost all came tumbling down. I felt that was very surprising, but it was at Yale that he began to realize that there was so much he could lose. When he was a boy, he knew he felt bad, he knew he wasn’t happy, he knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t much see the future. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
In a way, at that time, he didn’t even recognize that he’d been rescued by his very heroic grandmother. Later, he fully understood that. And I think in a lot of ways, that’s why he wanted to write the book. It was the thing he was the most protective of when it came to adapting it: not preventing us from showing her words at all. In fact, we couldn’t get close to getting all of Mawmaw’s words. We had to dial her back a little bit or else no one would ever believe this woman, but she was wild, she was profane, she was devout. She was a paradox and a fascinating one. Glenn really brought her to life in a powerful way.
Hillbilly Elegy is available on Netflix.