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Q: Each episode of Breakthrough explores a different topic — water, pandemics, cyborg technology, energy, brain science and longevity — and each has a different high-profile director. Why did you decide to direct longevity yourself?
A: I'm fascinated by all these subjects, but longevity is one of the most universally relatable. Even when you're 22 and you feel immortal, you know in your heart you're not.
Q: You seem to enjoy bringing technology into your work. Are you a tech geek?
A: No, not at all! Neither Brian Grazer [Howard's longtime creative collaborator] nor I would characterize ourselves as great mathematicians — as our school transcripts would confirm. But we are fascinated by people who seek breakthroughs. We're a good bridge for audiences who don't seek out science stories but who wonder about the world: how things work, and what's out there for the near future.
Q: You're 61. Three more of your directors are 50-plus and two are close. Do older directors benefit from having more life experience?
A: Without a doubt, that's true. In our group of directors we have people who bring their lifetime of experience, but they haven't lost that youthful spark and curiosity.
Q: Do you see yourself staying in the director's chair for as long as, say, Clint Eastwood?
A: Yes! From when I was a young boy, I wanted to be the first person to direct a movie at 100.
Q: Well, Clint may get there before you.
A: I do think he's going to, as well as a few other directors! There are creative benefits to getting older. My kids are grown, and it's allowing me to take on TV projects like Breakthrough while I'm finishing up my big-screen features like In the Heart of the Sea and Inferno, my next Dan Brown novel film with Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones. I'm finding this to be a fantastically active and creative period.
Q: Thirty years ago your movie Cocoon, about space aliens who offer eternal youth to a group of seniors, had a lot to say about aging. Have your views on aging changed?
A: I was talking about this the other day with my wife, Cheryl, who early in her academic life focused on geriatrics and helped me form my approach to that movie. We had that wonderful veteran cast, and more than one of them said to me, "I'm not sure I would want to live forever." Today, while I'm really enjoying my life, I finally understand their perspective. There is the yin and yang of a long life. As my 86-year-old father has been fond of saying, "You can't separate the pleasure from the pain."
Q: But you still look forward to new experiences.
A: Of course, if a spaceship came down, I'd still want to get on it right now, especially if I could do backflips off the diving board like Don Ameche did in Cocoon!
Q: Early on, you appeared on General Electric Theater, so GE's sponsorship of Breakthrough brings you full circle in a way.
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Q: Anything come of that appearance?
A: The day after it aired, Sheldon Leonard, who was producer of Make Room for Daddy and who was going to produce The Andy Griffith Show, called to say he wanted an option on Ronny Howard as Andy Griffith's son.
Q: You costarred in John Wayne's last film, The Shootist . When I recently interviewed his children, they kept saying how much he thought of you.
A: Really? That's amazing! I think he liked that I was eager to rehearse, and how prepared I was. I learned a number of lessons from him; one of them was his example of working hard. I began to realize that he wasn't just a personality who became a movie star; he was an actor who understood the medium, understood his persona and knew how to help tell a story.
Q: His oldest daughter told me that Wayne developed his long, slow delivery because that made it harder to edit him out of a scene.
A: Henry Fonda gave me a similar trick. He said, "Don't ever take a pause at the beginning of a line because they'll always cut it out. If you want to take a pause, lurch into a line, then take your pause, and then they can't cut it!"
Q: So now, as a director, you probably see people pulling those tricks and say, "You can't fool me! I learned from the best!"
A: I'll find a way to cut it no matter what!