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The dark side of the West

Director Ron Howard traverses inhospitable landscapes -- interior and exterior -- in 'The Missing.'

November 09, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Ron HOWARD has been trying to make an old-fashioned western ever since he started putting film through a movie camera.

In high school, his student films covered everything from cowboy laments to Wild West shootouts. One of his formative movie experiences was acting in 1976's "The Shootist" opposite John Wayne. In the middle of his professional career, he directed 1992's "Far and Away," but that film was more land-rush love story than Louis L'Amour gunslinger yarn. At last, Howard was going to helm "The Alamo," only to leave as the film's director over budget and creative disputes.

But as he had for 20 years, Howard refused to pack his saddlebags.

"Every time we are about to renew our contracts, Ron brings up a western," says Brian Grazer, Howard's longtime producing partner at Imagine Entertainment. "I always say, 'OK, OK,' " says Grazer, who admits he's no fan of the genre. "But I never thought he'd actually do one."

Now Howard has directed "The Missing," a turn-of-the-century drama filled with horses and cows, cowboys and Indians, bullets and arrows. It tells the story of a plainswoman named Maggie (Cate Blanchett) visited on the eve of a kidnapping crisis by her alienated -- and rather alien -- father, Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones).

From a distance, the film (opening Nov. 26) shares all the trappings of a classic western: The only thing that appears to be missing is a cattle drive. On closer inspection, though, the movie seems far less interested in frontier than in family. Its lead characters may fear rattlesnake bites, but their real worries center on the venom of failed relationships.

For all the period accouterments, in other words, "The Missing" is actually not so much an 1885 hostage saga as a deceptively contemporary tale of estrangement and reconciliation.

Perhaps Howard hasn't made his first old-fashioned western after all.

Forgetting 'The Alamo'

Many things had to go right -- and a few to go wrong -- for Howard to end up making this film.

Coming off "A Beautiful Mind," which won best picture and best director Oscars, the 49-year-old filmmaker spent several months flirting with "The Alamo," the story of the 1836 siege of the Texas garrison. Howard started assembling his dream cast (Russell Crowe was going to play Gen. Sam Houston, Ethan Hawke would be Lt. Col. William Travis), and construction commenced on a sprawling, $10-million "Alamo" set. Howard envisioned the film as a bloody R-rated epic that would cost more than $125 million.

But the Walt Disney Co., which was financing "The Alamo," had different ideas. Its executives wanted to spill much less blood and much less money. Also, having also been pilloried by the media for taking some creative liberties in chronicling mathematician John Nash's life in "A Beautiful Mind," Howard kept worrying about interpreting another true story.

"It's a daunting subject," Howard says of "The Alamo." "I spent a lot of time with historians, and I began to understand how controversial the story was inevitably going to be. I had to make some hard decisions."

He chose to walk away (John Lee Hancock took over as director, and Disney last month postponed the film's release to spring). Howard's next movie, it appeared, would be months away, directing Crowe in the Depression-era boxing story "Cinderella Man" for Universal and Miramax.

At nearly that very same time, a screenplay of "The Missing" started circulating around town. Based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Tom Eidson, screenwriter Ken Kaufman's adaptation drew early interest from Clint Eastwood. When Eastwood didn't quickly commit, Howard seized the material.

He promptly marched the script over to Universal, his home studio and the maker of almost all of his and Grazer's movies. Because "The Missing" didn't have a big cast, it would cost half of "The Alamo's" budget, or a little more than $60 million, almost a bargain these days. With just a few locations and hardly any sets to build, Howard could prepare, film and edit the movie before he began work on "Cinderella Man."

And then Universal said no, that'll be the day.

The studio felt the story was too reminiscent of "The Searchers," John Ford's 1956 rescue drama considered by many the greatest western ever made. "I was surprised and a little bit disappointed," Howard says.

He took "The Missing" to Revolution Studios, which committed on the spot. The director then set off not only to make his movie but also prove Universal wrong. "I really hope," Howard says, "that the movie goes out and makes them wish they had said yes."

Emotional accuracy

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