After 22 feature films, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard turns for the first time this week to documentary: Made In America is a behind-the-scenes look at the eponymous music festival, held last year in Philadelphia and produced by rapper-entrepreneur Jay Z. Exploring themes of community building, diversity and economic struggle, the film includes performances by Jay Z, Pearl Jam, The Hives, Janelle Monae, Odd Future and many others.
Howard spoke to TakePart about the filming and editing process, and working closely with his Executive Producer, Jay Z.
Made In America drops Friday at 9 Eastern and Pacific, only on Showtime.
TakePart: What were some of the challenges filming in a dynamic environment of a live event, compared to the structured worlds you create as a director of fictional films?
Ron Howard: I've always thought of myself as fairly relaxed and spontaneous in my work as a director, but I never realized quite how prepared and controlling I am until Made in America—where I had virtually no control of anything. Of course, there were decisions to be made in terms of which subjects to follow and where to send camera crews, but that was simply casting a net and following my curiosity.
There are a lot of different story lines in the film. How do you manage to maintain the narrative focus while veering off into so many aspects of the festival? How hard was it, that first day in the editing room, to come to grips with the variety of footage you had—compared to a fictional film, where there's usually just a main plot and one or two subplots?
I always wanted to explore the staging of the festival and the impact of the festival on the community, the labor force and the new artists who were counting on the festival as a stepping stone. I enjoy ensemble movies like Nashville, and I've directed some, like Parenthood and Apollo 13, so I was eager to approach the festival from as many perspectives as we could.
All that said, of course the editorial process was daunting and we never stopped balancing the music, artist interviews and story lines until we reached our absolute final delivery date.
The idea of "unlocking the genius" is a theme throughout the film. What does that mean to you?
The themes I identified right away came from my first interview with Jay. I respected his aim of curating the festival so as to demonstrate the genius in all of the artists appearing, and by implication in all of us, too.
Do you see this idea of supporting communities through buying locally and supporting small businesses as one that's gaining momentum in the US?
Absolutely. I think it's going to factor in to our modern economy significantly.
The scene where Jay Z goes to the roof of his old building—did you or he have a sense going in of what that would be like for him?
I knew you could see the Barclay Center [where the Brooklyn Nets, of which Jay Z is partial owner, play basketball] from there, but had no idea that he didn't know that. As he said, Jay had never been to the roof before.
It seems that, while honoring Jay Z's desire not to be seen as a role model, one message in the film is that his story can nonetheless be instructional and inspirational. Did you have an idea going in to this project of the image of Jay Z you'd want to project, or did that develop during filming or editing?
It was easy to assume he would be inspiring; he's a natural leader. But I was surprised to see how genuine he is. He's a great businessman, he enjoys success—but he operates from a very genuine place of honest interest and passion. I got zero sense of opportunism influencing his business decisions.
Do you see yourself making more documentaries in the future? What subject might you want to cover?
I enjoyed the experience and I'm proud of the result. I'm glad I didn't have much time to over think the challenge ahead of time. I was invited and just dived in. It's been fun, and I learned a hell of a lot.