Ron Howard: ‘Solo’ has feel of a Western

Frank Lovece

Some people call him the Space Cowboy. But he is not yet the Gangster of Love. No, the Han Solo we meet in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” — a prequel that opened Friday, to the “Star Wars” movies that featured Harrison Ford as the intergalactic rogue — is a young man pining for his first love. And before he can get back to her, if he can get back to her, well, like in any Western, whether set in Arizona or Alpha Centauri, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

“There are certainly elements that feel ‘Western’ and carry that flavor. Definitely there’s a frontier vibe,” agrees director Ron Howard, who had ridden in like the cavalry when the original directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller was replaced six months into the shoot. “So that ethos certainly influenced the movie,” the 64-year-old Oscar-winner says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles.

But, he amends, “I’d say it’s more of a late ’60s, early ’70s crime-action movie like ‘Bullitt’ and ‘Dirty Harry,’ where the lead characters have a Western feel, but instead of horses and wagons, it’s muscle cars.”

Or, in the case of “Solo,” Landspeeders and Swoop Bikes — the latter used like galloping horses in an Old West attack against Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), his outlaw mentor Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his furry alien buddy Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and others as they essentially try to rob a train. Campfires, saloon card games and even a climactic showdown inform this story of a young Han losing and perhaps regaining his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), finding allies like Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and righteous robot L3-37 (voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge), and robbing a mining planet at one end of the fabled hyperspace route the Kessel Run at the behest of a ruthless robber baron (Paul Bettany).

“When I came in, they’d been shooting for quite a long time,” Howard says of Lord and Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street” and its sequel), whom producer Kathleen Kennedy let go last June over what she called “different creative visions.” “They’d done a lot, and Phil and Chris’ fingerprints continue to be all over the movie in ways I really appreciate and value.”

Howard continued with the overall look cinematographer Bradford Young was using, “and one of the movies they talked about” as inspiration, Howard says, “is one of my favorites, ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller,’ “Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist Western about a Pacific Northwest town built on a mine and a brothel.

“Solo” embodies more traditional storytelling than Altman’s, but there’s just as much honest grime and mud.

“I wanted the look to personalize it as much to the Han Solo journey as I possibly could,” says the actor-turned-filmmaker, who earned Academy Awards as director and as a producer of 2001’s best-picture winner “A Beautiful Mind,” and whose films include “Willow” (1988), “Apollo 13” (1995) and “The Da Vinci Code” (2006). “This is not a war story, it’s not an ensemble story — it’s this guy’s journey, and I wanted the shooting style to reflect that.”

Howard arrived just days after Lord and Miller departed, jumping in with a battle scene on the aforementioned mining planet, shot on a back lot at Pinewood Studios outside London. (The movie also filmed on location in the Canary Islands.) The rapid handover came through Howard’s long association with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, for whom he starred in the now-retired filmmaker’s early hit “American Graffiti” (1973), and Lucasfilm’s Kennedy, longtime producer for their mutual friend, Steven Spielberg.

“It was a request, and frankly, I was reluctant,” Howard recalls. “It was a regrettable situation, these creative differences that led to that, though I have to say Chris and Phil were very gracious with me and they have been through the whole process. That said, there was a lot of work to do. There were some new ideas that the creative team really wanted to try. There were scenes to be completed and things to work out.”

His initial reluctance is understandable, given the number of projects at his and Brian Grazer’s production company, Imagine Entertainment. In addition to producing such television as National Geographic Channel’s “Genius,” Howard was attached to direct the novel adaptations “The Girl Before” and “Seveneves,” according to trade reports in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

“I had not planned to direct anything last year” after having helmed two films released in 2016, “Inferno” and the documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.” “Normally it would be a two-year commitment to come in and do one of these movies. But given the opportunity to play in that sandbox, help out some friends, tell a story I really believed in and do it all in nine or ten months, it was a little bit serendipity,” Howard says.

And while he was a gun for hire, “Once I got into it, I fell in love with it,” he avows. “I feel as connected with it as with anything I’ve done.”

What about the investors, production partners, studio distributors and others on those earlier projects that were put on hold?

“Funny how it works,” Howard says, marveling a little, “but when it’s ‘Star Wars,’ everybody kind of just nods and understands.”

Because what’ya gonna do when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do?

When they were young

They say we aren’t getting any younger. But before we got a fledgling Han Solo in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” we’ve gotten lots of young versions of adventure-fiction heroes:

Superboy (debut: “More Fun Comics” #101, cover-date Feb. 1945) The granddaddy of them all, so to speak. The adventures of Superman as, generally, a teen came to live-action TV with “Superboy” (syndicated, 1988-92) and “Smallville” (The WB/The CW, 2001-11).

“Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985) “Solo” producer Kathleen Kennedy was an executive producer of Barry Levinson’s film about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective as a lad. An unrelated UK TV series, “Young Sherlock: The Mystery of the Manor House,” aired in 1982.

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (ABC, 1992-93) Teenage Indy (Sean Patrick Flanery) was already making it up as he went along in this TV series. Corey Carrier starred in a 1996 TV-movie and a 2000 direct-to-video feature.

“Young Bond” (Ian Fleming Publications, 2005-2017) The young-adult novel series traces the future 007’s adventures from boarding school to college.

“Gotham” (Fox, 2014-present) The grim ‘n’ gritty drama starring David Mazouz as a teen Bruce Wayne has been renewed for a fifth and final season of 13 episodes.

“Tomb Raider” (2018) Following the 2001 and 2003 movies starring Angelina Jolie, Alicia Vikander played a millennial Lara Croft on her first adventure.

Frank Lovece