One of the collaboration consistencies in Ron Howard’s career has always been his producer Brian Grazer. Look closely though in the credits and you’ll see Todd Hallowell’s name on every film since Parenthood (1989). First as production designer, then as Executive Producer/Second Unit Director.
I had a chance to talk with Todd about Frost/Nixon, the magnificent film version of the 1977 David Frost-Richard Nixon TV interviews, now on DVD and Blu-Ray, and his close collaborative relationship with Ron Howard.
DFD: It seems like every 10 years or so there seems to be a great movie about Richard Nixon. What makes Nixon such a good character for film?
Todd: I think it because he’s so unexpectedly complex. Everyone assumes they know something about him and research continues to reveal so many different aspects to him. When I was in high school, I was so completely willing to vilify him in the most extreme terms possible. Especially as the chance of my draft number being called increased. He was Satan, pure and simple. Luckily the number never came up. But when you really begin to do some reading, research and spend some time in the Nixon library, and begin to meet people involved with events during his time in office, there’s so many conflicting versions of who he really was. From a filmmaking standpoint, it makes him a fascinating character because there so many different ways to look at the guy.
DFD: And he comes from a more humble, different background than other Presidents. It seemed he had to work harder than others.
Todd: Yeah. He viewed himself as a real second-class citizen, a real underdog. Which is part of a sense of ‘persecution’ he had. But also one of the points the movie makes, one of the ironies the film underlines, is the similarity in that respect between Frost and Nixon, both of them having come from relatively lower/middle class or working-class conditions. And that both of them in their ascension felt they had been made to feel second class, that it was part of what was motivating both of them.
DFD: Going back to the genesis of the film. Obviously it started with Peter Morgan’s play. Talk about the transition from the stage play to the script and ultimately the screen. What kind of direction or inspiration did you guys give Peter Morgan in adapting it for the screen?
Todd: He had pretty much adapted the play into a screenplay, or at least begun the process by the time Ron saw the play in London. As I understand it, this was Peter’s first foray into actual theatrical production. He had written several screenplays and also done quite a bit for television. He was much more experienced in the film world than he really was in the world of the theatre. Not to speak for Peter, but I don’t think he faced it as the kind of challenge as a lot of people might, who perhaps were coming strictly from the world of theatre and then trying to open up the piece cinematically and turn it into something that wasn’t just talking heads, for the big screen.
DFD: When you guys came on board, was there a fully complete script? How ready was it to go? Were there your own additions to make?
Todd: There were the beginnings of a full fledged screenplay, but Ron worked with Peter quite a bit, and Brian Grazer too, to open that up and to create a stronger sense of time and place. And things you can do cinematically that you just can’t do on stage – although I thought the stage production was phenomenal.
DFD: When you guys were shooting, for Ron Howard and his creative team, was there a visual philosophy that they came up with?
Todd: The visual philosophy… it’s a good phrase…was to try and really create an accurate portrayal of the period without resorting to what had become the threadbare clichés of the period - the cheap or easy visual clichés. What Ron wanted I think was, kind of the tasteful version of the 70’s, that was accurate but is often overlooked. So I think the production designer Michael Corenblith and the costume designer Daniel Orlandi did a phenomenal job of keeping it true, but the version we prefer to remember of that period.
DFD: I assume Michael Sheen and Frank Langella were automatically first choices for Frost and Nixon?
Todd: They were and both of them have worked extensively in film. So that was a big help to Ron in terms of having actors who know how to play to a camera, instead of a great big audience. They both understand the difference. So, because they’re both accomplished film actors, it helped a great deal in the adaptation.
DFD: How did he work with those guys – obviously they knew the material inside and out (at least the stage version). How did Ron work with them to make it different? What kind of changes to their performance did they do to make it more cinematic?
Todd: Extensive rehearsals to really allow them, organically, to begin within their performance open it up, to understand that you’re not limited to four chairs on a black stage. We told them we really going to go to Casa Pacifica, the Western White House. We’re really going to go to a lot of the places where these events actually occurred. And the opportunity to move around and be more literal was available to them. That was something they responded to. Another part of it, from Ron’s standpoint, and I’ve been with him now for 15 movies, is that he really loves working with an ensemble cast. When he’s got a group of actors that he really feels are hitting on all cylinders it’s just about the happiest I’ve seen him. He’s in his element.
DFD: The casting was great. Just having Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell bantering with each other on screen is pretty awesome.
Todd: Yeah. They took such delight having the time to do the research, meeting a lot of times their real life counterparts. Getting in there working with one another, they were positively gleeful in getting to come into work. It was really terrific. I think the leads also feel that they’re being supported in such a strong way it allows them to really begin to feel comfortable as well. Because they know they’re so completely supported by capable people.
DFD: I was looking on the IMDB going the evolution of your career, and it’s interesting. You came up through the art department, became a production designer and then executive producer. Can you talk about that transition?
Todd: Sure. It’s a bit odd. It’s worked out for me in terms of satisfying the left half and the right half of the brain. I started out in the art department, I became a production designer on a handful of films. Started working with Ron on a picture called Parenthood with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen and it was a enjoyable experience. He asked me if I would come back and do Backdraft. He said, ‘I don’t want you to be the production designer though,’ And all I could think of was, ‘oh god, I’m being demoted, this is depressing.” He said, ‘there’s gonna be a huge second unit, I want you to come over and handle that and kinda keep an eye on the production side, and we’ll get you some kind of producing credit. Is that something you’re interested in?’ I didn’t have to think about that too long. So started working for him on that and we’ve done 14 or 15 pictures together. It’s become a very close working relationship between Ron and Brian Grazer and I. They’re very trusting and very supportive. Good news for me is that Ron continues to reshuffle the deck and constantly wants to do different types of films. So there’s an ongoing challenge, which is the best part for me. He doesn’t seem at all interested in repeating himself. Each film has it’s own unique set of challenges. That keeps me interested. Keeps me on my toes.
DFD: What kind of second unit work did you do on Frost/Nixon?
Todd: Frost/Nixon was really a lot of pickups, inserts and cleanup when first unit had finished. To go in and figure out all the stuff that was still owed, the minutiae, the little tight stuff. And then there was some driving work, some roadwork, an establishing shot in London, some work in Washington. Not heavy duty, by no means, not anything compared to Angels and Demons where we shoot 46 days of second unit. This was far more contained.
DFD: Must be busy for you guys right now, with that film coming up too?
Todd: Yeah, it really is. We’re really looking forward to getting it out there. It’s really been an interesting experience.
DFD: You guys must have done that literally back to back.
Todd; We actually did the early pre-visualizations for visual effects on Angels and Demons and basically put that in a box and switched our attention to Frost/Nixon, went through the whole process on that then swung back to Angels and Demons. It was a pretty interesting way to approach two movies that couldn’t be anymore different. But it made for a really interesting two-year process.
DFD: To close off, are there any filmmakers or films that get you excited as a filmgoer? Anything you’ve seen recently that turns your crank?
Todd: Yeah sure. I really liked Observe and Report. I thought it was terrific. Travis Bickle as the mall cop. I really enjoyed that….. You know we got into the race for the Academy. We didn’t win, but we lost to a film I had incredible respect. I just loved Slumdog. All the films that were up for contention I was blown away by. I though The Wrestler was phenomenal. I thought last year was a great year for films – of every type. Ron has an interesting philosophy, or viewpoint; he told me once that a good film is a film that delivers on it’s own promise. Whatever genre, whatever it is, if it delivers on what it promised you, it’s a good film. It might not be a great film, but at least it delivered on what it said it would do. There’s sort of an implied honesty to that point of view, and it’s not snobbery, by any means, it’s the opposite - just deliver on what you say you’re gonna do. I thought a lot of films last year really did that.
"Frost/Nixon" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment