Ron Howard, director of the new Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13, might easily have been one of NASA's mandarins. Like them, he has undertaken an expensive, technically ambitious project, funded with millions of dollars of other people's money - but now finds it hard to explain just what attracted him to this task in the first place.
Brian Grazer, Howard's business partner, said recently, "A movie about astronauts seemed to hit the bullseye of Ron's sensibility," but Howard rejects that idea. "Brian did say that, but I never try to anticipate myself. I don't like to analyse myself in that way."
For Howard, the realm of grand ideas represents alien territory. In Apollo 13, the deeper significance of space exploration is not of concern to him. He is happier dealing with drama on a more personal scale. "I'm looking for the humanity in a story, awkward situations that can't easily be resolved, and resolutions that can be celebrated." He seems aware how limp this sounds. "Maybe I deal in happy endings, but that's not to suggest that the characters' problems are solved forever."
And there we have it. Searching for complexity in Howard's creative outlook is fruitless. He is not an auteur with a thematic axe to grind. He is powerful enough, commercially, to select his own projects, but the scope of his work to date reads like the credit list of a jobbing director, not a man with his own intense cinematic vision. With Apollo 13 however, he does seem to have touched on something political, a conservative celebration of traditional middle-American values. Maybe this is important to him?
"The studio has oversold the politics of the movie," he says flatly. "They compared it to Gump as part of the sales aspect. There's no political position, but it is a celebration of the achievements of Apollo, so of course you're supporting it."
But supporting what, exactly? The WASP agenda? The triumphs of space technology? Nostalgia for 1960s America, maybe?
No, Howard doesn't see the film as a paean to the past. "Personally I thought that was a hellish time in our history. I didn't live through it with any relish. There was a lot of instability and unease among young people. There was the drug culture, which I never participated in." A hint of disdain plays at the corners of his mouth, only to be supplanted by something touching and surprising, a moment of raw memory, a still- fresh sense of dread: "I worried constantly that I'd get drafted for Vietnam."
Consider Howard's curious position in those heady days. At the height of the fun - 1967, say - he was 13. While the other slightly older and more independent kids were out stoning cops and getting stoned, he was stuck inside studios playing eternally freckle-faced kids in TV replicas of 1950s small-town America. Middle-aged mums loved him as Opie Taylor in the Andy Griffith Show and wished their own wayward hippy brats could be more like him.
By the time Howard was old enough to get out and about (or drafted), the fun had soured. Only Nixon and Vietnam remained. "I wasn't physically isolated from other kids, but I always felt like an outsider because of my professional circumstances. I was shy, and people thought I was aloof."
That child actor face remains his curse - shaped, still, like a boy's. It comes as a shock to see the fine wrinkles of middle-age creeping across his skin. But it's in his demeanour that the grown-up Ron Howard really shows through. Directing a film, especially a big project Apollo 13, requires strength and authority. He loves the responsibility and isn't afraid to take tough decisions. "If we fall behind on schedule, then I have to set things straight. But you can count the people I've had to fire on the fingers of one hand." He beams a grin, and somehow you don't quite believe him.
Howard projects himself as a mild-mannered nice guy, but there is an underlying sharpness to his personality. "The public still sees me as Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, but my professional colleagues treat me as an insider. As far as they're concerned, I'm 41 years old and I'm an established director," he says brusquely. "I'm not that kid any more." He sips his tea and broods for a moment. "Of course, being established means now I have something to lose."
Howard sees Tom Hanks as "another outsider" coming to terms with an isolated past. "As a kid, he moved homes a lot. In Splash, when I first worked with him, he'd use a lot of physical comedy to elaborate his performances. Today he can just stand there calmly and generate a presence. He's a lot happier with himself now - less tormented."
Hank's low-key acting is one of Apollo 13's notable features. "It was a gamble," Howard says, "keeping the emotions buttoned down because that's how the astronauts were in real life. The studio never interfered, but I know the dailies worried them. I told them, it's not a movie made out of discrete big performance moments. It all comes together as one piece."
Hanks is remarkably self-effacing as Apollo's mission commander Jim Lovell, and concedes many key scenes to other actors in deference to historical accuracy. "Tom was a team player on this, but don't underestimate his competitiveness," Howard warns. "He was generous, but he's also very experienced, and he made a judgement call about how to pitch his performance."
This observation throws light on Howard's empathy with actors. "I like actors' movies like Cuckoo's Nest or The Graduate," he says. "I'm not a fan of James Bond." But what about the fantasy elements in his own films? The fishgirls and flying saucers? "I don't think of that as a genre thing. Splash was a straight romantic comedy. The mermaid seemed like a neat way of making it distinctive. In Cocoon, I wanted to make a movie about senior citizens, and the science fiction stuff created a reason for people to come and see it. But it wasn't about aliens. It was about people growing old."
With all this heady talk of films being about something, Howard seems happier now to consider that Apollo 13 might, after all, have some broader meaning. "It's about getting yourself an education and a set of skills, then working with integrity as part of a team. I'd hesitate to call those things political," he says firmly. "They seem to me like a pretty universal set of values."
It was Hanks, rather than Howard, who found the Apollo 13 material intrinsically interesting. "He came to the project with an incredible knowledge of space. I was never an expert, but once I got into the story, I was very moved. It took the dangers faced by Jim Lovell and his crew to show what an achievement the so-called `routine' missions were. In fact, all of space flight is much more dangerous than people realise."
At last, Howard lets himself off the leash - positively boyish in his amazement at what, to him, must have been a truly eye-opening discovery during his researches at NASA: "You know, these rockets - they're basically huge stacks of explosive chemicals. It's remarkable that more people aren't killed. Today's shuttle astronauts, you talk to them and they're feeling jumpy. It's been 10 years since they've had any problems. The safety record now is incredible, but they all know, the statistics are stacking against them. Every so often, that thing's not going to work." Which neatly sums up the dramatic appeal of Apollo 13.
n `Apollo 13' opens on Fri 22 Sept, the PC CD of the film is reviewed on page 14