Ron Howard: 'Working with Tom Hanks is a pleasure, there is tremendous trust and that means a lot.'
Ron Howard isn't usually interested in doing sequels, but he makes an exception where the novels of Dan Brown are concerned. A decade on from The Da Vinci Code, he tells Susan Griffin why he, and his star man, are thrilled to be back for the ride.
Tom Hanks might be Hollywood royalty, but he doesn't mind being told what to do on set. So says Ron Howard, the acclaimed director who's now worked with the actor five times since their first collaboration, 1984's Splash.
"He really likes being directed and encourages that process, so he's just a pleasure, an exemplary person and artist," says the 62-year-old, who also worked with Hanks on 1995's Apollo 13.
"We have such an easy and productive ability to collaborate and there's tremendous mutual trust, and that means a lot," adds the film-maker, dressed in jeans and sweatshirt.
He's wearing his trademark baseball cap, of course, and has the faintest hint of auburn stubble, while the voice remains as boyish as it was when he was in front of the camera in Seventies TV hit Happy Days.
Given their history, it's no wonder Howard says it's "a pleasure" to be working with the actor again, this time on Inferno, their third screen adaptation of Dan Brown's bestselling novels, following The Da Vinci Code a decade ago and Angels & Demons in 2009.
"The Dan Brown movies are a lot of fun to make," explains Howard, "and I hope Inferno's also fun to watch."
The movie sees Hanks reprise his role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon following a trail of clues, this time tied to the great medieval poet, Dante.
"Part of the reason everybody loves Tom in this role is that, in real life, he is Robert Langdon.
"Both are driven by curiosity, share a dry sense of humour and are men who, when faced with a puzzle, are like a dog with a bone. They are fascinated by the world around them and have the wonderful kind of mind that is able to decode it," observes Howard.
When the film opens, Langdon's in an Italian hospital, confused and bloodied, with no memory of how he wound up there and experiencing terrifying hallucinations of Dante's nightmarish Inferno.
"It's a great opportunity to look into the corners of history that one doesn't always get a chance to really examine, and I think Inferno is a little bit more of a modern thriller," explains Howard, who won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for A Beautiful Mind in 2002, but missed out in both categories for 2008's Frost/Nixon. "Certainly, my approach to it is visually edgier, more psychological, and the issue at hand - that Dan Brown gives us in the book - is a more contemporary one, more immediate and less about looking back," adds the father of four.
When a woman arrives at the hospital with the intention of wiping Langdon out, he teams up with Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), a doctor he hopes will help him recover his memories. Piecing bits of the puzzle together, the pair race across Europe - and it becomes clear a billionaire genius, by the name of Zobrist, wishes to unleash a global virus that will wipe out half of the world's population. The stylistic film, with its series of cryptic and hallucinatory sequences, provides an entirely different feel than previous instalments, which is what drew the director to return to the franchise.
Since starting his film-making career - which has encompassed a range of genres; from sci-fi (Cocoon) and fantasy (Willow), to romance (Far And Away), comedy (How The Grinch Stole Christmas) and drama (Cinderella Man) - the only sequels he has chosen to helm are Angels & Demons and now Inferno.
"There have been characters I love as much as I love Robert Langdon, but I always want to push myself to do something different. It's more interesting than repeating yourself," notes Oklahoma-born Howard, who made his directorial debut in 1977 with the comedy Grand Theft Auto, and in 1986 co-founded the production company Imagine Entertainment, with long-time producing partner Brian Grazer.
"But that's what's so great about the movies based on Dan Brown's books - each of them is so different, and he explores such different themes in each adventure. Inferno is the most stylistically different yet.
"With this series, I get to go back and revisit a character I love, while continuing to push myself in new directions."
During the shoot, Howard enlisted the help of philosopher and futurist Jason Silva to help build the harrowing YouTube video Zobrist produces, to support his idea that over-population will lead to human extinction.
He also worked closely with his team of collaborators to ensure as much as 70% of the film was shot on location.
"It's always great when you're making any movie, when you can be in the actual locations," says Howard, who had the Key to the City bestowed on him while filming in Florence.
"Set construction is great, CGI is fantastic, but there's nothing like when you're actually in the place, and the way it influences everybody involved, in front of and behind the camera."
The director, who has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for TV, the other for motion pictures), might have entered his seventh decade, but his enthusiasm shows no signs of waning.
In the last few years, he's completed F1 biopic Rush and the Moby Dick-inspired tale In The Heart of The Sea with Chris Hemsworth, music documentaries Made In America, starring Jay Z, and The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years, while Mars, his new series for the National Geographic Channel, which combines fact with fiction, is due to air next month.
But, he explains, early on in his career, he had a point to make. "To prove - not only to audiences and media - but more importantly, to the lead collaborators who are out there, that I can be trusted working in different genres and different styles," says Howard.
Point well and truly made.
- Inferno is in cinemas today