“Grand Theft Auto” is Ron Howard’s first feature-length movie as a director after television roles in “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days.”
Though the 1977 comedy didn’t go over well with critics, it was a success at the box office, and helped lead to his following movies including “Splash,” “Willow,” and the eventual Oscar-winning “Apollo 13.”
However, transitions from actor to director or vice versa aren’t so easy.
While recalling stories from his lengthy career in both acting and directing during a Tribeca Film Festival panel Saturday, Howard told an excellent story of how he made the transition because he wasn’t afraid to ask for someone to take a chance on him.
He went on to explain how, at the time, TV actors weren’t the place Hollywood was looking to when recruiting directors.
Howard recounted a time he took a giant risk when he ditched his agent to speak alone with a producer about making the change to the director’s chair.
“I really had to blackmail my way into my first directing opportunity. Roger Corman, famous ‘B’-movie director, but also started the careers of Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola. He wanted me to act in a movie called, ‘Eat My Dust.’ This was after ‘American Graffiti’ was a big hit and “Happy Days’ was becoming a top 10 show. And, I had a script that I had written that I wanted to make. It was a character study. I thought maybe I’d raised half of the $300,000 budget to get it made. I needed distribution.”
“I told my agent, ‘Please don’t come with me to this meeting,’ which was hard to do when you’re 21 and you tell your veteran agent, ‘I’m taking this one on my own,’ because I wasn’t going in there to talk about money. I was going in there to talk about my dream.”
When Howard met with Corman he was brutally honest and laid everything out on the table.
“I went in to Roger Corman and said, ‘To be honest, I’ve read ‘Eat My Dust’ and, uh, it’s not very good,'” said Howard. “But, I know that you’re the one person who gives first-time directors a chance. Please read this script and if you’ll co-finance this, I’ll act in ‘Eat My Dust.'”
Though it wasn’t a sure sell, Corman was very receptive.
“He read the script and he said, ‘Well, this is like an arthouse movie. This is a character piece – not what I do – but if you do ‘Eat My Dust’ I will let you write a script for a movie,” recounted Howard. “If I like that, I’ll let you make it. If that all fails then I’ll let you direct the car crashes or the second-unit or something on another movie.'”
When “Eat My Dust” came out in 1976, it ended up becoming a big hit. From there, Howard started pitching ideas regularly. Eventually, it paid off.
“Finally, he [Corman] said to me one day, ”Eat My Dust’ was a car-crash comedy about young people on the run. When we were testing titles for ‘Eat My Dust’ there was another title that came in very close second: ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ If you can fashion a car-crash comedy about young people on the run that we can entitle ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ I’d let you direct that picture.”
“I had an outline for him about 15 minutes later and I got to make that movie,” he added.
The film came out a little more than a year after “Eat My Dust” in 1977 on a budget of about $600,000. It ended up making $15 million at the box office.