A grim western laced with family drama and violence, The Missing isn't exactly the kind of thing we might expect from director Ron Howard. ''I'm hearing that,'' says the 49-year-old with a grin, sitting in a New York restaurant and nursing a Bass. ''And it pleases me.''
Only a little over a year ago, it looked as if Howard would be making a very different kind of dark Western. After 2001's A Beautiful Mind brought him what some felt was a long-overdue Oscar, the director set out to make The Alamo for Disney, which he envisioned as a violent, R-rated take on the battle. When the studio disagreed about the budget and tone, Howard departed (remaining as a producer) and signed on to The Missing, about a frontier woman (Cate Blanchett) who teams up with her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) to rescue her abducted daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). ''I wouldn't say I always had a burning desire to make a Western. I would characterize it as a low-grade itch,'' says Howard, who costarred with John Wayne in 1976's The Shootist. ''I had read terrific Westerns, but I'd bump into the shoot-out, or the poker game, and I wasn't interested in making an homage.... When I read The Missing, the fact that it was psychologically driven,'' he continues, ''[made it] very personal.''
In the next few months, Howard will step into the boxing ring with The Cinderella Man, which will team the director with Beautiful Mind star Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger; after that, he'll direct an adaptation of Dan Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code from a screenplay by Mind's Akiva Goldsman. We grabbed Howard during a rare quiet moment and asked him to put his post -- Happy Days career in perspective.
GRAND THEFT AUTO (1977) Produced by schlock master Roger Corman, Auto was the 23-year-old director's first feature. ''I lost 12 pounds in four weeks. From day one, I was certain I was going to be fired. But when we wrapped after day 22 -- we had done something like 93 setups that day -- I remember telling [my wife] Cheryl 'I can't believe this, but I love this even more than I thought I would.'''
NIGHT SHIFT (1982) Howard's first studio gig teamed him with his future partner in Imagine Entertainment, producer Brian Grazer. The project, which was Grazer's idea, starred first-time feature actor Michael Keaton and Happy Days castmate Henry Winkler as morgue attendants. ''Brian and I couldn't believe they were letting us make a movie. I had an image that we were swimming around in a toilet bowl and the studio was leaning over us with one of those chain flushers, just waiting to yank on it and flush us down the drain. Thank God for Henry Winkler, who helped us get it made, and Michael Keaton, who was really inspired.''
SPLASH (1984) Howard joined forces with another untested film actor -- this time a guy named Tom Hanks -- in a romantic comedy about a wayward mermaid (Daryl Hannah). ''It almost didn't happen -- there was a [never-filmed] competitive project with Warren Beatty and Jessica Lange, directed by Herbert Ross. We finally got to Disney -- at this point, their comedies were like Gus, [about] the field-kicking mule -- and I remember saying something [like] 'I will get a sleeping bag and stay in the editing room, but there's no way their movie will come out before ours.' [It wasn't until] after all the top comedy stars passed that Disney was willing to go with Hanks. You can't predict someone is going to be an all-time great in the middle of making Splash, but he [already seemed like] a 10-movie vet.''