Film & TV

Case Study: Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard

Lesson time 19:57 min

Ron revisits the cinematography and production design decisions that energized and surprised him when he made Frost/Nixon, including powerful lessons about turning compromise into creativity.

Ron Howard
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Frost/Nixon is a very interesting case study in terms of production design. We didn't have a lot of money. We were shooting it like an independent, yet it took place in 1977, We were shooting in Los Angeles. That's where most of the movie took place. $62,000? That's a fortune. $200,000 on signature? Don't worry about the money. Michael Corenblith-- who was the production designer on Apollo 13, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Ransom, and some other projects that I did-- he's a great collaborator and experienced. He was excited about the fact that there were going to be some limitations. But it turned out there were a lot of very, very important, pivotal decisions to be made. One of them had to do with how we were going to present the 70s. We started looking at the research photos, and it was surprising to us. They were making us laugh because the colors were so bright, the oranges were so vivid. This is what people were wearing, and this is the way they were decorating hotels and lobbies. And at first, I thought that was hilarious and we should just do it. And Michael was the first one to say, you know, there's an undercurrent of tragedy and importance and pressure on this story, and I'm worried we're going to be smiling too much about the goofy 70s background. And of course we have to evoke it, but I think we have to be careful about it. He was right. And we toned down the palette. It's still very evocative of the period, sure. But we just didn't play into the joke of how different our sensibilities are today from what they were in the 70s. That was one of the early tonal decisions about the way that movie would look that also influenced my sense of the comedy in the movie-- and there is a lot of humor. But I thought Michael was right, and I decided not to play on 70s humor. Not to let the hairdos be too crazy, or the mini skirts too short. And it was a very important contribution on his part. Then there was another-- we were working on small sound stages in Los Angeles-- where independent films get made, not the big Hollywood sound stages. And we're on a tight schedule, but we were going to need to build some sets because we had some scenes with a tremendous amount of page count, and that means lots and lots of pages and different scenes being shot. And sometimes it's more efficient because you can shoot so much faster on a stage that's built than you can in a practical location. So we decided it was cost effective to build some sets. There's a very important, powerful phone call scene between Richard Nixon, in the middle of the night in his house in Orange County, in San Clemente, and David Frost, from his hotel suite where he's doing research. It's this seven- or eight-page sequence, which means it's six, seven, eight minutes long as a scene. It's in the play. It's powerful. Kind of a turning point the...

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Ron Howard made his first film in 15 days with $300,000. Today, his movies have grossed over $1.8 billion. In his first-ever online directing class, the Oscar-winning director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind decodes his craft like never before. In lessons and on-set workshops, you’ll learn how to evaluate ideas, work with actors, block scenes, and bring your vision to the screen whether it’s a laptop or an IMAX theater.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

So far good. I hope I get lots of new idas from Ron. I like his work and that is why I choose him rather than Scoorsese

I found this masterclass really precious. He's also my favourite director, after all.

Excellent, practical advice on story-development and directing (camera and actors)!

Best part of course was the thorough process of blocking and shooting a scene. I would have been great if the footage from these rehearsals was used to show editing approaches.


Eddy J.

Interested on that 2 sets filmed at the same time. Were the actors actually looking at the person on the other set, or at monitors?

Susan T.

Thank you, Ron. This was my favourite lesson...Very inspiring. Since childhood, I have always delighted in films about great movies and how they were Directed... I am grateful for your use of film clips to depict your thought processes of what you are describing. In honesty, this is likely the only film you directed that I have not seen, so this has inspired me to view it. I really hope, before the end of this course, you share film/video of you actually directing a film. That will be most educational and inspiring.

Graeme R.

What a privilege to hear Ron Howard recount so much detail of a real production, so that one can watch the film and recognize his recollections. I loved that he talked about feeling diffident before this low-budget, tight-schedule shoot, and his pleasure in overcoming the challenges that he feared. Everyone needs to hear that even the most accomplished and experienced experts face the same fears as novices, and enjoy the same pleasure in overcoming them.

Launa B.

Many good points made here regarding color, tone, and energy, and rehearsing. It would have been even nicer if you would've shown more examples of the scenes you are referring to on each point. Thank you RH for insights on these.

Ruben R.

Nice! -Turning compromise into creativity. RH Put many things in perspective.

Arek Z.

Very useful lesson. Many good points including the importance of colour and its impact on the overall mood of the film. Interesting shooting techniques and wisdom - the fear can energise you to the higher creative state.


Takeaway for me: Work with production designer to ensure the "tone" is consistent with the story that's being told.

Maria Elena S.

I really appreciate the insight Ron brought into Frost/Nixon - it demonstrated many opportunities that could have been missed by going on the straight and narrow path. He expanded his vision and made the situation more realistic.

I love the way Ron talks shop. Brilliant, helpful, practical, and artistic.

Marguerite K.

The suggestions in this chapter are perfect for my project. The boxing match technique will be very helpful in many scenes, since they are in a situation they cannot leave. It's very intimate, so this is very exciting for me!