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Arts & Entertainment

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
Teaches Directing
Ron Howard teaches directing, editing, and storytelling in his exclusive video lessons.


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.

What's interesting here to me is how his process is a helpful way of thinking though approaches to any collaborative process. I found myself constantly thinking of plenty of parallels with the field I work in: academia.

Great insight to his method and how he works! Very good learning experience, priceless.

Ron is very talented and knowledgable and he makes a great teacher! Thank you for sharing your insight, Ron!

This is amazing, simply awesome. A magnificent masterclass by a great and humble director, learned a lot from Howard Sir, and I thank and congratulate the MasterClass team from the core of my heart. Thank you :-)


Tanya C.

Which books did he recommend? I can't seem to find that episode. The art of dramatic writing, and....? Thank you!

Hind B.

On the workbook there is a link to the 2008 interview which doesn't seem to work. Can anybody help with that ?

A fellow student

Frost/Nixon is one of my favorite films. Excellent work. Powerful. So glad to hear the breakdown of this particular film.

Matt H.

Hi Mr. Howard, enjoying your class very much. Today though, I suffer badly with mental illness. actually understand that stuff. Very bipolar2...looooooooooooong depressions, been like this severe after 2010, depression since middle school, 35 right now. Suicidal thoughts, negative voices of judgment and doom. And it doesn't stop, not for a while at least. My whole reality, everything makes me sick. Only curses and no blessings at all. This morning zapped of energy and woke up with severely depressing thoughts. Little scenarios flash through my mind. All failer and how it happens. I am not allowed. To even think about it. Blocked from love, blocked from heaven, and scientifically, yes, they block the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin...down to nothing, down to very negative in every single way, negative and dangerous suicidal thinking and obsession. There is no least not yet. Been cursed to misery and failure, mental illnesses, disease and ruin. No energy at all today, like I'm slowly dying, this is how it feels. No love, whatsoever. 20-year shorter life-span...unless...a miracle happens. And it's disabling. So much humiliation and shame... to the point of not being able to move. There is no freedom in mental illness. Feels like, they are trying to put me to sleep, today and forever... the simplest things are incredibly hard to do, that's where the shame is... searching for a cure, before I die of negativity, shame and humiliation. Faith, hope, and love. Trying to hold onto it. Charting proggress and turn it into the Nobel Peace Prize medical science dept. If you know anything, and I'm sure you do, with a creative mind like yours, anything and everything and everything counts. Submit your ideas to the Nobel Peace Prize fb page. There have been illnesses throughout human history we thought had no cure...then, eventually, find a cure. This time it is MENTAL illness. The human mind, how much do we really know about the human mind?? Uncharted territories...the unknown. This is very exciting, if you are a medical scientist, very passionately, unrelentlessly searching for the cure to schizophrenia, bipolar, and the dangerous depressions that end with suicide. Maybe this will help, got this type of thinking from Zen Master Charlotte Joko Beck...there is a cure, it is out there, it's already there, we are just not aware of it, it's probably closer and more simple than we think, things usually are. Finding a cure, absolutely possible. How soon...that depends on how hard we work... This will be cured. One of those things were nobody believes there is a cure, until we find the cure. Meditation helps, 3-4 hours, I dunno. about to start right now, peace, and thank you so much for your interest in the subject and the movie you made about it, A Beautiful Mind. Gives me hope. Crazy, literally this is crazy...but maybe I can win a Nobel t :) o.

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.