Ron Howard Takes a Scientific Approach With NatGeo's Breakthrough

Michael Schneider
Ron Howard
National Geographic Channel

We’ve watched Ron Howard grow for six decades, from roles on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days to Oscar-winning director (A Beautiful Mind). Now, as part of a National Geographic Channel documentary series, he’s tracking how science may allow us to see him age for several more. Breakthrough, which launches Sunday, November 1, at 9/8c, features marquee directors tackling major scientific issues. Howard’s episode explores the progress in giving us longer lives. In other installments, Angela Bassett looks at the battle over clean water, Brett Ratner explores the brain and Paul Giamatti investigates human robotics. Howard and fellow executive producer Brian Grazer discuss their latest Breakthrough.

Ron, what drew you to direct this particular installment?
Howard: There are plenty of important issues but these are the ones that National Geographic collectively decided were great to tackle first in our series. We had to get a sense of who wanted to do what among the directors coming on board. I grabbed this one because I though it was relevant to everyone and also challenging in some ways. I felt like it was one of those stories that we're all curious about. In making it I was really glad that we caught a moment where the scientists and researches we were following were actually engaged and trying to make a breakthrough. That's at the center and spirit of the series.

You happened to catch an early 2015 meeting where a group was discussing strategy on aging research and making great strides. 
Howard: We didn’t know that was going to happen. In fact, it was the very last thing we covered.

When interviewing subjects you cycle through photos of them as they age. In fact, you included a montage of yourself growing up and getting older!
Howard: Well, none of us are avoiding it!

Laura DemingLaura Deming (left), a young scientist whose venture capital fund backs companies that research aging, is your breakout star.
Howard: That was unexpected. I hope our show surprises people and they start to realize that they may spot a future Thomas Edison.

Let's talk about the other installments of Breakthrough. How did you choose the directors?
Grazer: We worked with a bunch of friends who we knew that had these fascinations. We really rushed all of this; it took a while to get the commitment locked down and then the minute that it all came together between GE, and us, we had to have it right away. So we immediately reached out to friends of ours that we have worked with and we know are talented and have a social conscience.

You mentioned General Electric, which is a partner on this docuseries. Did the company impact the storytelling?
Grazer: I think it’s a very socially conscious company. I know Beth Comstock, who is now vice chairman of GE, and we both share this curiosity gene.

Was there anything particular that you took away, anything that surprised you or fascinated you?
Howard: I was intrigued by the various advancements that are happening. But also learning how hard it is for scientists to gain the footing and the support of institutions and administrative groups like the FDA to sanction deeper research. That surprised the hell out of me.

You illustrate that through your subject, Laura, who decides to move to Silicon Valley to raise money and start her own venture capital fund.
Howard: Without it making sense economically you can’t take it to the next level without the FDA approval. You can’t move it along as quickly as you’d like. You have this tension and frustration at the fact that this is something that every individual, every family thinks about. There was a huge drama in learning about all of that.

You narrate your episode. Speaking of narration, anything to report on another Arrested Development season?
Howard: Episodes are being written. [Creator] Mitch [Hurwitz] is very committed to it. But he’s also very busy, along with everyone else in the cast with lots of different projects. I think its everybody’s intention to try and do it. Everybody loves working with those characters and with that family. But with each passing month everybody becomes more successful, and that means it’s a little bit harder to rally everyone. Hopefully we all can find a way of doing it again because it’s a highlight when it comes together. I’ve never seen things run more smoothly or people laugh more and enjoy something more than when this cast is working on Arrested Development episodes.

And Brian, everyone is talking about too much TV right now. What’s your take on whether the industry is starting to drown itself with too much content?
Grazer: Well, there probably is too much TV. I don’t want to believe it because I love television, I like working in it. But what is anyone going to do about that? Creators like to work in this space. Right now this is that platform, but that will probably change.

Plus: Watch an exclusive clip below from the upcoming show.

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