Why Angels & Demons helmer Ron Howard doesn't worry about controversy

Ron Howard—director of the Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons—told SCI FI Wire that the Illuminati, a mysterious and supposedly long-disbanded brotherhood, make ideal villains.

In the new film, opening nationwide on May 15, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks)—the protagonist in the Dan Brown novels that inspired the big-screen thrillers—teams with an Italian scientist (Ayelet Zurer) to thwart the Illuminati, who are apparently kidnapping and killing would-be popes and threatening to blow up Vatican City.

SCI FI Wire spoke exclusively with Howard by telephone in early April. The following are edited excerpts from our exclusive conversation.

People seemed to love or despise The Da Vinci Code, which you also directed. How surprised were you by the reaction to it?

Howard: I was fully prepared for it. I'd become friendly with Dan Brown and had a lot of conversations, and I thought one of the story's virtues was that while it entertained it was thought-provoking and in some circles would even stir controversy. I was comfortable with the questions that were being asked and the way they were being presented in this work of fiction. I was even more comfortable with the way they were being presented in the movie. I have to say I was fully prepared.

What made the Illuminati good villains for Angels & Demons?

Howard: What Dan does really well is he draws upon well-researched fact, ancient and contemporary conspiracy theories and fringe thinking and his own creativity. And he creates these suppositions, these what-if stories that stimulate your curiosity. For me, the Illuminati are fascinating as related to us through Dan's story. Then, when you do a little bit of research, they're even more intriguing. What Dan's stories do is, first, they tell a good story. It's fun to experience the adventure. Then, if you want to dig deeper, you can, and you arrive at your own conclusions about these things.

So the Illuminati are a really important and exciting antagonist in this story, but to me this story is so much more about allowing the audience to go behind the scenes, behind the walls of the Vatican. If there was one thing that excited me, it was that. The other thing was the adventure, the action and tension and suspense, and the Illuminati play a big role in that.

We've read that you wanted Angels & Demons to be as new as possible for you. Was that the case with Tom Hanks as well, so far as him playing Langdon again?

Howard: For him, it wasn't about being fresh and new. He liked carrying the baggage from the previous movie into this one. It was always my intention to not make it a prequel [Angels & Demons was actually Brown's first book], but to make it a sequel. That works well for the story, and it informs his character in a way, because in the first film he was a guy very much caught off-balance. It was that sort of Hitchcockian everyman caught up in a wild and unusual and dangerous circumstance. In this case, Langdon is invited in by the Vatican, which he's very wary about. "Why do they want me?" That gives him a subtext. It gave Tom a natural evolution for the character, and Tom really found a great deal of humor and an extra dimension that was really fun to see him run with and develop during the course of it.

He liked the thriller aspect of this story. With The Da Vinci Code, we both felt it was about the provocative idea that you should look beyond the dogma that's been presented, that you should use your intellect and stay open to the possibilities of the past and future. In this case, it really is about a thriller circumstance that is intense, very unique and, from a filmmaking and film-going standpoint, an original action thriller.

If this film is successful, Sony will no doubt want to make Brown's next Langdon novel, The Lost Symbol (due out this fall), into a movie. How open would you be to coming back again?

Howard: I would be very open to it. I really like what Dan does with Langdon, and I really like where Tom takes the character.

Do you officially have a next film lined up yet?

Howard: I don't have a next film right now. I have focused so much over the past couple of years on Frost/Nixon and Angels & Demons, which were both very ambitious in their own right, that I didn't really have a chance to do much of my own development. There are a few ideas that I'm nursing along that I like a lot, and I would like to choose something sooner rather than later. But right now, and probably until after Angels & Demons is released, I'm settling back and taking a little break.

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