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TIFF 2013: Ron Howard's curiosity leads to Jay Z, Formula One films

By Glenn Whipp

8:00 AM EDT, September 9, 2013

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TORONTO -- Ron Howard and Jay Z aren't names you'd expect to find in the same sentence, much less people you'd figure would one day work together.

But 10 days before the hip-hop artist's two-day Made in America music festival in Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend last year, Howard's longtime Imagine Entertainment partner, Brian Grazer, approached him, asking Howard if he'd be interested in making a documentary of the event.

"I was very open that A) I've never made a documentary and B) I didn't know much about the music world now," Howard says, chuckling. "And they said, 'Exactly.'"

WATCH: Trailers from Toronto 

And that's how the 59-year-old filmmaker came to make "Made in America," a 90-minute feature that expands its focus beyond Jay Z and the festival's diverse musical lineup to an assessment, by the artists and people working behind the scenes, of the current state of the American dream.

Howard, in Toronto briefly to promote "Made in America" and his upcoming Formula One racing movie, "Rush," says the movie's topicality wasn't planned. With barely a week to prepare, pre-conceived notions weren't possible. He and his film crews simply went out, "casting a net," as he puts it, which made him realize how much he likes the order and control inherent in his chosen day job, directing feature films.

"That was tough to relinquish," Howard told The Times at the "Made in America" premiere at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. "But Jonathan Demme (director of the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, "Stop Making Sense") gave me some great advice before I began. 'You just gotta go and see what you see.' So I let go and let my curiosity be my guide."

INTERACTIVE: From Toronto to the Oscars? Well...

Once Howard began assembling footage in the editing room, themes began to appear.

"Without any prompting, people kept coming back to, 'Yes, it's tough, but I don't believe I'm a victim,'" Howard says. "There's the idea that America is a place where, if you pay the price, you can define yourself in a certain way."

Howard, who made his directorial debut with 1977's road movie "Grand Theft Auto" and won the Oscar for directing the 2001 bio drama "A Beautiful Mind," has carefully avoided being defined as anything but a filmmaker willing to try his hand at just about any genre. He's cutting short his stay in Toronto to return to London, where he's prepping another cinematic left-turn: "In the Heart of the Sea," a look at the 1820 sinking of the American whale ship Essex after it was rammed by a sperm whale in the Pacific, an incident that inspired Herman Melville to write "Moby-Dick."

"It's just one of those moments where it's 'be careful what you wish for,'" Howard says of his packed schedule. "But these are all projects that I'm fascinated by and I care about and so here I am. It's a good kind of busy."

WATCH: Trailers from Telluride

Which raises the question: Is there a "bad kind of busy"?

"I don't think so," the ever-genial Howard says. "That's been my mantra for a long time. I really don't complain. Especially as the film business goes through a strange transitional period, I feel particularly gratified to be getting involved in projects I find challenging. They're the opposite of compromise. I'm getting to explore subjects and genres that appeal and I'm learning a lot."

"Made in America" will air on Showtime beginning Oct. 11. You can watch the trailer here:

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Glenn Whipp

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

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