By Jacob Sahms
Ron Howard read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir about leaving Appalachia, and felt drawn to explore the family members who helped shape who Vance became. Howard’s own roots in Oklahoma, and his use of “Mamaw” to address his grandmother like Vance did, drew him to discuss the story as a potential film, and listening to Vance deliver bits of the story in his own words sealed the deal. The director of Apollo 13, Backdraft, Solo, and many more beloved films had been looking for a story about rural America in a way that he could connect with, and Hillbilly Elegy emerged as his next project.
The veteran filmmaker says that as he’s grown older, he finds something powerful in witnessing to something amazing that isn’t fiction or possible, but that actually happened. “I think there’s an understanding between the storyteller and the audience that leads the filmmaker to taking a bigger risk with true stories,” he explains. “When the audience knows that it’s based on a true story, they tune into it in a different way. It’s still entertaining and dramatic, but it touches their hearts and minds differently.”
Since 2000, Howard has made more ‘true life’ stories than completely fictional ones, with historically-influenced films like A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Rush, and In the Heart of the Sea have outweighed the fictional, the fantastic. “My first film in high school was actually a documentary about the Depression but I was afraid to go back to those kinds of movies until making Apollo 13. The documentaries and non-fiction films were more like the fiction films than I had guessed, and thanks to my relationship with Imagine Entertainment have given me an opportunity to work in different mediums.”
Different aspects of Vance’s life will appeal to different people, but Howard was adamant that this is Vance’s story- and he turned away from focusing on the socio-political overview aspects of the book. The cycle of abuse and addiction was certainly something many could identify with, but Howard doesn’t want people to think that the film is broadly about a generation or a society as a whole. “This story reverberates beyond Appalachia and the Rust Belt thanks to a universally shared experience,” says Howard. “But I wanted to avoid dumb tropes.”
Howard recounts an example from The Andy Griffith Show, as Griffith refused to let the humor of the show slide his series into the neighborhood of the farcical, like The Beverly Hillbillies. So the director interviewed country western singers and writers from the area to get a sense of what life was like in Appalachia. But he found Vance’s own stories and tour-guiding, to be the most effective, thanks to home movies.”
“This was my first real family story based on real events, with dimensional characters,” admits the director. “But I’m not concerned with who’s the bad guy, instead focusing as J.D. did on this being a rescue story.”
Vance, Howard says, knows he couldn’t have achieved anything in his life without the women in his life, like Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), his sister Lindsey (Haley Bennett), his mother Bev (Amy Adams), and his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). Sure, they are people with difficult lives packed with regret, sometimes as the victims of others and sometimes the victim of their own poor choices. But Howard wanted to focus on the parts of the story where Vance saw that they had the ability to choose the outcomes.
Two time periods stood out to Vance when Howard asked him about the times that he felt the most anxiety in crisis, the most susceptible to going one way or another. They identified a time period between thirteen and fourteen years old, and then later when Vance was at Yale. Howard was surprised that the Yale time period was one of Vance’s two most crucial experiences, expecting that it would be his time in the Marine Corps given how important his service is to Vance. But Vance saw the Marines as entirely positive post-boot camp, while at Yale, his future hinged on his decisions.
“At Yale, J.D. said that everything almost came tumbling down, because he realized how much he could lose,” Howard shares. “As a boy, he knew he felt bad and that he wasn’t happy, but he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. That’s why he wanted to write the book, because he saw how important his Mamaw was to his getting where he was, not preventing us from showing her warts and all.”
“She was a paradox: wild, profane, and devout at the same time.”
Howard highlights over and over how Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy shows the turning points of Vance’s life, editing parts of his life out that had to be left alone for the cinematic version. “Yes, it’s a non-stop struggle, and there’s not much time for peace. But the film shows how emotionally vulnerable J.D. was.”
And how far he came to achieve life as he knows it right now.
Hillbilly Elegy releases globally on Netflix on November 24.