Ron Howard on Einstein: 'a paratrooper in war against darkness'

The director and producer of National Geographic's new drama "Genius" explains how Einstein's life resonates with today's troubled times.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Dusan Martincek, National Geographic/DusanMartincek

Ron Howard is explaining what makes a genius. "If you view the known as the light and the unknown as the darkness," he says, "then scientists and geniuses are working on that front line. It's a war against darkness. These are the paratroopers. They go in behind enemy lines, parachute in and have to fight their way back with any bits of knowledge they can discover. And some of them don't make it back."

I'm on the phone with Howard to talk about "Genius", a new show exploring the life of legendary scientist Albert Einstein. Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Flynn play Einstein at different stages in his life, as he chases knowledge and girls with equal passion -- until the turmoil of the 20th century forces him to confront very real threats that resonate with today's troubled times.

The project began with Gigi Pritzker, who bought the rights to the biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson. Isaacson also wrote the biography of Steve Jobs that was turned into the 2015 film, and Pritzker was intrigued by his exploration of creativity and where it comes from. "To me," she remembers, "that unlocked a way of looking at Einstein that I hadn't really thought about before."

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Ron Howard directs Johnny Flynn on the set of "Genius".

Robert Viglasky/National Geographic

Originally the plan was to adapt Isaacson's book into a movie. "We tried for a number of years to develop it into a film," said Pritzker, "and it just wasn't working. Regardless of the number of writers, regardless of how we tried to approach it, his life is much bigger and much more complex than two and a half hours allows you to do."

The rise of prestige television over the past few years presented the scope required for a bigger and more complex story. The 10-episode series allows the producers to expand on the turbulent times in which Einstein lived, as well as give room to important and oft-overlooked figures like Mileva Maric, Einstein's wife and a brilliant scientist in her own right. Pritzker credits writer Noah Pink with juggling these various intertwining strands and unlocking the intricacies of who Einstein was, "and not just the caricature of the crazy professor with his tongue sticking out."

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Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer had worked with National Geographic on earlier projects, and proceeded to make "Genius" the first fully scripted drama from the popular science brand. Howard even decided to direct the first episode, helming his first nondocumentary television project since 1987.

As well as following Einstein's life, the show sketches in some of the scientific theories he developed. Howard had experience presenting complex concepts in a visual way thanks to his work on "A Beautiful Mind", the story of troubled mathematician John Nash. Luckily, Einstein used thought experiments, encouraging students to, for example, picture light waves by imagining themselves traveling through space. "If you don't understand it, it's not going to be the lesson that brings you absolute clarity," admits Howard, "but it may nudge you in the direction of understanding."

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Though Einstein is perhaps the archetype of a genius, Howard believes genius doesn't have to be synonymous with science. "This is a story about a brilliant, creative individual -- he could have been an artist, could have been a poet, but in this case it's a theoretical physicist."

A second "Genius" series is already in the works and will focus on the life of a different genius. "We're looking at a shortlist," said Howard of the possible candidates. "We're delving deeper to find a figure whose life is as eventful and surprising and dramatic as Einstein's."

Einstein's life was certainly dramatic, and not just because of his pioneering work in science. He lived and worked though the social, technological and political upheaval of the early 20th century. A German Jew, he was thrown reluctantly into the turmoil of the rising nationalism that brought Hitler's Nazis to power. The parallels with rising nationalism in the US and Europe today are not lost on the producers of the show.

"It certainly resonates," said Howard. "I'm grateful that we were able to actually make this right now as opposed to five or six years ago, because I do hope for people watching this a light bulb goes off that we've seen this condition before -- and it doesn't end well."

"Genius" is now airing on National Geographic in the UK and Australia, and begins tonight for US viewers.

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