I really admire and appreciate great filmmakers and the amount of visionaries that are on that list, both past and present are endless. One of the filmmakers on that list that I have extreme admiration for is actor turned director Ron Howard. His forty four years as a filmmaker have been nothing but impressive and I have yet to see a Ron Howard film that I dislike (although “Willow” is the closest to one I’m not quite a fan of). On May 19th 2006, Ron Howard released his big screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”. One of the best thrillers in the last 15 years, that has become one of my ten favorite films and top five of the actor turned directors career.
Before we dive into Ron Howard’s 18th feature film for it’s 15th anniversary. We must uncover it’s origins to where it all began. Written in 2003 by author Dan Brown. “The Da Vinci Code” is actually the second novel to include the character Robert Langdon, played in the film by Tom Hanks. The first novel was released in 2000 and called “Angels & Demons” (which became the film sequel). Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” and the movie both follow “symbologist” Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu. The two are called upon to investigate a murder in the Louvre Museum that causes them to become involved in a battle between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei, over the possibility of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene having had a child together.
The Da Vinci Code provoked a popular interest in speculation concerning the Holy Grail legend and Mary Magdalene’s role in the history of Christianity. The book has, however, been extensively denounced by many Christian denominations as an attack on the Catholic Church, and consistently criticized for its historical and scientific inaccuracies. The novel nonetheless became a massive worldwide bestseller that sold 80 million copies as of 2009 and has been translated into 44 languages. In November 2004, Random House published a Special Illustrated Edition with 160 illustrations.
The film rights to “The Da Vinci Code” happened rather quickly when film producer John Calley was encouraged to read the book by Sony Film Chairman Howard Stringer. “I was crazed by it and fascinated. It was a first-rate thriller”, Calley recalls. Meanwhile Imagine Entertainment co-chairman Brian Grazer had also read Brown’s novel. Grazer was intrigued by some of its underlying issues: “Not only did I like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as an entertaining and exciting read, but there were certain profound things about the story that caught my attention. There were questions of history versus the creation of history and questions I found exciting and compelling”.
Grazer’s partner, the chairman of Imagine Entertainment, director and producer Ron Howard, who was also keen on adapting the book for the screen. When the two learned that Calley had already optioned the rights by purchasing it for $6 million, Grazer and Howard approached Calley with their ideas about the movie adaptation. Ron Howard’s wife was reading the book with her book group when he mentioned that he might direct a film version and was delighted that their reactions were all glowing. Howard says: “I discovered the book more or less the way the whole world did, through amazing word of mouth. People are interested in it for different reasons and are personally impacted by it in a variety of ways”.
Howard continues: “This story has all the style and traditional suspense elements that make a movie work as an entertaining narrative. It takes the viewer along with the confidence that it’s headed in a particular direction but then surprises you in so many ways. That’s why the story Dan Brown created so captivated his readers. It feels familiar as a mystery and as a thriller but then, there’s this fascinating turn of events”.
Calley was excited to hear of Ron Howard’s interest in “The Da Vinci Code”. Calley said “I’ve always admired Ron. He’s skillful and moderate in the best sense, in that he never has an agenda. He was a great choice for this project, since he brings a kind of fundamental intelligence that is totally appropriate to the material”. Ron Howard who has collaborated before with the great screenwriter Akiva Goldsman on “A Beautiful Mind” and “Cinderella Man”. Howard felt that Goldsman would be the natural choice to adapt Dan Brown’s book.
“It was a pretty daunting task”, says Howard. “By the time we’d all decided to make it into a movie, the book had gone from being a big hit to being this historic success story. I’d already been working very closely with Akiva and he and I had some fairly deep conversations about the novel, because it’s more than just believing it would make a good movie story. In choosing to take it to the screen you also have to ask yourself a lot of the questions that the book poses to the reader. I’ve never really been involved in a film project like this, one that not only generates feeling and emotion and is entertaining, but also really stimulates great conversation”.
Despite his reputation as one of the leading screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman says he was a bit daunted by the task of adapting Dan Brown’s best-selling literary phenomenon to the big screen. “I was tremendously impressed by the book and had absolutely no idea how to adapt it, since it’s such a complex, labyrinthine and intricate piece of fiction”, Goldsman confesses. “My inclination was to shy away from it. But then I sat down with Ron and he had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do with it that he turned me around and gave me the confidence to try”.
Ron Howard frequently collaborated with Dan Brown during the writing of the adaptation. Ron Howard said: “Dan made himself accessible in the most understanding, collaborative kind of way, in terms of his acceptance of the fact that, of course, the screenplay was not going to be a verbatim version of the novel. He knew we were going to have to streamline it somewhat. But he was a really important resource in helping us interpret things he had learned or read including several things he discovered after he wrote the book, which have found their way. So, our movie is in some ways a kind of an updated, annotated version of ‘The Da Vinci Code’”.
Once Goldsman’s screenplay was completed, the casting would be the next process to take place. Executive producer Todd Hallowell comments on the casting: “This is a unique film in that it has a truly international cast. Watching Ron slowly piece together all the right elements so that they perfectly meshed was a pretty amazing process. He really put together an extraordinary ensemble”.
Ron Howard had first envisioned the role of Robert Langdon to be played by Bill Paxton (“Twister”, “Aliens”). Paxton was in fact interested, but turned it down because of scheduling conflicts with other projects. Oscar winner Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”) was then a front runner for the role, but ultimately Howard decided on his long-time friend and “Apollo 13” star, Tom Hanks for the role. Other actors considered for the part between the consideration of Bill Paxton and Russell Crowe were Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Jackman, George Clooney and Pierce Brosnan (who would have been ideal for the part).
Ron Howard said “It was more than friendship that led me to want to cast Tom as Robert Langdon. When I started talking to him about the role, I had a similar kind of positive feeling I had when we first discussed ‘Apollo 13’ a decade ago. There was a natural intersection between Tom as an actor and a person and the sensibility of the character of Robert Langdon. He’s this guy to a tee. Langdon is driven by curiosity and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor. More than anything else, Langdon is fascinated by details and eager to understand the truth. Tom is also very smart and fascinated by the world around him. In casting Tom, I was certain I had brought in a really intelligent and helpful collaborator”.
Hanks was also eager to work with Howard again and Hanks liked that he was taking on the challenge of playing a character different from anything he has before. “Langdon has this arcane knowledge that is very deep and quite extensive and he is fascinated by it”, says Hanks. “He has somehow turned this knowledge into a lucrative career. As a symbologist, he can tell you what three marks on a cave wall represent, what they meant then and how they’ve come to be interpreted down through the ages. This is a guy who is continuously observing absolutely everything. He sees all these connections, all the time”.
Hanks says his collaboration with Howard was essential in his process of discovering the character of Robert Langdon: “Ron is so easy-going. At the same time he’s incredibly responsible, creatively vigilant and dedicated to excellence”.
French actress Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) stars as Sophie Neveu, a police cryptographer who partners with Hanks’ Robert Langdon. To play Sophie, director Ron Howard always wanted Audrey Tautou for the role, but she was never available for an audition. Tautou herself originally had her doubts because she felt she was too young to play opposite Tom Hanks. After some convincing from Howard, she auditioned, and got the role.
Tautou revealed that during her audition, she asked if she could take a photo of Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to prove that she really did meet them. Actresses Julie Delpy (“The Before Trilogy”) and Kate Beckinsale (“Pearl Harbor”) were two of the original people thought of for the role of Sophie. Delpy wanted the role badly and lobbied for it, but she was ultimately turned down. The films stellar supporting cast includes: Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany and Ian McKellan.
A number of locations throughout Europe and at the famed Pinewood studios (home of the James Bond films), several sets were built for “The Da Vinci Code”. Although the production did shoot at the real Louvre in Paris, it was essential to rebuild the Grand Galerie in a studio so that a majority of the action could unfold in a more controlled environment and away from the real art pieces at the actual museum.
Production designer Allan Cameron who constructed sections of the museum on the “James Bond” stage said: “I knew from the very beginning that we were going to build a small part of the Louvre on a stage. But when we went to the Louvre, we were worried about damaging the floors, as well as any of the priceless paintings. After a couple of visits to Paris, we decided to build even more of the museum on the stages at Pinewood, which from my point of view was much more fun than shooting on location. My head scenic artist, James Gemmill, had to paint 150 paintings that required careful measurement at the real Louvre. We even had marble samples created to match the marbles around the skirtings and around the windows”.
He continued on saying: “Finally, floor boarding was constructed by my carpenter using wood veneers to approximate the floor in the Grand Galerie. They were then photographed and printed onto plastic sheets and laid on the floor”. Cameron explained in past interviews that all the paintings that were reproduced were digitally photographed, then blown up and painted over, sometimes projected on the wall and painted by Gemmill. “James painted them all like the original paintings. He knows all about glazes and crackle techniques. So the actual surface of the paintings looks pretty realistic”.
For full authenticity, James Gemmill (Head Scenic Artist) had to paint a real texture on the paintings reproductions that he had created: “I tried to pay attention to all the textures of the paintings. We can’t paint using the exact techniques, but the textures are important. That’s the difference between looking at a movie and seeing a painting on a wall and realizing that it’s a print rather than a painting. When the light is reflected off it, you can see the texture, so it’s important to get it right”.
The films production was fortunate enough to be one of very few granted access to film inside the museum’s Grande Galerie after hours. “We felt extremely privileged to be able to shoot there. It’s a magnificent touch for the film”, says Hanks. Co-star Audrey Tautou chimed in on filming inside the real museum: “I really liked that we were able to be in the Louvre at night and have all the paintings and the statues to ourselves. It was a truly stimulating and intoxicating experience”.
Director Ron Howard commented: “It’s a little bit like going into a cave and shining your light around and seeing the amazing formations. When you’re in the Louvre alone, you feel like you’re in a cavern with manmade treasures, art treasures. As a filmmaker it is humbling to stand in awe at the sheer volume of great work that resides within the walls of this one museum”.
The Lincoln Cathedral reportedly received $141,096 in exchange for the rights to film there. The cathedral’s bell, which strikes every hour, was silent for the first time since World War II during filming. Although it remained a closed set, protesters led by a 61 year-old woman named Sister Mary Michael demonstrated against the filming. Sister Mary Michael spent 12 hours praying on her knees outside the cathedral in protest against what she saw as the blasphemous use of a holy place to film a book containing heresy.
Much like the book, the film was banned in a number of countries, including: Syria, Belarus and Lebanon. In Jordan, authorities banned the film claiming it “tarnishes the memory of Christian and Islamic figures and contradicts the truth as written in the Bible and the Quran about Jesus”. In Iran, it was banned due to protests by Muslims and Christian minorities. Although “The Da Vinci Code” was passed by the Chinese censors, it was abruptly removed by authorities from public viewing after “a remarkable run in China, that grossed over $13 million”, because of protests by Chinese Catholic groups.
There was a huge outcry in many states by the Christian and the Muslim minorities to ban the film from screening in India for its perceived anti-Christian message. Possibly the largest reaction occurred in Kolkata, where a group of around 25 protesters “stormed” Crossword bookstore, pulled copies of the book from the racks and threw them to the ground. On the same day, a group of 50–60 protesters successfully made the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, decide to stop selling the book until the controversy sparked by the film’s release was resolved.
The film was allowed to be released in India, without any cuts but with an A (Adults Only) certification from the Central Board for Film Certification and a 15 second disclaimer added at the end stating that the film was purely a work of fiction. The Supreme Court of India also rejected petitions calling for a ban on the film, saying the plot which suggested Jesus was married was fictional and not offensive.
Over in the Philippines. The Philippine Alliance Against Pornography (PAAP) appealed to then Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to stop the showing of “The Da Vinci Code” in the Philippines. They branded the film “the most pornographic and blasphemous film in history” and also requested the help of Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and other religious groups to stop the showing of the film. Eventually, they decided to give “The Da Vinci Code” an R-18 rating (restricted to those 18 years of age and above) despite PAAP’s opposition to showing it.
Over in the United States, the film opened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Although there were protesters at several film theaters on opening weekend protesting about the themes of the film, citing it as blasphemy and claiming that it shamed both the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ himself.
Because the studio wasn’t certain that the movie would be a hit and in case other adaptations of Dan Brown’s novels would follow Ron Howard’s film, “The Da Vinci Code” was made as a stand-alone movie, rather than being the beginning of a franchise. All references to the fact that Robert Langdon had already solved another murder riddle (in the novel “Angels and Demons”, which precedes “The Da Vinci Code”) were purposefully left out of the script. When the movie was a huge financial success, production on “Angels & Demons” (released in 2009) was started shortly after the release of “The Da Vinci Code” (but re-written as a sequel, not a prequel). The third film in the trilogy “Inferno” was released in 2016, with all three films directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks.
FUN FACT: Near the end of the movie’s trailer, the word “SEEK” in the phrase “Seek the Truth” is highlighted. Then, when the cast names are shown, the letters T, H, S, E, C, D, E, and O are highlighted. If you rearrange the highlighted letters and add the word, you get the phrase “SEEK THE CODES”.
“The Da Vinci Code” opened with an estimated $31 million in box office sales on its opening day. During its opening weekend, moviegoers spent an estimated $77 million in the United States and $224 million worldwide. “The Da Vinci Code” became the best domestic opening for both Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. It took home a world wide gross of over $760 million. It also enjoyed the third biggest opening weekend for that year (after “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” and became the second biggest worldwide opening weekend ever, just behind “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”.
The film was released on DVD in 2006, in three different editions:
•A Target-exclusive three-disc release in both widescreen and fullscreen, along with a History Channel documentary.
•A two-disc release in both widescreen and fullscreen.
•A “special edition gift set” that includes a two-disc DVD set, working cryptex, and replica Robert Langdon journal.
In April 2009, a two-disc Blu Ray edition was released that featured the film in a extended edition that is 24 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The “special edition gift set” was also released with the two-disc extended edition Blu Ray set, featuring a working replica cryptex and replica Robert Langdon journal.
Ron Howard brings a tone and style, with an aura of mystery that is undeniable. Howard begins right at the start; having the Columbia Pictures logo fall into a shadow as Hans Zimmer’s music slowly but beautifully creeps in. Ron Howard’s film is beautifully framed and shot, as Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is pitch-perfect. “The Da Vinci Code” is an old school thriller that’s heavy on intellect and thought-provoking ideas, while keeping to the elements of a traditional thriller with chase sequences and shootouts.
It’s a first rate thriller that’s involving, intriguing, filled with genuinely intriguing moments and constantly on the edge of being suspenseful, ambitious and engrossing. I was completely sucked in and enthralled from my first viewing fifteen years ago and still easy to say that, “The Da Vinci Code” is the best crafted thriller in the last fifteen years.