Howard says he never intended to become a director, but that changed when he discovered author Larry Brown's fictional character, the frustrated writer and failed family man Leon Barlow. "I had something happen to me that happens to a lot of people -- you make the movie in your head," Howard says. "You know when people say, 'The book was better'? It's because the movie in their head was better."
Howard was so taken with the character that he began working on a screenplay -- not knowing whether he would make it. "I was more taken with the process," he says. "The storytelling in particular [was such a] good architecture to examine." And he liked that Barlow had several questions hanging over his besotted head. "People with lots of answers," he says, "I try to stay away from."
Howard knew that Winger's participation might draw disproportionate attention, given her seven-year hiatus from movies. "It's something we were concerned about," he says. But, he adds, "people were happy to see her again and wondered where she'd been."
In addition to Winger and their kids, Howard populated the set with people he had already worked with, fostering a safe place to create the dysfunctional Barlow family. Other contributors brought formidable résumés, such as production designer Patricia Norris, who has worked with David Lynch. (And Howard is so enthusiastic about the movie's score -- a mix of Fat Possum artists, two new Tom Waits songs and a collaboration between the Kronos Quartet and Tom Verlaine -- that he called back after his Pitch interview just to say that the soundtrack was climbing Billboard's blues chart.)
Howard seems uncertain about whether he'll direct again. "I grew up in the Midwest, where people had jobs, not careers. And I've found myself in places because I was trying to track something down. [But] I loved the experience -- how active the mind is when it's being faced with a number of decisions being hurled at you that you have to deal with. My life has been spent chasing questions. Life is motion -- living is days between stations, not arriving."