F1-SD sits down with Oscar-winning director Ron Howard to discuss his new movie RUSH: A colourful and compelling true story of contrasting grand prix rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda. It opens in UK theatres on September 13.
From the outset, how did you go about gearing Rush for a general audience as opposed to petrolheads?
Well, it’s not a documentary, it’s a drama that aspires to have broad appeal and I’m pleasantly surprised at how broad the appeal seems to be. In test audiences, women rate the movie as highly as men. People who know a lot about the sport are excited about what we were able to capture, and people who don’t follow the sport are realizing what they’ve missed all these years. They find it really compelling and dramatic, and as a storyteller that’s gratifying.
You’ve said you weren’t an F1 fan before taking on this movie. Do you count yourself as one now?
I appreciate the sport in a way I never did before. I think it’s the combination of cutting-edge engineering and the drama and competition. Non F1 fans probably don’t know what to make of that, but once you learn to appreciate it the racing becomes much more fascinating.
And presumably having larger-than-life characters helps…
Any time you’re trying to achieve the highest level I think the characters are going to be unusual. The great thing with Hunt and Lauda is you have two very different personalities, not only butting heads but also dealing with who they were. It comes down to what you’re willing to risk, how far you’ll go when you get to that high altitude and its thin air.
How did this project come about?
Peter Morgan, the writer, had worked with me on Frost/Nixon. We were having breakfast together in Los Angeles and I asked him what he was working on. He told me a couple of things, including this story about Formula One drivers. He didn’t think I’d be interested because it’s so European. I told him how much I loved the characters, and sport in general, so eventually he showed me the script. It was a gift really because it was so far outside what people thought I would do, but it was very much something I wanted to do.
How much advice did you take from people who have worked in F1?
As much as I could get. Niki Lauda and some other drivers who read the script gave us some help. Alistair Caldwell [Hunt’s McLaren team manager in 1976] was a technical consultant, and there were a couple of journalists too who were around the movie to get that perspective. Years ago, I did a movie called The Paper [about the tabloid newspaper business] and I was doing a lot of research and sweating out all the details. It was frustrating because we had to simplify things more than I wanted to, in order to make it work on screen. Then I watched a couple of movies about Hollywood and realized they’re not very authentic either, because any time you take something and collapse it you simply can’t get all the rhythms and detail. They have these movies about Hollywood and everyone is swarming around the person with the slate, everyone’s talking at the last second, the make-up person, the hair and the director are all in there at the same time; that never happens, you can’t do that. So filmmakers have to make some concessions to make things work as a complete movie, and I’ve relaxed a little bit on this. With Rush, like with Apollo 13 or the boxing in Cinderella Man, I really wanted to make it as visceral and immediate as possible.
How did the casting of the two leads come about?
Peter Morgan knew Niki and was the one who suggested Daniel [Brühl]. Peter is half English half German, and knows a lot about German cinema as well. He knew Daniel better than I did, I only knew him from Inglorious Basterds. I could see, though, he had the range and intelligence. I had met Chris [Hemsworth], but all I’d seen him in was Thor. So I talked to Kenneth Branagh, whose opinion I respect, and he attested that Chris has a lot of range and ability. I still needed Chris to audition; he was making The Avengers, so he had to do it from his trailer. He had a relaxed sexuality and charm, and seemed to understand [the character]. Chris is a surfer, and although James wasn’t he did have a kind of California surfer feel. Chris knew how to relax into that intuitively.
In Hemsworth, you’ve got an Aussie actor playing a very British hero. Did that throw up any challenges?
There’s an Australian work ethic, and a way of navigating the world. I see it in Russell [Crowe], I see it in Nicole [Kidman], and Chris has that same commitment to do things with integrity. It was very hectic on this movie, with lots of challenging dramatic material for him to cover. It was a challenge every day, but he and Daniel really dedicated themselves so we could maximize every moment.
Did they have to learn how to drive an F1 car?
Yes, so they could do some close up work at speed. And it was very important that they could get command of the car, so they could come into the pits and flick their helmet up and we could see it was them.
This was a dangerous era, as the story describes. Were there any safety concerns during the filming of the racing scenes?
We had a couple of days of free racing. It was supposed to be controlled, but naturally people started racing and we had some spin-outs. It was our last day of filming, and up to then we had been so safe and precise. Once we wrapped I thought I’m glad we’re done, because we’d become so confident about safety you forget that it just takes just a split second and the car could go anywhere. We had no injuries, though. It felt a bit like when we wrapped Backdraft. A few people got their eyebrows singed but no one was hurt, and I felt the same sense of relief after we had finished. And also a great sense of exhilaration too, because we got so much intense racing footage on camera. I thought we’d have to rely more on camera tricks and CGI than we did.
Were you tempted to have a go in a car yourself?
I did some training at the beginning and had some spin-outs, it was pretty wild! You quickly learn to respect those cars because they demand 100 percent concentration, even on the straights.
Was Lauda standing over your shoulder at all?
He wasn’t standing over our shoulders. Peter won’t do anything if the subjects have any control. He talks to them and has a running dialogue, but makes no promises other than ‘there will probably be things about this you’ll hate’. That’s his only promise!
And how does Niki feel about the finished product?
Lauda was very supportive of it when he saw it. Daniel had him on speed-dial. So when he needed a detail he’d call Lauda. It could be something as simple as ‘is it the helmet on first and then the gloves?’ or phasing a line.
Without Hunt to consult, how did Chris prepare for the role?
There are a lot of interviews. It’s a little different because even when people are joking around there’s still a camera on them [and so it’s not completely natural], but he had Alistair Caldwell to talk to and others. Daniel definitely had a huge advantage in being able to talk to Lauda.
Tell us about the casting of the other main driver in the story, Clay Regazzoni…
I’d worked with Pierfrancesco [Favino] on Angels & Demons and I asked if he wanted to play Clay kind of as a favour, as they were close enough [in looks]. He brought a lot to the character, he is so interesting to watch; humour, drama when you least expect it. I was very lucky to get him.
F1 has changed so much since the 1970s. Is it the same in some ways for the movie business? Is there now more order, less fun, less risk taking in a way?
It has a lot to do with that period, in the late 60s and 70s. When I was in Happy Days the business was already changing. The studio system could no longer tell someone like Jack Nicholson how to behave. They wouldn’t dare. There was a rock n’ roll mentality that was finding its way into other areas; movies, TV, sports. It was the leftover rebellion of the 1960s, blended with people who were incredibly competitive. They were far from being hippies – hippies don’t want to beat each other. There was this fire to compete, so it was a unique moment. Since then, I think corporations, brands, the media, the money and possibilities have created another kind of pressure today that naturally causes young artists, athletes and musicians to realize they’re at the centre of a business. They are the CEOs of their lives. In the 1970s I don’t think anyone was looking at what they did in that way. They were looking more to define themselves on their own terms. That’s one of the things I like about this story [Rush], that ultimately neither of these guys compromised, they didn’t play by anyone else’s rules and they achieved greatness in their own way.
Well I think it’s curious about F1, but the other films you mentioned are documentaries. They did very well for documentaries, but a documentary could do well reaching only F1 fans. The question is, can a theatrical movie prove itself beyond hardcore fans? In Europe it’s a good investment, but whether it works in the US is what Hollywood is going to be interested in. This movie was made independently. Universal loved it and so they’re going to release it in the US, but they weren’t the ones who decided to make it. The money was raised privately and everyone who worked on the movie did so as a labour of love. It’s not a studio movie at all, which gave it an air of excitement. We have Academy Award winning people in almost every department, whether it’s cinematography, editorial, Hans Zimmer with the music, the make-up artists. They did it because they loved the possibilities of this world, and wanted to recreate it.