RUSH – Behind the scenes with director Ron Howard

We talk to Ron Howard about his latest film

Director Ron Howard first heard about the rivalry between British and Austrian Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda while catching up with writing partner Peter Morgan. Having enjoyed a successful collaboration as the director and writer of 2008’s ‘Frost/Nixon’, which was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, it was no surprise that the two men might want to work together again. Below the cult director tells how the rivalry between the two iconic Formula 1 drivers became the backdrop of his new movie ‘Rush’.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Rush?
Ron Howard: If you don’t know anything about the sport, or care, that you’re engrossed by the human-interest story; the drama of what they went through and what the people who loved them went through; and what the world was like. I hope that engrosses and entertains on its own. If you do care about the sport and understand it, I want you to feel all of those dramatic qualities plus appreciate that the sport was respected and that that season was reflected in as authentic a way as possible.

Were you aware of the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s?
RH: No, I wasn’t. Later, I remember having seen pictures of the crash in magazines and newspapers. I didn’t know James Hunt at all, and probably didn’t know the name Lauda. But it’s the thing that Peter Morgan writes so well. It’s unlikely opponents, who he knows how to explore for both their entertainment value and their emotional complexity. And whether he does it consciously or unconsciously, he also knows how to build a bridge between the audience and those characters and that’s something that I also like to do. As I said earlier, I thought you could put the audience in the seat of the car and also in the mind of each of these guys. For all those reasons, I felt like the movie had a chance to be very fresh.

Did you like the idea of setting a film in the 1970s too? It was a formative decade for you.
RH: It’s a sexy period in one of the sexiest decades that’s been, that post-‘60s revolution period and pre-‘80s AIDS era when the brakes went on the sexual revolution. It was a period when there was a lot going on. They were all repercussions of the ‘60s but those newfound freedoms were sort of defining themselves. The broadening of media was changing what we understood about our celebrities and our champions and ourselves. It was a fascinating, freewheeling time and there were a lot of personal train wrecks that went on during that period, because the rules were getting changed and the boundaries were stretching and people were venturing out into slightly unknown territory. I thought this was a chance to not necessarily put it front and centre but strongly recall that. That’s something that I did remember. You know, Happy Days was becoming one of the first American comedy shows to have a global reach and it was definitely a wilder, sexier time. I thought it was interesting to evoke that.

Casting the roles of these talented but polar opposite F1 champions must have been exciting. Can you tell us how Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl came to their parts?
RH: I knew Daniel’s work from a couple of movies and liked him. But when I met him and saw pictures of Lauda and Daniel and we talked about what we could do with Niki’s buck-teeth and things like that to get a physical approximation, and what Daniel was willing to try to transform, I thought he was a great choice. Chris won the role. We were considering a number of people and he sent in an audition tape from his trailer when he was doing ‘Avengers Assemble’ that was uncanny. There was something about the way Chris carried himself and his body language and even what he was able to do preparing his own audition just based on watching an interview with James that was really exciting. He’s still so new to all of us that the only defining roles we’ve had are ‘Thor’. He was sort of discovered by J.J. Abrams, who had him in Star Trek, and at that time, everybody said, “Who was that guy in the opening sequence playing Kirk’s dad?” When I loved Chris’ audition, I called up Kenneth Branagh and Kenneth said, “He’s a bright guy with a real appetite to excel, and he’s got a tremendous work ethic. I think the sky’s the limit.”

Were Chris and Daniel keen to do their own driving?
RH: Of course. They weren’t going to do anything dangerous but the thing that they had to be able to do was to drive into the pits quick and stop. I wanted steadicam shots that would press in so they’d flip up the visor and you’d see that it was them. And then I wanted them to be able to put the visor down and go. Now, that’s dangerous because you’ve got a lot of people around. So not only do they have to have command of the car but they really have to be comfortable in it. We did a lot of that, and we did some green screen where we put them into a mock-up and put them into the tracks at the right places and things like that. But there were also laps that we did and trips down the straightaway with crowd behind them and things where they were going fast and we had the cameras on them so that we could recognise it was them in the race. We used a lot of that stuff in the film. So they did a fair amount of driving. They just didn’t do near-misses and things like that.

You use archive footage from races of the time mixed in with material shot by you and your crew to create the Rush formula. Can you explain your approach?
RH: We do everything. It’s archival; it’s CGI; it’s in-camera; it’s real cars; it’s replica cars. Sometimes we do the Forrest Gump trick where we shoot our cars against green screen and put them into a piece of historic footage, so we get all the background but with the details that we need. It’s absolutely cuttingedge cinematic execution, all aimed at trying to make the audience feel like somehow this was all shot in 1976.

And Lauda’s famous crash at Nurburgring is meticulously recreated. Is there real footage from that day in your final cut?
RH: We really replicated that. There is some 8mm footage [taken at the time] and we use that in the movie elsewhere. But we edited with it too and we storyboarded around it and built it out and really designed that sequence as meticulously as anything that I’ve ever done to try to make you kind of understand what happened and also what it might have felt like to be in there.

You don’t flinch either from showing what Lauda had to go through in order to get himself back on the track so he could remain in the hunt for the ‘76 F1 championship.
RH: That was a depressing few days when we shot those scenes in the hospital because the prosthetic make-up was entirely accurate and chilling to look at. We shot in a real hospital and real hospitals are always creepy. This was a fun movie to be around for everyone; those were the only three days where I think everybody felt pretty grim.

RUSH is at cinemas from September 12th