In a few days from now Oscar-winning director Ron Howard will release Rush, the movie he has made about the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship showdown between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. The F1 world is looking forward to seeing the film. I spoke to Ron in Monaco (with one or two other journalists) and this is what he had to say. The story was published in GP+ in June, so apologies to those who already subscribe. If you don’t, you might consider it, as it is an F1 magazine like no other. For more info, go to www.grandprixplus.com.
Anyway, here’s the story.
Ron Howard is one of those people that everyone who was a kid in the 1970s knows. He was Richie Cunningham in the sitcom “Happy Days”, the geeky foil to The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler. For teenagers in 1974, The Fonz was the epitome of cool.
Howard was by then already a seasoned professional. Acting was in the family. His mother and father were both TV actors and Howard appeared in his first film at the age of 18 months. At six he became one of the stars of The Andy Griffith Show, a role that would take him into his early teens. When he had time he appeared in movies, notably American Graffiti, George Lucas’s coming of age film about growing up in America in the 1950s, and The Shootist in 1976, with John Wayne.
Howard quickly caught the movie bug, inspired by films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the Heat of the Night. He decided that he wanted to be a director and in 1972 attended USC film school. It would take him five years to get his break, but in 1977 – at the age of 23 – Howard talked his way into a deal with Roger Corman that allowed him to direct a film called Grand Theft Auto (no relation to the video game series of the same name). This was a cheerful romp, of which the New York Times said: “No-one who ever wanted to see a Rolls Royce in a demolition derby is going to walk away from this movie disappointed”.
Howard called it “a love story with cars” and “a comedy… with car crashes”.
It made $15 million at the box office…
Ron quit Happy Days in 1980 to concentrate on directing and gradually gained success and recognition, beginning with Night Shift in 1982, Michael Keaton’s first starring role and then Splash in 1984 with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. This made $70 million and gave Howard his first Academy Award nomination and a year later Cocoon won two Oscars. His pictures are liked by audiences and sell well with Apollo 13, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Beautiful Mind and the Da Vinci Code all making hundreds of millions of dollars. A Beautiful Mind won four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Other movies, such as Backdraft, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon have all made money as well.
He is an A-List director of big budget Hollywood films and the fact that he has chosen to make a movie about Formula 1 can only be seen as a bonus for the sport. The script was written by Peter Morgan, who has enjoyed much success in recent years with scripts for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland in 2006, The Other Boleyn Girl and Frost/Nixon in 2008, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 2011 and Skyfall in 2012. It seems that he got the idea of the battle for the World Championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt in 1976 after watching an Austrian documentary about people fighting back from serious injury, which featured his mother-in-law Princess Therese von Schwarzenberg and Lauda.
“Because we had done Frost/Nixon together, I was having breakfast with him in Los Angeles one day,” Howard says. “I asked him what he was working on and he told me a couple of things and then said: ‘On my own I’m doing this story about these Formula 1 drivers’. He told me the story and it was fascinating. He said he did not think I would be interested because it is so European. I said: ‘I just love sports and I love those characters’. He let me read the script and get involved.”
Having a film director with no knowledge of the subject was an interesting approach, but Howard took as much advice as he could get.
“We had Lauda,” he explains. “And there were other drivers who read the script and Alastair Caldwell [McLaren’s Team Manager in 1976] was a technical advisor and there were a couple of journalists to give us that perspective as well.
“One thing that happened to me years ago was that I tried to tackle a movie that was about journalism. It was called The Paper and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” Howard says. “I was doing a lot of research and analysing it and sweating over all of the details. I was frustrated because I knew we were having to condense and simplify things more than I wanted to do to make it work on screen.
“I watched a couple of movies about Hollywood and I realised that it was not very authentic because every time you take something and collapse it, you simply cannot get the rhythms and all the detail. In movies about Hollywood everyone is swarming around the actor just before a take: the director, the make-up person, the clapper board. Everyone is talking. It just doesn’t function like that! The actor would break down in tears or want to punch someone on the nose.
“I realised that even film-makers have to make concessions to make a movie work and I have relaxed a bit. The thing about Rush, as with Apollo 13 and the boxing movie Cinderella Man, was that I really did want it to be as honest as it could be.”
There are some fans who worry that Hollywood will take F1 history and mangle it into something saleable and rumours that the relationship between Lauda and Hunt was turned into more of a feud than it actually was.
“We definitely focused it and intensified
it a little bit,” Howard admits. “But there are definitely moments and certain reactions in interviews during the heat of the 1976 season that focussed the rivalty of both guys, but in collapsing it down and pushing it to the centre, we certainly intensified it.”
Howard admits that the characters involved are fascinating.
“Any time you have people who are trying to achieve at the highest level and to break through whatever the ceiling is that takes them from being sort of superior to genius level, I think the characters are going to be unusual. With Lauda and Hunt the great thing was that you have two very different personalities, not only butting heads, but also dealing with who they are. It kind of gets back to that question: what are you willing to risk on a emotional level, and physically. How far are you willing to go as the stakes get more and more serious? That is what happens. You get up into that altitude and it is tougher and tougher.
“That period of the 1970s was when the movie business was changing. It was no longer the studio system telling Jack Nicholson how to behave. There was a kind of a rock and roll mentality that was also finding its way into other areas: Hollywood, sports and so on. It was the leftover rebellion of the 1960s, blended with people who were incredibly competitive. They were far from being hippies and they had that fire to compete. It was a kind of unique moment and I think that today corporations, brands, the media and the money have created different kinds of pressure that naturally causes young athletes, artists and musicians to realize that they are in the middle of a great business enterprise. I don’t think in the 1970s anybody was looking at what they did that way. They were more trying to express themselves and find themselves – on their own terms. That is one of things I like about this story. Ultimately neither of these guys compromised. They didn’t play by anyone else’s rules and they both achieved greatness in their own ways. That is an interesting character study.”
The lead roles are played by Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda. It was shot on location in Britain, Germany and Austria, notably at the Nürburgring, but also at Snetterton, Cadwell Park and Brands Hatch with
a lot of work also being done on a specially- constructed racing set at the former airfield of Blackbushe in Hampshire.
“Peter knows Niki,” Howard says, “and he suggested Daniel. Peter knew Daniel better than I did, but when he came in, I could see right away that he had that the kind of range and intelligence and could create the character. Chris I had met, but all that I had seen him in was Thor. I talked to Kenneth Brannagh and he said that Chris had a lot of range and ability. I certainly have a lot of respect for Brannagh, but I still needed Chris to audition. He was busy doing The Avengers so he had to do his own audition, between set-ups. He won the role. He just had a kind of relaxed sexuality and charm and seemed to understand the character. Chris is a surfer and while James was not a surfer he had almost a Californian surfer feel, and I think Chris knew how to relax into that feel.
“He and Daniel both really dedicated themselves, which allows you to maximise every moment that they have during the work day to be the best that they could be, and not leave anything on the table.
“They had to learn how to drive the cars to some extent in order to do some close up work that we needed to do at speed. It was very important that they could control the cars so that they could come into the pits and put the helmet up so we could see it was them, or lower the visor and take off.
Niki Lauda was there to help but Howard says that he was not too intrusive.
“Peter won’t do anything if the subjects have any control,” he explains. “He talks to them and has a running dialogue with them, but makes no promises other than saying that there will be things about this that they are going to hate. That is his only promise. Lauda felt good about it and was very supportive when he saw it. Daniel had him on speed dial and whenever he needed any detail he could call Lauda, even when we were shooting for questions like whether the gloves went on first or whether it was the helmet or how Niki would phrase a line.
“Chris could not meet James but there were a lot of interviews to watch and so it was a little different. That is a little bit different, even if they are joking around because they still have a camera on them. He also had Alistair Caldwell and others who knew James to talk to and he did everything he could do to get it right. Daniel definitely had a huge advantage being able to spend time with Lauda.”
At the end of the day, does Howard think that Hollywood will embrace Formula 1?
Hollywood is curious about F1,” he says. “The question is can a theatrical movie, an entertainment rather than a documentary, prove itself to be popular beyond the hard core base fans. In Europe it is a good investment, but Hollywood is curious to see whether it will work in the US.”
The movie did not get made with funding from the studios.
“It was made independently,” says Howard. “Universal loves it and so they are going to release it in the US, but they did not make it. It was made by individual investors, raising money internationally and everyone worked on the movie as a labour of love. It was not like a studio movie at all. We had Academy Award winning people behind the cameras in almost every department: music, make-up, editing and they were all doing it because they loved the story and the possibility of recreating this world.
“It is a drama that aspires to have broader appeal and I am pleasantly surprised how broad that appeal seems to be now that we are showing it to audiences,” Howard says. “Women rate the movie as highly as men and people who know a lot about the sport are excited by what we were able to capture with it. People who don’t know much about it are sort of realising what they missed and finding it really compelling and dramatic. As a storyteller that is gratifying.”
Howard says that it has given him a new appreciation of the sport.
“I really appeciate it, in a way I never did before. I think it is to do with the combination of high-tech cutting edge engineering, combined with the drama of the competition. That combination is the thing than non-F1 fans probably don’t know what to make of, but when you know just a little bit the races become so much more fascinating to watch.
The movie Rush opens in September.