Ron Howard talks F1

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.

48 thoughts on “Ron Howard talks F1

  1. Joe your blog is great. I can’t wait to see this movie. I just hope the sound track is by the band Rush! Their record A Farewell To Kings came out in ’76 and it is all kinds of awesome.

  2. Daniel as Lauda I think is excellent casting, but Chris as Hunt, I’m going to have to watch it then decide as it was his voice and body language of a playboy I loved about him

  3. Hopefully this movie won’t end up being a megajunk racing movie as Stallone’s Driven. With Ron Howard one doesn’t really know.
    Thank you for your blog Mr. Saward,

  4. Are you allowed to publish your thoughts on the film Joe? Which logically leads to the question of “are you going to publish your thoughts on the film Joe?”

    1. I am not allowed to publish my thoughts on the film for a few more days. I signed an NDA agreeing not to do it.

  5. thank you for publishing this interview JS. Bravo!
    when the release of the film adaptation of what was an epic, genuine and authentic season which is based in a time before the 1982 FOCA takeover of Formula One alias Formula One Management et al …, …, …, …,
    it will no doubt launch the start of a focused media campaign to build buzzz about the round in Austin before the final exciting finale in Brazil in what has become the Circus of Speed for over twenty years now.
    perhaps by then…, not only will the 2014 F1 calendar proposed by the promoter to the FIA be announced…, the legal issues will also be clear in my opinion sir.
    be well and take courage JS.

  6. Great article. Loved the way it is written, it draws you into the story and for a moment is like if you are sitting in front of Mr. Howard.
    Thanks

  7. Thank you Joe, very interesting interview. There is another story around detailing the level of commitment that Ron Howard had to invest to find investors, to get the cars and equipment, get the Distributors lined up, etc.; exhibiting the same kind of hunger, desire, and determination to succeed that is necessary to get to the top in any specific discipline of motorsports…very impressive demonstration of what it takes ‘to win’..! Thanks again Joe…!

  8. I sincerely hope Ron Howard has decided whether he’s making a film about two great rivals set against a motor racing backdrop or a motor racing film featuring a specific rivalry set in a “moment in time”. I fear if he’s tried to do both it will fall between two stools and fail to win plaudits from either F1 fans or cinemagoers who no little or nothing about F1.

    I’m old enough to have seen Frankenheimer’s film, Grand Prix at the cinema and while we were blown away by the cinematic techniques and the excellent grand prix filming, the storyline was weak and I well remember the somewhat po-faced expressions on the faces of the real grand prix drivers who were used as extras in some of the pit and paddock sequences.

    Mcqueens Le Mans was a brave effort, but really only a dramatisation of the race and Senna was interesting, but a collection of newsreel footage with some interviews.

    I really do hope he’s pulled it off.

    1. A little off the subject, but I thought one of the coolest things about ‘Senna’ was how raw the car-mounted footage was. Crude compared to modern broadcast technology, but I loved how the images shook. With the volume way up the racing footage was a truly visceral experience. One of the many things to look forward to with Rush is what the in-car footage looks like, given the Big-Movie budget and all the cinematographic (?) bells and whistles that brings with it.

      As far as Ron Howard is concerned, I think the guy is a talented, insightful film-maker with a pretty strong track record. I’ve got nothing but optimism about Rush.

        1. from the nyt article they quoted the budget as $30 Million which would be considerable less than the Ferrari budget. Considering many similar films would likely cost 3-8 times as much

            1. Joe, I believe the original question was regarding not the quality of the film, but the budget. So it seems like it wasn’t at the highest possible budget but one which was more modest, but seemingly produced a product that belied the budget.

              No, I’m not in the fortunate position as you were.

  9. As a space enthusiast I find his Apollo 13 film just about strikes the right balance – there’s two or three teeth-grinding moments of Hollywood-ness, and he inevitably overplays the human tensions between the crew, but if that’s the dramatic price of getting a budget to make the film in the first place it’s worth it to my mind.

    The other great thing about Apollo 13 was that it led to Tom Hanks producing the ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ miniseries along the same lines, but covering the whole moonshot programme. We can dream that a similar miniseries covering the whole of 1970s F1 will follow from this film…

  10. Cheers for posting Joe; can’t wait to see it. I remember the 1976 WDC battle so clearly – one of my earliest F1 memories. I hope I enjoy Rush as much as I did Senna.

  11. Must admit I didn’t enjoy “Senna” much at all, but then I never really liked or admired Senna the ego either. RUSH would seem to be about 2 people who I do have massive respect for, and by a director whose films I have enjoyed, so expecting a good few enjoyable and thought-provoking hours 🙂
    And if this spawns more F1 Movies, can only be a good thing.

  12. Rush is being previewed and Ron Howard and Peter Morgan interviewed on Andrew Marr’s prog at the moment!

    For those with F1 withdrawal symptoms, there is MotoGP today and it’s at Silverstone. BBC2 12:00. Apparently they go faster than F1 in places. And those tyres “grip impossible”.

        1. What about it? It was not really an F1 film. It was about dying – with F1 as a backdrop. It came out in 1977. Thirty-six years ago..,

  13. The film’s trailer shows that the detail will be immaculate. I for one will be going along to the cinema again after a break of nearly twenty years

    1. Enjoying the film is all about the attitude you approach it with. If you go in looking for barriers that are the wrong colourful or the attitude “that never happened” then you will not enjoy it as much as if you go to watch like someone from Boise, Idaho, who knows nothing about F1 and is simply going to the flicks…

  14. I fly from the ‘former airfield’ Blackbushe. The set was built on an unused runway 01/19, during filming you could sit in the stands as a spectator, amongst the cardboard spectators.

  15. We saw Ron in a restaurant in Soho in April. Just sat at the bar like a normal guy. Wish i’d asked him for some premiere tickets and thanked him for making a film about my favourite sport 😉

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