Ron Howard's Rush opens today in major U.S. markets. Should you go see the film. Yeah, I think so. It's a fun telling of a good racing story. We also talked to Ron Howard at length about the movie. Here's some of Brett Berk's interview.
Ron! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
My pleasure. This is my first-ever interview for Road & Track. I've read the magazine but I never thought I'd be in it.
My editors loaded me up with a whole bunch of technical questions, so I hope you'll bear with me.
Well, I'm not a car guy. There was a moment when I could more or less tell you how to get to the moon. And I've forgotten that. And there was a moment that I knew more about Formula 1, and I forgot some of that. So I guess I'm that cram-for-the-test kind of student.
Racing movies have historically been a hard sell in the U.S., and F1 is hardly a popular sport here. How did you decide this was the movie that you wanted to make?
It was a great script written by a friend who I've collaborated with before, Peter Morgan, who wroteFrost/Nixon, which I directed, but also The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. And he's just a smart, entertaining writer who really gets at the truth and the essence of characters in surprising and interesting ways. When I read the script, the story had complex, dynamic, and engrossing characters. It has the Seventies, a particularly cool and transformative era. And the world of F1, which is visceral and cinematic and dangerous, and yet all fresh territory for movie audiences. I thought that it could stand on its own as really smart, fresh entertainment.
How much did you have to learn about Seventies F1 cars to film them realistically?
Alastair Caldwell, the chief engineer and manager for the McLaren team during that '76 season, was our tech advisor. And we also had [Niki] Lauda as a consultant. So they vetted the script and offered me guidance. And we also had around us, all the time, the guys who organize the historic Formula 1 races. Two things came out of that: Number one, we had a running panel of experts who knew that season, and those cars, inside and out. I asked them to be rigorous, and they were. But what was fantastic—and this is something that I didn't expect, and they're the unsung heroes of the authentic racing that I'm proud we were able to get on screen—were the historic owners. They own these cars, and they race them. And these cars are worth a hell of a lot of money. We started to slowly put feelers out, me and a small team, and shot the appropriate cars from the '76 season at the historic race at Nürburgring. And I got to know them. Slowly but surely, word got out there that we were interested—and we didn't pay a lot of money, we paid pretty much just expenses.
But these owners either showed up with the cars themselves or sent their teams and their cars. And allowed us, not to put them in stunt situations, but to start them and race them. The catch was they wouldn't let our stunt drivers near their cars. Only they or their drivers could race them. And I understood that, but I thought,This is going to be bad. Because you have someone who's well-off enough to own a car worth a couple million bucks, and now I'm going to ask them to show up at five thirty in the morning, get into wardrobe, sit in the car while we artificially rain on them, and then do it over two or three times because the camera screwed up or something didn't go right.
These guys, who probably ought to be at a board meeting, they're probably going to say, "Thanks, Ron, I really enjoyed being here," and then take their cars and go home. But not once did that happen. They respected what we were trying to do, wanted to help with the authenticity, and made a huge difference. And once again, you had people around the movie who could raise the bullshit flag if they noticed something. That was invited. We wanted their scrutiny.
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk / Universal
What kind of drive training did the lead actors, Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, undergo?
They drove the trainers, and then they drove the replicas that we put together, which also used the frames of the trainer models. And their main thing was to understand what it was like, so that when we were doing static, close-up, green-screen shots, their behavior would be accurate—just like the astronauts in Apollo 13; I called them the act-ronauts. Once they'd been weightless, then they knew how to act in close-ups when they weren't weightless. And [Brühl and Hemsworth] needed to be able to drive in and drive out of the pits and such, because those are the shots where they'd flip the visor up, we'd see it was them, they'd flip the visor down and go, all in one shot. They had to be able to control the car and drive around other people.
We mounted cameras on the cars and had them do laps so that you'd feel the driving on their faces. But we constantly mixed the two elements together. That's just a device—a technique. We used every cinematic trick in the book, every modern tool at our disposal, to make you feel like this was a movie shot in the Seventies, just a captured story.
I think you succeeded, especially in the driving scenes. They're very visceral.
Thanks! We've been getting wonderful feedback from the F1 world—we've done some screenings for the folks from Ferrari and McLaren and elsewhere. People who know. And the feedback has been gratifying. And while I don't think of it first and foremost as a racing movie—I think that's just the world that these very entertaining and engrossing characters inhabit—I certainly want the people who know the sport to feel it was respected and that we captured the feeling and flavor of it. And I wanted to put people who don't have any knowledge of it into the cockpit and awaken them to an amazing sport. It's fascinating, particularly the way it's covered on TV now, when you start to understand the strategy and what's at stake. It's still very dangerous. Don't let anybody tell you it's not. But that was a period when the cars had outstripped the tracks, and the drivers were not going to back off. There were multiple fatalities per year.
I was talking to Alastair Caldwell about that, wondering why they didn't put in a rule and calibrate the cars accordingly [to reduce the danger]. And he said, "Well, who's going to vote for that?" These are guys who want to go fast and win, and it's just as dangerous 5 mph slower. Ultimately, it had to become enough of a business that uniform track regulations came into play and were enforced. That also became the beginning of the end of people like me being able to go out and film a story around the sport, the way John Frankenheimer did so brilliantly with Grand Prix. You couldn't make an [F1] drama today the way Frankenheimer was able to then, because the environment is too restrictive. And understandably so. I mean, I wouldn't let you come on my set and make a movie about making a movie, either. It's too distracting.
That's just a taste. For the rest of Brett's wide-ranging conversation with Ron Howard, head to R&T and read the whole thing.