At first glance, director/producer and former child star Ron Howard may not seem like the obvious choice to make a pedal-to-the-metal, testosterone-fueled movie about the exotic world of Formula 1 racing, but since making his directorial debut in 1977 with Grand Theft Auto, he has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most successful and versatile helmers, making films about boxers (Cinderella Man), astronauts (Apollo 13), mermaids (Splash), priests (The Da Vinci Code) and mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind, which won him the Oscar® for Best Director).
So, maybe it was just a matter of time before he turned his attention to the high-octane, high-stakes, turbocharged arena of Formula 1 racing. His new film, the Universal release Rush, tells the real-life story of the 1976 Formula 1 season and the dramatic rivalry between British driver James Hunt (played by Liam Hemsworth) and reigning world-champion Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), which plays out against an international backdrop of glamour, sex and speed.
Howard readily admits that making a movie about Formula 1 racing was definitely outside his comfort zone. "It was brand-new territory, and I’m not a racing fan—but that was the good news," he notes. "And I knew a little bit more about it than I knew about going to the moon for Apollo 13, and part of the excitement for me is to see where my curiosity leads me, but always keeping focused on the story and the characters, as that’s what interests me most. Ultimately, if you can draw the audience into any world or situation through the characters, and then let them understand something of what it’s like to be there, then you have a chance to create a really exciting movie experience."
The director also saw the project as a chance to apply his deep well of knowledge and experience with regard to the latest film technology. "So much has changed in terms of scaled-down digital gear and what’s now possible, so it seemed like a great opportunity to use all that in this very dynamic, cinematic world," he explains. "I felt I could treat this in a very fresh, new way that audiences haven’t seen before. And this story was a rare combination of character and cool, visceral intensity that’s both entertaining and emotional."
According to Howard, the film (with a reported budget of just $38 million) was "a labor of love for everyone involved. Everyone took a pay cut to do it, and yet we had so many top people and Oscar® winners," including Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, Danny Boyle’s go-to cinematographer, who won the Oscar® for Slumdog Millionaire, and editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, who won for Apollo 13. "Ultimately, there wasn’t much above-the-line expense," he adds, "so we shot the dialogue scenes like an indie. We prepared well, moved fast, and Anthony used all his experience to get a great look and be super-efficient."
Rush marks the first time Howard has worked with Dod Mantle. "I’ve been a huge fan for a long time, and as this was a UK/German co-production, I couldn’t bring in my usual DP, Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC," he says. "So, when I found he was available for this, I jumped at the chance to work with him. His aesthetic was what I wanted for this, which was observational, psychologically driven and visually unexpected. And I wanted to be pushed and to explore in that way."
The director was also determined to avoid a "faux-documentary" or traditional sports film look. "I wanted some spontaneity, and I was very inspired by the look and feel of some music documentaries, particularly Gimme Shelter," he adds. "I loved the way that captured the whole circus surrounding the Stones, but also gave you some insight into the characters. And, I loved the way it used cameras stuck in weird places, and Anthony and I discussed that approach and look a lot."