Ron Howard on Rush, Formula 1 and more

Ahead of the release of his superb racing drama, we interview director Ron Howard about making Rush, Formula 1, and much more...

Ron Howard has built a four-decades-plus career in Hollywood on constantly taking surprising twists and turns. From a start as a child actor, to his role as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, to a directorial career that has brought him Academy Award success – not to mention his dual role as producer and narrator on the cult sitcom Arrested Development – perhaps his most defining characteristic has been (with the possible exception of the two Da Vinci Codes) never to make the same kind of project twice.

His latest step into the unknown comes with Rush, a biopic about the rivalry between 1970s Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. As we sat down with the director for a roundtable chat about the new film, he had learned only minutes earlier of the sad passing away of Sir David Frost, who had been the subject of one of his most acclaimed works, 2008’s Frost/Nixon. Before starting to talk about Rush, he had a few words of rumination to offer on the broadcasting legend.

“I really enjoyed getting to know him on Frost/Nixon, it was a pleasure. He was bright, funny, witty, all of those things – but I really admired and respected his entrepreneurial side. He was a great personality, he was fast and funny and smart, but he had a kind of audacity, or courage, that I really admired, both in terms of the way he tackled his work, but also in the way he was a pioneer as a producer.”

Like Frost/Nixon, Rush tells the story of two extremely strong and very different personalities at loggerheads. Howard was not an F1 fan prior to getting involved with the film, and furthermore had to take the gamble of essentially producing it independently, as Peter Morgan’s script was rejected by various studios. It’s a gamble that looks like it may yet pay off handsomely, with the frenetic, compelling drama attracting widespread acclaim ahead of its release this week.

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What do you think the impact was that Hunt and Lauda had on culture, that made them worthy subjects for a film like this?

Sports always work for us allegorically or metaphorically, and that’s what’s fantastic about them, and why we love them. They demonstrate the limits to which a human being can go, and then keep pushing those boundaries. And then also, they’re the first and still the most relevant reality show – the dramas that play out are creating narratives for us to follow, talk about, relate to, compare ourselves to, compare others to.

What I think is most compelling, ultimately – and the thing to be celebrated about Rush, more than anything else, thematically – is that these guys both exhibited rigorous honesty, and they lived by that. Neither denied who they were, there was zero hypocrisy, they were very different – but they were their own mavericks, and I like to say there was no “Yoda” guiding them to a higher plane of enlightenment, they didn’t listen to anybody and they did it their own way! But they didn’t pretend anything different, and I think it’s why both men were respected.

How unusual was it to get to tell a story about two rival characters where they’re essentially both the hero, and there’s no “villain”, as such?

I loved that about the story, and found it really fascinating – and probably a little more journalistic, in a way. But I did have friends of mine in Hollywood who, privately, worried about that for me. I’d ask them to read the script, and that was their concern – they weren’t sure where the “rooting interest” was, and some of those other buzzwords that you hear about in script development meetings.

But that never shook my confidence for a moment, because I felt like it was a survival story, and a story of… of evolution, kind of. Both guys have an idea of what it is they want to be, and they have a burning need beyond the obvious glare of the spotlight, they have voids to fill. They want to earn the respect of their families, they want to respect themselves –and like a lot of young men, they’re not thinking too much about what the price will be. And they push each other, the rivalry fuels all of that in a very compelling and entertaining way, and Peter Morgan writes that so well, so truthfully and yet so entertainingly.

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And as they climb the altitude, and the air gets thinner, and the stakes get higher, it changes them. It starts to weigh on them, and they pay the price for it. And it’s the kind of thing that a young man can never quite appreciate. So it’s kind of a rites of passage story, in a way, and I really liked that. I felt like it was two very different people, driving each other through a gauntlet that threatened both of them.

I thought that if I could have my way, I would want the last race to begin, and if you don’t know anything about the season, you’re praying that one or the other of them don’t buy it in this sequence! You’re just rooting for them to make it through it, somehow. 

By the same token they’re both quite difficult characters, in their own way. They could both be very unlikeable – how much was that playing on your mind, in terms of having to make them both guys that the audience could root for?

We had the same note about John Nash, the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind. And Akiva Goldsman [writer] and Brian Grazer [producer] and I just stuck to our beliefs that if you’re detailed enough about a character, and you offer enough dimension, and they aren’t a bad person, then the audience will begin to accept the foibles, and even be fascinated by them. And I felt that way about Rush as well.

But you have to also realise that this didn’t come through the Hollywood development system – this is Peter Morgan writing a spec script that was rejected by the studios in terms of financing. Undaunted, he began piecing together, as a producer, partners and financing. And because of the setting of Formula One, it had just enough traction in the international market to move it forward – and so people discovered the script, and how strong it was. Paul Greengrass was interested, but ultimately he chose to do Captain Phillips, other directors were interested, but I raised my hand very quickly.

It really was a labour of love project, and a chance to do something different – a chance to offer audiences something that’s hopefully very entertaining and compelling, but does not follow the formulas. And there was something very liberating about that. So all the questions that you’re raising would probably have eaten up a bit more time if it were a studio movie, but if they were raised on this production, it probably added up to something under a minute’s worth of conversation.

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And that’s ultimately something that worked in its favour, not having to adjust the characters to appeal to those expectations, but being able to stick to reality…

I think it Rush has an advantage as a “racing movie” – if you want to put it into that genre alone – because Grand Prix is fiction, Le Mans is fiction, Days Of Thunder… that kind of movie becomes an action movie, in a way. Or the fictionalised stories are just there to give a framework to make the racing work. This film is inspired by real people, complicated people – and sure, in collapsing a story, you simplify some things, you create some new scenes that embody changes in the characters that might have happened over weeks, but we make them happen in a scene… those kind of things are the things you always have to do.

But the big ideas are based on what these guys lived through, and what happened. And they don’t add up to a conventional, typical narrative. If it was fiction, you wouldn’t have that last race unfold that way. You probably wouldn’t have the Lauda accident happen where it happens, it’d happen earlier, or something. There were just so many things that wound up being an advantage, because they surprise the audience. Things just don’t unfold as you’d expect them to. And that was a little daunting at the beginning, and I can understand why a studio wouldn’t get behind it – but at the end, even a studio is now backing it, because it works. So it was a calculated risk that works for audiences. Whether it works for investors or not, we’ll have to wait and see. 

Thinking about that, and with this essentially being a move back into independent filmmaking for you, what do you have to say about the state of the nation as far as filmmaking goes at the moment?

Well, it really is a function of a technological revolution – and whether you’re talking about printing presses or the industrial age, markets shift. Investment strategies must change. Audience buying patterns change. So there’s no question that when DVDs, which were providing studios a reliable profit margin, began to shrink and weren’t replaced by downloads… well, their job is to turn a profit, and if the profit evaporates, then as executives, who are basically investors and marketers, they had to look around and say “What should we be investing in? What can we market?” And they’ve become more and more conservative about that.

But the creative community has rallied around that, and reduced their fees, and… well, I think Rush would have been made by a studio, five years ago. And it would have cost a lot more money, because all of our agents would have said “Well, it’s a studio movie, so you have to pay that fee”, and it would have been a different burden in terms of the return on the investment.

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So those are all the facts that every studio is facing, and the answer is, of course it’s a challenge. But I think all it does is help define who loves their work enough, and the medium enough, to make the kinds of sacrifices to keep doing what they’re doing. I’ve never been… I’m not a very good businessman! You know, if I was really trying to maximise my earning power, I wouldn’t jump around doing all these different kinds of movies! I would settle in on a brand, and develop that, and that would be the cleverest thing to do if you were just looking at it economically. But I’m enjoying the creative adventure of exploring lots of different stories, and different tones and styles.

What sort of potential do you see creatively, then, in these new means of distribution?

Well, I think it is opening it up to the next generation. My daughter Bryce is just starting to direct a little bit. And I’d say to her, this period of time isn’t great for your bank account, but it’s great for your future, as a creative person. Because while our generation stutters and baulks and tries to wonder if it’s fair or not, your generation gets to say “Look at me! I’ve got a camera and a crew, and we only eat sandwiches! But we’ve got a hell of a story to tell, and we want to tell it!” So it’s opening the door for more autonomy, and more creative freedom.

It’s also doing another thing, which I think is happening to television around the world, but is also working for movies as well, which is that particular audiences are becoming more and more important. The studios still want to make movies for four quadrants, because they’re supporting a huge infrastructure – but if you shrink that infrastructure down, it’s still challenging, but you make movies for a particular audience, and you narrow your creative focus. You find your audience, the one who’s interested in the song you want to sing, or the novel you want to write, or the movie you want to make. That’s becoming… you can reach them. You can market to them. And if it’s good enough – it has to be pretty damned good – but if it’s good enough, you can make a living doing it.

So there’s kind of a Darwinian thing happening… which is okay by me! I think it’s good for everybody. And as a fan, I’m looking at the movies that I’m reading about, that are supposed to be coming in the next month or two, and I think, man, there’s some bold exciting work on the horizon. And somebody paid for that! It just wasn’t one of the major studios. 

Speaking about that in terms of Rush, there’s been talk online about how it may have that narrower appeal, because it’s an F1-based film, and that immediately turns some people off. How has it gone down in test screenings in the States?

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It plays great! It plays great if they come…

Has it been difficult to get people past the fact that it’s F1, and that’s largely a European thing?

We haven’t screened in so long, that at the point we screened there was no publicity, and nobody had any idea. But this movie just keeps surprising audiences – in positive ways. If they’re Formula One fans, they’re pleasantly surprised that the movie’s authentic, and offers them the experience that they would have hoped to have had in the movies. If they’re dragged there, and are sceptical because they don’t like race movies or sports movies, they’re pleasantly surprised because the acting’s strong, the characters are interesting, it’s emotional, and it’s not overwhelmed by the racing. I worked hard to try to make the racing scenes kind of a natural extension of what the characters were going through. Which is what I think they did so successfully in a movie like Gladiator­ – you can say “I don’t like swords-and-sandals movies”, but Gladiator was a drama that also had the realistic exciting look at gladiatorial combat.

So I think that the way in which we’re successfully surprising audiences is really good news as a director, and the question is, will it be too late to make it work on the big screen. Which is really where this movie should be seen – I mean, I recognise that a lot of people will just wait and say they’ll check it out later, and I get that, they’ve got a good TV, or they like their cellphone a lot… but this really is, even though it’s a drama, it just begs to be seen in a good theatre with a good sound system.

Although if you’re watching on your phone, with good headphones, it could be pretty awesome! Because the sound design is so important…

The sound is important. And we were as painstaking about it as ever – and because we had the historical Formula One cars from the period with us, our recordist had mics everywhere. And I actually did an unusual thing, which was to ask him to stay with the post-production sound team, and keep following them to make sure that in our final mix we were using Ferrari recordings when we were looking at a Ferrari, and the McLaren when we looked at a McLaren. And he was a racing fan himself, so we were using the right transmissions and gearbox sounds.

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I could see right away that sound is important in that community, and people know. And my first experience with Formula One, which was five or six years before Rush, I remember hearing it first, feeling it second, before I even laid eyes upon a car. And so I just felt like that visceral experience was something we had to go the extra mile to offer audiences. 

When you talk about the racing being an extension of the drama, what sort of things in the staging or execution did you do in order to try and highlight that?

It was an editorial task, ultimately – but we needed to make sure we were gathering the materials to give the editors a chance. It was all about juxtaposition. So a cool shot of an automobile part vibrating is graphic, and Anthony [Dod Mantle, cinematographer] knows how to do those kinds of shots, and basically they’re like epic landscape, and they’re cool. Or a shot of the eye is powerful, or the hands – whether they’re strong on the wheel or weak on the wheel – the timing of the gear shifts, the foot pedals, the road… that’s what racers do. There’s like a relationship between the car, the road, the feet, the hands, and the eyes. That’s what it’s all about.

So we gathered the materials so that at any given moment we could understand how that relationship was changing, and how it might be influencing what it is we’re about to see. So the shots have to be good, and they have to be compelling – so instead of doing generic sorts of inserts, Anthony realised they had to be engrossing. So if the car was going to be a character, then you’d have to shoot the car with the same care as you would one of your lead actors; and if the eye matters, then let’s really get in there and understand what was going on; the hands wouldn’t just be generic zoomed-in shots of hands, you’re down there feeling. It was to give all of that texture.

But then it’s really down to myself and the editors to go in there and say, alright, that great shot of the shock absorbers or the suspension system, that looks interesting any time, but when does it mean something?

So were those kind of sequences storyboarded, or built in the edit room?

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They were storyboarded, and then built in the edit. And the other thing was that Dan Hanley [editor] came on early and took archival footage, and basically tried to cut together versions of the scenes with the archival footage. And our thinking, and his, was to try to push as much authenticity into it as possible. So while we had the pre-vises being made which were more cinematic, we had the archive footage which was pure authenticity, and we then we’d have the shot list, my script, and my simple ideas – ultimately, all these things influenced each other. But we still in the end, despite all the planning, had to go to the edit room and make the final decision – the edit room is always where you tell the story. And I think Dan and Mike Hill did a brilliant job on this movie.

Ron Howard, thank you very much!

Rush is out in UK cinemas on the 13th September.

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