Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard grew up in our living rooms, first as lovable Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” and then as Richie Cunningham on the equally iconic sitcom “Happy Days.” But Howard’s true calling was behind the camera, and with his latest movie, he’s returned to his roots as a director by putting his audience behind the wheel.
Howard cut his filmmaking teeth with 1977’s “Grand Theft Auto,” a low-budget, high-octane action comedy that featured more crashes than a season on the Sprint Cup circuit. Fast forward 36 years, and Howard’s latest big-budget epic features cars of a sleeker, faster but equally dangerous variety.
“Rush,” which hits theaters this week, chronicles the 1976 Formula 1 season, including Austrian driver Niki Lauda’s near-fatal crash and subsequent comeback. Howard deftly captures an era of fast cars and European playboys who set the standard for high-level racing from Monaco to the Orient, along with the danger, speed and precision of open-wheel competition. But at its heart, the story’s focus is the rivalry between the confident Lauda and flashy British driver James Hunt, and how their on-track clashes came to define a go-for-broke sport.
Athlon Sports caught up Howard and had no trouble persuading the entertainment icon to share his infectious passion for his latest film.
What attracted you to this story?
Ron Howard: It’s the fact that in one movie there are all these elements, so to me, as a director, that means a lot. That means that different audience members can glean different things from it and enjoy it for different reasons. I love working with actors on interesting characters and emotional scenes. You know, there’s a lot of that in this story. But I also love trying to create something for the audience that’s a ride, that’s visceral, that’s intense, and kind of an experience. So I thought, “Here’s a movie that combines both those things.” And it’s all too rare that you can make a movie that has a chance to be a big-screen experience, but it’s not a fantasy. You know, there are no superheroes. They’re real people. It’s a real story. And yet it’s kind of cinematic and intense in that big movie way.
Your first movie as a director was “Grand Theft Auto.” Did you think your next “car” movie would be 36 years later?
I learned a lot about cars during “Grand Theft Auto.” Most of what I learned I couldn’t apply to this (“Rush”) because we couldn’t afford to crash these cars, and when we did we had to do it very, very carefully. “Grand Theft Auto” was all about them T-bones, and it was fun. And nobody got hurt, thankfully.
What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven?
When I was preparing for “Rush,” I drove a Formula 1 training car and probably got up around 100 (mph). The straightaway was short enough that it wouldn’t allow you to get much quicker than that. But it was a great experience. I also spun out. Thank God nobody was too close behind me when that happened. One person described it as though you’re trying to ride a thoroughbred race horse. An F1 car sort of feels like it has a mind of its own.
Did the actors do any of the driving?
The actors did some of the driving. Nothing harrowing. We didn’t put them into close proximity to other cars going over 100 miles an hour or anything like that, but they did drive over 100 miles an hour. And we put cameras on them and did a lot of laps with them that we could build into the movie. But we also did old-fashioned green screen stuff to put them into the right tracks at the right moment. More important than driving fast on the track, they also had to be good enough that they could speed into the pits, because that was my chance to have a steady-cam move in, see them lift the visor and just, in a subliminal way, convince the audience that they’re driving — they can drive a car. And then also, go through the whole pit change, lower the visor and speed off, and that’s with a lot of people around. So that was a safety factor that they had to really, really train for. The first day that we really tested the guys in the cars, (Niki Lauda actor) Daniel Brühl’s front tire came off his Ferrari and bounded off, and he went into a spin. So right away on Day 1, we realized that we could never relax around these cars.
You chose not to use original footage of Niki Lauda’s crash. What was your method for determining when to use original footage and when not to?
In many places in the movie, we discovered we could sort of do a “Forrest Gump” kind of trick. Only instead of putting Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon, we could put Lauda’s car or Hunt’s car into a particularly good, say, aerial helicopter shot from Monaco or someplace and make that shot, which was great, tell the story we needed to tell. So it was 99 percent the archival footage, but somehow by changing the cars around a little bit, we could make it our story. We did a good deal of that. With the crash, I wanted to break it down for the audience on a little bit more of a micro level. And so the archival shot that exists is 8 millimeter — very, very grainy — and it’s a single shot that a 12-year-old kid took. In fact, I sort of … I do a cutaway to a kid shooting the accident. We actually do use that footage later on television just out of respect to the original footage.
In “Rush,” Niki Lauda exhibits extreme attention to detail. Did you encounter that facet working with him?
He sanctioned the project. He had no editorial controls; he trusted Peter Morgan, the writer. He trusted me as the director, and he made himself available for any questions. And he was very meticulous and very, very helpful. And especially to Daniel Brühl, who was playing him in the movie. He literally had him on speed dial and could call him up at any moment and could ask him about the particulars of racing or his behavior. But he’s a powerful guy, a brilliant guy, a great businessman. He’s back in Formula 1 in a competitive way as one of the principal owners of the Mercedes race team. They’re having an unexpectedly good year in his first year back. I can see that he enjoys that competition, but with Niki, mostly it’s all about productivity. For him, every waking hour is supposed to be directed towards something. He’s making things happen that matter all that time, and that’s what’s important to him. I think he keeps score that way.
A rival can be a great source of motivation. Have you ever had that situation in your own life?
I don’t feel that kind of personal rivalry. I have a lot of respect for people. But it’s not that kind of competition where somebody can literally beat you. There are times when different directors and producers are vying for the same project and you’re trying to get the rights. That’s the closest thing to a competition like that, I suppose. But I think filmmaking is a little more … you sort of have to be in competition with yourself and with what the possibilities of the project are. And I think that you’re not really fueled by rivals, although you can see movies that you respect and they can fuel you.