Even the most diehard Formula 1 fans will admit that John Frankenheimer’s 1966 epic, “Grand Prix,” is flawed. We can forgive and forget how Frankenheimer substituted a lot of Formula 2 cars, but we’ll always zone out during the overwrought, soap opera-esque subplots that fill time between racing scenes.
Turns out the best way to explain our sport on film is by way of documentary, as proved by Asif Kapadia’s 2010 gem, “Senna.” Or so we thought.
Another way is to eschew the Cinerama big budget that made all the racing scenes great in “Grand Prix,” and make a small-budget “independent” film, instead. Who knew?
Ron Howard, for one. The keen thing about “Rush” is that the small budget helps make it work. Howard relies so much on close-ups and narrow focus to compensate for the budget and hard-to-recreate time period (1976) that the film is much more a character study than an action film. You’ll still appreciate the auto porn of mid-’70s F1 cars, but you’ll see a lot more of Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda and Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt than of the circuits and other drivers of the era. Howard uses extreme close-ups to keep the track action on Lauda’s Ferrari 312T/312T2 and Hunt’s McLaren-Ford M23 and M26, without the need for detailed backgrounds and other race cars.
Bruhl and Hemsworth look so much like their subjects that you might miss the fact they’re giving very good performances. Peter Morgan’s script is crisp and quick, ushering us through the ’76 season in a bit more than two hours, which is longer than the ideal movie length of 90 minutes but far shorter than most films in the modern, self-indulgent era.
The best thing, though, about “Rush” is that it’s a film for cinephiles, one that’s already causing some Oscar nomination buzz, while at the same time it offers F1 geeks the cars, the action, and possibly the most compelling story in the history of the sport.
Ron Howard on “Rush”
Interview by Christopher Nelson
Automobile Magazine: Did you buy classic Formula 1 cars, or did you rely mostly on computer generation?
Ron Howard: Our goal was to make something that looked, sounded, and therefore felt as authentic as it possibly could, given that we weren’t there at that time. I wanted it to feel like the ’70s, in terms of style, the look, and the behavior, and yet we used every cutting-edge contemporary cinematic tool at our disposal. We also did all of the old-school basic design work and costuming possible. Ultimately, we did everything. We built cars. We had digital cars to deal with stuff like crashes. And we used archival footage. Sometimes the archival footage is 100 percent shot from that period, and then sometimes we did a Forest Gump thing where we put our cars into those shots. The unsung heroes in this are the owners of the historic cars. We had a real Lauda car. We had a real Hunt car, as well as a real Andretti car from the Fuji race. The owners didn’t give us their cars, but they didn’t charge us a lot, either. And they drove them in the movie, or their head engineers did. This wasn’t a giant studio movie that could wave a checkbook around and get things done. We had to do it for a price. To own one of these cars, you’re way too rich to sit in the rain and wait for “take three” while the director decides to change angles. I just thought that these people would bail on us and go to board meetings, but they were entirely dedicated to what we were doing.
AM: What historic tracks did you use for locations?
RH: We were UK-based, and we went to Brands Hatch, to Crystal Palace, and to the Nürburgring. Those were the authentic tracks. For everything else, we used Snetterton, Cadwell Park, and Donington Park. We chose turns that were similar to turns where action had occurred during races. We shot the Niki crash and the post-crash stuff at the Nürburgring. We shot Hunt’s Brands Hatch race at Brands Hatch, but we also used Hatch for other things. We’d find good bends, film, and then digitally fill in backgrounds to give it authenticity. We couldn’t afford to get it exactly right, but we had a lot of people around helping us try not to make big, giant boo-boos. And I’m proud of what we did.
AM: So the last race, the Fuji race, was all the magic of cinema and CG?
RH: Fuji became our go-to every time we got rained on. That became our weather cover. It wasn’t very pleasant for people, but it allowed us to keep going, and, on our budget, we couldn’t stop. Especially once we had the cars. We wound up being a hell of a lot more on-track with the cars than I had anticipated. I’d expected there would be far more CG work, and it turned out that these drivers could safely and effectively put those cars just about anywhere we needed them. They could do touches and initiate pretty hairy spinouts. One day, we were doing almost all Fuji. We had rain but we were also wetting the track, and we had a couple of spinouts. One came pretty close to a camera and some extras. Nothing happened, but I was glad when we wrapped.
AM: Peter Morgan, who wrote “Frost/Nixon” for you, also wrote the script for “Rush.” How’d you come to this material? Are you a Formula 1 fan?
RH: I got into Formula 1 because George Lucas really appreciates the sport, and, through him, I’d seen a couple of races. Peter Morgan wrote this as a spec script [without a contract to film it]. His wife is Austrian, and they were living in Vienna for quite awhile and he got to know Niki, who once sort of tried to date Peter’s wife when he was younger. Peter got to know Niki, and Niki went to him about doing his story. He looked into it and didn’t see doing Niki as the complete story, but when he heard about that 1976 season and the James Hunt rivalry, he felt like that was the kind of story he loves to do — where you get unlikely competitors in a short period of time that reveal so much of themselves through their relationship. I appreciate the competitive nature of a really great sports story, and it was the characters that attracted me. I also thought that movie technology — smaller cameras and faster film stocks and the ability to take archival footage and improve the grain and make it presentable and come up with something cohesive — was an asset that hasn’t been there for filmmakers for very long, which is one reason this sport hasn’t really been dealt with in a theatrical movie. It would be too impossibly expensive to even begin to get it right. I thought, cinematically, I could do something visceral, cool, and fresh. And I thought, dramatically, the characters had a lot to offer.
AM: What did the characters have to offer?
RH: It’s fascinating to me that these guys never gave up on their elemental nature. It’s the story of a couple of mavericks. Neither guy went through the system. They chased their dreams in very different ways, but they were never about compliance or playing ball. That’s what I came to discover about them. They were more alike in that way than they were different. And yet their strategies, their approaches, and their personalities were 180 degrees from one another. It made me think about myself. I’m far more Lauda — a grinder looking for every incremental opportunity to achieve something and work toward a goal. Hunt was much more about unleashing his pure talent and his will.
AM: What did you end up liking most about Lauda and Hunt?
RH: The interesting thing is that Lauda — and I’ve come to know Niki — is a brilliant business guy. He’s an interesting paradox, though. He loves the speed and loves the danger. He was calculated about it, but it’s not quite as simple as he makes it, that he thought he could make money at racing so he did. Before all that, he liked going fast. And even though he says he wasn’t the quickest guy on the circuit, he was quick. And even though he was calculating, he knew there were times he just had to go for it. He was and is an interesting paradox. For him, it’s always a competition. That’s what fuels him, that’s what excites him — overcoming obstacles in order to win.
James really and truly was this free spirit. Very well educated and from a great family, but he was that sort of ’60s/’70s “I’m going to be who I am” guy. For him, anything less was a compromise that I don’t think he could bear. He wanted to win. He was a competitive guy, and he was on fire when he was out there. All that pacing around and the bouncing leg and throwing up before races — that’s all him. But that only partly defined him. I don’t think he would’ve done it if he had to compromise all of his other impulses. It’s interesting to me that both approaches could yield championships and greatness.