"Rush," the new Ron Howard film about the rivalry between 1970's Formula One racing legends James Hunt and Niki Lauda is Hollywood's first look at the sport in decades. Road & Track's Brett Berk sat down with the director to find out what it took to bring the era to the big screen.
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 wrote Frost/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 bull**** flag if they noticed something. That was invited. We wanted their scrutiny.
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.
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Were there any major accidents during filming?
No serious accidents, no injuries. You know, some spin-outs—some a little too close to the camera for my comfort. I was glad when we wrapped. It reminded me a bit of my experience making the movie Backdraft, which was about firefighting. It was always responsible, always controlled, always dealt with in the most professional way, but there was still an element of risk.
How fast were the drivers going during the high-speed sequences? And how much CGI was used?
Well, our replicas couldn't keep up with our historics. Still, there were times when we raced them all together in a bundle or times when we let them spread out and let the historics race each other. But that was just for capturing general racing, not staged kinds of stuff. We did the good starts with the replicas and the historics.
Then it was about taking the replicas out and doing the precision stuff—touching, overtaking, sliding, wet work—although we had the historics in the wet as well, but under controlled circumstances. If a car in a Hollywood stunt is going much over 40 or 50 mph, that's fast. So we weren't doing F1 speeds, but we had cars going 90 or 100, even with camera cars on the straights. There are camera cars that are essentially driven by race drivers, and they could keep up with our historics. I was riding along a good amount of the time, looking at a little monitor in the front seat. And we all know what sitting in a car looking at a monitor on a winding road will do for you. I was not immune.
Rough. How did you stage the big Lauda crash?
We went to the Nürburgring, and without going into details—well, I said we used every tool. We used a mix: a bit of the historic, a bit of our replica [cars], and a bit of CGI. But we were very careful in using the 8 mm footage, which we later actually show in the movie, on what's supposed to be a TV broadcast. There's a boy that shot the crash; you can see it on YouTube. We were rigorous about recreating it.
In some ways, these guys are more like astronauts than drivers, since the technology is so far beyond a road car, and the danger, back then especially, was life-or-death. Did you see any parallels between the world of Seventies F1 drivers and the world of Apollo 13?
Well, I didn't get to meet James Hunt. Alastair and a lot of people knew him well and loved him. I had only a sense of Hunt from the interviews. But I got to know Lauda, and he reminded me a lot of an astronaut—you know, of [Jim] Lovell or [John] Young, or a number of the men I met doing Apollo 13—the combination of intellect, focus, and a willingness to put yourself at risk to try to accomplish the goal. Lauda always thought of himself as a businessman, and he still does. He loved to race as a kid, but it was always a means to an end. Not the sort of creative self-expression that I think it was for Hunt. So, for Lauda, it was a very, very dangerous game of chess. And for Hunt, it was an expression of his sense of adventure and his competitive spirit.
Lauda came and went from the sport a few times, and he told me that it took years to really get over the psychological impact of the crash and being burned. He said that a couple years later he was covering an F1 event, and he watched a crash—not fatal, but a hell of a crash. And the first thing that popped into his mind was, Hey, that's a good crash! It was the first time in years he hadn't looked at something like that with a kind of post-traumatic-stress perspective. And he said that's when he knew that he could possibly, maybe, get back into racing.
One of my editors saw you and Lauda walking through the paddock at last year's Austin GP. What's one thing you remember from the race?
By then, I'd been to a number of F1 races. So I did really enjoy the cultural differentiation between a race in our country and one in Europe. I loved that there were people in sombreros and cowboy hats standing in line to get drinks and get into the track. I got a huge kick out of that. And I noticed that no one dresses quite like they do in Monaco, but there was still a kind of a coolness to the whole environment. It wasn't just tailgate parties or like going to a bowl game. It had the familiar flavor of F1.
Why do you think F1 has never really caught on in the U.S.?
Probably because it didn't originate here and there weren't a lot of American drivers, for starters. The manufacturers were elsewhere; it's an imported sport. That's one reason. Plus, a circuit is harder for spectators. But I think the reason that it's starting to pick up momentum is because it's so well televised, and the world is getting smaller. I think the sport is very telegenic and exciting. It sounds kind of strange, but also the success of the show Top Gear and how it's found its way into America, is a factor. But I think there are a lot more F1 fans than you realize, especially because of TV.
The fact that they've built a track in Austin, I think that's a great invitation, and the Montrealrace has remained very popular. That's the other thing: If we get a few races in the U.S., plus Montreal, then suddenly the F1 racers will get a chance to come here. They'll be on television more. The media will help fuel that interest.
When I talk to serious NASCAR fans, they like Formula 1. They don't turn their noses up at it. It just hasn't been accessible. That's my entirely anecdotal experience.
Were Brühl and Hemsworth F1 fans?
Hemsworth's dad was a motorcycle racer as a younger guy in Australia. So he was aware of F1, but he was also a motorsports fan in general. I don't know if he raced, but he's ridden a lot of dirt bikes and surfs a lot.
Brühl is a big sports fan, more soccer than anything else. He certainly knew about Lauda, he certainly knew about F1, but I don't think he'd been to many races prior to hanging out with Lauda. Niki really took him under his wing, helped him understand that world and Lauda's approach to it, what it was like. Or to clear up something with the Austrian accent or the language issues. Daniel had his number on speed dial, and if he had a little technical question—heading out to the grid, what would go on first, the helmet or the gloves?—any of those questions, he would call Niki.
Speaking of the accent, when we screened some of the film for the Austrian Film Institute, the first question was whether Lauda had relooped all of Daniel's dialogue. We said, "Not a word." And their jaws dropped. They couldn't believe how close Daniel was to Niki.
How supportive—or not—was Bernie Ecclestone?
He was supportive. But nothing was requested of him. This era predates his ownership. He certainly never tried to be an impediment in any way. He was always curious about it and would kind of ask Lauda about it, ask me about it if I'd show up to a race. But he had no direct involvement. Whereas with Senna, the documentary, they had to work with him to get that footage.
Are you a fan now?
I definitely follow it. I don't have the hours to drop everything and watch every race, but I find it fascinating, and I've met a lot of contemporary drivers. George Lucas has always been a fan; he's the one who introduced me to the sport about six or seven years ago. I saw the Monaco race with him some years ago, and it was very cool. Lewis Hamilton won, and he was this 20- or 21-year-old phenomenon at the time.
I'm interested in science and technology—I'm not a student, but I have a lot of respect for it. I understand this as a distinctively modern sport. It blends athleticism and competitive drive and even danger with absolute state-of-the-art technology—as you said, kind of NASA-level technology. That's a really interesting combination, and it's what the fans outside of America love about it. They love knowing the nuances of the engineering and what it means to the race. And the competition among the engineers is something they read and talk about and kick around, just like we read and talk about coaching staffs when discussing football teams.
With that, what did you focus on to get American audiences to care about the sport?
I'm not an ambassador. I think that if the movie does its job and is accessible and relatable, that ought to entice people to explore the contemporary version of the sport, the way Senna may have. I hope we entertain enough that people become curious. That would be flattering.
But the movie was a labor of love by everyone on the creative side and behind the camera, too. It's unbelievable—we have Oscar winners everywhere you look behind the camera. Everyone wanted to be involved and thought it was a cool challenge. And we made the movie responsibly enough that it's not a product. But we all recognize that it's an unusual subject, and movie fans, if they go see Rush, have to be ready to try something new. And I certainly hope they do.