Ron Howard got to drive the pace car that led the field to the green flag of last Sunday's Brickyard 400. He wasn't just visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to enjoy the thrill of racing, though.
The award-winning director is working on a motorsports-themed movie — "Rush," the story of the 1970s rivalry between Formula One stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda. And while the scene in NASCAR is wildly different than Europe's F1 series, Howard still saw value in getting a close look at what a driver experiences in a top racing series so he can reproduce that feeling on film.
"I'm still in the middle of working on my movie, so any time I get to spend around motorsports is really useful in just terms of picking up the texture and the nuance of it," Howard said. "We're done filming, but there's still a lot to be done in the editing and sound work and visual effects. I've still got my director's hat on, I'm not just promoting."
Howard, who won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture in for his 2001 film "A Beautiful Mind," also has directed blockbusters such as "Apollo 13," ''Backdraft" and "Cinderella Man."
Asked to name his favorite racing-themed movie, Howard could have gone with one of the more dramatic racing films, such as "Grand Prix" or "Le Mans." But while Howard appreciates those two movies, he went in a different direction.
"'Talladega Nights!,'" Howard said, laughing as he referred to Will Ferrell's NASCAR-themed comedy. "I laughed my (rear end) off at that thing."
His movie will be significantly more serious, telling the story of the showdown between the fast-living Hunt and calculating Lauda. It is expected to be released in the fall of 2013.
At Indy, Howard spent time with Jeff Gordon and was introduced at the prerace drivers' meeting to a loud ovation.
"He is very eager to learn and also share his thoughts about the process," Gordon said. "It's like a two-year process to make this movie that he's making. I think that the story that he's telling is very interesting between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. I actually watched a documentary several years ago on an airplane going somewhere about James Hunt — he is quite a character. I am looking forward to seeing how they tell that story. He is in there taking pictures and asking questions, listening on the radio. It's been a really fun experience. He's a real down-to-earth guy."
Howard says he's a huge sports fan, but not a particularly big racing fan. Getting involved in the movie and spending time at Indy has heightened his appreciation for the sport.
"It does sort of fulfill a fantasy, and it's a celebration of what human beings can do not only as athletes — which is usually what you get in sports, 'I can't believe he or she hit that shot or could make that move,'" Howard said. "Here, you've got that, combined with, look the precision of the driving, look how fast they're going. It's coping with the variances in the track, in the weather. It just adds a whole other very modern dimension to a sport. Yet it's still visceral. It's still a race, and it still boils down to who gets there first."
Howard said he came across the Hunt-Lauda rivalry through screenwriter Peter Morgan, whose family knew Lauda.
"He was a rock star on wheels," Howard said of Hunt. "And also kind of a member of a dying breed of sort of well-educated daredevils who were really in it for the thrill. And Lauda in many ways was sort of on the vanguard of professional sports as a career, as an industry, something to be managed. It really is kind of an odd couple story. You have an absolute charismatic wild man, and this really fascinating, kind of funny, slightly eccentric but unbelievable effective counterpart."
But is the story too obscure to appeal to a U.S. audience?
"First of all, because it was a real labor of love project, we actually managed to make it for a price that while we want a lot of people to go to it, it doesn't carry that commercial imperative, having to be a blockbuster before people get their money back," Howard said. "So it's a big movie, but people really gave of themselves and cut their fees and did all kinds of things to be a part of this because they believed in the script so much."
With that in mind, Howard said they didn't have to embellish the story to make the movie appealing.
"I learned with 'Apollo 13' that audiences, they want the truth in situations — and it's enough, you don't actually have to make it more dramatic than it was," Howard said.
Howard frequently posted behind-the-scenes photos on his Twitter account while the movie was being filmed, getting positive feedback from fans — including Hunt's brother, who initially was skeptical about the project but ended up visiting the set.
"And he took me aside and said, 'Your Twitter pictures have convinced the racing community that you're really doing it right. And I appreciate that, because that's what you said you were going to try to do,'" Howard said. "They haven't seen the finished film. I hope they feel even more so when they see the finished film. But the world is so exciting, that I don't think any of us felt like we needed to heighten it. We were just trying to capture the spirit of it."