The multi-talented Ron Howard could be vying for a couple of gongs at next year’s Oscars - his latest film Rush is already creating a buzz. But, as the actor-turned-director tells SUSAN GRIFFIN, bringing the world of Seventies F1 racing to the big screen was a rough ride
Almost 40 years in the business and Ron Howard still refuses to shy away from a challenge. It’s why he signed up to direct Rush, the big-screen recreation of the merciless and legendary Seventies Formula 1 rivalry between British playboy James Hunt and his disciplined Austrian opponent Niki Lauda.
“People expect a sports biopic to unfold in a fairly typical way, but everything about Rush is unexpected; the emotional twists and turns, and the action on the track,” says a chatty Howard between mouthfuls of biscuit.
At 59, the acclaimed film-maker, whose directorial debut was with the 1984 mermaid romcom Splash, starring Tom Hanks, is casual in trousers and a jumper. An ever present baseball cap might hide a now prominent bald patch, but close your eyes, and he sounds just as he did playing the sweet Richie Cunningham opposite Henry Winkler’s Fonz in Happy Days.
“When this story was taking place, Happy Days was becoming a number one show around the world,” says Howard, who now has four children and two grandchildren with his wife of 38 years, Cheryl.
“I recognised the cultural differences of that period. It was the tail end of the sexual revolution, where there was nothing to fear and everything to celebrate, when sex was safe and driving dangerous.”
Back then, there was a 20 per cent chance of a driver dying before making it to the chequered flag. While the world of F1’s been recorded in documentaries, most notably in 2010’s Senna, movie-makers have never attempted to portray it on this scale before, and “for creatively ambitious people, this was too good an opportunity to ignore,” says Howard, who has amassed a string of awards during his career, including two Oscars for A Beautiful Mind in 2002.
During that 1976 season, on which the film focuses, everything was intensified. Lauda had driven to F1 victory the year before and the rivalry between him and Hunt transcended the sports pages.
“The story was violent, sexy and, ultimately, very emotional and triumphant. To me, it was a gift. Where else can you find a story that can operate on so many levels, and entertain and engross people in so many different ways?” says the Oklahoma-born director.
The project “was well down the road” when he became involved, and Howard credits British screenwriter Peter Morgan, who’s worked on The Last King Of Scotland and The Queen, for bringing the story to the big screen.
“Peter has entrepreneurial courage. He writes these things on spec, they’re projects which aren’t overly commercial, then he finds ways of getting them financed. It’s pretty astounding,” says Howard.
Morgan’s admitted that the film “probably worked out better” than he thought it would. He spent a long time talking to Niki Lauda (who still sports the facial scars from his horrific crash during 1976’s Nurburgring grand prix) and never doubted the emotional impact of the story. Initially, his concerns lay in how the F1 action would be brought to life on film: “I assumed the racing scenes would be really embarrassing. I never thought for one minute that we’d dramatise the racing because of the sheer cost involved. To this day, I still don’t know how they did it.”
“It was a labour of love,” Howard admits. “It really was that sort of commitment. People went that extra mile to live up to a standard over and over again.”
When the people who own the original F1 cars agreed to participate in the movie, “it sort of raised the bar for everyone,” Howard explains. “Suddenly the people building the replica realised it had to sit next to the real thing. And it was a relentless ambition on the part of the editors to keep pushing for archive footage, and for the cinematographer to know how to make the insert on a piston or an axle into an emotional landscape,” he adds.
Now the final edit’s out there, the director can sit back and enjoy the finished product.
“Yeah, the whole thing was a bit of a high wire act. We’re proud of how it’s worked out,” he says.
And so they should be - the film is stunning, and is already garnering awards buzz.
Rush is released in cinemas across the UK and Ieland now.