Ron Howard rushes to shift gears

Beyond genres

Ron Howard rushes to shift gears

Ron Howard likes to think of himself as one of those chameleon directors, like Billy Wilder and Mike Nichols, who are known not for any one thing but rather for doing lots of things well.

He has made so many different kinds of movies that he sometimes seems to be working from a checklist: a pair of whimsical comedies (Cocoon and Splash), a fairy tale (Willow), a holiday film (How the Grinch Stole Christmas), a firefighting movie (Backdraft), a space epic (Apollo 13), a biopic (A Beautiful Mind), a western (The Missing), a boxing film (Cinderella Man), a buddy flick (The Dilemma) and two Dan Brown thrillers (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons).

The obvious gaps on this list are a horror movie and a musical, but Howard’s newest film, Rush, fills a much tinier niche. It’s a Formula One car racing movie, a genre that had its heyday, if you can call it one, back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Formula One is to NASCAR, the version of racing more prominent on screen these days, more or less what polo is to rodeo. The cars go faster and cost more, and the sport deliberately affects a snobby, elitist image. It’s far more popular in Europe than in America, where Formula One races are seldom held, and Europe is where most of the money for Rush came from.

Rush is darker, sexier, moodier than any of his previous pictures. The budget was $30 million, not a pittance by movie standards but hardly the kind of money Howard is used to. The screenwriter, Peter Morgan, probably best known for The Queen, said not long ago about trying to drum up interest in Formula One: “I remember the terrible looks I used to get when I said I was working on a script about Tony Blair and the queen after the death of Diana, or about Richard Nixon and David Frost. People would question my sanity. At least this one has cars, sex and death. To me it felt like Iron Man.”

Although Howard’s first feature, Grand Theft Auto (1977), was essentially one long car chase, ending in a demolition derby, Howard is far from a motor head. In person, he’s boyish, modest and a little shy. He seems less a big shot Hollywood director than a balding, bearded version of Opie Taylor, the character he played on the Andy Griffith television show in the 1960s. “I guess you could say it’s a bit of a stretch,” he said speaking about Rush. “But at this point, I don’t know what does sound like a Ron Howard film. I’m just looking for interesting filmmaking challenges and stories that have a chance to surprise the audience.”

He added, “When I started, I didn’t know much about Formula One, but I knew that it was cool, sexy and dangerous, and that’s a pretty good combination.”

The classic Formula One movies, like John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966), an early experiment in split-screen technology, or Lee H Katzin’s 1971 Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen, were replete with racing footage but skimpy on plot. “I wasn’t sure there would be the money,” he said. “If you grow up in England, that’s how you think,” he added, laughing. “So I said to myself, ‘Why don’t we work on the assumption that racing is going to be impossible?’ ”

Instead, he structured the whole film, which he wrote on spec, as a kind of race between the two principal characters, James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl, an Austrian actor), drivers who were real-life rivals in the late ‘70s. Hunt, an Englishman, was charming and glamorous, a blond, carefree Lothario, irresistible to women. Lauda, an Austrian, was socially awkward, a little ferrety looking, and obsessive about the mechanical details of racing.

In the script, first one and then the other pulls ahead — on the racetrack, with wealthy sponsors, in the bedroom — until finally they compete for the viewer’s affection. In that contest, the charismatic Hunt begins way ahead but, especially after a near-fatal accident at Nürburgring in 1976, Lauda sneaks up.

Howard’s films are known for their Capra-like depiction of good versus bad, the individual against the system, and he said that in this respect, too, Rush is something different, because it has not one but two central characters. “I wanted to show the slightly tragic side of these two guys,” he said. “They were so desperate to fill whatever void that was and to prove something.”

Formula One fans need not worry: Rush has plenty of racing sequences, although in the beginning, Howard said, he had no idea how to shoot them, just as he had no idea how to do the fires in Backdraft or create weightlessness in Apollo 13.

The racing scenes had to be shot quickly and without much room for mistakes, he added, both for budgetary reasons and logistical ones. Most Formula One tracks are booked for much of the year, and although the film crew had some original cars from the period, there were limits to how many miles they could put on them. The replica cars, on the other hand, broke down just as frequently as the real ones.

“It was daunting,” Howard said. “But I think daunting is a good thing when it comes to making movies.”

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