THR Cover: Ron Howard's Competitive Drive Behind 'Rush' (And How to Fit Thor Into a Race Car)
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When meeting Ron Howard, one still expects to find the adult version of the mild-mannered boy from The Andy Griffith Show who seemingly grew up into the mild-mannered Richie Cunningham of Happy Days. Howard, in that regard, doesn't disappoint. He still is a bit of a scamp, with his wide smile (he never bothered to get the famous gap between his front teeth fixed) and twinkling eyes. But what one doesn't expect is an undercurrent of fierce competitiveness that pervades almost every word he utters. He boasts just shy of 700,000 Twitter followers, but it's not enough. "Judd Apatow has more than 1 million," he laments. He also lets you know he is annoyed that Netflix's recent revival of Arrested Development didn't earn an Emmy nomination for best comedy or best director. "I just felt that what Mitch [Hurwitz] and his team did was so innovative," says Howard, who produced the series with Brian Grazer, his partner for more than three decades at Imagine Entertainment.
And lest you think he'll get over that soon, think again. He lets slip that he is frustrated that critics were so tough on Far and Away, his Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman period romance made more than 20 years ago. "I think because I shot it in 70 mm, critics took it as a serious movie instead of a romantic adventure with a sense of whimsy and humor," he says. "It gave it a sort of veneer of self-importance that was never intended."
Yes, Howard's list of resentments and jealousies is short, yet it reveals a truth about the man who transformed himself from child actor into one of Hollywood's most prolific, varied and beloved directors: Competition courses through his veins. Mostly, he's in a battle with himself.
So for those who do know Howard well, it came as no surprise that he would want to conquer the dangerous and competitive world of Formula One racing. On Sept. 8, Howard will be at the Toronto Film Festival for the North American premiere of Rush, a period piece recounting the rivalry between British bad boy James Hunt and exacting Austrian Niki Lauda for the 1976 F1 championship (the movie opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 20 before expanding nationwide a week later). The film, featuring Australian heartthrob Chris Hemsworth and German-Spanish actor Daniel Bruhl, is an incredible gamble in the U.S., where F1, like soccer, never has caught on.
Which is why Universal, Imagine's home studio, passed on Rush when it had the chance to bankroll it (Paul Greengrass was going to direct at the time, but more on that later). "They were a bit nervous," says Working Title's Eric Fellner, one of the film's producers, whose British production company is Universal's longtime partner. So for the first time since his first movie -- 1977's Grand Theft Auto, which he made for indie godfather Roger Corman -- Howard directed a film outside the flush-with-cash studio system.
Thanks to matchmaking from CAA (where Howard is repped), Cross Creek Pictures and Exclusive Media assembled Rush's $53 million budget -- far less than he is used to spending (a third of the $150 million Sony spent on his Angels & Demons). Through sheer coincidence, Universal did come aboard to release the film in the U.S. because of a distribution deal with Cross Creek, providing a major marketing boost and laying the groundwork for a possible awards campaign.
Still, behind all its noise, sexiness and marquee director, Rush represents something more significant about this moment in Hollywood history. Despite the fact that Howard's films have grossed $1.8 billion in North America -- making him the fifth-most-successful American director, nipping at the heels of Michael Bay -- Howard has found himself at the whims of an increasingly fear-driven Hollywood system. Midrange films with a story, one of Howard's specialties, largely have been abandoned in favor of big-budget extravaganzas. Nonetheless, this is Oscar winner Ron Howard. So it wasn't received without surprise when one of the industry's most respected talents showed up at the American Film Market in November 2011 and at this year's Berlin Film Market to personally pitch foreign distributors, who put up much of Rush's budget.
"I don't see why you shouldn't go pitch. You have to talk to a network if it's a network TV show and to a studio if it's a studio movie. If this is the way a movie is going to get financed, you either care about it and believe in it, or you don't," explains Howard.
"It is a rush for me, pardon the pun, to see this kind of the entrepreneurial spirit," says Howard, adding that he never asked Universal to finance Rush since Exclusive and Cross Creek were already lined up when he came aboard. "And if the studios really do decide that non-tentpole dramas are something they don't feel comfortable investing in, and this form of finance holds, I think companies like Exclusive and others will get so strong that they’re almost a studio."
Rush screenwriter Peter Morgan puts a sharper point on it: "The death of the midrange movie is one of the great tragedies in the entertainment industry. You have multiplexes stuffed full of films that no one wants to see. People have drifted away or migrated to television. They want to see a film with production value that feels like a satisfying cinematic experience and isn't a ridiculous fantasy or puerile nonsense. We aren't adolescents."
Making an independent film was a challenge Howard embraced with a ferocity that provided an enormous boost for Guy East and Nigel Sinclair's Exclusive and Brian Oliver's Cross Creek as they went about securing financing and selling off rights to foreign distributors. Exclusive raised more than $30 million in foreign presales beginning in fall 2011 -- a formidable sum -- thanks to Howard's pedigree. (Hemsworth, fresh off the global box-office success of Thor, was another powerful selling point.) Cross Creek and Exclusive scared up another $16 million in equity for Rush, while British producer Andrew Eaton and Working Title helped secure a tax credit in the U.K. that, combined with a German tax credit secured by Exclusive, amounted to another $7 million or so.
Howard isn't bitter for having to go outside the studio system to make Rush and is cautiously optimistic about its chances with American moviegoers.
"I don't think I've ever made a movie that surprises audiences as much as this one does," says Howard of test screenings in the U.S. "People who love motor sports are surprised it is as authentic and intense and effective as it is. People who don't know much about the sport find it sexier and more engaging and emotional than they thought it would be. It's a marketing challenge for Universal, but I think they are doing a great job." (Howard remains fiercely loyal to Universal, which continues to be Imagine's home base.)
Even though the studio passed on financing Rush, Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson -- calling the film "exquisite" -- is bullish about Rush's chances, pointing to other sports films that have found recent success, including 42 and The Blind Side. "Audiences have shown a remarkable appetite of late for great movies," he notes.
Howard has directed 22 movies since 1977, keeping pace with the 24 that Steven Spielberg has shot during the same time frame. He has won the Oscar for best director once (A Beautiful Mind), as have Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, James Cameron and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. He almost draws a blank when asked what his hobbies are outside of work.
In some ways, the 59-year-old filmmaker still is trying to show that he's not the proverbial boy next door, and succeeding in the new milieu of Hollywood is something he clearly wants to prove to himself -- and his peers. "He's competitive with others, it's just imperceptible," says Grazer. "Early on, I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is such an easygoing guy.' Then we were making Splash, and one day I say, 'Let's play Ping-Pong,' thinking I'm going to kick his ass. He totally eviscerated me. Part of him is Opie from Mayberry, and part of him isn't."
Remarkably self-aware at a young age, Howard took steps to protect himself from his own competitive nature by deciding to live on the East Coast instead of in Hollywood. He and his wife, Cheryl -- high school sweethearts at John Burroughs High School in Burbank who married at 21 -- left Los Angeles and moved to New York in 1985, buying a place in Westchester County. They wanted to raise their four children (actress Bryce Dallas Howard, now 32, twins Jocelyn Carlyle Howard and Paige Carlyle Howard, 28, and Reed Cross Howard, 26) far from Hollywood. The move also provided a much-needed buffer for Howard (who still maintains a place in Santa Monica). "It was good for them and it was good for me to get a little distance from what I characterize as the relentless indexing of career heat that you feel in Los Angeles," says Howard. "I think it works in opposition to trying to be creatively adventuresome and taking chances. I'm always pushing myself toward that."
Howard could use a win at the box office and with critics, given that his most recent film was The Dilemma, a 2011 comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James that earned only $69.7 million worldwide amid a controversy over a gay slur used as a punch line. Rush marks a sharp turn, mixing Howard's desire to play in a genre he hasn't before with a penchant for adversarial protagonists, as underscored in 2008's Frost/Nixon, which earned Oscar nominations for best director and best picture, among others. (Of David Frost, who died Aug. 31, Howard says, "He should be acknowledged for his entrepreneurial courage as a producer in the television medium. His risky decision to sell the independent TV stations on airing his Nixon interviews proved the potential viability of a fourth network in the U.S. Especially when he promoted it into a television event.")