THR Cover: Ron Howard's Competitive Drive Behind 'Rush' (And How to Fit Thor Into a Race Car)
The widely admired director reveals the threat (and thrill) behind making his first indie film in 36 years, the death of the midrange studio movie, why Chris Hemsworth has a "Hanks-onian" work ethic and what happened the day a front wheel flew off of co-star star Daniel Bruhl's race car.
"What's fascinating about Ron, and I've told him this, is that he's tried to explore every genre," says Bruhl, known best to American audiences for playing a Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. And, even though Tarantino and Howard are vastly different men -- "one is big and loud, the other is small and quiet" -- the directors share a hunger to range all over the cinematic map: "Ron's done everything -- comedy, drama, Westerns, science fiction, whatever. He likes constant adventure." Adds Morgan: "He combines relentless workaholism with unfailing charm, humanity and humor. I would work for him anytime, anywhere. I think I'm smart, so I know how good he is. A lot of people underestimate him."
On a Wednesday in late July, Howard arrives at The London in midtown Manhattan to sit down with THR. He ducks into the posh hotel without an entourage and is wearing a variation of his favorite outfit -- black jeans, black Nikes with blue trim and a dark blue collared shirt over a black T-shirt. His shoulders are slightly rounded from the weight of a black computer backpack, another reminder that he's the ultimate multitasker. Case in point: Later that evening, he'll return to the editing suite near his Westchester home to work on Made in America, a documentary he directed about the music festival of the same name founded by Jay Z. (The film, which has been acquired by Showtime, is making its world premiere at Toronto.) Howard reveals that the degree of difficulty in making Rush is maybe the highest of anything he's taken on to date. "The re-creation of that world, and the speed, in an authentic yet visceral way was similar to what I needed to achieve in Apollo 13," he says. "But the psychology of the lead characters was much more complex. Those scenes required something more akin to A Beautiful Mind or Frost/Nixon."
Rush explores two diametrically opposed personalities engaged in a fierce contest during one of the most dangerous periods in F1 history, the 1970s, when the technology of the cars had outpaced the racetracks, leading to frequent fatalities. Hunt treated each race like another chance to cheat death, to avoid his inevitable fiery Viking funeral (as fate would have it, he didn't die on the course but of a heart attack at 45). He also was a womanizer and partyer. Lauda, nicknamed "The Rat," shared none of Hunt's bravado or looks and abhorred his rival's debauched way of life. At the apex of their duel for the championship, Lauda's Ferrari crashed on Aug. 1, 1976, during the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring. He was engulfed in flames, burning his lungs and scorching his face. Refusing to concede defeat, Lauda -- still in bandages -- returned to racing only six weeks later to renew his pitched battle with Hunt. Says Howard, "After Rush, I have a deeper understanding of ambition as fuel for achievement and the differences in what motivates the push for excellence."
The hedonism that permeates Hunt's story -- he was notorious for having as much stamina in bed as he did on the track -- struck a chord with the filmmaker, who documents Rush's sexual encounters with era-appropriate gusto. "I witnessed the same thing during Happy Days … in the 1970s before that lifestyle proved unsustainable. Total abandon and hedonism were encouraged and celebrated," he says. Howard laughs when asked whether he indulged. "I was already with Cheryl, and I was very focused, happy and contented. While it was fun to observe the party, I can't say that I was the James Hunt of the situation."
Hemsworth was shooting The Avengers in 2011 when he made his audition tape for Rush. "It came at the perfect time for me as far as the hunger and desire for what I wanted to do," says Hemsworth. "The story spoke to me on a few levels. However outrageous Hunt was, his willingness to stay true to himself and not conform to some standard or be packaged in a neat little box by the sponsors was intriguing. His message was, 'If I'm not having fun, what the hell is the point?' It's not a bad rule to live by."
Rush's origins can be traced to summer 2010. Morgan, whose credits include The Queen and who got an Oscar nomination for adapting Frost/Nixon, and his wife were vacationing on Ibiza, the Spanish resort island where Lauda has a home. Morgan's wife knew Lauda's brother-in-law, and they spent time with the driver. Lauda told Morgan that many people had asked to write about his F1 days and the horrific crash, but he always shrugged them off. Although Morgan was intrigued, he needed to find a way in that would make the story broader. Morgan seized upon the idea of focusing on the Hunt-Lauda rivalry and met with Lauda 20 or 30 times in Vienna, where Morgan lives part of the year.
Back in London, Morgan told his friend, director Greengrass (the Bourne films), about Rush during one of their regular lunch dates. Greengrass signed on, with producer Eaton and Working Title following suit. After Universal passed, Fellner and CAA -- which also represents Greengrass -- began the hunt for third-party financing. Then, in summer 2011, Greengrass decided to drop out of Rush to direct Captain Phillips, Sony's Somali pirate drama starring Tom Hanks. (Ironically, Howard was in early talks to direct Captain Phillips, which would have reunited him with his star of Splash, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons.)
Morgan was in Los Angeles when he got the news and, over breakfast with Howard at The Oceana in Santa Monica, filled Howard in. "When Ron heard that Paul was hesitating about Rush, he threw both hands up. I was really surprised. He said, 'No, no really, let me read it.' A couple of hours later, he rang me up and said, 'I really like this, so if Paul is genuinely stepping back, for goodness sake, don't go to anyone else.' "
Within days, Howard signed a deal to direct Rush, even though it wasn't a studio film. "I was instinctively drawn to it because it offers a fresh perspective. For me, as a director, the fact that these two men weren't American was interesting," says Howard. "And it was written by Peter Morgan, who is half-German and half-British, so he understands both of these guys on a cultural level. Cinematically, I knew that technology was on my side. I could work with smaller cameras and get lenses in places that would be more powerful. It was a very rare opportunity."
Howard is exact and demanding in his ambition, and Rush -- shot in England and Germany in the spring and early summer of 2012 -- was at times a difficult four-month shoot for Hemsworth and Bruhl, who both had to drive what are described as beasts of speed. Notes Eaton, who has been the hands-on producer throughout the process: "Ron was very particular about this. He said there's no point in making a film unless you can engage personally with the actors during the action sequences, which means seeing their eyes." The actors wouldn't have been able to handle Formula One cars -- which can hit speeds upward of 220 mph -- so less-powerful Formula Three cars were refitted to look like their more elite counterparts. (In addition to the handful of retrofitted F3 cars, Rush used 24 classic F1 cars, many of them driven by their original owners.)
On the first day that Bruhl got behind the wheel to practice, a front wheel flew off. Luckily, he was only going about 20 miles per hour. "The car came down sideways on the axle and it looked like it was going to flip," says Hemsworth. "It was a 'Holy shit, did that just happen?' kind of moment." Bruhl thought someone was pulling a trick to get him into character. "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the mechanics laughing and I knew it was okay," says Bruhl.
Eventually, both actors learned to drive at speeds close to 100 mph, although there were never other drivers on the same racetrack. "They are tricky things," says Hemsworth, "like go-karts on steroids. One of the mechanics said, 'You can’t baby it. You have to drive it like you stole it.' That led to a few fishtails." Adds Eaton: "The sheer fact that we got through the movie without someone being seriously injured is a real surprise to me."
The physical challenges for the 6-foot-2 actor -- the same height as Hunt -- didn't end there. As Howard puts it, there was no way Thor could fit into an F1 car, so Hemsworth had to lose 30 pounds of muscle before Rush began filming. There have been a few F1 drivers as tall as Hunt, but for the most part, the racers are like astronauts, measuring between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-11 and weighing 150 to 160 pounds. (Hemsworth got to less than 190.)
To drop the weight, Hemsworth embarked on a rigid cardio workout program and low-fat diet. He says it was brutal: "I understood addiction for the first time, to be honest. I immediately knew what it is like to be truly at the mercy of something. Literally, food was the last thing I thought about before I went to bed and the first thing I thought about when I woke up."
Throughout production, Bruhl had Lauda on speed dial and often asked him for technical help. Hemsworth didn't have the same advantage, so Howard got hold of a letter the late Hunt had written and had the driver's handwriting analyzed, a technique he has never used before. "His handwriting expressed his paradoxes," says Howard. "He had a big heart and wanted people's affection and respect, but he was also impulsive, compulsive and given to anger when frustrated or disappointed by people or situations."
It's evident in talking to Bruhl and Hemsworth why Howard inspires lasting affection from everyone he works with. "Rush is the best experience I've had on set, and I've had great experiences," says Hemsworth, on the phone from Malaysia, where he's shooting Michael Mann's Cyber. "Ron is the sweetest human being you will ever meet. It does not matter what department you are in -- everyone on the set feels involved. If you want to spend three or four months with someone, this is the kind of guy I want do it with. If he says, 'Let's go the extra mile,' you're right there with him."
Howard says Hemsworth reminds him of Tom Hanks. "He has a Hanks-onian work ethic," says Howard. "He's great to work with: ambitious creatively, he loves movies and his instincts are good."
Howard also helped shape Bruhl's fate. Bruhl says Howard was key in landing him a role in Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, the Julian Assange biopic that opens within weeks of Rush. "Bill kind of wanted me for the part, but some people had to be persuaded. Ron did that," says Bruhl. Without Bruhl knowing, Howard called Condon and the producers and showed them a rough cut of Rush. Bruhl got the job.
Like a marathon runner, Howard never stops training. Even as he makes the final publicity push for Rush -- he's driven the pace car at the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Speedway, attended the US Grand Prix at the new multimillion-dollar F1 track in Austin and appeared on the BBC's popular Top Gear series -- he's deep in preproduction on In the Heart of the Sea, starring Hemsworth and written by Morgan, a $100 million Warner Bros. movie that returns him to the studio fold. He begins shooting in England immediately after Toronto and just as Rush begins to roll out in Europe. In terms of the future, Howard advises that The Dark Tower, based on Stephen King's book series, isn't necessarily dead. He may also direct Inferno for Sony, the next installment in Dan Brown's Robert Langdon franchise.
The overachieving director says he's still on "pins and needles" when a movie opens, "and as you live through disappointments, you realize they won't kill you even if they hurt you."
Says Morgan: "There are many directors within Ron. And the challenge of making an independent film made a young man of him. Not that he didn't have boyish energy, but I don't know anybody else who could have made this movie for that price. Some people aren't humble enough or modest enough to make that adjustment. Not only did he do it, he did it with his eyes ablaze with excitement."