AFM 2011: Ron Howard Reveals Plan to Lure NASCAR-Loving Americans to His Formula One Movie 'Rush' (Q&A)

Ron Howard
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Howard and partner Brian Grazer saw cutbacks for their Imagine Entertainment at Universal.

The Oscar-winning director talks to THR about the movie's whirlwind casting, what attracted him to the project and the future of his Stephen King adaptation "The Dark Tower."

When Universal Studios slammed the brakes on Ron Howard’s ambitious Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower, the Oscar-winning director switched gears to join the independent auto-racing movie Rush. The film, written by Howard’s Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan, centers on the complicated friendship between 1970s Formula One racing rivals Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds) and James Hunt (Thor star Chris Hemsworth). Universal will release Rush stateside, and Exclusive Media is selling the film worldwide here at AFM. The director spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how he plans to make American audiences, which typically side with NASCAR, fall in love with the sport of Formula One.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved with this project?

Ron Howard: We were trying to fast-track Dark Tower, and then, because of issues with the budget and other conditions, we had to put it back a bit. Suddenly, I found myself free. I’ve known Peter Morgan since we did Frost/Nixon. I knew this was something he was writing and that he’d found interest from independent financiers. I asked if I could read it, and in a whirlwind, maybe five or 10 days, I’d signed to make Rush.

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THR: How much of the project was already in place? Did you have a cast?

Howard: There wasn’t any cast when I joined. Peter was always very interested in getting Daniel Bruhl to play Lauda, and as soon as I met him, I thought he’d be great for the role. And I’d had a meeting with Chris Hemsworth through the preparation for Dark Tower and thought he’d be very interesting. Then he gave a fantastic audition and just nailed it. We stopped casting right then.

THR: Formula One is a huge sport internationally but less so in the U.S. Why will American audiences want to watch a Formula One movie?

Howard: Because these are fascinating characters -- ballsy, masculine guys. It was a very dangerous era in racing, and here are two absolute individuals at the height of their powers. It makes for great drama and very exciting action. I wasn’t a die-hard Formula One fan before I read Peter’s script, but I’ve been immersing myself in this world. I think the excitement I feel as a fresh convert may be infectious.

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THR: What sort of research are you doing?

Howard: I’m going to try to do what I did with firefighting in Backdraft, the space capsule in Apollo 13 or the boxing ring in Cinderella Man. None of those were worlds I knew before I made those movies. But I got fascinated, first by the characters, then with their world. Then I tried to merge the two. I’ve been spending a lot of time around Formula One tracks and talking to people connected to the sport. I’ve met Niki Lauda a few times. I sat with him during the race at Silverstone Circuit [in England], and his commentary was so riveting I didn’t even dare get up to go to the bathroom! Luckily, Formula One has been covered in such detail in the last 35 to 40 years with numerous documentaries, most recently with Senna, which I just today finished watching for the seventh time.

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THR: What does your shooting schedule look like?

Howard: We get going in February, and if everything goes right, we will deliver the film for early winter. But it’s a very complicated film. This isn’t like any film I’ve done before, but I think we can offer audiences a rare vantage point. I think we can get the camera into places it hasn’t been before -- right in the middle, in the guts of the race -- and offer the audience a real experience of what these guys do.

THR: Is this model -- independently financing a film and then getting a studio to distribute -- one you could see using for your own production company, Imagine?

Howard: Sure. Listen, I’m involved in this way largely because Peter, who’s also a producer on the project, had put it together that way. But we have the resources we need to fully realize this movie, so I’m very excited.

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THR: What’s the future of Dark Tower?

Howard: We are continuing to work on the script to find ways to make the budget more manageable and still deliver the work in a way that the project deserves. We were always racing and fast-tracking the project, so I always wince when I see something written about it and there’s a release date in there. These kinds of projects often take years to come together in the right ways. But I am in love with the material, and the minute it can come together in the right way, I am fully committed to it. Rush was kind of like a gift. I love stories that center on fascinating characters, and here you have psychologically complex, rare human beings, and they are also young and cool -- and it’s all in this unbelievably glamorous, sexy period in the mid-’70s. And yet, in terms of emotion and the heartbeat of the story, I think they will be very relatable. If you don’t know anything about Formula One, I’m going to present it in such a way that you’ll very likely fall in love with it. If you do know Formula One, I’m going to be very respectful and deliver a film you’ll love, too.