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.
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.")
"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."