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Ron roars into town
6:00am Saturday 21st September 2013 in Celebrity Interviews
The multi-talented Ron Howard could be vying for a couple of gongs at next year's Oscars - his latest film Rush is already creating a buzz. But, as the actor-turned-director tells Susan Griffin, bringing the world of Seventies F1 racing to the big screen was a rough ride.
Almost 40 years in the business and Ron Howard still refuses to shy away from a challenge. It's why he signed up to direct Rush, the big-screen recreation of the merciless and legendary Seventies Formula 1 rivalry between British playboy James Hunt and his disciplined Austrian opponent Niki Lauda.
"People expect a sports biopic to unfold in a fairly typical way, but everything about Rush is unexpected; the emotional twists and turns, and the action on the track," says a chatty Howard between mouthfuls of biscuit.
At 59, the acclaimed film-maker, whose directorial debut was with the 1984 mermaid romcom Splash, starring Tom Hanks, is casual in trousers and a jumper. An ever present baseball cap might hide a now prominent bald patch, but close your eyes, and he sounds just as he did playing the sweet Richie Cunningham opposite Henry Winkler's Fonz in Happy Days.
"When this story was taking place, Happy Days was becoming a number one show around the world," says Howard, who now has four children and two grandchildren with his wife of 38 years, Cheryl.
"I recognised the cultural differences of that period. It was the tail end of the sexual revolution, where there was nothing to fear and everything to celebrate, when sex was safe and driving dangerous."
Back then, there was a 20% chance of a driver dying before making it to the chequered flag.
While the world of F1's been recorded in documentaries, most notably in 2010's Senna, movie-makers have never attempted to portray it on this scale before, and "for creatively ambitious people, this was too good an opportunity to ignore," says Howard, who has amassed a string of awards during his career, including two Oscars for A Beautiful Mind in 2002.
During that 1976 season, on which the film focuses, everything was intensified. Lauda had driven to F1 victory the year before and the rivalry between him and Hunt transcended the sports pages.
"The story was violent, sexy and, ultimately, very emotional and triumphant. To me, it was a gift. Where else can you find a story that can operate on so many levels, and entertain and engross people in so many different ways?" says the Oklahoma-born director.
The project "was well down the road" when he became involved, and Howard credits British screenwriter Peter Morgan, who's worked on The Last King Of Scotland and The Queen, for bringing the story to the big screen.
The pair have worked together before, on Frost/Nixon.
"Peter has entrepreneurial courage. He writes these things on spec, they're projects which aren't overly commercial, then he finds ways of getting them financed. It's pretty astounding," says Howard.
Morgan's admitted that the film "probably worked out better" than he thought it would.
He spent a long time talking to Niki Lauda (who still sports the facial scars from his horrific crash during 1976's Nurburgring grand prix) and never doubted the emotional impact of the story. Initially, his concerns lay in how the F1 action would be brought to life on film: "I assumed the racing scenes would be really embarrassing. I never thought for one minute that we'd dramatise the racing because of the sheer cost involved. To this day, I still don't know how they did it."
"It was a labour of love," Howard admits. "It really was that sort of commitment. People went that extra mile to live up to a standard over and over again."
When the people who own the original F1 cars agreed to participate in the movie, "it sort of raised the bar for everyone," Howard explains.
"Suddenly the people building the replica realised it had to sit next to the real thing. And it was a relentless ambition on the part of the editors to keep pushing for archive footage, and for the cinematographer to know how to make the insert on a piston or an axle into an emotional landscape," he adds.
Casting the two leads proved to be an area of contention. The financiers wanted an American star to play Lauda, which Morgan was against.
Instead, they looked to European cinema and cast the German actor Daniel Bruhl, who appeared in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, as the straight-talking and technically astute Lauda.
"I realised this is a serious guy. He respected the challenge of recreating an iconic figure and clearly had the range and talent to do it," says Howard.
Where his heart sank was in the casting of the charismatic Hunt, a notorious womaniser who thought nothing of having sex or enjoying a drink before stepping into his F1 car.
"It wasn't coming together with the same sort of clarity and I was losing confidence," he reveals. "Then the Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was mentioned. I'd met him and was really charmed by what he'd done in Thor, but there was no evaluating as to whether he had that kind of range."
He talked to Hemsworth's agent, admitting he had doubts, but soon after, the actor sent him a self-made audition tape and Howard was sold.
"It was really cool and I remember thinking, 'Now we've got a movie!'"
And now the final edit's out there, the director can sit back and enjoy the finished product.
"Yeah, the whole thing was a bit of a high wire act. Pete and I both feel like we took a bit of a flyer and we're proud of how it's worked out," he says.
And so they should be - the film is stunning, and is already garnering awards buzz.
"I think that's great, particularly for a movie which frankly fights to define itself a little bit," says Howard. "It encourages people to say this is worth overcoming any questions we might have about it, and give it a chance."
Morgan and Howard are already working on a new project, a period piece called In The Heart Of The Sea, in which they'll team up with Hemsworth once again.
Before that, Howard's debut documentary - Made In America, about the rapper Jay-Z - is due.
"I'm at a point in my career where if something as unique as Rush comes along, I want to leap at that opportunity," he says. "Made In America wasn't the same time commitment - by any stretch - but it was fascinating, and allowed me to follow my curiosity.
"I'm eager to see what I can learn and share with audiences. That's how I try and approach the choices I make."
Extra time - Movies about motors
:: Days Of Thunder (1990) - A young Tom Cruise plays a hot shot racing driver in the film in which he met Nicole Kidman, his now (first) ex wife.
:: The Fast And The Furious (2001) - Following the success of the first movie, work's already underway on the seventh instalment of the franchise, which stars Vin Diesel as the head of a group of illegal street racers.
:: Senna (2010) - The moving documentary about Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna, who won the World Championship three times before a fatal crash when he was 34, earned two Baftas.
:: The Love Bug (1968) - This Disney movie takes a more gentle look at the world of motor racing, with a Volkswagen Beetle called Herbie which has a mind of its own.
:: Le Mans (1971) - Iconic actor Steve McQueen stars as a driver in this film about the hardcore world of endurance racing.
:: Rush is released on Friday, September 13
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