Ron Howard on the challenge of accurately capturing the spirit of seventies F1 in Rush


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Rush director Ron Howard says the biggest challenge of creating his film about the 1976 F1 season was getting the look of the car right.

Speaking to F1 Fanatic and selected media prior to the official opening of the film last week, Howard said casting the cars was a “huge challenge” which “threatened our budget” in the early stages of making the film.

Eventually the film’s investors provided funds for them to conduct some exploratory filming at a historic Formula One race at the Nurburgring. This was a “huge break”, according to Howard.

“We were just picking out the cars in the race that were appropriate to our season,” he said. “And we did well, we actually got some shots that are in the movie, we learned a hell of a lot.”

“More importantly we were able to meet the owners of these cars. When I heard about these people who owned the historic Formula One cars I thought they were just hobbyists and these were sort of like road rallies where they would take the cars out, start them up, rev the engines a few times and maybe ave to the fans, take some pictures and drive around.

“But they race! They compete, they spin out, they crash, all of that. And they were willing to be a part of our movie once they believed it was going to be approached in an authentic, serious, way.”

The historic racers’ cars fleshed out the field for the recreated races. But for the starring cars of rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda – the McLaren M23 and Ferrari 312T2 – specially commissioned replicas were built.

“If they were going to be destroyed we’d start with a replica and then destruction would be [computer-generated] elements or something added to it,” explained Howard, “but everybody involved in the movie knew the cars, the replicas being built, would have to sit side-by-side with the real thing.”

As those who’ve seen Rush will know, the dedication to authenticity extended as far as getting the race-ro-race detail changes to the cars right. For example, Hunt’s M23 begins the season with a tall, red airbox which is later swapped for the distinctive L-shaped configuration.

It was just as important to get the film’s historical elements correct as some original video has been incorporated into the film:

“People also knew that the wardrobe would have to cut with the wardrobe we were seeing in the archival footage and that the production, design and art direction of the sets that we were building would also have to sit alongside shots of the real Brands Hatch or the real Monaco or the real Nurburgring,” said Howard.

“That was useful because it gave everybody a guide but it certainly raised the bar and had to raise everybody’s standards.”

Money men wanted American Lauda

The accuracy of Daniel Bruhl’s portrayal of Lauda has been hailed by many reviewers. But those behind the film originally wanted to someone else to play the role.

“The German investors were a little reluctant about Daniel,” said Howard. “They honestly wished we would get an American movie star to play Niki Lauda and just do a bad German accent.”

“But that’s not what [scriptwriter] Peter [Morgan] wanted nor what I wanted and we knew Daniel’s an artist who would take on the daunting task of recreating somebody who’s still so well-known, still so iconic.”

But while the film makers were quick to settle on Bruhl for the role of Lauda, it took longer to cast Chris Hemworth Hunt:

“The James Hunt casting threatened to derail the movie,” Howard recalled.

“Looking at the list, seeing who’s available, thinking about it, there was sort of no one who was fitting the mould as well as Daniel did for Niki. And my heart began to sink, I began to feel like we really shouldn’t go ahead with this, it’d be compromised, as excited as I am about the project.”

Hemsworth had come to prominence for his role in the 2011 film Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh. But Howard had doubts over whether the Australian could play a Norse god and an eccentric English playboy racing driver.

“I’d met Chris and liked him, liked him a lot in Thor,” said Howard, “but no way of knowing whether he could be James Hunt material.”

“Plus he was huge, when I saw him. He was Thor! He wrote me a note said ‘by the way, Thor couldn’t get into a Formula One car, but I’m the same height as James and I’ll be his build, if that’s what it takes’.”

“Kenneth Branagh said he really had a lot to offer as an actor. Anthony Hopkins told Peter the same thing, that he knew from 360 [another 2011 film].”

“And one day Chris just sent in a self-made audition tape. And he took some of the script and just did a few group speeches and it was so cool and such a confidence-builder. He had the body lanugage, the beginnigs of the sound, the attitude. He was transforming himself as a good actor does.”

That sealed Hemsworth’s casting in the role. “Then it was done,” said Howard. “We knew we had a movie.”

F1 ‘on a primal level’

Howard was new to F1 when he began researching Rush. But after a visit to the Monaco Grand Prix he quickly decided it was a compelling subject for a film – “smart, intelligent, thinking person’s entertainment”.

When Morgan approached him with the script for Rush, Howard knew F1 “was cool and sexy and international and kind of upscale – there was an element of glamour”.

“But I also knew that it was visceral,” he added. “To experience Formula One live is to first hear it and then sort of feel it in your chest before you even lay eyes on the car. And that’s what I remembered from the race.”

“Walking over some of the bridges, feeling the whole bridge vibrate, they have it all boarded so that nobody can watch the race from the bridges but you walk over and you just would hear this thing charging through.”

“It’s on a primal level,” Howard enthused, “if it was nature you’d be running for the hills, there’s be a herd coming your way!”

Howard felt the story of Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry gave Rush the right ingredients for an exciting production:

“The combination of a bona fide, big-screen experience that hopefully transports the audience and these rich, fascinating, entertaining characters was, I thought, a great combination and a chance to do something remarkably fresh.

“That’s a hard thing to be able to say about a lot of movies that are getting the green light today.”

“A dual survival story”

But as with the casting of Bruhl there were some who disagreed with the film’s direction – not least, the desire to avoid casting either driver as the hero of the piece:

“I did have friends in Los Angeles who read the script and said ‘who are we rooting for?'” Howard admitted. “This is the sort of traditional script note that you get.”

But it was an angle the film makers were keen to avoid: “That’s one of the unconventional aspects of this. I think people are pleasantly surprised by the move because they expect a more conventional kind of sports narrative to roll out.”

“These aren’t conventional characters and the good news was it kind of forced Peter, myself, all of us to take a narrative that doesn’t unfold the way you would write it in a movie script and make it work.

“I don’t think it’s fair to take sides, I don’t think there was a good guy or a bad guy there. I felt like it was a rival story and a dual survival story.

“I think the big narrative question was, is whatever was fuelling these guys to compete, including their rival, going to do them in? Are they going to navigate this gauntlet that this 1976 season turns out to be? That’s the tension, that’s the drama.”


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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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25 comments on “Ron Howard on the challenge of accurately capturing the spirit of seventies F1 in Rush”

  1. But for the starring cars of rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda – the McLaren M23 and Ferrari 412T2

    The Ferrari is the 312 T2, @keithcollantine: the 412 T2 is the 1995 car!

  2. It’s actually great that neither of those 2 characters were starred by American ‘star’. But if it was so hard to find proper James Hunt, couldn’t he pick Brad Pitt? He would remind Hunt quite a lot.

    1. You would want a 50 year old playing some in his 20s?

  3. I can’t wait. But I’ll have to wait until September 26.

    1. October 3rd here :/

  4. Off to see it tonight hopefully

  5. Watched it yesterday. Enjoyed it with the second half being better than the first.

    1. I also caught it a week ago, it’s actually in cinemas since Sep 12 in Hungary.

      Strange thing is I liked the first half more. I liked how it built up the characters before having them act on t in the second half.

      1. I enjoyed both parts equally, and it was so refreshing that neither person was made into a hero or villain. It made the story so much more “real”.

        The best thing however, was hearing my girlfriend go on about how much she liked it. She hates it when I watch F1 and had no idea what the film was about before we went in. Spend you’re money on this people, it is female friendly.

  6. February here :(

    1. @yoshif8tures Is that Japan? Any idea why it’s opening so late there? If I remember correctly it was one of the first markets Senna opened in.

      1. @keithcollantine yeah Japan, no idea why. I’d been trying to find a release date for ages too. But then most movies arrive here late and last except for major blockbuster movies.
        Could be something to do with marketing and promotion too. Or lack of, only time will tell. But yeah, Senna came here first, as I recall by some months too.

  7. Good job by Ron Howard to avoid so many of the typical Hollywood pitfalls that permeate most movies these days. I purposely avoid the usual predictable formulaic drivel passed off as entertainment that does nothing more than copy what has gone on before. Looking forward to seeing this and wish the producers much success with Rush. Hopefully this movie can heighten interest in F1 and inspire other filmmakers.

  8. I don’t want to give away much of it but the opening scene was superb at the Nurburgring. Both Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth were excellent. I thought it was superb. The scenes after Niki’s accident just showed how incredible it was for him to come back 6 weeks later

  9. Went to see it yesterday. It is a great film!

  10. It’s releasing on 20th September here in India… Cant wait

  11. Watched it this evening (just an hour ago). I thought it was a stunning movie, one where the real, yet riveting, characters come first, and subject matter second. And that’s a big compliment, for I feared it’d get bogged down in the specifics and the action of the sport, or the ‘plot’ of championship, so to say. This way, it’s a brilliant movie for every audience, F1 fans or not.

  12. Just got back from watching it. I really enjoyed it, felt that it had something for everyone. Hopefully it’ll help open up the Americans even more to the sport and help educate the casual fans in the history. Definitely goes beyond the expectations!

  13. Saw it yesterday and liked it a lot. I really don’t care much about Formula One and cars in general, and I still was fascinated by these men’s story. That’s the best compliment I can make to Ron Howard’s storytelling abilities.

    1. you don’t care about formula one or cars? how did you end up on this site if I may ask?

  14. Brilliant film. Very nicely balanced. Both lead actors put in a great performance. Attention to detail was very good. Best motorsport related film I’ve ever seen, million times better than the one sided nature of Senna.

  15. I went to see it yesterday and thought it was brilliant. Some of it was filmed just down the road from me at Cadwell and i also know John Councill who drove the Mc around Cadwell. I thought the actors did a really good job capturing their characters. Way better than Senna

  16. Heath Ledger as James Hunt would’ve been soo good!

  17. The film exceeded expectations. However, I question whether the engine sounds, especially from the Ferrari 312T2 were real. They did not sound like Ferrari motors at all. I hope I am wrong. I would like Howards take on this.

  18. Ok, so I didnt ‘Rush’ out to see this at the theatre ;) but what an excellent movie indeed. And from a personal spotters point of view I’m glad I was correct that the scenes from Crystal Palace raceway were filmed at Cadwell, one of the UKs most challenging and exciting circuits to drive around.
    Big thumbs up!

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