Rush - Anthony Dod Mantle interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
OSCAR winning cinematographer and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle talks about some of the challenges of bringing Formula One drama Rush to the big screen and the pleasure of working with Ron Howard.
He also talks about his passion for new challenges, working with Danny Boyle on numerous occasions (he won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire) and reuniting with Ron Howard for historical sea-faring drama In The Heart Of The Sea. Rush is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, January 27, 2014.
Q. What was the biggest challenge of making Rush for you?
Anthony Dod Mantle: Getting the cars to drive more than 30mph and working out how to film them [laughs]. But seriously, the greatest challenge was to understand how to make the film from the money we had once we realised that we couldn’t visit tracks like Monza and Brand’s Hatch. This is a period film, it’s set in the ‘70s during the James Hunt and Niki Lauda heyday, so some of the tracks no longer exist and those that do have changed. When we travelled to the Nurburing in Germany it’s covered in graffiti, a bit like James Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. So, that was the story that went on and on, so during the early parts of developing the film we realised we had to try and find a way of giving it some production value and to sustain, maintain and keep within budget once we had achieved that. And that meant we had to dive into a lot of archive stuff, 80% of which was rubbish. But Ron, myself and the team we assembled had to try and find, if possible, between 20 or 30 archive moments from the relevant areas of the race story that Peter Morgan had written and then try and build a look around that. And like I said, 90% of it looked shit and grainy, as a lot of the ‘70s stuff does, but every now and again we found something great… Monaco was particularly good because we found these beautiful colours like yellows and reds. So, we thought that if we could try and recreate that we’d be getting somewhere.
And then it was about finding the right cameras to use – both modern and old – to create the effects and marry the archive material to the modern footage and make it look seamless. In a lot of ways, Rush resembles the type of conventional drama that we all associate Ron Howard with making. There are scenes of people in a room talking but then suddenly there all these bloody cars and so it was about making them come alive and making Lauda’s world inside the car come alive in a Lauda way and then making Hunt’s interiors come alive in his way… at speed. But I love those kinds of challenges. And I love doing things that I haven’t done before. There was a lot of work using cameras that neither Ron nor myself had used before and developing techniques of shooting at speed that you see in sports footage but working out our own way of dramatically telling the beats and moments we wanted to capture.
Q. Is that one of the thrills you continually seek, pushing yourself into areas you’ve never been in before? Is that something you look for?
Anthony Dod Mantle: Definitely. Whenever I’ve worked with Danny Boyle we often try and move into something that’s a little bit different and it keeps it fresh, especially if you’re slogging away at something for a year. And like I said, for Ron Howard this represented something new in a lot of ways. It’s a more physical film than he’s used to. I knew about Formula 1 already and had seen it as a kid. So, one of the most driving incentives for me was recapturing how I felt as a young kid watching motor racing. I was detached from the paddock, of course, but I remember admiring the buttocks of the beautiful models… and I was there with my ice lolly watching the cars go by every few minutes. And sometimes there would be a crash. I remember thinking that it [the sport] was a very odd gladiatorial experience – I mean, you had everything bar putting your thumb up or down. I thought it was a very strange cocktail of a sport – but I was excited by it.
So, to then suddenly be recreating the period where I did go to motor racing and I could get close to the cars and close to the models was, again, very exciting. I really did get a feel for how dangerous it was and how much sexuality is tied to it. So, we wanted the film to feel as fragile and as dangerous as it really was. I mean, these guys were left to their own devices for much of the time. They managed themselves. Nowadays, they’re very well managed and they’re top athletes. It’s still dangerous, don’t get me wrong. But those guys… five or six of them would die a year – even Lauda, who is one of the most strategically sensible drivers I’ve ever spoken to. He told me that he loves the control factor of flying an airplane as a pilot. He loves to be told what height to fly at, and at what speed, whereas when the lights go and the flags go in motor racing, it’s a war zone… it’s madness. He said it’s happening so fast that you do what your personality allows you to do. It’s a pretty crazy job.
Q. How was meeting Lauda? I gather he’s very no-nonsense…
Anthony Dod Mantle: He’s incredible. He never leaves sentences unfinished and he’s very direct and very frank but very funny. I only met him three or four times but he was incredible. When I was younger, I do remember the accident. I wasn’t watching it then, but I remember hearing an interview with Lauda where he was asked why he was coming back and I remember him saying that he came back for the money. I remember thinking that it sounded like an unsympathetic and callous thing to say and it didn’t do anything for my relationship with him. But cut forward 20 or so years and he’s just an incredibly honest and direct guy. He has a dry humour but now I also know about this extraordinary world surrounding him. I spent two or three months really learning about him and getting to know about him. So, to suddenly be sitting in a restaurant in front of the real Niki was just incredible. And, of course, he’s not callous and cold. He’s very affectionate and seriously gifted. It was a pleasure to be able to spend time with him and so helpful hearing what he had to say.
Q. How was actually recreating his crash? I gather you filmed in exactly the spot at the Nurburing where it happened…
Anthony Dod Mantle: Yeah we did. It’s terrifying when you see it on the Internet. And the film you see on the Internet was shot by an eight or 11-year-old with a Super 8 camera. It goes back to the voyeurism I referred to surrounding the sport. But somewhat eerily, my experience of recreating the crash echoed the real thing because we actually shot it in the position that it happened using a camera in the same position and some guy had got into the track and recorded us with his little iPhone camera and it was on the Internet within a day. It was spooky to see.
But here’s how Ron and I broke it down. We shot what we could live, we burnt the car as we could afford to live, with sometimes little Daniel Bruhl in flames… I was in a flame suit packed in looking out through the flames rest. We did as much as we could live and the rest is achieved using help and assistance in post-production. But we wanted to do it by the book and it was very weird being there. I remember I reccied it for the first time at night and I travelled with a driver who knew every corner of the track. But we then drove it at 100mph at night without lights and that was an incredible experience and something he admitted that he’d never done before. It’s an extraordinary track. He’d driven it a million times but never in the dark. But we stopped at the accident spot and I just stood there and took it in. I like doing things like that.
Q. How did working with Ron Howard compare to working with Danny Boyle?
Anthony Dod Mantle: Obviously, they are two very different filmmakers. In many ways, comparing them is hard. They’re both very hard working… very, very hard working and industrious in different ways. I always call Danny the bricklayer of British film. He slogs away and he’s the first to come to the set and the last to leave. I have a lot of admiration for that. But Ron is like that in his own way. And he comes into it as an actor. And it’s also different in America… it’s a different process and it’s aesthetically different. I’ve done seven films with Danny and now I’ve completed two with Ron. Danny and I ping-pong with visual strategies and Danny is very open to what I come up with as Director of Photography and we often find things out together. I always have a lovely dialogue with Danny.
Ron leaves it much more up to you. He has an idea and each film he does he learns more about the visual language. But like I said, he comes from an actor’s background and his great gift is that he knows how to work with actors. So, he was very trusting towards me and left me to go off and try things. He’d pull be back and reign me in at times, when he felt it was appropriate, but there was a lot of room to try new things and, like I said, he was also doing something visually different from what he has been doing before. Ron is also a lovely, lovely guy and a funny man to have overseeing a crew, and when you have someone like that, you can be sure that people are more willing to work very hard for you. If you behave and never lose your temper, which is hard when you’re under so much pressure… but if you don’t shout, people give you everything. And Ron is also the first person I’ve ever done a Q&A with on-stage where I couldn’t get a word in. I really met my match with him – he has so much to say.
But each film produces its own challenges. On Slumdog [Millionaire], for instance, it was about running around at high speed in slums with kids, while for 127 Hours it was about being stuck in a confined space in a canyon. On Rush, it was about bringing the cars alive. I’ve worked with Ron again since and this time we’ve been on water for a historic story where we’ve been stranded at sea [for the film In The Heart Of The Sea]…
Q. Isn’t that the true story that inspired Moby Dick?
Anthony Dod Mantle: It is. And that was a massive, massive job. It’s by first official studio job but we got through it.
Q. How was working on water?
Anthony Dod Mantle: It was f**king difficult [laughs]. It’s very hard. I wanted to patrol the sky and the weather. And that’s as mad as a general trying to stop the arrows being aimed at him! However expensive the films shot a sea are, their success depends on whether they have been able to control it. The sea is an un-dramatic place if you can’t control the light and the water. It can just look like a big blue pond. A lot of films fall into that trap. And that’s why I studied everything from Waterworld to Pirates and Master & Commander, which is one of the better examples. We had problems with it but we did our best to overcome them but we’ve yet to see whether we were able to capture what we needed.
Rush is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, January 27, 2014.