Rush - Ron Howard interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
RON Howard talks about some of the challenges of making Formula One drama Rush and what he liked about racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
He also discusses recent changes to the film industry and why he views some of them as an opportunity and why he doesn’t consider himself to be a good businessman.
Q. What did James Hunt and Niki Lauda offer to our culture?
Ron Howard: Well, I mean sports always works for us more allegorically or metaphorically and that’s what’s fantastic about why we love them. You demonstrate the limits to which a human being can go and they keep pushing the boundaries of that. They’re the first and still most reliable and relevant reality show. And so, the dramas that play out are creating basically narratives for us to follow, talk about, relate to, compare ourselves to, compare other people to. What I think that’s most compelling, ultimately, and the thing to be celebrated about Rush more than anything else thematically is that these guys both exhibited rigorous honesty – and they lived by that. And neither denied who they were, there was zero hypocrisy, they were very different, but they were their own mavericks. I like to say there was no Yoda guiding them to some higher plain of enlightenment… they by God didn’t listen to anybody and they did it their way. But they didn’t pretend anything different. And I think it’s why both men were respected and think why ultimately that’s what, in a way, brings the quality or respectability and nobility to the way they chose to compete and live their lives.
Q. How rare is to have two heroes in one film and no villain?
Ron Howard: I loved that about the story. And found it really fascinating and probably a little more journalistic in a way. But I did have friends of mine in Hollywood who privately worried about that for me. I would ask them to read the script and that was their concern. They weren’t sure who the rooting interest was. Some of those buzz words that you hear about in script development meetings weren’t there. But that never shook my confidence for a moment because I felt like it was a survival story and a kind of a story of evolution. Both guys have an idea of what it is they want to be and they have a burning need beyond the obvious glare of the spotlight. They have voids to fill. They want the respect of their families and they want to respect themselves. And these things all get established and like a lot of young men they’re not thinking too much about what the price will be. And they push each other, the rivalry fuels all of that in a very compelling and entertaining way, and Peter Morgan writes that kind of thing so well and so truthfully and so entertainingly.
But as they climb the ladder and the altitude, the air gets thinner and thinner and the stakes grow higher and higher, it changes them, it weighs on them and they start to pay a price for it. It’s the kind of thing that young men can never quite appreciate. So, it’s a kind of a rites of passage story in a way, too, and I felt like it was two very different people driving each other through a gauntlet that threatened both off them. And I thought that if I could have my way and I’d want the last race to begin and if you don’t know anything about the season, you’re just praying that one or both of them don’t buy it in this sequence. You’re just sort of rooting for both of them to make it through somehow.
Q. Equally they’re both quite difficult characters… Did that play on your mind?
Ron Howard: Yes. We had the same note about John Nash, the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind, and Akira Goldsman and Brian Grazer and I just kind of stick to our beliefs that if you’re detailed enough about a character, if you offer enough dimension, and the person isn’t a bad person, the audience will begin to accept the foibles and even be fascinated by them. And I felt that way about Rush as well. But you also have to realise that this didn’t come through the Hollywood development system. This was Peter Morgan writing a spec script that was rejected by the studios in terms of financing.
Undaunted, he began piecing together as a producer partners and financing and because of the setting of Formula One, it had just enough traction in the international market to move it forward and then people were discovering the script and realising just how strong it was. Paul Greengrass was interested. He ultimately chose to do Captain Phillips. But other directors were interested. I raised my hand very quickly. But it really was a labour of love project. It’s a chance to do something different. It’s a chance to offer audiences something that is hopefully very entertaining and compelling but does not follow the formulas. So, there’s something liberating about that. So, all of the questions that you’re raising would have eaten up a little bit more time probably had it been a studio movie. But if those questions were really raised, and maybe they were, it probably added up to somewhere under a minute.
Q. It’s worked in the film’s studio… had it been a studio movie they may have insisted upon making the characters more likeable…
Ron Howard: True, but there were so many things about this story, and I think that’s its advantage as a racing movie if you want to genre-ify it, which is probably unavoidable… Grand Prix is fiction, Le Mans is fiction, Days of Thunder is fiction, so they become kind of action movies in a way, or the fictionalised stories are there to give a framework to make the racing work. But this is inspired by real and complicated people. Sure, in collapsing a story, you simplify some things and you create some new scenes that sort of embody changes in the characters that might have happened over weeks, but actually take place within a scene.
Those kinds of things are what you always have to do. But the big ideas are based on what these guys lived through and what happened and they don’t add up to a conventional Hollywood, or typical, narrative… I don’t even want to use the word Hollywood. So, if it was fiction you wouldn’t have that last race unfold that way. You probably wouldn’t have the Lauda accident happen where it happens; you probably would have had it happen earlier. There are just so many things that wound up being an advantage because it surprises the audience. Things just don’t unfold as you’d expect them. And perhaps that was a little bit daunting at the beginning, so I can understand then why a studio wouldn’t get behind it. But at the end, even a studio is now backing it because it works. So, it was a calculated risk that works for audiences. Whether it works for investors or not, we’ll have to wait and see.
Q. What can you say about the state of the nation of filmmaking at the moment?
Ron Howard: Well, it really is a function of a kind of technological revolution. Whether you’re talking about printing presses or the industrial age, markets shift. Investment strategies must change. Audience buying patterns change. There’s no question that when DVDs, which were providing studios a reliable profit margin, when that began to shrink and it wasn’t replaced by downloads, well their job is to turn profit and if the profit evaporates, then they have to, as executives who are basically investors and marketers, look around and sort of say: “Well, what should we be investing in and what can we market?” And they’ve become more and more conservative about that. But the creative community has rallied around that and reduced their fees. I think Rush would have been made by a studio five years ago. And it would have cost a lot more money because all of our agents would have said: “Well, it’s a studio movie…” So you would have to pay that fee and there would be a different burden in terms of return on the investment.
So, those are just all the facts that every studio is facing and the answer is that, of course, it’s a challenge. But I think all it does is help define who loves their work enough and the medium enough to make the kinds of sacrifices to keep doing what they’re doing. I’m not a very good businessman. If I was really trying to maximise my earning power I wouldn’t jump around and do all of these different kinds of movies. I would settle in on a brand and develop that and that would be the cleverest thing to do if you were just looking at it economically. But I’m enjoying the creative adventure of exploring lots of different stories with different tones and styles.
Q. So, these new means of distribution, what potential do you see in them creatively?
Ron Howard: Well, I think it is opening it up to the next generation. My daughter, Bryce [Dallas Howard] is starting to direct a little bit. This period of time is not great for your bank account but it’s fantastic for your future as a creative person because while our generation stutters and baulks and tries to wonder if it’s fair or not, your generation gets to say: “Look at me! I’ve got a camera and a crew and we don’t need to… we only eat sandwiches! We’ll make a movie because we’ve got a hell of a story to tell and we want to tell it.” So, it’s opening the door for more autonomy and more creative freedom. It’s also doing another thing, which is I think was sort of happening to television all around the world, but I think it’s also working for movies as well. And that is that particular audiences are becoming more and more important.
The studios still want to make movies for four quadrants because they’re trying to support a huge infrastructure but if you shrink that infrastructure down, it’s still very challenging, but you can make movies for a particular audience, you can narrow your creative focus and you can find your audience, and one that is interested in the song you want to sing, or the novel you want to write. So, you can reach them and you can market to them and if it’s good enough – and it has to be pretty damn good – you can make a living doing it. So, there’s kind of a Darwinian thing happening, which is okay by me. I think it’s good for everybody. And by the way, I haven’t seen any of the movies coming up, but as a fan I’m looking at the movies that I’m reading about that are coming in the next month or two and there is some bold, exciting work on the horizon and somebody paid for it – it just probably, in most instances, wasn’t one of the major studios.
Q. How has Rush played in America?
Ron Howard: Well, we’ve had test screenings and it plays great if they come. This movie just keeps surprising audiences in positive ways. The Formula One fans are pleasantly surprised that the movie is authentic and offers them the experience that they would have hoped to have had in the movies. If they are dragged there and are sceptical because they don’t like race movies or sports movies, they’re pleasantly surprised because the acting is strong and the characters are interesting. And it’s not overwhelmed by the racing. I worked hard to make the racing scenes a kind of natural extension of what the characters were going through, which is I think what they did so successfully in a movie like Gladiator. I mean, you could say I don’t like swords and sandals movies but Gladiator was a drama and it also had this realistic, exciting look at gladiatorial combat.
So, I think the way in which we’re successfully surprising audiences is really good news as a director. The question is will it be too late to make this movie work on the big screen, which is really where this movie should be seen. I recognise that a lot of people wait and check it out later… they’ve got a good TV or they really like their cell-phone a lot! But this really is, even though it’s a drama, it begs to be seen in a good theatre with a good sound system.
Q. The sound design must have been so important…
Ron Howard: It is and we were as painstaking about it as ever. Because we had the historic Formula Ones with us from the period our recordist had mics everywhere. I actually did an unusual thing… I actually asked him to stay with the post-production sound team and keep following to make sure that in our final mix, we were using Ferrari recordings when we were looking at a Ferrari, and we had the McLaren when it was the McLaren. He’s a bit of a racing fan himself, so make sure we were using the right transmission and gearbox sounds because we could see right away that sound is important in that community and people know. My very first experience with Formula One, which was five or six years before Rush, and I remember hearing it first and feeling it second before ever laying eyes on a car. And so I just felt that this visceral experience was something we had to go the extra mile to offer audiences.