Exclusive: behind the scenes on Rush
A rivalry that defined a generation. Hunt vs Lauda. McLaren vs Ferrari. Jason Barlow heads to the set of the new film
Posted: 01 Sep 2013
Niki Lauda peers through a helicopter window. His beautiful wife Marlene grips his hand, as the chopper’s blades whir into life above them. Lauda’s eyes narrow as he watches James Hunt, his on-track nemesis, fending off the attentions of over-zealous Japanese racing fans and leggy blondes. Hunt has just beaten him to the 1976 F1 World Championship by a single point, a victory determined partly by a ballsy drive by the Englishman, possibly more so by Lauda’s decision to abandon a treacherous rain-soaked race. Three months after near-death following a crash at the Nürburgring, his cool logic dictates that the risk today outweighs the reward. Game over. Both his recovery and his retirement from the Japanese GP rank among two of the bravest acts ever seen in motorsport.
The helicopter moment comes near the climax of Ron Howard’s new film, Rush. Only we’re not in Fuji, we’re at the far end of a former WWII airfield in Surrey, and a small army of men are manoeuvring the director of photography, Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle, into position behind a detached Bell Jet Ranger door for Lauda’s pained POV. It takes 30 minutes to rig the shot, coax the wind machine into creating the right sort of ripples on the standing water in the foreground, all with the right exposure in the dwindling March light. In the film, the shot lasts all of three seconds, but it speaks volumes. There is magic in movie-making, no doubt about that, but it takes a vast amount of hard work to conjure.
Most F1 fans know about James Hunt, and even more will be familiar with Niki Lauda’s courageous story. The two clashed and battled like immortals throughout 1976, co-defined like so many great rivals in a way that was sufficiently dramatic – and possibly romantic – to grab screenwriter Peter Morgan and film director Ron Howard’s full attention. These guys are all about story, and this is one of the greatest. “It’s silly it’s taken so long for this to happen,” McLaren’s amusingly irascible Seventies team manager Alistair Caldwell tells me on set. “If you took the 1976 season and presented it as a screenplay, people would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous… all that stuff couldn’t possibly happen to those guys in the same year!’ But it bloody well did.”
Ron Howard drives a Volvo. He also admits he knew little about F1 when he signed up to direct Rush. “But then I didn’t know a lot about astronauts when I agreed to make Apollo 13,” he tells me over a rapidly consumed chicken salad. Today, the main unit is a third of the way through principal photography, and Howard – unquestionably one of the nicest guys in Hollywood – is in no mood for distractions. “It’s about the rivalry. These are different kinds of men, who expressed themselves in different ways. How much were they prepared to show?” he muses. “I hope to carry that over into the racing, so that it becomes an extension of them and what they are prepared to let you see of them. I want the audience to have an emotional investment in who they are, as real people not just icons.”
The mid-Seventies was still a highly dangerous era in F1. Rush’s writer Peter Morgan talks about how the proximity of death coloured the drivers’ attitude to life. Lauda, part of a wealthy Austrian banking dynasty, rationalised everything with almost frigid logic, while Hunt was a paradox, utterly desperate to please as many people as possible, but an irredeemable misanthropist, an unbelievably loyal friend who cheated on almost every woman he was ever with (and there were said to be 5,000 or more), the die-hard competitor who quit F1 before it could kill or quit him. Rush is so much more than a motor racing film.
Delivering it with the appropriate impact on the big screen was a challenge, on a number of fronts. Howard might be an A-list Hollywood producer and director, but Rush is an independent British film, backed by various small production companies (it’s Howard’s first indie, in fact, in a directing career that spans 22 massive films). The success of Senna helped fast-track it; Eric Fellner, one of Working Title’s co-chairmen who co-produced both it and this new film, is a huge Ferrari fan who has long wanted to make a motor racing movie. He knows full well that it’s a genre that cinema has served poorly. He also knows the stakes are high; while hitting the mass audience motherlode is critical, the racing hardcore won’t tolerate factual inaccuracies.
A big Hollywood film is a $200m gamble these days, and although Rush cost a fraction of that, it mostly outpaces its budgetary constraints. The film was rigorously prepped, and with many of the sequences mapped out months before shooting started, Howard’s editor also used archive footage to create a moving template and set the visual tone. Dod Mantle’s mantra during filming was “a curious camera”, and though it’s clear watching Howard at work that he is fast and efficient, he was also happy to experiment. “The camera operators had a lot of freedom to go with what was drawing their eye,” he tells me over a year after wrapping the film. “Of course, it was staged and I was working with actors doing takes. But there wasn’t much in the way of rehearsing, and sometimes I didn’t even tell the A and B cameras what I wanted. It was a bit guerrilla at times, I guess. I wanted it to feel like something being discovered, rather than overly directed.”
The result crackles with energy and intensity. It’s also a reminder of just how nuts the cars and drivers were back then. Hunt raced a McLaren M23, Lauda the striking Ferrari 312 T2, neither of which were exactly available off-the-shelf to be used and abused by the film-makers. Two original cars were borrowed for close-ups with the actors Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Avengers Assemble) and Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds), but for the wheel-banging action stuff, Formula Vauxhall Lotus and Ford single-seaters were meticulously rebodied to create near-perfect facsimiles of the real thing.
As for the driving, pre-production enquiries led the Rush team to Niki Faulkner (guess who he was named after), an accomplished racing driver and mainstay of an outfit called Driving Wizards. “I was at home one day when the phone rang,” he says. “It was Ron Howard, and he wanted to talk about Rush. As I’d been trying to work out how to approach him about the film, it was a good day.”
Working with the film’s stunt co-ordinator Franklin Henson, Faulkner and his team storyboarded every sequence, used model cars, walked the track beforehand, and basically tried to nail the shot in their heads before the cameras rolled. “We didn’t have a single incident during shooting, because we must have worked it all out 100 times or more in advance,” he says. “Clearly the budget meant we couldn’t fly to Kyalami or Paul Ricard, and we ended up at Snetterton, Brands, Donington, and Cadwell Park instead. I know it’s Cadwell up there on the screen, which is a bit frustrating, but it looks pretty damn good, and most people would never know. We wanted to tell this story, about these two incredible guys, in the most powerful, imaginative and cinematic way we could.
“I jokingly asked Ron what my motivation was before one particular take,” he continues [Niki played James in the film, while his colleague James played Niki. Unsurprisingly, this led to some confusion]. ‘Your wife’s just left you for Richard Burton, and you’ve just been f**king an air hostess,’ he told me. So I drove a bit faster that day…”
Niki also worked closely with Hemsworth and Brühl, who spent time in an F1 simulator and attended track days so that their body language in the cars was as accurate as possible. “They did a great job,” he recalls. “We studied the racing sequences and car chases in lots of other films. I remember thinking how stiff Robert De Niro looked in Ronin. He had a dummy wheel in front of him, and the stunt driver beside him. Apparently he wasscared s**tless, and he looked it.”
As good as the racing sequences are, Rush is propelled by the human performances at its heart. Hemsworth is a moody, handsome Hunt; losing his Thor bulk to play the wiry racing driver almost sent him over the edge. “I was underfed and had to over-train for months. My wife was like, ‘Please, just eat something!’ It changes your personality in some weird ways.” Of the drivers, he is clear on the motivation. “Death was the dark cloud looming towards you that you’d occasionally acknowledge, but would otherwise ignore. ‘I won’t let that in.’ François Cevert used to refer to them as being like knights, having that sort of nobility. I like that image.’
Opposite him, the German actor Daniel Brühl is simply astonishing as Lauda. Faulkner says he spent so long working with Brühl’s Lauda that when he finally met the real one – at the British GP this year – he almost fell over. Peter Morgan says friends of his who know Lauda insist he must have dubbed the film. Frankly, if Brühl isn’t nominated for a hatful of industry gongs, I’ll eat my racing boots. When I ask him about it, he slips effortlessly into Lauda’s machine-gun Austrian ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ accent like he’s wearing a suit. Weirder still, he’s in full post-accident burns make-up at the time; movie magic meets actorly skill.
“He was very open with me,” Brühl admits. “He’s a complex character, and so different from every other man I know. So determined. He has pure discipline, he’s an incredible businessman, and super-skilled. He flew me to Brazil for the GP in his own jet. [adopts accent] ‘Come to Vienna first, but just bring hand luggage… in case we don’t like each other and I have to send you back home.’ But luckily we got on. I found it very impressive he would answer every question, even intimate ones.”
“All sportsmen have an armour,” he continues. “And Niki knows the effect he has on other people. He’s so frank, he plays on it to this day. But he’s actually really likeable. The responsibility for me is extremely high. In Germany, in particular, he still casts a big shadow. [that accent again] ‘Well don’t mess it up, OK? It has to be good…”’
Brühl is better than good. As is Rush. Finally, motor racing gets the movie it deserves. Don’t miss it.
Rush opens on 13 September in cinemas in the UK