HOLLYWOOD — Since making his directorial debut in 1977 with Grand Theft Auto, director/producer and former child star Ron Howard has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most successful and versatile directors. He’s made films about boxers (Cinderella Man), astronauts (Apollo 13), mermaids (Splash), symbologists (The Da Vinci Code), politicians (Frost/Nixon), firefighters (Backdraft) and mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind, which won him Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture).
So maybe it was just a matter of time before he turned his attention to the high-octane, high-stakes, turbo-charged world of Formula 1 racing. His new film, the Universal release Rush, tells the real-life story of the 1976 Formula One season and the dramatic rivalry between British driver James Hunt (played by Liam Hemsworth) and reigning world champion, Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), which plays out against an international backdrop of glamour, sex and speed.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Howard talks about making the film, the challenges involved, and his love of post.
POST: Was a film about Formula 1 outside your comfort zone, and was that the appeal?
RON HOWARD: “It was definitely outside my comfort zone in some regards and it was brand new territory. I’m not a racing fan, but it was a great story with great characters and all these very exciting race scenes.”
POST: It has a pretty radical look and this was the first time you worked with DP Anthony Dod Mantle, Danny Boyle’s go-to DP, who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. What made you choose him?
HOWARD: “I’ve been a huge fan for a long time, and as this was a UK/German co-production, I couldn’t bring in my usual DP, Salvatore Totino. So when I found he was available for this, I jumped at the chance to work with him. His aesthetic was what I wanted for this. He’s very interested in the story, in the psychology, in the emotion, and he’s very poetic and has a great eye. But he doesn’t let that drive him. It’s this other thing — what’s most interesting about the moment, and what’s possible. So he is a great storyteller, and a guy who really rolls with the environment. That’s a key thing.
“I expected him to be very creative, and he is, but he also has this ability to look at the sky, the scene, the actors, and understand what I’m hoping for from the scene, and then use all those varied elements in a way that’s both efficient and effective. And I think that comes from years of having not enough money to work with, and letting that pressure push him into choices that wind up being a little unconventional and more interesting.”
POST: Did you ever consider shooting film, or was it automatically a digital project?
HOWARD: “It was my first all-digital movie. We mainly used the Alexa, and I’m not sure we could have got the look we did on film.”
POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?
HOWARD: “We shot all the race scenes in Britain and Germany, and they doubled for all the other tracks as well. We started at the famous Nurburgring course in Germany, but Anthony was still on another film and couldn’t be there, but he helped design the whole approach with me and then sent some of his team.
“We shot a historic race, with people who own the actual period cars. They race them, and although not all the cars were from 1976, they were all visually and technologically similar enough that it worked for us. So we went out with a couple of Alexas and some Canon C300s and other on-board cameras Anthony wanted to experiment with, and we shot the practice and race itself over a weekend. That taught us a hell of a lot, and although it was a test, it was the first time I shot something I felt could actually be in the final movie.
“We then took four of the owner-drivers and Double Negative came, and we shot helicopter plates, mostly to just get background plates of the course. But a funny thing happened. All this bonus footage turned out great. Although these weren’t stunt drivers, they could stage some over-takes, and it worked!”
POST: That must have affected your visual approach and how to best shoot this?
HOWARD: “Yes. That completely revised my sense of what we could do in-camera. So it was this process of discovery, and we found that it all shifted from relying a lot on CG cars for all the visceral racing moves to shooting the real thing. Then what happened was that all the people building the replicas realized that their cars would have to sit next to the real cars on the grid and pits, and they stepped up to the plate and built very fast, durable cars. They weren’t as fast as the real historics, but they could race with them convincingly, and all our professional precision drivers were able to do far more than I’d expected.
“And all that helped us to be able to broaden the canvas, and to be more ambitious about using archival footage and restoring it and tweaking it and inserting our cars into it and manipulating it so it worked for our narrative. And we could expand the scale of the tracks, and add signage with set extensions on top of what we could shoot in-camera. So the movie got bigger and bigger, the more we could do in-camera.”
POST: Shooting races and their drivers must be tricky in terms of following characters, when everyone’s inside a helmet?
HOWARD: “You’re right. It’s a big problem with coverage as you can easily lose track of them as characters. So the struggle was to carry the drama away from the track, and follow what’s going on in their lives and heads, which was very important to me and which I felt makes the whole story fresh and interesting and surprising. I had to let all that inform the look and feel of the movie, and their relationship with their cars. So we used all these on-board cameras to get an intimate, insightful look.”
POST: How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot to pull off all the race footage?
HOWARD: “We did some rough pre vis, but they weren’t followed rigorously. They were more just exploratory to help us think about ways of looking at the races, and they were very helpful. But I decided I didn’t want to use digital and CGI to create a lot of impossible shots on this. I felt that’d run counter to the ‘70s aesthetic that Anthony and I were going for.”
POST: Do you like the post process?
HOWARD: “I love it. I love the edit and slowly pulling the movie together after the madness of the shoot.”
POST: Where did you do the post?
HOWARD: “It was a bit complicated. We edited first in London, and then in the US near my house, and then went back to the UK and took it further and did ADR at De Lane Lea, and finally went to Berlin and did all the scoring and mixing there at Tonstudio Hanse Warns. And that arrangement turned out to be fantastic.”
POST: The film was edited by your longtime collaborators Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, who won the Oscar for Apollo 13. How early were they involved and were they on set?
HOWARD: “They never really go to the set, and on this movie we had such a flood of footage as we shot digital. There’s a tendency to never turn off the camera, and I always shoot a lot, so this time it was an unprecedented amount for them to deal with. In fact, Dan came on a bit earlier than Mike in post, and one of the first things he did was to study the pre vis and then look at all the archival race footage we’d collected as research, and then he began editing versions of the scripted races together using the archival.
“He was pulling from different races, so it didn’t exactly make sense, but we knew what he was doing, and it was very revealing. He also used material from other films, and it was this big exercise. But it also established a look that would both allow us to use more archival, which was very helpful and exciting in terms of broadening the scope of the movie, and to conform the archival with some CGI adjustment to what our story needed. So it informed the sort of camera moves we wanted. Unlike, say, Fast & Furious which does a great job of using CGI to create shots that are impossible — like starting on the tire, going up, over the hood and in through the window. I love it! But it’s a movie moment, and with this I wanted it to be as real and immersive as possible for the audience, and work in that style. And that suited me and Anthony. It’s a fast way to shoot, it’s not intrusive on the actors, and let us get a lot of race action done.”
POST: Talk about working with Double Negative, VFX supervisor Jody Johnson, and all the VFX.
HOWARD: “Jody and Double Negative were great. All the visual effects were handled by Double Negative in London, with Pixomondo also doing some shots. We had about 700 VFX shots in the end, of varying types. A lot were just brush strokes and rig removal stuff, but we also had our big moments where cars are crashing and then things where it’s just too dangerous and too expensive and unpredictable to try and do any other way except with VFX.”
POST: Sound and music is always important, but it seems even more crucial than usual in a movie like this.
HOWARD: “I agree. It’s always huge to me, but it was so significant on this. Hans Zimmer did a great job on the score despite a very tight budget, and sound effects and editing are especially vital when you’re doing a Formula 1 movie. You hear those cars before you ever see them, and it’s an experience already. And even though RPMs are up and it sounds different today than it did in ‘76, it’s still an amazing sound when you go to a historic race. It’s more guttural and animalistic, and I really wanted to get that sound. And Danny Hambrook, our sound designer, recorded lots of the historic cars and built up all these tracks, and in post, helped design the engine sounds, and that made a world of difference. A lot of the F1 fans can tell the engines apart, so I wanted it to be right.”
POST: The DI must have been important. Where did you do it?
HOWARD: “At Co3 in London. It was very important and I felt very confident about it, and of course, went to visit Anthony several times during the process. He and I were on the same page from start to finish. There weren’t any big debates about the look and in the DI. I could see he was only enriching what he was already getting in-camera, and I loved the dailies and the look we got. So there was no big dramatic change. It was just a fulfillment of what he was always going for.”