Niki Lauda and James Hunt shared a rivalry that quickly developed into one of motorsport’s great narratives, energising Formula One during the 1970s. Rush, a soon to be released film directed by Ron Howard, masterfully documents that particular moment in motor racing
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
I love doing projects that take people on a journey that’s fresh and interesting. But I’m the happiest when that journey is in the service of really understanding compelling characters. This is one of those combinations.’ Ron Howard pauses just long enough to spear another piece of chicken. He has 20 minutes for lunch, and has graciously allowed us to interrupt it. The director of 35 films, with a producer’s credit on a whopping 66, not to mention countless acting roles all the way back to an infant debut in 1956, what Howard doesn’t know about filmmaking could fit comfortably on the world’s smallest stamp. But that doesn’t stop each new project from assuming the characteristics of a medium-sized military campaign. Today we join him on set in Surrey, not far from London, mid-way through principal photography on Rush, his latest venture, and one which, in a post-Senna cinematic world, looks set to add another quality entry to a sadly undernourished movie canon: that of the decent motor racing film. That said, this isn’t a motorsport movie per se.
No, what drives Rush is the same stuff that generally propels the most compelling stories, cinematic or otherwise: heroic people, their triumphs, travails and tragedies, the battles won and lost, with their redemption, or perhaps lack of it, as the pay-off. This being the tale of former Ferrari driver and triple Formula One World Champion Niki Lauda and the mercurial 1976 F1 World Champion James Hunt, we’re talking about a narrative arc with more jagged peaks and troughs than most. Not to mention an irresistible sense of two great co-defined sportsmen. ‘It’s about the rivalry. These are different kinds of men, who express themselves in different ways,’ Howard says. ‘One of the things that is interesting to me is what they are willing to articulate and express. I hope to carry that over into the racing, so that the racing becomes an extension of them and what they are prepared to let you see of them. Slowly but surely, you feel you have a deep sense of who they are, and an emotional investment in who they are. As real people, not just icons.’ Lauda and Hunt lit up the 1970s grand prix stage like two beacons, but they gatecrashed this brutal gladiatorial arena in very different ways. Hunt was a man of dark, unknowable layers and often wanton appetites, a handsome, athletic public schoolboy who revelled in antagonising the establishment (this would become a life-long mission), and a chronic womaniser. Aged just 17, he announced to his long-suffering parents, completely out of the blue, that ‘all your anxieties about my fecklessness are over. I am going to be a racing driver. And I shall be World Champion.’ After a stint with the equally devil-may-care Hesketh team, he stepped into the breach for McLaren (its lead driver Emerson Fittipaldi had joined his brother’s ill-fated squad) in 1976, silencing his critics while still partying hard and establishing an F1 driver template the sport misses to this day. And he was true to his word…
Lauda was equally convinced of his championship potential, but had to overcome different obstacles, in his case family hostility. Despite his wealthy background, he was forced to leverage his own life insurance to pay for his first F1 drive. By 1974, he was on Ferrari’s radar, and won the 1975 World Championship. During that season, he set a new lap record on the fearsome Nordschleife; a year later, and having lobbied to abandon the race on safety grounds, he almost died in one of the sport’s most notorious accidents. The crash and its aftermath dominate Rush; Lauda hovers at death’s door, before staging a courageous comeback, and the film doesn’t hold back from the grim realities of his recovery. As Lauda told us in issue 18 of The Official Ferrari Magazine, ‘I always knew about the risks I was taking. Every year, someone was killed. Do you enjoy driving these cars so much that you’re prepared to take that risk? It’s not the same today. When I finally had my accident, I was not surprised. So I never moaned or bitched withmyself. Why does my head hurt? Then here was a simple question: is the pleasure of driving still strong, or do I want to retire?’ ‘Reporters want me to go back, to act out some kind of pious ritual,’ Lauda noted. ‘If I do revisit the scene, I’m more liable to say, “ah, yes, the Grill Room”. And they’ll go away thinking what a cold bastard that Lauda is… Peter [Morgan, Rush’s screenwriter] showed me the scene where my injuries are shown for the first time. It’s shot extremely well, I must say. The horror. I finally understood how the people at the time must have felt. At the time, I didn’t care. I was racing!’ Of such stuff are motor racing heroes made. Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) relished the challenge of Rush. ‘I’m approaching it entirely from the perspective of a human drama,’ he says. ‘This film is about the people involved, rather than the sport itself. In fact, the first thing Bernie Ecclestone said to me was, “I hope this isn’t going to be a film about F1.” I said, “Not at all, it’s about two human beings.” And he said, “I’m so pleased you said that.” He only really got excited when he realised I was writing about a titanic rivalry, a clash of approaches, attitudes and philosophies.’
‘Niki never felt particularly threatened by James as a driver, he figured that even if James beat him once, he could beat him across 10 races,’ Morgan continues. ‘But a pretty passionate rivalry sprang up, and he was always rather in awe of James and James’s way of enjoying himself. Sometimes the biggest blessing in life is when you are sent a mortal rival. Senna and Prost co-defined each other in a really interesting way. Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Borg and McEnroe.
Every now and then, in any generation, two prodigious talents emerge. Two people who are born to be rivals.’ Shooting a film like Rush is a challenge on every front. An international co-production (including Britain’s Working Title, the pan-European Studio Canal and Hollywood’s Cross Creek Pictures), Howard and his director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, had to conjure a perfect period context – big hair and big sunglasses, often wreathed in cigarette smoke – and, even more importantly, motor racing verisimilitude. With little budgetary scope, or indeed desire, for excessive CGI, Rush plunges you into the heat of competitive battle, even on several occasions into the explosive innards of a racing engine. It’s hot, kinetic, and often roller-coaster queasy.
Classic 1970s racing cars are used in close-ups, near identical models for the often brutal on-track action. A disused runway in Surrey doubles as the paddock for the ’Ring, Silverstone, Monza and Fuji, while many of the hi-octane race scenes were shot on various English club circuits. This is movie magic, and testament to the genius (and stamina) of all involved. ‘So much of this is about capturing an atmosphere and the impact of this environment on these characters,’ Howard says. ‘There’s a 1970s existentialist tone in some of it. Anthony is naturally drawn to images that support that. We’re not emulating a 1970s aesthetic in a rigorous way, in the way that people might set out to make a 1930s movie. ‘These machines are beautiful,’ he smiles. ‘Will we fetishise them? How can you not? There is less CGI than we originally spoke about, and more driving. There’s a lot of race action in this film.’ There is also some fine acting, particularly from Daniel Brühl, whose portrayal of Lauda had this Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief (a man who has known the driver since his Ferrari heyday) to proclaim, ‘Incredible! He is Lauda!’, having glimpsed some of the film. Brühl immersed himself totally in Lauda, from extensive dialect training to attending a Formula Three driver training course. ‘It’s a strange thing playing a real character who is still alive. Especially a character like Niki, who is quite extreme,’ he says. ‘I was lucky, he was very open with me. His book To Hell & Back was the best first source. He’s complex, and so different to every other man I know, just so determined. He has pure discipline and his brain works like a Swiss watch. He’s an incredible businessman, super skilled. He invited me to go with him to the Brazilian GP, he flew us there on his own jet. [adopts perfect Lauda accent] “Come to Vienna, but just bring hand luggage…” In case we didn’t like each other and he would send me back home! Luckily we got on. He answered every question, even intimate ones.’ It’s a reminder that, for all its intensity and race action, Rush is fundamentally a film about two extraordinary men. ‘All athletes have an armour,’ Brühl says, ‘And Niki knows the effect he has on other people. He’s so frank, he plays on it, to this day. But he’s also really likeable. He was very kind to me, from the first minute. So the responsibility is extremely high. Everyone knows Niki Lauda, they know how he speaks. In Germany, in particular, he still casts a big shadow. He said to me, “Just don’t fuck it up, OK? It has to be good.”’ Lauda laughs at the memory. ‘I taught him well! Daniel came to Vienna and did some training with a speech coach. I asked him, “How difficult is it for you to play me?” He replied, “Extremely, because you are still alive. People will know if I am a bad actor…” Marlene [Lauda’s first wife] told him lots of interesting things about me… [laughs] The film is about two different guys fighting for the same success, using different approaches.’ Rising superstar Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers), who plays Hunt, sadly couldn’t call on the real thing for inspiration: the former World Champion passed away in 1993. But he expertly nails the bleak ambivalence that underpinned motorsport in that often dangerous era. ‘There’s a sense that there was a dark cloud looming towards you that you’d occasionally acknowledge but would otherwise ignore,’he says. ‘Those guys knew better than to let that in. François Cevert used to refer to them as being like knights, and there was a nobility to what they did. And that’s all in the film: James in particular felt
that there was so much more to it than just racing. ‘Whatever energy is required in a scene, as an actor you’ve got to embody it. But I don’t carry it about with me for four months. I’m not Marlon Brando, y’know? But whether it’s James being the life and soul of the party, or being dark and dangerous, you have to find it. You’ve got to show the truth of it.’ It’s a truth that Rush locates expertly. Don’t miss it.
Rush opens in the UK on 13 September, and around the world in October
Da issue 21, maggio 2013, green