Right or Ron
Ron Howard's career has been up and down, writes John Meagher, but Rush is a highlight
It may have been more than 20 years since Ron Howard made a movie in Ireland, but he still remembers the name of the country's most famous dolphin. "Fungi," he says, smiling. "When I think back to that time making Far and Away, I think of the time we spent in the Dingle Peninsula. The children were quite young then and they remember that time in Ireland with great affection. Even to this day, they still mention Fungi."
The film, starring Tom Cruise and his then wife Nicole Kidman, was panned by the critics and widely ridiculed for its hokey plot and ghastly Irish accents – "they were very hard on it," Howard says, somewhat sheepishly, today – but it would have not have a detrimental effect on the career of a man who is now widely seen as one of the most accomplished American directors of his generation.
The slew of Oscars earned by his films Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon attest to Howard's skill as a film-maker and his latest effort is likely to be a favourite come the awards season.
Rush focuses on the rivalry between two of Formula 1's leading stars of the 1970s – the steely, unshakeably focused automaton, Niki Lauda, and the feckless, charming ladies' man, James Hunt. Motor racing was far more dangerous then, and the film zeroes in on the thrilling – and potentially lethal – 1976 season which saw competition between the Austrian and Englishman go right down to the wire.
"There was this fantastic sense of competition between two very different men," he says, speaking to Day & Night during promotional duties for the film in London. "There's a lot of drama – and I hope even those who would normally never watch motor racing will get something out of it – but there's a great human story there too, including their relationships with women." Olivia Wilde is especially good as Hunt's long-suffering wife.
The casting of the two principals is inspired. German actor Daniel Bruhl, who first came to the attention of arthouse audiences a decade ago with the whimsical Goodbye Lenin is not just utterly convincing as Lauda but looks like a dead ringer for him too while Hemsworth, hitherto famed for his muscle-bound turn in Thor, smoulders as the sex and fun-obsessed Hunt.
"A number of my films pitch one strong character against another strong character," Howard says. "That's certainly the case in Frost/Nixon and it's definitely the case here. I hope that the audience will be torn over which man to root for – there's nothing one-dimensional about them. This is a story about two very different individuals trying to fulfil a dream in a very dangerous enterprise but realising that they need each other to propel them towards that goal."
Howard is engaging company and is just as content to discuss his early career as an actor – he came of age playing Ritchie in the much-loved 1970s sitcom Happy Days – as he is shooting the breeze about his chequered directorial career.
If there's a common tie between many of his best known films, it's his attraction to true life stories and real people. "You walk a fine line between being as authentic to the people and events you're portraying as you can be while also trying to make great drama," he says. "Obviously, I was hopeful that Niki would like the film and he did. He thought we captured a sense of place and time and he really appreciated Daniel's efforts to inhabit his character. James Hunt, of course, died [of a heart attack] more than 20 years ago, but I hope those who knew James would feel that we captured the essence of him."
Howard has noticed parallels between Rush and Apollo 13 – the film that first marked him out as a director with a rare knack for tackling epic, true-life stories: "There's definitely something of the same bravery in both those films, the sense that the men in the spaceship and the race cars knew the inherent dangers of what they were doing, but were willing to take that chance – to push themselves to the very limit."
Howard has been much praised for the pains he takes to accurately portray an era, whether it's the collegiate life of 1950s America in A Beautiful Mind or the squalor of late 19th century urban America in Far and Away (Dublin's Temple Bar was utilised for several of those scenes), but he would appear to have a particular affection for the 1970s with Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and now Rush set in that heady decade.
"Rush offers a particularly sexy version of the '70s," he says, "with the fast living, very fast cars and lots of glamorous women."
One of the film's strengths is the way it manages to evoke the excitement of key races from that period without looking computer-generated. "Believe me, there are special effects, lots of them, but we took great care to make them look as authentic as possible and it helps that CGI has become so sophisticated that the audience don't really see the joins any more.
"The race manoeuvres themselves are real and we thought long and hard about how we could position the cameras in such a way that the viewer got a sense of just how fast and loud and visceral Formula 1 is."
The screenplay was penned by Peter Morgan (The Iron Lady; The Damned United) who had worked with Howard on Frost/Nixon. "Peter is such a brilliant, intelligent writer. One of the things people kept saying to us was 'Damn you Ron Howard and Peter Morgan – I wanted to hate Richard Nixon but begun to feel sorry for him and even liked him in a way'. And that was a compliment because it would have been easy to portray him as a monster.
"Peter had been developing Rush with Paul Greengrass, but then Paul was offered the chance to do a movie with Tom Hanks so the opportunity came to me to take on the film. I jumped on it – I knew that if the idea started doing the rounds, somebody would make it and I would be very envious."
He was much taken with Hemsworth's performance – "he brings the most astonishing charisma to the role" – and has cast him in his next film.
"I think he's going to be a major star – he certainly has all the attributes."