‘It’s entertainment, not a documentary’ has become a mantra for those behind Rush, a film that was born with the help of a Motor Sport correspondent or two…
Writer Adam Cooper
More than two years after it was announced, the eagerly awaited Rush will finally reach the screens in September. The film has already been well received by those who have seen it, including Bernie Ecclestone and other paddock luminaries who attended a screening at the German GP weekend. Crucially, it has also received the stamp of approval from Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s family.
Motor Sport readers will be the toughest audience to please, given that they are by definition steeped in F1 history. And by way of warning, there are scenes that might not ring true. But remember, Rush is emphatically not a documentary.
As it says on the trailers, it’s ‘based on a true story’. Any film has to work as a cinematic experience, and appeal to the world at large – otherwise it would never land the finance to be made. Events have to be condensed, timelines adjusted and some fictional elements added.
What matters is the end result, and Howard and his team have captured the spirit of the era and the key participants’ characters.
Most importantly they have created a film that will have broad appeal. It will introduce F1 to folk who have hitherto had no interest, without alienating those who understand it.
At this point I should declare an interest, given that I had an involvement. I first met director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan when they attended the 2011 British GP, and shortly before filming began I was called in to help write some race commentary.
Having got my hands on the full script I took the opportunity to go through it and tell them what I thought. It was late in the game, but they listened and some of my unsolicited suggestions did make the screen. I also convinced them that my old pals Simon Taylor and Andrew Marriott would be ideal for the commentary roles. Later, when I was on the set, Ron encouraged me to speak up if I saw anything that caught my attention. To find myself embedded in the production process and see another world from the inside was a fabulous experience.
The man ultimately responsible for Rush’s creation is Morgan. He’s specialised in taking real events and turning them into films, with a CV that includes The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Damned United. His success has given him the rare privilege for a writer of being in a position to create his own projects and see them through to fruition.
Rush began almost by chance after a Hollywood producer asked if Morgan might be interested in writing a 1970s F1 movie.
“My initial instinct was ‘not really’, because I’m not an F1 fan,” Peter says. “But I did a bit of research and I found the Hunt/Lauda story. All I’d heard from my agent was ‘F1 in the 1970s’, so I thought it must be this.
“The elements of the story were very personal to me – because I’m married to an Austrian woman and she knew Niki, because we live in Vienna, and because it was a story about a rivalry between an Austrian and Englishman, it felt very quickly like it was going to the heart of things that were dear to me.
“Then I got the feedback. No, they wanted to do Jackie Stewart. I said, ‘I don’t want to do that, I want to do this’. I’m sure there’s a great film to be made about Jackie, but this had deep tentacles into areas of my own interest.”
With no guarantee that the film would ever get made, Morgan began to put a story together.
“Literally the first step I took was to meet Niki in Ibiza. My wife rang him up. He knew she had married a Hollywood writer, as it were, and he was on holiday and bored, so came over and gave me three hours that afternoon. By the end of those three hours I knew that it was a story that I really wanted to write and, with Niki’s help, I’d be able to do that.”
Understanding what made Hunt tick proved trickier, but he talked to Alexander Hesketh, Bubbles Horsley, Alastair Caldwell and others who knew James well.
As Morgan worked away on a script, British director Paul Greengrass – an action specialist known for two of the Bourne films – became involved in the fledgling project. Meanwhile, over a catch-up breakfast in Los Angeles, Morgan mentioned the story to Howard, with whom he’d worked on Frost/Nixon. Ron liked the concept and wished him luck, adding that if things didn’t work out with Greengrass, he would be interested in taking the reins.
“I said if Paul blinks, I’d love to read that script,” says Howard. “It just sounded cool, and I wanted to see the movie. And that’s also a good indication that it’s something I’d enjoy working on.”
Sure enough, Greengrass dropped out to do the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips, and with fortuitous timing Howard became available when another project was put on hold.
Ron had attended the 2008 Monaco GP with old pal George Lucas, but knew little about F1. Having made Apollo 13, however, and convincingly recreated the world of NASA in 1970, he was the ideal man for the job.
With Howard on board and backing in place, a dream team was assembled. The Rush credits feature a string of Academy Award winners, including Howard himself, editor Dan Hanley, composer Hans Zimmer and acclaimed cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who won for Slumdog Millionaire. Just as filming began Mark Coulier – the man responsible for creating Lauda’s burn scars – picked up an Oscar for his role in turning Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
It’s important to note that Rush is not ‘Hollywood goes F1.’ It’s an independent British film, or more accurately an Anglo-German production that just happens to have a hired-in American director. The only people that Howard brought with him from the USA were right-hand man Todd Hallowell, editor Hanley and his assistants.
The rest of the crew were British, apart from a few German technicians, reflecting financial input from that country. Many on the set had grown up in the Hunt era and had pitched for the assignment specifically because of their interest in F1. Howard was able to tap into that passion and knowledge.
As for the cast, German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl had the Lauda role from the very early days, and as part of his research attended the 2011 Brazilian GP with the man he was to play. Finding a Hunt proved trickier, but Aussie Chris Hemsworth – a rising star after his ongoing role as Marvel’s Thor – made a video pitch, convincing Howard and Morgan that he was their man and that he could capture the accent.
After months of research and meticulous planning, the actual shoot took place from February 22 to May 22 2012 on locations in Britain, Germany and Austria, with the daily schedule planned down to the hour and no safety margin (see sidebar). On one busy day of race action Howard had an unprecedented 35 cameras concurrently recording images, including those placed on cars.
There followed months of post-production, editing, the finalisation of the sound mix (done in Berlin) and the completion of Zimmer’s score. Through the magic of CGI British visual effects company Double Negative turned Donington Park and Snetterton into Monza and Fuji, created action elements that were otherwise impossible to replicate and ensured a seamless link between the real images captured by Dod Mantle’s cameras.
Howard has now made a series of fact-based movies, and admits that he had sleepless nights when he first ventured away from his roots in fantasy and comedies. It was only after he watched 1950s classic The Bad and the Beautiful – based on life in Hollywood and made by people who knew that world intimately – that he was able to relax, and accept that the hard facts of a story could just be a jumping-off point.
“I got back to that Shakespearean idea that Peter Morgan hangs his hat on,” he says, “which is understand, adapt and create to offer a greater truth, a human truth, a human observation. That’s what we’re doing with a film like this, which is inspired by facts but meant to be an entertainment.”
Nevertheless, he spared no effort to make the film look and feel right.
“It’s important to me to honour the sport and the people who build their lives around it, to try to get it right. That sounds a bit idealistic, but I’d be embarrassed if we didn’t achieve that, more or less. But I also think Rush is very entertaining, and when people hear from others that it’s very authentic, it heightens the experience for them, too. That validation from people who really do know is something that a movie like this really depends upon.
“To me, that’s really our one advantage over the greats, which were Grand Prix and Le Mans, in that those were fictional stories. Clearly those are the enduring movies, and the best examples. It’s a tricky sport to get right and to capture.”
So have Morgan and Howard made the movie they had in their heads when they started out?
“In terms of the story, I think it is,” says Morgan. “But I’m happier with it than I thought I would be in terms of the visuals, and the fact that Ron has succeeded in making great scenes compelling, without being embarrassing. It’s very difficult to make any kind of sports movie in which the actual sporting activity appears even remotely convincing, but I do think they’ve managed to pull that off.
“Because of the way in which I did this – I just wrote it on my own without taking anyone’s money – then the stakes were quite a lot lower for that reason. If the script had been a disaster, I wouldn’t have let anyone down apart from wasting my own time.”
Howard adds: “You never get 100 per cent of what you dreamed about, I suppose. I haven’t really measured this one yet, but I have to say this is pretty high up there in terms of getting a very high percentage of what I was hoping for – 80-85 per cent? It’s gratifying, and it’s nice that we’re getting great feedback.”
The real thing
CGI has been a cinematic staple for quite a few years, but proved less essential for Rush than anticipated. Adam Cooper explains
Wherever possible Ron Howard used genuine 1976 Formula 1 cars to make the Rush story come alive, but his team also had to create replicas for the trickier action scenes, and to use when local noise restrictions meant it wasn’t possible to run a DFV or Ferrari flat-12.
Two replica McLaren M23s and three Ferrari 312T/312T2s were built, while there was also the option to swap bodies to create rarer beasts such as the Ligier JS5 and Brabham BT45, since original examples weren’t available. Two BRM P160s were also created for the film.
Much of the footage, however, involves real cars sourced from the Historic Formula One series, including James Hunt’s M23-8 championship winner. In some cases cars required temporary bodywork mods – for example the two Tyrrell P34s had to be converted from their usual 1977-spec, and the real Ferraris had to serve as both 312Ts and T2s. Others required tall airboxes for the early-season races, before the rules changed at May’s Spanish GP.
Also on set and playing bit parts were examples of the Lotus 77, Tyrrell 007, March 761, Shadow DN5, Hesketh 308D, Surtees TS19, Penske PC3 and Wolf-Williams FW05. Howard sourced genuine Lotus and Tyrrell transporters to add to the authenticity of paddock scenes.
Rush’s association with the HF1 organisation began at the Nürburgring in August 2011, when Howard conducted some exploratory filming, six months before the main shoot began. Having covered the race weekend he invited some owners to do a little running on the Nordschleife on the Monday. The experiment worked so well that it became apparent he would be able to do more in camera with real cars than he’d anticipated, and there would be a corresponding reduction in the need for CGI.
The heart of the Rush shoot was at Blackbushe Airfield in Hampshire, where a pit and paddock area was constructed, complete with grid and grandstands. The pit buildings were cleverly designed so that they could be converted overnight to represent different circuits, with appropriate brick or concrete facias.
The production also went to Brands Hatch and the Nürburgring, where Niki Lauda’s accident was faithfully recreated at Bergwerk. It was impossible to visit any other original 1976 venues – few are still recognisable, and for commercial reasons filming had to be focused in the UK and Germany – so Donington, Snetterton and Cadwell Park were used instead, sometimes with cars running in the reverse direction in order to replicate real corners. The schedule was incredibly tight, but weather delays were never a problem – when it rained, the action immediately became Fuji…
Niki Faulkner and his Driving Wizards organisation were responsible for choreographing the cut and thrust action with the replicas, while the original cars were always driven by their owners, or someone designated by them. In a nice touch, a visiting Jochen Mass was reunited with an M23 for a couple of days while Sean Edwards did some running in the Penthouse-liveried Hesketh raced by father Guy.
Scene not heard
Ed Foster was invited to watch fragments of Rush being made. At least, he was until his initiative breached cinematic protocol
Crystal Palace on a summer’s day, surrounded by Formula 3 cars, mechanics, team trucks and racing drivers. Did I mention it was the early 1970s? Well, everywhere you turn it looks like the ’70s, but really this is 2012 and the cast of Rush is filming an F3 meeting at the old London track.
None of the cars are running today, but when I arrive I’m informed that they’ll be filming James Hunt’s arrival at the circuit in a Mini, Niki Lauda getting into his car and “other scenes if there’s time”. It soon becomes apparent that time is something a film set devours at a remarkable rate.
The first thing that strikes you as you walk into the ‘paddock’ is the attention to detail. Trucks that probably won’t even be in shot are branded as they were in period and everyone is dressed as they should be. There isn’t an iPhone to be seen. That’s peculiar, but not half as strange as the silence during filming. Chris Hemsworth, who plays Hunt, chats at normal volume during each take, while in the background the support actors and actresses silently mouth dialogue – and there isn’t a single engine noise to be heard. The background noise is added in post-production.
Director Ron Howard is perched under a canopy watching each take unfold on a screen and, despite one scene finishing without a hiccough, he bounds out and asks everyone to reset. A quick chat with the cast and we’re off again. On the outskirts of the set sits Daniel Brühl, the actor playing Lauda, and as we’re both merely bystanders in Hunt’s arrival at the circuit we quickly fall into conversation. “I did used to like Formula 1,” the actor tells me in hushed tones, “but I got really bored of it when Michael Schumacher started winning all the time. Not great for a German, eh?”
Brühl is filming scenes later in the day, so is dressed as Lauda – it’s an uncanny resemblance, especially when he starts imitating the three-time world champion. “When I was offered the part I immediately called Niki and asked whether I could visit him, to get to know him a bit. He said, ‘Fine, just bring hand luggage, though’. I asked why and he replied, ‘So if I don’t like you, you can fly straight home’. When I arrived, though, we got on really well and as I was leaving he asked what I was up to that weekend. I wasn’t doing anything and he asked whether I wanted to go to the next Grand Prix in his jet. I was sat next to him when he was flying the plane complete with his red cap. He’s a truly amazing guy.”
After lunch I get the chance to talk to Howard as we’re walking back from the catering facility. As enthusiastic as he appears in TV interviews, he’s overflowing with energy and answering questions from various members of his team as we walk. He’s famous for the likes of Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, but openly admits that he wasn’t into F1 before Rush landed on his desk. “I love baseball, though, so I know how I’d feel if someone made a film about that and didn’t do it justice,” he says. I dare to ask whether not previously being a fan of F1 made Rush a harder prospect. “I’d never been to the moon and I did OK with Apollo 13,” he says, smiling. Fair enough.
It’s the combination of action and human interaction that first attracted Howard to the film, but it becomes clear in the five minutes we spend together that he wants F1 aficionados to enjoy the film. His parting words, shouted back at me as rushes into position for another take, are telling: “Ed, you must remember that I’m making a movie, not a documentary.”
As the afternoon draws to a close I spot Hemsworth on his own and decide it’s a good time for a few words about playing Hunt. After hearing how Hemsworth had been swatting up on Hunt’s mannerisms on YouTube, the publicist marches up. “Who authorised this?” he demands. Apparently you can’t just walk up to an actor, like you can a racing driver, and ask if it’s OK to have a chat. Five minutes later I have been marched off the set and my Hollywood dream has come to an end.