People don't tend to go to Ron Howard’s movies for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but within the first ten minutes of his race-car drama Rush, Chris Hemsworth’s coke-sniffing, hard-partying Formula One racer James Hunt has shed his clothes and banged an assortment of beautiful women to some of the seventies greatest hits. Even Howard's longtime producing partner was surprised by all the gleefully R-rated debauchery. "Brian Grazer called me up at a certain point and said, 'God, I've never seen you make a movie that was this sexy!'” laughed Howard, who I caught up with earlier this week at the Toronto Film Festival.
So what’s to account for all the youthful, brash bravado from the famously mild-mannered Howard, who turns 60 next year? “That's what Formula One was like in the seventies!” he said, before allowing, “Maybe this is a signal to me that I ought to look beyond [my usual style] a little bit more, but I really try not to put my own stamp on movies or limit them based on some sort of signature or brand. I'm always searching for what I think is the elemental feel that the movie should present, and it's subject by subject.”
In this case, the real-life subject — and the inventive presence of Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle — were enough to push Howard out of his usual comfort zone. Rush is gleaming, fast, and gritty, following Hunt and his chief rival, uptight Austrian driver Niki Lauda (cast standout Daniel Bruhl), as they battle each other on the track while fighting other wars with the beautiful women in their lives, played by Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara, who wouldn’t mind if their racer beaus shifted into different gears once in a while. The taunts between Hunt and Lauda fly fast and furious, and Howard reveled in all the trash talk.
“I wouldn't call the humor a complete accident, but it was not something you would necessarily identify in the first draft of the script,” he said. “The more we did our research, the more the script got funnier. Lauda reads almost like a guy with Asperger's, but when you meet him, that's not the case at all — there's a dry Austrian wit there, this no-bullshit clarity, which he wears like a badge and can use like a weapon. He doesn't care about your pushback, and that's funny, to hear someone who expresses himself that way.”
Those spiky retorts and startling, real-life plot twists were what drew Howard to the story, but he worried whether the audience would be able to keep up. “Your confidence is endlessly betrayed and destroyed by the way audiences react to certain aspects of a movie,” he said. “In this case, the biggest surprise for me is that many of the unexpected, unconventional twists and turns in the story — which happened, and which we had to therefore honor even though I feared they might be disruptive — ultimately surprised the audience, and they appreciated it. The way Lauda behaves in the last race, for example — it's unconventional as hell! But that's the value of a true story, because it sort of pushes you into choices that aren't what a fiction writer would think of or a movie director would push for.”
That’s a lesson Howard learned the hard way while test-screening another true-life drama, Apollo 13. “It went great, unanimously positive, except for one card that just said 'poor' across the board. This guy hated it!” said Howard. “I read the card, and it was this 23-year-old male who'd written, 'terrible,' 'hated it' in big, broad strokes. Finally, I flipped the card over where it told the audience to comment on the ending, and he wrote, 'Horrible, more Hollywood bullshit! They would never have survived.'” Howard burst into laughter. “So this is the gift of a true story, when fact is stranger than fiction.”