Watchdog

Neil Best leaves no stone unturned in the world of sports media.

Ron Howard goes to the races

Chris Hemsworth stars as Englishman James Hunt in

Chris Hemsworth stars as Englishman James Hunt in "Rush," Ron Howard's big-screen re-creation of the 1970s Grand Prix rivalry between Hunt and Niki Lauda. In theaters Sept. 20. (Credit: MCT)

So I had known Ron Howard for four or five seconds when I told him about our special bond: I was born the very day “The Andy Griffith Show’’ premiered, Oct. 3, 1960, a milestone in the life and career of then 6-year-old Ronny.

Coincidence or cosmically important? “Let’s assume it’s pretty ---- important,’’ Howard said. He also said his parents let him stay up late that night to watch the show. I missed that episode because I was busy wondering about all the lights and noise and stuff.

Anyway, this was during an interview in a Manhattan hotel in July to discuss Howard’s new movie, “Rush,’’ which opens in New York and L.A. Friday and in other American burgs next Friday.

It concerns a sport low on the American sports radar – Formula One auto racing – and a rivalry that only fans of a certain age will remember from the mid-1970s: Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt.

Yet there is much to recommend here even for those with no background in the sport or knowledge of the story.

The Howard-directed production manages to recreate racing action as well as anyone has on film before – notably the accident that nearly ended Lauda’s career and life in Germany on Aug. 1, 1976.

“That was probably the first thing we worked on and it was the last thing we finished,’’ he said of the accident recreation.

“It required every single tool in the film director’s drawer – in camera, live action, CGI, real fire, enhanced fire, filming on the actual location but taking the archival footage and literally breaking it down sort of frame by frame so we were recreating it in as authentic a way as we possibly could by putting cameras in places that allowed the audience to experience it in a more intense way.’’

Howard said the original footage of the accident was shot by an amateur. “It was a kid just with a Zapruder camera,’’ he said. “It was a fan, a kid who just happened to be there.’’

The trick was recreating that footage seamlessly enough to allow Howard to show the original video and the movie version one after the other without moviegoers being able to detect a difference.

At other points in the film, actual news and race footage is blended into the newly shot scenes, again mostly with impressive seamlessness.

“It sort of influenced the way we shot the rest of it so we could get a match,’’ Howard said. “Digital technology has come along so you can enhance and clean up a lot of that [old] footage.

“We also did a sort of a Forrest Gump thing where instead of putting Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon we would put the Lauda car or the Hunt car into a great [original] shot from the 1975 season to tell our story… Our editor spent weeks combing through archival football to present possibilities to us.’’

To further enhance the reality, the filmmakers used vintage cars from that era maintained by enthusiasts.

“Our replicas and the cars we could destroy and race and take chances with, they had to sit side by side on the grid and in the pits with the real deal,’’ Howard said. “So it certainly raised the bar.

“The mechanics who were creating those cars for us must have had a kind of a holy --- moment when they realized they were going to have to really deliver on their promise that these cars really could sit side by side, because they were going to.’’

Howard is a hugely successful director. Why an auto racing movie? Did the challenge appeal to him?

“That appealed to me less as a director and more as a fan,’’ he said. “I just felt excited by what I thought was the freshness of it and also the relate-ability of it. It was one of these things where without alienating anybody you could offer something really brand new.

“For me as a director that idea of facing certain challenges as a kind of learning experience, if I happen upon it, I kind of relish it, but I don’t seek it. I’m really going for stories that satisfy my curiosity in some way, shape or form. Weirdly enough, even though I relate more to Lauda than I do to Hunt, I connected with them and this story and the ‘70s. It was a little bit different time.

“I wasn’t a reckless, crazy guy in the ‘70s. But I remember them and it was a different time. It was almost like a moment where the freedom, this sort of call to personal expression and sexual revolution and the possibility these drugs could prove to be recreational and not dangerous.

“All of that led to a short period of time that was like a crazy renaissance. It wasn’t sustainable and turned out to be more dangerous than anybody suspected on a lot of levels but there was something that was very particular and sort of exciting about it and it was kind of fun to recognize how different things were then.

“It was kind of a celebratory quality. It was still kind of innocent, even though it was hedonistic.’’

Speaking of hedonistic, the actor Chris Hemsworth captures Hunt, a notorious playboy, in all his glory. Let’s just say the actor convincingly portrays why Hunt would have proven irresistible to women.

“James was living a rock-and-roll lifestyle,’’ Howard said. “He had the constitution for it, at least for a while. Everybody that I talked to would smile when they mentioned him. They really miss him. He was one of those guys.

“Hemsworth is not like him. He’s a very dedicated guy. He’s got all this charisma, turns out he has a lot of talent and a great-looking guy, yet he’s got this sort of Hanks-ian work ethic and a grounded sense of himself, what’s possible, respect for the medium. Far more Lauda-like than James Hunt like.’’

Hunt died in 1993, but Lauda, 64, still is very much alive and has done some interviews tied to the movie. But he did not act as a full-time consultant on the project.

“I didn’t have Jim Lovell around all the time on ‘Apollo 13,’’’ Howard said. “He was there and he was available to us to talk about it and he was helpful to Tom Hanks, and Niki Lauda provided the same kind of access to Daniel Bruhl [who played Lauda] and me and [writer Peter] Morgan.

“But we had another guy, Alastair Caldwell, who was the team manager for the McLaren team with James Hunt, and he’s a real character. Very articulate, funny, loose, very truthful. He will raise the b.s. flag if he needs to at any moment, and he was licensed to do so.’’

Howard had access to other Formula One experts. “People run historic Formula One races,’’ he said. “These are guys with cars where here’s their hobby: They have a car that’s worth $2 million and they not only restore them and keep them but they ship them and go and race them. They don’t just drive around and wave to people and take pictures. They race them and compete. A bunch of them.’’

There are liberties taken with the exact historical record of that time, as with all based-on-fact Hollywood productions, but Howard said it was important to him to get things right.

 “I borrowed from my experience in ‘Apollo 13’,’’ he said. “Some things are simplified a little bit and I borrowed from other missions. Similarly we certainly had to collapse things. I mean, I could do a five-year television series on those 18 races [in 1976]. It was just an unbelievably dramatic season.

“If I had any frustration it was that I couldn’t pack it all into a movie. So we simplified some things and combined some elements, but like ‘Apollo 13’ I really wanted to get the spirit right. I wanted people who love it and know better to feel respected.

“I kept saying to myself, I love Major League Baseball and the NBA, and I follow it and I know what it looks like and sounds like and feels like and what I don’t want is the equivalent of a moment where you’re seeing a movie about baseball and you cut to the centerfielder and he’s standing there with a catcher’s glove.’’

The film has been advertised heavily in recent weeks, but isn’t Formula One going to be a tough sell for American audiences?

“It’s not really an American movie made for the American market,’’ Howard said. “I think it’s a really compelling human interest story that happens to unfold in a world that turns out to be really cinematic and dynamic and I thought really fresh territory for a filmmaker to tackle using all the new cutting-edge movie technology: Camera size, digital flexibility, image-making capabilities that could really, finally offer the promise to the audience you could have a really authentic experience watching a movie, that would really recreate this thing in a way that was exciting and by the way, a really compelling argument to be seen on the big screen. I hope people won’t wait and see it on their iPhone.

“A lot of people say that about fantasies and sci-fi: Well, I want to see it on the big screen. Well, it’s going to be cooler with the sound and the music and here we have a movie that’s sort of one part 'King’s Speech' or something and yet a big component of it is that kind of intense, immersive, experiential kind of opportunity for audiences. I’m doing everything I can to compel people to see it in a theater.’’

Tags: Famous sitcoms of the 1960s

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