The seasoned filmmakers that brought you such acclaimed movies as A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, The Damn United and Cinderella Man, among many others, have taken on a genre that has proven elusive in Hollywood, indeed throughout global cinema history, that of an engaging movie with auto racing as a backdrop.
“Rush”, in release in NY and LA today with national and indeeed, global premieres soon following that, is essentially a dual character study in contrasting personalities based on the biography of Austrian Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his British rival, James Hunt.
The track to success is wide open because the best racing films were made over 40 years ago! And even then it demonstrated how hard it is to combine the speed, glamour and excitement of that world with a compelling story. Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans” (1971) and John Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix” (1966) were superb in capturing the racing atmosphere (indeed the latter winning three Academy Awards: Best Effects-Sound Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Sound), but critics rightfully felt both fell short on story.
Looking to thrill the senses via a compelling narrative and realistic period racing, a combination of European and Hollywood filmmakers have teamed up to produce what they hope breaks through a long pile-up of forgettable auto racing pictures.
“I was a teenager in ‘76 and as a young guy if you were ever going to be into racing then was it. I could name all the F1 drivers and their successes. There was certainly something more visceral and sexy about that period. The characters driving those cars back then were just larger than life and very charismatic,” says “Rush” producer Andrew Eaton of London-based Revolution Films.
“As Ron Howard says, ‘if you wrote that script as a Hollywood story no one would actually believe it. (Lauda’s comeback)’”.
The film’s writer, Peter Morgan, also wrote football’s “The Damn United”,“Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen”. Admittedly a non-F1 fan, Morgan says that what drew him in was something he felt was more universal, something that had appeared in some of his other film credits, that of rivalry.
“In order for me to find the story interesting it was never going to be based on what happened on the track, but based on their chemistry and broader elements that would make up a good drama”.
Morgan, a Brit married to an Austrian, saw some interesting parallels involving national pride as he kicked the story about in his mind.
“(We were) living in Vienna and I knew Niki Lauda a bit. Between Hunt and Lauda I could see many things including a clash between Austria and England, London and Vienna. Certainly his rivalry was what defined him at that point in his career. It felt like a real natural one to me,” explains Morgan.
Determined to write the story regardless of budget, Morgan proceeded to meet Lauda “over the course of 20 suppers, eating the same dish at the same restaurant each time. It was a great time and I thoroughly enjoyed the sessions”.
He also conducted numerous interviews with James Hunt’s brothers as well as the late racer’s manager from the McLaren days. Morgan wrote it on spec with no buyer waiting.
The project gathered speed with the Imagine filmmakers – director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer coming onto the scene. The film then flew out of the pits into top speed when fellow American producer Brian Oliver (“The Ides of March”), head of Cross Creek Pictures, read the script and after meeting with Howard, decided to put up the financing and launch into production.
The Cross Creek executive saw parallels to another sports film with British elements in it, “Chariots of Fire” as ’two guys driven by reasons of their own got to the same place’.
Now with money in place to build the F1 replica chariots for the $52 million movie, the filmmakers got lucky on two fronts in getting the green light.
Casting came together for the two leads rather quickly. Australian Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”) blew everyone away when he heard about the project and made an unusual move.
“We talked to a lot of different actors,” says producer Eric Fellner. “Hemsworth actually sent us a tape of him doing a voiceover of the Hunt character. He worked with a voice coach then sent us a tape. We knew he was our lead after viewing that”.
As for the Lauda character, Berlin-based actor Daniel Bruhl (“Good Bye, Lenin!”, “Inglourious Basterds”) had performed in many German-language films AND was who Morgan had in mind the whole time he was writing the film.
Morgan illustrates how his hunch was correct: “Ron (Howard) would send me dailies and I’d show them to Niki’s lifelong friends and family they’d say stuff like ‘that is weird, so when did Niki have time to dub in his voice? These are people that lived with him, blood relations and they couldn’t separate him from the actor. Bruhl is magnificent”.
Verisimilitude is key to any period movie, including accurately capturing a well-known figure’s voice and appearance, but especially to scenes in sports pictures. So the actors were put through a rigorous training program by the film’s racing coordinator, Niki Faulkner and his Top Gear team of veteran drivers who would perform much of the wheel-to-wheel high speed scenes doubling for the actors.
To get a sense of speed and power, the actors also went through an elaborate F1 simulator in London with Faulkner recalling an early session where Hemsworth came out ‘looking a little green’, but overall he said they were quick learners.
Growing up more as a surfer near Melbourne before moving up to theNorthern Territory Down Under, Hemsworth recalls his initial foray into the F1 action.
“I remember the first time I got into one of those cars and there’s the incredible roar of the engine and the whole thing is vibrating,” he says. “You are locked into this little cocoon and your shoulders are rubbing the sides of the cabin and you feel that this car is an extension of your body. There’s such a sense of power because it’s right at your fingertips but you also realize how vulnerable you are because of the precarious nature of the machines. It’s an incredible feeling”.
To prepare for the role, Brühl devoured Lauda’s autobiography To Hell and Back and watched anything and everything he could find about him in addition to spending time with the former racer himself.
“There was so much to do. On my own, I did a Formula 3 course in Spain right after getting the good news to get a feel of what it is like to be in a racing car. And then I met Niki, I met Ron a couple of times, I did some tests in cars with Chris,” says Bruhl.
Faulkner’s training plans included studying vintage of footage of drivers and racers from that era; how racers prepare themselves for race planning meetings, how to eat and train, how to deal with the media from a time management and mental focus point of view and visualization techniques which are shown in the film with Chris mentally going through the course at Monaco.
Another most fortunate happenstance was the discovery and passionate participation of a group of racers who actually owned and maintained F1 cars from that time period. So between the replica cars built (there were three separate companies that built the replicas -WDK Racing, Mirage Motorsport and Rob Austin Racing), the production was able to start a complete grid of 70s-era cars for the racing scenes.
Consultants included Alastair Caldwell who was on set daily. He was the manager of the McLaren race team in ’76.
Most of the production took place at tracks throughout England. In addition to Brands Hatch, Silverstone and some old F3 courses, the producers converted an old airfield to customize their needs.
“Blackbushe was an airfield where we built our set on including start/finish line for races we presented around the world,” says Faulkner. “The set designers and costumers were great. Each week we’d turn around and there’d be crowds, course nuances and signage depicting a race in Japan or Brazil or South Africa and from the 70s no less. Brilliant as it really helped put everyone involved into that world”.
So will that passion and commitment to authenticity translate to a rare success for a film with an auto racing backdrop?
“People make the mistake of saying, ‘oh a race car movie will never transcend the sport’, says producer Oliver. “Part of the reason stems from the fact that though some are likable, they didn’t really have a strong plot but they can and it did (with Rush).
“So hopefully this film will change that perception. As it is a worldwide sport filled with danger and sexiness,” continues the producer. Audiences will get a sense of rivals who fed off each other because in sports, athletes you think hate each other I don’t think that is the case. I think they really need that other person to make them better. And that applies to life in general not just sports”.