When Bleeding Cool Met Ron Howard To Discuss Rush, Racing And The State Of Modern Moviemaking

uk poster rushA couple of weeks back I got to sit down with Ron Howard, a veritably Hollywood-friendly filmmaker if ever there was one, and talk about his new movie, the Formula 1 racing biopic, Rush.

The big twist is that this picture is actually an indie film, only signed up by distributors once it was already up and running.

Because of this, and because of Howard’s recent troubles getting a green light for an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, I wanted to ask him about the current state of moviemaking, from his particular insider’s point of view.

What follows is what he had to tell me about that, and also more specifically about Rush.

Sports always work for us allegorically or metaphorically, and that’s what’s fantastic about sports, and why we love them. They demonstrate the limits to which a human being can go and keep pushing those boundaries. And also they were the first and still the most relevant reality show. The dramas that play out are creating narratives for us to follow, talk about, relate to, compare ourselves to, and compare others to.

What I think is most compelling and the thing to be celebrated about Rush, more than anything else, thematically, is that these guys both exhibited rigorous honesty, and they lived by that. Neither denied who they were, there was zero hypocrisy, they were very different but they were their own mavericks. There was no “Yoda” guiding them to a higher plane of enlightenment, by God they didn’t listen to anybody and they did it their own way. They didn’t pretend anything different, and I think it’s why both men were respected.

I loved that there is no villain in this the story and found it a little more journalistic, in a way. But I did have friends in Hollywood who, privately, worried about that for me. I would ask them to read the script, and that was their concern; they weren’t sure where the rooting interest was. But that never shook my confidence for a moment because I felt like it was a survival story, and a story of a kind of evolution.

Both guys have an idea of what it is they want to be, and they have a burning need beyond the obvious glare of the spotlight. They have voids to fill – they want to earn the respect of their families, they want to respect themselves. Like a lot of young men, they’re not thinking too much about what the price will be so they push each other, the rivalry fuels all of that in a very compelling and entertaining way – and Peter Morgan writes that so well, so truthfully and yet so entertainingly – but as they climb the ladder into the altitude, and the air gets thinner and thinner, and the stakes get higher and higher, it changes them. It starts to weigh on them, and they pay the price for it. It’s the kind of thing that a young man can never quite appreciate. So it’s also a kind of a rites of passage story, and I really liked that. I felt like it was two very different people driving each other through a gauntlet that threatened both of them. If I could have my way, I would want the last race to begin, and if you don’t know anything about the season, you’re praying that one or the other of them don’t buy it in this sequence. That’s really it. You’re just rooting for them to make it through it, somehow.

This didn’t come through the Hollywood development system, this is Peter Morgan writing a spec script that was rejected by the studios for financing. Undaunted, Morgan began piecing together, as a producer, partners and financing. Because of the setting of Formula 1 it had just enough traction in the international market to move it forward. Paul Greengrass was interested but ultimately he chose to do Captain Phillips, other directors were interested, but I raised my hand very quickly.

It really was a labour of love project, and a chance to do something different, a chance to offer audiences something that’s hopefully very entertaining and compelling but does not follow the formulas. And there was something liberating about that.

I think it Rush has an advantage as a racing movie – if you want to genrefy it, which I hope people don’t want to but is probably unavoidable– because Grand Prix is fiction, Le Mans is fiction, Days Of Thunder is fiction and that kind of movie typically becomes an action movie, in a way, or their fictionalised stories are just there to give a framework to make the racing work.

This is inspired by real people, complicated people, and sure, in collapsing the story, we simplified some things. We created some new scenes that embody changes in the characters that might really have happened over weeks, making them happen in a single scene, but those kind of things are the things you always have to do. Ultimately, though, the big ideas are based on what these guys lived through, and what happened. And they don’t add up to a conventional, typical, Hollywood narrative.

If this was fiction, you wouldn’t have that last race unfold that way. You probably wouldn’t have the Lauda accident happen where it happens, it’d happen earlier, or something. There were just so many things about this story that wound up being an advantage because they surprise the audience. Things  don’t unfold as you’d expect them to.

That was a little daunting at the beginning, and I can understand why a studio wouldn’t get behind it, but in the end, even a studio is now backing it because it works. So it was a calculated risk that works for audiences. Whether it works for investors or not, we have to wait and see.

Changes in the industry really are a function of a technological revolution. Whether you’re talking about printing presses or the industrial age, markets shift, investment strategies must change, audience buying patterns change. So there’s no question that when DVDs, which were providing studios a reliable profit margin, began to shrink and that shrinkage wasn’t replaced by downloads… well, their job is to turn profit, and if the profit evaporates, then as executives, who are basically investors and marketers, they have to look around and say “What should we be investing in? What can we market?” and they’ve become more and more conservative about that. But the creative community has rallied around, reduced their fees.

I think Rush would have been made by a studio, five years ago. It would have cost a lot more money because all of our agents would have said “Well, it’s a studio movie, so you have to pay that fee”, and it would have been a different burden in terms of the return on the investment.

Every studio is facing this and of course it’s a challenge but I think all it does is help define who loves their work enough, and loves the medium enough to make the kinds of sacrifices to keep doing what they’re doing. I’ve never been a very good businessman. If I was really trying to maximise my earning power, I wouldn’t jump around and do all these different kinds of movies. I would settle in on a brand, and develop that, and that would be the cleverest thing to do if you were just looking at it economically. But I’m enjoying the creative adventure of exploring lots of different stories, and different tones and styles.

I think the industry is opening up to the next generation. My daughter Bryce is just starting to direct a little bit. And I’d say to her, this period of time isn’t great for your bank account, but it’s great for your future as a creative person. Because while our generation stutters and baulks and tries to wonder if it’s fair or not, your generation gets to say “Look at me! I’ve got a camera and a crew, and we only eat sandwiches but we’ve got a hell of a story to tell and we want to tell it.” So in that way, it’s opening the door for more autonomy, and more creative freedom.

Happening to television around the world, particularly, but also movies as well, is that particular audiences are becoming more and more important. The studios still want to make movies for four quadrants because they’re trying to support a huge infrastructure, but if you shrink that infrastructure down you can make movies for a particular audience, narrow your creative focus and find your audience. Find the audience who is interested in the song you want to sing, or the novel you want to write, or the movie you want to make. You can reach them now. You can market to them. And if it’s good enough – it has to be pretty damned good – you can make a living doing it. There’s kind of a Darwinian thing happening, which is okay by me. I think it’s good for everybody. As a fan, I’m looking at the movies coming in the next month or two, and I think, “Man, there’s some bold exciting work on the horizon. And somebody paid for that.” It just wasn’t one of the major studios.

We needed to make sure we were gathering the materials to give the editors a choice. It was all about juxtaposition. A cool shot of an automobile part vibrating is graphic, and Anthony Dod Mantle [cinematographer] knows how to do those kinds of shots and make them like epic landscapes, or a close shot of the eye is powerful, or the hands – whether they’re strong on the wheel or weak on the wheel, the timing of the gear shifts, the foot pedals, the road. There’s  a relationship between the car, the road, the feet, the hands, and the eyes. That’s what it’s all about and so we gathered the materials so that at any given moment we could understand how that relationship was changing, and how it might be influencing what it is we’re about to see.

So the shots have to be good, and they have to be compelling, instead of doing generic inserts, Anthony realised they had to be engrossing, to shoot the car with the same care as you would one of your lead actors; if the eye matters, then let’s really get in there and understand what was going on with the eye; the hands wouldn’t just be generic zoomed-in shots of hands, you’re down there feeling it. The shots give all of that texture.

But then it’s really down to myself and the editors to go in there and say, alright, “That great shot of the shock absorbers or the suspension system, that looks interesting any time, but when does it mean something?” It means something at a particular time.

The sequences were storyboarded, and then rebuilt in the edit. In the end, despite all the planning, had to go to the edit room and make the final decision – the edit room is always where you tell the story.

Rush is released across the UK tomorrow, on Friday September 13th. I liked it, and I hate Formula 1, so it was immediately obvious that they did something right. More from the cast of Rush later.