Ron Howard interview: ‘I don’t think James Hunt gave much of a shit’

The American director has made his best film in years with ‘Rush’, the story of an epic Formula 1 rivalry. He tells us why it's picking up female fans

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You might not think of Ron Howard as the go-to director for edge-of-your-seat thrills. After all, this is the man who made ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind’. But with his new film ‘Rush’, he shifts into exhilarating ‘Apollo 13’ gear. Based on real events, it’s the story of the 1976 clash between two Formula 1 drivers: reckless British playboy James Hunt and steady-eddy Austrian Niki Lauda.

How did you approach the story of rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda?

‘I wanted to link the psychology and the drama of the emotional journey of these guys. I wanted it to shift from them being young, brash and blinkered to them being more mature. But I wanted that gauntlet to create suspense and tension too. Funnily, women seem to love the movie as much as men do. I have a feeling they connect with the question of what makes a man tick? What motivates them? What are they thinking?’

It’s a very British story for an American to tell. You give a convincing sense of 1970s Britain and Formula 1 as much less slick than it is today.

‘Well, when you look at the footage, Formula 1 was not the organised enterprise that Bernie Ecclestone has made it today. I liked that. It was fun to go back to the 1970s. That period was when “Happy Days” was becoming one of the first American comedies to go international. I was travelling. It was also the beginning of a kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the sport. Niki Lauda was very good at it, but I don’t think James Hunt gave much of a shit.’

Of course. In the mid-’70s you were playing Richie Cunningham on ‘Happy Days’. Could you relate being a young actor to Hunt and Lauda?
‘Yeah, the ’70s were a little more freewheeling. In the same way that the cars were outgrowing the track in Formula 1, which was what was making it so dangerous, my world was pushing towards a more independent mentality too. Cinema in the 1970s was bolder and brasher. Athletes were testing those same waters.’

What do you remember about coming to London then?
‘I’d come on trips to promote “Happy Days”, but also one of the first vacations my wife and I took was to London. I still have the ties I got at Harrods, tucked away in a closet. Every so often they rotate and get cool again! “Happy Days” was still being discovered in the US. In London, people came up to me on the street to talk about it: it was mindblowing.

At what point while making ‘Rush’ did you see the documentary ‘Senna’? They feel very related.
‘Very early on. Producer Eric Fellner is involved in both projects. He said I should watch “Senna” if I was seriously considering this. It was beautiful. I screened it with a bunch of people who knew nothing about it and it was great to turn round and see people who knew nothing about the sport so moved. It gave me a lot of confidence.’

Rush’ opens in UK cinemas on Fri Sep 13.

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Read our ‘Rush’ review

  • Rated as: 4/5

They’ve gone all out to make ‘Rush’ look exciting. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle matches the film’s look to period archive footage and finds angles and perspectives you’d think impossible. It’s anything but boring. It’s also one of those cheeky real-life tales that Peter Morgan adores: a portrait of people in crisis who live their lives in the public glare, whether it’s the Queen, Nixon or Tony Blair. ‘Rush’ is fast, slippery, stormy and dangerous.

See the full ‘Rush’ review

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