Ron Howard spoke to AC about Rush just steps away from one of the story’s real-life settings: an old racetrack at the hilltop Crystal Palace park in South London. Vintage and mock Formula 3 cars snarl in the background of the scene, which takes place early in the movie, six years before the main characters engage in their Formula 1 duels of 1976.
The day’s racing shots are intermingled with some droll business involving the entourage of English driver James Hunt, whose legend is growing as the story begins. Howard knows the terrain well. “Rush takes place at about the time when Happy Days was the number-one TV show,” he says. “I was just a little younger than these guys were, so I remember the way the media was intensifying its interest in celebrities.”
Howard was initially drawn to Rush by the screenplay, written by his Frost/Nixon collaborator Peter Morgan. “Peter finds an interesting common ground for adversaries and, therefore, for the audience,” he says. “Without sentimentalizing, he does find humanity.”
Howard observes that Rush cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, ASC, BSC, DFF “likes to operate with a curious camera. It’s always about finding something in the frame or something in the character that answers a question or piques one’s curiosity. That gives each frame a lot of energy and a lot of life.
“Anthony and I almost instantly recognized a shared sense of what Rush ought to look and feel like away from the track,” he continues. “The challenge was policing ourselves to carry that aesthetic onto the track, where logistical factors like crowds, scheduling, mechanical failures and dangerous race conditions threatened to push us into more conventional choices. The answer was lots and lots of prep on our own time, so when circumstances allowed us to get something right, we could go like hell.”
Howard says the joy in shooting Rush was how he and Dod Mantle were able to surprise themselves. “Despite all the prep and planning we did, there was always an excitement about discovering a new possibility and just grabbing it. It’s not faux documentary, but it does have a kind of discovered feel — and, I hope, much less of a staged feel.”
He recognizes that this strategy presented editors Dan Henley and Mike Hill with “a huge editorial challenge. It’s not just cutting the heads and tails off the scenes and putting them together in the right rhythm. They have to really roll up their sleeves and help create the sense of reality. And given the way we’re shooting the movie, there are more than a handful of ways to approach [various sequences]. I always have a point of view, but I don’t tell them [right away] because I always want to see what they discover with the footage first.”
Howard reserves special praise for Rush’s art department, led by supervising art director Patrick Rolfe, for its deep research on the movie’s era. The team festooned production-office corridors with a variety of images, and “those reinforced all our instincts as to the look and feel not only photographically, but also atmospherically. [The photos influenced] wardrobe, props, our color palette, and even the body language of characters and the feel of the background actors. Those images seeped in to create a unified aesthetic that informed our choices in every shot.”
The director concludes that he, Dod Mantle and their collaborators sought to “dimensionalize” the drama so that audiences “feel really rewarded that they’ve experienced something, and a little surprised by the journey they’ve gone through with the characters. It’s not necessarily the journey they expected.”