With Formula 1 movie Rush and the revival of his TV series Arrested Development, director Ron Howard is not slowing down.
by KAREN KRIZANOVICH
Has Ron Howard just made the best Formula 1 movie ever? Forget Senna, forget Grand Prix – I think he possibly has. Based on the true story of the muscular rivalry between champion drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, Rush is like Apollo 13 set on race tracks around the world.
One thing’s for sure, Howard has a hit on his hands. “Wow, I hope you’re right about that,” he says, seated in a discreet hotel room near London’s Whitehall. “I don’t think of myself as a great prognosticator. Even though I have been very commercial, it is not why I choose a thing, and I haven’t been accurate about it in the past. I’ve been wrong as much as I have been right about that. So I’ve kind of learnt to believe in something, fall in love with something, kind of have this romance with it and then experience it and hope for the best.”
The son of two performers, Howard is a consummate professional who knows how Hollywood works. He started acting in 1956, directing in 1969 and producing by 1980. He’s won two Oscars (for 2007’s A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe) and has directed over 30 film projects around the world (his 1988 feature Willow was shot in Milford Sound, Queenstown and the wilds of Tongariro National Park).
Many remember him from two TV series: as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and red-headed high-schooler Richie Cunningham in Happy Days (1974-1984). Adding to his wholesome appeal, he has stayed married to his sweetheart, Cheryl Alley, for 38 years, and his actress daughter Bryce Dallas Howard recently made him a grandfather for the second time.
Although Howard once jokingly called himself a Hollywood icon, he’s not phony or impersonal. He’s present, even if he may trot out a practised line or two, as in promoting Rush’s 1976 era as a time “when sex was safe and driving was dangerous”.
“I’ve learnt to believe in something, fall in love with something, have this romance with it and then hope for the best.”
He seems strikingly genuine: open, tactful and not at all slick. He’s focused on the moment, despite having a billion other projects on the go alongside promoting Rush – which must be his sexiest film to date.
“I think you’re probably right,” he says, laughing. “Brian Grazer [his partner for years in the entertainment company Imagine] called me at one point and said, ‘Man, every once in a while you really amaze me.’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ He said, ‘[Rush] is incredibly sexy!’ ‘Well, thanks a lot, Brian.’ ‘You know what I mean, you’re about family, triumph, human spirit and I’m the one who cares about sex!’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I’m always trying to get to the truth of this thing and it was a very sexy time and a defining aspect of their world.’”
It’s true. Formula 1 racing in the 70s was incredibly sexy: the raw power of racing machines driven by super-fit young men with attitude had an arresting appeal. James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor), was a playboy, notorious drinker, lover and partygoer, yet so talented he could drive and win no matter what.
His opponent in more ways than one was Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), the Austrian whose precision extended into all aspects of racing. Their rivalry was legendary, marked by Lauda’s horrific 1976 crash, which became a turning point for the sport as it is today.
Howard, who spent time with Lauda, says of the driver, “He’s a maximiser. To this day, he doesn’t want to just sit around and, like he says” – Austrian accent – “‘Bullshit with all these assholes’. He’s working towards something – knowledge, a building block, a bridge to something else, an idea. It’s about productivity.”
The character clash is irresistible and Hemsworth and Brühl don’t just play Hunt and Lauda – they inhabit them. When you next see pictures of the real racing drivers, you’ll think they’re the actors.
In 2002, Howard had an idea for Arrested Development, a comedy in the style of reality TV, but with rewrites and rehearsals. Hugely popular – with Howard as executive producer and narrator – the show has since become part of Netflix’s challenge to Hollywood studios.
It ran into trouble in 2006, but in May – six years after cancellation by Fox – it made a comeback on Netflix with 15 episodes released simultaneously, perfect for binge-viewing.
Howard says he’s “really thrilled by the audience reaction to it”. But an Arrested Development feature film?
“We don’t know yet … It seems like fans are clamouring for more – we can’t make any guarantees, but it seems everyone would like to visit those characters again.”
Reading the runes, this could mean when writer Mitchell Hurwitz is ready to write, Howard is ready to direct.
What about the rumour Howard is doing Stephen King’s The Dark Tower? Reportedly, he spoke to Netflix executive Ted Sarandos about this but it’s a case of not getting any pudding until you eat your meat. Sarandos said The Dark Tower isn’t being considered until Arrested Development “gets through”.
On the table in front of Howard sit storyboards for his next film, In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book. Essentially the true story behind Moby-Dick, it stars Hemsworth, fresh from Rush, and Cillian Murphy. With ships, the sea and whales, it sounds difficult and pricey.
“I prepped a version of Sea Wolf about 13 years ago,” says Howard. “We just couldn’t make it, it was just too expensive. Although this movie is still expensive – we will have to be as rigorous to make this movie as we have [been] with Rush at $38 million – I’m going to be able to do this 14 years later for significantly less than I was going to do Sea Wolf then … and that didn’t even have a whale in it.” RUSH, released September 19, 2013