Ron Howard will be the first to tell you that he’s no gearhead. And so, he threw himself headlong into learning the history of professional racing to ensure his latest film—Rush, the story of the 1970s Formula One rivalry between Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl)—would pass the bullshit test with fans. Recently, Playboy talked to the Oscar-winning director about taking a crash course in car culture, attending racing school and rubbing elbows with the best drivers of all time.
PLAYBOY: Before you made Rush you had no interest in racing, did you?
HOWARD: Not really. I especially didn’t know much about Formula One. I only knew enough to recognize that it was sexy and dangerous.
PLAYBOY: Yet cars are the soul of the film.
HOWARD: Anyone around racing always talks about the car, “Today the car was this.…” It makes it seem as though the car is a living, breathing thing. In that way, the car is ever-changing. The drivers notice a difference every lap. That sensitivity to the car is the key to winning. Lauda lived by this creed.
PLAYBOY: Did you use the real cars from that era?
HOWARD: We had a combination of originals and replicas. The owners of the originals are mostly CEOs, and they wouldn’t let our stunt people drive their cars. So in the movie, they drove them. In their spare time they race them for real. I started shooting some of these vintage races, but we also had the real cars.
PLAYBOY: You spent some time at the track as well.
HOWARD: I got out there and did my research. The Austin Grand Prix isn’t as sexy as Monaco. At the same time, it wasn’t like going to a University of Texas football game either; there was something a little more glamorous about it. Mostly, however, I surrounded myself with people who knew F1. They were tasked with raising the bullshit flag. I’m a baseball fan, and I kept saying to my guys, “I don’t want an F1 fan to look at the movie like we would look at a baseball movie and see the equivalent of a center fielder wearing a catcher’s mitt.”
PLAYBOY: Which great racing movies did you study?
HOWARD: The Steve McQueen and Paul Newman race car movies of the 1970s had a great existential vibe that I wanted to get in Rush. I also studied Senna, an amazing racing documentary. I rewatched Gimme Shelter and the Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back as well. The rock-and-roll documentaries of that period reveled in the cultural movement that swirls around an event. That was really important for this movie.
PLAYBOY: Did you do any racing of your own?
HOWARD: Very little. They have these programs where you pay $500 and they give you a lesson and time your laps. The track was tricky and demanding. Even though it only lasted an hour, I was exhausted afterward.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a car that you obsess over?
HOWARD: Oh, God, no. Actually, the only car I loved was the first car I ever bought: a 1970 VW Bug. I drove it for five or six years and moved on. Then a few years ago, my brother-in-law found it in Redding, California. It had my college sticker on it. Someone was using it to deliver eggs. So he put a new engine in it and shipped it to me. That was the car that I courted my wife in. It seemed a lot roomier then, if you know what I mean. We drive it around now and smile with recognition.