Ron Howard: Formula won

Chris Hemsworth plays the charismatic Englishman James Hunt in Howard's upcoming "Rush." Jaap Buitendijk

RON HOWARD'S "Rush" is the improbable true story of the 1970s rivalry between two very different Formula One drivers: the cold, calculating Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl) and the hot-blooded playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). The Oscar-winning director knows a thing or two about fact-based films, so it's no surprise his movie is already receiving Oscar buzz. The Mag spoke to Howard ahead of the film's Sept. 27 release.

Rather than make a movie about NASCAR, a widely popular sport in the U.S., you focused your lens on a couple of drivers most sports fans would have to Google. What was the appeal?
I had to Google them as well. [Laughs.] I trusted my writer, Peter Morgan, who discovered their story. He's great with true stories but won't take them on unless the characters' stories are fascinating. So in the same way that I was able to learn enough about boxing, another sport I didn't know much about, to get at the psychology of it for "Cinderella Man," I felt I could use the coolness and power of F1 racing to do something that was both authentic and dramatic.

Racing movies typically get a bad rap. Why do most racing movies tend to suck?
[Laughs.] Well, I can't support your stance on all of those movies, but having made one, I will say that filming racing is challenging. How do you generate the speed and film cars as bombs on wheels? After the weightlessness in "Apollo 13," the fires in "Backdraft" and the boxing in "Cinderella Man," I was confident I could handle the action. But because this was a fantastic true story, we didn't have to depend on the racing to sustain the audience's interest. Rather, I could use the racing to carry the psychology onto the track and give the races more suspense.

You bleed Dodger blue. Would the Dodgers' season, with the dramatic turnaround they had, work as a film?
Well, there isn't enough conflict yet. If it works too well, it's not a movie. And there's that problem -- I don't know any actor who could make those amazing plays. But it's definitely a fascinating season, and it's been exciting as a fan. It's going to be interesting to see how they hold up in the postseason.

With apologies to "42," "Trouble with the Curve" and even "Moneyball," we haven't seen a truly great baseball movie in ages. As a baseball fan and filmmaker, how do you explain that? Have all the angles been covered, or does it have more to do with the end of America's love affair with baseball?
Well, I thought Billy Crystal's "61*" was really strong. But baseball is also very challenging. Either you romanticize it, like "The Natural," or you have to find actors who can really play. Ron Shelton had an advantage with "Bull Durham." He was a former minor league player who knew how to guide his actors. It can be done, but it's a matter of finding a story that makes you care enough.

It's similar to "Rush," in a way, because people know about F1 -- 600 million people watch it internationally -- but it's a question of whether audiences will give "Rush" a chance here in the States. The same holds for baseball stories outside the States. It makes it a risky venture. For me, I didn't see "Rush" as a business venture. I fell in love with this story, and I just wanted to offer audiences something really unique. And a filmmaker has to feel that way about a baseball story.

Is there a baseball story that you have your eyes on?
I'm not looking at one right now, but maybe with a little distance from the steroids controversy, there might be a psychological character study that makes sense down the road.

When was the last time you pulled your street cred to rub shoulders with your team?
I did get to spring training this year. I've been a part of a home run pool for 25 years, and this year we all gathered in Arizona. I went to a couple of games and got a chance to talk to Don Mattingly, Andre Ethier, Maury Wills. There was this great moment: They had Sandy Koufax back this year, and it was fantastic to see Koufax standing in the bullpen while Clayton Kershaw was throwing. It was just a great two-shot of Kershaw and Koufax, a real then-and-now moment.

You directed a doc on Jay Z, who made the leap from team owner to sports agent. If you could have any job in sports, what would it be?
There was a point when I was coaching a lot of youth basketball and baseball -- usually my brother Clint's teams -- and it was rewarding. I love nurturing kids and applying what I learned from my high school basketball team. But if I had to pick one, I'd want to be an NBA coach. I've always loved the rhythm, action and psychology of coaching basketball. So much happens in such a short block of time, and you have to understand what makes your players tick in order to get the five guys on the floor to do what they need to do.

Finally, what is it with directors and their baseball caps? Your ubiquitous hat makes sense because you're a baseball fan and follicly challenged. What's everybody else's excuse?
[Laughs.] You know what, I picked up on it when I was 23, and that was when I had hair. But I think directors like Norman Jewison and Steven Spielberg, two guys with full heads of hair, initiated the trend back in the 1970s. Here's the reason I wear it: It's great because you can see well through the camera lens without the brim of your hat bumping into the camera. The efficiency of it is why the cap, as well as the down vest, is a director's signature uniform.

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