THE NEED FOR SPEED
HOW DO YOU PUT THE AUDIENCE INTO AN F1 CAR AT FULL SPEED? AS DIRECTOR RON HOWARD AND CINEMATOGRAPHER ANTHONY DOD MANTLE DISCOVERED FOR THEIR '70S GRAND PRIX EPIC RUSH, BY RISKING EVERYTHING...
WORDS: WILL LAWRENCE
This feature first appeared in issue 291 of Empire magazine.
IT RESIDES IN a cathedral of pines, a 14-mile raceway cut into the forest that envelops the medieval castle of Nürburg in the Eifel Mountains. With 160 turns, this is the formidable Nordschleife section of Germany's Nürburgring, dubbed 'The Green Hell' by driver Jackie Stewart. It houses the infamous Bergwerk, or The Mine, a tight, long right-hand corner that is notoriously difficult to take at high speed. The Bergwerk claimed the life of Dutch driver Carel Godin de Beaufort in 1964, and was the scene of Austrian Niki Lauda's crash and subsequent fireball 12 years later.
|Shooting for two days at the site where Niki actually had the crash, that was very sobering. |
It is Lauda's near-fatal accident that lies at the heart of Rush, the latest offering from Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard, which explores the rivalry that raged between Lauda and James Hunt, two of Formula 1's most illustrious lights, during the 1976 Grand Prix season. "This was such an exhilarating movie to make," begins Howard, "but shooting anything around the crash and Niki Lauda's recovery, especially shooting for two days at the site where Niki actually had the crash, that was very sobering.
"Honestly, up until then it had been really joyous, but then suddenly we were doing these scenes and it was real. It had actually happened and it was like, 'Fuck! This is dark...'"
The filmmaker looks across to his Oscar-winning director of photography, Slumdog Millionaire's Anthony Dod Mantle, who nods in solemn concurrence. "There's something incredibly apocalyptic about the Ring," adds Dod Mantle. "It's like the Romantic paintings, something by (Caspar David) Friedrich. It feels very close to heaven and that particular bend has a spirit. It's a scary place and though the drivers loved the circuit, they knew it was lethal. That's feeding into your subconscious all the time, with how we'd move the camera and the types of shots we did."
The production unfolded as two separate operations, though each worked digitally to create results that are linked via colour palette and tone. The filmmakers first concentrated on what Howard describes as "a $12 million, '70s character movie, very indie in style", shooting four or five pages of the script each day, sometimes taking in multiple locations as they built the off-track drama between the two main characters, Lauda, brought to life by Daniel Brühl, and Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth. "And then there was the race unit," Howard says.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as the F1 rivals.
THE RUSH RACE unit worked for four weeks and devoured an even larger budget, the filmmakers collecting enough shots for at least eight races, which would capture the flavour and key moments of the 1976 season, taking in Grand Prix at Interlagos, Kyalami, Monaco, Brands Hatch, Nürburgring, Monza, Watkins Glen and Fuji. And the most momentous moment of all came on August 1 of that year.
Lauda was leading the Drivers' Championship as they went into the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring two weeks after Hunt's disputed victory at Brands Hatch. A handful of drivers, led by Lauda, complained about the safety conditions on the Nürburgring and requested that the race be cancelled. The majority of drivers disagreed, however, and the race went ahead.
Then, early in the race at Bergwerk, out at the back of the circuit, Lauda lost control of his Ferrari and spun through the catch fencing into an earth bank. The car was enveloped in flames and bounced back onto the track into the path of three cars that were following. Lauda was dragged from the inferno by his fellow drivers and rushed to hospital where he began the fight for his life. The footage of the real-life crash can still be found on YouTube.
"Sometimes, there's almost something blasé about existing footage," notes Dod Mantle. "You imagine the Fast & Furious moment, the spinning car and the big explosion, but with the footage of Niki's crash it is caught by an eight-year-old with a Super 8... Often the footage is not the amazing spectacle you expect as a filmmaker and that really informed what we did.
|I have crashed too, so I am Niki now. |
We didn't want things perfectly framed, because it's not like that and it takes away some of the reality." They were intent on an aesthetic based on a certain amount of real material, but with the understanding that the physical movement would be expanded.
For instance, Lauda's crash was constructed predominantly with CGI. "We broke down that Super 8 footage to understand it," Howard explains. "We talked to Niki, though he doesn't remember much, and we got a lot of help from CGI because we couldn't destroy a car to that degree - though we did destroy one eventually in the scene."
Following the Super 8 footage very closely, the filmmakers employed the computer for the actual crash and flip, though a real car was then used for some of the spin and for the fireball. "You do what you can without mutilating half the film's budget," laughs Dod Mantle. "So you bring the real car round at various degrees, you start the spin, drag it along a rail a little bit and then the burn we could do for real - we burned a wreck. We had Daniel in a fire suit and the camera is in there. It was petrifying."
The burning car was especially petrifying for the DP because he was packed into the wreck. "We wanted to film some subjective stuff so I am packed in there with the camera as if I were Lauda," he says. "I was looked after by quality stunt people with burn blankets wrapped around me, but my eyebrows were going and my knees were shaking."
To capture the full effect of the accident, Howard also asked the Steadicam operator to crash into the flames just as the drivers were pulling Lauda/Brühl out of the burning car. "I had some experience of working with fire going back to Backdraft," Howard recalls, "but you just never know. I was so relieved when we wrapped because I did much more stuff in-camera than I ever imagined we would." He wanted to get the camera into places that would help carry the psychology of the driver into the race. You weren't just going to be in the cockpit of an F1 car. It wasn't just going fast. You were learning something about the relationship between the driver and the car, the road, the mechanics. "That was vital for getting the true feel of an F1 race," explains Howard.
Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda prepares for another race.
THERE IS ONE seminal film that had a powerful influence on Rush, a documentary that relates an incredible story via real-life footage, shunning the use of talking heads. It is a simple and quite brilliant film. It is not Senna. It is 1970's Gimme Shelter, the legendary documentary of the Rolling Stones' controversial gig at Altamont. "I decided that if we approached Rush like a behind-the-scenes rock 'n' roll film, that would be a style that would be energetic and cool and sexy and something that we intuitively link to," says Howard. "It would move it away from the feeling of being a sports documentary with all the action."."
Watching Gimme Shelter can be an unsettling experience - Rush by contrast is rather uplifting - though both Howard and Dod Mantle extol the influence of its directors, the Maysles brothers. "With the moment of violence in that film, the camera is there and you're not sure what you're seeing," says Dod Mantle, referring to the infamous footage showing the stabbing of a man in the crowd by one of the Hells Angels unadvisedly hired as security. "You see weird body language and you're like a detective viewing it, wondering, 'Was it that man, and did it really happen?'"
|Ron and I had very honest pacts about those cameras - they bring the audience into this piece of metal: the sharpness is close and the rest falls off. |
ANTHONY DOD MANTLE
While both the real Lauda Ferrari and the Hunt McLaren were used during filming, along with a host of other historic vehicles, the production also commissioned a series of replicas "and we could drill the hell out of those," beams Dod Mantle.
Mounting cameras on fast-moving machines has been a staple ever since John Frankenheimer's 1966 classic Grand Prix, which set the bar for high-stakes driving movies. "But we made the cameras move when attached to the cars," continues Dod Mantle, "which was a huge challenge because of the G-force. Even the replica cars, which couldn't go as fast as the F1s, were still pulling Gs that would foul any camera rig on the turns."
As a consequence, Dod Mantle and Howard had to find cameras they'd never worked with before. They employed IndyCams. "They're very small, hence significantly inferior in terms of latitude and ability but you can use them in an interesting way," he adds. "And Ron and I had very honest pacts about those cameras - never try and grasp a normal picture. They do what they can. They bring the audience into this piece of metal: the sharpness is close and the rest falls off, they bring a painterly softness which helps in post - it becomes more abstract."
Dod Mantle would strap himself into a Subaru with his focus puller and a monitor, travelling at high speed amongst the cars. "At the critical moment in the race, against the odds of inertia, I could try and have the camera move, which is something you've never seen, really." He christened them "sliders". "Frankenheimer attempted it with incredible cameras and managed a couple of panels, but this camera, from being stuck, suddenly starts to struggle across. It was a brave thing to do but it works really well. There are things we've done that have never been done before."
Both Howard and his DP concede that they took enormous risks, as the budget didn't allow them time to get full coverage for every shot. The edit would be taxing, but the filmmakers had the support of their producers, Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, who green-lit 2010 BAFTA-winning F1 doc Senna, which set a new standard in the use of real-life racing footage.
"I jumped into Rush before I knew that Senna was going to be as well received as it was," Howard says, highlighting various moments on his directorial CV where he has worked outside the box - Splash, Cocoon and Apollo 13 all in their own way broke with what was expected of him. "But I thought that Senna and the TT documentary (2011's TT3D: Closer To The Edge, about the race on the Isle Of Man) were both great. With Senna they only used existing footage, and often what was most interesting was when the shot was a little blocked or off."
As well as using real footage to plan the composition of their own shots, the filmmakers also use actual archive race footage in Rush. "Sometimes it's a whole shot," Howard confesses, "and sometimes it's a Forrest Gump thing, where instead of placing Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon, we put our car into that plate, which makes it very evocative of the F1 environment and it gives us scope and scale. Ultimately, though, we used far more real driving than I ever thought we would."
Director Ron Howard with the Thor star.
EARLY IN THE test-driving process Daniel Brühl, who like Hemsworth did plenty of his own driving, lost control of his car at Longcross, the circuit in Surrey that hosted a clutch of Rush's racing scenes - he blew a tyre. And not only was the actor in dire danger, so too were those around him. "If that tire had hit someone it would have done serious damage," says Howard. One only need look at the footage from this year's German Grand Prix where a wheel from Mark Webber's car slammed into the back of a prone cameraman.
|I assumed we'd do more CGI, but when we started working with the cars and drivers, these guys were remarkable. |
Brühl had completed an F3 racing course in Spain during pre-production, but his fate was out of his hands once his tyre went. "I wasn't in control," he remembers, "and there were three or four seconds where I thought, 'Oh no, shit! This is it. I'm not going to do the movie.' But afterwards it was quite funny. I took it as a good omen. I thought, 'Well, I have crashed too, so I am Niki now.'"
The replica F1 cars could hit speeds of just over 100 mph and were filmed at that speed. "I assumed we'd do more CGI," says Howard. "At the outset I wasn't worried about the choreography because I suspected every near-miss was going to be a real car shot going down the road then a CGI car doing something crazy. But when we started working with the real cars and the precision drivers, these guys were remarkable. So we filmed them at speed."
That said, shooting digitally allowed Howard to work with speed variations. "It used to be that you'd have to make a decision: you could go from 24 frames to 18 frames to 12 frames to six frames, but you couldn't do 17 frames, for example, at least not in post," he says. "But here we could speed up a little bit on a straightaway and then bring it back to normal as it got closer to camera so we could extend the length of the shot."
Indeed, Howard called on his experiences gleaned on his Russell Crowe boxing movie to amplify some of the on-track shots. "In Cinderella Man we had a couple of places where we extended the hits on the jaw, just for a frame or two, and distorted it a little further," he explains, recalling a glove-on-face shot done in slow-mo. "So here we could do little tiny things like that with the cars, and just on a subliminal level it gets that F1 look."
Dod Mantle agrees. "Even for people who know about motor racing we have tried to show a bit more of what it is like to be in a car at speed - you can't see the character ahead of you or the bend, you can just see these posts indicating that you are approaching a bend at 150 mph..."
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