A Formula One movie steps on the accelerator -- but with Ron Howard instead of Paul Greengrass
EXCLUSIVE: Formula One racing is one of the most popular sports around the world. Can it also be the stuff of blockbuster filmmaking in the United States?
A movie called "Rush" will test that question. A development project currently making the rounds of Hollywood studios, "Rush" tells of the 1970s F1 rivalry between the late playboy British driver James Hunt and his nemesis, Austrian champion Niki Lauda.
Packaged just a few weeks ago as a Paul Greengrass film, the director has opted to move on to other projects, say two sources familiar with the pitch who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak on the director's behalf. Instead, one of the sources said, the movie is being shopped with veteran director Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind," "The Da Vinci Code") as the filmmaker.
The movie reunites Howard, who directed another '70s-set true-life piece, "Frost/Nixon," with his screenwriter on that film, Peter Morgan, who has written the "Rush" script. It aims to shoot this year in Europe and could command a budget as high as $50 million.
Lauda and Hunt would make compelling movie subjects. Archrivals who dominated their sport in the 1970s, their most storied square-off came in 1976, when Ferrari's Lauda went out in middle of the season after suffering a serious injury. That allowed McLaren's Hunt, who had lagged behind Lauda, to make up ground and eventually eke out a season win.
Adding to the rivalry: the pair were opposites both on and off the track. Hunt was known for dining with his dog at high-end London restaurants and for a general club and party lifestyle. Lauda led a more hard-luck life, contemplating suicide at one early point in his career and suffering the 1976 accident that burned a considerable portion of his face. His post-race career has nonetheless been fruitful: He's founded two airlines and for a time managed a Formula 1 team. (Hunt, who after retirement did racing commentary for the BBC, died in 1993.)
"Rush" is not the only recent attempt by Hollywood to make a Formula One movie set in that period: Steven Spielberg has been developing a biopic about Hunt. Still, there remain questions for a big-budget project -- re-creating auto races doesn't come cheap -- that centers on a sport that has never captivated American audiences. A huge following around the world, though, will of course help the movie internationally.
Lurking in the background is "Senna," the documentary about the early 1990s F1 rivalry between Brazilian iconoclast Ayrton Senna and his archrival Alain Prost. The film portrays the free-spirited Senna and his clashes with F1 governing officials, as well as with Prost, a French driver who was largely the favorite of the establishment. Morgan has recently seen "Senna," said a person familiar with one of the film's screenings.
"Senna," which earned rave reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival, has already grossed nearly $4 million in Britain for Working Title, suggesting there is a big international market for Formula One movies. The doc comes out stateside on Aug. 12 (and is playing Tuesday night at 10:10 p.m. at the L.A. Film Festival downtown), and the reaction to it here could indicate the strength of the market in the U.S., where car racing is hugely popular but usually takes the form of NASCAR.
--Steven Zeitchik and Ben Fritz
Photo:James Hunt, left, and Niki Lauda. Credit: The Cahier Archive