Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 09-16-13

“rush”–Daniel Brühl, In Theaters September 27th

“Rush” – Daniel Brühl, In Theaters September 27th

Director Ron Howard (left) in “rush”

Director Ron Howard (left) in “Rush”

Olivia Wilde and Chris Hemsworth

Olivia Wilde and Chris Hemsworth

“Rush” report: Over the years only a handful of directors have become readily recognizable to mainstream moviegoers and Ron Howard's definitely one of them.

But it's a short list. Among the names that come to mind are, obviously, Steven Spielberg. Alfred Hitchcock was very well known in the '50s and '60s between actively promoting his movies and hosting the hit TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Cecil B. De Mille was a familiar name in the '40s and '50s, benefiting from making huge epic movies while also hosting popular programs on radio and later on TV. The '40s also saw Orson Welles become a familiar name thanks to the controversy that erupted over his first film, 1941's “Citizen Kane.” Wells had already made headlines in 1938 with his Mercury Theatre radio production of “War of the Worlds,” which left listeners believing that Mars really was invading Earth.

Moviegoers in the '60s knew Otto Preminger from seeing his iconic bald headed image in newspapers as he promoted his often controversial films. Other directors became well known in part from also being movie stars -- like Charlie Chaplin back in silent movie days and Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Woody Allen today. But, mostly, directors just aren't familiar names or faces to mainstream moviegoers.

It's a different story if we're talking about directors of smaller independent productions or foreign films that are hoping for awards attention. Audiences who enjoy specialty product are well aware of leading directors like Joel & Ethan Coen (“ No Country For Old Men”) or Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and are attracted to their new films.

But when it comes to directors making commercial movies with broad audience appeal, marketers usually have to identify them by linking their names to the hit films for which they're best known.With Ron Howard, however, there's already wide recognition among moviegoers that should help Universal launch “Rush.” The R rated action drama starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl and Olivia Wilde opens Friday in exclusive engagements at five theatres in New York and Los Angeles and goes into wide release Sept. 27. Howard, himself, is a valuable element in marketing “Rush,” from Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Cross Creek Pictures and Exclusive Media. It's a likely awards contender and he was an Oscar winner in 2002 for directing the best picture nominee “A Beautiful Mind,” which he also produced with Brian Grazer, and also was Oscar nominated in 2009 for best directing and as a producer (with Brian Grazer and Eric Fellner) of “Frost/Nixon.”

Howard's been directing feature films since 1982's “Night Moves.” In getting started as a director it helped that he was already very well known after starring for 10 years (1974 -84) in the hit TV show “Happy Days” along with work on many other TV shows stretching back to the late '50s. Audiences already knew and liked Howard as an actor and that helped get him media attention that helped catapult him to success as a director. Of course, it didn't hurt that he began by making a string of hit movies that were well received by critics and audiences – like “Splash” (1984), “Cocoon” (1985), “Parenthood” (1989) and “Backdraft” (1991). "Rush," a biographical drama based on a true story, stars Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth as 1970s Formula One race car driving rivals James Hunt and Nikki Lauda. Also starring are Olivia Wilde (“TRON Legacy”) and Alexandra Maria Lara (“The Reader”) as : Suzy Miller and Marlene Lauda, who watched the men they loved risk death.

The film's recent exposure in Toronto immediately positioned it for Academy Awards attention, which is logical considering Howard and producer Brian Grazer's longtime awards pedigree. Meanwhile, it's tracking best with under-25 males, exactly the right audience for this material. The Story: Set in the sexy and glamorous golden age of racing, "Rush" is the story of these rival drivers' personal lives and their clashes on and off the Grand Prix racetrack while pushing themselves to the breaking point of physical and psychological endurance with no margin for error. Rush" is produced by Andrew Eaton, Eric Fellner, Brian Oliver, Peter Morgan, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

"Rush" re-teams Howard with two-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan (“Frost/ Nixon,” “The Queen”). Their new film focuses on the legendary rivalry between glamorous English playboy James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth (“The Avengers,” “Thor”) and his disciplined Austrian opponent Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Bruhl (“Inglourious Basterds,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”).

"I had the pleasure of working with Peter on 'Frost/Nixon' and when he told me about the remarkable conflict between these two amazing characters, I found the story completely irresistible," Howard explains in "Rush's" production notes. "The characters are so rich. The rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda was dramatic. It was violent, sexy and, ultimately, it was very emotional and triumphant -- the makings of a great screen drama. During the 1976 season, everything intensified. Everyone, even people who didn’t necessarily follow the sport, was talking about it. Everyone was writing about it because they were such opposites. It not only makes for great drama, it’s a dichotomy that creates a lot of humor. And given the world in which they exist, it was a fresh story with totally unique characters."

Reflecting on Morgan as a screenwriter, Howard adds, "What Peter is great at is looking at characters. When he deals with true stories, he's fantastic at discerning what it is that makes them tick, what is that thing that gets under their skin in positive or negative ways and how to build scenes around that. Some of the scenes are purely factual, some are dramatic illustrations but they’re all meant to serve these ideas he’s developed. So, the results are always very honest, if not 1,000-percent authentic."

"Rush's" 1970s setting is the same decade in which Howard’s Oscar-nominated “Apollo 13” and “Frost/Nixon” took place. It's an era, Howard acknowledges, that's captivated him for a long time:

"It's a very sexy, fascinating period in global history and popular culture. I believe that by using today's cinematic technology, with a classic look at a remarkable time, we've made something that cuts through to the audience and feels fresh, rewarding and exciting.

"When this story was taking place, 'Happy Days' was becoming a Number One show around the world. So, I recognized the cultural differences of that period. It was the tail end of the sexual revolution, where there was nothing to fear and everything to celebrate -- when sex was safe and driving was dangerous. The drive to express yourself, take chances and stand for something unique and particular was depoliticized coming out of the '60s, but it was still there on a cultural level. When I hear wild stories about Formula 1, I realize people don’t quite do those things today but they are not entirely alien to my own understanding of what the world of celebrity was like in the '70s."

Bottom line: Ron Howard's high profile as a filmmaker should help get “Rush,” off to a fast start at the box office.