RUSH immerses you in a relationship drama fuelled by testosterone inflamed competitiveness, arrogance and ultimately respect. Oscar winning DoP Anthony Dod-Mantle concentrated on the drama on and off the track.
The re-invention of the car movie, everyone’s trying it. Fast and Furious 7 is now out and plying the same trade as before, mixing cartoon-like VFX with testosterone-fuelled dialogue. 2014‘s Need For Speed promises car footage that you’ve never seen before but with drama based on the plot of a video game. The movie’s DoP Shane Hurlbut exhaustively tested all the available cameras to give him the look or ‘emulsion’ that suited the show. Massive rigs were built around and in the cars to provide the shots to please the huge game fanbase, there would be no ‘through the engine and out the arse-end’ shots here.
But where Need For Speed is promising thrills and spills action, Rush is wanting to give you simulation but not in a video game way. The movie is a reenactment of the 1976 F1 season but especially the rivalry between the two leading drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The movie recalls more of the films from Frankenheimer, like Grand Prix with its 16 Cinerama film cameras precariously rigged on the film cars and where the actors did a lot of their own driving, James Garner, Yves Montand to name a couple.
Rush also has some heavy-weight talent apart from the actors. Ron Howard directing, a script written by Peter (Frost, Nixon) Morgan and cinematography from Anthony Dod-Mantle.
The Drama Pull
Anthony is one of our favourite DoPs and even before his Oscar success was a cinematographer known for his love of the workings of drama as much as his regard for actors.
No surprise then when asked what initially attracted him about Rush, “I just like stories, I get drawn in to dramas. This is my kind of story. What caught me about Rush, what caught me about Slumdog, what caught me about Anti-Christ, what caught me about Celebration, just to name four very different films are the dramas. Also Peter Morgan was the writer who I worked with on Last King Of Scotland, I love working with his words. I’ve watched him closely and spent quite a bit of time with him. He seems to write films about people who have empathy but it’s complicated. In Rush you’ve got these two strange characters who would never confess to actually liking each other but they really can’t do without each other. That’s true of real life as well as the drama. I’ve met Niki now and spoken to him a lot about Hunt, as different as they were, opposites really, they had an incredible respect and fascination for each other.
“That drew me to it. I used to go to motor racing like millions of others and everyone gets excited about it, the grips get excited about the wheels going around, the girls about the costumes. I’m not like that, I used to go to motor racing drawn to it and fascinated by it. At the same time what really worried me about it was that I was enjoying my ice cream while some guy gets his head crushed! At that time it was close to watching Gladiators, basically you’re watching people die or come close to death. That is an interesting and quite disturbing fact about human beings but all said and done that kind of drama led me in to the film, and I started talking to Ron (Howard) and the production. Ron and I are two quite different people in many ways, especially our schools of cinema.”
By his own admission Anthony walks away from a lot of films that don’t engage him on any serious level when script reading and some films especially in America that would benefit his career. But ultimately the story for Anthony has to ‘pull’. As he says his decisions are based on his mixture of lyricism and social conscience.
But don’t be fooled, Rush isn’t a Frost Nixon movie (another Peter Morgan script). There is plenty of motor racing action couched within the greater acting drama. “Drama is difficult enough to do but to do it at 170 mph is really difficult. I had to work with the crew to maintain that drama, it wasn’t like drama off the track then lots of sexy driving then back to drama again. I didn’t want to make that kind of film, I wanted to sustain itself and continue to play at some kind of dramatic level storywise while you’re out on the wheel. I wanted to embody those cars in the dramatic plot. Hunt’s car doesn’t distract you from what we’re trying to say about him as a character, the same thing with Ferrari and the colour, finesse and sleekness of Ferrari as opposed to perhaps McLaren. That’s no offence to McLaren, they’re different.
“Everything you associate with Ferrari, the directional strategy of Lauda, the panache. I took that on the track and tried to get the cameras obviously first and foremost to reflect the technique of driving that we knew very little about. I wanted to bring you inside those cars, inside the helmet, that’s why we have a helmet-cam and cockpit-cam and wheel-cams and gear-cams and whatever you want to call it. For me it’s not about the sport but it’s based on the sport and about the physicality of those people. Why I found out in the 70s and 80s and even still now but then many of the drivers literally had to be lifted out of the car – after Monaco for example because they were exhausted. These elements to motor racing that a normal audience don’t know about, it tries to tell you something about the sport and hopefully people will walk away from the cinema affected by the drama and thinking a lot about it.
“There was a screening with Ron and Niki and the producers at Nurburgring for Bernie Eccleston and few really hard liners, the people we do have to satisfy and a lot of the young drivers were there. At the end they stood up and clapped which is wonderful to know. So we’re seemingly surviving the geek pressure, the people who stop and start the video and notice that the tyres are wrong or the bolts aren’t right, that kind of thing.
“We seemed to have survive that which can get bad, now it’s all about whether the film can reach out across the Atlantic to American audiences who know less about Formula One. They screened it for Nascar and seem to go OK.”
Not Fast And Furious
The Fast and Furious series obviously has produced movies that idolise the machine and rely heavily on VFX to do it, Anthony doesn’t think Ron Howard is that type of director, “Ron could do it and he has people who could do it, but if you look back at his films they have been related to subjects that are real and close. I think visually we’ve moved him on or moved each other on, or at least I hope we have.
“Having said that the film has a degree of very close, well knitted and diligent post work in it, I had to have help in some things, it’s not a doc! But we didn’t want the post work or the previs’ to take the film out of my hands and stylistically take the film away from where we wanted to go. I think we successfully found a way in the right aesthetic texture level, I think it still maintains a credibility to the 70s and the sport and the atmosphere of the 70s and it doesn’t fly. I think some of Ron’s films in the past because of the camera and the way they work the camera and the tradition perhaps in American where it’s more about coverage and the camera goes up in the air. I’m very European in the way I put a camera where I put it and why. I like to think every shot has a reason and I think we’ve done that here.”
Sustain The Drama
The racing scenes are meant to extend the character’s personalities, the way Hunt drove in the car and Lauda drove in the car, literally down to the way they got in the car, the rituals they had are meant to sustain the drama. “I’ve tried to generally as far as the cars are concerned do everything I could to inject in to the audience how evily, diabolically dangerous that they are and incredibly sensual and attractive they are at the same time. You’re basically lying on a bomb and they’re is something about that I found really interesting. It’s a privilege when you doing prep working with vintage cars that are worth millions, I never used to get that close in the Paddock when I was growing up but with this film I’m getting closer and closer and eventually drilling holes in them and slapping cameras on sliding on under-rigging and literally tearing these replicas apart to get the shots I want. We actually did attach cameras to Formula One’s as well which was a serious step for me to get close to the people who own them and drive them and they let us do it to a certain extent. We had access on selected days for selective moments, for grid starts and other selective moments. Only in Britain we had access to 18 vintage Formula One cars, the real ones which was extraordinary, they’re horrifyingly powerful and lethal, there is also a group of six replicas which are built up to simulate Lauda’s and Hunt’s cars. We also had the Hesketh white and the Ferrari and the McLaren. All with Formula Three bodies which we built a great expense but they were ours. They are fast and they look identical to Formula One cars, I could hardly spot the difference. We could drill on them and use them and they were designed to have little cubby holes where I could hide recorders and cabling and other things.” The movie 127 Hours was a good training ground for Anthony to use smaller rigs to help entertain people and keep them interested and embedded in something that was static. “It’s cerebral cinema which is very hard to do. It was probably one of the hardest films that I’ve done.
“With Rush the hardest thing to visualise and do well was the speed factor, I tried to apply the ‘nerve’, the bloodstream of what motor racing is. It’s not just about placing six cameras in strategic places so they can do their job and cover well, that’s a sport’s film. It’s about getting in there and juxtaposing the embedded cameras with the other cameras. There are flying cameras, tracking cameras, we had everything that we needed. I didn’t use the Russian Arm much, I found the stabilisation factor actually more boring than entertaining as it took something out, the vibration and physicality that I wanted.
“So I dropped the Russian Arm and used Formula 3 cars which I called the Mules. I had highly trained Formula 3 drivers with front and rear mounted cameras do the job for me in racing situations. They were doing moves for real, no operator can simulate what a driver actually does. So I would have the F3 car doing two laps with cameras rear and back rigged going 150mph. I would pull that out and put the real cars in so that the other cameras could then come in, keep the cars going so they don’t conk out and then we would have the helicopters coming in, and the ground cameras would shoot. So there was a real car to shoot and the mule would go off. We would do three laps like that and then I would bring in my on-board Ferrari or McLaren with my Indiecams which are very small units that travel or are locked in. I go on to the track with the cars travelling in an action vehicle strapped in, trying to operate the cameras when they’re on sliders trying to do dramatic moves at speed while I’m looking at the car in the situation. It was highly sophisticated and brain killing and I have to say the first AD Lee Grumett was an extraordinary help. He intelligently broke it down so I could do what I wanted to do.”
Rush has some qualities of ‘real’ racing films like Grand Prix in it and Anthony did reference that movie at the start of production. “For many years that has been seen as one of the milestones, albeit a near miss. I did try to stay away from looking at films too much but that was one that I did look at. I learnt from it and also realised that because of health and safety regulations I was never going to be able to do a Frankenheimer movie. What he did was incredible but you can’t do that anymore.”
As many will have found out if they have watched Rush or at least a trailer, there is a tonal quality to the movie as Anthony explains, “I’ve tried to put it in what I consider to be the right 70s palette, the vibrance and colour. I wanted more colour and life and not undersaturated or desaturated with grain that I associate a lot with the 70s which is quite true and also quite inherently obvious with some of the archive material I looked at. I don’t like that, I don’t think it’s going to help what is in the first place a very serious theme, quite tragic and quite serious at times. The colours for the 70s, the panache, the danger, the sex, the fear of death, I think it helped with design, costume had a great time with just pushing some colours and eradicating colours I didn’t want. I went very hard for the cyans, the reds, the primal colours, blue and yellow pushing them like the old reversal film of the time. I looked at a lot of archive and the stuff I liked I took on-board and learnt from. There was a sequence in the early 70s in Monaco where the sun was out and I had this beautiful slightly low-res but paintely aesthetic of yellow and cyan, the reds popping. I looked at and thought that was somewhere I want to go. So I went for a painting palette that was ours and I pushed it very hard. I nailed it very early on because we knew we had to find an aesthetic was would consist of real archive material on differing formats. They did something for us and inspired us and actually helped give us enormous production value on a budget. We couldn’t go to Monza and shoot, we went to Brands Hatch for two days and went to the Nurgburgring for two days and otherwise were on an airfield just outside London. We had to shoot on six tracks around England and make them look right and shoot them in the most exciting way as possible. It was a massive grade and we got agreement very early on how we would do it. It’s quite radical but I feel it’s what it needs to be.”
The archive footage went through a very heavy selection process and is made up of 16mm film and low-band Umatic video, “We had to be very selective even if Ron wanted it in because if it wasn’t good enough I couldn’t bring it up, I needed to bring it up and colour it, effect it and grade it. I knew I would be shooting 80 percent of the film all digitally on the Phantom and Alexa RAW, on the Indiecams which is just under a 2k resolution and the Canon C300s. Basically I had to find this aesthetic that I knew wouldn’t ‘bump’. I didn’t want the drama to bump in and out of the racing and then go to the acting scenes. I didn’t want the aesthetic level of the film to bump and I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded or not to be quite honest. But I wanted to marry all these formats so it became our aesthetic and it’s kind of become a bit more of a painting.
“I didn’t want it go sad, desaturated and grainy. That’s what Mike Leigh’s good at, I don’t want to do that.”
Anthony hasn’t always been swayed by the direction the gear manufacturers want him to go in, especially when definition is concerned and he took some technical decisions to help him. “I don’t always yearn in my career of storytelling what the industry is tending to give us. That is maximum definition. I’ve been shooting for a long time and my eyes are also fading so my depiction of the world is affected by my eyesight. But I don’t believe it’s just that, I do believe that aesthetically coming from painting and coming from a family of painters and an increased definition and resolution from film and digital, I have settled in a palette that lets that go on because we’re getting more latitude and ability to shoot in certain situations. I generally feel that my heart is in the world of the 70s and 60s. The classic technicolor, Jack Cardiff, Nic Roeg and Super 8. Also the period of early MTV, the arrival of artistically interesting grading and DI combined with people like Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage. These are quite obscure artists in cinema, people who are exploring films at an artistic level, I’m very interested in. I have finally succumbed to feeling that that kind of palette for me takes me much closer to painting and that kind of aesthetic to what modern cameras, modern stocks and modern sensors are capable of giving you.
“If you just put a camera on a greyscale and colour chart now with a face, you can call it real, I don’t think it is. It’s beyond what my eyes want to look at. I shoot on the best I can get and I shot this film in ArriRAW. There’s a reason for 4k and 6k and there’s a need in certain places, everyone’s got to be different things, I am interested in what you can project. The chase for superior resolution and definition is interesting but as far as image capture for films is concerned I work with colour and definition and resolution. I do need latitude and the amazing thing about Alexa and Alexa RAW as opposed to ProRes is you have this really solid ability to capture an immense amount of information, you still have to know how to light and where to put your stop. I grew up with seven stops of information from a dead black to a burnt out white.
“When I shoot on smaller cameras now which are more susceptible to burning out or to dying in the blacks I’m used to it. But I love it if I can go out and shoot with as much latitude as possible, control the exposure and take it back in to my little harbour of love in the grade and then it goes to the editing and I get it again and I know what I’ve got and know where I can take it. So for me the optimal situation is as much latitude as possible and ability to shoot but resolution I can control partially with old glass, as I did on Rush, and inferior glass and damaged glass.