“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....”
—Director Ron Howard
Ron Howard’s spectacular re-creation of the merciless and legendary 1970s Formula 1 rivalry between gifted English playboy James Hunt [Chris Hemsworth] and his disciplined Austrian opponent, Niki Lauda [Daniel Brühl] is indeed a RUSH!
Set against the sexy and glamorous golden age of racing, the film portrays the exhilarating true story of the charismatic Hunt and the methodically brilliant Lauda, two of the greatest rivals sports has ever witnessed. Taking us into their personal lives and clashes on and off the Grand Prix racetrack, RUSH follows the two drivers as they push themselves to the breaking point of physical and psychological endurance, where there is no shortcut to victory and no margin for error.
“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,” says Howard.
To ensure that the experience is as true as possible, he enlisted Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle, Production Designer Mark Digby and Set Decorator Michelle Day SDSA, the team that brought SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE to life on the big screen.
Howard encapsulates the film’s era, “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.”
Day talks with SET DECOR, offering wonderfully full descriptions of the behind-the-scenes on and off the racetracks, along with insights into the process of fine set decoration…
SET DECOR: You and Production Designer Mark Digby have worked together often. Please tell us about your collaboration, your process, and about collaborating with Director Ron Howard…from high-energy Danny Boyle to high-energy Ron Howard! Set Decorator Michelle Day SDSA: Mark and I are friends first and foremost, and we have also worked together on and off for over 20 years. As result, we have a very strong work relationship, a very well balanced and equal partnership. At this point, we can almost finish each other’s sentences. Most importantly, we are able to be totally honest and loyal about our work. Ultimately, our technical process and creative vision is the same. We both aim high and deliver the very best work we can.
I am aware of this unique professional situation. To be able to work with such a close colleague comes with great advantages. When the going gets tough, and it does on every job, we can divide our resources and conquer. Tough days are better with allies…tough decisions are made better with the advice of an honest friend. I am sure Mark would agree that our varied skills and weaknesses balance out. We are very much a team, and I am so proud of the work we have achieved together.
One of the greatest joys I have discovered in this industry is that I am lucky, every working day, to have an opportunity to discover, learn and experience something new.
I have had the privilege in my career, so far, of spending time in the wild chaotic but vibrant slums of Mumbai, India while on SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I have seen the hard-working families of the Kibera slum, home to one million people in Nairobi, Kenya, exodus on foot every morning to earn a simple crust of bread. That was when we were filming THE CONSTANT GARDENER. I got to build a spaceship with Danny Boyle for SUNSHINE, and then have the fun of blowing it up!
These jobs give rich and undeniable life lessons while I am making a living in this amazingly unbelievable way.
So, of course, I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in the unique and rarified world of Formula 1. Not only that, but to also work with director Ron Howard, whom I would have been delighted just to meet, never mind work alongside. I have a tremendous respect for him and I began the project with the anticipation of gaining wisdom from this veteran filmmaker, steeped in film and Hollywood history.
Ron’s, abounding energy, focus and infectious passion to create great work can do nothing else but sweep up all in his path. Open-minded and very approachable, he is all about collaborating, constantly seeking the best ideas and solutions in the room from whomever or wherever. This helps forge a close working practice between all departments. We were a tight team of filmmakers facing the rigors and challenges of this complex tale and the at-times-overwhelming-schedule together.
SET DECOR: How did you go about ensuring that these sets remained true to the period?
Day: Reference and research are the cornerstone…research is the foundation to any film we do. Once I know the “world” completely, I can depart from it if I need to for the sake of creativity. I often then am confidently free to go on instinct.
When we research a film, our process is to anchor ourselves in the time. First we find out about the big historical and political events, the fashion, the technology, then the people, the great, the good and the bad. After that, we sift down to the everyman detail. I did this by, for example, watching films made in the period, researching the global culture, music, celebrities, icons of the time...all a big part of our story.
It was added pressure for us that Ron lived within some of that celebrity culture of those very years. When I looked up top 10 icons of that period, Ron was in the list. Scary on one level.
The other important point for me in dressing a period is to ensure we don’t become clichéd or over-steeped in the exact moment of design. I don’t like to get tunnel vision into dressing furniture and items fashionably from that period only. It is not a museum to the 1970s. I make sure we dress with an evolution of design, so things are there from years before, too. We really wanted the film to be of its time, which means it isn’t only in its time.
Reference is KING, education to of ALL the team: visual booklets, vigilance, making sure all of our team are on the same historical and reference page.
As well as covering the walls of our offices with visual reference, we also lined the corridors of the production office, such was the magnitude of research. Wherever we went, so, too, did the visuals follow us. It was a great way to remind everyone of the importance of historical detail and accuracy.
The racetracks… SET DECOR: Ron Howard said… “It was arduous, unbelievably demanding on everyone but we’re thrilled with what we got and how much of the flavor of Formula 1 we were able to capture…the races, a lot of the prerace moments, life in the paddock, the culture of Formula 1. And I believe we’ve re-created this period in a way that captures the glamour, the daring and the excitement of a very colorful time.”
Day: YES, it was a big challenge, just the sheer volume of years and races and countries to cover in the tight shooting schedule…add into that a technical sport and a period look. F1 is a universe in itself with all the many layers of society that are included but normally behind the scenes.
Our story is front-of-house to backstage, personal and professional stories unfold. In-camera we embraced and showcased: the large quantity of advertising visuals, the safety and medical teams, the mechanics, the traveling entourages, accommodations, transport, the press, security and ID passes, tents, caravans, caterers, retail stalls, industry officials, sporting officials, the media and paparazzi, the pubic, the audience, the arenas. And they were different in different countries and story years.
SET DECOR: All the details! The stacks of tires [British: tyres] alone…
Day: The tyres are an interesting element. For F1, they are supplied by one brand to all the teams in any period of years. It is iconic that in the 1970s, it was Goodyear supplying the tyres. Now they don’t do that anymore, so we had to repaint the Goodyear logo on every tyre we used in order to be period-true.
There is a also a particular, but recognized, way of stacking and transporting tyres around the pit garages...these things we learned from photos and from the advisers who had been there back in 1970s.
The supply and fitting of tyres is the realm of a separate specialist department from the tyre manufacturers, so we had our own specialist team from the F1 world supplying and fitting the tyres on each car each day of shooting.
SET DECOR: Please tell us more about what you provided for these racetrack sets...
Day: Everything had to be provided from scratch. The pits and paddocks and whole Formula 1 world was created in a disused airport runway, which meant all that racing world was sourced and provided. Very few items existed in their period form. And almost all had to be in practical race working standard, as we were filming with working cars in race simulation conditions. The tyres were fit for racing on, the tools were top grade, the ladders safe, the signage true to period and language and country.
The list is endless, the detail extreme: Stopwatches, folding chairs, stools, tools, toolkits, stickers, gas bottles, hose, team-specific bespoke jacks (F1 cars are barely inches off the ground!), time sheets, each country’s track manuals, FIA manuals, Indy rules, tape measures, hydraulic wrenches, large wheel spanners, rags, oils, tins, petrol funnels, lap boards, lap numbers, name plates, instructions, racing clipboards (strapped so you don’t drop them, shaped for ease of holding on lap and using, with clasps for three stopwatches), team canopies, team umbrellas, petrol urns, traveling crates, thermos flasks, binoculars, ID passes, ID arm bands, driver name plates, and on goes the list.
All those sublime but important background details are needed. What could not be found was fabricated.
Ron wanted to shoot the race, the preparation, the loading, the maintenance of the cars, the teams arriving, leaving, resting and racing. He wanted peripheral action to be continuous and as real as possible and practical. Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle's approach is always to grab extra clips and extra activity “off of main shot”…the "living details and flavors", as he calls it. We endeavored to provide that.
Ron wanted to totally infuse the film in the period...the drinks that the spectators and teams drank, the magazines they read...he wanted to absorb all the many layers of this particular universe that was Formula 1 1970s . That included the spectators and press and the local police. Each country’s race and year had its own special flavors.
With reference as our mantra, we were pedantic, obsessed even, to insist on details such as: period and correct team branding, corporate colors, logos, specific bespoke tools, specific-brand tools (Ferrari used Beta tools and McLaren used Snap-On), equipment suppliers...and accurate portrayal of the level of resources, e.g. Ferrari was richer than all the others.
Then there is the non-racing world that is all part of it and integral to the “circus”: Press cameras, TV cameras, security passes, press notes, books, tape recorders, bags, soft drinks, beer cans, fast food, food hawkers, souvenir stalls, merchandise stalls and stuff, team baggage, team catering, etc.
SET DECOR: Were there particular set decoration considerations re: the photography?
Day: Yes, it was important from day one that our DOP and his team could step aside from the main unit at any stage, go anywhere and grab detail and interest in the dressed shot, right through the day. Many sets involved large numbers of dressed spectators and TV crew and press in-camera.
We fabricated 1970s TV camera housings, correct to detail and look, that could fit over Anthony’s modern day digital cameras. Thus, his team could put on period costume and mingle with the actors in shot or background and still capture all the extra flavors of pit life they wanted.
SET DECOR: The drivers’ meetings & press conference spaces…
Day: There were a number of these, potentially straight-forward and less exciting, but they are important as they allow a connected visual narrative through our story...a familiar situation re-visited as we journey through the film and races.
Practically, in filming terms, they became a scheduling pawn, brought out and used and modified as required. We had dressed into our paddock sets a number of tents that we custom fabricated, some with a range of different patterned interlinings so they could be changed to indicate various countries.
We wanted all the world of Formula 1 to be bright primary colours, but we did build in a country-by-country rationale and visual markers to help us make sense of and differentiate the common used spaces. For example, we favored a strong sharp yellow for Japan, and dark heavy-tones green for Germany. For Italy, we wanted warm hues, but also Ferrari had to be red, Red, RED!
The palettes were not an exact science or by any means rigid, but they served as guides to follow and offered a great degree of flexibility and speed in a fast-moving and challenging shoot schedule. i.e. “It's bad weather for the next hour, let's do a press tent! What have you got, set dec?”!!!
SET DECOR: Please tell us about decorating for the Formula 3 days, the early days of both drivers’ careers…
Day: After the arduous task of the F1 pit and paddocks, we then went on to shoot these Formula 3 sections, and it was an indulgenced nostalgic joy creating this world that had elements remembered from my childhood.
The location was the very real London’s Crystal Park, a place I know well. This was the first time in the schedule that we had all genuine historic cars racing for real. What a thrill!
As we were in the actual place unchanged from the time, it was a breath of fresh air to expand our set to give Ron the freedom to shoot all angles, from every direction. We set up canvas tea tents, beer tents, fish and chip trailers, ice cream vans, bunting, P.A. systems, local radio, memorabilia stalls, hay bales instead of Armco barriers, deck chairs...What we couldn’t source, we fabricated.
What we needed in story terms was a lot less pressured ambience than for Formula 1, but it was still fast and sexy, underscoring Niki being a bit incongruous in this world. It came together more easily, the weather was great, there was a much more relaxed atmosphere...it was a highlight of the shoot. Fun!
SET DECOR: Tell us about the challenges in doing the garages, mechanic bays, paddocks...for teams like Ferrari, Lotus, McClaren…
Day: Gaining tools! On task was to provide all the tools and equipment for the teams and pits. We had something like 20 teams, each with 6 mechanics, across 7 years and 12 countries. The pit garages needed detailed kitting out, and so, too, did the back stage paddock area.
The F1 world is very similar to the film process: a large circus of technicians traveling from venue to venue with their tools and transport and occupational and living facilities.
It was a challenge to provide the quantities, especially in 1970s period form. Additionally, not only did they all need to work, but they had to be of the very best quality, be of a standard to use for real race conditions! We were not using props or fake scenarios. In action, the cars would be worked on and tyres and parts changed, ready to roll on real, working F1 period cars. It was the real deal, safety uppermost.
It is always a problem to get quantity. One or two is fine, but tens and hundreds of props, well that’s when it gets hard. It was not all hi-tech stuff, it was regular tools...but quantity, quality and period made it challenging.
We had to change our normal approach, new avenues of supply were needed. With very few of these used in any F1 oriented films made before, there were only a few film suppliers or prop houses anywhere in the world that had relevant stock. We cleaned them out, but still fell ghastly short on numbers, and there were no street shops to buy appropriate modern tools to age.
EBay was too time consuming…one tool here, one tool there. So, we would need to access fans, collectors and museums. But they, too, fell short or were too time consuming.
Then we discovered “auto jumbles”, periodic hobby and collector specific motor fairs. It was there we found quantities of general tools that we could use, but it was a world alien to us, and more so, we were alien to them. Some of the traders took a little convincing that we were serious when we asked to buy everything they had! “How much for it ALL?"
They also became a good resource for F1 memorabilia of the times: program stickers, novelty items, playing cards, tyre-shaped ashtrays…things we had seen in our references that added richness to the sets.
SET DECOR: We are told that Hunt’s chief mechanic at McLaren, Alastair Caldwell, not only is portrayed in the film, but also served as a technical and historical consultant. Did you work with him?
Day: Yes! We worked with him right from the early days of prep…and although his time and our access to him was limited, we gained as much first-hand from a man “who was there back in the day” as we could. It was priceless to be able to quiz him about really specific items and procedures in our vast bible of reference photos and archive footage, stuff that we had found contradictory information about or that we did not understand. Clarity could be obtained.
But he was just one example of a process that was invaluable to us, extracting the mine of actual human memory from the real people that the script was about.
Early in our preparation time we organized what we called “mechanic school” for our Set Dec and Art department teams, and the actors as well. Alastair Caldwell was part of that, together with Stuart McCrudden and other team mechanics from that time. We brought in period cars and period tools and equipment and, with the several real mechanics from the period, we trained how to do pit stops and tyre changes. It was great to hear stories and get a deeper sense of the time. This was a chance for our actors to get on hands-on experience and training in particular for the pit stop sequences, but it also was a great opportunity for us to get the inside word about techniques, design nuances and the importance of the bespoke tools that we would need to source or make.
Always mindful, fearful almost, of the potential of the completed film being undermined by criticism by the fans and followers of F1, by us being loose with the facts and details of design and props, we jumped at any chance to quiz any expert and technician from the actual and specific events of the 1970s.
So it was to our sheer delight that we came upon two people who were there, but from the opposite sides of the track.
Adam Cooper was an obsessive young fan at the time that has since become a journalist and historian for that period and sport. Ron had accessed Adam and we then grabbed him. He spent much time and effort sharing his reading knowledge and giving us memorabilia, stickers and programs that we could use and replicate.
Equally important was that he introduced us to Simon Taylor, a journalist for the BBC at the time. He covered much of our relevant seasons and races, and was a key reporter of the 1976 events. We could not believe what he was able to give us, and were delighted with his general press packs from many of the races of this pivotal season, maps and stats and race facts, and team press releases. This was the real stuff, which would be dressed into our sets! How much more detailed and real could it be for Ron and the actors, never mind the future audiences?
But then to top it, he was able to give us his actual handwritten notes from his own reporter's note pad, used for broadcast in the run-up-to and on the day of the final race at FUJI. This race determined who won the world championship and was intrinsic to the film’s final scenes. His very personal notes and jottings captured first-hand the excitement and tension of that day. I got chills just reading them…like being in a time machine.
Informative to the actors and to Ron, it also gave us a priceless prop for the commentary boxes to replicate for dressing and action.
The commentary boxes were initially another sideshow, a minor player in the script, but soon Ron placed great relevance on them as a tool to link and clarify the narrative. Pressure was on to step-up to this challenge: what had been planned previously as a few close-ups now turned into 9 different scenic settings, all with unique international nuances and detail…to be turned around from one small “hut build” and yet still all versions to be shot in two days. Make them different and interesting and real, and keep the budget and schedule the same!
Personal lives… SET DECOR: Please tell us about how the sets helped convey the personal aspects of the racers and the individual stories...
Day: We made a design decision that while the Formula 1 world was vibrant, sexy and covered in primary colours, the rest of the world was balanced and almost the opposite…regular, safe and more muted.
James Hunt’s world...
We had to create two personal spaces for James.
One was a studio-type apartment (1970 Formula 3 days) where he brings Nursey [Natalie Dormer]. It’s a classic young bachelor pad...unloved, with leftover fixtures and furniture...a cheap rental space with cheap bed, sofa, table, kitchen stuff and supplies. Layered on top, we dressed James' single-man's world of unkempt clothes, records and occasional trophy. A key character detail was the Budgerigars, his pet birds and their cage. The over-all look was uncared for, ugly and anti-design. A young man who grew up in an upperclass family, but currently low on income and living for the “now”…girls, drink and food.
A turn around in his life and circumstances, he is now famous, now married to an international fashion model [Olivia Wilde] and now has substantial quarters. The superficial trappings of success and wealth meant a cleaner, more designed environment, but with little love. Theirs was an impersonal living space. We wanted to show a veneer of success and wealth, but actually with little effort made by them in creating a shared marital home. Basically, they were seldom there. Our aim was that it be pale and subdued in stark contrast to the now very alive, bright and fast, track world. We wanted the palette to reflect James’ darker period of life, as his marriage and career are about to fall apart. His personal life was less important and less engaging to him than his racing.
SET DECOR: Chris Hemsworth noted two things specific to our conversation…
…“James belonged in that era. Everything was passionate and indulgent.” …It always helps an actor when you’re not trying to convince yourself who you are in that world, when everything around reminds you of it.” Quite a compliment to the sets…
Day: Yes, a compliment indeed. But, of course, that is exactly what we as a team would aim for...that is our job.
It's important that the finished look should always feel sincere and grounded. If you dress every drawer, every cupboard, wallet, handbag and glove compartment, then it gives the actors and director so much freedom on the day that, if they want to get an unscripted beer from the fridge, then go ahead. If it should be there in real life, then it should be on the set as well.
Sometimes this does put additional pressure on my team, especially when we are dealing with tough deadlines and tough budgets, but I have a strong belief that it has a massive impact on the performance and therefore the final product for the audience. If the crew, the director, and the actors believe where they are, then everyone else will, too, and we succeed.
SET DECOR: There were small-moment sets, such as the hospital/infirmary James walks into barefoot from Formula 3 race and meets Gemma a.k.a. Nursey. Could you tell us about this non-racing set which appears early on in the film helping to establish time and place?
Day: We had trouble finding a period location, so we took over a disused Army barracks medical space. It had a good room for the bed/cubicle but no waiting room/arrival area, which was important to the script. So we gutted the adjoining room, and rebuilt and dressed it as the reception/waiting area.
We kept true to the under-resourced NHS medical arena and the simplicity of 1970s England. Keeping colours and surfaces faithful, we dialed-up the romance of the tonal range a bit...a slightly more simple and clean facility, still quaint but not unrealistic. It is very particular and reminiscent to a British audience, so we had to get the look right...but we also needed to be a little more magical, enchanting, romantic and humored for this early scene reflecting James’ boyish charms and irresistible charisma.
We were very pleased with this, our first delivered set, when writer Peter Morgan remarked how perfect and extra-ordinarily detailed the whole set was. We had gone out of our way to make sure every piece of paper, every patient file, every notice board had accurate graphics and writing content, created by us but realistically relevant to the hospital we created. It blew his mind.
SET DECOR: There were scenes establishing both of the drivers’ wealthy backgrounds, the era’s non-stop parties, the racing teams offices and those of ranking racing officials, but there are also other subtle but significant touches. Please tell us about the Teddy bears, for instance...
Day: This came from an actual reference. The Teddy bear was a Hesketh team logo...maybe they thought they were a cuddly race team. We saw a picture of the Teddy toys and also a Teddy on the marriage car. So, as a personal reminder to those who were actually at the wedding, and because it is a lovely graphic visual, we dressed it in. Ron saw it and loved it, so included it in a shot.
We followed this through then, even to the paddock area.
SET DECOR: Alexander Hesketh, the Third Baron Hesketh [Christain McKay]…This larger than life real character sponsored his friend James Hunt's early racing career. Please tell us about his manor/estate, which became their headquarters and workshop...
Day: The main interior living room was relatively straightforward, an English aristocratic house in England!
Although surrounded with the priceless hereditary artwork and antiquities, we dressed the furniture to be informal, relaxed and comfortable...traditional undertones, but reflecting that however grand the house was, this was a modern 1970s family living here. We even provided two German wolfhounds to lounge in our sitting room, this breed very much associated with British nobility hunting breeds.
The other task was to re-create the car workshop in the horses' stable area, which is actually where they had it. We imagined they used discarded formerly grander pieces of furniture from the main house sitting alongside F3 and F1 auto and garage equipment, and the day-to-day detritus of mechanics at work.
SET DECOR: Niki Lauda...Although Lauda dismisses the social world of racing and, because of his abrupt, caustic manner, has few if any friends, he eventually falls in love and has a deeply committed marriage. It is ironic that the cold, calculating racer has the warmer home.
Alexandra Landra, who plays his wife Marlene, said of it, "We had a scene where they spend some wonderful days together before the accident. Niki relaxes a little bit, maybe for the first time. It’s a moment in which he realizes he has something to live for besides racing...”
Day: Yes, we dressed a romantic relaxed idyll away from his regimented racing world. Niki’s marital home in Ibiza is intimate, warm, very romantic and personal. We found an amazing 8-foot long shell chandelier...a nightmare to transport, but it made the set for me! We had to use a location in Germany for schedule reasons, so we needed to go out of our way to dress with a very warm Mediterranean look.
SET DECOR: And then, the opposite, the hospital where he goes through tortuous recovery! Please tell us about these sets!
Day: Again, this was a very technical area and such a key part of the narrative. It was vastly important to get the medical aspect correct.
The real Niki had told Ron and Daniel Brühl that he did not remember very much about it.
We filmed the crash at the real corner on the old Nurburghring track...a very eerie feeling, to see our re-created footage of the rushes after months of examining the archive. It was like seeing a ghost...and later, it was so powerful for me to see it all cut together. You are in Niki’s seat as the flames engulfed the car and him...I got quiet emotional.
It seemed almost mandatory that this hospital section would be filmed in Germany. This turned out to be such a benefit, as there are slight cultural differences in the finer points, from the fixtures and fittings, correct signage and language, to even the light switches and hospital bed textiles. I relied on my German team to guide me.
Although we filmed in an unused German hospital building, sourcing the period medical equipment was a task. We had it sourced and driven in from the four corners of Germany, making the dressing of these sets quiet stressful, as we waited for things to arrive.
It was extremely important to Ron that the medical details were as accurate as possible. We took some advice during prep in the UK from a medical adviser, and then when shooting in Germany, we used two advisers to assist in the operating theatre and the follow-up treatment and intensive care scenes.
It is possible for the scene to block itself for Ron and the actors, if the medical staffs are following the actual procedure and the correct language is used.
This was paramount for the very particular and harrowing scenes of the doctors draining Niki’s lungs with a rare and difficult procedure. A combination rubber and steel tube is fed down his throat and into his lungs, then fluids are pumped out. It required not only finding the correct period equipment, but also working with physical and digital special effects to achieve it. Initially, there was much debate as to what the equipment was and how it was done...so occasional is this procedure...but finally, with permission from Niki, we were able to find out from the original hospital records.
For the sets, we opted for cool soft tones as a contrast to the raging angry redness of Niki's injuries. Your first focus is on his external injuries, but the real problem for Niki was the toxic and hot smoke and flames that entered his lungs. The burns to the skin can heal fairly quickly…internally, things are more precarious. We were told Niki says he only knew how bad things were when he saw the reactions from his family and friends.
On a personal note, it’s this part of the story that is the most engaging...that this man was on the threshold of death and yet only missed two races in the season. Forty days after his near death and very painful crash, he is in a car on the Monza track racing in the Italian Grand Prix! Not only that, but he came in fourth in the race!
Truly amazing. And a pivotal moment in this extraordinary season of motor sport.