‘Rush’ Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s 10-Year Rule for Biopics

By  · Published on September 27th, 2013

Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan have taken a real liking to each other over the years, and for good reason. With Frost/Nixon and Rush, the two have produced critical darlings that pit opposites against each other. While the 2008 drama was about fighting with words, Rush — which portrays the Formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) – the battles are done on a race track.

Morgan wrote about their budding relationship out of pure, personal interest. This started off as a spec script which eventually led to a $50m British indie, not your standard Hollywood-produced Oscar contender. Of course it also helps when a storyteller has some distance from the story.

Here, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter talks about time’s effect on biographical movies, his collaboration with Howard and what he modeled the structure for the Rush script after.

You and Ron Howard have now worked together three times. How does that relationship work?

He came to me before Frost/Nixon with a couple of ideas. We had wanted to work together before then. I never bit on those ideas, but when he jumped on Frost/Nixon we had already spent time talking. I knew that I liked him. During the course of Frost/Nixon both the admiration and friendship deepened, so we stayed in touch. We regularly have breakfast or supper and see what each other is up to.

When we finished this he was working on In the Heart of the Sea, which he asked me to take a look at. He wanted my opinion, so I told him I felt it needed work. We spent the last three months working on that film, which he starts shooting on Tuesday.

Do you think writers should seek out directors who will collaborate that way?

Yes is the short answer. I mean, it depends on what type of writer you want. With Ron, my collaboration goes from the start to the finish, and that includes rehearsals, time on set, and the editing room. It goes way beyond him giving me notes and me applying them. I can’t see another way of making films. I don’t know how people do it. The script is never finished. It’s madness to hand in a script to a director, leave them alone, and for the director not to want the writer there with rehearsals and the shoot.

I don’t know how people do it, but some people do it like that. In my own experience, when a writer and filmmaker work together well and stay through the process all the way to the end, you get the best results.

How is Clint Eastwood in that regard?

It couldn’t be more different. You know, Clint Eastwood is somebody…he’s made no secret of this over the years, but he really believes in the first draft. He really wants to know what somebody’s first instincts were. When he made Hereafter he took what was a first draft he didn’t really want further collaboration on. I was disappointed by that, and I believe that film could have improved with further work.

How was the first draft of Rush?

I wrote it on the assumption that there would never be any money to make it. I wrote it, thinking, “Look, I’ll probably have to put a caption up that says ‘a race is on at this point.’” The idea of staging a Formula 1 race during the 1970s seemed intimidatingly expensive. I wasn’t interested in Formula 1 and I didn’t think we’d be able to shoot it anyway, so I wanted to make sure these characters’ stories played with Formula 1 as a backdrop.

I never expected to be able to take the drama of their relationship into the actual races, to have the races become almost dialogue scenes. I never expected Ron to shoot the way that he did with the budget that we had. I had to write in a way that interested me.

If you’re at all interested in this, the screenplay itself is structured as a race. There’s a series of overtaking maneuvers. From their meeting at the opening race until the final race it’s structured as one person overtaking the other. Only until the final race are they in a position of equals. From a writing point-of-view, I wrote that to amuse myself.

It’s interesting how their conflict comes from how they view “winning.” How accurate is the depiction of James Hunt and Niki Lauda in terms of how they saw winning and losing?

Both these guys are headstrong and willful kind of characters. They’re like fighter pilots without test pilots. They stared death in the face and genuinely believed they were the only ones who would overcome the odds. For them, the odds are in their favor. Who thinks like that?

James thought, “Yes, I am frightened, but if I die, so be it. My advantage over the other guys is that I’m a more natural driver and I’m prepared to die.” Niki thought, “I’m as good a driver as James, but I’m not prepare to die, so he has an advantage on me there. My advantage is I will be rested, fit, and well-prepared. Plus, my car will be better prepared.” They had two different approaches to the business of winning.

At one point James discusses bringing personality to a business. Can you relate to that as a writer?

No, no, I’ve got five kids, so I’m just trying to get by. I can only write what interests me. Funnily enough, I wrote this for incredibly personal reasons. I’m married to an Austrian. As a child I grew up the son of German immigrant parents, so I grew up being teased and called “Fritz” at school. When I married my wife and went to live in Vienna I was teased for being a Brit.

I have been on both ends of this. For me, to write about an Austrian and British rivalry goes to my heart of personal circumstances. So, I wrote this entirely for myself. I’m still pinching myself that anyone in America is remotely entertained by this. I’m delighted by the responses. My assumption was this would only be an international market movie.

You’ve written a few bio films now. Lately we’ve seen some focusing on modern figures. Do you think you’re at a disadvantage or losing perspective by writing about a topic so immediate?

I think it’s a really interesting question, because the only time I’ve seen it done successfully is The Social Network. Even then, actually, there had been ten years since the events that transpired in the movie. I have a ten year rule. For me, it would be too soon to write about Lance Armstrong or WikiLeaks. Of course people came to me for those, but the dust hasn’t settled on those stories.

Our perspective on those stories isn’t clear yet. That doesn’t mean somebody can’t crack it, and I look forward to seeing somebody cracking it, but my own view is: if you’re so close to those events you can only report the events.

If you have distance from the events, then your story can work as an analogy or parable, rather than its literal narrative. People can watch the Frost/Nixon interviews and make associations that aren’t just about Richard Nixon and David Frost. Because time has passed the film can have an additional resonance through metaphor. I won’t touch anything within ten years.

Rush is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.