Pete Hammond

And the hits just keep on coming.

You could tell from the smiles on the faces of Universal executives that Sunday night’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of the Formula 1 racing drama Rush was a smash hit at the Roy Thomson Hall. Not only did the filmmakers, including director Ron Howard, receive enthusiastic standing ovations, but the real-life subject of the film, Niki Lauda, received a rousing standing O when introduced after the film finished.

The story is a powerful one, revolving around the intense rivalry during one season in the 1970s between drivers Lauda and James Hunt, and what happens during the course of that year is the stuff of great human drama. Initially Universal passed on the film when first pitched, even with studio golden boy and Oscar-winner Ron Howard involved. But as circumstance would have it, it all came around again after the film was produced independently (Howard’s first indie since the start of his career with Grand Theft Auto) for a reported $45 million, and Universal is proudly releasing it after all. Universal chairman Adam Fogelson told me he is extremely excited to be launching the film and has great confidence in it. “We are going to make this work,” he said with certainty. The reaction here Sunday night can only increase his confidence.

At the Thompson Hotel post-screening party, everyone involved was getting great compliments on the finished film across the board. Especially Howard, who noted that not only men were responding but surprisingly women, too. “Women responded to the movie differently, but even with more emotion and intensity than men, both genders testing it super high,” he said of the film, which is not your typical Formula 1 racing movie, but a great character study that happens to be set in the world of auto racing. I first saw it early in the marketing process in May and thought then, and still now, that the pure  emotion of the story of the rivalry between these racing icons would have great appeal way beyond the partisans of the sport. I also think it has Academy potential with no-brainer nominations for Anthony Dod Mantle’s superb cinematography, the editing, sound, Hans Zimmer’s score and Daniel Bruhl‘s stunning supporting turn as Lauda, who endures a horrific accident on the track. That’s all in addition to possible directing, writing and picture considerations.

“Ultimately it was a unique challenge,” Howard said. “Shortly after I was really involved I realized why it was a challenge and what there was that attracted me beyond the basic story and the quality of the writing. The challenge was to combine things that I had experienced in a way — the need to get the technical authenticity of Apollo 13, or the danger of Backdraft, or the personal connection with Cinderella Man or the character stuff of A Beautiful Mind or Frost/Nixon, but all in the same movie. None of those movies demanded all that dimension. I knew intuitively I had confidence I could do it because the challenge was similar to others I had faced but never with this kind of density and it sort of made the degree of difficulty bar drift higher than I have ever done before,” he said of the independently produced film, a unique experience for this studio-centric director. He says the decision to go indie was organically correct in a lot of ways, fusing with a definite creative energy.

It was screenwriter Peter Morgan, who worked with Howard on Frost/Nixon, who really got it going thanks to his friendship with Lauda in Vienna. Lauda had always turned down overtures to tell his story. “I said to him I wanted to write the screenplay like a race. It is structured as a series of overtaking maneuvers and he just came on the journey with me. He decided to put it all in with me, ” Morgan said.

Lauda, who was accepting all the praise, seemed almost non-plussed at the incredible reaction to the film in Toronto. “Here the audience was even stronger than in London,” he said, adding that he was always ready to offer advice during production. “Whenever they weren’t sure, they called me. We worked very closely together, even with Ron Howard. They asked me every two days , ‘Do you put the helmet on before you get in the car or after?’, these kinds of things.”

Bruhl, who will be a supporting actor nominee if there is any justice at all, said it was the best premiere he has ever had. “It couldn’t have been better. I am very proud of the movie. Watching it the third time I realized how great this movie is because of the work that Ron did. The editing, the work of Anthony Dod Mantle, Chris (Hemsworth, his co-star) was fantastic. Hans Zimmer’s score. The first and even second time you are just obsessed with yourself. But the third time you just start enjoying the movie and I really thought it’s a really good film,” he said as he sat side-by-side in a booth with Lauda, adding how moved he was in watching the ending again and having Lauda by his side as he did. “The end of that movie always makes me emotional. I didn’t want to cry in front of a Formula 1 driver. I felt like a wimp, but I was really honestly moved.”

Universal does a soft launch of the film in LA and NY on September 20 before going wide the next weekend. Along with the limited late December Oscar-qualifying run of Lone Survivor, another emotionally powerful true story, the studio is setting its Oscar ducks in a row and plans to campaign big time. Bruhl has a quandary in that he is also excellent in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, about Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, which opened the festival Thursday evening to mixed reviews, a situation that disturbs the actor. “I was a bit sad that some of the critics didn’t acknowledge the tough job that Bill had to face. It’s not that easy to make a film about that subject. It’s incredibly complex. He did a great, great job,” he said.

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