By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The fast-paced and adrenaline-filled drama "Rush" may be one of the most engaging films about the world of Formula One racing, but British screenwriter Peter Morgan says he couldn't be less of a fan of the elite motor sport.
Morgan, a two-time best-writing Oscar nominee for 2006's "The Queen" and 2008's "Frost/Nixon," simply wanted to tell a tale of rivalry between an Austrian and an Englishman. As it happens, the battle for the 1976 F1 championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt fit perfectly into Morgan's plans.
"Rush," from Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, goes into wide release in the United States this weekend. Critics have warmly received the film and praised Morgan's script, with New York Times critic Manohla Dargis saying it's a sports story that "Peter Morgan strips down to its satisfying, straightforward core."
But had it not been for "Fritz," an unwanted nickname unceremoniously bestowed on Morgan, the script for "Rush" might have never left the starting boxes.
"Fritz" was the moniker Morgan's English public schoolmates used to tease him because his parents were German immigrants. As an adult, Morgan found himself on the other side when he married an Austrian woman, moved to Vienna and was teased for being a Brit.
"I thought no one was ever going to come to me and say 'Please will you write a story about an Austrian and an Englishman and examine the cultural differences between the two?' That would never occur to anybody," Morgan said in a recent interview.
"So I thought 'I'll write it because it interests me.'"
'LIKE A LOVE STORY'
Morgan, 50, has built his reputation on bringing real-life stories to the screen and stage. In "The Queen," he examined Queen Elizabeth's struggle to lead her countrymen after the death of Princess Diana, while in "Frost/Nixon," he and Howard re-created the post-Watergate interviews between British talk show host David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon. Both were nominated for best picture Oscars.
In "Rush," he wanted to make a human drama, not a racing movie. From the beginning, he assumed there would be no racing scenes because there would never be enough money in the film's budget to make them.
The real-life story of Hunt, the handsome British playboy portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, and Lauda, the clinical and less attractive Austrian played by Daniel Bruhl, provided all the ingredients for a gripping rivalry: beyond their physical differences, there was also arrogance, insecurity and envy.
"I knew it just wouldn't be about who is quickest and that there would be echoes and depths and resonances that would speak to people beyond racing," Morgan said.
The screenwriter said he didn't want anyone to be rooting for either Lauda or Hunt, but rather wanted to present both as flawed and yet heroic men. In the end, it was independently financed and the racing scenes look slick and sophisticated.
Hunt died prematurely two decades ago, but Morgan went to Lauda for his approval for the project. He cautioned the gruff Austrian that he would not show him the script or make changes.
"I think he really loved the angle of doing it with him and James," said Morgan. "He talked to me a few times before saying yes, and trusted me, and probably respected the fact that I told him he probably wouldn't like it."
Lauda, now 64, told Reuters this month that he was "impressed" by the film and saw himself in Bruhl, including in the scene in which he returns from a fiery crash without an ear and with burns to his scalp and face. He said he did indeed look that bad.
There is one audience-pleasing scene when Hunt punches a journalist who asks Lauda about how his wife will bear to be with him after the crash. Morgan said the punch didn't happen in real life, although Hunt was known to take swings at just about everyone on the F1 circuit.
"I wanted it to be a non-verbal way for James to show his affection for Niki," said Morgan.
For Morgan, the enmity between Hunt and Lauda was a form of love because no one bothers having a rivalry with someone they disrespect.
"A rivalry is an act of obsession and love," Morgan said. "I wanted it to feel like a love story even though they were just bashing the living daylights out of each other."
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Philip Barbara)