Mike Hill says “Rush” could be the most technically difficult movie director Ron Howard has ever made.
Hill, who calls Omaha home, should know. He and Dan Hanley have been editing Howard’s movies since “Night Shift” in 1982. In fact, they’ve edited all but the first of Howard’s theatrical releases as a director, 21 movies in all. They earned Oscar nominations for editing four of them: “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Cinderella Man” and “Frost/Nixon,” winning for “Apollo 13.” All four were also best-picture nominees, with “A Beautiful Mind” winning.
“Rush,” which opens Friday, could return Hill and Hanley to the red carpet March 2. The movie relives the 1976 Formula 1 racing season in which the storied rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda, a dour, cautious Austrian, and James Hunt, a party-loving Brit, peaked. Daniel Brühl (“Inglorious Basterds”) and Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) play Lauda and Hunt.
“It was the first movie we did with digital cameras, so I knew that alone was going to give us an unbelievable amount of footage,” Hill said.
While 35mm film had to be reloaded into cameras every 10 minutes, Hill said, digital means you don’t even have to turn the camera off. Even on dialogue scenes, Howard would just keep the camera rolling from take to take.
For an editor, all that footage means extra work.
The second complicating factor was the car races. Howard put tiny cameras inside the cars, giving the view of a driver zooming down the track. But he also shot from helicopters, on the sides of the track, and from camera cars positioned amid the speeding racers.
Again, a lot of footage to sort through and decide what to use.
Three big races are covered in detail during the movie. It was easy to confuse footage from one race to another.
“I told Ron, ‘I’m getting a lot of anxiety about this.’ But he said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. It’ll be fine. Just keep plugging away.’ It was like a puzzle with thousands of pieces.”
The crew also compiled hundreds of hours of archival footage from the 1976 season, which they used to create templates of how each race went. New footage was intercut with archival footage here and there, but Hill said the old stuff mostly served as a road map. More complications came from backgrounds at various racetracks being created digitally. It all has to blend seamlessly, he said.
Hill and Hanley spend little time on the set. But they’re nearby from the first day of shooting. With Howard, they look at the daily shots at the end of each day, then start building a scene the next morning. Hill and Hanley alternate scenes, each working independently but in consultation with each other.
“We try to keep up so by the time he’s done shooting, we have the movie edited into a rough assembly,” he said. That version, of course, is a lot longer than the movie will end up. But they can usually screen a version of the entire movie within a couple weeks of the end of shooting.
Hill’s favorite things to assemble were the dialogue scenes between races. He gets into the acting, piecing together the performances you’ll get to see. Each scene has many takes, shot from many angles, so he has lots of choices to make.
“Over the years, you gain more appreciation for what actors do,” he said. “You feel a responsibility to use the very best of every piece they give you.”
The first cut of “Rush” was 3˝ hours. But Hill says they trimmed an hour within a week. After that it was snips and refining, mixing sound, adjusting color, adding music, doing the credits and so on. Test audiences give them more information that can lead to adjustments. The final cut is 2 hours, 3 minutes.
Hill wants the editing to be so invisible that audiences are unaware of it, swept along by the story. That’s his definition of great editing.
He and Howard are not the only Oscar nominees who worked on “Rush.” Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) was cinematographer. Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”).
The movie got a great reception at the Toronto Film Festival, and from University of Nebraska-Lincoln students when Hill previewed it for them last week. Though racing movies are relatively rare (I can think of “Grand Prix,” “Les Mans,” “Days of Thunder” and the recent documentary “Senna”), car-chase scenes in movies are not. Reviewers are recalling that Howard’s first movie as a director, the microbudget “Grand Theft Auto” in 1977, was a car movie.
Last week, Hill flew to London to begin work on Howard’s next movie, “In the Heart of the Sea.” Based on a Nathaniel Philbrick novel about a true event from 1819, the new film is the story of a sperm whale that attacked a whaling ship, stranding 20 Nantucket crewmen in the Pacific Ocean for 90 days.
The cast includes Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and Cillian Murphy.
Hill said he’ll be in London for the shoot almost until Christmas, take a holiday break, and then edit for about four months near Howard’s home in Connecticut. Then it’s back to London for sound mixing.