By Bob Verini
Screenwriter Peter Morgan is the current recognized master of the two-hander. Having provided the definitive portraits of Richard Nixon and David Frost in his play and film of Frost/Nixon, he went on to dramatize the cat-and-mouse game played by Tony Blair and Elizabeth II in The Queen, Earlier this year he brought back that film’s Oscar-winning star Helen Mirren in a series of one-to-ones with every British P.M. except Blair in the smash London hit The Audience.
His current film Rush, directed by Ron Howard now in general release, could be his most fascinating mano-a-mano confrontation to date. It details the rivalry between two legendary Formula One drivers, intense, single-minded Niki Lauda and dashing playboy James Hunt. Through most of the 1970s, their highs and lows, their jockeying for championships before and after Lauda’s horrendous, near-fatal crash, held the racing world spellbound. Now it’s doing likewise to movie audiences worldwide.
Morgan found exploring these parallel careers irresistible on several levels. “My wife is Austrian and we live in Vienna, and the prospect of telling the story of a great Austrian celebrity was very appealing.” Moreover, “every single person wanted to be James Hunt. He was funny, handsome, like James Bond but not uptight.” Yet as he told Script.com, Morgan held back until he could find just the right entrée into the story: a scene he felt he had to write, and the narrative’s structural key.
I felt Niki was a interesting story, but only in counterpoint with James Hunt. Niki alone would have been only a marginally interesting story to me.
The scene I wanted to write was when James came to see Niki in hospital and saw his [post-crash] disfigurement for the first time. So here’s a very beautiful man, and a man who already had low self-esteem about his appearance: [Lauda] actually was called “The Rat” and then he got his face burned off. I thought, oooh, I want to write that: a rivalry where yes, the two had very different attitudes to racing, life, death, women, everything, but at the heart of it all is a primal envy. There’s a longing for Niki to be beautiful, in a sense, and for James to get it back together. Here are two men who, in a sense, complete one another, but the rivalry is what drags them into this mutual completion.
But I really got excited when I realized how to tell the story. You see, when you come to every script you think “what’s in it for me?” Yes, this is a great story, and I like these scenes. But I knew with The Queen I could write smart. Smart, articulate people, that turned me on. I knew I wouldn’t be pushing the bounds of plausibility by having these people be sharp and honest. But you can’t really do that with Formula One drivers without its being possibly too much of a contrivance. They aren't verbal people. I knew that Ron was going to have a lot of fun staging it all. But I got myself excited when I structured the entire piece as a race.
So they meet in Crystal Palace. James wins that first race and Niki is angry with him. He goes to Vienna, borrows some money from a bank, and buys his way into Formula One, overtaking James who is still stuck in Formula Three. James hears about that and is absolutely furious. He persuades [his sponsor] Hesketh to go into Formula One, meets the Olivia Wilde character, and now he’s overtaken Niki! He’s in a better car and he’s happily married.
Niki, meanwhile, moves to Ferrari; meets his wife; now he’s in a better car and wins the world championship – he overtakes James, who’s absolutely furious. He goes to [car mogul] McLaren; now he’s in a better car, and then Niki has the accident. So the entire script is written as a series of overtaking maneuvers until they reach the final race in Japan, and even then the next time they are on equal footing is the final race. What I realized is, here’s a way you can use structure to actually reflect the form and the narrative. The movie is about maneuvers you make to overtake a rival, and I knew that would make it propulsive.
The problem with it was, where do you start? In the 1976 season? Well, in a classic Robert McKee way, you’d start that season on page 27, where the first act turns. But that’s not where it happens; it happens at page 50 or 60. I gallop through seven years, and then three months in the second half, and that’s a ugly unwieldy thing, which you would notice a lot if you weren't actually watching one long race between two men.
That’s what made me think, “ah, now I’ve got the themes and the form.” If I couldn’t have cracked the structure the film would never have happened, because I would have written it and it would have been shit and i wouldn't have shown it to anyone. I only showed it to anyone once i realized, “oh, that’s not bad.”
The great beauty of writing on spec is that you spare your own blushes. if you write something on spec that’s shit, nobody in the world ever hears about it. I’ve written two that remain unseen in a drawer. It’s so painful to spend months and months and it doesn’t work. The odds are so stacked against you to do something good.
Morgan concedes that in the first half of Rush the Niki/James clashes are somewhat more intensified than in real life.
The reason for that – besides the fact that it’s more fun to watch – is that I think men show their love through rivalry. A man will never pick another man as a rival if he doesn’t respect him. I think the biggest gift you can give someone is to be pissed off at them. That’s why, when people meet, they often pretend not to like each other. A man will hate a woman and scream at her, but actually that’s a sign of attraction. So I think James and Niki’s butting up against each other is another way of representing their mutual respect.
The research process was facilitated by the access Morgan was given to the still world-famous, still legendarily prickly Lauda.
Research was more fun because of the closeness of the relationship i developed with Niki. My only regret is that I didn’t get to spend the same time with James, but i did enjoy meeting the people that surrounded him. I met 30 people to put together my James, but I met with only one person to put together Niki.
Nobody in the world will like Niki in the first meeting. You only get to like Niki over time. He’s impossible to like, he’s so self-focused and self-advancing, and brutal.
Could he really be all that bad?
No, he’s terrible! I’ll give you an example. Niki has a private jet and we had to fly somewhere on one of the days of the shoot. He’s a pilot, but his jet was having routine maintenance so he had to hire one for that day. He rents this tiny little shrimper of a plane, probably only four seats. Now, you have to know that Niki is the most well-known pilot in Austria. Yes, he’s a Formula One legend, three times world champion, but he also set up and owns two very successful airlines, and it’s known he flew many of the planes himself. If you’re a young pilot, this is the one passenger on earth you don’t want to be carrying, because it’s like, fuck, this is the examiner from hell.
So I’m sitting next to Niki, and here come two early 30’s, fresh-faced young pilots. I say, “Niki, don’t say anything, be generous, be encouraging, give them compliments.” “Okay, okay.” We land, and it was a bit of a bump. I say to Niki, “Now you aren't going to say anything.” “Nope, nope.” I get off the plane and I’m walking away, and all I can hear is Niki in the cockpit shouting “Arrgghh….argghhh,” and the pilot comes out, destroyed. I say “Niki, what did you say?” “I told him the landing was shit, the landing gear was out too far, he was wasting rubber; I told him the 25 things he did wrong, I told him he was a shit pilot.” “But why did you do that? You promised me…” “No!,” he says. “He should want to hear it! It will make him a better pilot. And if it doesn’t, then he should stop.”
As I said, a tough guy to like.