Ron Howard will drop in to the AFM this week to rally support among buyers for Rush, a rare foray into the independent space for the director of hits like The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13.

Ron Howard talks to Jeremy Kay about his hopes for the adrenaline-fuelled drama Rush that puts the spotlight on the fierce rivalry between ace 1970s Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl and Olivia Wilde star and filming proper is set to begin in Europe in late February 2012.

Exclusive Films International is pre-selling international rights to the project, which Cross Creek Pictures is co-financing and co-producing with Exclusive Media Group. Universal Pictures will distribute in North America.

You’ve worked with screenwriter Peter Morgan before on Frost/Nixon. Was this your entree to Rush?

I was drawn to it by my history with Peter. I had such a great experience working with him on Frost/Nixon and I love the kind of scenes he makes and the acting situations he creates, so when I heard he was doing this story set in the world of Formula 1, I thought it would be a great cinematic visual challenge and had the possibility of really strong, cool performances.

When I read the script it offered all of that. He was already down the road with Cross Creek and [the idea was] to make it with that independent spirit and approach, so I jumped in with both feet. The script keeps evolving and we’re getting our heads around how to present the race in a way that will live up to the expectations of fans and really turn people on to Formula 1.

Will the story appeal to US audiences, where F1 isn’t as widely followed as it is in the rest of the world?

Race fans [in the US] may know about it and follow it on cable, but it is far better understood and appreciated outside the US. We have a fantastic story and I believe we’re going to create something that is going to be compelling and there’s a part of me that expects to hook people to the sport. I wasn’t a fan and I think it’s incredibly exciting.

We hear you’ve been doing your homework in Europe.

I went to Silverstone and sat with Niki Lauda who does commentary for German and Austrian TV and he described and anticipated ever dramatic twist and turn in the race. I was riveted by it. I want to Nurburgring and [for stock footage] we shot one of the historic races where owner-drivers who have cars from the period come and race them. I learned a hell of a lot. It’s quite a universe and it was even more so in the mid-70s when it was the most dangerous sport in the world and the media caught on to how sexy and cool it was. These guys were rock stars.

What were the personality differences that inform the Hunt-Lauda rivalry?

Niki was much more a harbinger of the new ways in which modern professional athletes would be measured. His successes came in incremental gains and technical strides, whereas James Hunt was this amazing remnant of the idea of the playboy amateur sports champion who was doing it all on talent. It’s a fantastic dichotomy and their rivalry makes for the drama that Peter sniffed out.

You seem genuinely thrilled to be doing this.

We had a great read-through last week and it’s exciting to have something that’s a great look at an area with intriguing characters and a glimmer of sexuality. This is a great thing for me as a director to be doing. Whether it’s firefighting in Backdraft or space travel in Apollo 13, I like to create visceral experiences and while this is a personal story it happens to exist in the world of Formula 1.

It’s a great coup for the independent space that you’re directing Rush. Care to mention any other non-studio films you’ve done?

George Lucas financed Willow independently by paying for it himself, although MGM distributed it.

Have the actors started driver training?

Chris [Hemsworth] hasn’t start yet. He’s working on another movie [Snow White And The Huntsman] and if I were that director I’d be furious if he was driving at 180mph. He will get to it. Danny [Brühl] is already under way.

When does principal photography begin?

We’ll start in the latter part of February, probably in the UK and a little in Germany. We’ll use real circuits. We’re still sorting out budgets. I’ve just visited five or six different circuits.