ALMOST 40 years in the business and Ron Howard still refuses to shy away from a challenge. It's why he signed up to direct Rush, the big-screen recreation of the Seventies Formula 1 rivalry between British playboy James Hunt and his disciplined Austrian opponent Niki Lauda.
"Everything about Rush is unexpected; the emotional twists and turns, and the action on the track," says Howard.
At 59, the acclaimed film-maker, whose directorial debut was with the 1984 mermaid romcom Splash, starring Tom Hanks, is casual in trousers and a jumper.
An ever present baseball cap might hide a now prominent bald patch, but close your eyes, and he sounds just as he did playing Richie Cunningham in Happy Days.
"When this story was taking place, Happy Days was becoming a number one show around the world," says Howard.
"It was the tail end of the sexual revolution, where there was nothing to fear and everything to celebrate, when sex was safe and driving dangerous."
While the world of F1 has been recorded in documentaries, most notably in 2010's Senna, movie-makers have never attempted to portray it on this scale before, and "this was too good an opportunity to ignore," says Howard.
During that 1976 season, on which the film focuses, everything was intensified. Lauda had driven to F1 victory the year before and the rivalry between him and Hunt transcended the sports pages.
"The story was violent, sexy and, ultimately, very emotional and triumphant. To me, it was a gift. Where else can you find a story that can operate on so many levels?" says Howard.
The project "was well down the road" when he became involved, and Howard credits British screenwriter Peter Morgan for bringing the story to the big screen.
The pair have worked together before, on Frost/Nixon.
"Peter writes these things on spec, they're projects which aren't overly commercial, then he finds ways of getting them financed. It's pretty astounding," says Howard.
Morgan spent a long time talking to Niki Lauda (who still sports the facial scars from his horrific crash during 1976's Nurburgring grand prix).
Initially, his concerns lay in how the F1 action would be brought to life on film: "I never thought for one minute that we'd dramatise the racing because of the sheer cost involved. To this day, I still don't know how they did it."
When the people who own the original F1 cars agreed to participate in the movie, "it sort of raised the bar for everyone," Howard explains.
"Suddenly the people building the replica realised it had to sit next to the real thing. And it was a relentless ambition on the part of the editors to keep pushing for archive footage."
Casting the two leads proved to be an area of contention. The financiers wanted an American star to play Lauda, which Morgan was against. Instead, they looked to European cinema and cast the German actor Daniel Bruhl, who appeared in Inglourious Basterds, as the straight-talking and technically astute Lauda.
"I realised this is a serious guy. He respected the challenge of recreating an iconic figure and clearly had the range and talent to do it," says Howard.
Where his heart sank was in the casting of the charismatic Hunt, a notorious womaniser who thought nothing of having sex or enjoying a drink before stepping into his F1 car.
"I was losing confidence," he reveals. "Then the Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was mentioned. I'd met him and was really charmed by what he'd done in Thor, but there was no evaluating as to whether he had that kind of range."
He talked to Hemsworth's agent, admitting he had doubts, but soon after, the actor sent him a self-made audition tape and Howard was sold.
The film is already garnering awards buzz.
"I think that's great, particularly for a movie which frankly fights to define itself a little bit," says Howard. "It encourages people to say this is worth overcoming any questions we might have about it, and give it a chance."