(CBS News) Ron Howard was barely beginning his career when he appeared in "The Andy Griffith Show." All these years later, he's a highly successful director, with a new movie out. Mark Phillips talked with Howard in London:
It's not hard to pick an appropriate location to talk to Ron Howard about his movies.
You could have picked a grand cathedral to talk about "The Da Vinci Code," or a university campus to talk about "A Beautiful Mind," or a space museum for "Apollo 13."
For his latest film, a super-car showroom is the place, because the movie is about the high-octane world of motor racing.
And Howard, perhaps the most successful mainstream movie director of the past few decades, has an admission to make: As with the occult, or mathematics, or space flight, motor racing is not something he knew much about before he made the movie.
Indicating a McLaren, he said, "You know, I appreciate cars enough to recognize sort of what we're looking at, but, you know, I wouldn't invest in a car like this. It'd be in fact a waste of great machinery to have me driving it!" he laughed.
"And I didn't know much about Formula One except that it was cool and sexy and very, very dangerous."
The movie, "Rush," is not just about racing, it's about the gripping, death-defying rivalry between two of its legendary drivers: James Hunt, the life-in-the-fast-lane, pedal-to-the-metal Brit who knew no fear, played by Chris Hemsworth; and Niki Lauda, the cold, calculating Austrian with an overbite, played by another remarkable look-alike, Daniel Bruhl.
"One man is one of the handsomest men in the planet -- true icon, playboy," said Howard. "And who's the opponent who stands in his way above all others? This kind of Austrian, myopic careerist whose nickname is 'The Rat.' Little rat-faced guy. Perfect, perfect!"
The movie may be about car racing, but Formula One -- the brand that's hugely popular in the rest of the world but which has always had difficulty cracking the American market -- serves as a modern, bloody, gladiatorial arena.
The film is set in the 1970s, where a driver's chance of dying over the course of a season approached a staggering one-in-five.
Niki Lauda's fiery crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix, in which he was severely burned and as good as dead -- he had the last rites administered -- is a centerpiece of the movie.
"You wouldn't write this script this way," said Howard. "If it was fiction, you wouldn't have the finale work in such a surprising and an emotional way. Will [the audience] believe that this guy could get back in the car six weeks after that kind of accident?"
A severely-scarred Lauda was, shockingly, back racing just six weeks after the crash. If it wasn't actually true, people wouldn't believe it.
Howard has come up against this problem before -- in outer space. "Apollo 13" told the story of the near-disaster of the explosion on the 1970 moon mission.
"I had a test screening for 'Apollo 13' very early on," he said. And the test audience -- like the general audience afterwards -- loved it."
Except for one guy.
"So I went to that card first, of course," Howard laughed. "A 23-year-old male. How come everybody likes it, this guy doesn't? And I started looking at it and he wasn't giving much detail. Big broad, strokes, just negative comments. Finally I flipped over to the side [where] it said, 'Please give us your thoughts about the ending.' And he said, 'Terrible. More Hollywood BS. They would never survive.' Well, 'course he didn't know it was a true story."
Some have scratched their heads at Ron Howard's own true story.
As Ronnie Howard, he was Opie, the perfect little kid on the '60s "Andy Griffith Show."
As TV hit adolescence, so did Howard, as Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days." TV led to the movies. America's iconic teenager in America's iconic teenager move, 1973's "American Graffiti."
But this son of a show-biz family was never going to be happy as just an actor . . . and opportunity came rolling along.
When the producers wanted him to be in the 1977 "Grand Theft Auto" car chase movie, he said he'd do it if he could direct it.
"It was the deal, yeah," Howard said. "I had to parlay the 'American Graffiti,' 'Happy Days' profile, and in a low budget movie, you know, I was enough of a star to sort of help finance it. And as a trade out, I got to direct it. So I had to leverage my way in there.
"You find you have to leverage your way into a lot of places, and it doesn't quite ever stop," he laughed. "But I just loved it. And I think I felt in a lot of ways it was a more complete reflection of who I am, what I like to do, directing."
It's what he'd wanted to do ever since he saw the 1967 movie, "The Graduate." Dustin Hoffman being seduced by Anne Bancroft's older woman -- a movie that changed a lot of people's lives.
"I started watching 'The Graduate' over and over again," Howard told Phillips, "and I began thinking about the way Mike Nichols shot things, which certainly had nothing to do with the way anything was ever photographed on 'The Andy Griffith Show,' or anything else that I had ever been around."
"What was it about 'The Graduate'?" asked Phillips. "I mean, a lot of people of a certain age, let's say, were very impressed by that movie, not just for the obvious reasons."
"Well, it was at that moment both rebellious and hilarious, and the music was great. It looked and sounded and felt very, very different from everything else."
Coming up toward 60 now and to the 30-movie mark -- and with two Oscars in his pocket -- there's barely a type of film he hasn't done. From the true stories like "Apollo 13," to kids' fairy tales like
"How the Grinch Stole Christmas," to grown-up fairy tales like "The Da Vinci Code," Howard admits not everything he's done has been high-minded.
"There've been a couple movies that I've taken on because I thought, 'Boy, I think there's really an audience for this, and I think I know how to do it, and this'll be great business,' " he laughed.
"Which ones are those?" Phillips asked.
Although it did provide an opportunity for that Ron Howard trademark: sneaking his family into his movies: His father, Rance; his daughter, Bryce; his wife, Cheryl.
"It's my only superstition," Howard admitted about his wife's appearances. "Doesn't have to be a big part, but I want her to be in all of the films. And she has been."
And if it works, it works.
"Rush" has been a box office hit in Britain. It will have a tougher run in the NASCAR-dominated U.S., where it opens nationwide this weekend.
"Rush," for Ron Howard, isn't just the name of his latest movie. It's what he gets making them.
"I'm not interested in a lot of long vacations. This is what I do. And I can't think of a better day than getting up with a set of storytelling problems to face and an interesting group of people to face them with."
For more info:
"Rush" (Official movie website)
To watch the trailer for Ron Howard's "Rush" click on the video player below: