Why Ron Howard gets a "Rush" from directing

Ron Howard's "Rush" from directing 09:10

(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!"

Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, and Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda, in Ron Howard's "Rush." Universal Pictures

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.

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.

"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?"

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.