Costume Designer Julian Day on Giving Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ the Look and Thrill of the Time

On very rainy, very grey day in May, I sat down in an empty theater—save a lone critic or two—for an early screening of Ron Howard’s Rush. Naturally my anticipation ran high, but if you were to have told me that I’d find myself wholly embracing a Hollywood film about Formula 1 racing, I’d have vehemently disagreed. However, from the very beginning, Howard’s film totally captured me, offering a dynamic feature spun from the true story of Niki Lauda and James Hunt, their rivalry, and the near-fatal accident that almost cost Lauda his life.

As a genuinely compelling drama, not only played out as biography of the two drivers, but a story about competition and the ways life’s most difficult challenges are what propels us forward, Rush is a kinetic thrill ride that certainly leaves you satisfied. Starring actors Chris Hemsworth as the Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Lauda, the film was shot by the brilliant Anthony Dod Mantle, who elevates the film immensely, with an aesthetic that seduces you into the danger of each race, the beauty of every high-speed scene, and the quiet moments in between. And enhancing those aesthetics even further, is the work of costume designer Julian Day, who worked to recreate the alluring and lush fashion of the 1970s. From the racing suits that Lauda and Hunt wear, to the elegant garmnets donned by the women that surrounded them, and the crowds that cheered for them from up high, he echoed the luxurious and sensuousness of the time with the help of design houses, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo. 
Earlier this month, I got the chance to speak with Day about working with Howard, his personal connection to Forumla 1 racing, and the way he crafted the sleek and stylish sartorial look of the picture.
How did you become involed with the film and can you tell me about the experience of working with Ron Howard as a director?
I knew the producer on the film and he told me there was a movie called Rush about Formula 1 racing. So I was interested and went in not knowing that I was going to meet Ron, and obviously, that was incredible. I always hoped to work with a director as good as Ron. He’s a brilliant director, as we’ve seen over the years, but he liked my work and it went on from there. He’s a real collaborative director and an incredible guy. He really inspires people and was a pleasure to work with.
And interestingly, you have personal connection to Formula 1?
Yes, my personal connection is that my father built one of the cars used in the 1970s. He made a version of the Formula 1 cars and that car is actually in the film. So I used to go visit Formula 1 tracks and watch the Grand Prix. It’s an incredible sport.
Was it interesting now to revisit this world that you grew up around and get to re-imagine the fashion of a time you weren’t old enough to embrace then?
Yes. Obviously my view of the 1970s is a little young, I was 10 in1975, but I have quite a good memory of it. I remember how my mom always looked very glamorous and my dad looked very laid back—maybe had one too many buttons undone on his shirt. There were a lot of incredible people around at that time and it was very easy. Looking back, you see all the photographs and you realize what a sexy year it was. People were really interested in enjoying themselves and dressing well and having a good time. So those wee some of my impressions. When you do your research, you realize that there was a lot of money around Formula 1 and they were very much like gladiators of the 1970s. They did these death defying stunts and that attracted a lot of people. Now there’s more safety in it, but I think that kind of danger has gone out quite a bit. It was an era of danger; you were putting your life on the lien every time you got into the car. These people lived for the moment and that was one of the things I wanted to get across in film with the fashion.
James and Nicki were both fashioned by Gucci and Ferragamo respectably. Can you tell me about working with those labels and styling the two men?
It was the era of big labels. And they’re obviously very fantastic labels. They both represent that time and how to could be subtle but also quite brash at other times. The fabrics they wore were very important. We used a lot of luxury fabrics like cashmere and silk. Those fashion houses are so great and they’re true luxury fashion houses. You can’t get better than those two, in my opinion. They done a lot of work within films over the years and they were fantastic. But they also really represented the two couples.
Because the film takes place over so many different locations, did you have to create different looks to suit each race and country? There were all those people in the crowd, and was making sure they had the right look just as important at the principal characters?
I’ve always felt that the crowd is just an important as the principles. They paint the picture of the period; if you get the crowd wrong, you’ve got the film wrong. The crowd are the brush strokes of the painting, really. I did a lot of research into how everyone looked, so when you look at pictures from that era, you see that a lot of primary colors were involved—reds that pop, oranges, blues, greens, yellows, etc. That’s what I wanted to get across. When you’re going through those years and different Grand Prix locations, or when it’s raining and dark, or sunny and light, people will look at it and go, “Well, this must have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make.” But actually in some respects, it was quite a low-budget film. But the film does not feel like the amount of money that was spent on it. And so I was combining what I collected from the various warehouses and cultivated hundreds of pieces. There would be a day when we would shoot a scene in Germany in winter and then have to do the next scene of Brazil in the summer. But I had a great crew behind me; they were fantastic and we literally overdressed everybody. They’d have weather gear in one scene and then we’d shoot another scene where they’d take that off and have another outfit but it was done in a very subtle way.
Was there a favorite moment in the film for you or favorite look?
The whole film is really my favorite. When I watch a film, I watch it as a whole. But if there’s a favorite moment, it’s when Suzy meets James. I think that’s just fantastic and such a real moment between them on screen. But I loved doing the race suits. Some designers might not be into that, but I really liked doing all the team uniforms. McLaren actually had Adidas giving them new trainers for every single race and so we contacted Adidas and they gave us trainers. So doing the teams and the race suits were as interesting to me as doing the fashion design as well.
The race suits have changed a lot since back in the 1970s, even in terms of the weight of them, how did you go about capturing the authenticity and was that something that was important?
Absolutely. I worked with two really good companies. And for different races, different sponsors would be involved. So some days we’d shoot something from 1974 and then from 1976 and it was always changing. So I sat dow with Ron and we went through all the different looks and the logos and helmets and how they would all represent the different year. I worked with a company in Italy and went to their factory and saw all the looks. They were much heavier in the 1970s and so we made them look that way. But one of the challenges with this movie was that, in a lot of movies, the gear doesn’t actually have to work. But in this, these guys were actually racing for real. So if something happened they would all have to be safety proof. We had to make sure they were all up to standards and were treating them well.
Did you want to create a distinction between the color palette of the looks at the races and the looks at home to show the heightened sense of thrill and life on the track compared to how the wold dulled outside of it?
Yeah, and I think that comes across in the film. There is a more subtle hue to the colors I used when they’re not racing. And again, rather than use primary colors and bright colors for the off track scenes, I used luxury fabrics. So you still get that sense of decadence but with the fabrics rather than the colors.
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