His new movie Rush is about the death-defying thrill of F1 racing and the legendary rivalry between Austrian driver Niki Lauda and Britain's James Hunt in 1976. "The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel," says the flamboyant Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth of action hero Thor fame.
For the film's director, it's almost like they're going to war.
"At the beginning of every year they would have a drivers' meeting... and a number of people from that time [1970s] told me that you would look around the room and know that a couple of those faces were not going to make it, weren't going to live through the year," says Howard in a recent interview in Paris. "And that's what combat pilots talk about."
The 59-year-old Hollywood director, bearded and youthful-looking in his usual baseball cap, admits he likes stories where the characters take life to the edge, "putting themselves on the line" – like in Apollo 13. His box office hit was based on the true story of three US astronauts orbiting the Earth in a crippled space capsule, with that unforgettable line: "Houston, we have a problem."
Whether a comedy, drama or true story, "you're always looking for the test, how are the characters being tested and I'm always interested in seeing how people reach for something that is really, really challenging," Howard says.
Rush is set in what he calls the "recklessness" of 1970s F1 racing which was "a golden age for fans, because a lot of people were dying, which made it more gladiatorial and so the danger was with the audience and the fans every lap."
The film captures the almost ghoulish fascination with racing and the tension on the track in recreating the famous fiery crash of Niki Lauda – played by multilingual German actor Daniel Bruehl (Good-by Lenin, Inglourious Basterds). Lauda was left disfigured from severe burns but he went on to become an amazing comeback Grand Prix champion.
Howard's next project, In the Heart of the Sea, tells the tale of the whaleship Essex in 1820, which was attacked by a sperm whale leaving the crew adrift for 90 days, resorting to cannibalism to stay alive.
"It's the events that inspired Herman Melville to write 'Moby Dick' 30 years later.... When I learned about it, and their survival story which is both tragic and heroic, really remarkable, I felt like it was a very original kind of story to tackle."
Howard made his first movie in 1977, another car flick Grand Theft Auto, and won a directing Oscar for the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. His credits also include Cocoon, Frost/Nixon, and the screen adaptations of Dan Brown's bestsellers The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons.
He recalls how he was encouraged to pursue directing by iconic actor Henry Fonda, whom he worked with "in the 70s on a television series that was a complete disaster." But Fonda gave him some advice.
"He said to me: 'If you don't make creative decisions, where you feel you're risking your career, every 18 months or two years, you're playing it too safe, and you're not going to grow as an artist, whether you are in front of the camera or behind the camera'."
"But you asked me earlier about my interest in stories that are about risk, there's a lot of emotional risk in being involved in a high-profile way in movies and television... It's nothing like Formula One or going to the moon... but it's your life's work and it sometimes feels like it's emotional life or death...," Howard told AFP as he prepares for a screening of Rush at the Toronto film festival last month.