Race movie long road for Stallone, Harlin

A passion for fast cars and international racing — and a determination to make a movie about it when Hollywood wasn’t hot on it — brought together the crew behind “Driven.”

For at least a half-dozen years, Sylvester Stallone and director Renny Harlin, together and separately, battled to put together a movie about open-wheel racing.

“Wanting to do a race movie goes back seven years for me,” says Harlin, who hit road blocks when studio execs didn’t understand who would want to watch a bunch of people driving around in circles. “I wanted to do a Formula One movie about (Brazilian world champ) Ayerton Senna. I developed it at New Line, but they ultimately decided not to do it because it was a race car movie and kind of a period piece because Senna died in 1994.”

Stallone was working on his own film about Formula One and had been in discussions with hard-driving F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone when Harlin came to him with a proposal.

“After my (Senna film) fell apart a few years ago, I hooked up with Sly,” says Harlin, who directed Stallone in 1993′s “Cliffhanger.” “He was developing his movie and, having been friends for a long time, I said let’s do it together.”

Harlin and Stallone started traveling to F1 races to do research, but, ultimately, when the “Driven” duo couldn’t strike a deal with Ecclestone, they turned to the U.S.-based CART brand.

“It was too hard to make a deal between the organization, the teams and the sponsors,” says Harlin. “So about a year and a half ago we abandoned that plan and went to CART, who received us with open arms.”

Harlin and Stallone, both avid F1 fans, started exploring the world of CART, which is somewhat similar to F1 in that the race series travels to various cities around the world. While focusing on the U.S., CART also makes pit stops in Brazil, Australia, Japan and Canada — and is steadily expanding its scope to include the U.K. and Germany, which was reflected in “Driven.”

It’s the many backdrops, plus a dose of the drivers’ personal lives, that makes “Driven” not just another movie about people driving around in circles.

“I went to 10 different races around the world,” says the Finnish helmer, who also shot most of the second unit photography at the races, including some intimate down-time footage of actual CART drivers. “I wanted to show a bit of the personal side of the drivers, some of their idiosyncrasies.”

And while there are some “real” moments, much of the pic borders on the surreal. At one point, for instance, Stallone and a rookie driver (played by Kip Pardue) take to the streets of Chicago — in CART prototypes.

In all, the ambitious, CGI-laden pic logged some 630 visual effects shots.

“Real racing fans want it to be like a documentary, but I also have the obligation to make it like a Hollywood film,” adds Harlin.

The effects were also meant to cater to a younger demographic, which was a conscious choice, according to the filmmakers.

“It’s a roller-coaster ride,” says Elie Samaha, who produced the film along with Stallone and Harlin. “It’s not a Sly movie; he opted to take a (nonlead) role. It’s more of a youth type, rock-and-roll picture.”

The formula — despite not being Formula One — paid off. “Driven” bowed Stateside on April 27 and raced to the top of the B.O. with nearly $13 million.

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