"Hey, if this acting shit doesn’t work out for you, you could be a stunt man."
That's not exactly advice an actor wants to hear from his director when first stepping on to the set for his new movie, but coming from Scott Waugh, it's probably a compliment. A third-generation-stuntman who became a director with last year's Act of Valor, Waugh knows his way around a stunt better than just about anyone, which makes him ballsy enough to hire an actor like two-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul, strap him into a stunt car, and let him drive 120 mph on camera. The "acting shit" is still important-- Waugh compared Paul to action icon Steve McQueen multiple times-- but Need for Speed, an adaptation of the famous video game, is full of really fast cars and really big stunts. And bringing Paul in on that, as Waugh puts it, was "like giving a kid candy."
As fans of the video game know, the Need for Speed franchise doesn't have any story, which gave Waugh and screenwriters John and George Gatins free range to invent a new story that incorporates cross-country travel, a revenge plot, and of course a lot of car chases. Paul is Tobey Marshall, a car mechanic and street racer recently released after a prison stint for a crime he didn't commit. Seeking revenge on the man who framed him, Tobey drives cross-country to Los Angeles to participate in a famed underground street race, joined by Julia (Imogen Poots), a girl who knows a hell of a lot about cars herself. The production had already traveled to Utah, Atlanta, New York City and San Francisco before we caught up with them in Detroit back in June, shooting a scene in which Paul's character is actually trying to get the cops on his tail.
Yes, this ex-con wants the cops after him, and he does so first by driving at ridiculous speed around a downtown Detroit square, then setting off a serious car chase on Detroit's massive highways. Paul wasn't doing the stunt driving that day-- he and Poots pulled the car up in front of an office building, taunted a cop, and then drove out of frame to allow the real stunt drivers to take over (you can see a snippet of the stunt 25 seconds into this trailer). But catching up with both actors during their downtime, they were happy to brag about what they'd learned when putting themselves in Hollywood-style danger. Here's Imogen Poots, talking from a craft services tent set up in a parking lot a few blocks away:
"If you really focus and you really listen, you’re able to take on a stunt and really do it yourself and feel great and feel excited. I think some of the stunts you feel, ‘Oh, I’m going to be nervous the whole time and something is going to go wrong and it’ll never look authentic in the moment, because I’ll be thinking of too many things,’ but once you conquer anything really, then you can run with it."
And Paul, who spends much of the film behind the wheel, even got in some car training that doesn't even appear onscreen. Not that he was complaining about the extra work: "I learned how to drift around corners, do reverse 180s and 360s. I don't why they had me learn that. I don't do it in the film. But it was badass."
Paul and Poots both admitted Need for Speed was a "testosterone-driven set," and that all comes back to Waugh, who had directed real-life Navy SEALs for Act of Valor but had said, even before Need for Speed came along, that he wanted to bring his stunt skills to a car movie next:
"I had already made a commitment to myself during Act of Valor that my next movie was going to be a car movie. I do a lot of car commercials and I was not a military guy. I loved Act of Valor. I loved doing it, but I didn’t really want to be a ‘military’ director. I’ve always been into action my whole life and I wanted to do a car movie, and the irony of it all was the serendipity of them getting the rights to do Need for Speed and me wanting to do a car movie. They bought it, and literally I was the next phone call."
Waugh grew up in the world of stuntmen-- his father is the famous Fred Waugh, and Scott stunted on Steven Spielberg's Hook as a child-- so talking to him on set, it's hard to get a sense from him of just how impressive these acts can be. Talk to co-writer John Gatins, on the other hand, and he will brag endlessly about the Detroit stunt called "The Grasshopper," which involves "a huge jump and all this other crazy stuff." Gatins, who says he's never worked on a movie with stunts like this, described the camaraderie among the death-defying stuntmen working in front of the camera:
"There’s a great history among these stunt guys. There’s a camaraderie and this amazing almost military like respect they have for each other, ‘cause they’re real jokers and they’re hilarious guys and you see them out and they’re full of life, but when it comes to doing the work, like -- when we get closer and closer to doing what they call the events, it gets quieter and quieter and they get more serious, and then literally, like, the last moment before they go to do it, there’s a lot of like, everyone stops to get out of their car, and all this hugging, and like, ‘Hey man, see you on the other side.’ They take it incredibly seriously."