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"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."
Visiting the Need For Speed edit bay at the Bandito Brothers office in Los Angeles a few months later, it became extremely clear why the members of the stunt team became so serious just before getting to work. The 20 minutes of unfinished footage showed off all kinds of death-defying maneuvers like the aforementioned "Grasshopper" (which involved making a car drive across and over a grass embankment, causing the car to fly about 50 feet through the air); huge explosions; and even driving a car of a cliff and having it get caught by a helicopter.
As insane and impossible as those kinds of stunts seem, Waugh was adamant about making the film 100% realistic in its physics so that the audience can get their heads around the difference between real, practical action scenes and those constructed almost entirely out of CGI. Waugh worked as a stunt man on all of the Fast & Furious movies and and says he lamented how "99% of the time" the car work with the actors would take place on a green screen set, and joked that you can always tell which car is the star’s in a movie because it sits on a process trailer one foot off the ground. Getting the chance to direct his own car film the director decided he would not copy those strategies.
" There’s a rule I have here in my company, that you can’t break physics. If you break physics, it hurts the story because then the characters don’t apply to the physics either. So, if a car can jump off a bridge 100 feet up and land on the ground and keep going, then my characters can get shot and their head blown off and they can keep going too, because it just doesn’t apply. I wanted to make sure that everything in this movie is authentic and real, so we put the cars through things that it would survive, so that the characters’ stakes are real, so you really feel for the revenge story and you really believe in it, because it feels real and it’s not a fantastical world. It’s a very practical world."
About more than just physics, using real cars on the road also meant that Waugh and his crew had to be creative with camera placement and cinematography in order to cinematically translate the reality of what the production was doing. The inside of a car is an extremely confined space that limits the number of coverage options available, and the director added that at this point we have seen so much fake car driving that it’s hard to distinguish it from reality. "I really wanted to make sure there were angles that really told you, ‘Yes, we’re really doing it,’" Waugh said. "So we really made sure all the angles really made you know that these guys are in the car and they’re really driving."
A big part of accomplishing that realism was actually having the film’s stars driving during stunts – but of course there were also certain limitations to that. Speaking with Paul at the edit bay, the actor lamented that he wasn’t the one in the driver’s seat when his car went for a helicopter ride – a gig he said he volunteered for– but there were other action sequences that he was more than happy to let the professionals take care of.
"The grasshopper thing was not me, thank god. That was the most terrifying thing I have ever seen. There were, I think, 27 cameras rolling for that stunt… That was speeding down the freeway at god knows what speed, going up this ramp and flying over three or four lanes of traffic. That’s all practical. They actually did it. It wasn’t CG. They did it. I was just like, ‘Oh my god. Please be okay." Seeing that happen, I was like, "Thank god that isn’t me.’
Need For Speed will be in theaters on March 14, 2014, and stay tuned in the next couple months to learn more about both our experiences on set and in the film’s edit bay.