Aaron Paul seems to have better luck with cars than he does with planes. Jovial and well rested, Aaron arrives for our interview after being bumped a day thanks to the brutal winter weather, but he’s finally ready to sit down with the press (and fans at a screening later that night in Toronto) to talk about his first major starring role in a big budget blockbuster in the racing film Need for Speed (based on the bestselling video game series from Electronic Arts, arriving in theatres this Friday with select advance screenings Thursday night). With him (although arriving the evening before to do an extra screening of the film for fans) is director Scott Waugh, a veteran stuntman turned filmmaker who placed a lot of physical, emotional, and dramatic trust in his star.
Fresh from his success and notoriety on TV’s Breaking Bad, Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a mechanic and amateur racer with lots of talent from upstate New York who’s in danger of losing the auto shop he built up with his deceased father and his best friends. An agreement to take a job for his biggest rival, a trust funded, cocksure semipro racer named Dino (Dominic Cooper), leads to a boiling over in their rivalry that turns deadly. Imprisoned wrongfully for the death of his own best friend, Tobey begins a quest to clear his name (with the help of his friends and the liaison of a financial backer played by Imogen Poots) by beating Dino in an illegal, but highly lucrative rally race run by an enigmatic rich man (Michael Keaton).
It’s a big step for Paul’s career in a lot of ways, but this kind of work is old hat for Waugh. An old school stuntman carrying on in his father’s footsteps, Waugh performed his first stunt in Ron Howard’s debut feature Grand Theft Auto by riding a bicycle off a roof at his father’s request. It’s that same DIY ethic that the Act or Valor director applied to his work on Need for Speed, a film that bears little resemblance to the games it’s based with the exception of there being a lot of great cars on hand. Eschewing the current tendency to deliver a lot of CGI car wrecks with little story, Scott helps to graft an actual storyline onto the film while never once using computer generated effects for his car stunts; some of which the cast were trained to perform themselves. It has more in common with the classic car films of the 1970s than it actually does video games or any number of films that have cropped up in the wake of the Fast & the Furious franchise.
The affable and gently joking Paul and the fun loving and technically knowledgeable Waugh sat down with us to talk about the film’s old school feel, how Paul gets into character when so many cameras are on him, the most dangerous stunt they attempted together. They also bicker about who gets to keep the nicest car in the movie.
From a cinematic standpoint, this is a film where the cars stand out as much as the actors do, and throughout history of these sort of American chase films, it always ends up going back to American muscle, which in this movie is as much of a hero as Aaron’s character is. From your standpoint, what draws you and audiences into that so much?
Scott Waugh: In the movie – and this is kind of just an analogy – when we did the scene at the drive-in theatre at the beginning where it’s kind of like a “car hop,” we reached out to all the local car clubs and said “Hey, come out and bring whatever cars you want.” We wanted it to be like this real traditional kind of drive-in vibe that we all grew up with. Almost 99% of the cars that showed up were old American classics.
I just find that in the world demographic, not just in the United States, but if you go to Russia or Japan, too, we still thrive on those cars. I think that’s because they have become the definition of the word “classics.” They don’t build them anymore, and we get to modify them and trick them out. A lot of people take a lot of care and effort to restore them to their original specs, and a lot of people like to have a lot of fun with them. I feel like they’re just cars that people like to tinker with. They just are! I don’t really know how to define it. We just like classics.
Aaron Paul: I’m taking home that Gran Torino. We have been fighting over that thing since that Gran Torino was BUILT.
SW: (laughs) That was the only car in the film that we specifically sought after because the ’68 Torino was a great car that hasn’t been in too many moves. We really like things like the Camaro and the Charger, but those have been used for these kinds of things in millions of movies. The Gran Torino is a car that has been memorable, but only in a few movies. Clint used it in his movie, but that was a ’71, and that had a totally different body style.
AP: We really wanted to find Tobey’s car that could be an extension of ourselves. So TEEEEEEECCCCHHHHNIIICAAAAALLLLYYY since it was Tobey Marshal’s car and I PLAY Toby…
SW: But I designed it…
AP: You didn’t design it… (laughs)
SW: Wait! No!
AP: I think that should go into the actor’s garage. The actor who PLAYED the character.
SW: You can take the one that was totalled!
AP: That doesn’t make ANY sense.
You could tinker with it!
AP: (nearly falls out of his chair laughing) Yeah! I could tinker with it.
Kind of going from that, Scott, you come from a stunt background and you know a lot of the guys that you employed for the movie, and when you’re a stunt person and you have to hire for these positions you know that you have the guys who have really specific weapons training or the guys that know how to fall off a building properly. Does that same consideration go into a film like this where there are so many different kinds of cars and different drivers that might be better fits for different cars? In some cases there are cars that are just kind of theoretical creations that you just came up with and things that very few people have had the chance to drive yet.
SW: Absolutely. With the super car race at the end, the six cars that are used are driven by highly accolated professional drivers. We needed to find people who had seat time with those kinds of rear-engine cars, because those are a completely different beast. You really have a different learning curve on those when it comes to car control. Those cars were so light that you needed those people who had that kind of feather touch.
Those six guys had that, and we’re all friends because in the movie business there has become this really eclectic group of stuntmen-slash-race car drivers. These are the guys who do all the TV commercials. You have people like Reese Miller, Rich Rutherford, Tanner Foust, you go down all the line with all these guys who have that rally background and all that seat time. We knew that with the speeds that we were going to be travelling that we just needed the best in the world.
What was the most difficult stunt for you, Scott, to do as a director, and for you, Aaron, what was the most difficult stunt to do as an actor?
AP: I knew how to drive before this film. I had my license and everything! But I definitely did not know how to drive like this. I guess the first thing for me was to get thrown into one of these cars on a race track and just really teach me how to mainly get out of problematic situations to start and just learn how to drive at very high speeds in a very controlled manner.
But, I mean, the biggest stunt, and there are some really CRAZY stunts that happen in this film and I did a lot of the driving, but in terms of fancy stuntwork, a lot of that was Tanner Foust. Those cars at the end were definitely not me. (to Scott) But I remember you coming up to me and saying “We gotta get that pick up shot of the jump,” on that little jump, and you just said “Well, maybe at the end of the day.” (laughs) “Maybe you can do it. Maybe. But you’re going to have to stick around all day.” I ended up not doing that.
But one thing that I have to do that I was really nervous about was that thing where I kind of had to slide up to you and stop just short of you on that bridge. I had to drive at the camera at a little bit more than 70 miles an hour because I needed just enough speed… There’s this scene in the film that kind of gets the whole movie going where my friend Petey crashes and flies over a bridge. Tobey flips the car around and he’s driving straight at the camera and he flings open the door and runs out. I had to get the car literally inches away from where the camera was, and there’s a human being attached to that camera.
SW: It was me. I was expendable.
AP: He’s just the director! Everything’s fine. (laughs) The reason why he did it was because I don’t think any of the camera operators wanted to be handling the camera during that shot. I mean, you knew I could drive, but you could DIE right now. (laughs)
Scott was just, like, “Don’t worry about it. Just come at me.” Because the first time we tried it, I was really short, and he just said “Listen. Come at me. It’s fine. You’ve been behind the wheel for a long time now. It’s alright. If you go past your mark a little bit, I’ll just roll over the hood of the car.” Alright, well that’s not making me feel ANY better about the situation at hand. (laughs) So I go and do it again, and I was closer, but I was still a little short still.
SW: I just said, “Come in, hit your mark, don’t worry about it.”
AP: You told me to come in hot.
SW: “Don’t worry about me. This isn’t the first car hit I’ve done. Just come in.” So he came in and he’s coming and I am looking through the lens and I can just hear the throttle and I just kind of thought “Uh oh. Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I just said.” (laughs) So he comes drifting in towards me and I just clenched up and I just said “I’m not moving.” I literally just like a little girl just closed my eyes and screamed “AAAAHHHH.” And then I heard the brakes screeching and it stops and I open my eyes and there he is literally two inches from the matte lens and I just went “OH MY GOD. DID I GET IT?”
AP: But what was the hardest one for you to set up?
SW: For me it had to be “the grasshopper.” (Where the car goes up an incline on a patch of grass between a highway and an off-ramp.) We had to do this practical jump for real, and have it done in a way that was believable. Everything in the movie was done practically, so obviously it had to be believable or we wouldn’t use it. The car also needed to sustain no damage and to then drive away.
Logistically because of my background I knew that we could do it, but we had to find that location. That took us months to find just the right incline where the car could travel FAR but no super high. If you go too high you’re going to smoke the transmission and destroy your axles. We had to find a natural downside ramp that the car could land on and soften the blow. That area that you see in the movie is 175 feet long, but it’s really only about 15 or 16 feet up. It was kind of one of those really cool kind of practical optical illusions.
AP: How many cameras did you have rolling on that particular one?
SW: We had every camera out that we had at our disposal, which was 27, I think.
AP: Yeah, that was something looking around and seeing 27 cameras.
SW: It was definitely a “one-taker.” We weren’t trying that one again.
You also had a lot of cameras that are filming in, on, and around the cars when they crash in the film, which was a pretty great effect. Did you just assume all those cameras were just going to get destroyed?
SW: We learned that GoPros are essentially indestructible. (laughs) Through the process it was unbelievable to me. We smashed them, set them on fire, we did everything. Sometimes even if they melted or somehow got smashed up, the card inside them was still good. We got so much stuff that way.
AP: The scene where Tobey is flying down during the Mount Kisco race where he hits a shopping cart, that shopping cart had four GoPros on it. Did one of them get lost? I think there was one where it took us all a really long time to find it. That’s how hard they can get hit and survive.
For you as an actor playing a character in something this technically in depth, how do you get past all of those cameras that you must constantly be seeing?
AP: Well, most of the time I’m really just driving the car when there are that many cameras on me at once. You just get lost in driving the car. Even on Breaking Bad we did, um, “driving.” Nothing like this. There was some driving that we would do on a sound stage where it would be this poor man’s process where people would be outside and just shake the car a little bit to look like we were driving and there were these twinkling lights in the background that looked like we were passing streetlamps.
SW: That kind of stuff drives me absolutely BONKERS. (laughs) But you bring up a great point because it’s not all about being a stunt man and hitting your marks. Tobey is in a very emotional place.
AP: Yeah. I know you aren’t going to hear it in the film, but I’m sure you heard it in the mic when I was pulling up in that scene we just talked about because there’s no camera in the car. Just the one that I am flying towards. I’m on the other side of the bridge in the car and I am just getting into it. I’m screaming from the core, just emotionally getting into that place for that scene. So as I’m driving, I’m literally screaming. I don’t know if you heard that while you were filming because maybe you could only hear the motor of the car over it, but I was screaming and just trying to get to a place.
Sometimes you just give in and you just forget. My process is to just force myself to believe that these situations are actually happening to me as the character. I really and truly don’t see the cameras. Except for that one you were holding. I made sure to see that camera. (laughs) I didn’t want to hit you. But you just get lost in it.
This is a really old school kind of film. You talk a lot about how there’s no CGI in the film, but the other thing that’s really old school about it is that you guys actually give the story and these characters a good thirty minutes to define themselves before going right into the big chase portion of the movie. There’s still action, but there’s a lot of back story that the film gets into right away. A lot of movies like this don’t do that these days.
AP: Yeah! That’s what really drew me to this film. It’s, like, (skeptically) “Okay. In front of me is Need for Speed. I’m about to read the script.” I automatically had an idea of what I thought the film was going to be in my head just based on the title and the game. I read it and within the first five pages I was invested in these characters. And these races were so detailed and long even in the script. This is a RACING movie with characters that I am invested in and that I care about. Then shit happens! (laughs) Shit goes down and you just don’t know what’s going on anymore. That really sealed it for me.
SW: As a filmmaker, I believe that you want your audiences emotionally in the characters first. If you shoot the action and shoot the scenes the same way and you don’t build up those emotional ties, then the audience will just see the same sequences they always see. If you give them the emotion to care about the scenes, that will make it so much better. I did the same thing on Act of Valor. I just feel like you have to spend the time to develop the people first and get them invested and immersed in this world. I wanted them to identify with and become Tobey Marshall. The only way we could get to do that was to take the time to set him up in act one at the beginning, so when he suffers this great catastrophe that happens to him, the audience is affected by that and they root for him.
I agree with you. Sometimes nowadays our movies move too fast. I don’t know if people thing audiences aren’t smart enough or they think they all have ADD or whatever, but I think it’s key to take that time and get emotionally wrapped in the movie.
He’s also a classic kind of hero. He’s a guy that’s seeking revenge, but he’s never driven to violence, only the villains are.
AP: The character is just a blue collar guy that’s passionate about what he does. He’s a strong individual trying to keep his shop alive, and he lives and breathes cars. He loves racing, and that’s what he’s all about. And all of that is so on the page. He has all this passion that I could relate to.
SW: For me what was cool about it was that I grew up in the race world and there were guys that were exactly like the Tobey Marshall character. They just had “it.” They didn’t have to work hard or train every day. They were just these guys who were built for this. They were these pure racers that were so gifted. And then there were the Dino’s who worked really hard at trying to be good, and they were good, but they never excelled to the top because they just didn’t have that special knack or instinct. It something you just can’t explain. Either you got it or you don’t. It’s like actors. Some people have that X-Factor talent and some people just don’t. I don’t know how you train for that. Tobey and Dino really represent the worlds that I grew up in. I really witnessed that and I think that’s what we modeled these characters around.
There are a lot of homages to old school car flicks throughout the film like Bullitt and Vanishing Point, and those films actually did the same kinds of things you guys did where people are literally driving hundreds of miles an hour through city streets. Hollywood is in a very different place now when it comes to those kinds of movies. How do you bring this kind of film to a Hollywood that has become so increasingly dependent on CGI?
SW: You just go out and do it for real. I mean, that’s really the only answer to that. We don’t do that nowadays.
Is that a hard sell?
SW: It is, but the reason I’m probably allowed to do it myself is because of my background and my track record. I take safety into MASSIVE consideration. I don’t take it lightly at all. I might be on the other side of the camera now, but it’s still my friends on the other side, and I don’t want to hurt any of my friends. They’re my brothers. We go the distance to let everyone know that we are going to be going over all of these scenes for each and every contingency plan.
AP: The planning to every single shot in this film is really gruelling if you ever look at it. It’s never a matter of “Oh, you’re a stuntman, you’ve done this before, just get in the car and do this.” It’s never like that. Safety is obviously everybody’s main priority.
SW: And it’s also a lost art form. I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to follow in my dad’s footsteps. He was really one of the pioneers in that world of being a real action director, and I feel so lucky that I can still do that. I don’t know why we have just gotten so lazy. We thing CGI is just a cure all for everything. If you can’t do it for real, maybe sometimes it just isn’t worth doing.
Was it hard to be able to create the environment to get the set to a place where you could be comfortable having someone like Aaron, a guy you didn’t know before this, to come in and do a stunt like the one we were talking about and say “If you hit me, that’s okay.”?
SW: Yeah, that’s exactly what you need to create. That’s what the stunt community has: trust. The set needed to have that. I needed to have that fun where boys can be boys and everyone just messes with each other, but because we love and trust each other wanted Aaron to see exactly the world that I grew up in so he could learn and see what that’s like so he would understand. And Aaron, and Dominic Cooper who did a lot of driving as well, both of them saw what went into what we do so they would never take it lightly. When he got behind the wheel, he would know that we might be joking throughout the day, but when I said action there was no more bullshit and everyone is on their A-game. And Aaron was so great with that. Everyone on the set turns the switch on when it’s time to go, but when it’s time to turn it off, it’s fun.
AP: And you even said when I was stopping short for that particular shot and you said it was okay to hit him with the car, that’s him saying “I trust you.” So once he said that it was towards the end of the shoot and I had been driving for months and doing a lot of crazy stuff, but this was the first thing I did where someone else could have been in a dangerous spot.
SW: I never would have put myself in that position if I didn’t have that trust in someone. I’m not stupid. I think the thing that defines stuntmen is different from what people think it is. People think we’re daredevils. We’re not. None of us are Evel Knievel. In this job do the Evel Knievel jump every day 365 days. He did it once a year so he can go to the hospital, heal himself up, then come back again. We are the exact opposite. We make sure that we don’t get hurt. With that you develop that trust. Aaron and I had that trust. I knew he wouldn’t hit me. I knew he wouldn’t. But if I pushed him a little bit he would feel comfortable enough for him to get that close to me.
Plus I had safety men standing behind me just in case. (laughs) I can say this now, but I did say to them “If it looks like he’s going to hit me, pull me.”