‘Need For Speed’ Set Visit: How Director Scott Waugh Puts the Audience in the Driver’s Seat
The main takeaway from my visit to the edit bay of ‘Need for Speed’ was the film’s emphasis on practical stunts, which seems the best way to make a video game adaptation as different and cinematic as possible. As we saw over the summer, the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise has become so big that many of its insane set pieces were created digitally, whereas the ‘Need for Speed’ team was locked into an almost all practical approach. For gearheads and action aficionados, this is the best possible scenario.
When scenes or objects are enhanced or created in a computer, you can often feel it while you watch -- something’s just a little off (often the physics) -- and ‘Need for Speed’ director Scott Waugh was conscious of that. As he said:
When I took ‘Need for Speed,’ I said we have to do this practical, because I know what’s real. I said I really want to bring that back to cinema. I’m all about practicality. As an audience member, I feel that if you break the rules of physics or stunt work, you break the rules of the character’s jeopardy. Because if a car can jump off a speeding train at 30 miles per hour and keep going, then a person can take a bullet and keep going, because you’re breaking rules of physics. If a car crashes, it ain’t going anywhere.
"Even if they don’t know, they know," said producer Mark Sourian, who was aware of this approach, as well. "They [the audience] may not know that it’s not CGI, but they’re going to feel it." According to writer George Gatniss, “We’ve only shown this [movie] to one large audience, and the folks in there -- in their teens and early 20s, who grew up watching CGI cars -- were saying, ‘Oh my god,’ because they had never seen a movie like this."
Coming from Waugh, who can tell when an actor is really driving a car or the scene has been enhanced, this approach makes all the difference. "From my watching they register it, they appreciate that it’s a practical, real car movie versus an actor on green screen with the shake sticks."
In the edit bay, this theory was put to the test when I was shown a number of scenes from the movie, starting with some introductory footage that sets up the film. Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) and his friends are shown to be good at racing when Dino (Dominic Cooper) makes Tobey an offer he can’t refuse. This opening sequence is very much the meat and potatoes, and it seems it was selected to screen so the audience could understand the basics of the narrative, as the next sequence shows Tobey driving with Dino and a young friend who is quite obviously out of his depths. Though the payoff might be telegraphed, when Dino helps cause the young man’s car to flip, the car flies through the air and spins repeatedly before falling off a bridge in a breathtaking stunt. As someone who’s seen and revered car-chase classics like ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘The Road Warrior,’ it takes a lot to impress me, and this was a show-stopping wreck that’s one of the best I’ve ever seen -- and something that was obviously done practically. The footage proceeded by revealing that Paul’s character spent some time in jail and is recruited for another task that’s likely going to lead to another arrest or death. Two other big stunt sequences followed -- one called “the grasshopper” where a car flies over multiple lanes of traffic, and another sequence where a car is given a lift by a helicopter -- all practical, all fist-pumpingly awesome.
The narrative was approached with an elegant simplicity by Gatniss, who worked with his Oscar-nominated brother, John, on the film. “My brother and I kept saying to each other, 'A simple story well told. A simple story well told.’ Because we knew what was amazing about this movie is that the performances by the cast and stunt people, and the stunts are real and visceral, coupled with the amazing performances by the actors, by Aaron, who is outstanding in the film. It’s great that we’re not trying to do story math. You get it, it’s not about twists.”
Figuring out how to do these stunts practically involved way more math than you’d think. As Waugh said, “We tested for months during pre-production and during production to see how we could get the car to fly. It’s a physics conquest, I felt like I was back in college. You had to go between 80-110 MPH -- I think we chose 94 -- because any faster and we’d run out of bridge. When you learn about stunts, you learn that every 10 miles per hour increases distance.”
According to Scott Waugh, part of the approach was to get the talent behind the wheel as much as possible. For Aaron Paul, Waugh got him driving as often as possible and even sent him to driving school, which the actor was more than willing to do. Said Waugh:
[Paul's] first day working on this movie, we took him out to Willow Springs and he was drifting cars, doing 360s and 180s, and it was really funny because our instructor came up to me and said, ‘If this acting sh-t don’t work for him, he could work in stunts.’ I said, ‘I think he’s going to do all right with the acting thing.’ But he was good behind the wheel which meant I could put the camera places you normally couldn’t with an actor.
One of the great things -- at least for the people making it -- is that ‘Need for Speed’ as a game has no narrative, so there’s little they need to satisfy when it comes to fan service. But everyone involved was aware they needed to pay homage, said Waugh, and to respect the game. “It has its own inherent storyline in how you play it. You start by racing smaller cars and classics, and you work your way up to super cars. It’s a natural progression in general -- you don’t jump into an Indy car and say, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ This movie follows that progression. It’s a subconscious throwback to how people play the game, and how things evolve through the game. When I did the film ‘Step into Liquid,’ I would ask the surfers how they would describe big wave surfing, and they always said you have to do it to understand it. I believe that and that’s why I’ve become something of an advocate for first person, because it puts you there, it makes you an active viewer. And here you become Tobey [Paul’s character]. He’s the only person that we show his point of view, and you feel what he does. It adds to the visceral component, but also it’s – subconsciously – a throwback to the game. To me it’s more a story choice than an homage, because I want the audience to be a part of this movie.”
“Electronic Arts was a great partner," added George Gatins. "They knew they had a title and a game that people loved for years. And they approached me and asked if I had an idea because ... the game has no narrative. So I called my brother and he called me the next day with an inspired idea, that it’s about revenge and a group of guys, and a 'Warriors'-esque kind of chase." With EA in love with the idea, Mark became the entree to Steven Spielberg and Stacy Snider at Dreamworks, who were instrumental in bringing Waugh on board 'Need for Speed.' "I think that everyone’s on the same page with this blue collar, righting a wrong sort of story.”
“I think the thing was trying to capture the appeal of the game," Sourian told us. "Scott did so well -- not only as a director and documentarian but as a stuntman -- to really give that sense of what it’s like to be behind the wheel. Just in terms of the angles he picked and the choreography, it all being real stunts instead of CGI, that all contributed to giving the feel that you’re driving that car.”
Despite all these examples of the incredible stunt work that can go into a feature film of this magnitude, there is, sadly, no Best Stunts category at the Oscars, something about which Waugh has thought about. “I was president of Stunts Limited, and all the organizations have been fighting that fight for a long time," he said. "And my dad always told me it will never happen because the people in the Academy don’t want to wreck the mystique behind the movie. They quietly recognize what we do, but for the general public they don’t want to ruin the mystique of the actor. I believe him. It’s a shame, but it’s like that phrase in the SEAL team, the quiet professional. That’s us.”
‘Need for Speed’ will be in theaters March 14.