21st Jul2014

Interview: ‘Need For Speed’ director Scott Waugh

by Phil Wheat


Need For Speed director Scott Waugh became a stuntman in 1982 and retired in 2005. Waugh was the president of Stunts Unlimited for three years, the most prestigious stunt organization in the world. During his tenure, Stunts Unlimited was involved in such box office hits as Spider-Man, Talladega Nights, 24 and Bad Boys II. Under Waugh’s leadership, Stunts Unlimited received three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Stunt Coordinator. He has been involved in more than 150 film and television productions in various capacities and gained his first-hand filmmaking knowledge from directors Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone while on their sets.

His feature film directorial debut, Act of Valor, which Relativity Media released in February 2012, opened #1 at the U.S. box office and went on to gross more than $80 million worldwide. He followed that up with this years high-octane racing action flick Need For Speed, which sees Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul star as Tobey Marshall, a financially struggling custom-car builder and street-racer, Framed by an ex-partner for a murder he did not commit, hespends two years in jail thinking about one moment. Fresh out of prison he reacquires the fastest car his workshop ever built and sold, and seeks to enter a secretive and extremely high-stakes race known as The DeLeon. His purpose; redemption, recognition from the world of racing and to solve his problems. Yet all this fades in comparison to his driving reason. Revenge. Above all, revenge.

With the film out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, we sat down with Waugh to discuss all things Need For Speed.

The “Need for Speed” games, being without a narrative, gave you a freedom to tell this story uniquely. Please tell us about that.

It did. But I think one of the things that was really great for myself about the games was, even though there’s no narrative story there’s a particular style to each one, whether you chase cops, whether you race in certain areas or the types of cars you drive. So what we wanted to do was combine all of the games so that in the film we get to drive a huge variety of cars. You get to race them in a huge variety of places. And what really freed us up as filmmakers is, we were able to really bring a true heartfelt story to this crazy visceral world of “Need for Speed.”

At its core, what is “Need for Speed” about?

The film is really about a team of guys at Marshall Motors, and they go through a travesty in the group. They have to revenge the things that were done wrong to them. They have to drive from New York to San Francisco in 48 hours. And through that course of action, all the characters test themselves and how far they will push themselves and their moral integrity.

To me, that’s the great human component of the movie. I feel that the film has a tremendous amount of heart. Each character really opens up. The film is a metaphor for the racing culture, and the things that humanly we do to seek that thrill.

How would you describe the spirit of your movie?

I think the spirit of this movie really lends itself to one line from the film: “You always go back. You never leave a man behind.” It applies in warfare, it applies in life, and it really applies in car racing, especially in places where you’re out remotely. You always go back if somebody’s down. It’s a morality and integrity thing that’s involved in our culture that is applicable to every aspect of life. And when you’ve grown up in the racing culture, and I grew up in the motocross world, a lot of times you’re riding in environments where you’re far from populations, and if you crash, you’re only relying on the people around you to come help you. It’s really just one of those things in the racing culture that’s inbred in you.

Is “Need for Speed” a story of revenge or redemption?

It turns from revenge to redemption. That’s the twist. The characters, especially Tobey, want revenge. But is that in his morality? That’s what he has to find out. Tobey Marshall’s a blue-collar kid who comes from the family that owns Marshall Motors. At the beginning of the story, his mother and father have already passed away and he’s left with the shop and the burdens of the shop. It has been in the family since 1974, and he’s trying everything he can to keep it open. His band of friends all work at the shop and are really there to support the shop but also to support their racing habits. And they get tied into Dino who has come back to town after being an indie car racer, and he gives them a business proposition to help them with the shop.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nobody likes Dino. He’s always been trouble. He’s a rich kid who doesn’t really have any morality. This opportunity conflicts everybody. But they go against their own instincts and accept the offer. It creates nothing but problems. And those problems make them want revenge against Dino.

What attracted you to this project?

After directing Act of Valor, having been a stuntman I wanted to do a car movie. I just felt like the time’s right. I personally wanted to lend my expertise from all the car commercials that I’ve done into a movie, and the stars all aligned. And then I got a call from DreamWorks asking if I wanted to direct Need for Speed.

When DreamWorks approached me about making the film I read the screenplay and just said to them, If you’re interested in making a real authentic car movie like Bullitt or those old school, in-camera films, with great characters, then I’m hopefully your guy.

Why do you think auto-racing movies are exciting to audiences?

I think because racing cars today is complicated for most people. It wasn’t as complicated from the ’70s and before, because the roads were vast, the populations weren’t as dense, you could go to places pretty easily outside of the city limits and go race your car. But now that the population is so massive, you’ve got to go far to try and race a car. And tracks have closed, or the tracks are really far, and it’s just hard. They don’t really have that many point-to-point races like the Cannonball Run anymore. They still have the Cannonball going, but it’s super private. They still have the quarter-mile tracks, but personally, that doesn’t fascinate me. I’m more of a point-to-point course kinda guy. And this movie allows us to go there.

What we really strived for in the film was the chance for you to actually sit in the seat and open it up. Not to be a spectator and watch but to participate in the film and drive. Which is what’s great about the video game. You get to drive the cars. And I think in Need for Speed, oh, you drive.

Please tell us how you chose the specific cars that are in your film?

We chose the Mustang because we knew that the 50th anniversary was coming up. And it is a car that really represents American culture and its alliance with its designer, Carroll Shelby. It just represents modern muscle. It’s always been a fast car. It’s one of the few American cars that still travels at high speeds.

And then also because some of the greatest cars come from Europe, and they’re the fastest, one of the things that’s fun about this movie is in the end, you really get to watch the supercars race, which is the MacLaren F1, the Bugatti Veyron, the Koenigsegg Agera R, the GTA Spano, the Saleen S7 and the Lamborghini Elemento. All of them are multimillion-dollar cars.

Why did you choose to construct some of the cars for the movie?

When we talked about the greatness and problems with super cars there’s only a few of them in the world and they’re not really camera friendly. You’re not going to drill into a side of a two and a half million-dollar car. And you’re not gonna wreck it. They’re art pieces. That’s what everyone forgets. These cars are art pieces. You’re not gonna wreck the Mona Lisa, you know what I mean? You’re gonna replicate it to wreck it so the real one is still there.

How did you decide which American muscle cars to use?

For some reason we still always gravitate toward the muscle cars, we still gravitate toward the 1965 to 1972 cars, whether it’s the Camaro, the Mustang and the GTO. And when we came to picking the cars that were going to race, I really wanted to find cars that hadn’t been seen in a while that make us go, “Oh, yeah. Man, my friend had one of those in high school. Those are so cool.” And you couldn’t avoid certain cars like the Camaro; it’s such a classic you’ve got to have it. And the Pontiac GTO. These are cars that you just have to have. They’re so cool. The one car that we really spent time on trying to find that would really represent Tobey Marshall was the Grand Torino. It was a ’68 Grand Torino. We went through and we looked at all the body styles and I just felt like we really haven’t seen that car that much and it’s so classic and it’s so cool and it really kind of defines that Tobey Marshall is different. He’s just a different guy and this car is different and it’s really wonderful. I wanted to also bring back some foreign cars that we hadn’t seen. We wanted to keep it in that demographic of 1965 to ’72 to 1980.

Let’s talk about the famous DeLeon Race.

The De Leon is a race that anybody who’s a car aficionado would love to be in because there’s only a very select few individuals in the world who really own super cars. They cost like $2 million to $3 million a car. And in the game Need for Speed you work your way up in talent to start driving the super cars. That kind of follows through in this movie where at the end, the big climax of the movie is De Leon, the super car race and people being allowed and invited in by The Monarch to race his private DeLeon.

We went through the cars that are in the game and the cars that are out there in the real world. We wanted six cars. There’s really not many more than that in the super car world, but I really wanted to find something that was different, that most people don’t know. Unless you’re a real car aficionado you wouldn’t know of the Koenigsegg Agera R. We don’t have those in the United States, and it’s an amazing car. These are cars that do 270 miles an hour.

It’s crazy. Where do they even have the real estate to go that fast? But we know there is the one Lamborghini Elemento. It’s a $3 million car, they only have one in the world right now and we had that car there. And we had the Spanish car, the Spano, this GTA Spano. It has a glass roof that actually senses light and nighttime so in the daytime it goes opaque and you have a button if you want it to turn into a whole sunroof or at night it just turns into glass. As they say, “It’s what you get when you spend that much money.” Then we had the Bugatti Veyron. A lot of people know about the Bugatti because its won so many awards and it’s so fast. Then we had the Saleen S-7, another great super car.

It is important to you that the action is real, the stunts are practical and not CG. How did you accomplish that?

We had this situation where Benny flies the helicopter over the streets of Detroit. And because of the way that a helicopter is, it’s really hard to photograph. And the way Benny’s character needed to look, the only way to really get a close-up on it was to stand outside on the skids. I didn’t have the time to try and rig something for like six hours to get a camera out there. I just said, “Hey, let me put a harness on, I’ll stand out there and film it myself.” And, you know, we got the shot in like 20 minutes.

So I was able to get the camera into positions that most people can’t just because of the safety factor that comes with that but I just am lucky enough to have had so much experience growing up with my father and being able to hang off the skids of a helicopter to get shots. I just want to put the camera in unique places so people can see it differently. It’s really important to me.

Some would argue that I could do that in CG. In post. Just green screen it. I have a problem with that. There’s this subconscious thing in humans, I think, that you know what’s not real. I can’t even tell you what it is either, but I just think it’s innate in us to call it fake. But most of the time we don’t care. We’re just along for the ride. But I think when you’re trying to do something for real, if you ingest a little bit of green screen, it’s a big red herring. You can see it because everything else in the movie’s real, so you all of a sudden know that it looks different.

And one thing that we really wanted to do, and we spent an exorbitant amount of time on, was jumping the Mustang in Detroit. We wanted to do the biggest jump possible, but practically. And we had to land it and drive away. It was really important, and we spent so much time trying to find a spot in Detroit. And we found it and it jumped 194 feet and it went over three lanes of traffic. And I think it’s fantastic in the movie. It’s definitely real. And it’s just one of those things that I think is plausible. You could drive away from that, because we did.

We understand that in “Need for Speed” you offer subtle tributes to other famous car-racing movies. Would you please give us an example?

For me, growing up with Smokey and the Bandit, and those kinds of movies, they were influences in my filmmaking career. I wanted to do subtle throwbacks to my favorite car movies. It might be just camera angles that I chose to use or certain cars or certain things to wreck. And I think if you watch the movie and you’ve watched all these previous films, you’re going to catch them. And they’re fun. They’re good throwbacks to that era and they happen quick. I don’t belabor those moments. You really have to pay attention because they can go by in about two seconds. But I think they’re really fun.

How did you come to cast Aaron Paul as Tobey Marshall.

It was so great to actually get him in this movie. We were looking to cast the character Tobey and we were looking for a young and up and coming actor. We found somebody that we liked and Steven Spielberg wanted to see who we were going to surround him with. Ronna Kress, my casting director said, “Well what about Aaron Paul for Dino, the bad guy in the movie?” Personally, I don’t watch much television so I asked, “Who is Aaron Paul?” She just kind of laughed at me. “He’s in Breaking Bad.”

My father was a huge Breaking Bad fan, so I called my dad and I said, Hey, how do you like this Aaron Paul kid? He said, “Oh, he’s unbelievable.” I asked Ronna to show me some tape of him. I was blown away. This kid is amazing. I said, forget Dino why don’t we consider him for Tobey?

I wasn’t in the room but I guess Steven (Spielberg) watched Aaron Paul’s tape and the first thing out of his mouth was, “Wow, this kid is great. Why don’t we consider him for Tobey?” I got that word back and I was so thrilled because Steven and I have really seen this movie eye to eye the whole time. And that was it. Twenty-four hours later we put the offer out to Aaron and had a wonderful conversation with him and I was just really praying that he would want to do something like this because it’s definitely a departure from how we’ve known him in “Breaking Bad.”

I think one of the things that I struggled with when casting Tobey was I really just kept having this fixation on Steve McQueen. I felt like there really hasn’t been, in today’s world, a young Steve McQueen. There’s a bunch of terrific actors but not somebody who really harnesses that strength of not needing dialogue, and has presence on screen and a true physical talent. Steve McQueen was a rugged, handsome man. But he wasn’t a model. His persona made him sexy, and we really wanted to find that character and then find that actor. And we struggled for many months and when I saw Aaron Paul I knew he was the guy. There is the young Steve McQueen. He’s so talented as an actor, which transcends all the other actors that were trying out for the role.

Was Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” the archetype for Tobey Marshall?

One of the things that was great about Steve McQueen was he was a racer. He was an actor but more importantly he was a racer and it’s something he breathed and lived his whole life. And I felt like the Tobey character truly was a young Steve McQueen and he really was that guy. You can see it in Steve’s work when he did Le Mans. And you go watch that movie and, this is my speculation, but Steve really just wanted to race Le Mans. The only way he could figure out how to do it was he got a studio to fund a movie that would support his racing efforts. And I think that’s just a testament to how much passion he had towards racing and that’s truly Tobey Marshall in our movie. He lives and breathes that sport and he can’t really see anything else.

We understand that there is an amusing story about casting Scott Mescudi.

Yes. We were casting the character Benny, and once again the studio wanted me to look at an actor named Kid Cudi who goes by Scott Mescudi, that’s his real name. I had no idea who Kid Cudi was. So he came into the room and I had three scenes for him to read. The first scene he read I thought, “Mmm, this isn’t going so well. Let’s move on to the second scene.” So we moved on to the second scene and I started directing a little bit and he started to really warm up. And then by the third scene I sat there and thought, “Wow, this guy has got that X-factor.”

As he left the room, Ronna Kress who has cast huge Jerry Bruckheimer movies, and has been around a lot of celebrities, stopped him and said, “Hey, Scott, I’ve never done this in my career but would there be a way that you could sign something for me so I can give it to my son because he’s going to freak out when he knows you were in here.” And I turned and look at her, and I kind of look back at him and I said, “Who are you?” He laughed. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I said, “I have no idea who you are.” And he just kind of laughed and he left the room. My assistant came in and said, “Bro, he’s one of the biggest rappers.” And then he starts playing me his songs. I thought, “Oh, my God. That’s Kid Cudi?” I felt so embarrassed. But it was great because you know what, I honestly cast him for his talent not knowing who he was and I think it gave him and me more confidence because he’s the guy who is really charismatic on screen. I think he’s tremendous in the movie. He’s going to have a very huge acting career.

Is it true that Ramon Rodriguez had to be coaxed into auditioning for his role? Please tell us about that.

Ramon Rodriguez came to me, again, from my casting director. I watched his footages and thought he’d be great for the role of Finn. When they reached out to him he was extremely adamant, he was not going to fly in from New York to read unless it was to read for Peck. I said, no, I really see him as Finn. And we bantered a little bit for 24 hours before he flew in. He was adamant that he didn’t want to read for Finn, he wanted to read for Peck. And so in my mind I thought, ok, let him read for Peck, but I’m going to be looking at him for Finn.

The first scene he read was for Peck and my jaw kind of dropped. I thought, my God, this is Peck. He read the scene and looked at me. I said, “I have no notes.” And he’s great in the movie. He’s the strength of the group. If he personally didn’t stick to his guns we would never had him read for Peck, and he never would’ve been cast in the movie because we already cast Finn. That was a true testament to his own integrity and morality as a person who felt a certain way and wasn’t going to compromise that.

In his core he knew he would be better as Peck than as Finn. If a person believes that way then I’ll trust them. And he delivers. He’s wonderful.

Why did you choose to shoot on many locations rather than just in one state?

I was adamant about going to the real locations that we wanted to film in because it’s such a visual palette. We went to California, Utah, Georgia, New York, Michigan and Minnesota.

Some of the great racing movies have shot in San Francisco. Is that why you selected this location?

It’s kind of a funny thing about San Francisco — all the greatest car movies have shot there. And I was really adamant about going there, because I just felt like this is a great way to pay our respects. And, as I said, it’s one of those subtleties you’ll see in our movie that’s a wonderful throwback to the greatest car movies of all time.

Detroit, Michigan has fallen on hard times, but it was an ideal location for you. What made you decide to film there?

When you look at the map of the United States, if you’re going from New York to California, where are you going to drive through? Technically you would blow through Chicago. But we said, we’ve got to go through Detroit, because it’s where cars were born and we need to go through there. We figured out a plot device to make sure our guys go through there. Photographically, Detroit is unbelievable. It’s got this palette that’s just ripe and rich and the textures are so unbelievable. The city unfortunately is in financial ruins, but for photography it’s amazing and what a great city to rip through in a car.

The location in Moab, Utah, may be familiar to some moviegoers. Please tell us about this.

In Moab, there’s a part in the movie where the helicopter picks up the Mustang and flies off the ridge. And one of the most cinematic car moments I remember was from “Thelma and Louise,” and that end shot freeze frame. It just freezes. You see the hair blowing and all — it’s an amazing shot, and I wanted to go where that was filmed.

It’s called Dead Horse Point. It’s unbelievable. It’s really dramatic and picturesque. That’s why I wanted to go to the real locations, because you can’t cheat Moab anywhere else. I think it’s one of the eight wonders of the world.

Please tell us about shooting on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

We went to the Bonneville Salt Flats because again, like Detroit, it’s one of the most influential and pure representations of auto-speeding. The Bonneville Flats is to me, the most monumental and historic spot of any car culture. All speed records have been broken here with cars, and I couldn’t think of a better place to shoot this car movie than right here. We happened to go there at one of the few times that it’s been flooded. It was pretty. It was gorgeous. But we didn’t get to walk on it.

What do you hope audiences will get out of this film?

A: I hope audiences get out of this movie what they don’t expect. I think that’s a wonderful thing that can happen in a theater, where you go to see a movie expecting one thing and it completely throws you another way, in a really good way. And you leave satisfied, because it wasn’t what you were expecting. And I hope that “Need for Speed” does that because we really tried extremely hard to make something different, that wasn’t expected. One of my mottos in preproduction was, “Don’t replicate. Reinvent. Make it the same but different, so it’s new and it feels fresh.” And that was hard, but I think when you see the cameras and the way we move it and the way the characters’ arcs are, it’s definitely a reinvented car culture film.

Need for Speed is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital, courtesy of eOne.

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