Veteran Hollywood stunt coordinator Scott Waugh got his big break with his directorial debut Act of Valor where real-life Navy SEALs comprised most of the core cast of the film. That movie showcased Waugh's ability to practically design and shoot intense action sequences, and with Need For Speed he finally has the chance to blend his gritty and old school filmmaking style with a cast of proven actors and breakout stars.
In June 2013 we visited the production of Need For Speed when it was shooting on location in Michigan and spoke with Waugh about how he landed the ambitious video game adaptation gig. The director also spoke about his shooting style, the challenges of shooting 200mph car chases on real roads, and classic '60s, '70s and '80s car films that he compares Need For Speed to.
Talk a little bit about how you first got involved in the project.
Scott Waugh: I first got involved with the project when I met with [DreamWorks Co-Chairman/CEO] Stacey Snider and Steven [Spielberg] after ACT OF VALOR and I was fortunate that they were fans of the movie, and they really wanted to do a project with me. 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. So Stacey called and says, “We just got NEED FOR SPEED and we want you to direct it.” You've got to be careful what you put out there in the air, because it can happen. [Laughs] So I was really excited.
I’m curious about the visual style. A few people have told us that you really do at times feel like you’re in the driver’s seat, so that’s kind of capturing the video game experience. But I’m also wondering, were there video game elements you wanted to stay away from? Like certain things that other video game movies had tired?
For me--and it’s indicative of a lot of the work I do--it’s like my dad [legendary stuntman Fred Waugh] in the '80s developed the first helmet camera, and there were a lot of limitations we had with that, because it used to be almost 30 pounds on somebody’s head, so you couldn't really do a whole lot. With technology advancing, I was in ACT OF VALOR able to put five pounds on somebody’s head and really put the audience in the seat. So it’s not really a fourth-wall perspective; you can really put the audience in the middle of the movie. So with this film, it’s great because the video game does that as well, but I really enjoy doing that in all of my films. So with this, you really do get to drive all of the cars in a first-person perspective; I think that’s really indicative of the game. There are some angles in the game…there are like three perspectives. I don’t really do that that much. I want the audience to have a more visceral ride, and when you drive a car, you will literally be driving it.
When you got that first phone call with a car movie, what’s the first car or even the first action sequence you knew in your mind: “I have to have this in this movie”?
For me growing up in the '70s, I was so amazed at the car movies of [that time]. You’re talking late '60s--THE FRENCH CONNECTION [actually 1971], GRAND PRIX  - some of these great movies that have no CG, it was all real… SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. You keep going down [the list of] all of these fun movies that I feel like we don’t do that anymore, and it’s became a big CG ride, and I pride myself on trying to do everything in camera and I just wanted to have a throwback movie to the great car movies that I loved. It was always like, you go back to BULLITT with Steve McQueen and that great car chase that we still quote today. That was 1968 when the movie was shot, and one of the things that was so great about that sequence, what I was talking to Steven [Spielberg] about, was the actors need to drive, and that’s what was so cool about Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen did all of his stunts. I said, “Whoever we get, we've got to train so they can do all of their driving.”
We were lucky enough to get Aaron Paul to be the lead in this movie, and then when I was talking to Aaron, I said, “Hey, one of my prerequisites is you need to drive. We need to teach you to really drive.” I think that was like feeding a kid candy, you know? He was like “Sure!” And my dad worked with Steve, so I have very fond memories of him, and he was an extremely talented race car driver, and Aaron actually has that quality. We put him in the car for the first day, and I told him, “Hey, if this acting shit doesn't work out for you, you could be a stunt man,” because he’s so good and he learned so quickly. He really has those indicative qualities that Steve possessed when he was alive.
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I was told you would probably be the better person to answer this question. What can you tell me about the customization of the Mustang?
It’s more of a race design, so we flared out the body to give it more of a wider stance, which always lends to better performance. We put a massive horsepower engine in it and a lot more aerodynamics, because aerodynamics keep the car down. When you start travelling at about 150 mph, the car wants to lift off the ground. so it’s really important to get the aerodynamics right, so the wind flows through the car rather than underneath and up. So we spent a lot of time working on the geometry to get like the super cars. They spend so much time on aerodynamics, and that's what we did with Ford.
And Ford did all of that for you?
Yeah. Ford was really, really behind the movie, and it’s been a great collaboration with them. We really sat down together and designed the car and paid a lot of attention to subtle details. We wanted it to be futuristic, but actually reality based, so there are a lot of things technology-wise that still feel like modern muscle and power. But there’s some electronics things that we do in the car that I think are really cool. I’m projecting personally where I think cars are going, and they actually are. During the year we've been developing, I’m starting to see things that are in this movie come to fruition, probably in 2015-16.
Question: Did you name it?
No, I didn't name that one. The movie has their names, you know there’s “Beauty” and “The Beast.” She’s Beauty.
No one told us she’s “Beauty” yet.
Yeah, Beauty is the call sign for her.
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With your style, you get very up close and personal with whatever culture you’re trying to show. What was one of the greatest challenges you felt here really showing the world of racing and showing that first-person narrative?
The greatest challenge was really getting the actors in the seats. When we got into the super car race, which is really pushing speeds about 200 mph which is really complicated. For me, the biggest challenge was you forget at 200 miles an hour you are eating up five miles in under a minute. So where normally we'll just block off a mile to control that environment, we're jut getting up to speed in that first mile. So it really was a logistics nightmare blocking off five miles of terrain so these guys could really haul ass. That to me was the biggest challenge of this movie.
When you’re making a movie like this, how important is the--for lack of a better phrase--“car porn” or just driving excitement of it?
I'm a car enthusiast and have always been a motocross racer my whole life. For me, what was most important with the film were the characters. “The cars are the stars.” No, Aaron Paul is the star of the movie, along with the other cast. We did spend a judicious amount of time picking every single vehicle in this movie so that every car and truck had it’s own identity, and cars that you haven’t seen will have that we grew up with, you'll be like, “Oh my god, the Jeep Power Wagon! I haven’t seen that since the '60s, that car is so amazing!” So we really just paid attention to all of those things, but I personally didn't get into the car porn stuff. I feel like this is not a music video; this is a really deep human story about pushing the envelope of characters with “How far will these characters be pushed before they will compromise their integrity and their morality?” That’s what this movie is really about. It’s just indicative of speed and going that fast. “How far are you going to push it before you compromise other people around you and yourself?”
Coming off of ACT OF VALOR, what aspect was the most exciting thing for you as far as changing things up from going from a war movie to a racing movie?
To be truthful, the most excitement I've had on this movie--and no discredit to the Navy SEALS--was working with top-tier actors. It’s been the most wonderful experience, because I came from a theater background, so to work with actors of this caliber and get performances out of them has been a true treat. Getting a Navy SEAL who never talks anyways to speak on camera was really hard, and I think they did a great job, but they’re not actors. So for me, that was the biggest luxury on this movie, totally.
What about the locations in this movie? You're in San Francisco, you’re heading to Moab [Utah]. Which place did you get to shoot where you were blown away by what you can get out of this place in terms of how the location affects it?
When I met with DreamWorks, I said to them, “I want to be where we say we are.” I don’t like to cheat. The subtleties of the geographies really lend to the story, and this is a cross-country movie. “We need to go cross county. We’re not going to cheat and do it all in one state just because there are tax benefits.” So I pushed hard to get every city we say we are in. That again lends itself to a lot of logistical nightmares, because we travel so much on the show, but I think the environments are great. Like Detroit, it’s the “motor city.”
More Need For Speed: Aaron Paul Set Interview
DreamWorks Pictures' Need For Speed is directed by Scott Waugh and stars Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Dakota Johnson, Harrison Gilbertson and Michael Keaton.
Need for Speed hits theaters on March 14, 2014.
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.
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