The cars in Need for Speed are made of metal, not pixels. That's important for director Scott Waugh, who fought to make every bit of his movie - technically an adaptation of a video game, although the game has no actual story to adapt - practical.
Waugh doesn't come to that randomly. He grew up in the world of stunts because his dad, Fred Waugh, was one of the greats. For a certain generation Fred IS Spider-Man, as he played the wall-crawler in the only live action version we had, back in the 70s. And Fred was best friends with Hal Needham, perhaps the defining stunt man of the modern era, and Scott came up working on and hanging out on the sets of movies where real men put their lives in real danger just to get a great shot.
"It was great because it was all real, it was in camera. I was there to witness it," said Scott during a visit to the Bandito Bros offices, where he was showing off some footage from Need For Speed. "When we did the car jump in Smokey, it was real. I know two dudes who were in it."
To Waugh real stunts aren't just cool, they're part of the basic framework of making a movie feel real. "I’m really character driven," he said. "If you break the rules of physics in stuntwork, you break the rules of character jeopardy. If a car can jump off a moving train at 40mph and land and keep going, a person can keep going too. Because you’re breaking the laws of physics. We really adhere to the rules of physics in this movie. If a car crashes, it ain’t going anywhere."
And they crashed some cars. Need For Speed takes the basic premise of the video game - drive cars fast and keep upgrading them - and grafts it on a good old fashioned B-movie revenge plot. Aaron Paul plays a small town driver who gets caught up in the machinations of a big time bad guy and goes to jail. When he gets out, he has only a few days to drive across country and take his revenge, and along the way he gets behind the wheels of a lot of great, expensive cars. And smashes them.
It's easy for you or me to crash a car, but when a stunt team is doing it practically it's a lot of work. In the trailer above you get a glimpse of a spectacular car flip on a bridge; I've seen the whole sequence and it's stunning and exciting. That flip almost didn't happen because the money guys got cold feet.
"[Stunt coordinator] Lance Gilbert and I racked our heads for a while on how to do this practically," Waugh said. "The studio was nervous and thought we could do it CG, and I said, no way, I’m not going to change my rule. We tested it a lot. We tested for months. He would go out and do tests to see how to get that car to fly the way it did. It was a physics conquest - I would laugh, ‘Oh my god, I’m back in college. I have to figure out the geometry of this!’"
Part of the realness was getting Aaron Paul behind the wheel as much as possible. Almost every time you see Paul driving, he's really driving. Even the dialogue scenes are shot on the road, not on a green screen. For some of the hairier bits they built special cars that could be driven by a hidden stunt driver, but Paul was always behind the wheel. Explains Waugh: "I’m a big fan of Bullitt because Steve drove, and I made sure Aaron drove as much as he could."
For Scott Waugh going practical isn't just for us nerds who appreciate that stuff. He truly believes it impacts the way the movie is experienced, and he's even brought in civilian crowds to take a look at his footage and to see how they react.
"I personally believe audiences are smart enough. They enjoy the popcorn movie, the thrill ride, the spectacle. But deep inside they know they’re just being entertained. It’s not practical. I’ve tested that a bunch with the normal audiences and they’ve registered that it’s real. I think they really appreciate this a practical, real car movie."