Scott Waugh interview: directing Need For Speed and stunts

With Need For Speed out now, we met director Scott Waugh to talk about his stunt career, filmmaking, Aaron Paul and more...

As a former stuntman and filmmaker, director Scott Waugh’s uniquely positioned to make a film about fast cars and terrifying crashes. Having spent the greater part of his career in front of the lens as a stunt performer, Waugh retired in 2005 and returned to filmmaking, and he brings a fiery sense of immediacy to Need For Speed – this spring’s car racing movie starring Aaron Paul and Dominic Cooper.

Earlier this month, we sat down with Scott Waugh for a roundtable interview, where the filmmaker talks about his earlier stunt career, how it informs his work as a director, and how seeing legendary actor Steve McQueen as a kid indirectly led to the casting of Aaron Paul as the film’s lead.

So how many cars did you wreck in this movie?

My father was a stuntman and worked on movies like The Blues Brothers, right? Blues Brothers, today, still has the most car kills ever. Like, we’ve never topped that one – and I don’t ever want to top that one either, because they did a great job. But we had our fair share, for sure, but I wasn’t trying to wreck as many cars as I could. I just wanted to make an exciting, fun movie that would hopefully fulfil all audiences. So no, it wasn’t an objective.

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How difficult was it to take a game to film, because some of the other adaptations haven’t worked so well in the past.

Which one are you guys talking about, because there’s been about six franchises that have worked. It must be Mortal Kombat, the one everyone’s thinking of. But Resident Evil had five movies, so obviously worked very well. Tomb Raider did very well…

I just wanted to make a great car movie. And the great thing for me is that the videogame has zero story. Because sometimes you make a story for a videogame, and it’s designed for that genre. So you take the story out of that element and put it in a movie, and sometimes it doesn’t work because it wasn’t made for that. The great thing about Need For Speed is that it didn’t have a story – so we can take a great, cinematic storyline that we know works in movies, and thrust it into a great car racing world. It couldn’t be better to have one of the best car racing games for the title.

Were there any particular stipulations from the producers about things from the game that had to be in the film? Or did you have complete free rein to do what you wanted?

EA was a partner. I really wanted to make something that was respectful to the core, to the gamers who play that game. I’ve shown it to all the heads of EA after it was made, and they were so excited about it, because they feel it’s the game come to life. 

Games attract very, very faithful disciples. They can be very geeky about it. Have you had reactions from fans of the game?

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Yeah, they’re over the moon about it. They’re appreciative that it wasn’t Hollywood ruining a great franchise, so it’s been fantastic. And they’re sometimes more protective of the game than the manufacturers that make it. It’s their game.

Did you do it in 3D to make it feel more like a game – more immersive?

No. I’m not normally a 3D fan. I come from a practical, real world of doing stunts for a living, where everything’s in camera for real. I never thought my work would translate to 3D, because it’s shot in particular styles that I thought would not lend to that format. But a friend of mine owns a 3D company, and he approached me on Act Of Valor, and I turned him down. Then on this movie he said, “Can I just please convert 90 seconds for free, just so I can show you?” And I was like, sure, I’ve nothing to lose! And so I went in to see it, really early on in the editorial process. And I thought this was going to suck and prove my point, and I came out with my jaw on the ground. I was going, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen something like this.”

I always say that I try to be better than 3D, but in 2D. But then I saw my work done in 3D, but tastefully – everything’s in the screen. Nothing comes out at you. It’s easy on the eyes, and visceral. Because in some of the first-person driving [shots], you are now literally driving the car. Like, you feel like those are your arms steering the car. 

As a former stunt driver, was it important to you to make the crashes feel real? I got a real sense of how nasty and painful they are when they do happen.

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Here’s the way I approach directing. I did stunts for 25 years, and I want to let my audiences feel what it’s like from my perspective, in what I was lucky enough to have done. So I’m always choosing camera angles that put audiences in the middle, rather than sit back – which is something you normally have in movies, in car movies especially. You sit back and watch stuff, watch the wrecks.

I want you to be inside it, because that’s where my life has really been. And I feel it’s just an immersive angle. Whether you’re first person or attached to the car, or it’s coming right at you. And also because it’s real – it’s not CG. I think it makes people lose weight from sweating!

How sexy is a car?

I find it really interesting, that in our culture, cars are an extension of our personality. It’s like the clothes define who we are and what we like to be – cars are an extension of that. Perhaps more so on the male side, but it’s in the last century that cars have made their mark. For me, I was a stuntman, so they’re a big part of my world.

Have you driven some of the cars we see in the movie?

I’ve driven some of them, yeah, I did. I didn’t drive a lot of them, because I was so busy making it. But some of my friends, who are some of the greatest race car drivers and stunt drivers, had the time of their life on this movie, playing with the real toys. I did drive the Koenigsegg, and that was fantastic.

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I still drive a  1970s Chevelle. I’m an old-school classic guy. I’m an analogue person. I still love that. I wish I had better air conditioning, I’m not gonna lie, but that just kind of comes with it.

Many action movies concentrate so much on special effects and action movies rather than characters and plot. I think in this case it’s well done, because it’s interwoven.

Thank you. I think that’s really important, right? Some movies are just total popcorn thrill rides, right?

They’re all explosions and people walking away from explosions…

Right, right. I’ve done stunts in a lot of those movies, so I know what you’re talking about! 

So how did you interweave the action with the drama?

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This is why I was so pleasantly surprised when I read the script. I’ve been a part of action movies my whole life, and I’ve got to tell you, it bores me. I’m 43 years old, and it’s boring. It doesn’t excite me as much as a great script and great characters. So when I looked at the script, I thought, my God, there’s a great story in here.

That’s my focus all the time, is a great story that’s entertaining and fun, and that surprises people. I’ll shoot the action, which I’m known for, to the best of my ability, but I’m actually more interested and get more thrills from shooting the acting. Especially when you get to work with the talent we attracted to the film. I feel like I was able to work with the next generation Pacino and De Niro. Dominic [Cooper] and Aaron [Paul] are so talented, it was like a dream come true.

How did you choose them?

First of all, with Aaron… My father did stunts on Bullitt and all those movies, and I wanted to find the next Steve McQueen. I used to love Motocross, and I used to race as a little boy, and Steve was there. I’d see him there, and he was as cool as it gets – he had this aura around him.  I wanted to find someone who had that kind of aura. I wasn’t looking for the next physical Steve – that’s a kind of shallow way of looking at it – I wanted someone who had that edge, charisma, who was simple. Steve was a simple guy, he was a jeans and t-shirt dude.

Aaron’s name came up to play the bad guy. I wasn’t a Breaking Bad fan, I hadn’t watched the show ever, and I heard his name and was like, “Who’s Aaron Paul?” And they were like, “What do you mean? Haven’t you seen Breaking Bad?” And I said, “I’ve no idea who Aaron Paul is!”

So they showed me a tape of him, and I was like, “Wow, he’s fantastic.” I said, the bad guy’s the most obvious choice, but the more interesting choice is the lead. He has everything I’m looking for. The casting people said, “Nah, the studio will never go for that.” I said, “Really? He defines the kind of movie I want to make.” They were, “No, no, I don’t think so.”

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Then they put [Aaron] up in front of Steven Spielberg who looked at everyone for Dino [the villain] and Toby [the hero]. And he saw Aaron’s for Dino, and he goes, “Wow, this kid’s fantastic. Why don’t we consider him for the lead?” So of course, they would listen to Steven more than they would listen to me, so he got cast.

Dominic was always part of that world. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get him, because I know Dominic’s pretty picky as well. I was so thrilled that he wanted to be a part of it, because some of his work that I’ve seen is just fantastic.

And then getting Imogen Poots to play the lead female – I wanted somebody who was strong. Because that character was so important to me. She wasn’t your typical siren you get in these sorts of movies – she had depth and you rooted for her. She wasn’t what you thought she was from the beginning. Imogen and I talked about that a lot. We wanted the audience at the beginning to go, “Huh” [shrugs], but all of a sudden you fall in love with her and root for her. 

Did you talk to Steve McQueen’s grandson to see if he’d be interested in a part?

I talked to Steven, yeah. Steven’s on Vampire Diaries, and his schedule completely conflicted with our schedule, so he was someone I looked at, but my concern was that he was still too young for what I wanted to do with the movie. I think he’s 19, 20, if I remember right? I wanted someone older. I know his father Chad, and he’s a great guy. I thought it would have been fun, but I don’t think he was ready yet, or old enough for this part.

What would you say to critics who would argue that you’re promoting reckless driving?

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I would say to them that we should stop making movies in general. Because if you take Ocean’s 11, that promotes raiding casinos in Vegas. They’re just trying to find a story.

As a director and a stuntman, do you need to be an adrenaline junkie to do this job?

You have to get your heart rate up a little bit. I’m just looking for a great story. Like, popcorn movies, I don’t go to see. If I see a big action-fest, I’m not interested. I’d rather go see something that’s got a lot of heart – drama, comedies. It’s just the truth. I did that, right?

It’s like, when I leave the set, I don’t drive fast. I’m done. I got my thrills out on the set. Even now, and I retired 10 years ago. I still race Motocross, but that’s my hobby that I thoroughly enjoy. I’m more a Shawshank Redemption kind of kid. I came from the theatre. I was a theatre actor for seven years, so I’m always about those Forrest Gump stories that are human and make you cry. I don’t know why – I enjoy going to the theatre and losing it.

I do, though. I was on the plane the other day watching this movie. I can’t remember what the film was. There was this guy sitting next to me, and I got so moved and I was starting to cry with my glasses on [mimes wiping his eyes]. The guy next to me’s going, “What’s wrong with him?” [Laughs] Because I’m bawling! But I love that. I enjoy being moved.

Were you concerned about comparisons to the Fast And The Furious franchise?

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No, not at all. It’s a completely different movie, a huge, successful franchise. I was always looking at  the greatest car movies of all time, that started the genre – Bullitt, Vanishing Point, Smokey And The Bandit, Cannonball Run, Blues Brothers. They’re all in the 60s and 70s, the movies that created the genre. I always liked that those movies were realistic. There was no CG, it was all in-camera. There was no music, it was motor noise. They were fun, great stories.

I analysed those a lot. When my dad was still alive, I was always asking him questions. Like, “How did you guys do this?” Hal Needham, who directed Smokey, he was one of my dad’s best friends, and I sat down and spoke to him about it. They loved realism.

Can you remember a particular stunt from your days as a performer, that still makes you think, “Wow, that was an amazing moment”?

You get injured – there’s no way around it, and that’s partly why I retired. You get tired of breaking bones and hurting your back, your neck. You know, you always remember your swansong, right? Because that’s a definitive moment in your life where you go, “Okay, this is it. I’m done.”

A stunt coordinator called me, and he was a dear friend of my father’s. He knew I was retiring, and I’d be directing from here on out. This was back in 2005. He was doing a TV show called Shark, and he called and said, “Hey, I have your swansong for you.” I was like, “Oh, oh no. What is it, Ron?”

And he said, “It’s a 110-foot high fall backwards onto a car top.” I was like, “You’re kidding me, right?” And he said, “It’s gonna be great. Think about it, right? You won’t forget it for the rest of your life!” [Laughs]

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He was totally right. It was my last stunt, and I got hurt on it – not really bad, but I got hurt. And it was great, because I left the set going, “I’m done. I don’t have to do this ever again.” And that was it. I’m completely retired!

Scott Waugh, thank you very much.

Need For Speed is out on in UK cinemas now.