NEED FOR SPEED

What do you do after spending five years creating one of the lead characters on a TV show commonly cited as among the best to ever air? For Aaron Paul, whose breakout role as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad launched his career to new levels of popularity, the choice was simple: do something different. Asked if his lead role in the video game adaptation-turned-car action film Need for Speed was intended as a break from the show, Paul said “Yes, absolutely.” He went on to say “with ‘Breaking Bad’ I lived and breathed every moment as Jesse. I loved the kid. I miss him so much, but … you know.”

So what about Need for Speed? The film puts Paul in the role of a guy whose friend dies as a result of the douchebaggery of rich racing enthusiast Dino (Dominic Cooper). Paul’s character ends up in jail, and upon release is determined to have his revenge. He takes to the roads accompanied by a young woman (Imogen Poots) with multiple law enforcement agents on his tail. Or, as Paul recounts the story, “This movie stems from a lot of revenge. My character gets blamed for the death of one of his best friends. He spends some time in prison so revenge is on his mind and it’s a race against time. But he’s a good guy who’s trying to right a wrong, so I don’t know if he’s an antihero, but he is out to get that bastard.”

Act of Valor director Scott Waugh, the son of a stunt man, directed the film with the intention to make a modern film packed with practical effects and legit stunts. A couple months back we sat in on a 20-minute footage presentation, and spoke with Paul and Waugh. Below, they talk about how the film came together.

Paul explained that the first notes he got about the film emphasized that it wouldn’t be a CG-fest.

[Driving] was one of the things when they approached me about this. [Scott Waugh] said, “We’re going to do this a little differently than what’s out there right now. Everything’s going to be practical.” And I said, “Absolutely.” So he said first I had to go to stunt school, so I went through a whole thing, and it was a blast.

Waugh laughs about the idea that Paul had anything to worry about. In short, the director thinks he was a natural.

[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.

A bit of Aaron Paul’s training was captured for this featurette:

While some of the driving was done via a “pod” system, with cars fitted with an auxiliary control bubble housing a stunt driving who was really controlling the car as Paul mimed being in control from the driver’s seat below, as much footage as possible was captured with Paul at the wheel. And he was OK with it, too.

I just convinced myself everything was okay. During the stunt course I had a helmet on, I had a fire suit on, I felt pretty protected so I was willing to do it all. I mean, the first day I was flying down a ramp and doing a full 360. It’s a blast. And then the next few days was doing 180s and driving in reverse for a long time, and it’s stuff we all want to do, and you can.

You won’t see the pod cars here, but this featurette shows off the chase cars that act as camera rigs in many scenes:

The pod system actually acts as a sort of link between the film and video game, at least from the actor’s perspective, as the star explains:

I was always behind the wheel, majority of the time I was there. We had these things we called pod cars that I’d never seen before. But Tanner Faust, my stuntman who’s fucking crazy, but I trust my life in his hands, he does all these crazy YouTube videos, so he would be on top of the car, in the back, actually controlling the car. So the wheel doesn’t work, the gas doesn’t work, and the brake pedal does not work. So there were moments where I was like, “Tanner, you’re driving way too close,” but I’m flying and trying to pretend, but he’s controlling everything so it was like the most realistic video game possible.

The rest of the relationship between game and film is… let’s say “spiritual” at best. Let your star explain:

With this we had a blank canvas to work with. What we had to do was have fast cars, and that’s it. That’s it. They put a great story behind it and Scott had a distinct vision. He said, “I want to do a throwback to the classic ’60s, ’70s car culture. … And he wanted to make sure that when people are watching this film they’re not being fooled, they’re not being lied to. People can watch it and say, “Oh my god. That shit is actually happening.” And they did it all practical, they wanted it to feel like you’re in the car driving, and that’s what you feel like when you play the game.

Accordingly, some visual cues are the primary points of reference: overhead shots and some POV views echo common player views seen while cruising roads in the game. Publisher EA doesn’t seem to have been too worried about the “adaptation” — if that word can even be used. Screenwriter George Gatins explained, ”[EA] 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 chase.”

Waugh explains another link between film and 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 [Aaron 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.

Indeed, despite the unreal origin of the video game series, the action we saw in the long sizzle reel looked as real as anything can — the cars are obviously reacting to real forces, rather than digitally imagined whims. The effect is subtle, and in some ways “smaller” than what you’ll see in films that have a huge blanket of CG thrown over everything, but that feeling of danger experienced by the stunt men does seem to radiate through the screen.

Paul says he does have a contract for sequels and a franchise should such a thing come to pass. But the real goal seems to have been the one-two punch of getting this practical experience, and, again, veering away from Breaking Bad. “I want to steer as far away from Jesse Pinkman as possible. During the shooting of ‘Breaking Bad,’ everyone was trying to get me to play a drug addict in their films. “We can see that you can do this, so why don’t you try it again here?” For me, I wanted to do something as far away from that as possible. I’ve never done something like this, this sort of character, and I jumped at the opportunity.”

***

Need for Speed opens on March 14.

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