In the Driver’s Seat: 7 Things We Learned on the Set of ‘Need for Speed’

By  · Published on January 29th, 2014

When you think about Detroit in 2013, it’s hard not to think about a city tangled up in bankruptcy. A community on that downward motion toward the ground right before bouncing back up again. You also might, more traditionally, think about American muscle cars and machismo. On a humid day in late June of last year, the sound of screeching tires and the oiled up masculinity of Detroit surrounded me and a group of fellow journalists on the set of Need for Speed.

Amidst the smell of burned rubber and what seemed like miles of cabling linking together the technology of modern action cinema, we got to know the storytellers chosen by DreamWorks to bring one of EA’s most successful video game franchises to life. From Act of Valor director Scott Waugh to Oscar nominated writer John Gatins and acclaimed Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul, they all had something to share about the testosterone-fueled world. For your expedited enjoyment, we’ve arranged them into a list of things we learned that day in downtown Motor City.

1. A video game with no story is easiest to adapt

In the upcoming DreamWorks release, Paul plays a street racer out for revenge. In the driver’s seat of a carefully modified Ford Mustang, Paul’s character Tobey crosses the country in an escalating series of street races that will lead him to exact his revenge upon those who have done him wrong.

It’s not exactly the story you’d expect from a movie based on the Electronic Arts video game franchise. But then again, what kind of story would you expect? It’s a racing game. For writers John and George Gatins and director Waugh, the blank canvas of Need for Speed was particularly appealing. “Sometimes video games have a hard time translating to movies,” explained John Gatins as we watched stunt drivers take slow passes in the film’s hero car, a suped-up blue Mustang. “But I think that a video game with no narrative is a good place to start, because my brother [George] and I were able to create the world, the characters, the story.”

“That’s what’s so great,” Mr. Paul later confirmed, standing in the middle of the street in his sharp racing jacket, surrounded by sweaty bloggers. “There have been so many Need For Speed games, but there’s no narrative. It’s truly a blank canvas for the writers.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean there isn’t some of the game in the movie. “The thing that we most took from the game was the landscapes,” Gatins continued. “Any kind of a driving game, we wanted to create a quest into the story, so kinda got to do all kinds of cityscapes and mountains and stuff, and that’s why we’ve been to Mendocino, San Francisco, Atlanta, Macon, Detroit, Utah. It’s like we kind of wanted to honor the game in that way. It was a great opportunity for open landscape as far as the story went.”

2. It’s not another Fast & Furious film

When you think of fast cars and dangerous stunts, there’s no ignoring the prevalence of the Fast & Furious franchise on the modern cinematic landscape. Paul was quick to address this, as it seems to have been an early concern. “When it was placed in my lap,” he explained. “I instantly thought, ‘Oh, it’s going another Fast & Furious film.’ That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Those films are super-entertaining. That’s why they’re so highly successful. I read the script and I went, ‘Oh, wow. This is really interesting.’ Then I heard the pitch from Scott Waugh and heard that he wanted to do a full throwback to the 60s and 70s classic car-culture films.”

3. In fact, it’s more like Bullitt

“It is 100 percent more Bullitt,” insisted producer Mark Sourian when asked about the shadow of Universal’s Vin Diesel-led car movies. “In fact that’s the movie that Scott references all the time, specifically Bullitt. You know, for him it was like if you watch Bullitt, there’s Steve McQueen driving the car. You know it’s him. You’re not cutting away from Steve McQueen so that you can replace the stunt driver with Steve McQueen. So again, what was so important in this whole process was that Scott had the experience of being a stuntman and new how to do it safely but effectively.”

And when you watch it, you’ll believe that it’s real. “Most of the stunts ‐ the stunts are real,” Sourian explained. “They just are. And in fact, I’ve always joked around like maybe at the end we need to show images of the cars getting wrecked or things happening to the cars so that people know how real this is. I mean because there was a part of me that’s like I hope people know ‐ there’s a whole generation that’s grown up with CGI. So my feeling is like I think they’re gonna know even if they don’t know. Meaning they’ll know there’s a difference. They’ll know that it feels more immediate than anything they’ve seen in recent years.”

4. It’s every bit a movie made by a stuntman

“The project started because John Gatins and George Gatins, George Gatins being the writer on the screenplay, had decided that they wanted to do a kind of a down-home car movie that felt real that could appeal to car lovers, but also to a wider audience,” explained Sourian.

It’s this fact that led them to Waugh, an accomplished stuntman, stunt coordinator and the son of legendary stuntman Fred Waugh, who stood in for the likes of John Wayne and Charlton Heston.

“For me growing up in the ’70s, I was so amazed at the car movies of [that time],” explained Waugh in between chomps on a large cigar he’d been nursing throughout the day, a compliment to his unapologetic machismo. “You’re talking late ’60s ‐ The French Connection, 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.”

This love for old school car movies combined with Waugh’s years of experience and lineage as a stunt performer was not lost on his actors. “I think his old-school approach to stunt work and the way he commands and runs a set is fantastic and everybody listens to him,” explained actress Imogen Poots when asked about why Waugh was such a good fit for the project. “Everybody respects him and in an environment where you’re dealing with people’s safety, as well as every other thing that’s happening around you, I think that’s incredible to have that approach and I think he’s always thinking about the right things first, with priorities all in line, but really he loves this. He love this genre. He loves race cars. He knows exactly what he’s doing, so it’s a wonderful thing to watch.”

5. It wants you to feel like you’re in the game

Being “in the game” might not be the tastiest prospect for audiences. As anyone who actually saw 2005’s Doom can attest, just putting someone in the first-person perspective does not a great adaptation make. Need for Speed’s brain trust sees the immersive experience as a strength, however.

“You’ll see when you watch the film that you actually feel like you’re behind the wheel,” explained Paul, who seemed quite comfortable in the tough guy role after years of playing the fragile Jesse Pinkman. “For a lot of the camera angles, you feel like you’re actually driving the car. It kind of makes you feel like you’re in the game in a way. In terms of character, it’s a blast being a badass but also the good guy. Being a badass in these crazy cars. It’s just been fun.”

“For me ‐ and it’s indicative of a lot of the work I do,” explained Waugh later as his crew reset a now tire smoke-covered set. “It’s like my dad 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.”

6. Its leading lady is no damsel

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from some of the initial trailers, but the film’s leading lady is more dangerous than she lets on. “It’s not necessarily something that you gather when you first meet her in the beginning, but she’s also, as the story goes on, revealed to be a bit of a daredevil,” explains Imogen Poots, who you’ll recognize from the recent Fright Night remake. “She’s willing to kind of try things out and she’s a really great role to play because the people behind the script have been pretty liberal too, which way we want to take the characters and what we want to do.”

So it’s a little likeSmokey and the Bandit, with Paul as Burt Reynolds and Ms. Poots as Sally Field? “Exactly,” said Paul.

7a. It’s not just car porn

“I’m a car enthusiast and have always been a motocross racer my whole life,” explained Waugh. “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 its 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?’”

7b. But there is some car porn

Because in car movies, the cars matter. Would the chase scene in Bullitt be exactly the same without the Ford Mustang GT fastback? It would still be great, but not the same. According to Sourian, Need for Speed’s cars won’t fail to impress. “We have Koenigsegg, Ford obviously, Lamborghini, Bugatti, and it’s kind of amazing to see these cars in the movie because, first of all, I’ve only seen them in print. I’ve seen them in images. I’ve never actually really driven one, let alone seen one before. So it was really exciting to be a part of that and to see these cars because they’re absolutely beautiful. I really do ‐ looking at those cars I felt like we were doing something out of science fiction.”

Car porn or not, there was a palpable energy on the Detroit set. Raw, aggressive energy that confirms everything we’ve been sold by the film’s creatives: it’s an old school car chase movie centered on a tough kid who we know can bring depth to a character. How that all turns out in the end is yet to be determined. But it wasn’t hard to see on that oppressively bright day in Detroit, that Aaron Paul and company were making a fun movie. History will decide long after the March 14, 2014 release date, how it lived up to the lofty standards imposed by its filmmaker’s love for Steve McQueen. For now, what I can say is that it’s a fun video game that’s adaptation appears to be in the right hands.

For more of the Need for Speed experience, check out the theatrical trailer below:

And here’s a gallery of new photos from the Detroit set:

gallery columns=”2" ids=”225672,225671,225673,225670"

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)