Inspired by the eponymous car-racing video-game franchise, “Need for Speed” is a visceral and evocative return to the great car-culture movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The testosterone-fueled film directed by Scott Waugh is an exciting story of honor, friendship and loyalty and the journey of one man looking for revenge and ultimately redemption. Opening March 14th, the movie stars Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Scott Mescudi, Dakota Johnson, Harrison Gilbertson and Michael Keaton.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, Waugh and stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert talked about their longtime friendship and professional relationship, what it was like growing up together on the sets of “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Vanishing Point,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Bullitt,” why Waugh considers Gilbert one of the best stunt coordinators in the world, the challenges they faced pulling off practical stunts and capturing amazing action sequences realistically in-camera without CGI enhancement, and the entertaining Easter eggs they included as a homage to the classic car-culture movies of another era.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: When was the first moment you guys fell in love with cars? What was that genesis?
SCOTT WAUGH: Definitely as a kid. We grew up with our fathers doing stunts our whole lives.
Q: How long have you guys known each other?
WAUGH: He’s known me my whole life ‘cause he’s older. His dad and my dad were best friends so we literally grew up together. We grew up on the same sets because our fathers used to work together a lot. By that, I mean, we grew up on the sets of “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Vanishing Point,” “Bullitt,” and “The Blues Brothers.” Cars were a huge part of the stunt world, and back then it was always those classics, the classic cars which were so cool with all this raw sheet metal, analog, no digital. Me personally, I was always a fan of the ’67 Camaro originally.
Q: How difficult is it in modern day to be able to pull off all that practical stuff, particularly if a studio doesn’t think it’s worth the risk to subject stuntmen, much less the actors, to this with what we can do in a computer?
WAUGH: It was interesting because when I initially met with Steven, I said, “I really want to do a homage movie back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. You know what kind of a filmmaker I am. We need to do everything for real.” My answer to all of that is CG is never perfect. If you’re a physics major, you’ll always point it out because it just can’t really replicate life like that and wrecks, especially with cars. Lance and I pride ourselves on the fact that we both have a flawless safety record. We do things extremely safe. We’ve done some of the biggest stunts, but we do it in a way that’s methodical and scientific, and we make sure the stuntman is going to be safe, and we put the right stuntmen in for the right job. I was really adamant about that because I wanted everything to be real. I love it because I think it’s more of a challenge. I think the easy way is to go, “Oh, we’ll just flip it in the computer.” That’s a weak decision. Why not figure out how to do it practically, because I think audiences respect that and they like that.
Q: They absolutely do. I think the Fast and Furious movies have actually become more practical as they’ve gone along. That said, are there boundaries to what you can accomplish physically in a car? For example, the Grasshopper seems like an incredible stunt that would destroy a car.
WAUGH: No. It took us months to find the right place that it wouldn’t. We needed to find a place that looked big but wasn’t big practically, because racing motocross, when you look at things geometry-wise, you’re looking for a natural place to fly far and land on a down side, not on a flat side. That gives you all that natural uptake that doesn’t destroy the car. That’s why the Grasshopper ironically landed in a down grass area because it didn’t destroy the car and we needed it to drive away. It was going to go far. It went 170 feet, but it really only went 18 or 20 feet up in the air, which is a nice long arc rather than a big pop. (to Lance Gilbert) What were the speeds that Troy did it? Was it 71?
LANCE GILBERT: It was 73.
WAUGH: It was 73 mph. It looked big and is big, but practically it has to be able to drive away. That’s all I cared about. In some other movies, when they’re on the top of the train and it’s a Cobra, and it’s going 40 mph and it’s 80 feet up, and it lands and drives away, it’s like, “No. That’s definitely not driving away.” So that’s why I was like, “No. It’s got to be practical.”
Q: You guys have known each other your entire lives. How far into the process did you hire Lance and were there any awkward moments? Also, he mentioned CGI versus practical. Do you notice a pinch from computers taking your jobs?
GILBERT: Do I notice computers taking jobs? Not that they’re taking jobs, but I find that a lot of moviemakers just depend on it. And me, as a coordinator, I want to deliver old school raw footage and actually see dailies at the end of the day, and not see them in a month from now. I just remember as a kid going in and watching these dailies of what my dad would do or his (Scott’s) father would do. I’m sitting in the room and they’re projecting yesterday’s work right here and you’re seeing what you got. As a fabricator and designer of action, I always want to see that daily the following day. I don’t want to have to wait for months from now to ultimately see any results. Does it take work away? Yes, a little bit. It does when it’s the scale of things where there are a lot of people or they regenerate men and stuff like that.
WAUGH: Lance is definitely one of the best. I tried to get him on “Act of Valor” and he turned me down. I was very upset about that. But then, I came to him a lot earlier this time. I said, “Hey, I’m doing this movie. Make yourself available for me.” And he did. Lance, to me, is the best stunt coordinator in the world. I knew if I was going to pull off what I really wanted to pull off, I needed him. I was so stoked that he was available, but it’s also great to work with one of my best friends.
GILBERT: We have a good working, communicating relationship, where sometimes it’s hard with other directors to get into their brain and get into their mind and not be afraid to go. He could be talking to Steve Spielberg, and if I needed an answer, I’d just go ask, and I could, and then walk away. But at least I could do that, where somebody else is like, “Let me get it on their books and we’ll get it all figured out.” And then later I’d finally get the answer. That was helpful, to be able to have him on my side.
Q: Aaron was talking about shooting the sequence on the bridge and how you were the guy behind the camera.
WAUGH: Yes, I was his cone that he wasn’t supposed to hit.
Q: How do you guys coordinate a scene like that safely whether it’s you or a member of your camera team?
WAUGH: When it came to doing anything like that, I would always put myself behind the camera or in that position. If there’s any possibility of danger, I would never put a camera operator there because I’m the one that wants that shot. I know that if it gets a little bit out of control, I’m capable enough to get myself out of that situation. Or, if I get hit by that car, I’ve done enough car hits in my stunt career and I’d know what to do. That situation, that particular shot, I told Lance way early on, months before we filmed, this is something I want to have happen. I want Aaron to come at me at 70 mph and slide right up to the camera, just like what happened in “The French Connection” with Gene Hackman, and he gets out of the car, all in one shot, and he goes, to really show the audience that Aaron is doing his own driving. Lance spent a lot of time training him, and sliding the cars, and putting cones up, and making him slide to that cone over and over and over, so that when it came time to do it, he felt that confidence. The first time he did it, he came up ten feet short. He didn’t want to hit me. I had to get in his mind a little bit and say, “Hey, don’t worry about hitting me. You’re not going to kill me. I’ve done this enough. Just focus on what you’re supposed to be doing and focus on your emotion, because you’ve got a lot going on in your mind. Don’t think about me at all.” So, he came in fast, and I knew he was going to come right into me. I was like, “Oh no!” and I had Lance who was on my belt hoop. I said, “Lance, if you really feel he’s going to hit me, pull me out of the way. But only if he’s going to hit me, alright?” I’m literally filming. He’s coming at me. He starts sliding at me, and I’m thinking I know he’s going deep and I’m like, “Oh no!” I close my eyes like that and wait for him to bump me, and Lance didn’t pull me, and then the tires screeched to a stop. I looked, and he’s right there (inches from him), and I go, “Oh my God,” and I back up, and he gets out and he takes off. I didn’t know if I got the shot because my eyes were closed. My DP comes out of the car and he’s got video and he was like, “Oh my God, that was great!” and I’m like “Was it?” because I didn’t see a damn thing.
Q: Was that the most challenging scene for you?
WAUGH: No, not at all. That was just fun. Challenging was the logistical challenges in Moab with the helicopter and the Mustang. In the movie, there are a lot of Easter eggs. One of them is that. That’s the exact same cliff that Thelma and Louise went off of. There’s a lot of those throughout the entire movie, but you’ve got to be kind of a car buff connoisseur to catch a lot of them. That one, it’s an hour in on a drive. On top of that, Lance and I were just all about real and wanting to do it for real. The studio was very freaked, a little bit. They wanted us to think about doing the CG and I was like, “We’re not. It’s the end of the movie. If you don’t have the confidence in us to let us pull this off, then we’re just going to rewrite it and not do it because I refuse to do CG.” We kept doing tests and showing them how we were going to do it practically. We were able to do it practically. It was just a really tough thing to do that had never been done before. I was really proud of Lance and Craig Hosking, our helicopter pilot, and the guys that pulled it off. When you shoot certain scenes in a movie, you know that’s going in the trailer. That’s going in all the movie trailers for sure. I knew if we did it, it was going to happen, so that’s why I was so adamant about it. This was a different stunt we haven’t seen.
Q: Tell us about these Easter Eggs. Is there a reference to “Vanishing Point” in the movie?
WAUGH: Oh, there are huge references to “Vanishing Point” and the Supersoul, basically Michael Keaton, “American Graffiti,” the gag at the gas station, the Smokey and the Bandit car they blow by at 180 mph, and “Bullitt.” The hotel that Steve McQueen goes into in “Bullitt” is the exact same hotel that Aaron Paul goes into to meet Dominic (Cooper) on Nob Hill, and where the car wrecked on Nob Hill is where Steve slid around, the Bullitt reference at the drive-in. They just keep going on and on. I’ve got plenty of them, but they’re fun because I want people to not really catch them all the time. Hopefully, on a second viewing, you’re going to go, “Is that what I think that is?!”
Q: And there’s the “Act of Valor” DVD.
WAUGH: Here’s a true story about “Act of Valor.” They have this rack there, and then we got into a copyright problem because you can only put in things that you have copyrights to. Disney and DreamWorks have their copies and we wanted to fill it up. I’m proud of my movie. I have an “Act of Valor” DVD. Let’s put one of those in there. I own that. We’re good. (Laughs) That went in there. Honestly, I go by it and I kind of cringe because I’m not really into self-advertising, but that’s an Easter egg.