‘Need for Speed’; rejects CGI with stunts as they used to do ’;em
When “Need for Speed” comes to theaters on March 14, it will be a fitting centerpiece to the Electronic Arts franchise: For nearly 2 decades, the games have been getting far more cinematic with each sequel, not just in poly counts and graphical processing but also in scope and feel, those intangibles that can’;t be worked out through programming. “Need for Speed Undercover,” for example, starred Maggie Q and featured a bewildering plot that owed more to gritty cop movies than the simple tenet of driving fast on public roads.
The franchise has bounded across every genre and element of cars and car culture: from “Fast and Furious” underground street racing to “Cannonball Run” transcontinental journeys to “Initial D” touge runs to actual legal racing. It gave otherwise attention-deficit adolescents a primer in Porsche history, transforming them into brand loyalists.
Why not a movie, then? Why not a big Hollywood cinematic treatment in the style of “Vanishing Point,” “Bullitt,” and “Smokey and the Bandit” — lofty cultural touchstones to draw from? Why not director Scott Waugh, who grew up on the sets of those cultural touchstones, a stuntman for a father and a stuntman himself — with 150 credits to his name — who can issue a thorough and defiant rejection of computer-generated graphics — while making a movie based on a franchise that’;s entirely computer-generated graphics?
“[Waugh] f**ked with me a little bit, in the beginning,” said Scott Mescudi, better known as rapper Kid Cudi, here playing the pilot Benny. “He said that there was a little bit of CGI. I think that’;s what he did to coax me into it. I was like, OK, OK, cool, I won’;t get nervous. Literally the first day I go and check out the plane, and I’;m thinking, where we’;re seeing the plane in the hangar, that’;s where we’;re doing a lot of the scenes. And he’;s like, ‘So this is your plane! We’;ll shoot for real, there’;ll be a camera guy back here…’; ‘Wait wait wait, so we’;re not doing CGI?’; And he says, ‘Nope!'”
Mescudi’;s voice shot up an octave, reminiscent of his own surprise, his own anxiousness. “And I was like, ‘OK, no time to be a p***y. Let’;s show up. Let’;s do this.'”
Now that Hal Needham has passed, Waugh and stunt coordinator Lance Gilbert are the closest we’;ll come to stuntman royalty. Waugh’;s father Fred brought young Scott to the sets of his movies, where he met Steve McQueen and ingrained himself with muscle cars and the hubcap-flinging chases that ensued. Gilbert’;s brother, father, and grandfather are and were stuntmen: father Mickey Gilbert was the stuntman who jumped off the cliff at the end of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Those movies weren’;t made with computers, and this one won’;t be, either — they were adamant about it. Together, they comprised an unerring vision of honesty in stun2rk, and a thorough rejection of CGI in all of “Need for Speed’;s” extravagant scenes.
And they are extravagant indeed, perhaps so much so that they, in fact, look computer rendered. Not to give anything away, but the race at the end involves flips, crashes, explosions and the shredding of bodywork from multimillion-dollar hypercars (supposedly). Low-flying helicopters are everywhere. (Waugh held a camera and filmed from the outriggers of a news helicopter as Mescudi flew down the streets of Detroit.) The hero car, a Ford Mustang, drives off a cliff and gets towed upwards by another helicopter, this one proudly flying high. It gets a fuel top-off at 70 mph from a speeding Ford F-450 known as “The Beast,” actors all climbing across both vehicles like overexcited children on a jungle gym. At one point, the Mustang jumps 170 feet over Detroit’;s Jefferson Boulevard, across 4 lanes of traffic, launching itself at 73 mph and landing perfectly atop a grassy hillock. “We rehearsed it in another facility somewhere else, because we obviously couldn’;t tie up an on-ramp for months,” said Waugh. “So we had to get surveys of that existing plot, elevations, heights, distances, everything, so we could go create like-for-like environment somewhere else. We would go there and test it so we knew exactly what we had to do to the car, how to weigh the car, what kind of ramp to build, and what speeds to go so that when we went there — because we only had one opportunity to go there and nail it.”
It’;s a lost art form, Waugh maintains; his previous and first film, 2007’;s “Act of Valor,” didn’;t use any CGI either. Likewise, something Waugh wanted to emphasize was that it was indeed the lead Aaron Paul driving the cars, driving them fast.
“If you hit me, don’;t worry about it, I’;ll just roll over the hood of the car,” Paul quoted Waugh, when the director wanted Paul to stop from 80 mph, within inches of his camera. “I thought they were a little crazy,” he continued. “I thought, OK, no CGI, that doesn’;t necessarily mean, ‘no CGI.’; They’;re not going to drive a car off a cliff and have it be caught by a helicopter. They just don’;t do that.”
Paul was supposed to play the bad guy. Waugh, who had never seen “Breaking Bad,” instead saw him as the next Steve McQueen: McQueen had edge, charisma, likeability, and Waugh saw those characteristics in Paul, too. (That the latter spends much of the movie, and his press interviews, wearing a leather jacket did little to dispel that notion.) He ultimately became an amazing driver, said Gilbert, who coached him at Willow Springs and watched him improve and take on a keen intuitiveness, his enthusiasm never waning. Eventually, for that one stunt Waugh and Paul love to bring up in press interviews, he was able to slide the car from 80 mph to a sideways stop, right near his mark — where Waugh would eventually be positioned. “If he doesn’;t make it as an actor, he can always make it as a stuntman,” Gilbert eventually admitted.
Not bad for an actor who “can pretty much change a tire,” confessed Paul, “but that’;s pretty much it.”
Imogen Poots came in the room for her close-up with the Hollywood press, demure and composed in a long black dress that trailed behind her feet. Her thin, short blonde hair framed her blue eyes that she compares to Paul’;s, in one pivotal scene of the movie — “my eyes are green, anyway,” Paul had told us. “I once auditioned for Cinderella,” she said, off-handedly, “and they told me, ‘oh, you’;re too melancholy.’; Cinderella is melancholy, isn’;t she?”
The studio had her in mind the entire time. She had been working with Paul on “A Long Way Down,” when Paul first told her that he had been cast in this new thing she retorted, “sounds like it’;s about drugs.” They were friends in the way movie stars seem to be genuine about. She had never played such a major role in an action movie. She might not again, at least for a while. “Do I want to do something with race cars again? Nooo.”
Perhaps this reaction is unsurprising — Poots has no driver’;s license. “The irony is ridiculous,” she laughed. “I mean, I’;ve driven cars before, I just haven’;t been allowed to have a license by any state.” She had taken a license test just the week before, in California, and she failed. “Couldn’;t find the horn. I think that wasn’;t the only reason, but that definitely wasn’;t helping.”
As with the other actors, she found the rejection of CGI to be fascinating. And in a moment of contemplation, Poots — despite her lack of enthusiasm for driving, despite being involved in a silly race car movie — explained it more thoroughly than anyone else present:
“That was what I thought was kind of so cool. The art of the impossible is always going to be possible,” she said. “So surely, that’;s going to set you up for disappointment, because you see something crazy — you see someone run up the walls and you’;re like, ‘Oh, so that’;s like animation.’; So it was really cool to see firsthand, and watch these guys get into a car that’;s about to fly over traffic, and see the emotion in their eyes — I mean, it’;s a dangerous task that they’;re taking on. But also I’;m just such a fan of old movies anyway, so it’;s such a relief to think, oh, this might feel dated, but it feels really right.”
Waugh is a proud American, which shouldn’;t come as a surprise within 5 minutes of meeting him. “He’;s such a man’;s man,” gushed Rami Malek, who plays Finn. Waugh directed a movie about Navy SEALS, drives a 1970 Chevelle with a Corvette LS3 and has a gravelly voice like Tom Waits reciting the Declaration of Independence — hell, who would mistake him for anything less? If you’;re a proud American, and you’;re making a movie about tearing ass across the country, what car are you going to pick?
At first, Waugh didn’;t know. In the screenplay by George Gatins, he hadn’;t defined the car yet. So Waugh had to pick and choose, a task he took as seriously as casting the actors themselves. But he definitely wanted American muscle, which narrowed the choices down considerably. Just 3 cars for that criteria. “When Shelby passed away it was just an idea that was, ‘How do we make a Mustang worth that money?'” he said. “And the way that I thought it would be plausible would be if it was the last car Carroll was working on.
“‘Bullitt’; was a movie in 1968, with a ’;68 Mustang,” said Waugh. “So it would be cool to have a Mustang in the year the movie was made.” In the movie, the “Mustang RTR” is worth $ 2 million (according to Imogen’;s character) and performs the kind of lofty accomplishments only a movie car is capable of. “If he was building that one-off,” reasoned Waugh, “it really would be worth that kind of money.” Eight Mustangs were built for filming, and 2 survived. When the “Need for Speed” Mustang is auctioned at Barrett-Jackson on April 12, we shall see how much it’;s worth off-screen.
The Mustang’;s 50th anniversary also meant that Ford was only too happy to help. Watch the movie to the end, and that much becomes entirely evident.
It’;s tempting to think what even more outlandish stunts Waugh wanted to include — maybe the Mustang straps itself to the side of a Delta IV-Heavy rocket, maybe it develops mini-guns and lands aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. Nope, said Waugh, we pretty much covered it the first time. “We reverse engineer all our stuff. So we actually start over from scratch on the original screenplay, and we go dream up the stunts, and then go tell the writer, ‘this is what we’;re gonna do,’; and he writes it.”
“I wanted to drive off the cliff,” joked Paul. Then, a pause. Then he changed his mind. “Honestly, I did not want to do that.”
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