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In an industry that thrives on creating things virtually, Scott Waugh is obsessed with doing them practically. Whether it’s firing live ammunition over the heads of soldiers in Act of Valor or saving a car from driving off a cliff by lifting it by helicopter in Need For Speed, Waugh isn’t just conceiving the sequences in physical terms, he’s executing them, often with himself behind the camera.
But on his second feature, an adaptation of the iconic racing game, Waugh became obsessed with authenticity, asking his cast and crew to participate in stunts that would not only test their skills behind the wheel, but pay homage to Hollywood’s great car-themed movies.
Waugh spoke with Spinoff Online at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, where he discussed executing the exhilarating driving sequences practically, offered anecdotes about his experiences shooting the actors as they drove, and gave a few hints about the references and inspirations to which he paid tribute as he brought the video game to the big screen.
Spinoff Online: How difficult is it today to be able to pull off all that practical stuff, particularly because it seems like a studio would go it’s not worth the risk for us to subject stuntmen, much less the actors, to what we can do in a computer?
Scott 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 [Gilbert, stunt coordinator] 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.
They absolutely do. But 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.
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 Gilbert] What were the speeds that Troy did it? 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.”
Aaron was talking about shooting the sequence on the bridge and how you were the guy behind the camera.
Yes, I was his cone that he wasn’t supposed to hit. 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 [Paul] 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 doing it, he felt that confidence. The first time he did it, he came up 10 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, right?” 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.
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.
Tell us about these Easter eggs. Is there a reference to Vanishing Point in the movie?
Oh, there are huge references to Vanishing Point and the Supersoul, basically that’s Michael Keaton. American Graffiti, the gag at the gas station. The Smokey and the Bandit car they blow by at 180 mph. 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?!”
And there’s the Act of Valor DVD.
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.
Need For Speed is in theaters now.