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Action comes fast in Need for Speed, but director Scott Waugh injects drama as well

Stuntman-turned director Scott Waugh tells Kavita Daswani how a strong human drama lies at the heart of his latest film, which pays homage to 1960s and 1970s car culture

 

WHEN NEWS of the making of Need for Speed first got out, the comparisons to The Fast and the Furious were almost instantaneous. That is no surprise, as it featured illegal street racing, a band of wise-cracking, good-hearted lads who know their cars and are eternally loyal to one another, plenty of speedy action, beautiful women and broken hearts.

But mention those comparisons to stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh, and he immediately shuts it down. "I wasn't even looking at The Fast and the Furious", he declares. "This is a homage to 1960s and 1970s car culture."

The car culture genre is a storied one, albeit one neglected in a landscape heavy on computer-generated special effects. As his reference points, Waugh went back to action thriller Vanishing Point (1971) and Hal Needham's Smokey and the Bandit, a 1977 action comedy starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field.

"I asked myself, 'Why did those movies work, and what do we still remember about them?' It's because they are real and it's all motor noise and not a music video," Waugh says.

Need for Speed is based on a popular video game - not exactly a pedigreed start to a film. But there is little real connection between the film and the game. Starring Aaron Paul - from the dark hit TV series Breaking Bad, which ended last year - the film revolves around themes of revenge and redemption, but is surprisingly good-natured at its core.

There might be plenty of racing, and some serious damage inflicted on a great many cars, but it still possesses heft and substance.

The Idaho-born Paul plays Tobey Marshall, who runs his late father's small town car mechanic business, alongside a charismatic band of buddies who would do just about anything for one another. One day tragedy strikes, and Marshall ends up serving time for a crime he didn't commit. When he is released, he is geared up for revenge.

That would be formulaic fare, were it not for some compelling performances. Paul shows that his two Emmys for Breaking Bad were not a fluke, leading lady Imogen Poots is winsome and engaging, and Michael Keaton brings weight to his portrayal of the organiser of a big-ticket exclusive street race. Dakota Johnson - the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith - is endearing as a small town girl who made some poor choices, while Dominic Cooper is effective as a slick car dealer.

Despite the many collisions and shots of cars flying over cliffs and dangling from aircraft, Need for Speed has an underlying sweetness and old-fashioned charm.

"When I read the script, I was surprised by the humanity that was in it," Waugh says. "I always gravitate towards that. Action movies for action's sake bore me; if there's a great human story in it, that's more compelling. I fell in love with Tobey's character, what he represented and the fact that he was real."

The script for this DreamWorks Pictures production was penned by George and John Gatins, brothers who have also written movies such as Flight and Real Steel. DreamWorks' principal partner, Steven Spielberg, had a lot of input, specifically on the choice of Paul.

"When I saw this on my desk, I really didn't expect much from it," the film's leading man says. "I figured it was just another video game adaptation. But I read it, and I was pleasantly surprised. I was instantly invested in these characters. I loved the story, as it was such a fun ride. I was doing something very heavy for so many years, and I wanted to do something that was light. There are some heavy moments, but not many."

Need for Speed was shot in a number of US states - including Michigan, Arizona and California - and it plays out like an old-fashioned road movie with snazzy cars. Paul did as much of his own driving as was safe. Waugh brings his years working as a stuntman to the fore in his role as a director. His late father, Fred Waugh, is often called "the original Spider-Man" on the back of his sterling stunt work on The Amazing Spider-Man television series. He also worked on films such as Last Action Hero and Minority Report.

The younger Waugh grew up around directors including Oliver Stone, Michael Bay, Michael Mann and Spielberg, and he learned as much as he could about the art of filmmaking. In 2005, he retired from stunt work to direct commercials for cars and video games.

In 2012, he directed his first feature film, Act of Valor, which starred real-life US Navy Seals. The low-budget movie went on to make more than US$80 million at box offices worldwide.

"That film was really my coming out to Hollywood, to show them what I was capable of as an action director," says Waugh. "But I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a military action guy. I knew I wanted to do a car movie next, using everything I know about cars."

As a keen fan of drama, the filmmaker says he wanted to buffer the hardcore action in Need for Speed with some emotional moments. The film's cinematography has a surprisingly intimate feel. "I find that what separates me from all other directors is I am the only one who has done stunts," he says.

"I believe that we're only as good as the experiences we've had in life, and I've been so fortunate to have these crazy experiences, things I've seen with my own eyes - things like men on fire, and jumping off high ledges. I'm trying to bring my viewpoint to my films, so audiences can experience what I have seen.

"That's why the camera angles in this movie seem more immersive - I want audiences to see things the same way."

48hours@scmp.com

 

Need for Speed opens on March 13

 

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