When Aaron Paul received the script for Need for Speed, he had little interest in even reading it, let alone taking a starring a role in the movie.
He saw the title and immediately envisioned another poorly done video game adaptation. Or worse, a car film desperately trying to become a franchise.
“Let’s be honest – everyone going into this movie is going to expect to see something similar to Fast & Furious,” says Paul. “That’s fine, the Fast & Furious movies, they’ve made six of them, they are on the seventh, they are fun to watch, they are popcorn movies and I have nothing against them. But I didn’t want to jump into something like that.”
Paul ultimately decided to read the script, which is based on the popular EA Entertainment racing game, and found himself surprisingly intrigued by the story of a street racer framed for a crime he did not commit. He seeks his revenge while taking a cross-country trip in a custom-built Ford Mustang, which he hopes to enter in the illegal, underground street race De Leon.
Paul was hooked and signed on for the project in 2012, as he was preparing for his final season as Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad.
“I just had such a fun time reading this film, just flipping the pages,” he says. “It was just a fun ride and after doing a show for so long that I was so proud to be a part of, but it was also emotionally exhausting, just so heavy every single day, I wanted to do something that was a little bit lighter and this was that.”
The movie also features several European supercars – a Swedish Koenigsegg Agera R, Lamborghini, GTA Spano, Bugatti and McLaren P1, all of which are featured in the video game, as well as a Saleen S7 – and Paul got to do most of his own driving.
He trained at Willow Springs International Raceway, driving from Los Angeles before dawn for lessons that lasted up to 10 hours a day.
“From the moment the sun starts peeking up, I am there all day long, learning how to manoeuvre these cars,” Paul says. “It was learning how to get out of problematic situations, and then I go to learn how to do all the fun stuff: driving the car backward at really high speeds, flipping the car around in a reverse 180 and going through stunt courses. It was so much fun, I loved every minute of it, it never felt dangerous.”
Paul did many of his own stunts, but says professionals were brought in for “the real heavy lifting” and Paul was only in scenes where the driving didn’t exceed 209kph.
Scott Waugh, the former stunt man-turned-director, bills Need for Speed as an homage to classic car flicks, citing Bullitt, Vanishing Point and even Smokey and the Bandit as inspirations.
Waugh went into the film trying to give it a “Steve McQueen style of filmmaking”, such as when a camera would pull up right next to a car so the audience could see the McQueen in the driver’s seat. That was in his mind during casting when he first heard Paul’s name.
Waugh had never seen Breaking Bad and was unfamiliar with the two-time Emmy winner. But Paul was suggested to Waugh to play the villain, so he took a look.
“I didn’t even know who Aaron Paul was and everyone thought I was an alien on Earth,” Waugh says.
“Then I saw the tape of him and was so blown away. He was the obvious choice for the bad guy. But the more interesting choice, and the one that would define the movie, was the lead, and having him at the lead was the edgier choice. He’s not just a beautiful person, he’s so much more of an actor than that.”
So much so that Waugh sees Paul as a present-day McQueen.
“Aaron has this uncanny ability of portraying edge, mixed with charisma, mixed with humble and likeability and Steve really had that,” Waugh says.
Paul, who has several other projects due out this year and said he would consider a spot in the Bad-prequel Better Call Saul, isn’t sold on the McQueen comparisons.
“I don’t know how that makes me feel,” he says, laughing. “I love Steve McQueen and that’s very nice of [Waugh] to say, but I grew up loving and watching Bullitt and I remember my dad showing me Bullitt when I was a kid. If our director thinks that, I thank him. But I am definitely not claiming to be that.”
• Need for Speed is out tomorrow in UAE cinemas. Look out for our review in tomorrow’s edition of Arts&Life