Is Aaron Paul Racing Towards Becoming the Next Steve McQueen?

The director of the new Need For Speed talks about casting the "Breaking Bad" star, and why he wanted to make an action movie without special effects.

Scott Waugh viewed Need for Speed as more than just the latest Hollywood adaptation of a mindless video-game franchise.

Waugh grew up in a family of stuntmen and circus performers. His father, Fred, worked in Hollywood for more than four decades before turning to filmmaking, while Scott (Act of Valor) and his brother Ric (Snitch) have followed the same path. With an natural affinity for fast cars, along with an appreciation for the work of stuntmen, Waugh saw an opportunity to pay tribute to their craft, and to car-chase classics like Bullitt, The French Connection, and Smokey and the Bandit.

“These are legit movies that have stood the test of time,” Waugh said during a recent stop in Dallas. “We just wanted to pay homage to the greatest stuntmen in the world.”

Fred Waugh died shortly before production began on Need for Speed, but his legacy is felt through the use of an innovative helmet camera that he developed a generation ago. Scott used a lighter version of that on some driver point-of-view shots as part of a strategy to avoid special effects.

“We wanted to do what my dad always aspired to do because technology has finally caught up with us,” said Waugh, who said even the most elaborate chases and crashes featured authentic stunts. “I wasn’t about to smoke a $2.5 million car. We built kit cars with cages that were still really expensive, but I don’t do anything that’s computer-generated.”

The film follows Tobey (Aaron Paul), a mechanic and ex-con lured back to street racing by exacting revenge on Dino (Dominic Cooper), a former business partner who provides further motivation by causing a personal tragedy for Tobey and then framing him for the crime. Combine that with Tobey’s financial troubles and his desire to save his late father’s business, and he quickly rounds up his buddies, a rare and valuable Ford Mustang, to make last-minute entry in a lucrative, rules-free road race organized by an underground podcaster (Michael Keaton) on a rural California highway.

The lack of special effects presented some logistical challenges, and also required Paul to learn some basic stunts behind the wheel himself. Prior to filming, he spent many hours at Willow Springs International Raceway near Los Angeles, where he worked with instructors and stunt-driving veterans.

“I knew how to drive, but nothing like this,” said Paul, who counts a 1968 Ford Gran Torino as his favorite ride from the film. “I needed to get some serious seat time in these cars, learning how to get out of problematic situations, and then learning how to drift around corners and do reverse 180s. It was madness.”

Paul hopes the role will allow him to transition to leading-man status on the big screen after gaining clout from his role in the television series “Breaking Bad,” which ended its run last year.

Waugh said Paul’s popular role had nothing to do with his being cast in Need for Speed. Paul originally was considered to play the role of Dino, but both the director and executive producer Steven Spielberg felt he would be better suited as a hero than a villain.

“I wanted to find the next Steve McQueen,” Waugh said. “His name came up, but I had never watched ‘Breaking Bad.’ I saw some video on him, and knew he should play the lead.”

So he could act. But could he drive? Waugh said any such fears about Paul’s ability to handle all that horsepower subsided quickly.

“You never know with actors, how physically capable they are. Normally they need a stuntman to come in and do everything,” Waugh said. “On the first day of training, I came out at lunch because I was nervous. I asked the instructor how it was going. He said, ‘Well, if this acting s— don’t work out for him, he could be a stuntman.’ Then I watched, and I knew he had the gift.”paul