If New York is the city that doesn’t sleep, then Detroit is clearly the city that should be put to sleep. As I look out the window of the bus taking this small group of journalists from the airport to downtown, I notice “For Sale” signs on top of almost every major building within view of the freeway. Layers upon layers of graffiti and street art adorn abandoned warehouses and factories that would have long ago been converted into lofts if the buildings were anywhere but here. These are not great days to be from Detroit, but for film producers, Detroit has become the world’s most convenient backlot.
During the summer of last year, the city of Detroit saw multiple films come into town to take advantage of its less than busy metro area to film. While the clearly high crime and homelessness rates have led to a lot of panhandling and warnings about where to walk at night, the hauntingly beautiful, abandoned art deco architecture and easily disguised exteriors make the city ideal for film crews to set up shop. Detroit has plenty of empty locations waiting to be turned into America’s past, fill in for the cities of our present, and, in some cases, give an all too real look at its bleak future.
We’re in town to visit the set of DreamWorks’ Aaron Paul-starring Need for Speed. It only seems appropriate that a film focused on fast cars and starring a customized Ford Mustang named Beauty would set up shop for at least a few days in the Mordor City… I mean, Motor City. As we head from our hotel to the Campus Martius Park, the Michigan humidity is already making breathing a chore. Like Navy SEALs on a submersible oil rig, those who have been here before are coaching me through acclimating to the oppressive midwest air. It’s true that we have smog in L.A., but at least smog has the decency to be dry.
As we enter the park we can see the film crew busy getting the area ready to shoot. The scenes being shot today involve Aaron Paul’s character Marshall building up his reputation in the underground street racing scene by pranking cops with his vehicular prowess. Paul’s character hopes to gain access to an exclusive underground race in the hopes of getting revenge against those responsible for his incarceration. The traffic loop surrounding Campus Martius is a perfect playground for municipal vehicular mayhem, as it wraps around the park and its famous bronze Civil War Memorial statue. Traffic from five major Detroit thoroughfares spills into the circle.
For a film set in a downtown area, Need for Speed‘s location shoot is incredibly quiet. Detroit’s downtown is almost undisturbed by the street closures the studio has been allotted. The occasional office worker comes to the window of his or her building looking over the set to snap a picture of the guy from Breaking Bad, which is made all the more interesting as onlookers also snap photos of Mr. Paul’s stand-in. But the headache of a film shoot doesn’t seem to be jostling Detroit all that much. Need for Speed has been shooting all over the country to get practical car chases at venues from Atlanta to San Francisco. It would almost be sacrilege to make a film like that and not include Detroit, the home of American muscle.
The location filming behind Need for Speed is courtesy of director Scott Waugh. Waugh is a second-generation stunt man and second-time director, having made his debut with 2012’s Act of Valor. In a bit of trivia, Waugh was actually the stunt double for Rufio on the set of Hook. On location shooting, the director told us, “When I met with DreamWorks, I said to them, ‘I want to be where we say we are. I don’t like to cheat. The subtleties of the geographies really lend to the story, and this is a cross-country movie. We need to go cross country. We’re not going to cheat and do it all in one state just because there are tax benefits.’ So I pushed hard to get every city we say we are in. That again lends itself to a lot of logistical nightmares, because we travel so much on the show, but I think the environments are great. Like Detroit, it’s the ‘Motor City.'”
Shooting on location wasn’t the only area of production Waugh wanted to make sure was authentic. Before the first shots of the day, we asked producer Mark Sourain what kind of tone the movie would have: Bullitt or Fast and Furious? “It is 100 percent more Bullitt.” he responded. “In fact that’s the movie that Scott references all the time, specifically Bullitt. For him it was like if you watch Bullitt, there’s Steve McQueen driving the car. You know it’s him. You’re not cutting away from Steve McQueen so that you can replace the stunt driver with Steve McQueen. So again, what was so important in this whole process was that Scott had the experience of being a stuntman and knew how to do it safely but effectively. So Steve McQueen and Bullitt was an absolute model for us. And so most of the stunts are real. They just are. And in fact, I’ve always joked around like maybe at the end we need to show images of the cars getting wrecked or things happening to the cars so that people know how real this is. I mean because there was a part of me that’s like I hope people know – there’s a whole generation that’s grown up with CGI.”
Bullitt wasn’t the director’s only inspiration though. In addition to Bullitt, Waugh cited films as diverse as Smokey and the Bandit to the French Connection. “For me growing up in the ’70s, I was so amazed at the car movies of [that time]. You’re talking late ’60s – The French Connection [actually 1971], Grand Prix – none of these great movies have CG, it was all real… Smokey and the Bandit. You keep going down all of these fun movies that I feel like we don’t do that anymore, and it’s became a big CG ride, and I pride myself on trying to do everything in camera and I just wanted to have a throwback movie to the great car movies that I loved. It was always like, you go back to Bullitt with Steve McQueen and that great car chase that we still quote today. That was 1968 when the movie was shot, and one of the things that was so great about that sequence, what I was talking to Steven [Spielberg] about, was the actors need to drive, and that’s what was so cool about Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen did all of his stunts. I said, ‘Whoever we get, we’ve got to train so they can do all of their driving.'”
The “whoever they got” was Aaron Paul. Fresh off his run as America’s magnet-loving sweetheart Jesse Pinkman, Paul is looking dapper in his leather jacket and skinny jeans on the set this morning. The quietly charming Paul gives off none of the paranoid intensity that sold Pinkman as a meth addict on Breaking Bad. He’s genuinely surprised when one of the reporters remembers his performance in an early 2000s teen film, and appreciative when they add that they loved him in it. As for getting behind the wheel, “In terms of driving, they had me do just a stunt course outside of Los Angeles. It’s mostly to teach me how to get out of problematic situations if something were to go wrong in the car. I learned how to drift around corners, do reverse 180s and 360s. I don’t why they had me learn that. I don’t do it in the film. But it was badass.”
Scott is a little more effusive about Paul’s abilities behind the wheel, “We were lucky enough to get Aaron Paul to be the lead in this movie, and then when I was talking to Aaron, I said, ‘Hey, one of my prerequisites is you need to drive. We need to teach you to really drive.’ I think that was like feeding a kid candy, you know? He was like ‘Sure!’ And my dad worked with Steve, so I have very fond memories of him, and he was an extremely talented race car driver, and Aaron actually has that quality. We put him in the car for the first day, and I told him, ‘Hey, if this acting shit doesn’t work out for you, you could be a stunt man,’ because he’s so good and he learned so quickly. He really has those indicative qualities that Steve possessed when he was alive.”
In today’s scenes Aaron will be hopping behind the wheel of what is arguably the film’s bigger star, Beauty, a custom built Ford Mustang. “The Mustang is amazing,” Paul says. And who wouldn’t be excited, considering what he’s gotten to do behind the wheel of it? “I do drive fast. I’ve probably gone, maybe on camera, 120. And it’s legal and I’m flying by cop cars. It’s so great.”
When talking with Waugh about what customizations he had done to the Mustang, he makes it clear it was built from the ground up by Ford for the film. “Ford was really, really behind the movie, and it’s been a great collaboration with them. We really sat down together and designed the car and paid a lot of attention to subtle details. We wanted it to be futuristic, but actually reality-based, so there are a lot of things technology-wise that still feel like modern muscle and power. But there’s some electronics things that we do in the car that I think are really cool. I’m projecting personally where I think cars are going, and they actually are. During the year we’ve been developing, I’m starting to see things that are in this movie come to fruition, probably in 2015-16.”
As to the specifics of what he had in mind for the car, the director expounded, “It’s more of a race design, so we flared out the body to give it more of a wider stance, which always lends to better performance. We put a massive horsepower engine in it and a lot more aerodynamics, because aerodynamics keep the car down. When you start traveling at about 150 mph, the car wants to lift off the ground. so it’s really important to get the aerodynamics right, so the wind flows through the car rather than underneath and up. So we spent a lot of time working on the geometry to get like the super cars. They spend so much time on aerodynamics, and that’s what we did with Ford.”
Seeing the car in action is something else entirely, though. After a day filled with hurry-up-and-wait, lots of resetting, and some oppressive summer heat, we were ready for some excitement. In the scene being filmed, Aaron is goading an Indiana State Police Officer into chasing him on the streets of Detroit. From behind video village I can see the large amount of coverage the stunt is getting. A unique camera set-up in the Mustang gives an over-the-shoulder, from-the-car shot that gives the viewer the feeling of being behind the wheel. And, according to Paul, it’s hoped that it recreates the vibe of the video game upon which the film is based: “There have been so many Need For Speed games, but there’s no narrative. It’s truly a blank canvas for the writers. You’ll see when you watch the film that you actually feel like you’re behind the wheel. For a lot of the camera angles, you feel like you’re actually driving the car. It kind of makes you feel like you’re in the game in a way.”
As the Mustang revs its engine and prepares for the word “go”, everyone’s attention falls to the scene that’s about to unfold. The police cruiser pulls alongside Beauty and pleasantries are exchanged, then suddenly the sound of tires squealing against the pavement cuts through the quiet June afternoon. The direction the Mustang is driving makes for all left turns around the loop, with the rear end of the Mustang swerving wide to the right in what an uninformed onlooker would think is an out-of-control manner. On the monitors I see the opposite. The stunt driver behind the wheel is controlling every inch of movement, as the in-car cameras show him deftly commanding all of the things that need to happen to put the car into a controlled slide.
Bystander cars are sprinkled throughout the route around the loop with both Beauty whipping around them with flair and a police cruiser just behind getting the job done of making the Mustang look good. After two loops around, the car comes to a halt where she started and the director cuts. The stunt went flawlessly, but in the interest of getting options and with how relatively smoothly the first take went, the crew resets to go again. For this run, the driver of the car sustains his skid going into the first turn and drifts it around the turn. The rear end of the car comes within a foot of one of the bystander vehicles. Onlookers audibly gasp, but the producers are all smiles as they watch how beautifully their automotive ballet is working on-screen.
The director, producer and stars all say Need for Speed is following in the spirit of Bullitt, The French Connection and even Smokey and the Bandit. All of the films are held in high regard for their incredible car chases and rebellious heroes. They were also films that showed us their city. Detroit may not be much to look at now, but it is a cheap, empty, practical filming location that makes room for incredible car chases and rebellious heroes. I look forward to revisiting it from the comfort of a theater when Need for Speed comes out on March 14th.