When Aaron Paul received the script for "Need for Speed," he had very little interest in even reading the story, 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.
"When I saw 'Need for Speed,' I just instantly thought this is a 'Fast & Furious' rip-off. This is going to be God awful," Paul said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Let's be honest — everyone going into this movie is going to expect to see something similar to 'Fast & Furious.' 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 didn't commit. He seeks his revenge while taking a cross-country trip in a custom-built Ford Mustang, which he hopes to enter in underground and illegal street race called the De Leon.
Paul was hooked and signed on for the project in 2012, as he was preparing for his final season as Jesse Pinkman in "Breaking Bad."
"I just had such a fun time reading this film, just flipping the pages," he said. "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."
Paul got his wish in a campy film with cliche-filled dialogue and a predictable plot. But the movie also features several European super cars — 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 maneuver these cars," Paul said. "It started out learning how to get out of problematic situations, and then I got 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 said professionals were brought in for "the real heavy lifting" and Paul was only in scenes where the driving didn't exceed 130 mph. Scott Waugh, the former stunt man-turned-director, insisted that all the action sequences and wrecks be done live and did not rely on the use of CGI or a green screen.
Both Paul and Waugh bill "Need for Speed" as an homage to classic car flicks. They cite "Bullitt" and "Vanishing Point" and even "Smokey & The Bandit" as inspirations.
So Waugh went into the film trying to give it a "Steve McQueen style of filmmaking," as in when a camera would pull up right next to a car in a McQueen film so the audience could see the actor 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 Paul, a two-time Emmy winner for his role as Pinkman. 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 said. "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 as 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 likability and Steve really had that," Waugh said. "Steve was such a man's man and he was also a ladies' man. I remember seeing Steve at motocross, his hair would be disheveled, mud all over him, and he didn't care who was looking at him. It's that ego-less attitude that Steve had that Aaron really has in his natural life."
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 laughed. "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 and Steve McQueen was just a bad-ass. If our director thinks that, I thank him. But I am definitely not claiming to be that."