By Lindsey Bahr
Updated February 02, 2014 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

When Aaron Paul started preparing for Need for Speed, director Scott Waugh gave him one name to focus on: Steve McQueen.

The movie might take its name from a popular video game, but Waugh never saw it as a cynical cash grab — instead, he saw an “adaptation” as an opportunity to create an homage to classic ’60s and ’70s car flicks. Also, as Paul pointed out late last year in Los Angeles, they couldn’t have stuck to the video game even if they wanted to. “There’s no narrative there,” he said. “It was a blank canvas. All we needed to stick to was super fast cars.”

So, they started with McQueen.

Toby, Paul’s character, is the center of the story. A street-racing, gear-head to the core, Toby keeps a low profile till a lifelong rival (Dominic Cooper) frames him for a crime that lands him in prison. “Toby is just a good guy — the everyman,” said Paul. “He comes out of prison focused on trying to right this wrong with revenge on his mind.”

Acts two and three are pure action. “Scott wants the audience to feel like they are in the car with these characters. We use helmet cam shots so you feel like you’re actually behind the wheel — that’s one element that we took from the game,” said Paul. Another game element? The scenic locations. “He’s got to get from New York to California in 48 hours to compete in the race there. It’s a race to a race. He’s got to sneak across the country without getting caught because he’s on probation. He can’t fly, he can’t take trains,” said Waugh.

There’s a When Harry Met Sally element, too, says Waugh. In order to borrow a car, a high-end sales agent, Julia (Imogen Poots), must accompany him on his cross-country adventure to ensure the car is safe.

“I told [Paul], I think you’re the next Steve McQueen,” said Waugh. “The dudes love him and the women love him.” Paul was hesitant to make the same comparison, but, he did admit that despite his fondness for character parts, he enjoyed the departure. “I never thought of myself as being an action hero but it is a blast.”

Below, take a look at the film’s Super Bowl spot and an extended look.

Need for Speed hits theaters on March 14.

Need for Speed

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 131 minutes
  • Scott Waugh