Justin Lin allows us to climb behind the wheel of his upcoming high-octane sequel
On April 3rd, both Paul Walker and Vin Diesel will return to the franchise that made them famous. The original cast behind The Fast and the Furious is teaming up with Tokyo Drift director Justin Lin for an all-new adventure that promises to be one of, if not the most, exciting films in this wildly popular series. Fast & Furious is a sleek, streamlined, retrofitted, Noz-injected thrill ride that guarantees to bring back the pulse-pounding excitement found in that initial first outing. Part VI follows the further adventures of agent Brian O'Conner (Walker). Recently released from his stint in prison, He must team up with ex-con and former BFF Dominic Toretto (Diesel) to infiltrate a heroin importer's crew and bring their entire drug smuggling operation to its knees. This incredible reunion will surely rock the foundation of all that has come before it. And it is certainly looking to be one of the best films of the spring break season.
Last April we were invited out to Stevenson Ranch, which rests on the northern hillside overlooking Los Angeles. There, we were allowed to watch Walker, Diesel, and director Justin Lin in action as they jumped behind the wheel of this crazy new endeavor. After a quick meal with some of the crew, we were transported to a flat peak on the hillside where new villain Fenix Rise's green Torino was parked, facing off against four other immaculate muscle cars. The mood on set was playful, and very open. Vin sat in his dust covered vintage racer, conversing with Laz Alonso (Fenix) about the various different ways they could run through this particular on screen moment. One of the first A.D.s was being terrorized by a fake plastic snake that another crewmember had dragged across the dusty ground. And the continuity department was arguing with the make-up department over the loss of tattoos on one of Fenix's thugs.
As described to us, the scene being shot was the confrontation leading up to the big, climactic fistfight between Vin's Dominic Toretto and Alsonso's Mohawk-sporting Rise. Agent O'Conner and Toretto have gone undercover and are now part of Rise's gang of drug running muscle car enthusiasts. This well-oiled machine has been smuggling cocaine and heroin through an underground tunnel between California and Mexico. Unbeknownst to O'Conner and Toretto, once they get their stash on the other side of the country, Rise is going to kill them. This is where Dom discovers that Fenix is responsible for Letty's death. Yes, in the very early stages of this latest sequel, Michelle Rodriguez's character is killed off to give the film some emotional resonance, and to give Dom a motive for helping O'Conner.
We sat and watched the numerous rehearsals. Four supped-up muscle cars came shooting out of the tunnel's mouth; stopping to rest in front of Fenix's beautifully restored green Torino. Each time the stunt drivers ran through this harrowing maneuver, DP Amir M. Mokri (National Treasure: Book of Secrets) and his crew would cut across the break between the line of cars, catching the action as the last racer came to a dust plooming stop. Once the action settled down, the stunt drivers and the actors would do a quick bait and switch, taking turns behind the wheel. Mokri, in a break between shots, mentioned that this particular scene was taking place on the U.S. side of the border. Someone yelled out, "Be quiet, all of yous!" But it was just a ruse to pull the fake snake back through the set. No one fell for it the second time.
A more intimate shot is quickly set up. It features Rise walking towards Dom's Chevellle. The dolly is pulled behind him, "Pull that bitch down, nigger! Pull that bitch down!" Fenix thrusts at the car. He walks to the side of Dom's window. All of the drivers step out of their cars. Diesel and Alonso sniff each other out like a couple of back alley dogs. Paul Walker is at the far end of the field, off camera but staying deep in character. Most of the dialogue is spoken out of earshot, so it's hard to hear what the two thugs are saying to each other. But it looks pretty intense. Vin hit his mark with a loud stomp, "So, this is where it happens!" We were quickly informed that this particular moment would be seen in the upcoming teaser trailer. Before fisticuffs are thrown, cut is called on set. It seems as though they are going to run through these two pages of script another twenty-times or more. Their goal is to find the right tone going into the big fight. There is a break in the action, and we soon found ourselves talking to the director of the film himself.
Justin Lin garnered critical praise in 2002 for his high school drama Better Luck Tomorrow. He soon followed that film up with the second Fast and Furious sequel Tokyo Drift, which moved the action to Japan. Now, he returns to helm the fourth installment, which was one of the deciding factors in getting the old gang back together. It was always his intention to keep this franchise going. And both Paul Walker and Vin Diesel insisted that he stand at the helm, "The third one was such a departure from the first two. With the exception of Vin showing up in that last scene. We explored similar themes. It was really exciting to get that call from Vin and Paul saying, 'Let's go do something!' What's cool is that, with the third one, I was able to take what was already there and put a new spin on it. Now, I am able to bring some of that energy back into the original storyline and continue on with it. I've had a great time, and with this one I was able to come in from the ground up. I was able to build it with everybody. That was pretty exciting."
Vin Diesel was the driving force behind getting this forth installment off the ground. About that, Lin assured us, "Vin was definitely part of the force. It was very organic in a way. I thought I'd go off and do a no budget movie after the third one. Maybe try different things. But I got that call. And this film was something we could all talk about, and figure out. It wasn't just a ticking time clock. I liked being able to do a studio film, and really talk things through. Figure out why we wanted to do it. And why everyone was coming back. There had to be a point to making a forth one. It was nice getting to talk with everybody in the cast about that."
The director continued to tell us how this fourth film came to fruition, "As a film viewer, I like sequels. And big popcorn movies. But I don't like those movies that take what is successful about a franchise, and then do it over and over again. No one wanted to do that hear. It was exciting, because we were taking this theme. What does family mean? We were trying to take that idea further. We wanted to meet up with these characters, and acknowledge the time that has passed. Figure out where they are now. It was exciting to take that theme of family, and move it further. We get to discover the true meaning of sacrifice."
Lin went on to talk about how the action sequences in Fast & Furious would be different from the previous three films, "Its funny. This has been a very interesting franchise. It has gone all over the place. It is very post-modern in its own way. For me, it was important to choose the right cars, and choose the right colors, and to really support the characters that we have. Paul is a big car guy. His input was very important. We had hours and hours of conversations on why we were doing this. For me, what is exciting is to go old school. We want to support the people we met in the first film, and the overall theme. It's not about showing off. We don't need cameras going somewhere that is impossible. I had fun with the last one making sure that all of the cars could do all of the gags that we wanted. Its great to again apply that. But at the end of the day it's about serving the dramatic beats."
With part four, Vin is serving as both an actor and a producer. Justin talked about working with the man on set, saying, "It's a very delicate relationship. The fact that he is an actor, producer, and a director now allows me to enjoy the process more. Being a good producer means hiring someone that has the same point of view about what your movie is going to be. You have to trust that person. I always welcome everyone's ideas. But I am the person they have hired to steer this thing. When I talk about sacrifice and theme; that is what I am going to bring to it. I am the designer of the film. And that idea is going to be at the center of all of our conversations. Even when we disagree, the producer has to fight a good fight. At the end of the day, you have to go with the director."
After chatting with Lin, we were formally introduced to Laz Alonso. Laz plays the villainous Fenix Rise, giving Vin Diesel a new outlet for his aggression. During the scene we watched being filmed, Alonso had a bit of trouble with is lines. He explained it, saying, "Hey, man! You stand in front of Vin Diesel and we'll see how you come out with your lines." He was joking, of course. "This scene that we are shooting tonight is a really tough scene. During the entire film, Vin's character Dom is playing a different character in order to infiltrate my cartel. I am the muscle. But I am also pretending to be one of the workers. I am just like them. I just happened to know the boss. This scene is where everyone's true nature comes to light. This is where everyone sheds their mask and shows who they really are. Right now we are trying to find the best way to do it. We want it to be as real and as conformational as possible. Because this scene leads up to our fight."
About Laz's fight scene with Vin, the actor says, "We go all the way, man. I take away the most important person left in Dom's life. Because of that, Dom has dedicated his whole mission to finding out who this person is. Five minutes before we confront each other, he actually finds out that I am the guy responsible for killing Letty. That becomes the objective of the scene. He wants me to come clean on what I've done. There wasn't really a problem with the dialogue. We were trying to find a tone. Vin is a man's man. Coming from the streets, and having worked in New York City nightclubs, where he has had to deal with tough people on a day-to-day basis, he knows when a face off is real. And when it is artificial. How many times have you seen a scene in a film that just feels contrived? You just expect certain things to happen. Vin is very meticulous in finding those real moments. We are working together as a team to make this moment as authentic as possible. There is a lot of trial and error. We are just playing with it. We are coming up with different ideas and different approaches so that it rings true. And is something special."
What is Laz doing with his character to make him more than the typical thug? "I am trying to be sincere. A lot of the time, when we are playing bad guys, we, as actors, like to get into bad guy mode. In real life, bad people do good things. And good people do bad things. I don't necessarily have to be the stereotypical bad guy to still do bad things. When you really are someone that believes in something that you are doing, the whole bad thing goes away. You are not seeing it as bad. You are seeing it as something that you have to do. So, I do A, B, and C. Period. There is nothing good or bad about it. It's a different perspective. You justify it and make it okay. That's the fun part about this character. I am not playing him bad. I am playing him sincere. This scene that we are shooting tonight is the first time that I am shedding my mask. Prior to this, I was trying to befriend them. I am being cool with them. I am being nice."
What does Laz think of Fenix's look? "Well, we started off with a lot of different Mohawks. We started off with the faux hawk. That thing was too stylish. It was too Hollywood, teetering on West Hollywood. That didn't look like someone that could take on Vin Diesel. So we said to Hell with it. We just went the UFC route. After I shaved the sides, I went to a party. And all of these people wanted to take a picture with me. I'm like, 'Wow!' They recognize me? I'll take it. But the whole time, they were thinking I was some UFC guy. So it worked. The hair jars people. It changes things a little bit. It helps put me into character. I didn't want a manicured Mohawk. It's the kind of thing I wake up and go over with a razor myself. There is something carefree about it. It helps me be completely different. I give a lot of props to the make-up department too. It's not just the Mohawk. They have darkened up my eyes. On camera, they look sunken in. Like I need some serious sleep. I am not doing this alone. I have the help of some really talented people. They give me a sense that this guy has been through some shit."
After talking with Laz, we were introduced to Dennis McCarthy. He supplies all of the vehicles for the film. He explained the process, saying, "Basically it starts off with the script. There are references to what kinds of cars are being used in any scene. If there isn't, I will bring in a selection to choose from. I am a car hunter."
What does McCarthy look for in a car? "This one was easy. I just needed to find Vin Diesel's Chevellle. The end of the first film had Diesel in a Red 70s Chevellle heading into Mexico. That was an established car. So that was a given. The Charger that he drives is an easy one. The car that Letty crashes in? That was the car you see Vin Diesel race in Tokyo Drift. There was some tie in with that one. The Fenix car was one I saw at a show. It is a Ford 72 Torino. A company called Pure Vision built that car. I showed it to the producers, and they liked it. Paul Walker's car, based on the script, is something that is often seen driving in the dirt. He is often seen taking off down dirt roads. There is a lot of off road stuff. And they didn't want to give him a muscle car. So that narrowed it down to only one rally car that would work. It had to be a Subaru."
How has the technology changed as far as the cars go? McCarthy explains, "The muscle cars are great for us. If they break, you can fix it right on set. If the Subaru goes out, it's a technology issue. You can try to change out the parts, but in this case, they gave us seven cars. If one breaks, we can just slide the other one into its place. We always have several cars for each character. It all depends on the action. For Vin's character, we have seven Chevelles. We have five chargers. We have six Torinos. They come in multiples."
How does McCarthy gather his cars for the film, you might wonder? "We go on Craig's List. We go on Ebay. We hit the classified. I will actually send guys to car shows. We have a guy that goes out to the Pomona Car Show every Sunday to see what they've got. We have a lot of fairly rare muscle cars that are hard to find. And we do not tell a lot of the sellers that we are buying these cars for a movie. Eventually, we have to. Because the check comes from Universal. But you never mention that in the negotiation stages. Sometimes they wont sell it to you, because these cars are there babies. A majority of these cars won't make it out of here in one piece. There are some cars that I am really fond of. Its hard to watch them get destroyed."
But what happens to the cars once McCarthy is done with them? "Most of them get destroyed. The ones that survive are used for publicity. They get taken on tours and various car shows, and publicity outings. A lot of them wind up at the Universal City Tour. There are quite a few at their Fast and Furious attraction. There are some in Orlando as well." Does that mean the cars don't get recycled from film to film? "The original cars just aren't around. Some are on display, but you can't use those. It would have been great if all the cars were preserved and ready to go. But that just wasn't the case."
McCarthy told us about Paul Walker's automobile knowledge, and how he helps out with the technical aspect of things on the set, "He's great to have around. He knows a tremendous amount about the cars, and he knows how to drive them. He is very involved with a lot of the technical aspects of the movie. He knows exactly what he is talking about. He loves to come by the garage and help us out. He loves working on the cars. He races cars. I think its great for the film, because it adds an element of realism. Every little aside came from him. These were things that he wanted to talk about."
After chatting with McCarthy, we were ushered back to the food area to talk with Paul Walker himself. You can read that interview in an upcoming set report. Fast & Furious is set for release on April 3rd, 2009, and it should be the perfect kick-start to your spring break weekend!