Fast 9 director Justin Lin on the film, its working class edge, and looking back at the safe moment of Fast & Furious 5.
Director Justin Lin’s been making Fast & Furious movies for the best part of 15 years, yet his enthusiasm for smashing cars into one another – and telling epic tales of outlaw heroes forging makeshift family units – remains seemingly undiminished. Certainly, it sounded as though Lin, having joined the franchise with 2006’s Tokyo Drift, was content to leave all the vehicular mayhem behind when he finished Fast & Furious 6 in 2013.
But now he’s back with F9, a sequel that continues to up the stakes both in terms of action – expect lots of collapsing bridges, cars flung around by giant magnets, and John Cena dangling over Edinburgh on a zip wire – and earnest melodrama.
Beneath all the absurdly over-the-top stunts, though, the franchise’s core remains: this is, as Lin himself puts it, a series of films about and for “kids from the other side of the tracks”. With this in mind, we wanted to pick Lin’s brains about the franchise’s enduring worldwide appeal, his attitude to stunts and visual effects, and the legacy of Fast Five’s unforgettable climactic action scene, where a gigantic safe full of cash was dragged through Rio like a wrecking ball. Here’s what he had to say…
F9’s one of those films that’s best enjoyed with a big crowd in a cinema, which feels great after the pandemic left theatres shut for so long. Is it gratifying for you to see a crowd’s reaction to the film after working on it for years?
Yeah, obviously our world has altered so much in the past year and a half. So for me personally to realise that one of the things I took for granted was, sometimes on a Wednesday or a Thursday night, I need a break. I could go to the cinema, connect with strangers, and escape for a couple of hours, you know? I’d definitely been taking that for granted, and I have a craving for that. So for us to be able to watch it in a theatre with everybody, I have a new appreciation for it. Especially making Fast movies – it’s something we take to heart. From the very first conversation with Vin [Diesel], we connected over our love, our experiences, throughout our lives with these shared moments [in the cinema].
I think, when we make these, hopefully people can enjoy them in whatever medium they like, but we always want them to engage in the cinemas.
This is the fifth film in the series you’ve made, if I can count. So how do you keep it fresh for yourself? Was being involved in the writing process part of that?
I feel like I’ve grown up making these movies. It’s been great, because coming from the indie world, and then being part of a franchise, and help evolve it and grow it… but also behind the camera, I’ve really been able to grow, and have the shared experience with the cast and the crew. I’ve realised, being away [from the franchise] how special that is, especially in Hollywood. I felt like, in between these movies, I’ve been able to try something completely different, and then come back, but also not do the same thing again. We can revisit these characters, who are older and have evolved. But they’re going to have new adventures and themes for them to explore. So it doesn’t feel like doing the same thing over and over.
And so being away, I thought I was gone for good, but Vin and the studio, they’ve been so gracious and always checking in, that when the idea of exploring family, but through blood, but then also the opportunity of doing that is, 20 years in, we can go back and dig into the mythology and solidify it, in-canon… that to me made it feel different and fresh. I think the sibling brother aspect – I have two brothers, so it hit close to home. It was something I thought would be exciting to at least explore that in this new chapter.
There’s a long lineage now, like you say. So how do you feel your filmmaking style’s changed over those 15 years? Do you feel like you’ve evolved as a filmmaker?
For sure. It’s interesting, because when I started, I didn’t grow up wanting to make action movies. Just to be able to tell stories in a two-hour fashion is exciting. So learning the logistics of it, and trying to make sure we can create a process and ultimately a culture in how we do things behind the camera, that was definitely… I wouldn’t say a struggle, but it was an evolution. To get to a point where there’s now a very smooth way of communicating.
The struggle is, you always want to make sure every dollar is being put on screen, and to do that sometimes, the filmmaker’s put under pressure. You’re shooting multiple units and trying to make sure it’s fully consistent in terms of the language you’re developing. I’m really proud to have gone through that, and now have a process that I feel like, I can have a crew halfway around the world, but at 3am I’m talking about what a character’s going through to the stunt driver, versus how the camera needs to be moving… That definitely took time to make sure we got that. It’s something I feel like we’ve earned, and I can’t wait to keep pushing.
This film, especially, there are so many different types of action in it. You have car chases, fist fights… Is there one element out of those that stands out as being more tricky than the others? Is it the huge chase sequences, or actually, is it something smaller that people wouldn’t necessarily think of?
The big action sequences are very involved. Any idea takes eight to 14 months to figure out the strategy, how we’re going to bring it to life.
Obviously, with this kind of support – and I have the best crew in the world – by the time we shoot it, we’ve done multiple tests, and we know we can do it safe. It is pretty spot on in terms of how we do it. But the challenge for this franchise is the characters – making sure that hopefully there’s an emotional connection. On this one particularly, making sure that a three-year-old believes that Dominic Toretto is his father is a bigger challenge on the day when there’s 200 crew members around! You have to make sure this kid feels fully supported. That, to me, is a bigger challenge than those big set-pieces, because those things we’ve had a year, year and-a-half to prep.
Can you talk me through one of the sequences with the giant magnets? You have a car being pulled into the side of a truck and flung around. It’s difficult to tell what’s CGI and what isn’t, so how much practical stuntwork went into that, would you say?
Through time, as a filmmaker, we all have the same ingredients. There’s no right or wrong. But for me, personally, I feel we should do everything practical. I think in the example you’ve brought up, which is the red car going through the building, we could’ve easily done that CG, but the idea, subjectively – what does that really mean? I decided, no, the way we do it is, we figure out how to do it for real. And so it took eight months to prep it, to build different sets, and to actually drag a car through… we ended up having to use three cars just to make that four-second shot come to life. But it really helped inform articulation, it helped inform interaction between objects.
I like it, because a lot of the time when you make these films, by the time you shoot it versus when you’re in the cutting room, six months have passed. And I like to have point of reference, so having practical action, seeing how the light is touching [an object] – to me it makes the conversation much more focused. There is no guessing. We are going off things that are being photographed.
On that note, one of the things I liked was that you used young actors – real actors – to play the younger Vin Diesel and John Cena characters, rather than digital de-ageing. The latter’s quite fashionable among some filmmakers. Did you have conversations in pre-production as to which route to take?
Yup. Very much so. I feel like, a lot of the times, the go-to is, “Well, let’s de-age our actors,” you know. I felt like, with this, I didn’t want it to feel like we’d touched the footage. I wanted to feel like it was shot period appropriate. I think even in the design of the sequences, I was adamant that our camera moves are consistent with what was available then, right down to aerial shots, where I was loosening the gyro up just so it feels of the period. So it felt wrong that, if you’re watching these sequences, that you’re so aware that we’re de-ageing actors. It felt like it would defeat the whole purpose of why we had these sequences.
Obviously, in cinema history, we’ve seen great films where different actors play characters at different ages, and I wanted to have faith in that. So it was an amazing adventure – Vinnie Bennet, from New Zealand, like, I didn’t know we’d find someone in New Zealand who could bring the young Dominic Toretto to life. Finn Cole, I didn’t know if he’d have the mannerisms [of John Cena]. To me, it was much more interesting to work on that with different actors on those performances.
It became a very organic conversation, but very quickly, I felt that in terms of why we wanted to do it, that is the only way.
One of the things that I appreciate about the Fast series, is the sort of ‘working class sticking it to the rich guys’ theme. There’s a line in this film about it being the rich pricks that rule the world. Do you think that’s one of the unspoken keys to the franchise’s success?
We talked about it. Michelle [Rodriguez], when we do interviews, she talks about this a lot. She feels that these are characters that represent the kids on the other side of the tracks.
To me, it was interesting, because I never really thought about our connection. For me, being Asian-American, working-class, coming up through Sundance, I never thought I’d be making big-budget movies. Then I meet Vin, and he went through Sundance, and he tells stories of when he was a bouncer, but he loved acting. But people were like, “You’re not a leading actor!” And Michelle has her own story.
So in a way we all found each other, so when we put these films together, we very much try to draw from our roots, and bring a sensibility that’s not false. That’s true to everyone’s background. I don’t even know that it was by design. But even talking to Sung [Kang, who plays Han], he grew up in the South, in Georgia, somehow we found each other. Tyrese [Gibson, who plays Roman], he’s from South Central Los Angeles. All of us, we found each other. So I think that’s one thing – whenever we get together, we try very hard not to forget that. But I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to do this – we know each other so well, we know when it’s right, and we know when it’s false. Part of this 20-year journey is to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.
It’s ten years, already, since Fast Five, which is the film that took the franchise into the stratosphere, in a way. What are your memories, ten years on, of making the safe sequence? At the time, it felt like quite a funny, powerful image of the world after the financial crisis – money literally used like a wrecking ball. I wondered if that was a conscious choice?
We tried to. A lot of times, when we make these films, aside from the writing, I get together with Vin, and we really talk about the state of us, the state of the world, and it’s those discussions that has a tonal effect on each chapter.
I remember I flew to New York and there was a Wall Street… everybody was camped out in protest there, and that was 2009, 2010. It was definitely something we were conscious of, you know? It’s amazing, we’ve found a process where we talk about things like that, kind of let it go, and then it finds its way into our development and creative process without us trying to put things in there.
But in that case it was very conscious. When it comes to the vault, it was a very pivotal moment in the process, because I think the vault probably had the same reaction as [spoiler for a major scene in F9], right? People were like, “Wait, you’re going to drag a vault through the street with two cars?” [Laughs] And it’s a case of working through that process and going, “Yeah, we’re gonna commit to this”. Not only that, but “Why don’t we build a steel box, and actually do it for real and see what happens?”
We actually did a test in Puerto Rico, and it was taking out sidewalks, just because of the momentum you generate. And it really set the tone in how we do this thing. Let’s always do these things practically. We have all these tools to help us, but let’s really use those tools as a supporting element to the point of origin.
Justin Lin, thank you very much.
Fast & Furious 9 is now in UK cinemas.
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