In a lot of ways, James Wan was an unlikely candidate to take the reins for the seventh installment of the Fast and Furious series. The Australian filmmaker is best known as a horror director, having helmed Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring, and it was surprising when Wan was announced as the successor to Justin Lin, who directed the past four films in the series. As it turns out, Wan’s background in capturing the extraordinary made him perfect for the high-octane action of Furious 7, which drastically amps up the stakes. Cars parachute out of a plane onto a steep mountain highway, a massive car chase/brawl breaks out all over downtown Los Angeles, and Paul Walker and Vin Diesel drive a sports car out of the penthouse of a Abu Dhabi skyscraper. It’s the sort of movie that leaves your mouth agape and requires a true suspension of disbelief, which is exactly what Wan hoped to achieve.
The director, who completed the film after Walker’s untimely death using stand-ins and composite digital effects, also focused on staying as true to the franchise’s characters as possible, always reminding himself that they needed to feel like real people. At a recent press junket for the film, which is out April 3, Wan discussed the challenges involved with capturing massive action sequences and how much Furious 7 feels like a comic book movie.
When you found out you’d be directing Furious 7 how much pressure did you feel to top what had been done in the previous movies?
For me, it wasn’t so much about topping anything. It was “Okay, so I’m trying to come up with stuff I haven’t seen before myself.” And I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I had to go that extra mile to do it for me.
What’s an example of something in this movie you’d never seen before?
There are quite a few different set pieces I haven’t seen before. Obviously, I haven’t seen cars falling out of the back of a plane like that, falling like rockets. The bus sequence as well. I remember telling my crew when we were first designing that armored bus vehicle that they were hijacking, “Think of it as a pirate ship. Traveling through the ocean with the cannons out the side.” That was something that I thought was really cool. Even little things, in the fights for example. We’ve seen Michelle [Rodriguez] fight in these films before, like the previous one, but we’ve never seen her fight in a beautiful evening gown before.
I was worried someone was going to fall out of the window during her fight scene in the Abu Dhabi skyscraper.
I didn’t want to do that because Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol did that. And someone did go out the window – it’s just the car flying out the window with two people in it.
What was the biggest challenge when it came to the scene where the cars parachute out of the airplane?
Just the practicality of it. Trying to make it look good and not silly, because the concept is larger than life. It’s so out there. When I came onto it and I read that sequence I was like, “Oh man, how do I make this real? How do I make this work?” I realized that the best way to make it play was to make it as a thrilling and as seemingly dangerous as I could. That became the mission objective, to make it look dangerous and scary.
When you have a scene like that how much do you consider physics?
I think about real physics as much as comic book movies think about real physics. I always say, “I’m going back to do a supernatural horror movie to make a movie that’s more grounded.” But listen, it’s a world that’s already been set up. I came into this with a lot of baggage and I just said, “What the heck, I’m going to have as much fun as I can with this.”
Where was the starting point for that scene?
A lot of planning. The most fun I had on this movie was designing the action sequences. Finding ways of how to film them, how to make them work. That to me was the exciting part. So very early on I got in there with my storyboard artists and sketched all the scenes. I would talk them through. The best way I would do it was with little toy cars and a little plane, like, “I want the plane to do this” and I’m playing like a kid would. And they would take it to the next level, which was pre-vizing it. It’s a technique where you basically create the moments you want in the final movie, but in the computer world. It’s like a live-action storyboard. So that way you can show it to every department – the set team, the special effects team, the stunt team – and they can watch how I want to do it. And then you begin to logistically break it down, like “Okay, the camera is going to do that” and “We can’t do that in the practical world because it’s too dangerous. We need to find a different want to do this.” That’s how you start.
Are you actually into cars?
For me, it’s the cinematic quality of it all. I love how cinematic cars are. That’s what it really was for me. I drive an electric car, if that tells you anything. I don’t believe in gas-guzzling vehicles if I can help it. But that’s what this franchise is about and that’s what people love about it, and I respect that as well.
When it came to driving a car through a series of Abu Dhabi skyscrapers, what the major challenge there?
Once again, the challenge was “Holy smoke, this is a larger than life concept. How do I do this and yet have the audience know I know what they’re thinking?” That I’m in on it and that’s okay. I want them to go along with it and have fun with it. And to try and play it dangerous. I feel that anything that may seem out there or really out there, you just play as fearfully as you can. That’s where my background in horror/thriller films comes in very handy. In horror movies you do things that are very larger than life. You’re dealing with crazy supernatural stuff and the way you get around that is if you make them scary. Then people go along with it. To extend on that point, I should say I think what makes the Fast and Furious franchise, these films, popular is that sure, people come back for the action — it’s fun and it’s crazy. But ultimately I think people come back to the series because people love the characters. The fans love the actors playing the characters. If you can make the characters relatable at a human level and if they feel grounded at that human level, then the cars don’t have to be.
These really are just normal guys in extraordinary situations.
I actually describe them as blue-collar superheroes. They’re working-class, blue-collar superheroes. They’re not aliens from another planet. They weren’t bitten by radioactive spiders. But that’s what makes it relatable. So once you can relate to them on a human level, then my belief is you can put them in whatever crazy context. You can have them falling out of the sky. You can put them into a horror movie context and you can picture what they would do and how they would react. That’s the key.
Did you have any crazy concepts for this film that you weren’t actually able to put into action?
Let’s put it this way: There were a lot of things we talked about where we would just go, “Okay, this is beyond stretching it.”
What’s the barometer for when something’s too far over the realism line?
I don’t know exactly. You’re either in one of two camps. You’re in the camp where you just roll your eyes and go, “Ugh, this would never fucking happen. Don’t give me this bullshit.” And you’re fine to feel that way. This movie is not for you. Go watch Jane Austen. But if you’re willing to go with it and you’re one of those people who loves Indiana Jones and the adventures of him running away from a giant rolling rock that’s chasing after him and fighting crazy cult Nazis, then this is in that world. It’s an action-adventure movie that did not start out as a comic book movie, but kind of grew in that direction. By the time I got into it that’s what it became. I think it’s okay, like I said, if the human characters are there for you to relate to. Then you can go that extra step.
Once the film was finished, was there one scene where you really felt like you’d achieved exactly what you wanted to?
I think the cars falling out of the sky and the whole mountain sequence where they hit the motorcade and the bus to rescue a particular character. The bus teetering on the edge of the cliff and Paul has to run before the whole thing falls off. Just the tension in that. I felt like I captured that the way I saw it in my head. And also all the fight scenes, as well. I felt like the fight scenes were really cool. I have to say, my favorite scene in the entire movie is the phone call that Paul puts through to Jordana [Brewster] and they talk over the phone. That’s my favorite sequence in the whole movie. When I watch that sequence it just hits me really hard. I just think it’s a beautiful moment between the two of them. They’re not in the same room, they’re worlds apart, but what I love about that is you see how important that sequence is in setting up the end of the film. I love it as well because that’s really Paul in there doing it.
Now that you’ve made this big action film you’re going back to horror, right?
My next movie The Conjuring 2. I’m doing it because after the craziness of this film I think it will be a holiday break for me! Going back to do a smaller film. But The Conjuring is my baby; It’s my franchise and I want to protect that. But that doesn’t mean I’m done with action.
Emily Zemler is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has written for Esquire, ELLE, The Hollywood Reporter and Nylon, and is currently working on her first book. Tweet to her at @emilyzemler.