In an industry flush with fancy cars, stunts, and fancy cars doing stunts, calling Dennis McCarthy "Hollywood's car guy" probably wouldn't be an overstatement.
McCarthy has served as car coordinator for five movies in the ever-growing Fast & Furious franchise, including Furious 7, which hits theaters next week. But F&F is far from his only credit: he's handled the rides for Taken 3, Man of Steel, Green Hornet, the upcoming Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and many others. Considering that Furious 7 drops cars out of an aircraft and jumps a $3-plus million hypercar between two skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, I thought it might be worth my time to investigate how this particular flavor of next-level ridiculousness comes together. I chatted with him briefly on the phone this week to get the dirt.
Chris Ziegler: What was the breakdown between practical effects and CGI in this film? In your estimation, is it up or down from previous movies in the series?
Dennis McCarthy: You know, I really feel that in Furious 7 there’s less CGI. [You think] "My God, that’s impossible," but the amazing thing is that a lot of it actually is possible, you know, in real life. So I would say that there’s less CGI in Furious 7 than the previous ones.
How do you decide when to shoot something and when to render it? What does that conversation look like?
That’s really a decision that’s not mine to make, but I can just tell you what is behind the filmmakers on it. Basically, with these movies, you want to do as much as you can for real, because I think that makes a difference. It can look the same — sometimes it can’t, sometimes it can — but even if it did look the same on the screen, I think what makes the movie a better film is doing the gag for real.
I got a bunch of phone calls when the trailer came out. Everyone was calling me, "Hey man, did they really drive cars out of planes?" But the answer was yes! And people were just shocked to believe that. But that sequence happened over the Arizona desert with a C-130 and five cars — actually we had doubles of each, so we had 10 cars, and I think each car made either two or three drops out of that plane. You know, you see the trailer, you watch the Lykan HyperSport go from building to building… yeah, obviously we couldn’t launch a car out of a building in Abu Dhabi, but the sets were as close to real as possible, the car was real, the jumps were real, the breaking glass was real, the stunt personnel scattering out of the way as the car slides through — you know, through the floor, all the real deal. So I think that it’s important fans realize there’s a lot more reality to these movies than one might expect.
"We actually can’t put Vin in the car and fly him through the air."
Were there any requests that came in that you just absolutely could not handle as a practical effect? Did James [Wan] or anyone else on staff say, "Can we do this?" and you just said no, that’s not possible?
No. I mean, there’s always a couple incidents that are just not possible. But the question never really comes to me, because I think as that stuff is being developed, I think it’s pretty obvious, "Okay, that’s something that we actually can’t put Vin in the car and fly him through the air." So, no, for the most part, if we can do real, we will, and like I said, it’s always my goal to keep as much reality in the film as possible, because as a guy that loves car movies myself, that’s what I look for.
If you’re trying to do as much of this stuff in reality instead of in CGI as possible, you’re probably damaging and destroying some pretty expensive cars. What’s the most expensive car that you’ve had to destroy on set?
Well, I would say in this film, probably the most expensive car to build would’ve been the off-road Charger that you see Dom back out of that airplane. As far as on-screen, visually, it’d be the Lykan HyperSport. Though the cars that we had in the film weren’t the actual production model Lykan HyperSport, they’re basically a movie version that W Motors created for us or built for us. Still very pricey, but not $3.4 million like the actual car would cost.
So that’s a different chassis and then a body on top that’s designed to look like the real car, I would assume?
That’s absolutely correct. What W Motors did is they used the exact same molds they use for their actual production car, but they built the car out of fiberglass as opposed to carbon fiber. The chassis, instead of being basically a Porsche race car, is a Porsche Boxster with the wheelbase stretched on it. So yeah, we basically built a car that looks 100 percent correct, or is as close to it as we possibly can, and doesn’t wipe my budget out with just one vehicle.
Do you ever run into any brand licensing issues with cars? Say if you destroy a particular car on set, has an automaker come to you and said, hey, we’d rather you not do that?
No, not at all. That’s something that’s really taken care of from a whole different department. There is a licensing clearance department, and when these choices come up, there is someone that deals with that. But luckily, it’s not me.
Who’s the best driver in the cast? And for that matter, how much driving does the cast actually get to do?
The cast does quite a bit of driving, but it’s not the extreme stuff. They’re not jumping the cars, they’re not power-sliding the cars — they’re doing all the drive-up stuff. The reason being isn’t due to lack of skill, it’s lack of time. So we have to have two units going at all times — so if there’s a sequence where you’re not going to see the driver of the car, there’s no reason to waste Vin Diesel’s or Michelle’s time behind the wheel of that car. They can be somewhere else, maybe even in a different country filming a different part of the film.
Really, the only cast members that I’ve seen really push the limits would’ve been Paul [Walker] and Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel can slide a car and put it on its mark every time without a problem. I know that they would all prefer to do more driving, but like I said, it would double our production time.
So this is not your first Fast & Furious film, right?
This is my fifth one. Three, Four, Five, Six, and now Seven.
Which has been your favorite to shoot?
You know, I would have to say Furious 7. They’re getting better every time. Every movie we do, we try to raise that bar and increase the action and increase the number of cars and, you know, this one really jumped it up a couple of levels.
How did you get into this? What’s your background?
My background is just building cars. I’ve been into cars since an early age. I think when I was 16 years old, I worked at a speed shop. When I was in my early 20s, I opened my own business building cars. And like I said, it was just one of those things, built a couple different cars for a couple different films, and that led to what I’m doing now.
Would you say this is the most interesting car-focused movie franchise in history?
Absolutely. There’s really nothing else that comes close to it. To have done seven movies, and they’re all — every one is more successful than the last — just says a lot about what Fast & Furious is about.
"It’s not very exciting to even tell you this, but I drive a Chevy Suburban."
As a car person, what’s your personal daily driver? What do you take to and from the film sets?
You know, I have a lot of vehicles, and this is almost… it’s not very exciting to even tell you this, but I drive a Chevy Suburban. One, I have four kids, so it comes in handy, and two, I’m always driving a bunch of my guys back and forth on set. So it’s a very practical vehicle, but I do have a lot of other things that I drive when I’m just out having a good time.
Do you think that we’re at the point where we can start [putting hybrid and electric vehicles in the franchise]?
I think we are. I mean, it came close on this one. Prior to the Lykan HyperSport, I wanted the LaFerrari which is a hybrid car, and I was just unable to get it. That was my first choice prior to knowing about the Lykan HyperSport. Once I got that background, script-wise, it actually is a much better fit. But no, I think that’s coming. Like you stated, these cars have made leaps and bounds in the last five years and the performance is amazing. So you know, we’ll see. If Fast 8 happens and I get a script and there’s a spot for it, I’m going to try to get that in there.