From demons to Diesel: a conversation with Furious 7 director James Wan

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Today Furious 7 hits theaters, and for the first time in nine years the franchise has a new director: James Wan. The Australian filmmaker has become one of the most prominent names in horror over the last decade, not only creating the Saw franchise but also crafting subtler scares in movies like The Conjuring and Insidious — but he’s got some big shoes to fill. Justin Lin directed the last four films in the franchise and, with the help of writer Chris Morgan, helped steer the series into the superheroes-with-cars phenomenon it’s become.

I sat down with Wan in Los Angeles, and if he was nervous about the expectations, he wasn’t showing it. He was excited and enthusiastic, putting out a giddy energy that seemed perfectly in line with the hyped-up antics of the Furious franchise itself. We talked about escaping horror, staging an action scene like one of his childhood heroes, and how the production dealt with an incredible tragedy.

Bryan Bishop: The obvious place to start is that you’re one of the most interesting horror directors working today. You haven’t done an action film since 2007.

James Wan: Since Death Sentence, yeah…

What was it about the Furious franchise that got you excited?

Just the chance to go out there and do a big movie. A big action movie. That’s what I’ve always sort of harbored a desire for, but because I became so synonymous with horror, it was hard for people to see me as a guy who could do other stuff outside of just low-budget horror films. So I felt very fortunate that Universal, and [producer] Neal Moritz, and everyone else felt that I was more than capable of doing it.

A lot’s been made of how tight-knit the Fast and Furious team is. What was it like walking into that group?

They all — from the cast, all the actors, to the studio, to the producers — they all pretty much welcomed me with open arms. "Listen, you’re the guy. You wanted it? You got it now, so you gotta roll up your sleeves and do it." And I was like, "Fucking great! This is amazing!" So I was maybe anxious for like two seconds, but the moment I realized how much shit I had to do, anything I was worried about was gone out the window, and basically I just had to jump straight into it.

What I realized is that it doesn’t matter how big or small your film is. The actual filmmaking process, the actual storytelling; it’s still the same thing. It’s still all about creating characters that you like, and creating moments that get you excited, or get you tense. So that applies to all kinds of genres.

Furious 7 promotional still (UNIVERSAL)

You said that you’ve been harboring this secret fantasy of directing big action movies. What are some of your favorite films in the genre, and did they influence your style here?

You know, I guess it’s the staple diet of action movies that I just watched throughout my whole life. I remember when I was a kid loving Die Hard, to all the great James Cameron movies, to all the great Hong Kong action films I loved as a kid. I’m a big John Woo fan. And actually I think, subconsciously, I really gravitate to the early John Woo stuff that he used to do, which is crazy, over-the-top gun fights and action scenes — but sort of balanced out with very overwrought melodrama. And I love that.

Even when I did Death Sentence; that was a pretty hardcore, bloody, violent action thriller, but it also has this sort of strong emotional core. And I felt that way with Furious 7. I felt I could balance out all the crazy, outlandish action stunt sequences, but with much more humor and emotion. And that’s why I really wanted to focus on a bit of the love relationship between Vin’s character and Michelle’s character. I’m a big fan of romantic movies, so this movie allows me to sneak a bit of that romance in there.

Actually Furious 7 allows me to do a lot of the things that I really would love to be able to do. Which is I get to do action, I get to do suspense; thrills. And I get to do romance in there, and I get to do comedy as well, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. And so it kinda lets me play with everything, which is great. And finally, it allows me to shoot at beautiful locations, unlike all the frickin horror movies I’ve done, which are such depressing, bleak, scary locations, so it was nice to mix that up.

Your camera is really active in the fight sequences, but the sequences aren’t super cutty; it’s all very choreographed. How did you approach shooting those scenes?

I think part of the reason why my last few haunted house movies have worked so well, or people have really taken to them, is just the time I took to craft my sequences. It’s not just what’s playing out in front of the camera; it’s what the camera is doing as well. And I wanted to try and apply some of that mentality to this. When the action crazy stuff happens, I want the camera to go as bonkers as the action is. I want to draw the audience in, to be as close as possible. For example, when The Rock bottoms out Statham with that spinning hit onto the glass coffee table, I wanted the camera to go with him. I wanted the audience to experience that.

But also, use my camerawork for sort of non-action sequences too. Like when Nathalie Emmanuel’s character first talks about the people that have rescued her. What I wanted to do was shoot each one where the camera just goes from one person, to another, to another, then to the other, with each person that she’s talking about, because I think that adds to the humor of that sequence. And not be afraid to have fun with it. So those were the things that I tried to do with the camerawork to tell the story within the context of the sequence, whether it’s action, comedy, or just very plain, simple drama.

"It's not just what's playing out in front of the camera; it's what the camera is doing as well."

Cars and car stunts are so central to this kind of movie. I’m curious about how you took on the mix of practical and computer-generated effects and put the pieces together.

What I discovered on this is pre-production — planning — is very important, so that every department knows exactly what it is that you want of them. So very early on, when I came onto the film, I was actually in the middle of doing post-production on Insidious 2, so I had to kind of jump ship and let my editors sort of finish that on their own while I jumped ship onto Furious 7. At that point, there wasn’t quite a script yet; there was just a sort of loose outline. And they said to me, "We’re still trying to connect all the dots, but we know we want a sequence where a car falls out of the sky."

And I’m like, "Okay, fine." I was cool with that. So then it became my task to go, how do I make that as exciting as it possibly can be? What’s the best way, what’s the cool camera angle, what’s the cool storytelling line? What’re the characters saying amongst themselves that just amps your excitement even more, that draws you into the sequence? The moment after they land; what happens after that?

In the beatment [simple treatment], it said "…And a big action sequence happens here." [laughs] But it was great, because it allowed me to have basically a clean slate, an empty board to design whatever thing I can come up with.

Furious 7 promotional still (UNIVERSAL)

Were you working really closely with Chris then, to fill in those holes?

Yeah, exactly. I’ll throw Chris ideas back and forth, and he’s like, "James, whatever you want to do!" I’m like, "Chris, I think the characters should say something like this," and he’ll go off and think about the beats, the characters stuff.

That scene — after the cars drop out of the sky, land, and assault the military motorcade in the mountains of Azerbaijan — that whole sequence was basically storyboarded and then pre-vized. And then, literally sitting around with my entire team. Second-unit group, with my stunt group, with my specials effects team, and with my visual effects team, trying to make this thing work. And literally there were days when it would be just like you and me sitting across a table, a whole group of us, just playing with little toy cars. "Then the car comes and hits it like this, and then bangs over this way, and then the car come up, shoots the harpoon…"

Do you remember that picture, that really famous picture of Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he’s on this miniature, and he’s up close there and he’s got all these little soldier statues? It was exactly like that! I was like, "This is so fucking cool!"

So you’ve making a movie that has this massive sequence with cars flying out of the sky. You’ve got a scene where a car is literally diving between buildings. Was there ever a point where you sat back and just went, "I can’t believe how insane the movie I’m making is?" It’s a little nuts.

It is. [laughs] It is insane in that respect. Here’s my feeling on all of that. If I can get the audience to connect with the characters emotionally — and they love who they are, they love the larger-than-life situation that they’re in, but most of all get the audience invested in the characters — then I always feel like I can sort of put them in the most outrageous circumstances, and the audience is okay to go with that. Because I’m grounding the audience by the emotion of the characters. And whether it’s this action film, or it’s the horror movies that I do, I can put the characters in the most messed-up situations because I’ve set them up like this. That, to me, is the key.

James Wan on Furious 7 set (UNIVERSAL)

The below section discusses the ending of Furious 7. If you haven’t seen the film, please stop here to avoid spoilers!

Talking about caring about the characters, you put together a really beautiful send-off to Paul Walker’s character in this. It’s very moving. What was the collaborative process like between you, Chris, Neil, and Vin figuring that out?

It’s now almost like a cliche or a joke to say this, but the entire Fast and Furious unit is a family unit, and everyone feels like Paul is a big part of their family. And everyone wanted to do the right thing by Paul, and send him off in the most sort of honorable way that we could, and to honor the legacy that he’s had in this franchise. And also for me, to honor what an amazing person Paul Walker was. So we went off, and we collectively put our heads together, and Chris wrote this sort of beautiful voice-over for Vin. Because the only way to finish this off is to show it from the point of view of Vin’s character, of Dominic Toretto.

By allowing us to look through his point of view, that allows us to say goodbye to him. We get to be with Vin as we say goodbye to Paul. And it was very important for me that the last shot, the high-angle looking down…

That last shot where the two cars split away… even just thinking about it makes me weepy. Makes me feel very melancholic and sad. And me and my visual effects team were working very closely to make sure that last shot [worked] — the timing, the flow, just coming up to the sunset with the way it hits the music and all that. And I didn’t want it to dissolve to black. I wanted it to dissolve to white.

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