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The Fate of the Furious director F. Gary Gray: ‘The mantra for this movie was real, real, real, real, real’

This weekend, The Fate of the Furious bested The Force Awakens to claim the mantle of biggest worldwide debut. The not-so-subtle superhero franchise is cherished for escalating over-the-top action sequences that mirror the low-key hyperrealism found in early Marvel films. (At one point in the latest film, Dom practically gets his own first-generation Iron Man suit.)

The latest film is lousy with nigh-believable moments, including Dwayne Johnson physically redirecting an ice-skating torpedo while hanging out of the door of a speeding truck. But the Fastest-and-Most-Furious award goes to the “zombie-car sequence” in Manhattan.

Cipher: “[Target] every chip with a zero-day exploit.”

Random minion: “There’s over a thousand.”

Cipher: “Hack ’em all… it’s zombie time.”

In the scene, supervillain and 23-dimensional chess player Cipher (Charlize Theron) has her team simultaneously hack more than a thousand smart cars in New York City to create a swarm of remote-controlled vehicles that charge through the streets like World War Z zombies.

The franchise already lives in a world dictated by rag doll physics and loose logic, but the zombie-car scene pushes new boundaries: “cars have computers, computers can get hacked, ergo all cars can be instantly hijacked and driven remotely.” The idea isn’t completely unprecedented — smart vehicles have been shown to have vulnerabilities that can be exploited under the right circumstances — but the speed at which so many vehicles are hacked and driven like video game avatars is a 12 out of 10 on both the fast and the furious scale.

On the eve of the premiere, I talked with director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Italian Job) about the origins of this particular sequence.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Fate of the Furious.

How did the “zombie-car” scene come about?

It started with a conversation with my writer [and longtime Fast collaborator], Chris Morgan. You know, when you come to a Fast movie — and I’m sure this happened to Justin [Lin] and to James [Wan], it’s a question of, “How do you top the previous movies?” And that was [Morgan’s] idea that was floating around, and we massaged it and massaged it, and we ended up with the “zombie-car” sequence. It’s one of my favorite action sequences of all time — not just because I was involved in it, but because it was so creative and inventive. It’s timely. With the Fast series, you’re used to seeing people behind wheels. Now you see these weaponized cars with no one behind the wheel, being controlled by Charlize Theron from a billion-dollar jet. That’s insane.

How much of that was initially storyboarded, and how much could you play with and develop on the set?

You have to prepare, just for safety purposes, when you have cars raining from the sky — cars falling from 100 feet, and there’s pedestrians, actors, things like that, you have to figure that out. So the engineering, the coordination, the safety to get special shots like that takes quite a bit of preparation. We storyboarded it, we [previsualized] it. We also did things that happened on the fly that worked out well, but we definitely planned methodically to try and make it work. But more specifically to make it safe.

Do you remember any key scenes that were improvised?

It’s moments like, “Who’s in the foreground, and what they’re doing?” There are coffee shop patrons in some of the shots. There are people in parking structures. I’ll give you an example: the guy who’s walking to a car, and all of a sudden, it starts up and drives up on its own. Some of that happened on the fly. So many of the actors interacting with the cars as they’re being remotely controlled happened on the fly — “Wouldn’t this be funny if… fill-in-the-blank.” A lot of the action — car crashes, car carnage — was definitely meticulously planned.

There are two moments in particular I’m curious about. One is this crazy power-slide where the cars all make a sharp turn in sync. And then there are the vertical cars piling up. How much of that is practical vs. computer-generated?

You know, the mantra for this movie was “real, real, real, real, real.” The great majority of everything we did was real. There is some movie magic, but when I speak to my stunt coordinators and my second-unit directors, and things like that, the key is to figure out how we can do this in-camera so the audience feels like they’re getting a real show.

[In the case of the intro sequence, where Dom drives a vintage car backward, on fire,] we actually did that for real — we actually spun the car around, actually racing it backward, and you know, the fire. Again. There’s stuff you augment for safety, but that’s real. As a matter of fact, you’ll see it on the behind-the-scenes stuff, kind of extra material, but in order for them to drive at that speed backward, we had to make adjustments to the car.

This isn’t your first car-focused action film — not even the first starring Charlize Theron and Jason Statham. Looking back on the decade or so since The Italian Job, what’s changed in terms of action movies?

A lot has changed. Technology has changed. The cars are a lot bigger. [Laughs] They’re no longer Mini Coopers squeezing down stairwells. We have Lamborghinis racing on ice being chased by submarines. So it’s slightly different than Italian Job, but the goal is the same, just on steroids. How can we take the audience on the ride, take them around the world, have them fall in love with the characters, and have a lot of fun?