Director James Wan on How Furious 7 Is Like Snow White

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Photo: Scott Garfield/Universal Pictures

“The first thing they told me was, ‘James, we know we’re going to have cars parachuting out of the back of a plane, and we know they’re going to land somewhere. Now we need you to figure out the rest.’” James Wan is reflecting on the surreal experience of taking over Furious 7, the latest installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Wan, who prides himself on being able to come up with scenes and set pieces on the spot, wasn’t fazed. “I took it as a blank slate to go and design the craziest action sequence I could," he says. "The cars jumping out of the back of the plane, hitting the mountains of Azerbaijan, and then assaulting a military motorcade.”

Still, one must ask: What the hell is James Wan doing directing a Fast and the Furious movie? To state the obvious, the director of SawThe Conjuring, and the Insidious films seems an unlikely match for the cartoonish action spectacle of the Furious franchise — not to mention the broad humor, the jacked, glistening bodies (both car and human), and the soundtrack pulsing with the latest dance hits. “I’ve made one action movie,” Wan says, “But nobody saw it, so I guess that doesn’t count for most people.”

The film he's thinking of is 2007's Death Sentence, a grisly, Death Wish–like revenge flick starring Kevin Bacon and Garrett Hedlund, about a well-to-do suburban family man who wages war against a local gang after his teenage son is killed. It’s tense, creepy, and relentlessly downbeat; Wan may consider it an action thriller, but its sensibility is light-years removed from any colorful, PG-13 Hollywood tentpole.

The same could be said for any of his films up until now. This is, after all, the man who — with longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell — may have helped start the "torture porn" craze (a term, by the way, coined by our own David Edelstein.) But for all the nasty business on display, Wan’s films also have an emotional sincerity that can, at times, be overwhelming. “I think I’m a very sentimental person,” he says. “Conscious or not, that’s what draws me to the kind of films I want to make. Although some of my movies have been labeled ‘torture porn,’ I feel like there’s more to it than that — some more primal emotional stuff. I’d like to think it makes the films feel human.”

To be fair, some degree of emotional engagement is par for the course in Hollywood movies. Every executive loves to talk about through lines and stakes-raising and third act catharsis and whatnot; every hero has someone he’s trying to save, or get back to, or find, or whatever. But whereas most Hollywood movies would establish the emotional stakes and then go about their merry way, Wan’s films dwell to an almost unnatural degree on such seemingly by-the-book elements. One could even say that the films have a kind of emotional imbalance: They veer between brutality and sentimentality. But that imbalance also speaks to their power. For Wan, the sentimentality helps make the rest of the movie possible. “I love high concept movies,” he says, “but they can only work if the source of inspiration is really human — if they’re driven by pain and strong emotions. Once you connect the audience with that, then I swear you can take them on the craziest journey, and they’ll come along.”

Take a look at his filmography to see what he’s talking about. In Saw, characters are emotionally blackmailed and compelled against their will to torment and terrorize others, each an individual link in a vast human chain of need and fear. The conceit turns on a dime, but the desperation has a real sting to it. Meanwhile, looming over the proceedings is Jigsaw, one of the strangest, most melancholy antagonists in all of modern horror — a man with a terminal illness who devises sadistic instruments of torture and death in an effort to teach people to seize the day. ("He's so downtrodden that he wants others to live their lives joyfully," reflects Wan, with a chuckle.)

In Death Sentence, the seemingly generic revenge-movie theatrics are overwhelmed by the film's palpable sense of loss; the movie dwells on the Bacon character's shattered family as much as it dwells on shootouts and chases. (Maybe that’s why it failed at the box office; there’s no way to sit back and enjoy the action, because everything seems to have dire consequences.) The plot of Insidious is driven by the image of a comatose young boy, who turns out to be trapped in another dimension called the Further and who must be saved by his father. In The Conjuring, the happiness of a seemingly ordinary family is threatened when a loving mother is possessed and turned into a murderous demon. As much as we might get off on the horror setpieces (and let it be said here, few modern directors are better at staging an old-fashioned scare than Wan), it's the constant anxiety of happiness lost, of love turned to murder, that drives these films.

So, I must ask again: What the hell is this guy doing directing a Fast and the Furious movie?

“I’ve always loved action movies,” he says. “The first films I fell in love with were Star Wars and Steven Spielberg films.” Growing up in Perth, Australia, Wan had the kind of largely ordinary, suburban childhood depicted in those Spielberg films — the kind that is constantly threatened in his own horror movies. He discovered horror at a young age, but it was only one part of his cinematic upbringing. “The first two movies to open my eyes were Poltergeist and Snow White,” he says. “They made me realize how strong, emotionally, movies could make me feel, how magical they were.”

When Wan discovered, around the age of eleven, that “there were people behind and in front of the camera making the movies work,” he began to think about filmmaking as a possible career. Years later, at the University of Melbourne, he met Leigh Whannell, with whom he would go on to write Saw. “Our heroes were people like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith — indie guys who would save up their own money to make a movie.” A chance meeting with a producer, however, led them to scuttle the idea of making Saw as a self-financed, DIY indie à la Clerks or El Mariachi. “They said, ‘You should make this in Hollywood, with a little bit more money.’ Of course, that wasn’t a lot of money either, but still.”

After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, the $1.2 million Saw made more than $100 million worldwide and launched not only its own highly lucrative franchise, but arguably an entire subgenre of horror. Since then, Wan and Whannell have become two of the most successful names in the genre: They’ve executive-produced half a dozen Saw sequels, and along the way also created the Insidious series. Meanwhile, Wan directed 2013’s The Conjuring, which was both critically acclaimed and made $300 million worldwide — one of the most successful horror films of all time. (Wan produced last year’s spinoff, Annabelle, and is currently at work on the sequel.)

But the director was eager to get his shot at something different — a blockbuster that would be a departure from the spare, almost claustrophobic world of horror. He got the Furious 7 gig, he says, “the old-fashioned way”: He went into the studio and pitched his vision of the film. Getting the job, however, meant having to leave Insidious: Chapter 2 halfway through post-production. (“That really sucked,” he notes. “One of the most important things in my horror films is the sound design — it was tough to give up on that.”)

As he started Furious 7, Wan knew he had to revise his style and approach to match the series, instead of vice versa. For starters, he wouldn’t get much of a chance to discover scenes on the spot, as he likes to do on his smaller films. “It’s kind of ironic that for the kind of director I am and the kind of films I make, I’m not the biggest fan of storyboarding,” he says. “I love coming onto a set and discovering things with my actors or my cinematographer, much to the chagrin of my line producers. Some of the best scares in The Conjuring and Insidious we just discovered walking through the set right before shooting.” But obviously, that was a no-no for Furious 7. “There are so many moving parts! You’re constructing these huge set pieces, with giant action moments, with stunt people and visual effects. I had to do tons of storyboarding, tons of pre-vis[ualizations], which usually hampers my filmmaking. Basically, it’s like the movie is already shot before we start to film.”

He also knew that he had to play ball stylistically. “I’m not delusional. I know I’m not going to come in and change everything. It’s a very established franchise, and the sandbox is very much locked in place,” he says. But he also knew that he wanted, as he put it, “... to build a castle in the sandbox that’s to my own liking … I needed to make my own movie and bring my own style to it, as much as I could, with a movie that is a number seven.” So, Wan took it as an opportunity to expand his palette, and to pay homage to the action movies he had grown up on, such as John Woo’s The Killer, Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, all the while playing with the aesthetic and ethos of a firmly-established, highly-anticipated Hollywood property. Audiences will ultimately decide the extent to which he succeeded, but by and large, Furious 7 is a seamless entry in the series, full of the broad humor and the slick, silly, turned-up-to-eleven car stunts of the earlier films. (“In a ‘normal’ movie, you might have one car jumping from one skyscraper to another,” Wan reflects. “In the Fast and Furious world, that’s not enough.”)

But something else happens to Furious 7 as you watch it: It becomes, almost despite itself, a James Wan film. It’s subtle in the first half: It’s in the way Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, out to avenge what happened to his brother (Luke Evans) in Fast & Furious 6, stalks Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) crew, more an avenging demon from a horror film than a bad guy in a car-stunt movie. “Obviously, the big theme throughout this movie is family, but it’s not just about Dom and Brian and their family,” Wan points out. “It’s also Jason Statham and his family. That’s how Jason and I wanted to play it from the start: We wanted it to come from a very primal place: protecting your loved ones. We knew he was going to be the antagonist, but we didn’t necessarily want him to be the bad guy.”

But there’s more. Watch closely, and you’ll see that the first half of the film seems to dwell on pain — on the slowly gathering memories of amnesiac Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), or in the references to the death of Han Seoul-Oh (Sung Kang), whom Deckard killed at the end of the previous film. And, let’s face it, it’s also there in the very presence of the late star Paul Walker, here alive and well and playing Brian O'Conner, the character around whom the series was originally built. The actor’s death in November 2013 put a months-long halt to production, with the fate of the film and the series hanging in the balance. “We looked through all the footage, and it became apparent to us that we had to finish this movie,” says Wan. “This is Paul’s final legacy, and we cannot let this be thrown away. What we had to figure out was: How do we physically, technically make all this work?” And so, the film was rewritten, and Walker’s scenes were ultimately completed using a variety of methods (which my colleague Kyle Buchanan discussed here).

Because the film had to cut around Walker so much, he at times becomes an almost spectral presence in the film — a character often discussed but only occasionally seen, and always spoken of in hushed, protective tones, right down to the film’s sure-to-be-discussed, and very poignant final send-off. All that lends its own eerie quality to the film. Look beyond the comic-book action scenes, and something genuinely strange and sad emerges. On every level, Furious 7 is a movie haunted by death and trauma.

“I didn’t set out to do it this way,” Wan says. “Furious 7 has become, for obvious reasons, a very melancholy movie. But I realize that my other films are like that, too. Death Sentence is very much like that. I’m a guy that makes sad action films.” 

Oddly enough, the scene that perhaps resonates most with Wan’s earlier work has little to do with Walker’s character. It comes during a different, earlier emotional climax for the film. (This is a spoiler, so beware.) After his final fight with Shaw, Dom lies lifeless amid the immense wreckage of a building. His friends gather around and try to revive him, to no avail. Even Brian’s attempts to administer CPR are helpless. Then, Letty, whose memories were wiped clean several films back, takes Dom in her arms, and tells him that she finally remembers everything. And she reminds him of her happiest memory: the time that they secretly got married in a small church in Mexico.

The scene is pure soap opera, and not everyone might respond to it. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself awash in tears. And, I was reminded of the climax of The Conjuring, when Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) grabs the demonically-possessed and seemingly beyond-all-hope Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) and reminds her of her happiest memory: a simple day with her family on the beach. In both cases, the recollection brings the characters back — Dom from the dead, and Carolyn from her possession. “You’re the first person to make that connection!” Wan exclaims. “These characters may go on this crazy journey, but at the end of the day, you remind them who they are, and what they ultimately love. The idea is that human emotion is more powerful than death itself.” That may sound corny, but for this child of Poltergeist and Snow White, who has now become one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, it’s perfectly fitting.