directors directing

This Is What It’s Like to Direct a Fast and Furious Movie

F. Gary Gray on the set of Fate of the Furious. Photo: Matt Kennedy/Universal Pictures

In modern-day filmmaking, there’s spectacle, and then there’s the Fast and Furious franchise. The speed-addled, gravity-defying, increasingly lunatic saga sees the release of its eighth film, The Fate of the Furious — get it? I hope you get it — this weekend, and it’s got some big shoes to fill. What started off with a $40 million movie about an undercover sting in the Los Angeles street-racing scene became by 2015’s Furious 7 a story of international intrigue, high-tech hackers, and, uh, street racing that cost nearly $200 million to make. It also earned a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide, cementing the series’ record as Universal’s highest-grossing franchise of all time and virtually guaranteeing that Fast and Furious movies would continue until Vin Diesel decides to retire from acting and devote his full attention to Dungeons & Dragons.

If there’s one question that emerges from the franchise’s 958 minutes of cars falling out of airplanes, cars fighting tanks, and cars jumping between buildings, it’s this: How the hell do you direct one of these things? This time around, that task went to veteran filmmaker F. Gary Gray, the fifth director to come aboard the franchise. While Gray had worked with many of the core elements of the Fast series before, including action (Law Abiding Citizen), car chases (The Italian Job), and Vin Diesel (A Man Apart), nothing quite prepares you for directing a movie of this budget and magnitude, aside from, well, directing a movie of this budget and magnitude. When I met with Gray at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, he was jet-lagged from doing pre-release press in China, where, true to franchise brand, he took a death-defying toboggan ride down the Great Wall. The Fate of the Furious is Gray’s first major international press tour, and in China, he found the level of excitement you might expect from the successor to the country’s best-performing cinematic import ever.

When Universal needed a director for the eighth Fast and Furious, Gray was coming off a big win for the studio with Straight Outta Compton, which made $200 million on a budget of just $28 million and earned an Oscar nomination for its script. He prepared by speaking to the architects of the franchise: producer Neil Moritz, who’s been involved with all eight movies; writer Chris Morgan, who’s written every Fast movie since Tokyo Drift; and Diesel, the star who came on as a producer starting with the fourth movie. Luckily, the trio already had a hook: This time, Diesel’s Dom Toretto goes rogue.

“Immediately, I’m thinking, Wow, that’s a great twist, because it’s family, family, family, family, family, family, family, and the family goes on a mission against the world,” Gray says, rivaling a Fast and Furious script for number of utterances of the word “family.” “It’s never, the family breaks apart and goes against each other. Dom is Darth Vader? Okay.

Gray had the entry point he needed, as well as a unique antagonist: Charlize Theron’s Cipher happens to be both the series’ first female baddie and a twist on the typical gun-toting villain. Gray describes her as a sociopath who holds the key to what makes Dom turn, and Theron came in with her own vision of the character. “The braids, that’s her idea. The Metallica T-shirt, that’s her idea. It makes her a little more funky as opposed to this normal Silicon Valley hacker.”

Of course, directing the eighth film in any series brings with it another challenge: How do you maintain a tonal consistency with the installments that came before while still bringing your own personal touch? Different franchises have handled this in different ways. At Marvel, super-producer Kevin Feige oversees its sprawling cinematic universe, and the studio tends to employ directors whose specialty is more tonal and character-oriented than visual. DC is in the process of creating its own extended universe, with the idiosyncratic Zack Snyder making two movies that have little in common with the equally idiosyncratic David Ayer’s Suicide Squad; the directors on deck, including Patty Jenkins, Matt Reeves, and Fast 7 alum James Wan, don’t seem likely to follow in either of their footsteps. Fox, meanwhile, has given up altogether, having produced such wildly divergent movies as Bryan Singer’s X-Men saga, James Mangold’s stand-alone Wolverine installments, and Deadpool, whose director, Tim Miller, is out for the sequel. Other long-running franchises like James Bond tend to reboot when a new director or star comes on. On few other megafranchises is continuity as important as it is to Fast.

F. Gary Gray and Vin Diesel on the set of Fate of the Furious. Photo: Matt Kennedy/Universal Pictures

For Gray, that meant trusting franchise’s guardians like Morgan, Moritz, and Diesel, the latter two having a combined 30 years exploring the tao of Toretto. “I don’t look at it as, now I have to conform — I look at it as, these are building blocks to help make decisions for my vision,” Gray says. It helped that he’s not a filmmaker who’s married to one particular aesthetic: “Friday doesn’t look like Law Abiding Citizen. Italian Job doesn’t look like Straight Outta Compton.”

In long conversations with Gray in the Dominican Republic, Diesel spoke about the direction of the franchise, the significance of Fate, and how best to honor the legacy of the late Paul Walker. Morgan, meanwhile, was the man who supplied many of what Gray calls the “trailer moments,” including a bonkers third-act chase sequence involving a nuclear submarine. And Gray brought plenty of his own ideas, from the twisty “Cuban Mile” race that factors prominently in the first scene, to the Haka dance that Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs does with his daughter’s soccer team, to the name of Scott Eastwood’s character, an apprentice of Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody: Little Nobody.

Some of these ideas demonstrated the unique opportunities for a director in making a movie at this budget and scale. After seeing a video online of a tank called the “Ripsaw,” Gray asked his line producer to get him one to put in the movie. ”He’s like, ‘Ah, that’s impossible, you’ve got to call the Department of Defense, and the way we would have to shoot it, we would have to have three. We only have access to one, but we need three in order to shoot this sequence. And then we have to ship it to Iceland. So it’s impossible.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well, we’re going to have to figure that out. Make it possible.’ And they made it possible.”

At another point, Gray was faced with a dilemma that could seemingly only happen to a director of a Fast movie. One scene features a so-called “impenetrable limousine,” which Toretto is supposed to break into with a badass saw. Except the prop department gave him one that was, frankly, a little too wimpy. “They came up with this Home Depot saw,” Gray says. “And I was like, ‘Naw. We’re going to have to design something a little more than that. I know the action in these movies can be outrageous, but let’s find a way to make this look really cool.’” (The saw in the movie is appropriately badass.)

Later, Gray had to reassure a cost-conscious producer who asked him, “You want to drown a Lamborghini?” Gray’s reasoning? “Listen, we have a submarine. We’re already beyond the boundaries of reason. Let’s have some fun with it.”

It wasn’t just a Lambo that got drowned: Among the cars in the movie are Bentleys, Corvette Stingrays, Jaguars, and Dodge Chargers, many of which meet the kinds of ends that will have car enthusiasts in the audience weeping into their sleeves. (The value of the cars totaled in this film makes the budget of Straight Outta Compton look like a child’s allowance.) But for Gray, this wasn’t excess: The orgies of destruction helped avoid the temptation to go fully CGI and puncture the franchise’s wafer-thin sense of verisimilitude. On a few scenes that ended up on the cutting-room floor, Gray was astonished to find that some of the shots were so outlandish that they looked fake, even though they actually happened.

“We did it for real,” Gray says. “These aren’t CG cars. These are atomic-orange Lamborghinis flying on the ice in Iceland, being chased by a submarine and tanks and things like that. It’s like being a big kid. I used to play with Legos when I was a kid. I had this big suitcase full of colorful Legos and Hot Wheels. This movie was like that big suitcase of fun for me.”

A submarine enters the picture in Fate of the Furious. Photo: Universal Pictures

To make the spectacle as coherent as he could, Gray created what he calls a “war wall,” where the movie could be seen at a glance. On the board he and his primary collaborators — including his director of photography, Stephen F. Windon, and his production designer, Bill Brzeski — could tweak and adjust individual elements, making them more visual and more distinct.

“I look at the movie almost musically: I look at the rhythm and pacing from beginning to end, and the influences of color palette, casting,” Gray says. “If there are any moments that feel too similar to what has been established up to this point, I would make adjustments: Okay, well, this car looks too much like the car from 5, so let’s change the rim color. Let’s make it a matte finish on the paint instead of a gloss finish.

On a production as fluid as this one, standard shot listings and pre-visualizations play a role, but they’re far more likely to change than they might be on a smaller film. That meant Gray had to work even more closely with his second- and third-unit directors — including series veteran Spiro Razatos, who handled much of the hard-core action — to ensure that Fate never became a reproduction of the previous movies.

In one of Fate’s standout sequences, hacked cars hurl themselves like bombs off the upper floors of a parking garage in New York City. The scene is shot partly through the rearview cameras of the cars as they speed backward out of the garage; one memorable shot comes from a camera affixed to a car as it spins end over end through the air.

“I remember the phone call I made to Spiro in order to get that shot in particular,” Gray says. “I looked at the pre-viz and I wasn’t really satisfied. I said, ‘You know, this feels like the idea is bigger than the coverage. How can we do something that’s really special?’ These scenes are so massive that a lot of times, the instinct is just to get it, and you shoot these wide shots and you make sure you have it, because if you don’t, it’s a lot of money wasted. But what stimulates the audience is the detail shots within it.”

If Gray can be said to have a directorial trademark, it’s his use of helicopter shots, which he employed on one his first directing gigs, the video for Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.” As he explains, it’s not just that they look cool. (Though they do look cool.) “It’s a pacing device,” he says. “Sometimes you need that air after you have something intense. You want to take a deep breath.”

Fate’s Cuban Mile race was actually shot in Havana, and the helicopter Gray used was the first one many of the locals had seen in their lives (and a massive logistical undertaking, considering it was an American aircraft in Cuban territory.) The crew set up monitors so spectators could watch the helicopter footage. Gray calls it a “profound” experience: “A lot of these people have never been off this island, never been off the ground. To see their city from that perspective, it made them cry.”

The “Cuban Mile” scene in Fate of the Furious. Photo: Universal Pictures

Another, smaller benefit for the locals: Before they shot the race, which includes several vintage cars, the Cuban government had to pave over the potholes in the roads. “Imagine a 1950s car going 100 mph on a street that’s like the streets in L.A.,” Gray says. “None of those cars would have survived.”

No matter how much NOS they use, Fast’s race scenes still resemble street races in other films; it’s the insane set pieces that truly make a Fast and Furious movie. Fate has its fair share of these, including a hacked-car pileup in New York and a midair shootout involving Jason Statham and a baby wearing Beats headphones. But no scene is more deliriously over the top than the one involving the heroes and a nuclear submarine. This is the kind of sequence that makes you marvel over the fact that these movies are made by human beings, even ones with access to the toys and money that the Fate filmmakers had access to. So, how do you direct a thing like this?

“You surround yourself with people who are way smarter than you,” Gray says with a laugh. “With the submarine, it was a huge idea, obviously, literally and figuratively, and to pull that off was just one big Rubik’s Cube. There’s a little bit of a suspension of disbelief that you have to embrace. But that’s what people go to these movies for: When you have a $2 million super-car jump from building to building in 7, or these cars flying out of an airplane. You have to top that.”

This Is What It’s Like to Direct a Fast and Furious Movie