Although he didn't come aboard the franchise until the third entry, 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, director Justin Lin's impact on the film series is nothing short of incredible, expanding the scope and mythology of the franchise into the kind of action ensemble fans are anxious to experience again with Fast & Furious 6 (which, as you'll learn by reading on, isn't actually the film's title).
In 2002, Lin made his feature film debut with Better Luck Tomorrow, an independent drama that examined the lives of Asian-American high school students. That film, which also featured Sung Kang's first leading role, has now retroactively become a Fast & Furious prequel of sorts. As he explains below, Lin decided to make Kang's Tokyo Drift character, Han, a subtle continuation of his Better Luck Tomorrow character. That's just a small taste of the creative madness Lin helped contribute to the series over the last decade.
Fast & Furious 6 arrives on the big screen May 24 with a cast that includes Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Elsa Pataky, Luke Evans and Gina Carano. Although Six is Lin's swan song to the franchise, Fast & Furious 7 will arrive July 11, 2014 with James Wan (Insidious, The Conjuring) in the driver's seat.
In the below interview with ComingSoon.net, Lin talks about his departure from the franchise and his hopes for what the future will bring, both to the world of Fast and the Furious and his own ever-growing list of potential projects.
CS: My first question is actually about the title itself. The on-screen title calls the film "Furious 6," but all the advertising refers to the film as "Fast & Furious 6."
Justin Lin: It was always designed to be "Fast Five" and "Furious Six." "Furious Six" was going to be a kind of culmination and wrap-up of "Fast & Furious" itself. I had it that way and that's the way it's going to be.
CS: This is your fourth film in the series, but "Fast Five" was such a tremendous hit that it seems like everyone stood up and took notice of the franchise. What has changed for you as a director as a result of that?
Lin: Well, for me it's more of a culmination of everything I dreamed up when I first came aboard in '05. I remember talking to Vin [Diesel] in the studio back then and we were discussing where we would go if we ever had the opportunity to build this franchise and the mythology we'd want to build. How we'd evolve it and, at the same time, never get too conservative. We'd always push it. To be sitting here and talking to you eight years later, it just means that everything has come true. After "Fast Five," you think I'd feel the pressure of going faster and going bigger, but it's all part of the design. I started designing this film's airplane sequence in '09. My hope was that "Fast Five" was going to propel us into the final chapter for me, personally. I feel really satisfied and fulfilled to be able to have accomplished what, just a few years ago, everyone kind of thought was nuts. I feel like we're here, though, and a lot of people have embraced it. I can't wait now to step aside and see where it goes because I've done everything I wanted to do.
CS: One of the coolest things about this franchise to me is that, not only have you done four "Fast & Furious" films, you actually went back and retroactively made your first film, "A Better Tomorrow," a part of the continuity by making Sung Kang's character the same.
Lin: (Laughs) Cool! That was, for me, always a personal joy. When I did "Better Luck Tomorrow," the ending was so dark and open-ended. Everyone asked, "What happened to these kids?" "What happened to these kids?" When I came aboard "Tokyo Drift," I went and created a character for Sung. I thought, "You know? It should be Han. That's where he would go." That inside joke has kind of grown. I don't think I've seen anywhere else where a little indie movie has grown into being part of a big tentpole franchise.
CS: This time around, you're working with not just the main cast, but the villains, who are their own team of multiple characters. Does it get harder to control the narrative with the cast growing with each film?
Lin: Yeah, it's extremely difficult, but I love it. Again, as an overall, it's very easy when a franchise is successful - and you see this time and time again. Studios can get very conservative with franchise. They say, "It worked on this one, so on the next one, do the same thing." I have a great partner in Universal. When I come with ideas that say, "I want to grow it. We want to go into other genres." They say, "Go ahead. Go for it. If you feel that's right, go for it." One of the things that I feel like this franchise had left to explore was having a true antagonist. The other antagonists we've had in this franchise have all been good, but they were almost created just to service the plot. I wanted to create an antagonist that had a valid philosophy. He can stand right across from Dom and really challenge his philosophy. In doing that, I was fortunate to find someone of the stature and talent that they could stand there and deliver these lines opposite Vin and Dom. We've never had that before and, now that we do have it, it's basically adding six more characters, but it's totally worth it. Then you get to go around the world to cast it. I saw Kim Kold in a Sundance movie. I saw Joe [Taslim] in "The Raid." It's fun. It brings new energy and I think it's important to never rest and just do it the easy way. You always want to challenge yourself and make things as hard as possible.
CS: What would you say was the biggest challenge you threw for yourself with this one?
Lin: Well, I think you nailed it. It's the entire of doing an ensemble action movie. I had never really seen that. People have been asking a lot, these past few days of doing press, about what the inspiration is. To be honest with you, I think the inspiration for me on this movie was Robert Altman. I'm a big Robert Altman fan and I've never seen anything done like this where there are 13 different characters and, big or small, you want to get people to care about them equally. That was a huge challenge. When you look at the real estate of these films, aside from the action, there's not a lot. You need to have every moment count to be able to track these character arcs. That really was the biggest challenge. I kind of come from, going back to "Better Luck Tomorrow," ensemble casts in movies. I really pushed it on this one. But it was also something that I was looking forward to.
CS: It's an interesting challenge to throw down, too, because everyone wants to see the new characters continue on, as with Dwayne Johnson beginning in the last film.
Lin: Luckily, that was by design, to explore and build that mythology. One of the things I kept telling Vin and Paul [Walker] and everybody was to say, "Look, I'm not going to have you sit here with 18 year-old girls and act like you're 18. You're not. I want to acknowledge that you are your age and have your maturity." That's why you're seeing the characters having kids and starting families. I think that's part of the recipe that now, looking back, is one of the crucial elements. I think that, with maturity comes new obstacles. Naturally, it has just grown bigger and bigger. I didn't have to artificially infuse that. It's just that overtime we've gone into another one, it was always designed for us to evolve. I think that, when you go to "Six" and see how big a scope it has, it was something that we had talked about years ago. That makes it much more fulfilling to know that we didn't just do it on the fly. We've been talking about this.
CS: One of the key traits of your direction that's very refreshing is the use of practical effects and the idea that we've got a big summer blockbuster that very specifically isn't in 3-D. How important is that for you to maintain in your work?
Lin: It's very important. I think 3D has its own aesthetic. I think that, these days, unless you're James Cameron or Peter Jackson, it's hard to get 3D right. Ang Lee, for that matter. It has its own aesthetic and the design kind of needs to be built for that format. I get approached every time I do one of these and they ask, "Can you post-convert this?" and I refuse. I think that's really unfair to the fans. We're basically just trying to rip them off for a couple bucks. They were never designed that way. These films were designed to be in 2D. I shoot these films on film and not digital because I think it's the aesthetic that best fits this franchise. If I was going to go and do a 3D movie, it would have it's own look and its own aesthetic. For me, the DNA of this franchise is not 3D. If I was committed to 3D, I would shoot in 3D and it would have a whole different feel. Down the line, I hope to find something that fits that aesthetic. I get the commerce of the equation, but I think it's more important to be true. We never want to waste two hours of our fans' time and, on top of that, make them pay an extra couple of bucks.
CS: Speaking of future projects, do you know what your next film is going to be?
Lin: Well, as I'm talking to you today, we have the premiere tomorrow and the day after that I'm getting together with John Ridley to work on the "L.A. Riots" project. I'm going to start working on the script with him and I'm very excited about that. In the last eight years, I've had the fortune to find a lot of stuff that I'm excited about. "L.A. Riots" is one of them. I have some small, indie character-driven pieces. I have some comedies. I even have some tentpoles. For the first time in eight years, I'm going to be free. My commitment to this franchise was to hopefully get it up to six if we're able to grow it. It's amazing to get there and have it be my option to say, "I want to walk now." I'm beyond excited to kind of explore everything else. I think in about a month or so, I'm positive that one of these projects is going to float up and that will be the one I take. I'm just kind of excited to go back into the pre-"Fast" world. It's been almost a decade.
CS: You get to maintain any sort of foot in the "Fast" universe as it moves on without you?
Lin: That's been talked about. To be honest with you, when I came on "Tokyo Drift," it was wide open and I think the studio was very generous in letting me run with it. I was allowed to just run. I know James [Wan] is coming in and taking over and I love his filmmaking style. I want to make sure I respect his process. I feel like his process ends with me, but I also feel very excited to have another filmmaker have a different take on it. I wouldn't want to impose anything on him. We talked about it, but having gone through it myself, I think it's better served for him to put his own stamp on it. That being said, we've been exchanging e-mails and we're gonna meet up and talk. He's one of my favorite kind of filmmakers. He came from the indie world, just like me. I'm excited to see what he comes up with.
CS: It seems like Vin Diesel, too, has a lot of vision for where he wants to take the franchise. Can you talk about working alongside him not as an actor?
Lin: I think the tide rolls back. Vin is very delicate and smart filmmaker himself. We have our Sundance DNA connection also. I think he's very respectful of the process. I love getting together with him and talking about mythology and character. Many, many times we've sat there. I've seen the sun come up talking to him and seen the sun go down in the same conversation. It's hours and hours of conversation. I love that, because Dom is very close to him. It's a character that he's always going to be identified with. As a partner, I love having those conversations. At the same time, we also have enough trust that, at some point, he's able to walk away and become Vin Diesel the actor. Believe me, if it was any different, I wouldn't have made four of these. I come from the indie world and I expect certain protocols for filmmaking. If it's not the right and conducive way to make films, I would have been out a long time ago. To have a guy like Vin who knows when to be collaborative and when to step back and be directed is my greatest asset. I love that. We respect each other and we have that trust. It's not even just with him. It's with Paul and the rest of the cast. It's special and it's emotional even talking about it because it's been eight years. Some of us have had kids and our kids have now grown up together. We're a family. How rare is that in Hollywood? To be able to do that and to be able to keep going is something that I enjoy and the process is something that I'm definitely going to miss.
CS: As you look back on the franchise, is there a scene in particular where you think, "I can't believe we even tried that I definitely can't believe that we pulled it off?"
Lin: I'll tell you, when I first came on the franchise, I had this idea, like I said, of building the mythology but, behind the camera, I was trying to build this culture that's very independent-minded. When I came to "Tokyo Drift," my experience before that was really more independent. Credit card movies. Having done a credit card movie, you realize that money really wasn't what was driving it. There's the passion and people believing in it. Sometimes in the studio world, your realize that money is a curse. I'm trying to convince the right people to get right people together so we're all compensated, but we're saying, "Let's push to make this movie better and better." That was really our ultimate goal. The ability to keep growing and create a culture where we're all family, cast and crew. We can all just sit back and say, "Okay. This is just a car crash. Let's do it." Let's have the conversations about, "How is it crashing?" "What is the character going through?" Having those real conversations is something I enjoy a lot. To answer your question, there's enough trust now that, to give you an example, that for "Six," there was a moment where I wanted to get the whole crew together and said, "Look, here's what I want. I want a moving 18-wheeler running into a cable and, at the same time, I want a tank in motion coming out of it." It was silence for 30 seconds and someone said, "Okay. I think we can do that in four chunks." I said, "Here's the deal: We're doing it in one shot." I have the best crew in the world. We figured it out. What you see on the screen is something that was designed to do it all in one piece. I take a lot of joy in that. When you work with people who are at the top of their profession, they want to be challenged. I want to be challenged. To have that rapport is something that I take a lot of pride in. It takes time to develop that.
CS: Would you say that "L.A. Riots" is more of a "Better Luck Tomorrow"-scaled film?
Lin: I hope I don't have to use any more of my own credit card! (laughs) I know what you mean. There's a certain indie sensibility. But, at the end of the day, my approach is very much the same. I need to find the right point of view. I need to find the thing that interests me and I need to start building through character. My approach is the same whether it's doing a "Fast & the Furious" or doing an episode of "Community." It's about the process. I'm fortunate in the ten years since I made "Better Luck Tomorrow," I'm able to keep working. I want to keep refining and get better as a filmmaker. I can't wait to approach that in a different way. Or not so much a different way, but on a different project outside of "Fast & Furious."
CS: Speaking of "Community," you directed the show's first paintball episode which immediately turned into a cult hit. How did that come about?
Lin: It was the only time in my ten years that I actually took a break. My fiancee and I were having a baby. I was kind of sitting there and enjoying how odd it was to not be working. I love working, though and I get a call from Joe Russo, who I went to film school with. He says, "Hey, you want to come and direct this show 'Community'?" At that point, only the pilot had been shot. I read the script and I watched the pilot and just went, "Oh my god. This is already my favorite show." The Halloween episode was the first time I had the opportunity to go in there. It's amazing to be a part of that crew that early on. They were still trying to find their voice and their style and charm. A small part of crafting that was just amazing. Dan Harmon is a genius. A lot of the times in the "Fast" movies, we're running and gunning. I know where we need to get to, but we're still working on the script day in and day out. To go into TV where the script is, "Bam! You're ready to go!" on day one was so refreshing. Just to see that process. I have to give Joe a big thank you for thinking of me. I love comedies but, at that point in my career, a lot of people didn't think about me in terms of them. To be able to do that has opened a lot of doors. Some of the projects I'm developing now are straight-up comedies and I look forward to exploring that more.