Director James Wan Tackles Action and Tragedy for Furious 7

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james wan

Here at ComingSoon.net, we’ve been following director James Wan’s career ever since he burst onto these shores with the very first Saw movie, and while that went onto become a huge horror franchise for Lionsgate, Wan moved onto other things, while keeping his fingers in the horror realm. 

In 2013, Wan was in the middle of two of his biggest hits, The Conjuring and Insidious Chapter 2, when he got the gig to direct the next chapter in the blockbuster “Fast and Furious” franchise, following four movies by Justin Lin. Wan was even set up with a great cliffhanger ending in Fast and Furious 6, featuring the introduction of Jason Statham’s mercenary Deckard Shaw, the brother of Luke Evans’ villain in that movie who shows up seeking revenge.

The original plan was for Furious 7 to come out last summer, but then tragedy struck in November 2013 when Paul Walker, the unquestionable lynchpin in the franchise since taking on the role of FBI undercover agent Brian O’Connor in the very first movie, was killed in a horrible car accident. Somehow, Wan and the cast were able to get through the heartbreak to finish the movie, which is definitely on par with the best movies in the franchise. (You can read our earlier Furious 7 review.)

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Wan–having spoken to him for most of his previous films—and after a few technical glitches, we got into our latest conversation about the challenges of taking on such a hugely popular franchise, and dealing with the seemingly insurmountable hurdle to overcome after a tragic accident.

ComingSoon.net: I know you had been wanting to get away from horror, so what was it about jumping into such a huge franchise like “Fast and Furious” after Justin decided to leave?

James Wan: First and foremost, I’ve always wanted to do a big action film. I’m such a big action junkie and those are the kinds of movies that I’ve always wanted to make. As you know, typical Hollywood, they like to put you in a box. If you’re good at something, they say that’s all you’re good at. I’ve been very fortunate in the horror genre, so that’s all people were coming to me with but after The Conjuring, I found that mainstream producers came my way and I wasn’t just an indie guy, so I took that opportunity to finally branch out and try something different. That was my goal basically after Dead Silence with Death Sentence, but nobody saw Death Sentence, so back to horror I went and I bade my time. Finally, with The Conjuring having the commercial, I should say mainstream success that I did that I was finally able to go out and get other kinds of films.

CS: I assume you had seen the others movies and what Justin had done in the last four. When you got the script, did you have some kind of idea of the stunts you wanted to do? I’m not sure how much of the stunts were written out and how many you could come up with the stunt people.

Wan: I was in the middle of post-production on Insidious 2 when I scored the gig for Furious 7, so I had to leave that movie halfway through post and jump into Furious 7. When I first came on, it was very early. Justin was just in the middle of trying to finish Furious 6 and they were already starting with Furious 7 and there was no script at that point—it was just a written treatment—and a lot of the action scenes were very much just left in the air. They roughly knew kind of what they wanted to do. They knew they wanted an action moment where cars fall out of the back of the plane, and I remember when I first came on and read that and I got “Huh, okay. I guess I have to make this work.” I just kind of ran away with the action and sort of made the action scenes mine, if that makes sense.

CS: Did you have to give any sort of pitch to get the gig? Did you go to them or did they come to you or somewhere in the middle?

Wan: It was, it was somewhere in the middle. It was a case where I knew that Justin could not start #7 because he was still finishing #6, and to be honest, I think he was pretty exhausted as well. They were looking for people. I went in there and met with them, and they said I was the only director that came in that did not talk about the action, but also talked about the characters. I think that is the most important thing about this particular franchise is sure, the action is fun, and it’s crazy and people love to go along with it, but it’s really the characters that people keep coming back to with these films—the characters and the actors playing them. I went in there and talked about what I liked about the franchise, what I liked about the characters and where I see this movie going for the characters and that was what made them believe in me.

jameswanfurious71CS: Was it easier or harder to come to a movie where you already have a cast laid out for you who have already worked together on two other movies?

Wan: You know what? I equate it to being invited to a Thanksgiving dinner and you come in halfway through that and everybody’s already seated at the table and are carving away at the turkey and everyone stops and looks at you and goes “Who’s this guy?” (laughs) Having said that, everyone from the cast to the studio to Neal Moritz, they all basically welcomed me with open arms. I think it helped that I have a track record, so I’ve already conquered the genre that I was in, so I think there was a lot of faith and confidence in me as well when I came into it. Also, all the stuff that I was pitching I wanted to do with the film, I think that really helped.

CS: Tyrese was very complimentary of you–and he had worked with Justin even before the “Fast and Furious” movies–basically saying how easily you stepped in but also had your own way of doing things.

Wan: Well, that’s very awesome of Tyrese. Tyrese was one of the few people very early on… he was such a great guy and he helped me out and tried to explain to me that “You’re the beast of this engine” and he would show me the ins and outs of what worked with Justin and what did not work, so that was very cool of him. I love working with Tyrese.

CS: At this point, I assume that Neal Moritz has his own stunt teams from the other movies, having made so many, so does that make it easier to transition into these movies or were you able to bring some of your own people into the mix?

Wan: That’s clearly the thing. When you come into a #7 of anything, it’s such a well-oiled engine. It’s so established already, and so the cast and crew are pretty much already in place, so I was definitely playing with a lot of people I’ve never played with before, and I could not bring a lot of my crew members. I could not bring my DP whom I’ve worked with forever, John Leonetti, and I felt really bad, because John was so instrumental in working with me and he really got my style very early on. I made up for that by letting him direct “Annabelle,” so that ended up working really well for him in the long term. But I got to work with Steve Windon and Steve was great. Mark Spicer, they were all super-cool. The team that was kind of forced onto me ended up being really great and these are people I’d work with again in a heartbeat. There were others that I could bring along as well. I could bring my own stunt guy, Joel Kramer. His body of work speaks for itself. He used to be the stunt coordinator for James Cameron’s films – it wasn’t that hard to fight for him. I could also bring one of my editors onto this, and my first AD, so I could bring a few people onto it, but not just everyone I had usually worked with.

CS: The tragedy of Paul Walker passing in the middle of filming had a huge effect on everything, so did the story change a lot? I know the ending was done specifically to commemorate him, but did other things change as well?

Wan: I wouldn’t lie. There were things that we definitely had to change, because post the tragedy, the previous ending just no longer made sense or relevance. When the accident happened, it took us all by shock, and then we were all so heartbroken by it all that for me, it was a case of whether I could continue with this from an emotional standpoint. Not even from a practical standpoint. I believe that we could get around it logistically. There’s a lot of smart people working on the film and I knew that if we put our heads together, we could make it work practically, but just from an emotional standpoint, for me to think that if I could get back out there on set and if I had what it took to rally my troops, rally my cast and put on a brave face, that part of it was very hard for me. It definitely was very hard for all the actors, for all the cast, for Vin, Jordana, but it became very clear to all of us that we wanted to finish this movie because we wanted to finish it for Paul. We wanted to finish the movie that truly honors the memories and legacy of Paul Walker. That became our primary mission when we got back to work. 

CS: I got that impression from Tyrese as well, that the fact that the cast had done two movies together or more than that in some cases, they already were a family so you had their support and they had the support of each other. If this was a one-off movie, it would be harder to get back to it.

Wan: Yeah, obviously the ensemble nature of these films helped it, because that meant that it allowed us to have someone else carry the weight. Have Vin carry more of the film, but emotionally, for everyone involved, it hit everyone very hard, and they all showed it in different ways. Some were a lot more vocal on set, others were a lot more quiet and to themselves, but listen, Paul’s death touched everyone and that went from in front of the camera to behind the camera. Paul truly was one of the greatest people I ever had the fortune to meet. What I love about the guy is that how so un-Hollywood he is. He really is one of the biggest stars in one of the biggest Hollywood franchises ever, and he doesn’t act like that at all. He was just so down to Earth and he just did not care about any of the Hollywood sh*t that is out there, and for that, I truly love the guy. On top of that, too, he was just amazing to work with. Paul was so athletic. I remember one day while I was pitching him this one particular action scene, that I was super-excited about. I wanted to do it all in one take where he would be running and chasing and shooting, gunfights, martial arts and all of this was going to be done in one take. I just remember how excited Paul was, but sadly, we never got around to shooting that scene, so that sequence is not in the movie that I would have loved to show people what Paul and I were thinking of doing.

jameswanfurious3CS: I want to change gears and talk about Tony Jaa and Kurt Russell who are the new guys in this with Russell having a pretty substantial body of work. When you bring guys like that into a movie like this, I assume things must change to play to their strengths. Can you talk about bringing them in?

Wan: Definitely. With Tony, he’s like a human robot. It’s amazing the kind of stuff he can do without the help of wires or anything like that, but on top of that, I can see why Tony is such a huge star in Asia, because the guy is so charismatic. He doesn’t say that much in this film because his English isn’t that good, but he’s got so much screen presence and I love all the moments that he gets up with Paul and the fact that they got at each other. It was just fantastic to watch him and Paul do their fight scenes together and when I call “Cut” they’d both laugh and hug it out. They just had such great chemistry between the two of them, so I think it was awesome to pair Tony up against Paul and watch these two really athletic guys go at it. One of the things I tried to do with all the action scenes is give them a different flavor between the characters. The showdown between Statham and the Rock took place in a office, throwing each other through pieces of furniture. The setpiece between Vin and Statham took place in a very big open environment, but the fight between Tony and Paul took place in a very claustrophobic, confined space, right? That just added a different flavor to it all—just watching these two guys go at it but in a really tight confined space. Logistically, it was very hard for me to shoot it inside that bus where they were fighting. But it was really cool and really fun to watch them go at it. 

As for Mr. Kurt Russell, what can I say? The guy is a living legend. I loved working with him. People always say “Do not meet your heroes because you might be disappointed.” This could not be further from the truth. He was everything I imagined him to be and more. Kurt was so professional and so down to Earth and he was just a pleasure to work with and on top of that, I got to geek out with him and talk to him about John Carpenter stories. 

CS: I could not imagine you’d be on a set with him and you wouldn’t ask about “The Thing” or “Escape from New York” or those movies.

Wan: Oh, hell yeah, man! I wanted to pick his brains on Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, because that was one of my favorite films growing up as a kid.

CS: I know you’re going back to doing horror with “The Conjuring 2” and I’m sure you’ll get a lot of calls to do action movies after this comes out, so are you going to keep on mixing it up?

Wan: Yeah, that is truly in the ideal world, I would love to do what Steven Soderbergh has been doing, mixing a small movie with a big movie and breaking it up a little. That would be my plan. I wanted to go back to do Conjuring 2, because that’s a smaller film and it’s more intimate. I get to work with Vera and Patrick again, whom I love, and the script is really good, and just go back and protect my baby which is the “Conjuring Universe” but use that in the meantime as well to develop and set up my next big film. Now that I have a taste of what it takes to make these big summer tentpole films, I f*cking love it and I can’t wait to get back to it!

CS: Do you think you’ll get involved in the Marvel vs. DC movie war and do one of those movies?

Wan: (laughs) 

CS: Is there any particular character you might be interested in?

Wan: Let me put it this way. If they were to come and talk to me, ask me those worlds, I would definitely be very interested. I’m a big fan of Marvel and DC and if they wanted me to be a part of it, I would love to come play with them.

CS: Well, that’s a very diplomatic answer.

Wan: (laughs) Well, take care and I’ll talk to you soon.

Furious 7 opens everywhere, literally, on Friday, April 3 with previews on Thursday night, April 2. Also check out our interview with one of Wan’s stars, Tyrese Gibson, right here.

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