From stolen DVD players to Black Superman, Fast & Furious writer shares secrets of the franchise
Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019 Movie)
Now, after eight Fast films, the universe is expanding with the spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, which stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham as reluctant partners who must face off with Idris Elba's genetically enhanced super-soldier Brixton Lore, who fancies himself "Black Superman." (Definitely a long way from those simple streets of L.A.) It's the latest entry in a winning formula that has raked in more than $5 billion at the worldwide box office, and much of that success can be attributed to Chris Morgan, the screenwriter behind Hobbs & Shaw and the previous six Fast films, whose life has now become dreaming up the craziest possible scenarios involving speeding cars and even faster-talking heroes.
Ahead of the release of Hobbs & Shaw, EW had a wide-ranging conversation with Morgan about the history and future of Fast & Furious, covering everything from Johnson's casting to Paul Walker's death to that signature F-word.
"We're definitely not doing that"
Inspired by a Vibe article, director Rob Cohen's The Fast and the Furious starred Walker as Brian O'Conner, an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a close-knit team of street racers led by Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto. The 2001 film was a hit upon release, leading to 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious, which Diesel decided to sit out, clearing the way for Tyrese Gibson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges to join Walker. With another hit on its hands, Universal Pictures began development on a third film by soliciting ideas from prospective writers. As a fan of the franchise, Morgan quickly threw his hat in the ring, only to quickly learn that his ideas were a tad too ambitious.
"I loved the idea of this crew that acts like a family," Morgan says. "Technically they started out as thieves, but they stand for something bigger, which is each other. I had heard they were doing like an open call for writers for a third film, and I'm not a giant car guy, but I did some research and saw they were doing this thing called drifting in Tokyo. Originally, the story was going to involve Dominic Toretto having to go to Japan after someone he knew was murdered, and in order to figure it out, he's got to learn a new style of racing on the opposite side of the road and gain people's trust to solve the crime and bring justice for his friend. But they were like, 'Listen, we're definitely not doing that. This is a straight-to-DVD $10 million film set in L.A. Drifting is going to be expensive, Japan is going to be expensive.'"
A few weeks later, Morgan was called back in and a compromise was struck: Drifting would stay and the budget would be raised, but the film would be a reset, with a new cast of high-school-aged actors. And yet, ahead of Tokyo Drift's release, Morgan was still drawn to part of his original pitch, culminating in Diesel making a cameo in the final scene.
"When the movie was getting closer to release, we just kept thinking about Dom and Letty [Michelle Rodriguez's character] and the crew, and we had gone to the studio and said, 'What about doing a tag at the end of the movie to suggest that these adventures will continue and we will see the family again?'" Morgan says. "The movie now has cult status, but when it came out, the audience didn't respond to it at the box office as much as we would have hoped. But the thing that everyone universally said was, 'Oh my God, Vin is coming back!' And that is what gave us the shot to do Fast 4 and then Fast Five, and on and on and on."
"There's a little bit of soap opera to it"
Moviegoers' excitement over the tease of Diesel's return opened the door to reuniting the original cast, along with Tokyo Drift director Justin Lin, for 2009's Fast & Furious. "For 4, it was bringing back this crew, and specifically Dom and Brian, who hadn't seen each other in a longtime," Morgan says. "It's pitting them against each other and then making them work together so you can get the audience to cheer in the moments you want them to. Because, from the first scene in that movie, you're aching for Dom and Brian and Letty and Mia [Jordana Brewster] to just hug, fight together, win together; you've just got to run them through the gauntlet first."
Part of that gauntlet comes early in Fast & Furious, when Rodriguez's Letty is seemingly killed off, kicking Dom's revenge plot into high gear. But the end credits of Fast Five would later reveal Letty to still be alive, and she'd fully return to the fold with a case of amnesia in Fast & Furious 6.
"Maybe it's not the best term — I just mean it as an emotional roller coaster over a long, extended period of time — but there's a little bit of soap opera to it," Morgan admits. "There's always surprises and reveals and things that turn the characters' worlds on their heads. When we were on set for Fast 4, we had talked about where we would go in the future with this, and the tag at the end of Five is where we got to pique to the audience where that goes."
"We just knew it would be Dwayne"
Fast & Furious was a surprise hit, breaking the record at the time for the biggest April box office opening. According to Morgan, the success allowed the franchise to "go a little bit bigger" with the next installment, Fast Five, which is widely regarded as the best film in the series. And when going bigger, there's no one more fitting of the title than Dwayne Johnson.
"The original idea was a little bit of Butch and Sundance," says Morgan of the setup for Fast Five. "Dom, Brian, and Mia are on the run, and someone is chasing them. Not a villain, but a contagonist; he is the most effective hunter of outlaws that exists. He kind of needs to be a little like the Joe Lefors character from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the man in the white hat who just won't stop coming after them, and the one person they're afraid of. So we wanted to open with them looking back over the horizon, and there's a little bit of fear in their eyes because something is coming. I had written this character, Luke Hobbs, and this guy had to be unstoppable, determined, a force of nature, and we just knew it would be Dwayne Johnson. Everybody was on board. We went to Dwayne, he loved it, and he was in."
"The F-word for the Fast franchise is family"
From the beginning, family has been a theme in Fast & Furious, but as the franchise has gone on, that message has only gotten stronger. After all, we could never forget Dom's famous declaration: "I don't have friends, I got family." For some, it's become a running joke, but not to Morgan.
"I think that's the heart of the Fast & Furious franchise," he says. "We have amazing set pieces and travel the world, but there are plenty of movies that have good set pieces and travel the world that don't resonate with the audience in the same way. And the reason is that I think the audience is able to see themselves more easily in our cast of characters. More than money, more than titles, more than their cars, they value their relationships. And I think sitting in the audience everyone feels that way: 'I may not be the fastest driver, I may not be the best fighter, but what I do believe is I got a lot of heart and I do care about the people around me and I'd do whatever it takes to keep them safe.' I think that's Fast. It's not something we actively go to put in the film, it's just something that's there. I've said it before, and even Dwayne says it, the F-word for the Fast franchise is family. It's almost become like a drinking game: Any time someone says family, you take a drink. And my response, as the guy who writes it, is always, every time a character says family, they mean it. And I think the audience recognizes that and appreciates it."
"Justice for Han is owed"
While Tokyo Drift was originally viewed as an outlier, it has retroactively become one of the most important films of the franchise, due to the audience and creative team's affinity for Sung Kang's Han. The character died in Tokyo Drift, but Morgan says Han was "so cool" that they adjusted the Fast timeline just to keep him around, meaning the fourth, fifth, and sixth films were all technically Tokyo Drift prequels. The action would finally catch up in the end credits of 2013's Fast & Furious 6, in which it's revealed that Han's death was no accident, and he was killed by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, making his Fast debut) as revenge for Dom's crew taking down his brother Owen (Luke Evans). After serving as the villain in Furious 7, Statham's Shaw was reluctantly forced to work with our heroes in The Fate of the Furious, and then fully positioned as a protagonist in Hobbs & Shaw. This hero's arc for Shaw has bothered many fans who have called for "justice for Han," and to those people, Morgan says stay tuned.
"I love 'justice for Han,'" Morgan says, adding that Han is very important to him. "Sung Kang is a great friend, and Han is a character that I adore. I would say that the super-arc for Deckard Shaw is going to be one of the most interesting, cool, rewarding character arcs in the franchise. Justice for Han is owed. It's something we have discussed for a very long time and want to give the right due to. I think the audience will be satisfied and should know it's coming. There's a line in Hobbs & Shaw that is right before the battle in Samoa where Shaw says to his sister, 'There's things I've done that I have to make amends for.' That line was specifically written and put in there just to let everyone know that he is talking about Han — it is on his mind. It tortures him, and he's going to get to it."
"Everyone truly believed in their heart that Paul would want that"
Six films in, Fast & Furious had become a well-oiled machine, so much so that Universal fast-tracked Furious 7 to come out in 2014, just a year after Fast 6. This led Lin, who had directed the previous four installments, to pass the baton to horror filmmaker James Wan. But the director and the Fast family would soon be dealt a heartbreaking loss. On the Thanksgiving break from filming, Walker, the face of the franchise along with Diesel, died in a car accident.
"It was devastating beyond words," Morgan recalls. "The character of Brian is the eyes of the audience into the world; he is us. And just as a person, Paul was one of the nicest human beings of all time — so collaborative, so cool, so fun, so kind. I remember after the accident, the studio and all our Fast family went to the accident site and there was a line of cars like two hours long, patiently waiting their turn at this offramp to get off the freeway, pull by the crash site, and honk their horn in a little respect. That is just the level of people that adored him. I think maybe some didn't realize how much he had meant to them."
Production on Furious 7 was be put on hold, with the stars and creative team trying to decide if they would, or could, complete the film. The final verdict was that they needed to finish, for Walker. Aided by visual effects to recreate his likeness and his brothers acting as stand-ins, Walker's Brian was given an emotional send-off that resonated with audiences and critics alike, and Furious 7 became the highest-grossing and best-reviewed film in the franchise.
"It threw everything into personal chaos for everybody, and then chaos for the film," Morgan says. "He passed halfway through the film and had done a lot of the action stuff but almost none of the dramatic stuff. There was a real moment where the studio was considering shutting the film down and just not completing it. That is when we all got together and wrapped arms around each other and said, 'First things first: Forget if we can do it, should we do it?' And everyone truly believed in their heart that Paul would want that. So then we said, 'Okay, well how do we do it?' I went through all the footage we had of him from Fast Five on that we hadn't used. Basically, we'd take him in those takes and then rewrite everybody else's dialogue around him. So I knew the basic story that I wanted to get to, but now I had to do it with Paul and his existing dialogue, and then try to guide us to this new ending."
He continues, "There's so many people considering different things, but I just knew in my heart that Brian lives forever in the Fast universe — he just does. There's no other option of anything but that. Again, we all linked arms and dug back in. It was incredibly emotionally difficult for everybody, but there's a larger goal of giving him a great send-off in mind. I remember at a first screening over at the studio, normally you watch the film in a studio screening and the lights come up and everyone looks at each other and goes, 'Okay, how do we fix it?' In this one, the lights went up, there's a moment of silence, and then everybody just started crying. No one said anything for like five minutes, and then everyone just got up and hugged each other and were like, 'We did the right thing.' It's the thing that I'm most proud of. Our cast, our crew, our studio, and the entire Fast franchise really went the extra mile to do the right thing in honor of Paul. It felt like a very cathartic thing for everyone who loves Fast."
"I don't have any context for it, but imagine this…"
It's hard to pinpoint whether it was when they drove a safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or when they battled on the longest runway in history, or when they flew a car from building to building to building in Abu Dhabi, but Fast & Furious has become the signature franchise for "WTF, how did they just do that!?" action sequences. And somehow they keep topping themselves. So how does Morgan come up with something like, say, a nuclear submarine chasing cars in an icy wasteland?
"I went to the studio one day and I was like, 'Okay, I don't have any context for it, but imagine this: It's kind of like this icy Russian landscape, and you start hearing a car engine, and then you start hearing Tyrese's panicked voice going, You've got to go faster, man, and you come in and you see this car alone, hauling ass in this endless field of ice, and then suddenly this thing erupts out of the ice and it's a submarine that's chasing them down,'" Morgan recalls with a chuckle. "I pitched that and everybody just started laughing, and were like, 'That's cool, we haven't seen that before.' That was one of the conceits that kind of came out of nowhere. It's not necessarily me trying to top each set piece, because I think that ultimately ends in an impossible situation. I just think we're trying to make every set piece as unique as possible, as fun as possible, something you've never seen before. That's the goal."
He adds, "I always put myself where I started my journey with Fast, which is as a fan in the theater watching the movies. What gets me excited and makes me want to cheer? How do we use vehicles in a way we haven't thought about before? There is a caveat to this, which is the old physics debate. We'll bend physics, in fact we'll bend it a lot, but we won't outright break it. My dad was a science teacher and I definitely respect physics, but my rule is a little bit more flexible. I'd cite the runway at the end of Fast 6 as an example. Technically for the plane to be in the air for the duration of that set piece, the runway would have to be 26 miles long. True, but when you're watching it, is your brain doing that calculation, or are you enjoying and locked into the movie and worried about what's happening with Han and Gisele [Gal Gadot] and the other characters? If it doesn't take you out of the movie, then it's good for us, we'll do it. People will always ask me, 'Would you ever do this type of sequence or this type of sequence?' And my answer is always, is the audience going to love it, cheer it, and enjoy it? If so, yes."
And with the stakes getting higher and higher, where does Morgan draw the line? Let's just say he's willing to go out of this world. "I would never shoot down space," he says. "Never, never. I would literally never shoot down anything, as long as it hits the parameters: Is it badass? is it awesome? Will the audience love it? And will it not break faith with the audience as they're watching it? I'm down for whatever."
"If we're going to do it, those are the two guys"
Since joining the franchise in Fast Five, Johnson had been rumored to be getting his own spin-off, and that's now a reality with Hobbs & Shaw. But after years of trying to find the right situation and story, Morgan says it was Johnson's odd-couple chemistry with Statham in 2017's Fate of the Furious that sealed the deal.
"There has always been an agenda to expand the Fast universe," he says. "We really began talking about that when the movies started taking off, and specifically at the fifth movie. We've just kind of been talking about it in the background, until Fast 8. That prison sequence, I remember being there on the day and putting Dwayne and Jason in cells opposite each other and just letting them start the smack talk, and each trying to outdo each other. Leaving that set, my cheeks were hurting because I had been laughing so hard all day. And from that moment, everybody said, 'If we're going to do it, those are the two guys.' They're fun and kind of perfect for what a spin-off should be. We have a very large ensemble crew for the main-line Fast films, and it doesn't give you enough time to dig in to the backstories of some characters. So highlighting two characters, we're able to get into where they come from, what are the things that haunt them in their past. They're both alpha kind of hero characters, they want to do things their own way, they don't like each other. The last thing they want to do is work together. But also, incidentally, we always take a bit of a genre trip in the Fast films, and for us, with Idris, he's an imposing guy who is able to take very heightened situations and ground them in a real way, which let us push it a little bit farther than we normally could. The decision to make him a genetically engineered super-soldier was a step a little bit into sci-fi and a little bit into the superhero genre since he's going to have to step in and beat down two of the biggest heroes in film history."
Speaking of Elba's "Black Superman," does Morgan ever think about how he's taken Fast from street racing to saving the world from superpowered terrorists? "On a daily basis," he says with a laugh. "Someone sent me a still of what the stakes were on the original film, and it's just a truckload of DVD players and stereos — I love that. It's a testament to how much the audience bonds to these particular characters and what they represent. They are equally compelling in a $30 million movie about stealing DVD players as they are in a story featuring the fate of the world, genetically enhanced super-soldiers, and trucks linking together to try and take down a helicopter on the edge of a cliff in Samoa."
"We'll see what happens down the road"
"I have things I'd like to really see," he says, referring to the Fast universe as a "giant spiderweb" with interconnected story strands. "The thing I love about the spin-offs is that it lets you delve deeper into these characters. I would love to see more of that with some of our other core characters as well. I think they have incredible backstories and journeys and gauntlets that I would love to run them through. We just have to wait and see how everyone responds. We've had an idea for a Tej [Ludacris] and Roman [Tyrese] spin-off for a lot of years. It's a really fun idea, so we'll see what happens down the road."
No matter how much additional mileage Morgan gets out of Fast, he's loved every minute of living his life a quarter-mile at a time. "We're fortunate enough to have a group that really cares about the audience and really struggles to make sure that we're putting the best stuff out for them," he says. "I love these movies. It's not just a job, it means something to me."
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw opens Friday.