Cruisin' on auto-magic: Justin Lin revs up 'Fast & Furious 6'

Few recent film franchises have been as successful as The Fast and the Furious. Its first five entries have grossed close to $2 billion, building a worldwide following of devoted fans.

Few recent film franchises have been as successful as The Fast and the Furious. Its first five entries have grossed close to $2 billion, building a worldwide following of devoted fans. Pent-up demand for Fast & Furious 6, which Universal opens on May 24, has been unprecedented. The film's Facebook page has over 28 million "likes," and an extended "first look" on YouTube has been screened almost 20 million times. The film stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson and, returning after a lengthy absence, Michelle Rodriguez.

The franchise built its base the hard way, without superheroes or massive special effects, enlisting fan support about casting and cars. But as Justin Lin, who directed four of the entries, points out, the series about street racers and the criminal underworld wasn't always treated with respect.

"When the first Fast and Furious came out, I was in film school," he says by phone from his office in Los Angeles. "I was a fan, but I was also hearing the criticisms, what people liked and didn't like. The big knock was, here was a car franchise that didn't even have real cars."

Lin got his break directing the independent feature Better Luck Tomorrow, a crime drama set in the Asian-American community. "When you make independent films, it's because nobody else believes in your idea," he observes. "But you believe in it so much that you are able to get other people to come on. And that was something that I wanted to bring to Fast and Furious. Yes, everybody is getting a paycheck, but why not work hard, really try to push?"

The director is deadly serious about his responsibility to fans of the series. He resisted efforts to make Fast and Furious 6 in 3D, saying, "If it was going to be 3D, you'd have to design the entire franchise very differently." But he also feels that working-class fans would resent 3D's higher ticket prices.

But Lin discounted news reports about how fans are influencing the films' storylines. "To say that the fans wrote the script, that's pushing it a little bit," he laughs. "I like having that connection, that discourse. But if we were just blindly going with whatever people want, I don't think that's a good way to make movies."

Instead, the director describes a long-term process of expanding the franchise characters beyond individual films. "A lot of what you'll see in Fast & Furious 6 we were actually talking about when we were beginning to shoot Fast & Furious [the fourth entry]. And even in a way in the third [The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift]. I felt like if I could get Vin to come back and do a cameo in 3, that was going to set off a sort of mythic journey for these characters."

Lin's work on both characters and stories takes years. "When an idea comes to life, it's very gratifying," he says. "There were these moments on the set when I'd say to Vin, 'Remember by your pool seven or eight years ago we were talking about this?' But it's not a given, you have to earn it. You can plan for ten more movies, but if nobody wants to see them, you're not going to get the chance."

The director approaches action sequences—the bread and butter of the franchise—equally seriously. The Fast and Furious franchise won over many fans because its stunts are so realistic. "That's why Bullitt works so well so many years after it was made," Lin argues. "They just mounted a camera on a car and went from there."

Lin designs the action sequences himself. Fast & Furious 6 climaxes with an airport sequence that left actor Luke Evans shaking his head in disbelief. "I have no idea how Justin is even able to process how he’s gonna shoot this," he told reporters on the set.

"We have seven action sequences going on at the same time," Lin explains. "I actually started designing that sequence in ’09. That plane was potentially going to go into Fast 5, but it just wasn't ready. Technically, the resources we had, we weren't ready yet. And for Fast 6 it was a perfect match. I hate jamming things in just because you're like, ‘Hey, a plane sounds cool, so let's just throw it in.' And then some people will say, "Oh, just use CG,' and that's a whole other road you're going down."

Lin speaks quickly, sometimes changing course in the middle of a sentence. But his enthusiasm and energy are unmistakable. "Sometimes I'll be standing in a location where we've closed down 16 city blocks and I'll be thinking, 'Hollywood is the only cinema that can do this, let me crash 20 cars in a night, 200 cars overall.'"

The Spanish government gave the crew a 15-kilometer stretch of road "basically to wreck highway-fresh cars," Lin laughs. "We have real tanks. We did a test, and when I realized that a tank is built to crush cars, I said, 'Oh my goodness, let's just make it safe.' But the tests gave me the confidence to design a sequence that didn't look like, 'Hey, let's just shoot a bunch of stuff' and then try to define the action in the editing room."

The challenge for Lin is to stay prepared, even when material isn't complete yet. "I felt like we were building a road and driving a car on it at the same time," he reflects. "Everything has to be moving at the same time. The timeline on these movies gets shorter and shorter and the ambition gets bigger and bigger."

Preparation means being able to come up with solutions on the spot. "I'll get a call that a train almost derailed, a stunt didn't work, and I have to spontaneously go to Plan B because the schedule doesn't stop," he says.

"If it's a superhero movie," he continues, "a lot of that you can pre-viz, and then you shoot it exactly the same way because it's a guy flying in the air or something like that. With a car, you can design it, you can do the stunt, but the car's never going to land exactly the way you plan it. So you have to have five alternatives ready."

Lin insists that communication is the key to a good stunt. He surrounds himself with the best available stunt workers and crew, and goes over the stunt "a thousand times. It's a continuous conversation. I repeat why we're doing certain beats, and it's not, 'Put the light there,' it's about why the light goes there."

The director takes the same approach with a cast known for big egos. "Again, it's preparation, you have to know what you're talking about. I don't mind people challenging me, but I have a point of view and I will fight everybody because I can't veer off from that. So we have arguments, but it's not me versus them, it's arguing about a point of view. I think that's what every actor wants."

They range from musicians like Chris "Ludacris" Bridges to mixed martial artist Gina Carano. "At the end of the day, if they don't look good, it's my fault," Lin insists. "It's my job to make sure everybody's on their A game. We've grown a lot together. For a lot of the actors, and the crew too, these films are what gave them their careers. So everybody feels the pressure, the responsibility."

Lin agrees that language can be an issue. "Communication is not me saying a sentence and then everyone's supposed to get it. Everyone speaks the language a little differently. Vin is very much a New York-trained actor. If we had the time, we could sit and talk for eight hours about why he's doing one thing. On the other hand, Paul [Walker] is very instinctual, my job with him is to set him up in the moment."

The director praises cinematographer Steve Windon, who worked on two other Fast and Furious entries, calling him one of the "big heroes" of the production. "It may sound funny to say on a big-budget film like this that we don't have enough money or days, but that's always true. So to have a DP like Steve, to have a shorthand with him, allows us to come up with extra shots. It's gotten to the scary point where he will set up the exact lens and move that I would have."

Five editors worked on Fast & Furious 6 to meet the studio's Memorial Day weekend deadline. "I know every frame," Lin says. "Every frame. For the film to be cohesive, there has to be a glue, and that's my job. I can watch a version and I will know every frame cut in it."

The director agrees that editing seems to have gotten faster. "The first reaction may be, 'Oh man, it's too fast,' but I think the way we process watching, viewing a film has also accelerated. But as much as editing has evolved, especially in the last 15 years, I think holding on shots is very important. And to me, editing is not just a literal cut. It's the way you set up your shot, how you can edit within that shot."

Universal has rewarded the director's track record by opening Fast & Furious 6 on Memorial Day, one of the most important weekends of the year. Lin, meanwhile, has been talking with Diesel about further franchise entries. He has also explored documentaries and comedies, directing episodes of TV's "Community."

"Every time I do a film, I want to challenge myself to get better," Lin says. "I have a good idea of what we want to do in the next trilogy, but as a filmmaker I never sign on for more than one at a time. I have to find a reason before I can commit. You have to have your own plan of attack, or else you're just chasing. And we can't be chasing, that's not why I spend this much time doing this."