Few screenwriters have ever stuck with a single franchise as long as Chris Morgan, who joined the Fast and Furious movies with the third installment and has been – forgive me – a driving force in the vehicular mayhem series ever since. He’s shepherded this franchise from a humble street racing franchise to an extended, multibillion dollar action epic with an ensemble cast, wild melodrama and some of the most absurd car chases ever placed on camera.
The eighth (official) film in the ongoing tale of car thieves-turned-international superheroes, The Fate of the Furious, is finally out in theaters this weekend and you better believe I got Chris Morgan on the phone to talk about the strange evolution of the Fast and Furious movies to their current, wild and crowd-pleasing form.
We discussed the thin line between over the top action sequences and action sequences that are completely unacceptable to the human mind. We talked about the tricky legacy of the late series star Paul Walker, and that of Brian O’Conner, his character who is technically still alive in the continuity of the films. And we also tackled the tricky plot point in The Fate of the Furious, which asks audiences to accept that Furious 7‘s villain, Deckard Shaw, is on the road to redemption even though he murdered the beloved character Han in a previous film.
Some MILD SPOILERS lie ahead.
Crave: I want to start here… when you wrote The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, you kind of grounded the franchise. It became kind of like The Karate Kid but with cars…
Chris Morgan: [Laughs.] That hilarious…
…and you’ve been with the series ever since, and now there are cars that are zombies and running around Siberia from submarines.
Did you see that coming, when you were writing Tokyo Drift, that this was where the franchise was going to go?
No, no, not really, but I will say I don’t think it’s taken a departure as much as everyone kind of thinks it is. You know what’s actually really interesting is when I came on to do the third Fast movie it was an open writing call to writers in town, and they were going to do a very, very low budget, potentially Straight-to-DVD film. I came in and I pitched a version that was, they’re doing this thing in Japan, it’s called drifting, it’s really cool. Dominic Toretto, something happens to someone he cares about and now he’s got to go there. The pitch, they were basically like, “Listen, I don’t think we’ll be able to get Vin [Diesel] back on this one, and also it sounds way more expensive than we’re thinking about, so thanks but no thanks.”
So I didn’t get the job. And then two weeks later, Jeff Kirschenbaum, who was an executive at Universal then, called back at me. He goes, “Hey man, what was that thing called again? That drifting thing? What was that, exactly?” So I got to go back in and talk to him, and ultimately they wanted to set it in high school and… this is kind of a long, boring story but it was very funny, because I was like, “Yeah, high school? I wasn’t really good in high school, myself. You can go ahead an take the idea. Take drifting, it’s fine, we’ll work together on something else down the road.” They were like, “No, no, no. No, no, you’re right. You should totally write the Dom version.” I was like, “Awesome! That’s great!”
So I ended up writing it and back then as a writer you’d do two steps on a script. So I turned in my pass, turned it in, and they came back with one note which was, “Great! Now set it in high school.” [Laughs.] Once I was under contract that’s when we ended up doing the high school version.
But I will say this, even from the beginning there… look, I came to the franchise as a fan. I saw the first one in the theater with everybody else at a late night screening and loved it, loved that relationship between the crew, but the thing I thought was always cool about them even back then, and really it was Fast Five that made them step apart from that with the heist element of it, but these guys they… I don’t want to say they have superpowers, because they don’t, but their superpowers are cars. The cars. They do things with cars that other people can’t, and they use them in lateral thinking sorts of ways.
There’s in the sixth film that I feel unlocks the entire franchise to me. It’s when Letty asks Dom, “How did you know there would be a car there to break our fall?”
As if that wouldn’t also kill them? It made me realize, they’re invulnerable to cars.
Yeah, of course. Of course they are! It’s very funny because I often talk about the stunts and stuff like that, and action set pieces, and how far is too far and where you decide where the line is. And I’ll tell you, I have a very specific barometer. By the way I love action movies, it’s what I was raised on. It’s one of the most fun things for me to write and come up with. But there is a process where there’s a line, where even I just go “Yeah, you know what? It breaks reality too much.”
So for me, if I’m watching the sequence and something breaks physics so badly that it pulls you back and you can’t enjoy it anymore, you don’t care about the characters because there’s no sense to it, there’s no real physical danger because you’ve broken the laws of physics so badly? If it pulls you out of that then it’s something we would not do. But we will tread close to it and we will fudge around one way or another. But by the way the scene that you brought up right there, that’s the one that comes to me to breaking physics. His jump and crash and smash and stuff, yeah.
The thing you point out that’s interesting is that for you, the barometer, the line that can’t get crossed has to do with danger. Because one of the scenes that people point to a lot when they talk about the plausibility of the franchise is how long that airport runway in Fast & Furious 6.
Yeah, we knew it when we were shooting it. “Look, the airspeed of this is going to be this.” And again, I think that falls perfectly under the bullshit guidelines, which is… Yes, absolutely you’re right, it would be almost an impossibly long runway, but I would ask the audience this: when you’re watching that sequence, is that what you’re thinking about? If it is then we failed and we shouldn’t have done that sequence, but you don’t. I think you enjoy it and then you go home later and you go, “You know, man, that runway must have been REALLY long! REALLY long!”
One action sequence I was thinking about when I was watching The Fate of the Furious was the zombie sequence [in which Cipher hacks cars in New York City and makes them drive themselves en masse], which I guess you did you research, and I guess there’s technology for that now?
Yeah. Look, the research behind it and kind of the kernel of scientific truth is there. It is there for that. Do we then push the bounds of it? Yes, we absolutely do, but it is a threat that people actually have to be concerned about, aware of. The people making the cars have to be aware of it. I think it’s enough in the zeitgeist to, again, to buy off on the set piece and the danger and the action of it.
I dunno. It makes me wonder if there’s a sequel coming in the future where Charlize Theron downloads her consciousness into a car.
It’s very possible, man. Never say never! [Laughs.]
Great, now if that happens people will blame me.
One of the things you do in this movie – to move away from the action and talk about the characters – is you bring Deckard Shaw into the team. Obviously Jason Statham is wonderful and I love him, but the issue of course is how do you have him at a barbecue at the end and still deal with that he [killed Han]?
I know! One of the most beloved characters! One of the most beloved characters, that we loved so much that we actually altered the Fast and Furious timeline to keep him around longer. It’s a good question and I’ll tell you this, I have two thoughts on that. One is we don’t know everything about Deckard Shaw yet and there’s a lot we’re still going to learn, so I think that’s going to help massage that.
But more importantly, there is something about Deckard that is not unlike Dom. They have a lot in common actually. Dominic Toretto in the first film, the reason that he ended up going to jail was that he beat down a guy that nearly killed his dad, and used extreme violence on that guy. What Deckard did is not dissimilar. Obviously it’s the wrong reaction, we’d never endorse it, but someone hurt his brother badly. He’s very family oriented and he’s kind of got his code he follows. Again, not the right response but at least an understandable one that has a little bit more of a shadowy mirror to Dom’s character there.
Fair enough. One of the really tricky things you’ve had to do in this series is, of course, and I hate to even bring it up because it’s depressing, but deal with the passing of Paul Walker.
It’s been interesting to see how you handle that within the films, in terms of the plot, because on one hand you’re being very respectful to the memory of Paul Walker, and on the other hand sometimes it seems like the characters are making a bigger deal of Brian retiring than of Han dying.
Can you tell me about that? Can you tell me about how you’re handling that balance? Because it’s almost getting meta now…
Right, I think there’s always a little bit of a level of… [stops himself] “little bit?” There is a level of being meta, especially because with Paul, who was so beloved as a character and as a human being, the making of the last film was probably the hardest filmmaking that I think probably anyone could do. It was so tragic, right in the middle of the film. He was such a good person that there really was a moment where we all were just thinking about shutting it down and not going on.
But once everyone kind of had a chance to grieve and go through it, we really started thinking about what would be a fitting end? Like, WE would feel bad leaving it unfinished and I think the audience would feel bad, and they have these feelings [too]. Maybe there’s a way to give Paul and Brian both a good ending in the franchise. So you know, look, the result was everyone worked very hard and we did something that actually is probably the thing I’m most proud of, is that end sequence. Because I think it also gave… you know, the audience came to the film and they had all this trepidation about Paul and what are they going to do in terms of the movie, in terms of a curiosity level as well. And I think the end of that film got to give closure on some level on a character basis, and also for fans on a real world basis. So it naturally got kind of meta with that.
And then in this one we wanted to, because what the crew was going through is something so vastly different than they’ve ever gone through before… you know, Dominic Toretto goes rogue and they have to go against him, and what does that mean about everything that he’s taught them through seven other movies? Do they abandon that? Do they keep their faith? It’s a big, dramatic shakeup for them. And one of the core characters that they would go to or talk to about this would definitely be Brian and Mia.
So it felt like, on two levels… on one level we wanted to be able to address it for the characters, who definitely would probably want to reach out to Brian and Mia and go “Oh my god your brother’s gone crazy, what’s going on?!” Now would that have happened off-screen? Probably. It probably would have happened way earlier but look, we have two hours in the movie so we definitely wanted to show that they had addressed it.
And then also on the other level, there is a little something – especially at the end, spoiler alert – to just kind of touch the memory of Paul. So we tried. We’re always really cautious about it and there’s always a lot of discussions about it. Some people never want to mention it at all, some people want to over-mention it. I think at the end of the day the two spots we have in the movie, to me anyway, feel right for the world – the Fast world, that is – and feel right for the audience, I hope.
I think one of the things that has made this franchise connect with people – beyond “big action,” because there are a lot of movie franchises that have big action – is the unabashed sentimentality to it. People feel emotionally connected to it so you can get away with a lot of that stuff, right?
I think so. We’re also aware of the joke and in on the joke about, look, these guys say “family” so much! Like, you make drinking games out of it, practically. But the truth is the characters say it. It’s not pandering. The characters say it because they genuinely believe it, and the only reason I know that is I write it. Right? They’re not saying it to elicit something from the audience and they’re not saying it because “It’s what we say.” They’re saying it because it’s relevant to whatever the discussion is that they have, and by the way, that is their core belief.
Again, getting back to they’re superheroes/they’re not superheroes… they know cars really well [but] one of the other things that they do really well is, they’re not all the strongest heroes in the world. They’re not all the fastest. They’re not all the smartest. These guys generally are blue collar, grounded sorts of people with some heightened things to them, but I think the thing that makes them special is their heart, right? They never give up. They never give up on each other. They never give up.
I think the audience relates to that because of two things. One is it gives you a sense that, as a guy in the audience, I know I’m not the smartest, strongest, whatever, but I do think when push comes to shove I got heart. I think everyone in the audience thinks that they would go the distance. And then two, I think everyone kind of wants to belong. That family on screen, they’re tight, and it’s funny when they bust on each other and they care about each other. We all want that. We all hope that, look, if we were in that film that they would invite us into that crew. I think they would. I think ours is an embracing crew.
There’s been some talk about maybe splitting that crew up and having spin-off movies with particular characters. Is that still a conversation that’s happening?
Oh my god they’ve been talking about that since the fifth movie. We talked about it with Roman and Tej, we’ve talked about… I mean, we’ve talked about it with every permutation you can think of. I think that yes, definitely, the studio would love to be able to expand the world. We’d love to be able to expand the world and tell other stories. So yeah, those conversations are definitely happening.
Now that we’ve introduced Deckard’s mom, is there talk about that? The Shaw Brothers?
I mean, it’s talked about. It’s absolutely talked about. Everything. By the way, Helen Mirren, she is so awesome. [Laughs.] She is so awesome. We were so lucky to get her in this film and in this franchise. God, she’s someone I would love to… look, I definitely want to put her in a car and get her racing and doing some crazy fun stuff, but she’s just so fun. There’s just a lot to do with that character.
One last idea I had while I was watching this movie, and I’m curious if you think we can make it work: Fast & Furious Babies.
Oh, like Muppet Babies? [Laughs.]
Yeah, but Fast & Furious Babies.
You know, again, never say never. Who knows! Here’s the thing, if it’s cool…
The crew gets the Delorean from Back to the Future and goes back in time to when they’re babies. Yes? No?
Sold! You have a lot of freedom in this series. You could do time travel and I think people would be fine with it at this point.
Oh my god, it’s funny. Like, a lot of times the fans will say here are the three things you can never do: you can do never space, you can never do time travel, you can never do dinosaurs.
Everything else is fair game!
I know, and a little part of my brain in the back of it goes, “God, I wish I came up with the most awesome version of one of those, that is just undeniable. Like you can’t deny, even if you’re a hater you’d be like, “You know, it was a good idea. You had to do it.” Right? Obviously we won’t but man, it would be so awesome.
Did you see that cartoon and comic book Cadillacs and Dinosaurs? It’s right there. You’ve just got to get the rights.
Maybe we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll do it!
The Top 12 Best Jason Statham Movies
Top Photos: Universal Pictures & Barry King/FilmMagic
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.
The Top 12 Best Jason Statham Movies
12. Redemption (2013)
11. The Fate of the Furious (2017)
10. Homefront (2013)
9. Spy (2015)
8. Furious 7 (2015)
7. Wild Card (2015)
6. The Transporter (2002)
5. Snatch (2000)
4. The Bank Job (2008)
3. Safe (2012)
2. Transporter 2 (2005)
1. Crank (2006)