Interview: Justin Lin Talks Why Eva Mendes Didn’t Come Back, And How Robert Altman Inspired ‘Fast & Furious 6’

Interview: Justin Lin Talks Why Eva Mendes Didn't Come Back, And How Robert Altman Inspired 'Fast & Furious 6'
Interview: Justin Lin Talks Why Eva Mendes Didn't Come Back, And How Robert Altman Inspired 'Fast & Furious 6'

This weekend the sixth “Fast and Furious” installment, “Fast and Furious 6” (or ‘Furious 6,’ if you want to be really cool), races into theaters nationwide. This new film sees much of the cast from the original movies returning, with some notable additions (like Gina Carano from “Haywire“) and an even bigger scale – one action sequence involves a tank, the other a runaway plane.

And a little while back, we got to chat with director Justin Lin, who has shepherded the franchise since the third movie, “Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” transitioning it from a silly “Point Break” rip-off to one of the most consistently entertaining action franchises around. Lin told us how he has been mapping out the franchise since the beginning, what thoughts he has for James Wan (who will direct the next installment) and how Robert Altman was a big inspiration on this movie (yes really).

Did you ever think, in your wildest dreams, that you were going to shepherd the franchise on after directing part 3?

Actually that was in my wildest dreams. I actually pitched everything. And a lot of the stuff that you’ll see in “Fast Six,” I remember talking to Vin and the studio about it back in ’05. So for it to come to life it is the dream come true. It is a culmination of everything that was talked about way back when.

What I wanted to try and accomplish in ‘Tokyo Drift’ was alter the sensibilities of the franchise and build these relationships of all these characters. The first obstacle and the first test was to convince him to do that cameo. I had heard all the rumors and that it was a bad break and that was going to be impossible for him to do it but when I sat down with him and talked with him and showed me the footage I think he sparked to that. And when he said yes it was like, okay, that’s good, because he’s the patriarch of the franchise and if I passed that test it means we’re doing something right. He’s a huge “Dungeons & Dragons” guy so he loves back-story and character arcs. We really hit it off and in that moment I laid out a plan to rebuild the franchise through building the mythology and let’s acknowledge the fact that these characters have evolved and matured.

I was also very fortunate to have a studio who, usually with a sequel they get very conservative, but Universal – they have been such a great partner. Because every time I go to them and say, ‘Listen I know that was successful but I want to try something different,’ they say, ‘Go ahead.’ That’s by design and I think as we moved along, we talked a lot about if we got to do another one, have the characters come back together because at the core it’s about family. The Letty coming back in 6, people said, ‘Well when did you figure that out?’ And we figured out at the beginning of ‘Fast 4.’ So all these things were plotted out and the plane sequence at the end of ‘Fast 6,’ I started designing that in 09, before ‘Fast 5.’

Some of this stuff was a long shot but my greatest hope was that the audience was going to embrace it and we were going to be able to keep growing it. So by the nature of that the obstacles became bigger and we started going into other genres. I like to think that we did it the organic way instead of artificially saying, ‘We’re gonna try this next.’ It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been really fulfilling and a big part of my career and my life.

Was there ever talk of trying to get Eva Mendes back for this one? She was in the little teaser at the end of ‘Fast Five.’

Part of what we were looking at were the character dynamics and certain themes and the root of the family. I felt like Eva was perfectly used for the tag in “Fast Five.” And talking to her, again I want everything to be organic. She’s on this great track of doing these indie dramas and her character, I could never figure out a way anyway. So the best way to incorporate her was the tag. And she was grateful enough to come in and do it, and she’s obviously a part of the family. Anything more than that, I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe somebody can figure it out from seven on.

This one really feels like the end of an internal trilogy. Was that something that you wanted to do?

Yeah. Very much so. It got to a point where 6 got so big that we were going to shoot it as two movies. We had 13 characters and I had a lot I wanted to do. And as you can tell, there’s so much action that it could fill two movies. But at the end of the day I figured we could do it all in one. But it was always plan to end this chapter on 6. It was very gratifying to see that jump from 4 to 5 and see how much people had embraced it. As a filmmaker I couldn’t ask for anything more.

What was your inspiration for this one?

You know it’s funny people have asked me that so much today and they’ve named off all these action movies. But to be totally honest with you, I would say my biggest inspiration for this was Robert Altman. I love Altman. And if you watch the plane sequence at the end – there’s 13 characters and I was trying to tell a story without leaving anybody behind. I love ensemble movies and Altman was more of an inspiration for this because I had so many threads and characters and I also wanted to bring in an antagonist that, for the first time, wasn’t merely serving the plot. I wanted an antagonist that had a philosophy that was valid and could challenge Dom. Having Luke Evans join us was a dream come true – I needed someone of his talent and presence to be able to stand up to Dom. So all of that in one movie. But yeah, Altman was where I would go.

Well you had been inspired or at least watched both “Haywire” and “The Raid” since you borrowed cast members from both.

It was interesting because you always have a wish list. It’s very hard for me to say, “Gina’s great I want to use her.” The route for Gina to join us was that when we were working on Letty, I really needed a character to physically counter her and to really have her find herself. And I couldn’t think of anybody else better than Gina. Because when you meet Gina she’s the nicest person you could ever meet but her confidence comes from knowing she could break you. That came about organically. And of course with Joe, I had seen “The Raid” and Joe reached out. I thought – this guy is tireless. He just works all the time and he also had the confidence I wanted. I had seen the movies and I had a list of people I wanted to put in the movie, but there’s no way I would try and artificially do it. Luckily it was a great fit for both of them.

The third film in particular is really great for its emphasis on the culture that surrounds these races. How important was it for you to maintain moments like those while the movies kept getting bigger?

It means everything. When I first came on the franchise, it really already had a bit of a stigma. “Fast and Furious” was so big it was almost like some people would go on autopilot – ‘Oh it’s ‘Fast and Furious,’ let’s put some neon lights here.’ So to bring the indie sensibility into a big tent pole was a big challenge. And sometimes people would think I was crazy. People would say, ‘Why are you fighting for just a moment?’ And I would say, ‘It’s not about that. It’s about the approach.’ I think through time I have been able to find more and more people of a like mind and we’ve become a family and grown together. It’s a badge of honor for me. And now I have gotten to the point where I can demand that that stuff is in there. It took a little time to really fight for that. It means everything to me and thank you for acknowledging that. Without those small moments, those big moments would mean nothing.

I know that you were very adamant in the third one that you were going back to real cars and this one seems to be a great mixture of real cars and CGI and models. How hard is it to get that dynamic right?

If you ask any filmmaker, you’ll probably get a different answer. We all get the same buffet and how we use that buffet is very different. For me it was about understanding the appreciation for the genre and for the people who love cars. When I came on the third one, the biggest turn-off for the second one was from the car people. I asked them why they were offended and they said that there’s something very visceral about cars that defy physics for a split second because of the power that’s being generated and stuff like that. And you put it in the computer and it literally becomes math. I love basketball and if I saw a basketball movie I hope that they would respect why I’m passionate about that sport. And through it I’ve been able to design the sequences in a certain way and I take a lot of pride in that. Even though we’re defying physics in some of these moments, I want to make sure that they’re done practically. I use visual effects as a supporting tool. So everything you see – from a crashing plane to everything else – are done practically and then augmented it with visual effects. It’s not right or wrong but I’ve developed it and I do love this approach. I was joking with the visual effects supervisor, who had just come off “Harry Potter,” that when people look at those movies he gets a pat on the back but if people look at this movie and notice the visual effects he’s not doing his job right. So that’s the difference.

How important is the music in terms of setting the mood for these movies, in terms of the songs that you choose?

It’s very important but I hope it’s not in the forefront of anybody’s mind. It’s one of the hardest things to do but also one of the most enjoyable if you find the right match. It’s gotten to the point where music is being re-done for the movie. I think the Dom/Letty race, we have two tracks in there and Hybrid came in and remixed everything to go with the scene. It’s gone that intricate now. That also, the idea of using music, has evolved for me. It’s become even more specific. It’s not something I take lightly. Everywhere I go, people pitch me music. And I hate that. With those kind of agendas attached, it’s hard to find the right match. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed all the way back to “Better Luck Tomorrow” and I think it’s a big part of the music – how you can create a mood and a setting without hitting people over the head.

Has the pressure increased as the movies have become more successful?

I like the pressure to be honest with you. It doesn’t make it easier but it means that you’re doing something right. But even with ‘Tokyo Drift’ there was pressure because it was such an unknown – they didn’t have any of the original stars and for them to take this approach, that it was going to be a post-modern riff on Tokyo and Japan and all that. I mean ‘Tokyo Drift’ was not a cheap movie to make either. Pressure comes with the territory and I enjoy it. I think nothing beats putting your own credit cards up and being in debt. All that pressure, all those hundreds of millions of dollars – I’m in great shape, I have a great crew, I get to work with amazing people. So my job is to take a step back and realize what we do and try to push forward.  

Have you talked to James Wan at all about the next movie or have you mapped out anything for the franchise?

No. I’ve been talking with James back-and-forth, we’ve been emailing each other. And we’re going to sit down soon. But I’m really excited about James, I think he was a great choice. He came from the indie world, so he’s a filmmaker with a point of view. I’m always excited by that. For me, when I came on this franchise, for whatever it’s worth, I got left alone, I got to play. So I wanted to respect that. I wanted to make sure that that I got him in a good position to succeed. And the tag that we have [that ends the film], I’m very proud of that tag because it’s the best hand-off I can give anyone. I want him to instill his vision. I cannot wait to see what he’s going to do with it. I don’t want to get in his way. I feel like I’ve done everything I wanted to do. And this goes back to one of those film school talks where somebody goes, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Woody Allen took over Bond and Scorsese can do the next one.’ And it’s kind of the same. I’m excited for a filmmaker to come in. The worst thing they could have done was hire a director-for-hire, but they brought a filmmaker in. Again: I want to respect his process and I now want to become a fan. I’m excited.

You’ve been on these movies for 8 years now – what’s next?

Well, I have a lot of options, which is something I don’t take lightly. These are options I’ve never had in my career. I have worked very hard. And the thing I love about these options is I have small indie movies, I have comedies, I have big tent pole movies, they’re all kind of percolating. In about a month I should know what I’m going to do, which is really exciting.

Are you still planning on oscillating between the world of big budget blockbusters and smaller indies?

Yes. I don’t think it’s as much of a strategy, but in development you’re always trying to create momentum and at a certain point there’s always something that kind of pops up. Again: I think a lot of times, as a filmmaker, you’re trying to make a living but “Fast and Furious” has done is take care of me and take care of my family. So I have a little bit more of a buffer. My choices aren’t going to be driven by business, my choices will only be driven by what gets me excited. And I plan on taking full advantage of that.

Was there anything you really wanted to do in these movies but you couldn’t do?

No. I think the plane was the one everybody was so scared because it was such a big sequence. We literally built a plane. It was a huge undertaking and everybody was worried. But I think they had enough trust, we had done this enough, that they told us to do our thing. It was a big logistical nightmare but it was my ultimate goal. I had worked on that for four years. That was the last piece I wanted to get in. 

“Fast and Furious 6” opens on Friday.

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