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Ken Li reunited with Rafael Estevez in early March, 2015 / Ken Li, Twitter
After 14 years and more cast shakeups than some soap operas, the Fast and the Furious franchise now seems almost mythic, as if Vin Diesel and friends rode in on the SoCal sunset, destined for pop culture history. But the film series — which should blow past $3 billion in global box office after its newest sequel Furious 7 hits theaters April 3 — actually had a very humble beginning: as a short magazine feature by a then-25-year-old journalist named Ken Li.
“I got turned on to [the story] as I witnessed the theft of a car from the front of a tuner shop in Queens,” Li, now 42, tells Yahoo Movies. He was a reporter at the New York Daily News and got multiple stories out of what he witnessed, including one that he freelanced out to Vibe.
“Racer X,” published in Vibe’s May 1998 issue, went inside the world of illegal, underground New York City street racing. The story followed a 30-year-old gear head named Rafael Estevez around the makeshift tracks of Manhattan’s Washington Heights and various outer-borough neighborhoods, where he hung out with and raced against a melting pot of young car freaks who bet huge wads of cash on their souped-up Asian sports cars.
Li’s story brought new attention to the nondescript garages where standard Honda Civics were being turned into asphalt-smoking speed machines. It also caught the eye of Universal Studios, which optioned the film rights. That gave him a small sum of money up front, and more for every year that Universal sat on the material.
Two years later, Universal decided to move forward with a very modified version of the article, which led to another lump payment for Li. (He declines to specify how much he made, but says the deal was in the six figures.) “I think for ten seconds they considered me to write the script, but it ended when they asked what I thought the story was, and I said, ‘Did you read the story?’” Li remembers. “What they ended up doing was an American Graffiti meets Point Break meets West Side Story.”
Beyond depicting a multicultural mix of street racers, just about none of Li’s original article made it the big screen in director Rob Cohen’s film. The screenplay, which is credited to four writers (including Fury director David Ayer), moved the action to Southern California, which is the birthplace of the culture that Li captured in his Vibe story. Li was on board for that decision, and helped one of the writers research elements of the underground street racing world.
“The strange thing about the plot of the movie was it was actually closer to the kind of story I was aiming to write with the article,” he said. “I was trying to uncover some car theft ring, and edited that part out of the story. Oddly, they ended up taking my story, which had nothing to do with a theft ring, and then they ended up making a movie about that.”
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in ‘The Fast and the Furious’ / Universal
It’s hard to remember now, given just how gigantic the franchise has become, but the first film was a modestly budgeted (a reported $38 million), relatively low-stakes action movie that Universal released almost as an experiment. The cast was filled with largely unknown actors — Vin Diesel had only appeared in his own indie films and small roles in studio flicks. And the studio gave it a May release date in 2001 at a time when big summer movies still only came out during the height of summer.
“At the time, I don’t think they thought it would be a huge thing — they thought it’d be a sleeper,” Li says. Less than a year before The Fast and the Furious’ release, the car-thief action movie Gone in 60 Seconds starring Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie hit theaters. “I remember when that movie came out, I thought, ‘We’re dead,’” says Li. “But no one talks about Gone in 60 Seconds anymore.”
Instead, The Fast and the Furious was a smash hit, opening no. 1 at the box office with $40 million and finishing with $207 worldwide. Li says he had a feeling a film that was such a melting pot of ethnicities and interests would appeal to a changing audience, and 14 years later, the series is the most diverse franchise in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, the franchise’s massive success has been more of a moral victory than financial boon. Li got a technical writing credit on the first film, but has not been associated with the series since then, due to the less-than-favorable terms that Hollywood often extends writers of source material.
“Back then I was just a s—-head writer who had no experience in Hollywood and I was in my 20s, so you get the worst deal you can,” Li admits, laughing. “You get no points [percentage of box office profits], no royalties, nothing.”
And while he thought about pursuing other book and article ideas that might have an easy Hollywood hook, he’s instead focused on Silicon Valley, making his career as a tech journalist. He now serves as the editor-in-chief of the popular news site Re/code.net, and just enjoys the movies as a fan.
“The only one I didn’t see was the second one,” Li says. “My favorite one was three [Tokyo Drift]. I felt that one captured so much more of the aspect of the style of cars that I like. They’re all entertaining, [but] it’s this completely different thing now. Every time one comes out, I go see it with a bunch of friends, and they make fun of me for not having any points.”