‘Fast and Furious’ Costume Designer Sanja Hays on the Challenges of Dressing Dom’s Crew

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The Fast and the Furious, Furious 7
Michelle Rodriguez in her fight-ready evening gown for 2015’s Furious 7. (Photo: Everett)

If Sanja Hays ever writes a book about working on the Fast and Furious movies, she already has a title: From Tank Top to Tuxedo. Over the course of nearly 15 years, the costume designer saw firsthand how a modest action movie about street racers in Los Angeles grew into a multibillion-dollar film franchise. Beginning with 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, the Croatian-born Hays designed the outfits for every Fast and Furious film through 2015’s Furious 7. Though she had to bow out of the upcoming The Fate of the Furious for scheduling reasons, Hays may have been more influential than anyone in creating the look of the car-obsessed movies. Yahoo Movies talked to Hays (who is currently in production in South Africa on the third Maze Runner film) about finding the perfect muscle tee, dressing those dancing extras, making a formal gown fight-ready, and having intense wardrobe conversations with Vin Diesel.

The Fast and the Furious
The cast of 2001’s The Fast and the Furious: Matt Schulze, Michelle Rodriguez, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Johnny Strong (rear), Jordana Brewster, Rick Yune, and Chad Lindberg. (Photo: Everett)

When Hays began work on The Fast and the Furious, she already had a few major Hollywood action films under her belt, including Independence Day, Blade, and Star Trek: Insurrection. As part of her research for the first film, which introduced undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and heroic outlaw Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Hays attended an actual Los Angeles street race — and was disappointed that no one dressed up for the occasion. “We were this close to being arrested, because the race was illegal,” she says. “And people are wearing T-shirts and chinos!” She decided that the costumes for the film should be based in L.A. street fashion, but “a little bit cooler than realism.” To this end, Hay sought out cutting-edge trends from Japanese fashion magazines. She was also inspired to outfit the film’s female background characters in vibrant, sexy ensembles, to “balance the testosterone” of the main characters and their muscle cars.

The Fast and the Furious
Vin Diesel and extras in 2009’s Fast & Furious. (Photo: Everett)

Over time, those extras became an identifying feature of the franchise, not just adding color but helping to establish the location of each film. “Like Toyko Drift, we shot mostly in L.A., so you get the look of Tokyo but you’re really in L.A.,” she says. “It’s a challenge to make Puerto Rico look like Brazil, to make Atlanta look like Puerto Rico, or whatever. And then we were in London, so we had to [make sure] London looked like London, not like Puerto Rico. If you really pay attention, you can see that these girls actually are dressed differently. … And it became a challenge every time to top the previous one.”

The Fast and the Furious, Fast Five
The cast of 2011’s Fast Five, from left: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Sung Kang, Don Omar, Tego Calderon, Gal Gadot, Ludacris, and Tyrese Gibson (Photo: Everett)

But of course, as in most Hollywood films, the main players in the Fast and Furious franchise are male actors, including Diesel, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Ludacris, and Tyrese. Hays acknowledges that the men of Fast and Furious are, by and large, much more particular about their clothing than the women. “People think, Oh, it’s just jeans and T-shirts. They have no idea,” she says. “Trying to find the perfect T-shirt and pair of pants is probably the most difficult thing.” No two characters wear the same T-shirt, and the brands and styles change subtly from movie to movie. And characters involved in fights or stunts can require as many as 20 identical shirts to get through a single sequence. (“They get ripped, they get dirty, they get bloody — depends what happens in the fight,” says Hays.)

Particularly thoughtful about his wardrobe is longtime star and producer Diesel. When asked if he has ever made specific requests for his character Dom’s costumes, Hays answers, “Saying he had special requests doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

The Fast and the Furious, Fast Five
Vin Diesel in 2011’s Fast Five. (Photo: Everett)

“On every movie, almost before every [costume] change and at the beginning [of shooting], we would spend hours talking about what has happened to a character, where is the character now, how does that affect this, and what else is in the scene?” Hays says about Diesel. “He’s very, very thoughtful about that and very specific and open to the discussion. It was a true collaboration. But I love working like that, because I feel that my job to help an actor create a character as much as I can help them create the character, whether it’s a star or a day player.”

That said, Hays’s most memorable costume experience on the Fast and Furious films didn’t involve the men at all. Her standout memory from the seven films she worked on was the red dress worn by Michelle Rodriguez in her fight scene with Ronda Rousey in Furious 7 (above). Rodriguez’s low-cut, backless, floor-length gown — a dress that many women would find “hard to wear” under normal circumstances, Hays notes — wouldn’t stay put during the intense one-on-one battle and required elaborate custom undergarments.

“That was some serious engineering going on,” Hays recalls. “And I think that was the first time ever that two girls in stilettos and evening gowns had a fight like that. I mean, you don’t see fights like that with women.”

Watch a video about where we left off with ‘Furious 7’:

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