After bringing the story of N.W.A. to the big screen in the commercial hit and awards contender Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray took over the eighth installment of one of Hollywood's most lucrative franchises, Fast and Furious. The Fast films have a cumulative $4 billion in total global box office returns, with James Wan's 2015 film Furious 7 bringing in $1.5 billion alone.
Adding to the pressure, Gray would be directing the first major studio production to film in Cuba since the embargo lifted.
Fate of the Furious, which hits theaters Friday, sees the return of Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez and Ludacris, as well as franchise patriarch Vin Diesel as Dom. The movie centers on Dom's decision to go rogue, aligning himself with hacker Cypher (Charlize Theron) for reasons unbeknownst to his family, who now must work to take him down.
Gray says that Fast fans may be surprised by the more dramatic tone of this installment, but he hopes that he was able to counterbalance that with humor and a tank of gas or two. He explains, "You never want the audience to say, 'I don't know what movie I was watching. Was it My Dinner with Andre or was it The Terminator with cars?'"
The director spoke with Heat Vision about making the move from Compton to Cuba, his personal favorite Fast 8 race sequence and the effect of a well-placed Bassnectar track.
Fate of the Furious was the first major studio production to film in Cuba since the embargo lifted. What was the biggest challenge you encountered?
It was massive undertaking to bring hundreds of people from the U.S. to Cuba, even something as simple as putting them up in a hotel. Or sending out emails - we had very limited to no internet service. It's one thing to bring a movie to Cuba, but it's another to bring a movie of this size, where you are racing vintage cars 100 miles per hour down streets where there are tens of thousands of people just watching. When you have actors and stuntmen driving at these speeds in these old cars, being chased by helicopters in a city that had never seen a helicopter like that before, it was really tough. But worth it.
That opening race set in Cuba looked perfectly planned and choreographed, especially when combined with music from the score. Music has always played a huge role in Fast films - Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa's "See You Again" even got a Golden Globe nomination - and this movie seems to continue that trend.
I had worked before with Brian Tyler, who is the composer for the movie. We worked together on Law Abiding Citizen, but he has been a part of the Fast franchise for a while so it was somewhat of a coincidence that we came together and our lives intersected at Fate of the Furious. The approach with the music was to make sure you felt like it was fun, inviting and warm, but it also framed and balanced the tone, because there is a little more drama in this movie than you are used to with a Fast movie with maybe a little more humor to counter that drama. So the music had to tie it all together. It became the glue.
A personal favorite is the backing track to the jail fight sequence between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.
There were choices I made with the music just to pump up the audience. In the jail sequence, you have this Bassnectar track that just made you scream out "Hell yeah! I'm here for this."
Someone in my screening did yell out "Hell yes."
Really?! And that was the point. It's like you have The Rock and you have Jason Statham, and they are in jail kicking ass in ways you have never seen before on the big screen, and you want the audience to jump into that experience. And the music helps put the audience right there in the scene, like, "I'm here and I'm in it."
The tone of Fast movies is so unique. It is equal parts fun kitsch and intense action and earnest sentiment. So, as the director, how did you walk this very narrow line?
Most people are conscious of the fact that you have to walk this fine line and be hyper aware of the tone because a quarter turn one way or the other could throw off the balance. I'm aware of what the fans want and expect. They want this massive, over-the-top action that sends them home stimulated and freaking out and makes them want to see it again. But when you have these dramatic elements, which is the motivation for Dom going rogue, the humor is created as a counterbalance. The one thing I didn't want it to feel like is a movie with action and then exposition. Tentpole movies tend to do that. It's spectacle and then story.
How important was the editing in finding that balance?
We have been editing since late August. We have been pounding the AVID for months now. Chris and Paul, my editors, were amazing. It was a very challenging movie across the board to shoot it, to produce it and especially to cut it. But it's a ride. Someone likened it to Magic Mountain.
Did you have a personal favorite race sequence?
Well, I'll give the filmmaker answer: I loved them all.
But I will say that the New York sequence really stands out to me because for Charlize Theron's character to remotely control a thousand vehicles from a billion-dollar jet above Manhattan, weaponize these cars, and have them flying out buildings and using them as vehicular torpedoes - that was very creative and original and timely. With all the hacking stuff that's going on, it's kind of the lighter side of hacking. [Laughs]. If there is a lighter side to hacking.
At CinemaCon when you screened the movie in full, Vin Deisel described it as a start of a new trilogy. How do you see these movies progressing forward from here?
It's definitely a new beginning. I don't want to give up anything and I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I think that there is so much life in this franchise, especially after this movie.
Final, very important, question: Did you have a favorite car?
Yes. The 1966 Corvette Stingray. It's so hot.