Director's Chair: James Wan - 'Furious 7'
Issue: March 1, 2015

Director's Chair: James Wan - 'Furious 7'

After co-writing and directing the Saw and Insidious films, two of the most successful horror franchises of the last decade, Malaysian-born James Wan was tapped to helm Furious 7, the latest blockbuster episode of the long-running The Fast and the Furious action franchise. The film, which reunites stars Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker and Dwayne Johnson for another testosterone-fueled adventure, also features regulars Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, along with newcomers Jason Statham, Djimon Hounsou, rapper Iggy Azalea, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey and Kurt Russell. Once again, the gang happily ignores the rules of the road and the laws of physics with some eye-popping stunts.

Also returning is an accomplished behind-the-scenes team, including cinematographer Stephen F. Windon (Fast Five, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) who teamed with DP Marc Spicer, and editor Christian Wagner (Fast Five, Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible II).

Here, in an exclusive interview, Wan, who also directed The Conjuring, talks with Post about making the film, dealing with all the effects, and his love of post. 

How big a transition was it going from the Saw and Insidious films to this? 

“In terms of filmmaking, it’s pretty much the same. You still deal with the same issues and creative challenges, but the big difference is that I have bigger toys to play with and my set pieces are so out there and cost so much more to do.”

What did you learn doing those horror films and how did you deal with the death of star Paul Walker? 

“Making indie low-budget films really conditioned me to be more creative and to find creative solutions to problems. So you can’t always just throw more money at an issue, and I pride myself on trying to find smart ways around things that don’t cost too much. So that skill definitely came in very handy on this with the very sad passing of Paul Walker. I found myself digging deep into my bag of cinematic tricks and trying everything I knew so I could even finish this film without him.”

What sort of film did you set out to make, and how did you put your own stamp on it? 

“Obviously you want to differentiate yourself from the previous directors on the franchise, but at the same time you need to understand it’s a very established world that the fans really love and that the studio has already set up. So I wanted to do my own thing but I also wanted to play within that already-created sandbox, and create my own sandcastle in it. In a way, it’s no different from the James Bond franchise, where different directors bring their own styles and voices.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together? And why did you use two DPs?

“The two DPs was due more to the problems we had when the schedule suddenly grew after Paul’s death. We were half-way through when he passed, and we had to shut down and go into a hiatus and plan how we could carry on — or if it was even possible to finish it without one of the main leads. So because of that, the schedule got much bigger and all the technical challenges we faced to pull it off added a lot of extra days. So very few of the crew could hang around to the very end, so we brought in Marc Spicer who’d already done a lot of 2nd Unit, which helped keep all the continuity.”

How tough was the prep and shoot?

“We shot in a ton of locations, from Georgia, Colorado, LA and Canada to Abu Dhabi and the UAE, and it was a huge physical production with big action set pieces. And the initial schedule was so tight — it was meant to come out last summer, so we were racing against the clock to try and make that deadline. And then we were juggling all the VFX shots and what was practical and what we could do on-set and what required VFX. In fact, I sort of jumped ship at the end of Insidious 2 so I could start prepping this, and one of the first things I did was design this really big action sequence, even though we didn’t have a completed script yet. I’d never really worked like that before, but I decided to embrace it. Then we wrote these stories to meet up with the action. That was the only way to pull it off with the original schedule.”

How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot?

“Even before we began shooting. All the VFX started very early. For instance, for the car-dropping sequence, we shot actual cars being dropped out of the plane at 10,000-feet. We used skydivers and helicopters to shoot it, but we also knew it needed a lot of VFX help. So, I worked very closely with my VFX team to create the previs I needed, so all the different departments — from production design to the camera department, VFX, costumes, props and so on — knew what was required to make it all work.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I love it and it’s so important to my filmmaking style. I can never give up editing. I’m very hands-on — to the point where it can annoy my editor when I grab the mouse away from them, but I can’t help it. It comes from my enthusiasm about the shots and my edit, and they get that. I’d say that my love of all the post process — editing, sound design, music — comes from my career in suspense movies. And getting post right is so crucial to the end result and success of any film.”

Where did you do the post? 

“On the Universal lot.”  

The film was edited by Christian Wagner, Leigh Folsom Boyd, Dylan Highsmith and Kirk Morri. Is it true you had all four editors cutting at the same time?

“Yes, and again it was because of the schedule. We had an extremely tight post schedule, and I literally needed four editors to get it all cut and ready in time. Dylan and Leigh had worked with Christian on the previous Fast movies, and Kirk had worked with me on the Insidious films and The Conjuring, so I brought him along with me. I ended up loving the other editors, but initially I wanted someone familiar with me, and it was a very seamless process ultimately, even with four different editors.”

How many VFX shots are there?

“There’s well over 2,000 shots total, done by over 10 vendors, including Weta, MPC, Digital Domain, Ollin VFX, Gentle Giant and Scanline VFX. Weta’s main job was to take care of finishing all the shots with Paul Walker.”

Who was the VFX supervisor? How did that work?

“I had two main guys: Mike Wassel and Kelvin McIlwain. They were amazing in helping me and they really stepped up to the plate, given how many VFX we had and the huge range of them, from these very complex sequences to the simplest wire removal. On top of that, as this isn’t a ‘fantasy’ film, although some of my action scenes are very fantastical, we always want it look like it’s happening in the ‘real’ world, so all the VFX also have to look as real as possible. And trying to make all the car action stuff look real was very important for us and the VFX team.”

What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?

“It’s tricky to answer that as there’s certain stuff you think will be very difficult to do, and it ends up going very smoothly, while there’s other stuff that should be really simple which ends up being the most challenging. I’d say that the third act has a lot of tricky VFX shots, and the scenes of the convoy being attacked in the mountains was very complex to do. And then the sequence with the car jumping from building to building was very tough. Those set pieces contain the most difficult VFX shots. And then there’s all the stuff Weta had to do to make the film work without Paul.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“It’s really hard to overstate it, and it’s such a huge part of making suspense and thriller movies, which is where I learned everything. What makes those kinds of movies so effective is the editing and all the sound design and the way you use music. I actually believe that doing a sound mix for a scary movie is one of the hardest things to do. It’s far harder than sound mixing an action film. I’ve done them all now, and I can definitely say that. And usually on those scary films you don’t have a lot of time and the luxury of going over scenes again and again like you do on a bigger budget film like this one. For this, the rapid-fire editing and music are almost characters in the movie, the way the songs are mixed together, and that’s a style that’s already established for this, so I’m mindful of that.”

The DI must have been vital? 

“We’re doing it at Efilm, and I’m doing that and the sound mix, and reviewing VFX shots simultaneously, so the only way it works is because all three departments are close to each other on the lot. I’m a huge DI fan, and the only film I’ve never done a DI on was my first Saw. The DI’s so important for a film like this, where you want this high-end, slick, sexy, commercial look.”

Did the film turn out the way you had hoped? 

“Technically it turned out great. I wanted to make a big, fun, entertaining movie, and I feel we did it. But it also has a heart, and I hope it’d make Paul proud.”

So will you do another?

“I’d definitely be up for it. My next film is Conjuring 2, which will feel like a holiday after all the challenges of making this.”