Justin Lin Interview, Fast & Furious

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with director Justin Lin as the Los Angeles press day for his new film, “Fast & Furious.” Vin Diesel and Paul Walker reteam for the ultimate chapter of the adrenaline-fueled franchise. Heading back to the streets of L.A., they rejoin Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster to blast muscle, tuner and exotic cars along the crowded streets of the city and across international lines in this action-packed, high-octane thriller.

Director Lin liked the idea of bringing back the core characters. In 2001, he was a film student who enjoyed the ride along with the opening night audience. As a filmmaker, this project gave him the opportunity to make a movie that respected the series he had helped to develop, and to introduce the franchise to a new generation.

Lin explains, “It was a no-brainer. Vin and Paul were coming back and both Michelle and Jordana’s deals were about to close. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to revisit the past, but at the same time explore and build upon a lot of elements with these characters. There was a generation of kids that embraced “The Fast and The Furious.” It’s exciting to up the ante on something like that.”

Justin Lin began writing, directing and producing numerous award-winning short films at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, where he earned his BA and MFA in film directing. His solo directorial debut, the critically acclaimed “Better Luck Tomorrow,” premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and garnered a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. At the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards, the film, which he also co-wrote, co-produced and edited, was honored with a John Cassavetes Award nomination. “Better Luck Tomorrow” went on to make box office history as the highest grossing (per screen average) opening weekend film for MTV Films/Paramount Pictures when it was released in April 2003.

In 2006, Lin directed “Annapolis” for Touchstone Pictures and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” for Universal Pictures. He then ventured back into the independent film world to make the ‘70s period-piece comedy “Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee,” which was released by IFC Films and The Weinstein Company after its successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Early in his career, Lin served as the production coordinator at the Media Arts Center of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. During his tenure there, he created several educational television pilots and documentaries such as “Passing Through,” which was featured on PBS. Lin also established Trailing Johnson Productions, his own production company, which has made distinguished projects such as the documentary “Spotlighting,” as well as the acclaimed “Better Luck Tomorrow” and “Finishing the Game.” He is currently developing and producing several new film and television projects including a short entitled “La Revolución de Iguodala!” which he co-wrote with Alfredo Botello and plans to direct.

Justin Lin is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new high-octane action-thriller, “Fast & Furious”:

Q: What do you drive?

JUSTIN LIN: What am I driving? I’m driving a Saab.

Q: A Saab!? The word ‘Saab” doesn’t seem quite right coming out of your mouth.

JUSTIN LIN: It’s the weirdest thing, it’s the only…yeah, it is.

Q: Why did you want to do this? What was it about revisiting this franchise that appealed to you?

JUSTIN LIN: It was actually much easier on this one because there was no other reason unless you can convince all the other actors to come back. To do that was going to be a task -- I knew that -- because all these characters are very precious to them. It was a big part of their lives and their careers. I thought that was a good challenge to try to be a part of something, to try to go and at the same time convince them why they needed to come back.

Q: Paul (Walker) said the script was pretty much a done deal because of the Writers strike. Being a writer yourself, was there much wiggle room at all for you?

JUSTIN LIN: Well you always want to take advantage of everything so you’re always moving as a director. I’m also in the Writers Guild so I respect the strike but at the same time I’m prepping the movie. It was a little tough. A lot of times, I would be ahead. We would go scout for locations and they’d say, “Well it’s not really in the script” and I’d say, “I just want to see these locations and let’s see how they are.” [Laughs] That was the challenge, but it also made us more focused. When we went to talk to the actors, it made the conversations much more narrow, much more focused about what we needed to accomplish. I thought it made the discourse that much more interesting.

Q: More than just bringing back the original characters, there are all these connections to Tokyo Drift too. What is the mythology of the Fast & Furious universe?

JUSTIN LIN: Well, it’s funny. I think a lot of times when people think of Fast & Furious, they think of fast cars, hot chicks, and stuff like that. I do think there’s a reason why these people keep wanting to see more of these films in this franchise and part of it is the characters and the other is the theme. Aside from all the superficial things, this is really a franchise that’s exploring the idea of family in a non-traditional way. On this film, we were trying to hopefully take that and explore the idea of sacrifice.

Q: How about as far as tracing where Dominic has been in between and where Han has been before we saw him in Tokyo?

JUSTIN LIN: I think that’s part of the fun. I’m a big fan. I grew up in the working class suburbs in the 80s so I do love Hollywood movies, but what I don’t like is when they take something that’s successful and they recycle it. The goal here was not to do that, to say that there’s been time passage. When these characters go back to the car scene, they seem a little too old for that scene. There is growth and there is maturity and I think that’s part of the mythology and what’s happened between the first one and now is we’ve gone to different places and there is a relationship with Han. The way it’s presented, we want the audience to go and figure out the timeline for themselves. I think that’s part of the fun.

Q: Was it tough coming up with a different approach for the look in Tokyo Drift compared to this one?

JUSTIN LIN: I think that’s part of the challenge. My job is to try to serve the theme in the film. What’s great about this franchise for me is that it was never like…when I came on the third one, I was like “Well, okay, do you have to shoot it this way and does it have to look this way?” In a way, it’s a bit post modern in that stylistically it has evolved quite a bit and it’s changed a lot. That’s part of the plus for any director coming on to this.

Q: How do you approach directing an action-packed, adrenaline-charged film while also retaining the emotional core of your characters? How do you personally strike that balance?

JUSTIN LIN: The challenge is not to take anything for granted. I think designing the chases and the races is very easy sometimes, especially with the budget that we have for these kinds of films, to say “Oh, let’s do this, because it’s cool.” Many times you have to kind of try to pull back and say “What are we trying to say here? Where is Brian at this point? Where is Dom at this point?” We don’t have a lot of scenes to sit there and really explore the characters so you have to use the chases. Actually that’s what I really enjoy sometimes. On the other scenes, there’s a lot of subtext but when you do the chases and the way they handle the cars and the way they’re going to try to do something, it tells the audience much more. It’s a short cut to see where the characters are at that point.

Q: Vin and Paul evidently have a different approach and style to their work. Do you notice that on set and do you have to work differently with each guy?

JUSTIN LIN: Well Paul is very instinctual, I think. My job is to try and get him there and you kind of have that window, then you’re trying to push it up, so even when you design the shots, a lot of times I like to put Paul first. I like to shoot Paul first because I know that once you lose him, it’s hard for him to get back because he wants to be in the moment so when he starts repeating things too much… I think that’s a great strength. Anything that feels false, you have to keep working at it until it just comes out. Vin is very methodical. You can literally talk to him for 10 hours on a half page scene if we had the time and there were some times when we did talk quite a long time. [Laughs]

Q: Total flip side.

JUSTIN LIN: It’s a total flip and I think that’s part of the fun. Every actor has their … With Gal (Gadot), she’s very raw. She’s never acted much before, but there is something really interesting about her and it’s trying to hopefully find that and nurture that.

Q: Do you think there will be another movie? Are you set up for another one? I know Paul certainly thinks a fifth one could be the best one yet. What do you think about that?

JUSTIN LIN: I think you never say never. Having these characters come back and exploring and now they’ve answered a lot of the stuff that went unanswered after the first one. We’ll see how the audience feels. I think it’s ripe and there’s still a lot more to explore between all these characters.

Q: They’re going ape shit. I think that’s the word.

JUSTIN LIN: They’re going what?! [Laughs]

Q: They’re going ape shit.

JUSTIN LIN: It’s a great feeling to be in that room when that energy is there. It makes you want to say okay, what can we do, where can we go from here?

Q: Is there an alternate ending or an epilogue like there was in the first one?

JUSTIN LIN: No, it was always designed that way.

Q: Paul talked about your trying at one point to cast Tyrese (Gibson) who you’d worked with on “Annapolis”? Can you talk about why that didn’t happen or what the thinking was?

JUSTIN LIN: I love Tyrese. I love working with Tyrese. It just didn’t feel right here. I think Mia, when we were working on it, Jordana, certain characters felt right but I think again there’s a huge canvas and Tyrese is obviously a big part of this franchise and I look forward to exploring that character if it comes to that.

Q: Didn’t you shoot a scene with him?

JUSTIN LIN: No. It’s a long story. [Laughs] It’s a long story with Tyrese but we never got to shoot it.

Q: You talked about trying to get him. Was it close or not close?

JUSTIN LIN: It was very close. It was very interesting because I was trying to be inclusive and Tyrese has a big mouth. [Laughs] But we had a lot of fun and I think at the end you’re trying to serve the film and do what’s best.

Q: Can you explain that?

JUSTIN LIN: Explain why he has a big mouth?

Q: Explain why you said that and what that means.

JUSTIN LIN: I’m joking. Tyrese gets real excited because I talk to him frequently and he really loves the character and so do I. But this one, when we were moving forward, as much as I was trying and I love working with him, it just never quite felt right. At the end, it just ended up where it ended up but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. I tried putting him in certain scenes and it just never quite worked, but that was all very early on in development. This is one of the very rare moments when they asked me for the DVD if we had any additional scenes. We have no additional scenes. Every scene that was in the script is in the movie.

Q: What will be on the DVD then?

JUSTIN LIN: You’ll have Vin’s short which I really like. He went and shot a short. He actually went to DR (Dominican Republic) and brought a lot of the cast. It explains a little bit more of what they’ve been doing between the first [film] and this one. I love it. It’s like a little indie movie. He directed it and it looks great.

Q: He wrote it?

JUSTIN LIN: He wrote it. Yeah, yeah. I really like it.

Q: How long is it?

JUSTIN LIN: I think it’s 18 minutes or something. It was fun.

Q: Can you explain the casting of Laz Alonso? I thought he was great in the movie.

JUSTIN LIN: Laz is awesome. It’s one of those things where a lot of times finding the antagonist is the most difficult thing. When he came in, I remember he was one of the very few actors who came in and wasn’t intimidated by Vin. I was kind of sweating for sure. We had a huge sound stage. I had all the big lights on and I just wanted to see how he was going to be able to perform. There was no fear and I love that. I love working with actors like that where they’ll try things and they’re not afraid to do anything.

Q: Getting back to the first Fast & Furious, a lot of the action was just two cars racing down a straight line. It was the first time we’d ever seen that. How do you think we evolved to sliding under a flipping truck and burning through Mexican tunnels?

JUSTIN LIN: [Laughs] You know, I think that’s part of the growth. That’s part of the evolution of this and hopefully people will enjoy it. The thing that made the first film work -- and I can attest because I was actually in film school when I saw it in theaters -- it was an introduction to a scene that nobody had seen before. The tuner cars and stuff, that was just … I remember I was TAing at UCLA and these kids had done this little documentary about the rice rockets and stuff and I thought wow. I didn’t understand but it was very intriguing. These kids were very proud. They know that the muscle cars are faster because they’re bigger cars but yet they were going to figure out how to beat these big cars and all that sub-culture was very interesting. So having that as the setting in the first film was great, but I do think that you can still appreciate cars and how they move and drive and everything. In a way, the illegal street scene has really died down. They crush those cars now so they have actually kind of legalized it. People will go out in the desert and do the races there and make it more real. The scene has changed and I think characters grow. If we try to put the characters back into the same environment, it would be kind of silly.

Q: If you are involved in a fifth Fast & Furious, would you like to bring other vehicles besides cars into the movie such as motorcycles?

JUSTIN LIN: I think whatever is appropriate. I’m just starting to learn to appreciate cars. Especially with this one, you sit there and you’re casting the cars, you’re looking at the cars, and you’re talking everything down to the paint job – what color, what shade of blue and stuff like that. I like doing all that but it was a concerted effort on this one to say let’s not show off the cars. Let’s just appreciate the cars for the way they were designed. That’s why when you see the Chevelle or the Skyline, it’s very plain but yet I think it’s beautiful.

Q: Did you have the same stunt team as you did on “Tokyo Drift”?

JUSTIN LIN: A lot of the same guys. Yeah.

Q: Paul was telling us earlier he had a little different idea of where he thought his character should be at the beginning of this. How did you convince him that he would be back on the force and that’s where he would start out? He felt his character should be more like where he is at the end of the movie. What did you say to that?

JUSTIN LIN: The journey for his character, I can see where he’s coming from, but I felt like that’s something you’re depriving the audience. Yeah, you can be there, but how did you get there? We had long, long discussions about that and I do think that in his mind, again, the character is so precious to him, which it should be. He didn’t make it easy, but at the same time I felt like let’s really share this with the audience and say okay, I know we’re going to get there but how do you get there?

Q: Are you attached to a fifth? Do you have an option on it?

JUSTIN LIN: I don’t have anything right now. I tend to like to go do no-budget movies and stuff.

Q: You’ve done a lot of really cool independent films. Are you looking to do that next as a break from something big like this?

JUSTIN LIN: I’m always looking to do that. Right now, the independent scene is just a disaster. I mean, it’s sad what’s happened to independent cinema. I like that challenge. Those ideas usually are independent because nobody really thinks it’s broad enough. You have to go in that room and you have to convince everybody from the actor to the PA to come on and do it for nothing. I like that challenge and I prefer that. I do feel very fortunate to be able to have both worlds and to be able to do something like this.

Q: What was one of the hardest scenes you had to shoot logistically or otherwise?

JUSTIN LIN: Well the tunnels were something that had never been done before. What happened was I actually went and scouted tunnels in Mexico. The truth is you can’t move real tunnel walls. [Laughs] They’re there. And I wanted angles and you just can’t do it. At the same time, you can’t just run these cars through a parking lot and then just put a tunnel around it because there’s lighting issues and refractions, reflections, and stuff like that. So we literally had to go and find this super long warehouse and we had to build our own tunnel and we did it in four sections. The logistics that were involved in that, everything from…these cars can go out of control but when they run into the wall, these walls will actually collapse as opposed to real tunnels where it could be much more dangerous doing high speeds. Figuring all that out and knowing that you’re the first one in [and that] the technology might be there, that was the challenge.

Q: How long was your race track in the warehouse?

JUSTIN LIN: I don’t know the exact [length] but it was one of the longest warehouses that we found. It was down in San Pedro. We couldn’t shoot anywhere else because we needed that much control. Again, because of logistics, we couldn’t be shooting during the day outside so we needed something that was contained.

Q: Were you surprised at how much you could get done in such a small space.

JUSTIN LIN: I wanted more space. It made it much tougher because we had to reconfigure our tunnel every few days.

Q: Was the GPS bit in the script initially or was that added later?

JUSTIN LIN: It was initially I think [because we were] trying to come up with new ideas. It was my Saab actually. I was driving my Saab. The Saab has like the worst GPS and I get really…I feel like I have this relationship with this woman and that was how it started off.

Q: As a fan of big budget Hollywood movies, which of the big summer movies are you most looking forward to?

JUSTIN LIN: What’s coming out?

Q: We’ve got “Wolverine,” “G.I.  Joe,” “Transformers,” “Terminator Salvation,”
”Star Trek.”

JUSTIN LIN: Yeah, I’m up for all those. I like comedies too like “Funny People” and stuff. It looks great. It’s a great script.

Q: What’s your dream project as a director?

JUSTIN LIN: I’m working on a few. The dream project I would say is the 442, the Japanese American battalion. They’re like the most decorated battalion in history. In World War II, they were sent into all the crazy battles. That’s a story I think should be told and it would be the ultimate challenge because in a way it’s not a no-budget scenario, but at the same time, I think it’s very valid and needs to be told the right way.

Q: Is that a story you’ve thought about doing for a long time?

JUSTIN LIN: Yeah. I worked at the Japanese American National Museum for a while. I looked at a lot of archival interviews and stuff like that. Unfortunately, a lot of the people that served are all passing away now and that’s something that’s part of their history that you hear about but you don’t really know and I think it needs to be told.

Q: Is this a script you’ve been working on on the side? Have you been pitching it to the studios? It sounds like it would be a studio film.

JUSTIN LIN: It has to be a studio film. I feel like hopefully I’ll have enough relationships and people that have earned enough that I can do that the right way. That’s the goal.

Q: If this film performs at the box office, you know that the studio’s going to say it’s time for the fifth. So, for you as a filmmaker, is that something you would be immediately willing to jump back into if they said we really want to do this? Or do you want to make a project like the 442?

JUSTIN LIN: From what I’ve learned, it’s like a game of chess. I do really feel like I’m learning and I’m growing. I’m a better filmmaker today than I was 5 years ago and I’m just getting started. I feel like my best films are still ahead of me and it’s about positioning myself to make those films. Last time I was still getting over the fact that I didn’t have to worry about my rent the next month so my life has changed. I feel like as a filmmaker in this industry I like to put myself in a position where my choices will be different. I don’t want to be living day by day and be in this six figure debt. Somehow I got away from that. That’s good. And I don’t want to ever do that again, I hope.

Q: You’re like the first summer movie with an April 3rd release date. Are you happy when you heard that or were you thinking I’d rather be in June?

JUSTIN LIN: Usually I never know what the marketing guys are thinking and when they first told me I was like, “Aren’t we a summer movie?” But the more I think about it, the more I feel like I know that around April… I’m like a very normal moviegoer. When the Oscar season comes, it’s great because you get all the films and you get that appetite and then around February, you start feeling like ah, I just want to go out and have fun and those movies don’t really come out until May usually. So, for us to be in that, personally I feel like it’s a great choice to be the first one out.

Q: I want to go back to the beginning of our conversation when you said you drove a Saab. Why?

JUSTIN LIN: [Laughs] Because somehow it fits me. With American cars, I feel like a little kid. I can’t see over the hood. Japanese cars like the Lexus are just a little too nice, like it’s a little too easy to drive. The Saab is just temperamental enough. I’ll tell you, it’s the worst car because within a week of buying it, it’s like that light just flashes. My coolant light is on right now and I don’t even believe it anymore.

Q: Do you use GPS at this point?

JUSTIN LIN: No, I don’t even try anymore. And also, what’s worse is the OnStar. On the Saab, you can’t do like a phone, like a Bluetooth. They have their own phone system. You have to get your own car phone number and they have this voice recognition thing that you do and it never calls the person you’re asking for.

Q: I was thinking this movie could be a ride at Universal, especially the Mexican tunnel set piece.

JUSTIN LIN: I was thinking they should bring that whole tunnel thing. They should bring that back!

“Fast & Furious” opens in theaters on April 3rd. 

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