8 DAYS is about to play a game of chicken. With an oncoming car. In Beijng.
We’re waiting our turn to cross an intersection in the business district. As we’re counting down for the traffic light to go red, we notice a car speeding towards the junction. And it isn’t slowing down.
We’re thinking: Don’t worry, the driver will probably stop in time. So when the Green Man appears, feeling confident, we decide to step off the pavement and onto the asphalt. Sadly, said driver doesn’t really care. He zooms past us, missing us by a hair’s breath. Phew.
This would happen to us again the next day, but with a different car (we think). It’s common for the pedestrians here to play live-action Frogger; no one really pay attention to the traffic lights, which are merely there to create the illusion of order and safety. But it also got us wondering: Wouldn’t it be cool if a Fast & Furious movie were filmed here? So far, the carmageddon franchise, which has grossed more than US$3.9 billion (S$5.5 bil) worldwide, has set its stories in Mexico, Brazil, England, United Arab Emirates and Japan, so why not China? How would Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) navigate the killer traffic in his Dodge Charger?
F Gary Gray, the American music video auteur-turned feature filmmaker whose credits include the hostage thriller The Negotiator and the hip-hop drama Straight Outta Compton, agrees with us.
“I’ve never shot in China,” says Gray, 47. “Filmmaking for me is about challenging yourself to expand, not only as an artist but also as a person. When you move around, you stimulate yourself and grow on every level.”
But Gray is getting ahead of himself. Right now, on a hazy, freezing March Friday, Gray is ensconced in a hotel suite on the 16th floor of the Rosewood Beijing, fielding questions from a group of inquisitive journos from Asia about his latest movie, Fast & Furious 8. (By the way, ‘fast and furious’ is also how we’d describe our interviews with the stars, but more on that later.)
He’s in town with actors Jason Statham — back as Fast & Furious villain Deckard Shaw — and Charlize Theron, who debuts in the series as an evil hacker named Cipher. (Also new to the mayhem are Helen Mirren as Shaw’s mother, er, Mrs Shaw, and Suicide Squad’s Scott Eastwood as Little Nobody, the protégé of secret agent Mr Nobody, another returning character played by Kurt Russell.
In Fast & Furious 8, reformed illegal street racer Dominic Toretto goes rogue and betrays his gang and joins forces with Cipher to steal weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) enlists Deckard Shaw to track down Toretto, and — guess what? — he isn’t as bad as we thought he is.
“We’ve done seven movies and they’re always about the family sticking together, sticking to their code, but what if, Dominic, who’s been preaching this code, breaks it?,” says Chris Morgan, who scripted all but two Fast & Furious-es (the 2001 original, The Fast and the Furious, and its 2003 sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious). “In Cipher, Charlize’s character, we have someone who uses the idea of the family against Dom, and this we thought provided a different engine for the movie.”
Morgan played a crucial part in rewriting Fast & Furious 7, by working around the sudden death of Paul Walker in a road accident in 2013, when that movie was in mid-shoot. Not only did he find a new way to retire Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner, he also opened up new roads, so to speak, for more sequels — three, in fact. After Fast & Furious 8, there’s Fast & Furious 9 is slated for 2019, followed by Fast & Furious 10 in 2021, in time to mark the first movie’s 20th anniversary.
The idea of a family coming apart at the seams is also what drew Gray to the project. Even though he’s new to the franchise, he’s no stranger to orchestrating vehicular pandemonium, having done the 2003 heist caper The Italian Job, which also starred Theron and Statham. But Fast & Furious 8 is a different animal. “The Italian Job was fun, but Fast & Furious 8 is intense and epic,” says Gray. “But my approach is the same – I want people to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.”
In Fast & Furious 8, there are three major set-pieces — the opening race sequence, which was filmed in Cuba (the movie is the first Hollywood production to shoot there since the US embargo was imposed in 1963); a ‘zombie car’ chase where a fleet of remote driverless cars wreak havoc in New York City; and the climactic face-off between muscle cars, tanks, and a nuclear submarine on the frozen Barents Sea (Iceland, actually).
“It’s a director’s dream — I was like a kid in a toy shop and I get to destroy hundreds of cars,” adds Gray. “Because I’m a car guy, it broke my heart in some ways. But I did it for your entertainment. So whenever you see cars being destroyed, remember: Gary did it for you.”
Does Gray have any problem managing the egos of his stellar ensemble?
“I’ve worked with half of the cast already. Charlize, Dwayne, Vin, Jason and Ludacris — I’ve directed them before, so I bring some familiarity to the table,” says Gray. “When you deal with the challenges that go beyond the script, beyond the action, I always go back to the basic question: Is this an honest moment? This is how I based my conversations with my actors. It’s not about who the big dog is or who the least important guy is. Let’s speak artist to artist. And that tends to ground everyone.”
But Gray is quick to add, “When you’re striving for perfection, the process isn’t always perfect, but it’s worth it.”
By ‘isn’t always perfect’, is Gray referring to Johnson’s infamous rant last August where he took to Instagram to complain about his co-stars? “Some conduct themselves as stand-up men and true professionals, while others don’t,” he wrote. “The ones that don’t are too chick shit to do anything about it anyway. Candyasses. “Many believed The Rock’s grouses were directed at Vin Diesel, who’s also a co-producer.
Asked about the alleged feud, producer Neal Moritz chips in, rather ambiguously. “Did you see the first poster? He asks, referring to the artwork that shows Toretto and Hobbs looking mad at each other, with the tagline ‘Family no more’. Er, doesn’t really answer our question, though.
“It’s a tense movie to make with a lot of moving parts,” Moritz continues. “Big budgets. A lot of huge superstars. But everybody [behaved] pretty well, including myself.”
Wait, so what is Moritz saying? The beef was some kind of a hoax? If that’s the case, then that’s got to be the biggest stunt of Fast & Furious 8.