When James Wan was tapped to direct the seventh instalment of the Fast & Furious franchise it seemed like the final bend in his race toward joining the Hollywood A-list after a career making lucrative low-budget shockers.

All Wan needed to do was put the pedal to the metal and the well-oiled Fast & Furious machine would do the rest. He had the money, the manpower — Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and now Jason Statham — and millions of fans hanging out for more muscle cars and mayhem.

But midway through production Wan’s race to the top hit an unexpected bump — Walker, who’d been with the franchise since its inception in 2001, died when the Porsche Carrera he was travelling in crashed and burst into flames (there was no evidence he and his friend Roger Rodas were drag racing but they were doing twice the speed limit).

“It was devastating, ” Wan tells me over the phone from the US.

“I really didn’t know if we could finish the movie. There had been deaths on productions before, but never anything on this scale. I couldn’t even call up another director and ask for advice.

“And there was the agony of losing somebody who everybody loved. He was not your typical movie star. He was incredibly down to earth and hated talking about the business. So his death hit us all in a big way.”

During the enforced hiatus after Walker’s passing in late 2013 Wan and his team went back to the drawing board to see if there was a way of salvaging the $250 million production, to see if they could integrate the footage they’d already shot with their late star with the remaining scenes.

“We dug deep, ” admits Wan. “We used Paul’s brothers Caleb and Cody and the actor John Brotherton, who was already in the movie playing a different character and has a similar build to Paul. Caleb and Cody had never been in front of the camera before so the poor guys had a crash course in movie acting. It was wonderful to have Paul’s family involved.”

What also helped Wan save what might have been a multi-million loss for Universal is the 38-year-old Perth- reared Wan’s history in horror, a genre in which directors are used to using techniques to make an audience jump without blowing the budget. “I have a bagful of tricks, ” laughs Wan.

We first saw those tricks in Wan’s first properly budgeted feature Saw, which was made in Los Angeles after he and his partner Leigh Whannell couldn’t get financing in Australia.

It went on to make more than $100 million worldwide on a miniscule budget and Wan was celebrated as a master of the genre.

While Saw kicked off the so-called “torture porn” craze Wan himself pulled away from the franchise to make Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), retro-style horror flicks that rely more on suspense, dark shadows and jolts than cruelty and carnage.

So the step from horror to a mega-budget action-espionage franchise is not nearly as surprising as one might imagine — while growing up in Perth and dreaming of a Hollywood career Wan always imagined himself making “tentpole movies” (mega productions on which a studio’s financial health depends).

“I always saw myself making Steven Spielberg or James Cameron-type movies, ” says Wan, who was born in Malaysia and moved to Perth when he was eight, attending West Leederville Primary then Willetton and Applecross high schools.

“Doing a Fast & Furious movie was a natural step for me, ” he explains. “And making movies of any scale is pretty much the same. You have headaches on every movie. The only thing is that the headaches are on a much bigger scale on a big-budget movie.”

Wan says the real challenge is not scale but taking over a franchise that’s made so much money for Universal since the first film, a modestly budgeted street-racing movie modelled on the kind of flicks that played in drive-ins during the 1950s and 60s, was a surprise hit (at the time critics couldn’t believe Universal was reviving the genre).

Since then the Fast & Furious movies have come out at regular intervals, cleverly retooled to suit the evolving market-place — swanky new locales, hot new actors and identities such as The Rock and mixed martial arts star Gina Carano, expanding the scope and scale to Mission: Impossible-style espionage — and pulling in $US2.3 billion worldwide.

Wan says it’s an enormous responsibility shepherding such an astutely managed series. However, he believes he’s has been able to imprint on the latest Fast & Furious adventure some of his own authorial touches.

“My background is horror so I was able to bring a greater sense of threat and suspense.

“Most action films are watched from the outside, like you are looking into an aquarium.

“In horror you are inside the aquarium. I wanted audiences to be right beside the characters as they’re having these terrifying experiences.”

While Wan was keen to bring the traditional craft skills to Fast & Furious 7 he was also happy to get into the groove of mega-budget movie-making, of upping the ante on previous films (the last four were directed by Justin Lin).

The new movie picks up where the London-set previous movie left off, with Statham coming in as a fearsome former SAS operative determined to avenge the death of his brother by wiping out Walker’s Brian Connor, Diesel’s Dominic Toreto and the rest of their hip multi-racial mixed-gender crew.


Fast & Furious 7: Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. Picture: Scott Garfield

It draws the former Los Angeles street racers into another bout of international espionage that takes them across the globe and involves a series of action sequences so outrageous you will be gasping at the imagination and execution at the same time as laughing the outrageousness of it all.

Nuttiest of all is a breathtaking scene in which the crew and their cars parachute into Azerbaijan where they plan to pull off a turbocharged heist.

Rather than using CGI, which is now the familiar mode in this digital age, Wan and his crew threw the vehicles out of the back of a transport plane and filmed them as they were tumbling to earth. “It was insane as it sounds, ” Wan laughs.

“The Fast & Furious franchise is more old-school filmmaking than other action series. Even though these movies defy physics and logic the more you ground it in actual filmmaking the more real it will feel to the audience, ” Wan says.

Even though Fast & Furious is known for its ludicrous over-scaled action, Wan believes that is all window dressing. What keeps audiences coming back for more is the characters.

“Even though these movies are getting bigger and crazier and more over the top, which they must to keep the audience interested, what grounds them is the human element.

People love these characters. If the characters have emotion the cars don’t have to.”

Wan returns to Perth often to see his parents but keeps a low profile. That might have been easy when he was making modestly budgeted horror but now that he has been directing some of the world’s biggest action stars — Diesel, The Rock, Statham — in what will be one of the year’s biggest movies it might not be so easy to fly under the radar.

But he loves Australia and loves coming home, so much so that when he signed the contract to direct Fast & Furious 7 he suggested to Universal that they set it in Australia. Unfortunately, they were too far into the production to change direction.

“Can’t you imagine those cars racing across the Sydney Harbour Bridge or through Melbourne? That would be amazing, ” says Wan, who learned his filmmaking at RMIT before establishing himself in Hollywood.

“What about Perth?” I ask. “We’ve got to have Vin Diesel and The Rock tearing down St George’s Terrace. I could speak to Colin Barnett for you.”

“That would be pretty cool, ” laughs Wan.

Fast & Furious 7 is now screening.


© The West Australian

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