Although the cars in Furious 7 move like victims of demonic possession, their erratic behavior is actually just a matter of mechanics. Evil spirits can more reliably be found in the previous films of director James Wan, who brought his command of jolting audiences from their seats to the new project, if not the spirits themselves.
Just as the fast cars in these films have gotten even faster (and more furious) over time, the franchise’s producers decided late in the game to accelerate their production schedule. They first asked Justin Lin, who directed several previous installments, to start on Furious 7 while in post-production on part six. When Lin passed, Universal Studios began looking for other directors to step in. One name that came up was James Wan, creator of the successful Saw and Insidious film series. He was an oddly logical suggestion, if not an obvious one. After all, Wan’s films, like The Conjuring, are largely composed of expertly crafted set pieces, which are also the bread and butter of Fast and Furious. There was just one potential hitch: he had never directed a non-horror movie before. With no guarantee that his scary skill set would transfer over to the high-velocity heightened reality of the Fast films, Wan gladly slid into the driver’s seat.
“I’ve done a lot of the slow-moving horror films with a more subtle approach, and I got to a certain point where I finally got sick of that,” the director says. “I wanted to do something that was loud and in your face and bombastic, and Fast and Furious really allowed me to just go nuts with that, and play in a sandbox that’s much larger than what I’m used to.”
In order for the timing to work out, Wan had to come on board right away. He couldn’t even finish the film he was in post-production on, Insidious: Chapter II, and instead left that task to his editor. He switched over to Furious 7 early enough in its creation, though, that there wasn’t even a finished script yet, but rather a treatment. It was a rough outline of what the movie would be, with Vin Diesel’s gutturally uttered lines about “letting the beast out of its cage” as yet unwritten. The malleable state of the film allowed Wan to get his hands dirty right away in designing how the major action scenes would look.
In Furious 7, cars are driven out of the back of an airplane, mid-flight. A bus teeters precariously on the edge of a cliff. A motorcade files into formation and becomes a battering ram. And it was up to Wan to determine how to execute all of these insane concepts and make them play within the context of a world where physics is a thing. In order to do so, the director had to use a method he ordinarily takes care to avoid.
“I generally don’t do storyboards for my movies. I find it really restricts my creativity on set,” Wan says. “I like to discover things on set, when I’m plotting it out, when I’m blocking it out with my actors and my camera guys. That’s when I discover things that are more effective. But with a movie of this scale, like Furious 7, I couldn’t really approach it like that. There’s just too many departments to talk to and to communicate with. So the storyboard became extremely crucial. It became the bible for the movie, to some degree.”
After storyboarding, Wan moved on to another foreign step, the pre-viz. In this stage, the storyboards are uploaded into a computer, and the director is able to figure out angles and composite footage as if its already been shot. Although the specifics of the process were new to him, in creating set pieces the director found himself squarely in his zone. Even though this movie was very different from the ones he’d made before, the big moments from both reside in the same world.
“I always say a set piece is like a joke—you have to set it up, then you have to build on it, and then eventually you come in with a punch line,” Wan says. “In a horror movie, the punch line is usually a boo moment. And in an action film the set-up is usually building to a massive explosion or a big climax of some sort. So I just try to apply that same philosophy and superimpose that into an action movie context.”
Of course, the two genres only have so much in common. What makes horror movies successful is often the nuance; the slow build, the meticulous establishing of tension, and then the moment that it breaks unexpectedly. Furious 7 is not such a movie. Both in pace and editing, it rumbles directly toward the audience’s face at the speed of a souped-up GT. One of the places this rigid dichotomy is most apparent is in the way the new film sounds.
As a master horror director, sound design is very important for Wan. He relies on strategic quiet to retain a spooky atmosphere of anticipation throughout his films. Not so this time out. Part of the way speed is demonstrated in the Fast movies is with sound—be it the gunning of an engine or the carnage of a crash–and in Furious 7, speed is demonstrated constantly. Sustaining the pace of the film meant sound issues of another kind, though.
“One of the hardest things that I had to deal with was just the fact that it’s a very established aesthetic, with a very wall-to-wall musical soundtrack,” Wan says. “One song would roll right into another song, and right into another song, and that’s not something that I’m used to doing. That was a big one for me to wrap my head around in this movie.”
Ultimately, sound ended up being one of the places where Wan’s horror background helped equip the action scenes with more of a gut-punch. Having seen the power of quiet in his previous films, he sought to sneak some silence into his set pieces to jack up their impact. For example, in a scene shown in the trailer where a car flies out of one ridiculously tall building and enters another, Wan goes into a wide shot just as the car hits mid-air, and all of the sound drops out except for the whistling wind. The momentary absence of loud, percussive music makes the danger of the moment irresistibly exciting. It also comes from an unlikely inspiration.
“When I was talking to my sound designers and my sound mixers,” Wan says, “I kept referencing Wylie Coyote in those Looney Tunes cartoons where instead of having a huge crash when he falls off the edge of a cliff, it just goes really quiet, like wheeeewssh.”
Although Wan has already dipped back into the world of horror to direct The Conjuring II, due next summer, after that he plans on returning to the world of big-budget studio movies, “whether it’s action or science fiction or fantasy,” with roadrunner-like speed. Meep meep.