I misjudged James Wan.
When “Saw” was being prepped for release, I was approached by the creative execs at Twisted Pictures, along with my writing partner, about spitballing ideas for sequels, since they already saw it as a franchise. It was one in a flurry of meetings, and we didn't have an immediate reaction, and so we let it go. Didn't really chase it. Smart, right?
For a little while, I wasn't really sure what to make of Wan as a director. I didn't like “Dead Silence” much at all, and I wasn't sure what to make of the wild swings in tone in “Death Sentence.” It wasn't until the midnight premiere of “Insidious” at the Toronto Film Festival that I was 100% onboard, and it felt like Wan had become a different, more confident filmmaker at that point, like he was serious about his craft in a different way. I was enormously fond of “The Conjuring” as well.
When James was announced as the director of “Furious 7,” I was as surprised as anyone. It wasn't the most obvious choice, but I knew he had been looking for a way to broaden his palette beyond horror films. And based on the final results, I'd say Wan has now bought himself the freedom to meet on all sorts of films now. He has successfully redefined himself, something not every filmmaker is able to pull off.
We sat down with him late last week to talk about the movie, at the tail end of a massive press event that lasted for days. I've never seen James looking more tired or more proud. He more than earned the right to feel both.
DREW MCWEENY: That midnight screening of the film at SXSW was something else. As screenings go, you don”t get many of those.
JAMES WAN: I”ve never experienced anything like that in my life before, and that was pretty much the first true screening we”ve had. It was pretty incredible.
I”ve said before, if you want to make movies, you move to New York or LA. If you want to watch movies, you move to Austin. It is such a great town for that and the audience is crazy. Manic for stuff.
That”s amazing. You don”t live in Austin, right? You live here.
I try to get down there two or three times a year at least.
You go down there, yeah. Your peeps.
It”s where I go to recharge.
I”ve got to imagine there are few people now more qualified to talk about the difference between your job when you are making something like “Saw” and your job when you are making something like “Furious 7”.
Radically different skill sets are called into play just because it”s a different world that you are in now with this one.
Yeah, you know, in terms of scope it definitely feels that way. What”s on the surface definitely is drastically different, but I don”t know. I think I try to look at all my films and break them down, because at the end of the day, it”s about creating characters that you like. It”s about creating set pieces, whether it”s a scary set piece or an action exotic set piece, right? It all comes down to what is best for those particular genres, and if you believe in the stories that you”re telling and the characters that you like that you want to tell those stories with, you can pretty much apply it to any genre.
Talking about set pieces, there are so many in this film, and they are so gigantic, and even one of those would require the manpower of entire other films that you've made.
Let me put it this way. Some of the rigs that we had to build, like the rigs that we had to build to put our actors in harm's way, whether it”s a tumbling car or a military helicopter or a tumbling bus or whatever… my special effects guy, Dan Sudick, is the best in town. He”s the best in Hollywood. He says to me, “James, we”ve been looking at this,” talking about the rigs that he”s been building, “For most movies one of these rigs is the apex, the climax of the movie. And on this film, I”m literally building one every week.” Every week, just to accommodate all the action sequences that we have. That”s crazy.
One of the fun things about this is any conflict of any kind in this movie is settled by a giant set piece. “Okay, we need to get this thing. Time to go to the top of a building and do this thing with five fights going on and three buildings involved and explosions and five helicopters and Vin Diesel.” Just to start to break things down and let people know what you need, whether it be your department heads or the actors, how do you even begin to approach a sequence to break it down? Take the whole sequence in Abu Dhabi. You”ve got these physical fights that are happening. You”ve got these giant stunts. You”ve got this effects stuff. You”ve got…
Let me give you a bit of context as well. I was literally in the middle of post-production on “Insidious 2” before I scoped this gig, right? So I jumped ship pretty quickly. I came on to “Furious 7” pretty much immediately, and at that time Justin Lin was still in the midst of actually finishing up “Furious 6.” Part of the reason why Justin couldn”t do “Furious 7” was because he hadn”t finished that one yet and they wanted to start this one. The release date was a year away, right? It was supposed to be last summer. Justin was like, “I can”t do this.” Plus the guy is rightfully tired. We”re exhausted as well. I didn”t know any better. I”ve never made any of these movies before, so I did not know how big and how exhausting it is. I was like, “Yeah, sure, I”ll come and play with it.” When I came on board, there wasn”t a script yet. It was just a treatment, with beats with what the characters would do and where they would be going, and one of the early beats that Chris Morgan had already written in there is “Cars fall out of the back of a plane.” I”m reading it going, “Oh shit, how am I going to make this work?” That”s my challenge as a director, to find ways to do it. I just dived at it. I remember I was still editing “Insidious 2” at Blumhouse, while in the room next door, I was storyboarding with my storyboard artists, thinking about what the parachuting cars would look like and what the vehicles would do once they hit the mountains. They take on this military motorcade and there's the bus teetering on the edge and all that stuff, right? So it was kind of cool. I had carte blanche to design the kind of action that I wanted to do. It was fun in that respect. I was like a kid in a candy store.
The action is a blast in the movie. Because that”s not something you”ve done before, what do you think it was that made them say, “Okay, James is the right guy to come in and do this.” Because it”s a bit of an act of faith. In the end, I do think you”re the right guy to have done this. I think you”ve managed to make it feel like a seamless transition at a point where the series has really found its voice now.
Right. Here”s the irony. People talk a lot about the action and how intense the action is and how crazy it is. But when I first went in there and met with Neal Moritz and the studio, I did not talk about any action at all. I did not talk about a single action sequence at all. All I talked about were the characters. That”s what I talked about. I think I talked about where the characters would go. I talked about how they would grow, and I think it is because of that that it gave the studio the confidence and Neal the confidence that I am the guy for the job. Also, to be fair, even though I”ve never done an action film before, I”m coming into this as a guy who”s literally created two or three franchises already of my own. So from the studio”s standpoint, they look at me as a guy who”s pretty much conquered the genre that I”m known for, and so they had that confidence to move me onto the next stage.
A big part of the appeal for fans worldwide, and this is something that really I”ve only become aware of over the last three of these, but it is the rotating ensemble. It is the returning cast and as much as it's become the buzz word now, it is the family. That is something that people closely identify with. I think in some ways, it makes this the model for 21st-century franchise filmmaking because this series, more than any other both in front of and behind the camera, represents diversity.
Yes, I think that”s incredible. I”m pretty sure that wasn”t what they set out to do. I”m pretty sure they kind of stumbled onto that, but they”re very smart to recognize what it was about it that worked. They latched onto it and they grew it right. They fostered it and I think that”s very smart. Making a movie with people of all different ethnicity, all different skin color and different backgrounds, meant that the movie can literally play all around the world. It”s not just a blanket whitewash film like most Hollywood films tend to be.
Seeing them come down the front steps in Abu Dhabi, it's hard not to think that”s kind of amazing. That cast being that cast. I love seeing that.
Yeah, it is pretty cool. It”s pretty cool. And the fact that they”ve embraced it behind the camera as well, the fact that Justin and I have been these two Asian guys that have been given this really big responsibility to run with this franchise has been pretty incredible. Part of the testament to why these movies have been able to get away with how crazy the action sequences are is truly because of how much people like the characters. People like the characters. People like the actors playing the characters. I think ultimately if you create characters that people like and can relate to, your characters are grounded on a human level even if your cars are not.
There you go.
There you go.
I must admit I am deathly jealous of one thing you got to do in this movie, because when we were working with Carpenter, over and over we were pitching things for him to do with Kurt Russell. What could we do, what could we do? It came down to John telling us that Kurt won't even read scripts without a firm financial offer in place. It kills me. So you got the Kurt experience. Was it great?
Let me put it this way. Do you know how people say it”s best not to meet your heroes because you”ll be disappointed? This could not be further from that. Kurt was everything I had imagined and hoped for and more. My God, that guy”s so down to earth. He”s such a professional and, like you, I freaking grew up with this guy. I love all his movies.
It”s hard to think of an icon who is more of our generation. He was ours.
The guy is literally a living legend. I mean, Clint Eastwood is a living legend, but I feel like someone like Clint is my father”s generation. The best thing about working with Kurt, besides him being such an awesome actor, I took that opportunity to just geek out with him, talk to him about all the Carpenter films. To Kurt”s credit, he would talk to me and he would actually have a lot of fun reminiscing about the old school. Like talking about what John and he would do on “Escape From New York” or “Big Trouble In Little China.” I fucking love the term “Little China.”
Talk about a guy who saw it coming, where Hollywood was headed.
Oh yeah, John was way ahead of his time.
A decade before others got there.
Yeah, yeah, that was the problem. His stuff never latched on when it came out. It was always like a decade later.
Whatever James Wan ends up doing next, I'll be excited to see it. It feels like he has finally reached a point in his career where he's going to be able to chase some of his bigger dreams, and it's clear to me that he's got a lot of things he'd like to say on film in the years to come.
“Furious 7” is in theaters now. Why aren't you watching it?