Rob Cohen, one of today's most versatile and adventurous directors - Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, HBO's Rat Pack, The (1998), Skulls, The (2000), Dragonheart (1996), Daylight (1996) - digs in and tells a story like it is, and the import car street racing scene offered a story he couldn't resist.
"It's primal. It's precise. It's a world unto itself with rituals, language, rites of passage, heroes, villains and intense, gear-grinding drama," said Cohen, who witnessed the power and allure of this unique subculture at several late-night races on the industrial outskirts of Los Angeles. "It's a hobby and a lifestyle, dazzlingly multi-cultural, which has stretched from L.A. to the entire world via magazines, websites, slang and the innate human desire to test the limits. "
A character-driven action movie, Fast and the Furious, the (2001) puts audiences in the drivers' seats of cars that look both familiar and completely extraordinary. In the new parlance, they are "rice rockets," alluding to their Asian roots - sub-compact imports mostly from Japan, occasionally from Germany, which are reassembled and souped up with artistic precision by devoted owners, who spend tens of thousands of dollars customizing the engines and detailing the bodies before taking them to the streets for midnight competitions that are sometimes outside the boundaries of the law.
"There's been so much written and spoken about the place of the automobile in the development of American culture," Cohen observed. "The car is a symbol of freedom and mobility. There's a point in life when you're totally dependent on your parents to move around. And then at 16, you finally get your license. From then on, you're free. And you never forget that the car gave you that freedom."
"What we're doing with The Fast and the Furious, in a sense, is taking the western and re-creating it in a contemporary urban milieu," Cohen continued. "Our film deals with some of the most important themes of classic westerns - loyalty, betrayal, freedom. But instead of horses, we've got horsepower. "
Cohen developed The Fast and the Furious with Neal H. Moritz, a producer with a built-in barometer for the interests of young audiences, as demonstrated by such films as Cruel Intentions (1999) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997).
Joining them was Doug Claybourne, who began his career with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and more recently handled the challenging logistics for Mask of Zorro, The (1998). After agreeing to shoot the movie in Los Angeles, the heart of the street racing scene and American car culture, the filmmakers plunged into their street research.
"The races give the kids something real to do with their time," said Claybourne, who checked out several midnight matches. "They really invest in their cars, which can keep them away from less savory aspects of street culture. All of their energy is put into their cars. "
The biggest challenge facing Cohen and company was finding the best and the brightest young actors to inhabit the roles created in the screenplay. "I think every movie that's going to be a success must have surprising elements," said Cohen. "And we've got that in our cast."
"Paul Walker, who also starred in skulls, The (2000) for me, is a teen heart throb who has grown into manhood with a great combination of male beauty, intelligence, heart and testosterone. As for Dominic, our anti-hero, we really felt that Vin Diesel, who made such a fine showing in Pitch Black (2000) and Boiler Room (2000), was the guy. I believe Vin will fill the void left by action stars who are getting a little long in the tooth for extreme physical action.
"Jordana Brewster is in an unusual situation for a young actress," the director continued, "because she's just finished her freshman year at Yale University and normally you don't have actresses who are moonlighting from the Ivy League! She has a kind of astounding, almost unknowable beauty, and she's a very fine actress. Rick Yune, who had an impressive debut in Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), has a very visual, charismatic screen presence."
"While we were casting," Cohen continued, "an agent wanted me to see a yet-to-be-released film called Girlfight (2000), starring a brand-new actress named Michelle Rodriguez. We didn't really have a part for her then, but we created one and expanded it when we learned just how talented she is. When Girlfight (2000) was released, the rest of the world found out what we had already discovered. We also have such fine young actors as Matt Schulze, Chad Lindberg, Johnny Strong and the hip-hop star Ja Rule. It's a very special cast, and I hope one of our greatest special effects. "
The young cast returned Cohen's faith with their own enthusiasm. When Walker was in Toronto filming Skulls, the (2000) he told Cohen and Moritz he'd always wanted to play an undercover cop. "At one time or another, every boy fantasizes about being a cop - and a race car driver," said Walker. "After we finished Skulls, The (2000), Rob and Neal told me about this project, before there was a script. I loved working with them and said 'Count me in!'"
Walker has been a bona fide car aficionado from early youth. "When I was growing up, my dad had all the car magazines at home, and I studied the stats . .. the horsepower, cargo room, torque, the whole bit," he recalled.
He raced his own Nissan Skyline - the Ferrari of Japanese sport cars, according to connoisseurs - at a NIRA sponsored race in Palmdale this spring.
Diesel also has a passion for cars and leapt at the chance to play Dominic Toretto. "Cars and the idea of speed have always fascinated me," he said. "I had a GSX-R that we'd drive at incredible speeds on the Belt Parkway and every direction out of Manhattan when I was in college. I was younger and more foolish then - and in love with the liberty that speed can give you. But now," he admitted, "I'm an SUV kind of guy. "
Jordana Brewster couldn't have cared less about cars before The Fast and the Furious. She didn't even know how to drive, but the story, characters and director drew her to the project. "I really liked Rob and his vision for the film, and was excited about the opportunity of working with actors like Paul Walker, Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez. The script was also cutting edge.
"Growing up in New York, I had never driven before, and had to get my license to be in the movie," said Brewster. "To prepare for the movie, I had to go to Driver's Ed in New York and get a car in L. A. I'm glad now that they forced me because otherwise I probably would have been a non-driver by age 40!"
Rick Yune, cast by Cohen as the cool and dangerous Johnny Tran, found the project intoxicating. "The Fast and the Furious is the kind of movie that I loved when I was growing up, like Rocky (1976), Top Gun (1986) and the James Bond films," he said. "Cars, women, action. It's the side of movie-making that really grabs the heartbeat, and I was thrilled to get the role. "
Hip-hop artist Ja Rule joined the cast just before the release of his triple-platinum album, "Rule 3:36". The red-hot hip-hop artist had already starred to good notices in the independent film Turn It Up (2000). "It's hard to balance music and acting and take both 100% seriously. .. jack of all trades, and master of nothin'," said Rule, "but I am trying to master both. "
Cohen's casting needs extended beyond finding principal actors for The Fast and the Furious. He also had to choose cars that would deliver the right look, attitude and performance. "Those vehicles are really the co-stars of this movie," he explained. "This 'rice rocket' technology is a new thing. American muscle cars are based on the V-8 carburetor-based engine, but the import street racers use computer-controlled fuel injection."
"These are 21st century cars," Cohen continued, "and a five billion dollar industry has developed around the import add-on business, with the spoilers, bumpers, tires, rims, intercoolers, megaflows and other high performance parts that can be added. Out of this has come a new subculture which just keeps growing. Because now you can take your mom's Honda Civic, add $10,000 worth of parts to it, and wind up with a high performance racing car. "
For up-to-the-minute authenticity, Cohen, Claybourne and Moritz tapped into the heart of the import car community.
"When I did Dragon, I tied in with the martial arts community so that we could make a movie that was true to the narrowest target audience," Cohen revealed. "For The Fast and the Furious, we gave the script to Craig Lieberman, who heads NIRA (National Import Racing Association), and RJ De Vera, a former street racer and living legend, who is now an import car website entrepreneur and still involved in sanctioned racing. They corrected details which they felt were off-base, although we do take some dramatic liberties. "
Lieberman and De Vera participated in the film throughout production, as advisers and on-screen talent.
Assisting the filmmakers every step of the highway was David Marder, one of the industry's most respected transportation coordinators, who had already devoted his talents to such huge cinematic/automotive endeavors as Days of Thunder (1990). "Rob had a very definitive picture in his mind of what this film should be," Marder recalled. "The cars he wanted to film were all show cars rather than street cars - vehicles you see at the car shows and on magazine covers. With massive help from Craig Lieberman, we organized automobile show-and-tells for Rob at Universal Studios with all different types of cars. "
"We couldn't afford to do what we needed to do in the movie with cars worth $100,000, so once we chose a vehicle we then replicated it, sometimes in multiple versions. For example, we built seven different versions of our Mitsubishi Eclipse, which is the first car driven in the movie by Brian, the character Paul Walker plays. "
The cars driven by the Toretto crew are some of the most spectacular that Marder could find, as was Brian's second car, a legendary Supra actually owned by Craig Lieberman. It's outfitted with two turbochargers, NOS (nitrous oxide) injection and over 600 horsepower.
The Toretto cars include Dominic's sleek red RX7; Letty's (Michelle Rodriguez) purple 240SX; Jesse's (Chad Lindberg) white Jetta, a privately-owned show car that's been featured on three different magazine covers; Vince's (Matt Schulze) blue Nissan Maxima; and Leon's (Johnny Strong) yellow Skyline, a Japanese car not usually imported to the United States (there are fewer than 30 in the entire country), outfitted with right-hand drive, twin overhead cam, twin turbochargers and 450-500 horsepower.
Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) drives a black Honda S2000, a factory rod in the mid-200 horsepower range, although this one revs through 9000 RPM.
The graphics that adorn the Toretto cars were designed by Troy Lee, another hot name in the import car field, but conceptualized and overseen by production designer Waldemar Kalinowski.
In addition to the hero cars, David Marder secured a number of "crotch rockets," thunderously fast Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki motorcycles driven by Johnny Tran's crew. Marder headed a team of 82 professionals who re-designed, built and maintained the automobiles. Throughout the movie, some 150 import cars and their real-life owners are repeatedly utilized for several sequences. How did Marder find them?
"This is the 21st century, and where my generation used radio and television, this generation uses the internet," he said. "It's a completely visual group. Every one of these kids have monitors hooked up in their cars, where they play video games and use the internet. We just put out the word, and they appeared!"
Before filming could begin the key actors had to learn what it takes to commandeer the souped-up speedsters featured in the movie. "We researched some schools and decided Las Vegas was the best place to go," said Claybourne. "The cast, producers, director, cinematographer and anybody who was going to be driving cars either on camera or off had to become familiar with the equipment. It was very educational, and great fun, too. Our two actresses from the East Coast, Jordana and Michelle, had very little previous driving experience. But after they mastered sliding, turning sideways and other stunts, they were both much more confident in their daily abilities. "
Driving the open-wheel Formula One Indy cars was a kick for the fanatics. "I learned just how little I actually knew about driving," said Walker.
"My only reservation was that we did it in Vegas," said Diesel, "because it's very hard to rationalize waking up at seven in the morning to work when you've been out till six in the morning!"
The only other complaint about driving school was voiced by Rodriguez: "They wouldn't let us drive faster than 80 miles per hour!"
Out of the Starting Line
The Fast and the Furious began filming on a brutally hot day in late July in a parking lot at Dodger Stadium. True to its subject matter, it zoomed off the starting line with a series of shots of Brian, as played (and driven) by Paul Walker, practicing speedy moves and grooves with his character's green Eclipse. The film then moved to other evocative Los Angeles locations, mostly in downtown-adjacent neighborhoods such as Angelino Heights, Silverlake and Echo Park.
Cohen and company traveled to the west side to film the story's anti-hijacking bullpen operation at the "Circle House," an extraordinary example of late 1950s "googie" architecture, which was built, it was rumored, by singer Eddie Fisher as a love nest for himself and Elizabeth Taylor. Several scenes were filmed in the Little Saigon enclave, in the suburban city of Westminster. Races were staged on the Pacific Coast Highway near Trancas and on the long and wide Prairie Avenue in El Segundo, near the workshop in which the vehicles were constructed and serviced by the production's team of designers and mechanics.
The huge "Race Wars" sequence attracted some 1500 import car owners and enthusiasts to San Bernardino International Airport. "A lot of kids wanted their cars to be seen in the movie," said Claybourne. "We recruited them on the internet and other places and they came out in droves. "
The assembled masses broiled under the ferocious San Bernardino sun, with daily temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and hitting 112 one afternoon. For this pivotal sequence, production designer Waldemar Kalinowski constructed an entire tent city as well as the racing area.
The thrilling truck-jacking sequences that bookend the film were staged on the Domenigoni Highway near Hemet, a desert community halfway between L. A. and San Diego.
For these scenes, and throughout the entire movie, stunt coordinator/second unit director Mic Rodgers used a highly innovative vehicle - appropriately dubbed the "Mic Rig" - which he designed and the Fast and the Furious special effects department built.
Until the advent of the "Mic Rig", driving scenes have been filmed by towing vehicles with camera mounts which, unfortunately, have limited capabilities. The "Mic Rig", however, can more than keep up with fast cars both in speed and maneuverability.
"The 'Mic Rig' was a big leap for any filmmaker to take," said Rodgers, one of the industry's most experienced stunt coordinators and second unit directors. "Previously, rigs were too slow, too high up and you couldn't really take them anywhere. The 'Mic Rig' is essentially an elongated van with a flatbed on which we mount the picture car. Because that flatbed is much lower than previous driving rigs, the car is just slightly higher than it would be if its wheels were actually touching the ground. The 'Mic Rig' can pretty much do anything that a car can do. "
In addition to the "Mic Rig," Cohen and cinematographer Ericson Core utilized a myriad of other equipment to shoot the racing, truck-jacking and chase sequences, including more conventional insert cars and motorcycles with special camera mounts. It was not unusual to see Core and his camera operators, outfitted in crash helmets, zooming by just as fast as the street racers they were filming.
Cohen entrusted the film's production and costume design to two artists from Eastern Europe, production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays. "Growing up in communist Poland, American car culture represented a freedom that we all aspired to," recalled Kalinowski. "It was a fantasy, a dream. This was America - the guy in a car on an endless highway, and hopefully, a girl with him."
"When I was in school, a magazine distributed in Poland by an American government agency ran an article about a kid in California going with his father to a junkyard to pick out a piece of transmission for the car his father was helping him build. This article circulated throughout my school and neighborhood, because we were all so fascinated with it. When Rob called me about this movie, I realized there was a direct link between that article and the subject of this movie, which is kids building their own cars. These are regular cars that you could see on the street, but taken to the nth degree. Not by the automotive industry, but by the individuals that drive them: 18, 19, 20-year-old kids. "
Kalinowski quickly saw that Cohen had a clear concept of the kind of heightened realism he wanted for the film. "Rob has a very strong visual sense," said Kalinowski, "but he's also very collaborative. He wanted this film to be very much about Los Angeles and the auto culture that comes from it. We chose a great many locations in some of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, like Angelino Heights and Echo Park - very interesting areas that have not been greatly explored in films. "
"L. A. is viewed as a sort of peculiar wasteland, which is so untrue," he continued. "It's much like any other city in the world, where people work, go to school, love and hate. There's great energy here, which we never wanted to stray from. "
Cohen's visual concepts also extended into the costumes designed by the Bosnia-born Milkovic Hays. "I basically used the all-American garage look as a foundation, but took off from there into a mixture of styles. In our movie, the male protagonists are cool by not being cool. They don't really know what's fashionable, but they look great in their clothes. We wanted them to look like they just got out of bed and threw some clothes on."
"With our young women," Hays continued, "we went for a little more fashion, but not that much. Jordana Brewster's Mia is not someone who would care much about fashion, even though she looks great in everything she wears. As Letty, Michelle Rodriguez wears a sort of American combat fatigues, and her pants are kind of Western. .. a female warrior."
Milkovic Hays' imagination exploded with the import car racers and their girls, running the gamut from high-quality sportswear to hip-hop and homeboy gear, and miles of spandex. "A lot of the girls at these street races are trying to compete with their boyfriends' cars," she observed. "And we have so much male energy in the movie that we needed to balance it. So we had a lot of fun dressing the women outrageously, from jeans to fishnet to leather. "
Enhancing the real-life races - and the cars in The Fast and the Furious certainly lived up to the title - were visual effects designed by Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor and Michael J. Wassel of Illusion Arts, working side-by-side with Cohen, himself a tremendous innovator on his previous films. "On Dragonheart (1996) I got a very in-depth lesson and ultimate understanding of computer-generated effects," Cohen recalled, "and I thought that we should take that technology and apply it to a car movie in a way that's never been done before."
"In talking with racers, I learned what strong identification there is between the drivers and their vehicles. The vehicles are an expression of their creativity - they feel their engines. I wondered how we could dramatize that. And then, one day, I had the idea of the camera following Vin Diesel's arm down into the stick shift, through the drive shaft, into the fuel injection engine, to the actual explosion of the NOS (nitrous oxide) which gives the car its instant boost in a drag race - and then out through the exhaust system through the rear pipe. Things like this could not be accomplished prior to the computer generated.
"We want to make the audience feel the actual experience of driving 170 miles per hour on a city street," said Cohen, "so that they never have to even think of doing it themselves!"