The Man Who Saved the ‘Fast & Furious’ Franchise: An Interview With ‘Furious 7’ Writer Chris Morgan
There are a lot of heroes in the Fast & Furious movies, but the unsung hero of the Fast & Furious movies is screenwriter Chris Morgan, who joined the franchise at its lowest point and helped transform a dying property about a couple of street racers into one of the most popular series (with one of the most cleverly complex mythologies) in all of Hollywood. It was Morgan’s idea to take the series international for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and to bring back original franchise stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, which happened in the fourth film, 2009’s Fast & Furious. Six years later, Furious 7 is primed to break box-office records; even after the tragic passing of Walker in 2013, the series shows no signs of slowing down. Diesel’s so confident in the new movie that he’s already predicted it will win the Best Picture Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. (Morgan’s reaction when I asked if he wanted to double down on Diesel’s bet: “Uh... [laughs] No comment.”)
Morgan has written every Fast & Furious since Tokyo Drift, but is quick to credit the franchise's popularity to his creative partners, both on and off-screen. Everything about these films, he insisted, is “open door and collaborative.” He had particular praise for his cast. “These guys are incredible,” he said. “We always have the pages and the ideas and the jokes, but they’ll come in and they’ll find stuff. Or they’ll call me up and they’ll be like ‘Hey listen I like this here, what if we do this? I want to work in a thing with this character that’s like this…’ These guys tap into these characters on a level that is different than I do sitting at a desk and writing. We really have fun going back and forth with it.”
Speaking with me over the phone from his office in Los Angeles, Morgan went into further detail about the collaborative writing process on the Fast & Furious movies, revealed the geeky inspiration for its dense mythology, dove into the debate over which Fast film is the best in the series, and discussed whether he’s ready to return for a Fast & Furious 8.
How did you first get involved with the franchise and what state was it in at that point? Were the Tokyo and drifting elements already in place or was it a total blank slate?
Yeah, it was a different thing, a blank slate. When I got involved with the third one, the studio was basically looking to do a straight-to-DVD, roughly $10 million film. I was one of a lot of writers on an open writing assignment — coming in, pitching a take. I came in, and I said “That’s the wrong way to do it. There doing this thing right now in Tokyo called ‘drifting.’ Wouldn’t it be great to be able to bring some of the characters back, along with this new style of racing?”
I was really lucky. They were looking to do a much smaller movie, and to do Tokyo Drift was a much bigger commitment of resources and time and money. But I really believed in my heart that if they went with a smaller, straight-to-DVD movie the franchise is over — and I love the franchise. Particularly the first movie; the characters are so awesome, and the movie is just so fun. So I was really lucky that the studio got behind that idea and we got a chance to go to Tokyo and work with Justin Lin. It was a great, collaborative, awesome experience.
The result of that was we had Vin appear at the end of the movie, which tied it into the earlier franchise. The response was so overwhelming that we got to do what we hoped to do, which is bring everyone back. Then we got to make the fourth movie, and it was really successful — clearly the audience connects to these guys. Then we got to go blow it out in a big fun heist-y adventure in the fifth movie, and the rest is kind of history.
One of the things I love about this franchise is as big as it gets, and as fun as the set pieces are, it really comes down to those characters, and what was set up in that first movie. I love the interaction of this brotherhood and this family. It’s great to be able to expand the world in every one of our films, and to be able to say “Hey, by the way? Everyone has a favorite film! Some people like the first one, some people like the fifth movie or the sixth movie or the third movie. Whatever that is: They’re all relevant. They’re all part of our world. And by the way? You’re all right.”
What is the writing process like for the action scenes? Are you creating them with the director and the effects people, or is it up to you to imagine these crazy ideas and then it falls to the visual guys to make those ideas a reality?
It always depends. One of the things that is just kind of ingrained in me is I do see action very clearly. And action is always a chance to tell story. It’s not just about spectacle. What are the characters doing? How are they reacting to it? So in the scripts the action is always a feature I like to make sure goes in there, that people feel it in the read and understand what I’m trying to do.
Having said that, these films are incredibly collaborative. As much as the characters in the movies are a family, the people who make these movies really are as well. I’ll have ideas, and [directors] Justin [Lin] or James [Wan] will have ideas, the studio will have ideas — even Vin, he’ll get in there and talk about things and characters. And we’ll get together and walk through it, talk through it, and the best idea always wins.
Furious 7 has skydiving cars, it has cars jumping between skyscrapers. Has any premise been rejected for being too over-the-top or crazy?
Oh yeah, definitely. As big as those setpieces get and have gotten, the reason you go with it is we always try to ground the human story. There’s something going on that the audience can feel in their real lives: betrayal or a secret or a new baby, things like that. It’s one thing to have cars going from building to building to building. The only reason you accept it in our movies, honestly, is because you care about the people inside the car. You’re worried for them, you’re excited for them, you’re with them. Spectacle will only get you so far, as we’ve seen in lots of movies.
True. Can you give me an example of something that was rejected for being too absurd?
If I could have prepped for that question I could probably name things for you. We talk about giant crazy stuff all the time. It always comes down to: Can we pull it off practically? Is that too big for this movie, or this section of the movie?
But you haven’t pitched, like, racing cars in space. That has not happened yet.
That has not happened.
People have said it as a joke, probably once per meeting. But no.
Fans love the huge Fast & Furious mythology, the way the characters interrelate and things from one movie pay off in later ones. What’s the inspiration for all of those little connections?
Vin has mentioned this before, but Vin was a big Dungeons & Dragons player, and so was I. In fact, I still I play with a bunch of writers; John August, Craig Mazin, Phil Hay. There’s something great about gaming out a story and putting in a little character beat, just a little something that you know is going to pay off down the road, and you don’t have to rush to get to it.
One of the real fun things is our timeline issue. I love the fact that the fourth, fifth, and six movies are really in the timeline prior to the third film. And now we catch up and are fresh for the first time. Little things that you set up in the fourth movie pay off in the sixth movie. We’re always planting little seeds with characters and story and waiting for them to grow.
Are there things I might have missed in Furious 7 that if you guys do make an Fast & Furious 8, I’ll then look back and go “Oh, they were planning this all along.”
You mentioned earlier how different fans have different favorite Fast movies. I actually did my own personal rankings on our site a few days ago, and the comments got pretty heated.
I love it!
Yeah, very strong opinions on all sides.
Where did you come in? What was yours?
My favorite is Fast Five, and then I’d rank Furious 7 second, and then I’d go The Fast and the Furious as number three. Do you have a favorite, at least among the five you’ve worked on?
It’s tough. [Furious 7] has incredible, special importance to me. It’s the thing I’m probably most proud of ever being a part of, because it really showed me the incredible durability of the human spirit, with people reaching out to one another and pulling something off that really should have been impossible. So this one takes a special place for me. But I also love the fifth one. So I’d say it’s those two right now.
Paul Walker’s death obviously had a huge impact on the making of this film. On the writing side of things, how much work was required to get Furious 7 from what you originally envisioned to the final product that’s about to play in theaters?
A crazy amount. First of all: What an incredible tragedy. I’ve never experienced anything like that. Everyone on the production was just utterly devastated.
Something that is worth mentioning and I kind of feel passionately about is that when the accident happened, the studio did something that I’ve never seen a business do before: They shut everything down and there wasn’t a single word about business. And this is a huge movie and a huge responsibility. But [the Universal executives], all the people up there, they did a really human, beautiful thing, and gave everybody time to grieve. There were no questions about “What are we going to do?” Nothing.
Once everyone was able to take a breath and grieve, then we started asking the question — and to answer your question, the first thing wasn’t “Can we do it?” but “Should we do it?” And after we looked each other in the eye and talked, we realized that, honestly, Paul would have loved it. And we wanted to give his character a really good arc and a really good send-off. So it became really important to us to do something — especially for the audience — that is a worthy and good tribute. That meant we had to write a whole new end for the film. And in order to finish Brian’s character there, we had to literally go back and retouch almost every scene in the movie for him, to make his arc pay off in a way that felt emotional and credible and worthy. So it was pretty significant.
The good news is everyone really dug in and worked the hardest they have in their entire lives under incredibly difficult circumstances. We talked about it, but I can’t even imagine what it was like for Vin and Jordana [Brewster] and Michelle [Rodriguez] to get in there and continue shooting. It was really brave and very cool of everybody to work together so well and do something I really am proud of and think people will enjoy.
You’ve already told me there are little seeds in Furious 7 that could pay off in a Fast & Furious 8. Have you guys talked seriously about making an eighth film yet?
You know what? Especially after such a difficult journey on this film, I think everyone just wants to let this be what it’s going to be, and those discussions can happen down the road. In the intervening time, we’ve certainly daydreamed and talked about what’s in this movie that we can move forward with in a future one, ideas and things. Look, I’m writer; I’m always thinking about things, and Vin is always thinking about story.
So at the very least, you’d be interested in writing another one. It’s not like you’re saying “I’m done with the franchise.”
Right. I certainly would be. I love this world, I love these characters. It is definitely a passion project for me.