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'Fast'

and

Heartsick

STORY BY RAMIN SETOODEH
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHAUGHN AND JOHN

Vin Diesel had a
disturbing premonition
during the making of
“Furious 7.”

On a November night in 2013, the action star was shooting a climatic scene where his character Dominic Toretto performs a sacrificial, “semi-kamikaze” stunt to save his friends. The maneuver leaves Dom lifeless. Paul Walker, who plays Brian O’Conner, rushes over to revive him. “These action films can very dangerous, no matter what anyone tells you,” says Diesel, noting that the scene was so real he envisioned his own death. “I started to think, ‘What would happen to Paul Walker if I died?’”

After the sequence wrapped, Diesel wanted to speak with Walker, so he went over to his buddy’s trailer. The two actors had appeared as onscreen partners for more than a decade, starting with the original 2001 “The Fast and the Furious,” in which Diesel portrayed the bad boy (a rogue street racer) to Walker’s buttoned-up cop. “If I do die, let them know what kind of brother I’ve been to you,” Diesel recalls telling Walker. Walker gave him a hug, and the two men parted. “I’ve played that over in my head countless times. That’s the last time I ever saw him,” says a teary-eyed Diesel, choking up.

Just a few days later, on Nov. 30, Walker perished, the passenger in a high-speed crash in a sports car in Valencia, Calif. The world mourned the 40-year-old actor, a James Dean for the millennial generation, and Universal implemented a four-month break in the production of “Furious 7,” as the film’s creative team scrambled to cobble together a new ending. “We grieved accordingly, and then at some point reality sank in,” says director James Wan. “We realized we still had to finish a movie."

Now, “Furious 7” is finally revved up for an April 3 debut, as one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters. The stakes couldn’t be higher: “We never would have made the film if we didn’t think we could do justice to Paul,” says vice chairman of NBC Universal, Ron Meyer, who had to gently convince Diesel to stay aboard after Walker’s death. So devastated that he couldn’t leave his house for weeks, the actor says, “There was fear. Could I finish playing Dom with such a broken heart?” He finally decided to continue after a conversation with Meyer, who told him he could back out if he wanted, but offered him a reassuring note of confidence. Having seen the dailies, Meyer told him, there was magic in what had been shot so far.

Says Diesel: “I thought what Paul would really want me to do was finish it. So that’s what I did.”

The “Fast” saga, the studio’s largest franchise to date, boasts a worldwide box office of $2.4 billion, and is known for its escapist explosions. But reality looms over “Furious 7,” and fans are expected to flock to multiplexes to say goodbye to Walker in a similar fashion to the way 2008’s “The Dark Knight” doubled as a memorial service for Heath Ledger.

Paying homage to the loss of Walker in its marketing materials to promote the film, Universal created a billboard featuring a black-and-white two-shot of Diesel and Walker with the tagline: “One Last Ride.”

Diesel admits to having cried more in the past year than in his entire life. “I post a picture on Facebook, and I’m just bawling reading the comments,” he says. Walker’s passing not only affected him personally, it changed him as an actor. “It’s made for a more emotional performance,” he explains.

On his first day back on the set, Diesel had to shoot a scene in his trademark 1970 Dodge Charger, where Dominic is meant to challenge Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw to a race. “I’m supposed to be in killer mode,” Diesel recalls. “I went through three boxes of tissues, and I felt so bad. I felt so embarrassed. I had always been the kind of actor that other actors respect. I was just failing so hard. My nose was running and my eyes were tearing. I had to walk off set and try to get all the fluids out. I couldn’t contain my emotion, and thus it became the toughest film I ever had to shoot.”

Even if Walker’s memory is at the forefront of “Fast 7,” Diesel has always propped up the franchise. “He lives, breathes and sh--s ‘Fast and Furious,’” says Ludacris, who plays Tej Parker in the series.

At a time when action stars are becoming an endangered species — just ask Chris Pine, Ryan Reynolds or Armie Hammer — Diesel, who headlines such testosterone-filled adventures as the “Riddick” and “XXX” series, is a throwback to the ’80s prototype of masculinity exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. It’s not that he doesn’t have other shades to his career (he started as a writer-director of the 1997 Sundance indie “Strays,” based on his life as a bouncer, and before that, the 1995 Cannes short “Multi-Facial,” a sendup of the years that Hollywood rejected him for not looking like a conventional leading man). But he doesn’t mind that “Fast” has typecast him as a tough guy. “I saw Mel Gibson over the weekend, and he was telling me to direct,” says Diesel, who hopes to return to that job one day. “But the studio needs for the saga to continue.”

Diesel isn’t just the face of “Fast,” he’s also a producer and the guardian of the franchise. “I’m not the writer, but I’m the saga visionary,” he explains. “There’s nobody in the world that could sit down and tell you what each story is.” Universal relies on Diesel to help provide the structure of the stories, offer input on casting, and even select songs for the soundtrack. “He’s a really good barometer of what the characters might or might not do,” says Universal Pictures chair Donna Langley. “He keeps us honest.”

In 2001, he suggested that Michelle Rodriguez play his girlfriend in the first “Fast,” and came to her defense when the original script had her jump into Walker’s bed, too. “I didn’t want to be a slut,” Rodriguez recalls. “I felt like a lot of Latinas in Hollywood were doing that, and that’s not how I wanted to be viewed by millions of people around the world.” 

The “Fast and Furious” movies are an oddity in Hollywood. While most sequels are adapted from comic books, TV shows or videogames, “Fast” is perhaps the biggest franchise since “Star Wars” that’s based on an original idea. It’s also the rare blockbuster made up of a cast that actually looks as diverse as its audience: Rodriguez (Latina), rappers-turned-actors Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris (African-American), the Rock (of Samoan ancestry), Sung Kang (Korean-American), Gal Gadot (Israeli) and Jordana Brewster (Brazilian-American), with the pan-ethnic Diesel as the leader.

According to exit polling from Universal, the U.S. audience for the 2013 opening weekend of “Furious 6” was 33% Hispanic, 22% African-American and 13% Asian-American. Caucasians made up only 29% of viewers, meaning twice as many tickets were sold to non-white moviegoers.  

As the series hits its seventh installment, it shows no signs of slowing down — the sixth film was the most successful so far (with a global box office of nearly $800 million). “The franchise will continue to grow,” Langley says. “We’ll keep making them as long as people want to see them.”

Diesel has ideas for as many as 10 films, which he sometimes bounces off his groupies. And he’s got plenty of them to poll. He’s the fourth most-popular celebrity on Facebook, with 90 million fans (ahead of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and President Obama). He recently welcomed his third child, Pauline (named after Walker), with partner Paloma Jimenez, but when he speaks about “Furious 7,” he sounds like a proud dad of the movie, given to unabashed hyperbole: “Universal is going to have the biggest movie in history,” Diesel says. “It will probably win best picture at the Oscars — unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant.” Awards predictions notwithstanding, “Furious 7” will make history. 

Although other projects have used face-grafting imaging to fill in an actor’s performance after death (most notably Brandon Lee in “The Crow” and Oliver Reed in “Gladiator”), the level of sophistication in creating the computerized Walker is groundbreaking. The project enlisted the help of three stands-in: Walker’s two brothers, Caleb and Cody, and a third actor, John Brotherton. Peter Jackson’s Weta Studios (which created Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) added Walker’s face in post-production, a process that’s been kept a closely guarded secret until now. “It’s a game changer when people are capable of manipulating your body after you’re gone,” Rodriguez says. “You’re talking about a whole new conversation that needs to be had in Hollywood. A person’s brother, mother or sister is not going to have the same integrity or taste as you.”

On one hand, the support from Walker’s family was emotionally helpful. “It was endearing that his brothers were there to assist with his legacy,” Diesel says. At the same time, the actor found himself in the surreal position of coming to work, pretending that his friend was still alive. “The irony is, I’ve been acting since I was 7 years old,” say Diesel, whose stepfather was a theater teacher. “No one in the world could teach you how to act across from someone your heart is mourning for. That’s like asking someone who has lost a parent to replay it again and again, and pretend there’s not a void there.”

Adds producer Neal Moritz: “It was really hard. Vin would flash back to all the times Paul was there.” Diesel’s sister Samantha Vincent, an executive producer on the past four “Fast” movies, witnessed his pain: “Paul was probably one of the only people in Vin’s life who really understood Vin, because they shared this ride together. I don’t think his death is something he’ll ever truly get over.” 

Diesel, 47, grew up with a twin brother, Paul, in downtown New York, where his family lived in subsidized housing for creatives. “It was all bohemians,” Diesel says. “Great artists came through the building. Miles Davis recorded there.” Diesel says he learned storytelling from reading J.R.R. Tolkien and playing the game “Dungeons and Dragons,” with its intricate mythology of characters that later influenced the scripts of “Fast and Furious.”

When his dreams of an acting career stalled — casting directors told him he was too light to play black, and too dark to play white — he took on a series of odd jobs, selling tools by phone and working as a bouncer. Finally one day, inspired by a friend who had directed a short film, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror of his mother’s house, and wrote the first five pages of an eight-page screenplay about his experiences as a struggling actor who couldn’t catch a break.

He sold his car for $3,000 to finance “Multi-Facial,” which premiered at Cannes in 1995. “I remember people saying to him, ‘You’ve got to lose those muscles; they are really distracting,’” says sister Sam. He got around that by casting himself in his next project, the indie “Strays,” which he made for $47,000. Not only did he star, write and direct the drama, he also served as the caterer, whipping up pasta with turkey-meat sauce. The film got into Sundance. “I heard great stories about people selling movies for $1 million there,” Diesel says. “I thought I was going to get a new car.” “Strays” never found a distributor, but Steven Spielberg got wind of Diesel, and had a part written for him in “Saving Private Ryan,” for which he was paid $70,000.

The actor, who has a reputation as a perfectionist, wasn’t awed by the legendary director. He would often whisper suggestions in Spielberg’s ear on how to improve the script’s dialogue before each shooting day. Diesel recalls trying to pick apart a line that had nothing to do with his character, and Spielberg snapped back: “Vinny, you’re already dead by that point.”


Eventually, he found his way to director Rob Cohen, who was looking to cast an up-and-coming actor in a $38 million project for Universal — the first “Fast and the Furious.” Cohen met with a handful of action stars (including Colin Farrell), but was angling for someone to counterbalance Walker. “Vin’s got charisma, a powerful presence that’s not about being traditionally handsome,” Cohen says. “Paul was so good looking. That the two were different kinds of men, that combination was really appealing.” Cohen had seen Diesel in the 2000 sleeper action hit “Pitch Black,” and sold him on “The Fast and the Furious” before the script was even ready. Vin climbed onboard.

But then the screenplay came in, and Diesel wasn’t pleased. He spent weeks with the writers, pushing them to give the characters more street cred. And he later passed on the second film, he says, despite Universal offering him the biggest paycheck of his career: $25 million. He didn’t think the premise of the sequel, set in Florida, worked. “They didn’t take a Francis Ford Coppola approach to it,” he says. “They approached it like they did sequels in the ’80s and ’90s, when they would drum up a new story unrelated for the most part, and slap the same name on it.”

After making a cameo at the end of the third film, which dipped at the box office, Diesel was asked by Universal to return for 2009’s fourth entry, “Fast & Furious.” He agreed, on the condition he could also serve as a producer. Proud of his new job, he even tried to convince Universal executives to shoot multiple installments at the same time (a la “Lord of the Rings”). “Are you f---ing crazy?” Diesel says he was told. “We’re not even sure we’re doing No. 4!”

“I went through three boxes of tissues, and I felt so embarrassed. I had always been the kind of actor that other actors respect. I was just failing so hard."
- Vin Diesel

By the time “Fast & Furious 6” rolled around in 2013, Universal was singing a different tune. Diesel tells a story about how the studio was worried that the sixth version was going up against “Hangover 3.” To bolster theater owners’ confidence in the series, they wanted Diesel to announce the seventh installment at Cinema-Con before the sixth movie had even opened. Diesel says that Langley and then-Universal chair Adam Fogelson made the trek to his house, where they pleaded with him to make the announcement.

“They wanted me to write down on a napkin that I wouldn’t back out of the film, despite huge, glaring issues,” Diesel says. “There was no script yet. And there was no director. They said if I backed out, everyone working at Universal wouldn’t be working at Universal. If they as executives f---ed this up, they might as well get new jobs.”

“Furious 7” was fast-tracked for a summer 2014 release, and the cast shot for three months in Atlanta. Then came the Thanksgiving break. Diesel was with his family when he heard the news. “I got on a plane, and told the production I couldn’t shoot, just to cancel everything,” he recalls. He flew to Walker’s mom’s house in Los Angeles, where he kept ducking outside to bawl so he wouldn’t upset the family. Walker’s mom pulled him aside to tell him she was sorry. “Why me?” Diesel responded. “You’re his mother.” To which she responded: “Yes, but you’re his other half.”


Before Diesel agreed to return to the production, he recorded the voice of Groot for “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” an experience he calls therapeutic. “That was healing for me,” Diesel says. “To play a character that could reincarnate, rejuvenate and represent life as trees do.”

Despite showing a brave face, Diesel was still rattled a few weeks ago when he sat down to watch “Furious 7” for the first time. He was worried he would be letting Walker down, that the movie wouldn’t honor his friend in the right way. But as soon as the picture ended, he texted Rodriguez to tell her how relieved he was. Explains Rodriguez: “That was the first time that Vin breathed, and let go.” Diesel is very proud of what the cast has accomplished. “It doesn’t feel like a movie in some ways,” he says. “It feels like something more.”

Fast Five
(2011)
 $626m*
The series regulars decamp to Brazil — and hook up with new frenemy the Rock — in this nonstop adrenaline rush capped by the astonishing sight of an enormous bank vault zigging and zagging through the streets of Rio while tethered to two Dodge Chargers.

Fast & Furious 6
(2013)
 $789m
For his fourth spin in the director’s chair, Justin Lin upped the series’ ante on exotic international intrigue to James Bond levels, skipping between Moscow, London, L.A. and the Canary Islands, where a Chieftain army tank wreaks havoc along a mountain highway.

Furious 7
(2015)
NA
Faced with the& seemingly insurmountable task of finishing a film after the death of star Paul Walker, director James Wan and some very state-of-the-art special effects deliver another gearhead geek-out that its late star surely would have loved.

Fast & Furious
(2009)
$363m
The whole band was finally back together for this energetic caper set between L.A. and Mexico. It’s most notable as the film in which Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) appears to die and O’Conner (Walker) resigns from the FBI to fully embrace the rebel-outlaw life.

Fast Checklist

VARIETY CHIEF FILM CRITIC SCOTT FOUNDAS RANKS THE FRANCHISE FROM BEST MOVIE TO WORST

Fast Five (2011)
 $626m*
The series regulars decamp to Brazil — and hook up with new frenemy the Rock — in this nonstop adrenaline rush capped by the astonishing sight of an enormous bank vault zigging and zagging through the streets of Rio while tethered to two Dodge Chargers.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
 $789m
For his fourth spin in the director’s chair, Justin Lin upped the series’ ante on exotic international intrigue to James Bond levels, skipping between Moscow, London, L.A. and the Canary Islands, where a Chieftain army tank wreaks havoc along a mountain highway.

Furious 7 (2015)
NA
Faced with the& seemingly insurmountable task of finishing a film after the death of star Paul Walker, director James Wan and some very state-of-the-art special effects deliver another gearhead geek-out that its late star surely would have loved.

Fast & Furious (2009)
$363m
The whole band was finally back together for this energetic caper set between L.A. and Mexico. It’s most notable as the film in which Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) appears to die and O’Conner (Walker) resigns from the FBI to fully embrace the rebel-outlaw life.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)
 $158m
Director Lin, screenwriter Chris Morgan and co-star Sung Kang entered the “Furious” fold, and got the franchise back on track, with this rousing, drift-racing adventure — the most underrated installment in& the series.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)
$207m
The franchise starter borrowed its title (and much of its generous B-movie spirit) from a 1955 Roger Corman cheapie. But in terms of pulse-racing, gear-grinding action, it now seems quaint compared with what was soon to come.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
 $236m
The only outright stinker in the bunch, this Miami-set caper, the second movie in the series, was& disavowed by Vin Diesel, who wisely declined to appear.

*Worldwide cumes
Source: Box Office Mojo.

Behind the Scenes Video Interview with Vin Diesel