F—, lets go do it: An oral history of The Fast and the Furious
Ask any alum of The Fast and the Furious, any real alum, and they’ll admit they didn’t see the last two decades coming. How could they?
One day you’re filming a movie initially called Redline — a modestly budgeted project about an undercover cop (Paul Walker) infiltrating the crew of an infamous street racer (Vin Diesel) — the next you’re part of an unprecedented juggernaut that includes eight sequels (and counting), one spin-off, a nuclear submarine, and Helen Mirren.
As the original Fast turns 20 — and F9 opens June 25 — the family reflects on the film that started it all. [Editor’s note: EW’s Darren Franich spoke to Walker in 2013, months before the actor’s tragic death.]
REVVING UP A REUNION
In May 1998, Vibe published “Racer X,” an inside look at New York City’s underground racing scene. The story soon made its way to producer Neal H. Moritz, who was wrapping production on The Skulls with director Rob Cohen and rising star Paul Walker.
KENNETH LI (AUTHOR, “RACER X”): I was a reporter at the New York Daily News and had written about illegal drag racing on local tracks, but it was a family paper so they didn’t want me to write about the criminal aspect of it. It was intoxicating that there was this world of kids tuning their cars, making money, and killing themselves. You get exposed to a lot of things in New York when you’re a city kid, but this was one that I’d never seen before.
NEAL H. MORITZ (PRODUCER): I was making The Skulls with Paul and Rob, and we were looking for another movie to do together, and Universal approached me about this article in Vibe. I’ve always loved movies about subcultures and I knew Paul really loved car racing.
PAUL WALKER (BRIAN O’CONNER): I was working with those guys, and they said: What do you wanna do next? I wanted to do something either about racing cars or [where] I was an undercover cop. Three months later, they came with an article.
LI: I didn’t know anybody in Hollywood at the time and a random call came in from Universal that I thought was a prank.
MORITZ: It was Point Break, it was Donnie Brasco, with the thematic values of The Godfather, which was family, family, family.
WALKER: I’m signing on without a screenplay. My reps are freaking out. I’m like, “It’s a million bucks, I get to hang with friends, drive cars, and be cool.” Honestly, that’s all it was to me at that stage of my life. I was 25, 26 years old? F—, let’s go do it!
FINDING A FAMILY
With Walker in place as officer Brian O’Conner, the search began for Dominic Toretto and his ride-or-die team of racers-turned-hijackers.
MORITZ: The studio said, “If you get Timothy Olyphant to play the role of Dominic Toretto, the movie’s greenlit.” We went to Tim and he passed, and we wondered if we were going to get to make it.
WALKER: Rob was like, “Did you see this movie Strays?” Hadn’t even heard of it. “Did you see Saving Private Ryan? You know the bald guy? His name’s Vin Diesel.”
Credit: Everett Collection
MORITZ: I had seen Pitch Black and knew Vin from his earlier short film [Multi-Facial], and I had convinced the studio that he had to be the guy. We had our first meeting at the famed Kate Mantilini’s in L.A., and I remember I’m sitting at the bar waiting for him, and, boy, when those doors opened, it was like there was a klieg light on him — here comes the biggest star in the world. Even though he didn’t have that bankability at that point, he just had that confidence that he was a star. I thought Vin was coming there to convince me to hire him, and in reality I had to convince him to be Dominic Toretto. [Laughs]
VIN DIESEL (DOMINIC TORETTO): Before I got the script, Rob described to me the scene of the camera going through my eyes and into the car and then the engine, merging man and machine. That image made me go, “That’s insane — I’m all in.” And then I read the script and was like, “Eh, I don’t know.”
JORDANA BREWSTER (MIA TORETTO): When Michelle [Rodriguez] read her role, she was like, “No, I’m not playing that.” And then she changed it completely. It went from a trophy girlfriend to this really layered character.
MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ (LETTY ORTIZ): It was a reality check for them to realize that the streets don’t work like that. You don’t just get with a guy because he’s hot. There’s a hierarchy there. Can that hot guy get beat up by who you’re dating? If he can, then you don’t date him, because why would you want to lose the hierarchy? In order to keep it real, I had to school them: “I know you guys like Hollywood and all that, but if you want it to be realistic, this is how it really works, and I’m not going to be a slut in front of millions of people, so you’re going to lose me if you don’t change this.” And they figured it out.
MORITZ: Obviously the characters were written by men, so it was nice to have that female perspective and really try and dive deep. We wanted everybody to be empowered, whether you were white, Black, Hispanic, male, female, didn’t matter to us.
RODRIGUEZ: I remember fighting to get a moment where Letty gets into a fight herself, because I felt like you don’t sit around and let your boys throw down without getting your hands dirty. If you don’t, then are you just there to model? That doesn’t work where I come from. So I fought for that — and then I remember hitting the guy in the face by mistake! [Laughs] It was so messed up. I did the same thing in Girlfight and Avatar. I didn’t mean to, I’m just really bad at it.
MORITZ: Gary Scott Thompson had written a draft of the script that we liked some of the pillars of, but it was Erik Bergquist and David Ayer that put the flesh on the bones of the movie that we wanted it to be. David was really able to lend credibility and a voice of these young people in this world.
DAVID AYER (CO-WRITER): When I got asked to come on, it was to reconceive the script. It was set in New York and basically all white people. I said to the studio, “I’m not going to do this unless I can set it in the L.A. I grew up in.” For me, the whole diversity piece was absolutely paramount to creating this world, and this was at a time when nobody did that. I was the only white guy in my neighborhood, so that’s what I know. And California has always been ground zero of car culture. You go down to the hood and dudes are still dropping $20,000 on quarter-mile races.
DIESEL: They hired David and asked me to go page by page with my notes, and I thought that was really cool. I felt validated and heard.
AYER: I sat down with Vin and really created that character with him. Yeah, there were characters in the script but it needed life, it needed to become real, it needed to become dimensional. He had a few really specific ideas about the character, and those little touchstones he handed me became something I could flesh out. It’s an honor to help an actor create and achieve a vision.
DIESEL: Because he owned a Cuban bodega, I made a trip to Cuba to understand the character. [Laughs] The irony is I felt like I had gotten what the character wanted to be in the first script, but there were things conflicting with his truth. I had an idea of who he was. It was just an honor and a code he had.
MORITZ: There’s nobody else that could have been Dominic Toretto. There would be no Fast & Furious without Vin in that role.
Credit: Bob Marshak/Universal Pictures
RODRIGUEZ: Vin used to do the door at one of New York’s hottest nightclubs when I was a little teenager who could never get in. I’m like, “Oh my God, you’re an actor now?!”
CHAD LINDBERG (JESSE): I wanted to be this serious indie actor, so I didn’t connect at first and got in an argument with my agent. She was like, “What are you thinking?!” She hung up on me, called me again later, we got in another fight, she hung up, and then another agent from the agency called and said, “Please, just go in.” I’m like, “Okay, of course.” I’m so glad I listened, because the part finds you a lot of the time.
BREWSTER: I loved Mia. I remember Rob being a little, he wasn’t skeptical, because he liked the combination of my mom being from Brazil, my dad being this American dude, and the fact that I was at Yale at the time I got the role. But he was like, “You’re very patrician sounding, you need to get grounded. I want you to take your shoes off, walk around barefoot, watch Anna Magnani movies and really just try to get Earthy.” I was like, “[Exhale] Okay, how am I going to do that?”
NOEL GUGLIEMI (HECTOR): The breakdown read, “Street cat, Latino guy, between the ages of 20 and 30, bald.” My agent was like, “This is you!”
JOHN FEINBLATT (PICTURE CAR COORDINATOR): I read the script and went, “This is a lot of work!” Because it’s all about cars, and we always have a saying in our shop that the cars were the stars.
MORITZ: I’m the idiot who agreed to do the scene when Paul and Vin are racing on the PCH and Paul asks me, “How much is that car?” And I’m the worst actor in the world and do the stupid line, “More than you can afford, pal. Ferrari!” Unfortunately my friends bring that up quite a bit.
JOHNNY STRONG (LEON): I liked that it was this small, gritty movie about these underground racers that are pulling heists in the middle of the night. Nobody knew what it was going to turn into. If they say they did, they’re lying.
BREWSTER: I had no clue. I didn’t understand the subculture, it was about cars, I wasn’t into cars. It was going to be called Redline.
Credit: Bob Marshak/Universal Pictures
MORITZ: We had gone through many titles: Redline, Racer X, Race Wars, Street Wars. They were all cheesy. And I went to watch a documentary on [producer] Roger Corman, who I’ve known since I was a kid, and there was a little section on a movie he’d made called The Fast and the Furious. I thought, “That’s the title of this movie!” I called up the head of marketing at Universal the next morning and said “Okay, I’ve got the title: The Fast and the Furious!” And there was just silence on the other end. I was like, “Oh, I guess that is the worst title he’s ever heard.” Then a few hours later he calls me and goes, “That’s a great title,” and I’m like, “I know!” So we made a deal with Roger to give him the use of some stock footage that Universal owned.
LINDBERG: We were having lunch one day, most of the cast was sitting at the table, and Neal came over and said, “What do you think of The Fast and the Furious?” And we were all like, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs] Not everybody was feeling it right away, because we just loved Redline. There was something about Redline, and we were so used to it, and now it cannot be anything but The Fast and the Furious.
FILMING, BONDING, AND MEETING JA RULE
During the summer of 2000, the Fast team partied and avoided being arrested — all while making an under-the-radar classic.
MORITZ: This was probably the cheapest movie that Universal made that year, so they let us go off and make this little movie.
BREWSTER: Now we don’t want to letdown our fans; we know that there’s this global audience that we have to live up to. Back then, it was kind of like, this could be really cool but who knows? So the pressure was off.
DIESEL: I remember going to this illegal street race, my first on the West Coast, and helicopters coming in and everyone dispersing. I’m from New York City and cops don’t usually come by helicopter. So Paul and I are running down the highway together. It was the beginning of a brotherhood.
MORITZ: We caught lightning in a bottle with their chemistry. That was really the heart of the movie.
DIESEL: I came into the world with a twin brother named Paul who has blond hair and blue eyes, so going into cinema with Paul was probably more poetic and therapeutic than I imagined. We were meant to be brothers.
Credit: Bob Marshak/Universal Pictures
RODRIGUEZ: Vin comes from that professional actor’s studio realm, and then he meets this f—ing crazy girl from Jersey City on her second movie. It was hilarious. He was like, “How could she be so green?”
DIESEL: One of the biggest blessings of the franchise is my relationship with Michelle. I’ve been told that the Dom-Letty love story is potentially the biggest love story that we’ve seen in cinema. After two decades, you understand that point.
RODRIGUEZ: Eventually I learned how to act too!
LINDBERG: Once the whole cast was put together, they took us to Vegas to drive these Formula 1 cars and get to know each other and become a crew — and that’s what we did.
RODRIGUEZ: I hadn’t been in a fast car before, and now I’m on a racetrack a week after I got my driver’s license. It was pretty sick.
FEINBLATT: Down at the Santa Monica Civic Center, we had a whole bunch of tuners show up with their cars, and we took pictures and showed them to the designer. We rented these people’s cars that they picked and then recreated the cars over again for stunts. We went and found the same model and then we duplicated their paint jobs. You could have 10 of the same car. The Skylines were hard to get because they weren’t legal over here. There was a guy in Carson who had some but they couldn’t get registered on the street, but being a film we didn’t need that because we had police control of the streets.
DIESEL: After the first table read, the studio head pulled me aside and said, “I’m going to need you to be Dom on and off screen, because everyone’s gonna look to you.”
BREWSTER: I was so intimidated. Because I was coming from Yale, I was like, “I’m such a dork, and everyone is so cool.”
GUGLIEMI: It was one of the coolest sets to ever be on. It was like getting paid to party. They told me I could get a lot of my homeboys in the movie as extras, and so I was just calling up a bunch of street cats, like, “Yo, you guys want to be in a movie and get paid?” They were like, “Hell yeah!”
RODRIGUEZ: We had so much fun — it was unheard of. I remember thinking, “Yeah, this is exactly what I want to do for a living.”
LINDBERG: The great thing was nobody was famous yet. A couple of us had done a few things, but we were all so fresh. It was just a pure time.
BREWSTER: I do remember being impressed that Ja Rule was in the movie.
WINNING’S WINNING AT THE BOX OFFICE
Released June 22, 2001, The Fast and the Furious opened at No. 1 and would make more than $200 million worldwide, tapping into a previously underserved audience.
LINDBERG: I’m from a small town in Washington, and just before the movie came out, my mom asked, “Do you want to have a premiere in your hometown?” I said, “Mom, no one is ever going to see this film.”
LI: Gone in 60 Seconds came out a year earlier, it was not entirely unlike our movie, except the cars were nicer, and it had all the stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage [and Timothy Olyphant]. I thought, “We’re dead.”
RODRIGUEZ: Back in those days the Rambos and Die Hards of the world were starting to be considered cheesy. Your superhero macho man was going to be replaced by Orlando Bloom. [Laughs] We didn’t think there’d be any room for this kind of stuff because that macho brand seemed to be making its exit.
MORITZ: We thought we had made something good, but it was a small movie, so who knew how audiences would react to it? We were at this theater out in [the L.A. neighborhood] Winnetka, and after out first test screening, people in the parking lot were driving their cars like crazy and so hyped up. We’ve gone back for every movie since. It’s a good luck theater, but also I just think we get a real feel for what the audience thinks there.
Credit: Bob Marshak/Universal Pictures
DIESEL: The movie was supposed to be out in March, and I got a call from Neal saying they were pushing to summer. At that time I was very green in terms of release dates, and I’m like, “But I wanted to see it now!” [Laughs] And he was like, “No, no, it’s a great thing.”
WALKER: I’d done Varsity Blues and She’s All That and The Skulls. All the movies had done well, but modest hits. Nothing like what we saw with the first Fast.
DIESEL: Paul and I went to a screening in Mexico for MTV’s Spring Break, and we’re sitting on the airport floor, people were walking over us, and I remember him saying, “Take all of this in because we’ll never have our anonymity again.”
WALKER: From a beancounter standpoint, they’re looking at it going, “Cool, this guy, girls like him, he seems kind of cool. And this Vin Diesel, he’s big and badass-looking, guys will identify with him for sure.”
BREWSTER: I was out on Long Island for the summer and saw the name on this marquee. I just was like, “Huh — I guess it could be big?”
LI: It was really awkward for me to watch. I’m an east coast journalist in hard news and this wasn’t that. It was like an alien world to me.
LINDBERG: When the movie came out, I lived right next to a theater, and so I went and sat in the very front with my head down and watched with an audience — and they loved it. It ended, and I rushed out and there was film crew out front and they were like, “Excuse me, sir, what did you think of The Fast and the Furious?” [Laughs] And I said nothing! I said no comment and kept walking… It was really thrilling, exciting, and frightening at the same time. I started getting mauled wherever I went.
FEINBLATT: I used to always get a kick out of after the movie when there’d be a tuner car going down the street with loud pipes or something and my wife would look over at me and go, “You started that!”
AYER: There were all these articles: “Holy cow, there’s a Latino audience! Who knew?!” Like, c’mon, man. The opportunity for kids to see people on screen that look like them can be life-changing.
MORITZ :Today they would say, “They cast it to get diversity.” No, we cast it to be like what the world was.
WALKER: Everyone felt like they were being represented. We had the Asian guys, the Latino club. We had Vin: What is he?
DIESEL: One of the things that was so attractive to me about it was that multi-cultural component. And who knew that it would become such a trademark, both of the saga and of the studio, and of where we are today in Hollywood.
Credit: Everett Collection
GUGLIEMI: It was one of the first movies that had Baskin-Robbins, all 31 flavors: Black, Mexican, white, Asian. It showed no prejudice. Everybody had the one love of cars.
AYER: What I like about street culture is, you get a white boy from Santa Clarita, Black dudes from Compton, Latinos from East Los, and everyone can stand around the open hood of a car and talk about the engine and the performance — and that’s amazing to me. It can transcend a lot of the division and issues that we have.
WALKER: F—, who doesn’t love cars?!
THE UNEXPECTED FATE OF THE FURIOUS
Moritz, Cohen, and Diesel quickly reteamed for 2002’s XXX, while only Walker and Moritz returned for 2003’s sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious. [In January actress Asia Argento accused Cohen of sexually assaulting her during the production of XXX, which Cohen has categorically denied.] Diesel, Walker, Rodriguez, and Brewster eventually reunited for a fourth Fast film in 2009, revitalizing the franchise.
DIESEL: The irony is, I asked Universal to not make a sequel. I felt they would compromise the ability for it to be a classic.
MORITZ: When there was starting to be buzz on the first movie, Evolution was smart enough to offer everybody a bunch of movie for what we thought was a really good idea [in XXX] before anyone was talking about a Fast sequel. At that point it wasn’t that it needed to be one or the other.
DIESEL: Sometimes you have to say no and stand for the integrity you hope to manifest in a film. Saying no in that that moment of my life might have understandably been scary, and yet, it’s what allowed for everyone to commit wholeheartedly. Taking a pause is necessary when you want to really think about where you want to take something.
BREWSTER: I was so upset. With [2 Fast], I was like, “Huh? Why are they switching it up completely?” But you can’t do much. You feel like Fast & Furious is your baby, so it’s hard.
AYER: I wish I knew a little bit more about its future when I was making it, but who knew we were creating something so timeless?
LINDBERG: Of course Jesse died and then they make nine sequels!
LI: I try not to think about how I didn’t get points on the back end. I’ve spent my entire life explaining how writers don’t always get massive pay days from Hollywood. [Laughs] So every time a new movie comes out my best friend makes fun of me — and that means like 10 times over two decades.
STRONG: I’ve only seen the first film. By the looks of the new movies you’ve got a guy who is grabbing a torpedo that is being fired from a submarine.
DIESEL: It totally started in a different place. It started very humble, and that’s something I’m grateful for, that we were able to start from humble beginnings so that you could really connect with these characters, without all the spectacle. The spectacle came as the movies needed to start one-upping themselves.
LINDBERG: Yeah, it gets fantastical, but that’s why we love them. I will always support and I’ve seen them all, even though, to be honest, it is tough for me because I want to continue that ride with everybody.
Credit: Bob Marshak/Universal Pictures
RODRIGUEZ: The franchise has always come along at a point where I’ve questioned what I do for a living. There’s been lots of lulls in-between. It’s the one place I feel accepted for being rebellious and a little bit crazy and off the beaten path.
BREWSTER: We’ve endured a lot together. This is my home. To know I would play Mia for 20 years, that would have blown me away.
WALKER: At the end of the day, everybody collectively will tell you the same thing: We’re here for one reason — people like what we’re making. For whatever reason, we’re still cool a decade later.
LINDBERG: To this day I can’t go anywhere without being called “Jesse,” and I love it. I can’t imagine not being a part of that movie and the blessings that came with that. I’m forever grateful for it.
GUGLIEMI: I’m starting to think Hector’s my real name. I was about to go to the DMV and change my license.
WALKER: People grew up on our characters, and now they’re taking their kids. It used to be the demo was 15 to 25, you know? Now it’s like 12 to 45! I’m like, what the hell happened?
DIESEL: It’s part of the magic that people could be different ages, races, walks of life, and find their brotherhood. That is what’s special about The Fast and the Furious.
REMEMBERING A BELOVED BROTHER
During a break from filming Furious 7 in November 2013, Walker was departing an event for his charity when the car he was a passenger in crashed, killing both him and the driver. He was 40 years old, and left behind a daughter, Meadow. After a production hiatus and serious discussions over whether to even complete the film, the Fast family reunited months later to finish Furious 7, which ends with a beautiful and emotional tribute to Walker.
STRONG: I didn’t know who Paul was. When everyone did the first table read at Universal, afterwards Paul, myself, and some of the other actors went to lunch down the street. I remember Paul picking up the check at the end and saying, “This is my treat. I want to take you guys out and I’m really excited to do the movie.” As a character trait, I thought that was a really cool thing.
GUGLIEMI: Paul Walker, nicest, humblest, most gracious guy ever. He didn’t care if you were the window washer on-set or the director, he’d treat everybody the same.
MORITZ: Sure, Paul loved to act, but he was a surfer, carhead who kind of fell into acting. Even though he’s the most gorgeous looking guy you’ll ever imagine, he just had a relatability. Women wanted to be with him, guys wanted to be him. He just had that thing.
RODRIGUEZ: I was so surprised that Paul had a beautiful baby girl. That I remember being really, really shocked by. I was like, “Wow, he’s a dad and he’s so young!” I couldn’t get over it. I also was blown away by how sweet he was with his daughter. And I watched that little girl grow up — so wild.
LINDBERG: What I remember most about filming [on the first Fast] was Race Wars. It was the peak of summer, the best atmosphere you could possibly have in the air, and what stands out to me is my scene with Paul. It was just that magic hour in the evening and I remember saying to Paul, “I really love working with you, dude,” and he was like, “I love working with you, too.” He was just the coolest dude and most amazing spirit you’ve ever met in your life.
DIESEL: While I’m off thinking about story or stunts or casting or how to realize the impossible, Paul would often cover us by owning automotive shops, doing races, actually becoming a racer. He would do that to contribute to our legitimacy.
GUGLIEMI: I got the call for Furious 7, and I was truly excited — and really surprised. I was like, “Are you sure you got the right number?” And it’s so sad what happened to Paul, my heart still goes out to him and his family. But to be a part of that last film with him, that was an honor to me.
Credit: Bob Marshak/Universal Pictures
MORITZ: When Paul passed away, yes, it was incredibly hard on us, but what I didn’t realize right away was how incredibly hard it was on the fans. So when we had the first test screening for Furious 7 and people were going to see Paul again, we were incredibly nervous. I was standing out in the lobby and a couple kids came up to me and thanked us for making the movie. They needed the closure with Paul, just like we did.
DIESEL: He had this ability to see. Every time we’d come out of a premiere, it would just be me and him, everybody would always give us our moment, and he’d always say, “Vin, the best one’s still in the can.” I’d be like, “You didn’t hear them, Paul?! They’re going crazy! What do you mean the best one’s still in the can?!” [Laughs]
BREWSTER: It sounds so cliché but it was just very easy between the two of us. It can’t be replicated because I loved him so much and he loved me. I fell harder for Paul as he got older. I thought he got better- and better-looking. And I think a lot of people didn’t appreciate how multidimensional he was until he passed. He was into so many things and just a supersmart dude who wasn’t solely fixated on the business. Strangely enough, I watched this Disney movie [1998’s Meet the Deedles] yesterday where he was playing this surfer kid who’s stuck as a forest ranger, and I’m like, “Paul’s so good!” When I look back at his work, I don’t get sad. I thought I would, but it’s actually really nice to see him.