When director Rob Cohen first approached Paul Walker for the original “The Fast and Furious” movie in 2000, the actor had only three questions.
“Do I get a fast car? Do I get a gun? Do I get a girl?” Cohen recalls Walker asking.
The answers to all three — a resounding yes — convinced Walker to play undercover cop Brian O’Conner in what would become one of Universal Pictures’ most successful film franchises.
Fans and showbizzers are still reeling over the shocking news that Walker died Nov. 30 at age 40 as the passenger of a speeding Porsche that rammed into a pole in Santa Clarita, Calif.
His death leaves Universal with a daunting moral dilemma over how to move forward with the current production and future installments of the franchise. A race car enthusiastic in real life, Walker called himself a “speed demon” in a recent interview, though police have yet to determine an official cause of the accident.
Walker had starred in five of the six “Fast and the Furious” films, which have grossed more than $2.3 billion worldwide. He was in the middle of shooting the latest sequel, “Fast & Furious 7,” at the time of his death.
Universal initiated a temporary break in the film’s Atlanta shooting schedule over the weekend as the studio reassesses its next move. But Cohen isn’t even sure if the series should continue without Walker.
“That’s a tricky question,” he says. “I think the franchise has had a longer life than any of us thought was going to have. There’s something that we did in the first film that planted these characters deep in people’s minds and hearts and it’s only grown over the years.”
Now the series will have an unintended undertone to its death-defying car stunts and exploding vehicles that are served up as mass entertainment.
On social media, fans were mostly adamant that they wanted the seventh movie to continue filming.
Some fans speculated about whether it would be tasteful for the filmmakers to kill off Walker’s character or how else to explain his absence.
A rep from Universal wouldn’t say how much of the latest chapter had been shot with Walker or how the studio plans to proceed both in terms of dealing with the inevitable demise of Walker’s character and the franchise as a whole.
Shots of Walker behind the wheel for the promotion of the Dec. 10 release of “Fast & Furious 6” on DVD have already been yanked.
“The fine line that they’ll have to walk is wanting to be respectful to his death, but also capture the essence of the franchise that I’m sure he was so proud of,” says one former studio marketing head. “You have to be careful of what you show him doing.”
As the recent installments of “Fast and the Furious” have continued to upstage the previous films with bigger stunts and more exaggerated car explosions, Cohen notes that the lines between the onscreen action and reality have increasingly diverged.
“These (later films) have been very over the top, operatic and therefore somewhat unreal,” he says. “There’s a quality of highly vaulted Hollywood action that is not encouraging people to go out and get themselves killed.”
That said, the real-life circumstances surrounding Walker’s death puts Universal in the precarious position of continuing to promote a movie series that centers on the dangerous sport of street racing.
“Anyone watching the previous films with Paul Walker or any future films will be reminded of the tragedy of his accident and death,” says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School. “The way in which the film’s events mirror what actually happened will probably cast a permanent shadow over the franchise,” he adds.
(Pictured: Paul Walker and Vin Diesel have toplined the “Fast and Furious” films.)