Justin Lin: ‘Furious’ Filmmaker Finds Even Better Luck Tomorrow

Even with ‘Fast & Furious 6’ in his rearview, the helmer isn't slowing down

Justin Lin
Michael Lewis

Imagine that you are 42 years old, your last three films earned over $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office, you have transformed a sagging franchise into a robust film series, and you are a native Mandarin speaker at a time when Hollywood is hungry to plant a flag in the Chinese market.

In short, it’s a great moment to be Justin Lin.

Yet the unassuming man who sits on a sofa in his editing suite on the Universal Studios lot on a recent afternoon might easily be mistaken for the UCLA grad student he once was rather than one of the movie industry’s prime directors. Fresh-faced and attired in a Nike golf shirt, he politely excuses the acrid aroma of fermented soybeans emanating from the take-out container on his lap.

When he first embarked on the “Fast & Furious” franchise, there were days when Lin had trouble getting past the security guards at the studio’s front gates—something, he says only half jokingly, that still happens from time to time.

“I don’t look like a director,” he says, by which he means partly his age but mostly his ethnicity.

It is just over a month before the release of “Fast & Furious 6,” the fourth Lin-directed entry in Universal’s popular street-racing series, and two weeks before Lin must turn over his final cut to the studio. Just two days earlier, he was still on set, shooting a few last-minute inserts with one of his stars, Dwayne Johnson. Now Lin is scrutinizing visual effects shots, some of which fail to meet his standards for realism. “You get to play with physics on these movies,” Lin says, noting that all of the series’ engine-revving action is executed live on the set, by a crack team of second unit directors, picture car coordinators and stuntmen. CGI is used only to enhance what’s already there.

One of the principal audience pleasures of any Fast movie comes from seeing heavy machinery perform gravity-defying feats of the sort usually reserved for Ringling Bros. and the New York City Ballet. In the case of “Fast 6″’s piece de resistance—a complex chase along a winding cliffside highway involving a small fleet of vehicles, a helicopter and a tank—that meant spending one full month of the film’s grueling 150-day schedule shooting in the Canary Islands, fine-tuning every screeching halt, spinning reverse and mid-air jump. On a large monitor, one of Lin’s editors plays the latest version of the sequence, in which bodies hang from and leap between vehicles with astonishing grace, while the tank smashes through full-sized cars as if they were straw.

“We didn’t need a tank sequence,” remarks Lin, “but there were three character moments I had to have at that point, which had to do with the idea of trust, and once I realized what those were I started designing the action to go around that.” Sometimes, Lin says, it’s easier to reveal the true nature of a character through action rather than dialogue.

Indie guru John Pierson, who has had Lin as a guest speaker in his University of Texas film class, says of the director, “I think because he comes from an indie/film-school background, he’s managed to keep these films rooted in the physical world, which makes a big difference. On top of that, he brings a genuine enthusiasm for the material and…for adding to the characters.”

Lin was still enrolled at UCLA when the first “Fast and the Furious,” directed by Rob Cohen, hit theaters in 2001. He remembers excitedly going to see it, having recently learned about the subculture of illegal street racing from a documentary made by some fellow students. He was particularly intrigued by the preponderance of Asian-American drivers, who would race their heavily modified imports against American-made muscle cars in a show of ethnic pride. But he was disappointed that in the debut picture “the only Asian-Americans are the bad guys.”

He was similarly unimpressed four years later when Universal’s then chairwoman Stacy Snider approached him about directing the third “Fast” movie, subtitled “Tokyo Drift.” At the time, Lin was still hot from his 2002 breakout Sundance hit “Better Luck Tomorrow” and had just wrapped his first studio movie, the Disney military drama “Annapolis.” Meanwhile, the “Fast” series seemed to be running on fumes. A 2003 sequel, “2 Fast 2 Furious,” had cost double the original film’s $38 million budget, but only slightly surpassed the former’s $207 million global gross. Star Vin Diesel and Cohen had both jumped ship after the first movie. And now Snider, producer Neal Moritz and screenwriter Chris Morgan were proposing a stand-alone installment minus the original characters, set in Tokyo and focused on the titular “drift” racing, in which competitors steer and brake their way around hairpin turns in an elegant gliding motion.

But the first script Lin read was “all cars drifting around Buddha statues and geisha girls,” so he passed. Which only made the studio want him more.

Finally, Lin took the assignment, but under the condition he be allowed to make certain changes. One involved wooing Diesel back for a film-ending cameo that would link “Tokyo Drift” back to the preceding films and open the door for more sequels. Lin recalls an eight-hour meeting with the actor, in which he used Diesel’s affection for the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons” to explain how he wanted to deepen the “Fast” series’ characters and make them more mythic, seeding some of the ideas that would come to fruition over the three subsequent movies.

There were other battles to be fought, such as Lin’s insistence that “Tokyo Drift” co-star Sonny Chiba, one of the legends of 1970s martial arts cinema, be allowed to deliver his lines in subtitled Japanese. Despite its lower budget, “Tokyo Drift” only grossed $158.5 million worldwide.

For 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” Lin had the full original cast back on board, plus a number of new additions (including Johnson, Korean-American Sung Kang and Israeli actress Gal Gadot) that have transformed the franchise into one that is easily Hollywood’s most racially and ethnically diverse. In turn, foreign box office has been soaring. “Fast & Furious” collected $363 million in global ticket sales and two years later, “Fast Five” sped its way to $626 million. Expectations for “Fast 6” are even higher. And, Asians are no longer the bad guy.

Lin credits Universal for allowing him to take bigger and bolder risks with each successive film. “Usually when you’re successful, the tendency is to be very conservative and say, ‘Well, it worked here. Just do the same thing again.’ But this is a franchise where they’re like, ‘You want to do what? OK. Go.’” That made it hard to turn down the offer to direct the planned seventh “Fast” film. But Lin has arrived at a place in his career where he feels ready to begin a new chapter.

The “Fast” movies have paid off Lin’s mortgage for a while, and allowed him to give his parents — Taiwanese immigrants who spent 25 years running a mom-and-pop seafood joint in Anaheim — an early retirement. “So now I can make choices that I wouldn’t have been able to make in the last 10 years,” he says. He also oversees a small media empire: a culture blog (You Offend Me You Offend My Family); an original-content YouTube channel; and two production shingles — one (Barnstorm Pictures) a first-look deal with Universal, the other (Perfect Storm Entertainment) a joint venture with Chinese entrepreneur Bruno Wu’s Seven Stars Film Studios. Between the two production companies, Lin has an array of projects in various stages of development, ranging from a remake of the classic 1970s Samurai series “Lone Wolf and Cub” to more indie fare like a planned adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s Broadway play “Chinglish.”

Hwang says, “There’s a desire on the part of Hollywood—and all American industries really — to get a foothold in China and take advantage of this market, combined with an amazing degree of ignorance about what it actually would take to achieve that.” Hwang has also collaborated with Lin on a YouTube adaptation of his play Yellow Face, set to premiere this summer. He sees Lin as someone who may help to bridge the gap.

“I get that the Chinese market is growing, but I don’t think you can pander to that,” Lin says. “It’s like when people say “Fast and the Furious” is just fast cars and hot chicks—if it really was that easy, every studio would be doing it and making a lot of money. I told Bruno, ‘Let’s build movies that will play around the world.’ And China is a big part of the world.”