Car Coordinator Dennis McCarthy On Set Interview – FAST & FURIOUS

     February 15, 2009


Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub



I’ll admit I’m not a car guy. I don’t know what the difference is between an engine in a 1970 Charger and a recent BMW. So while that might sound like blasphemy if you’re a car enthusiast, I’m smart enough to know a lot of people do know the difference, and the cars of “The Fast and the Furious” are a big reason why the films are watched by so many people.



Anyway, as most of you are well aware, on April 3rd Universal is releasing “Fast & Furious” – the 4th movie in the series. But unlike the last two movies, this one has all the actors from the original film reuniting for a sequel. That’s why the tagline on the poster says “New Model, Original Parts”. Anyway, while they were filming the movie last year, Universal was kind enough to invite a few people to the set and I was one of them.



While on the set, I managed to interview Paul Walker, Director Justin Lin, Laz Alonzo, as well as Car Coordinator Dennis McCarthy. I also wrote an article about what we saw and did while on the set and posted about 30 new images from the movie.



Anyhow, back to car coordinator Dennis McCarthy.



If you’re into the cars of “Fast & Furious”, this interview will probably make your day. That’s because Dennis is the guy the filmmakers turn to when they need a car, or have any sort of questions about a car. He’s the one responsible for a lot of the stuff you see in the movie, so if you’re into cars, this is the one interview you probably want to read. Also, if you ever wanted to work on cars in movies, this is the guy you’d want to learn from.



Since I’ve already admitted to not knowing that much about automobiles, I’ll just let the interview do the talking. As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here.



Again, “Fast & Furious” arrives in theaters April 3rd.




Question: Tell us what your role is in the film here.



DENNIS MCCARTHY: My role is supplying all the vehicles in the film.



What do you mean by supplying all the vehicles? Do you pick them out?



MCCARTHY: Not necessarily. Basically, it starts out with the script. I read the script and sometimes there’s a reference in the script — what kind of car. If there is, I’ll start there. If there isn’t, then I’ll give them a selection to choose from.



So you’re the car hunter, then?



MCCARTHY: Definitely. Car hunter is a good term for it.



When you talk to the car manufacturers, what do you look for, exactly? Do you have an idea in your head about what you’re looking for?



MCCARTHY: Absolutely. For instance, Vin Diesel’s Chevelle — at the very end of “Fast and the Furious”, after the credits roll by, you see him in a red 70s Chevelle, headed into Mexico. That was an established car, so that was a given. The Charger that he drives is an easy one, from “Fast and the Furious I”. The car that Letty crashes in, that was a car that Justin liked from “Tokyo Drift”, the car you see Vin Diesel racing. So there’s some tie-in with that car. The Phoenix car was the car I saw at the SEMA show.



What’s his car?



MCCARTHY: A Ford ’72 Torino. A company called Pure Vision built one, and I loved it so I showed them that car and everybody liked it. Paul Walker’s car, based on the script, when I read it, most of the stuff he does is in the dirt. He’s driving down dirt roads — a lot of off-road stuff. But they wanted it to be some kind of tuner car. His character, they didn’t want him in a muscle car. Which kind of narrows it down to a car that would work as a muscle car — the Mitsubishi Evo or the Subaru. So it’s pretty much one or the other. I met with both companies. Mitsubishi didn’t really seem excited; Subaru did.



Really? Because their Evos are big rally cars.



MCCARTHY: They are big rally cars. The answer I got was that they’re looking for a different demographic, I guess. Like I said, I don’t push. “Hey, great, no problem.” So I hit up Subaru: “Hey, great. We want to supply the cars. We love it. Perfect.” So they made it easy.



How has the technology changed over the years in regards to these cars and how you pick ‘em for the film?



MCCARTHY: Well, the muscle cars are great for us because they’re very simple. If they break, we can fix it right on set. For instance, if the Subaru goes down with some kind of computer issue out on the set, about all we can do is start trying to change parts. But in this case they gave us seven cars, so if one breaks we slide the other one in its place.



How many cars do you have for each?



MCCARTHY: It depends on the amount of action. You always have several cars for each character. And it’s dependent on the action. For instance, the Vin Diesel car, we have seven of those too. We have seven Chevelles. We have five Chargers. We have six Torinos. I can’t remember all the other quantities, but they’re all in pretty good multiples.



Is it true that you’re sneaking in the General Lee to this movie?



MCCARTHY: Well, we do have a 1970 Charger, which is very close to the ’69 Charger. And actually several of our ’70 Chargers….oh, you know what? There is some truth to that. We have about two or three ex-General Lee cars that we converted.



So they actually were General Lees?



MCCARTHY: Uh, ’68 through ’70 Chargers are all the same car. They’re very, very expensive cars. A clean 1970 Charger is anywhere between $20,000-$30,000 for (inaudible) numbers matching car. So I definitely call up my buddies in the film business, because we know there’s a lot of General Lees, and we recycle (inaudible).



How do you go about finding these classic muscle cars? Craigslist? Ebay?



MCCARTHY: Absolutely. We go on Craigslist, we go on Ebay, we go through the classifieds. I know a lot of people who are in MOPAR clubs. I’ll actually send guys to car shows. The Pomona swap meet, for instance — we’ll send a guy there every Sunday to see what they got. We have a ’73 Camaro. We have a lot of fairly rare muscle cars that are hard to find.



I’m assuming you don’t tell them you’re buying it for a movie.



MCCARTHY: We do not, no. I mean, eventually we have to because the check comes from Universal. But you never use that when you’re in the negotiating stage.



They won’t sell it to you.



MCCARTHY: Sometimes they won’t sell it to you. Because they’re afraid…a lot of times, these cars are their babies. “Oh, we’ll take great care of it.”



Some of these cars aren’t gonna make it out in one piece. Does it break your heart?



MCCARTHY: The majority of these cars aren’t gonna make it out in one piece. Very few cars will make it out. You know, with some of them I would say — like the ’70 Chevelle is one of my personal favorites. So yeah, it is hard when, for instance, they take out the side of a car in a scene and say, “Ok, we need to match a perfectly cherry ’70 Chevelle with that one.” So we have to literally break out sledghammers of a forklift and start pounding the side of the car in. Yeah, that’s a little grim. We do it all the time, but there are some cars that I’m fond of and it’s painful to watch.



But doesn’t destroying them make the collectors’ cars more valuable?



MCCARTHY: Yeah, and one thing that’s changed today, as opposed to 10-15 years ago, is that you can actually buy a brand new quarter panel. You can buy a brand new door. You can buy all the molding pieces. Whereas 10-15 years ago if I had this job, we’d be looking through wrecking yards and really pulling our hair out trying to find these little pieces. But companies like Year One, who’s been a great supplier for all these things, we can call ‘em up and say, “Yeah, we took out the whole right side of the car,” and within a day and a half the parts arrive at our shop.



How long have you been a picture car coordinator?



MCCARTHY: This is about the fifth year I’ve been doing this.



What’s the hardest car you’ve had to find?



MCCARTHY: Boy, I’ve had to find a lot of difficult cars. On this particular film, the hardest car was the Skylines, because they’re just not available here. So what I did was send one of my guys, Matt Rubarts — literally, I put him on a plane and sent him to Japan to go car shopping. He found the cars, we did a wire transfer, they got ‘em to the dock, and we shipped ‘em back. And that’s how we got those cars. Other than that, there’s been a lot of weird cars that you get, like some one-off year Rolls-Royce, or bizarre things a director might want, or lead character might want. On this film, though, we’ve been pretty lucky. We found everything we needed.



Have you ever had a carmaker request that you NOT use their cars?



MCCARTHY: I have, but I probably shouldn’t bring that up. There’s several of ‘em that I did ask for their cars, their cars looked really great, and they said absolutely not.



What do you do with these cars when you’re done with them?



MCCARTHY: Most of the cars end up getting destroyed. The ones that survive are usually used for publicity. They’ll tour around. For instance, on “Tokyo Drift” they took all the cars — like five or six separate cars — and just took them on tour to all the D1 and Formula-D events. And to various car shows. They’ll take them to the premiere. Several of ‘em just end up on the Universal Studios tour. Like right now there’s a bunch of “Fast and Furious” cars at Universal from the last movie, the second movie, and the first movie. The same is true for the Orlando Universal.



Did you take any cars from the first film and recycle them for this film?



MCCARTHY: We did not. Those cars are just no longer around. I’m not sure where they’re at. I know there’s one locally, but it’s on display so we didn’t bother taking it. It would have been great if they were all parked somewhere, preserved and ready to go, but that just wasn’t the case.



In the old days, did you deal with a lot more shady characters, maybe guys trying to sell you stolen stuff?



MCCARTHY: No, I mean, basically, we’ll go out and find the cars. We’ll look on eBay and Craigslist, and we always make sure there’s a title with the car. So far we haven’t had any of those problems.



Any truth to the rumor that Herbie the Love Bug will make a cameo?



MCCARTHY: I’m working on that.



There a lot of famous movie cars. Is there ever like a joke in the background, like you try to wink?



MCCARTHY: No. We did actually have a DeLorean on the last film I worked on. We brought a Delorean in. So it was a “Back to the Future” car for sure.



What was the last film you worked on?



MCCARTHY: It was a show called Kids in America and it took place in the ’80s. The wanted some exotic cars, so I forget whose idea it was, but someone said, “Hey, the DeLorean is the perfect ’80s car.” And we actually found a pristine DeLorean, mint condition. It was great.



When you’re involved with a project, are you there the entire time?



MCCARTHY: For a film like this I’m here the entire time. Typically, I’m one of the first people on, because the movie’s kind of based around the cars.



Are you hands-on with it? Do you work on the cars if something goes wrong?



MCCARTHY: On my earlier films I worked on shows where I was the only car guy there, so I worked on ‘em, found ‘em, did the whole thing. On a movie like this, it’s so large that —



How big is the team?



MCCARTHY: We have like 35-40 guys, just to handle the cars. We have a 60,000 sq. foot building. We do everything in house. The only thing we send out is usually paint work, but that’s only because due to zoning issues we couldn’t get a paint booth in the shop. The only time I’ll work on a car is if I’m on the set and something happens. Then everybody will jump in and do everything we can to make the car run.



What are car enthusiasts going to love about the cars in this film?



MCCARTHY: Well, I think it’s gonna be great for all car enthusiasts because we pretty much cover everything. We have off-road race trucks. We have European cars. We have Japanese cars. We have the drift cars. We have some exotic motorcycles. My job is to get as much stuff involved…the last movie was fairly focused on just drift cars, just Japanese cars. Actually, all three movies have been this way. So this movie they really branched out, so hopefully we’ll bring in a much larger viewing audience.



Do you want to keep a lot of it stock, especially for the older models?



MCCARTHY: I don’t really. I prefer to have the things completely raced-out. The other thing I like to do on these cars — for instance, on Vince’s Chevelle, in the film it has a roll cage. It has racing seatbelts. It has all the stuff you’d find on a stunt car, but in this movie, it’s also a hero car. So I can use a stunt car, a hero car — they’re basically all the same. Same goes for the Torinos. Since it’s about car racing, we could put all that safety equipment and everything in it.



What’s the fastest car in the movie?



MCCARTHY: The fastest hero car in the movie would probably be the Blue Skyline that Paul Walker has, that he’s driving in the movie. That’s probably the fastest top-speed car. The fastest-accelerating car: one of the Chevelles. They obviously don’t all have the same engines. But one Chevelle has a 500x motor that has over 500 horsepower. I don’t know if you guys saw the clip, but we had one that did a big wheelstand and everything. We cheated it with a little ballast weight, but it still used a lot of horsepower and it worked really well. It was a cool shot.



Rumor is that Paul Walker knows something about cars.



MCCARTHY: Yes, he knows a tremendous amount about cars, yeah. It’s great having him involved with the film. He likes to drive the cars, he likes the technical aspects of the movie, and the crew knows exactly what he’s talking about.



Does he come hang out with you guys at the shop?



MCCARTHY: Yeah, he comes and hangs out. It’s great. He loves hanging in the shop. He works on cars, he races cars. I think it’s great for the film, too, because it adds that element of realism. We hear him talking about something or talking about tech stuff and it all came from him. It’s all things he would say.



Is it important for you to have the car stunts be as realistic as possible?



MCCARTHY: Absolutely. Actually, on the third one sometimes it didn’t appear that way, but in reality those cars were the real deal and they all did everything they should.



There were some incredible driving sequences in that movie.



MCCARTHY: There really were. Watching it being done, like watching those guys drive on-set, is really even more impressive than watching the final product, because it’s one thing to slide around a turn, but to hit that exact same spot and hit that same mark 18 times in a row —



Especially when he went up the ramp in that parking garage.



MCCARTHY: What is cool about that is that when everyone first looked at that, the drivers actually weren’t there. “Well, that can’t be done. We’ll have to rig up some kind of track system.” You know, it was a big special effects gig. And then Reese Miller shows up and says, “No, I can do that.” And he did it several times, no problem. I don’t think he ever…maybe he just kissed the wall a little bit. There was a ton of shots too that never made it into the film, stuff he did that was just…we’d all be making bets. “There’s just no way.” He pulled it off every time.



Are there any stunts like that for this film?



MCCARTHY: Not to that degree yet, but there’s still a way to go. Next week with this whole off-road sequence, where we have a trophy truck flying through the air, jumping over two cars — it’s some pretty wild stuff.



Do you work any more or less with the second unit than the first?



MCCARTHY: On the creative side it’s all first unit. You have to give first unit the look they want and everything else. But the hardest part is second-unit, because every night they destroy a whole bunch of cars. It’s a sure thing. We have a system with a car carrier that goes down there at six in the morning and brings back a whole load of wrecked cars. We hustle, we fix ‘em, we re-paint ‘em and get ‘em going again. Frame machines straighten everything out and get ‘em back down there by six o’clock at night. They wreck ‘em again and we pick ‘em up and bring ‘em back. It’s just a never-ending, 24-hour, constant deal.



How much does it cost to do something like that every day?



MCCARTHY: That would be too much math. I don’t know how much it costs per day, but it’s not cheap. There’s a lot of manpower there, that’s for sure. I can say that it’s much more economical to do it the way we do it. If we had to send these cars to, say, a BMW shop with an M5 and say, “Hey, we need this thing back in six hours,” the cost would be through the roof. You could never afford to make the movie. By doing it all in-house, the guys are all making their hourly rate and they just get it done. So we’re definitely doing it the cheapest way possible.



How old were you when you first started getting into cars?



MCCARTHY: Like three, I think. It’s pretty much been what I’ve always done.



What do you like to drive?



MCCARTHY: I love older cars — I’ve always had a lot of muscle cars — but I really like driving newer cars. The reality is you just can’t get an old car to drive like a new car. You get spoiled.



What do you think about the new Challenger coming out? New Camaro?



MCCARTHY: I like the Challenger. We actually had an opportunity to use the new Challenger in this film. We had one in the shop. But it just ended up…no one really jumped all over it.



That’s surprising.



MCCARTHY: It is surprising. Justin really wanted to have an older muscle car…Paul Walker was gonna be the import guy and Vin Diesel would be the muscle car guy. The new Challenger didn’t really fit into either category. Which is a shame because it’s a gorgeous car. It wasn’t old and it wasn’t an import, so it didn’t fit either character. For instance, yesterday I drove that brand-new Pontiac G8. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that–



It’s like 400-something horsepower.



MCCARTHY: Unfortunately, I only got to drive the 360 automatic one. The 400-horsepower six-speed one’s coming out in a few months. But I was amazed with that car. I drove it for several days and loved it. Those are the kind of cars I like to drive. The ZR6 is one of my favorite cars to drive. On the weekends, a muscle car every once in a while is great.



What’s the best perk of working on this film?



MCCARTHY: God, there’s a lot. One, getting to drive all these cars; and two, just getting to…for instance, today I went out to this huge dirt ranch and drove an off-road racetrack for a couple of hours, testing it. So I just can’t complain at all.






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