It’s fitting that a series as bonkers as Fast & Furious has gone through so many permutations. What began as a story about a street crew boosting DVD players has become a worldwide saga that has them battling submarines. But along the way, it looks like the franchise might have been sunk. When Tokyo Drift came along, it looked like the lead actors had abandoned the series. Instead, Drift inadvertently marked expanding the franchise, putting it on a global stage, and introducing new characters.
But the film started out very different. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who has been with the franchise since Drift, talked with Steve Weintraub for the latest installment in the series, The Fate of the Furious. During their conversation, Morgan discussed pitching executives for Tokyo Drift and how the project eventually transformed into a high-school set story:
“If you don’t mind sticking with this for a moment, I’ll give you the shortest version of the Tokyo Drift story, which was I became aware of Tokyo Drift because there was a Fast and Furious sequel open writing assignment, so I kind of put together a take and I came in and I met with Universal Studios and Jeff Kirschenbaum, the executive there at the time. And I pitched a version of the movie, I brought in a laptop and I brought some videos and I said, ‘Hey, they’re doing this thing in Japan called drifting and it’s really cool. My idea for a story is Dominic Toretto learned that someone he cares about has been killed in Japan and he has to go there, and in order to solve the crime he has to get in there with these drifters and learn a new style of racing and this whole thing.’
So I pitched a big complicated thing like that, and they said, ‘Yeah, the drifting is cool but I don’t think we’re gonna get Vin [Diesel] back on this, this is smaller.’ The budget was so low, so low, and it was potentially a straight-to-DVD movie. So they were like, ‘Listen, I don’t think this is gonna work out, but thanks anyway.’ So I left, didn’t get the job, and like a week-and-a-half later I get a phone call from Kirschenbaum and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, what was that thing called drifting again? What was that? Would you come in and talk to me about that again?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ So I came back in and I re-pitched it and he said, ‘Well, really what we’d like to do is set it in high-school’ and I was like, ‘You know what? God bless you, I was terrible in high-school, I don’t think I can write high-school. Go ahead and have the idea, you can just take it and we’ll work on something else together down the road.’ I was just trying to kind of foster good will. And he was like, ‘No, no, no. You know what? You’re totally right you should do the Dominic Toretto version’ and I’m like, ‘Really? That’s awesome!’ So they hired me to write it, and back then you would do two steps. So I got my first step, which was my draft that I did, they read it and I got one note back from them –they would give you their notes and then you do a re-write- and it was, ‘Great! Now set it in high-school.’ That’s where Tokyo Drift became what it was.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how studios get you to write the movie they always wanted in the first place. And while Tokyo Drift has its share of problems, it’s also the necessary pivot for the franchise as a whole, and credit has to go to Morgan and Universal for being willing to make that turn rather than saying “If we don’t have Paul Walker or Vin Diesel, then this thing needs to go straight to DVD.” That being said, I’m a little bummed that in a series that gets increasingly nuts, they’re likely never to go back to anything as small scale as a character working to solve a murder mystery, which wouldn’t be a bad plot for the Fast & Furious films when they were smaller.
Morgan also talked about how the franchise has developed since he came on, and how the cars and the characters understanding of cars has become the constant, but they’re using that baseline to keep building the stakes and the action:
“When I originally came on to the franchise, I always kind of saw global, the crew, so it’s not as surprising. One of the things I love about the franchise as well is that these guys don’t have superpowers but they know everything about cars and they use their cars in very lateral-thinking sorts of ways, they solve any problems with their vehicles. So naturally when we shifted on Fast Five, we kind of had a little more like a heist idea, of course they would use cars to solve that. And then the last couple of movies have been more global, international stakes, of course they’re gonna jump out of airplanes and cars to solve the problem. It was always kind of in there, it’s just getting increasingly so, that’s all.”
For what Morgan had to say about his work on the Universal Monsters franchise, click here. Look for more from Steve’s interview on Collider all week. The Fate of the Furious opens this Friday.