Fast X director Louis Leterrier talks exclusively to us about replacing Justin Lin as director, the influence of French cinema on action movies, and how he saved Alien: Resurrection…
French filmmaker Louis Leterrier is no stranger to making action movies. He’s worked on the likes of Jason Statham vehicle Transporter and its 2005 sequel, directed one of Jet Li’s finest English-language movies – Unleashed – and wrangled gods and monsters in the 2010 remake, Clash of the Titans.
Nevertheless, Fast X represented a considerable challenge even for a director with Leterrier’s experience. As you may have read in assorted news stories, Justin Lin was the action sequel’s director right up until the first week of shooting; when he abruptly departed citing the usual ‘creative differences’, Leterrier was quickly brought in as a replacement. With production underway, Leterrier therefore had the task of taking over a gigantic operation spanning several continents and taking in numerous, complex action sequences.
When we caught up with Leterrier over Zoom shortly before the film’s release, though, he seemed relaxed, even elated. He’d managed to get Fast X over the finish line (“He saved our ass,” was how franchise star Michelle Rodriguez put it), and while reviews are somewhat mixed, box-office projections suggest that Fast X will make around $300 million on its opening weekend. Given the situation the film was in last April, Universal will probably see that as a win.
This might explain why Leterrier was so happy to answer our questions about the challenges of taking over such a big film at short notice, and whether it’s possible for a newcomer to a long-running franchise to put their artistic stamp on a film like this.
Leterrier’s enthusiasm for the Fast franchise was visible throughout our chat – he even recalls the time he sat and watched the first film with Jason Statham back in the early 2000s. And be sure to stick around for the end of the interview: it turns out that Leterrier has form when it comes to solving problems during film productions…
Film Stories: I wanted to start with the opening scene, because it’s really interesting from a technical perspective – it’s footage from Fast Five mixed with new sequences. So what’s the ratio of old to new, and what were the challenges of making those match?
Louis Leterrier: There’s more stuff from the original movie, but there were an awful lot of dailies and rushes that weren’t used then, but we used now. So as you saw, we Rashomon the angle [as in show the same story from different perspectives, akin to Kurosawa’s classic – Ed]. Dom and Brian are the bad guys. They’re the thieves, and the Reyes are trying to protect the safe – their money.
So I went into the dailies. Universal has an amazing archive department, so we went in and looked through all the dailies that hadn’t been seen before. There were a lot of wide angles and stunts that hadn’t been seen before. There was a lot of Paul Walker – I never got a chance to meet Paul in real life. I obviously knew Brian O’Conner, the character, perfectly, but seeing Paul in the dailies, and seeing how Vin and Paul were together, was really touching.
We shot a lot of new stuff with Jason Momoa and Joaquim de Almeida and comped them in. But we used the same 35mm film stock and the same lenses, same camera, everything. Then during the chase, we comped them into the cars, which were old shots. We erased the person driving and put Jason Momoa in. It’s a puzzle, but I love doing that – it was almost like making a documentary – I had all that footage, and I was trying to find that story.
It’s well known that you came into this process relatively late – something like a week into shooting. What was that like, that transition, because this is obviously a gigantic production.
It was actually three days in. It was daunting. Absolutely daunting. Scary. The opportunity of a lifetime, obviously. I personally couldn’t… my career would have been destroyed, for one thing… but I as a fan couldn’t accept that this franchise was going to go down and just peter to a stop. I wanted it to be an explosive finish. No one would have said, “This movie wasn’t that great because the director changed”. No one sees that, they don’t care. The fans want to see a great Fast and the Furious. They want to be excited, surprised, they want to see the stakes go up and up and up.
That was my own personal challenge – can I up the scale, up the characters, make sure the story keeps evolving. Luckily, the basis of the script was very good, and then I had to enhance that as I prepped in the three days of flying to London. I had to jot down some ideas, and then I had screenwriters writing. I had to make sure I had as much great material as possible.
Then I arrived in London and I met the cast and the crew and the producers. And I must tell you, it was so calm when I arrived – I thought they’d be running around like headless chickens. But no, they were very focused on the task at hand. Knew exactly what they wanted, and my ideas were in perfect sync with Vin Diesel’s ideas, with the producers’ ideas, and the actors.
So what I did was, I sat down with each of the actors, starting with Vin – four hours. Then Michelle [Rodriguez] – three hours. And so on like this. We just got to know each other, asking questions. It was, “How can we make this better?”
And that process never stopped. Every day after shooting, we spent two or three hours together, one or two actors, just all working together.
People tell me, “You’re a Frenchman working in the Hollywood system,” but it’s the greatest, the Hollywood system. If everyone wants to make the same movie, it’s the smoothest system in the world – it’s the perfect machine. The Rolls Royce of filmmaking.
That was going to be one of my questions – did you have the time to make your own mark on this, but it sounds like you did.
Completely. And again, the script was in great shape. Had the script been impossibly bad, I would not have said yes, but as you do with every movie where you’re director, you add your own stamp, you find something that’s better, and add new characters.
You know how it is with new characters; they live on the page, but there’s a second life when there’s an actor portraying them. Jason Momoa’s character was not on the page. This character, you can’t really write in one sentence; he’s opera on two legs or something like this. I have an idea for this, but it’s very different when I come on set and I have Jason Momoa there. It’s why I spent so much time with these actors, to get them into the character.
It’s good that you mention Jason Momoa, because he’s brilliant in this, obviously. But there’s one scene in particular, where he’s painting the toenails of two corpses with nail varnish. That is perhaps the most incredibly strange, unexpected scene I’ve seen in any Fast film. So was that scripted?
[Chuckles] No, that wasn’t in the script – it was added later. That’s an idea we had as we were shooting. We loved Jason, and we wanted to have more of him. Jason has all these bombastic scenes, but we thought, ‘What’s his regular, every day life like?’
It’s funny that you noticed this scene. It’s one of my favourites. It’s Grand Guignol, it’s dark humour, it’s all that stuff. Frankly, none of us, including Jason, thought that scene would be in the movie. [Laughs] We said to each other, ‘This scene is so crazy, it’ll make a great DVD extra.’
Then as we were testing the movie, people were loving this scene. They were laughing and going crazy. And frankly, you get to understand that with this character, it isn’t just for show – he really is absolutely insane. His everyday life is as crazy as the show he puts on, you know?
So we decided to put it in, and I don’t regret it. It’s fun that these movies can reinvent themselves and have a bit of a sense of humour about themselves. It’s also a wink to the audience – this guy’s crazy. Stay with us, it’s going to be a fun ride.
It goes without saying that you’re working with a big budget on Fast X. But I wonder whether the fundamentals of shooting a really good action scene or fight scene stay the same?
They stay the same. It’s interesting – the original Fast And The Furious was the first film I went to see with the co-star of my first movie, The Transporter, and that co-star was Jason Statham. And we experienced action in a way we hadn’t seen before – it actually involved the characters in the action, rather than it being a show-off piece designed to get people shovelling popcorn in their mouths. It’s really story-driven set-pieces. That informed my career, and I’ve used that model ever since.
It’s not solely Fast and Furious – it’s just what any good movie does, which is put the characters in the action. I think that’s what we did on [Fast X] than I’d ever done before. We had so many characters, so much story, so many set-pieces and so much action, that I could never stop the character development. Every action scene has its own three-act structure – they fight each other, then it turns, they become friends… there’s twists and turns. So it’s not just one taste in your mouth – it’s five or six flavours, and it really propels the story along.
It helps me as a director hold the audience and keep them in suspense. They lean forward – they don’t relax and chew popcorn. The stakes are real.
Does one set-piece stand out as a challenge above the others? Maybe it’s not even one that’s particularly obvious…
Frankly, the Rome set piece, because we were in the middle of the Eternal City and surrounded by ancient monuments. Then we arrive with our gigantic, one-tonne ball. We did that for real – sure it was enhanced, but it really weighed one tonne. Was it set on fire? Yes it was. The car was really trying to stop the ball – if it wasn’t for the car, the ball would have kept going over to the Spanish Steps.
We really were working very hard. It’s a fifteen-minute action sequence, which is very rare in cinema these days. So that was challenging at every level. But every piece we did worked perfectly, nothing was broken. And we were tuning up the story and letting the actors give their characters their moments. But it wasn’t like spinning plates while I was doing this – it was like spinning chainsaws. It was juggling ten things that were really complicated.
You mentioned Jason Statham – did working with him again give you a chance to reminisce a bit about making those Transporter films?
Yeah it was great. We did a couple of commercials over the years, but we hadn’t worked on a feature film together for about 20 years. So seeing each other on set was really fun – we literally had a Wallace and Gromit moment where for a minute we didn’t say any words – it was more [makes guttural sounds of surprise]. Then we got working. It was like, “Can you believe we’re here?”
Jason is so humble – he’s the hardest-working man ever. To see how far he’s gone in his career, to meet him again and take him a bit further [in Fast X]… and frankly, fixing one of the bigger challenges of Fast and Furious, which is the Han moment. They’re mortal enemies, and we see where they end up in this movie. As a fan, it felt so right, so good. It was one week and one week only where we had Jason every day, and it was lovely. We had a lovely time.
As I was researching for this, I was reminded that Pierre Morel was the cinematographer on The Transporter. He obviously went on to make Taken. So between you two, and also Luc Besson, you’ve made some really influential action movies. I’d even say the John Wick films are in the vein of those films. It feels like French filmmakers have really influenced action cinema – I was wondering if you’d ever reflected on why that might be?
I think it’s very much because of where we’re geographically positioned in the world. We have influences obviously from America – American cinema is fun, bombastic, fun, exciting, popcorn. Then there’s Belgian cinema, German, British cinema. Then we have Spanish and Italian spaghetti westerns… I grew up watching the 15 terrible Mad Max remakes that they did [in Italy]. And /then/, obviously, all the pan-Asian cinema. All of this has influenced us.
I saw three movies a day. Tsui Hark, John Woo retrospectives. Hardcore Russian films, and then your giant, Spielbergian movies coming from the States. In our mind, cinema is one giant entertaining, thought-provoking thing.
Then when I went to film school in America, I realised that my friends hadn’t seen the movies I had seen. They were excellent, but excellent at one thing.
Also, I have to give him the credit he’s due, Luc Besson is a master storyteller, a master filmmaker, and a master producer. He saw the burgeoning talent that we all had and really guided us. I learned so much from Luc. I /still/ learn from Luc – I’m his friend and we’ve switched sides a little bit; he’s produced my movies, now I’m producing his. You know how sometimes directors and producers get a little jealous of each other? He loved that we were successful. He loved that Pierre Morel ruled the world with Taken. Even today, he takes pictures of me doing interviews on TV and goes, “I’m so proud of you!”
He’s incredible. It’s all due to Luc Besson.
I only have time for one question, so I have to ask you about this: you were credited as on-set production assistant on Alien: Resurrection…
[Laughs] I had many jobs on this movie, yes!
Yeah, so what are your memories of working on that? Because that’s a fascinating place to start a film career.
They were the greatest memories. I’d done a few movies as a PA in France when I was young – like, fourteen. But [Alien: Resurrection] was the first movie after college. I went to NYU [New York University] and that was the first movie I was hired on, because it was Jean-Pierre Jeunet and they thought it would be better if there was a bilingual crew on set. So I sent in my resume and was accepted.
My first job was the worst. We were shooting on the Fox lot in LA, and I was in the baking sun, stopping construction work outside. I didn’t see anything of the Alien – it was super frustrating.
You know how the red light comes on when they’re shooting and then when they’ve stopped it turns off? Well, one day it turned off and never turned back on. I was waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. Then someone [called out], “Who knows how to fix Media 100?”
Media 100 is this sort of Avid-ish, offline editing thing. And luckily, this was the tool I used to edit my student movies at NYU.
So I said [mimes putting up hand] “Yes, I know how to use that.”
The system was broken, it was this complicated thing. So then I fixed it, and then production could restart. Because that was the first time we were using offline editing to help with compositing and stuff.
So, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director, he said, “You, video operator – you’re fired. Young French guy – you’re hired. You stay with me.”
And it was amazing, because I was next to him, and [cinematographer] Darius Khondji, and Sigourney Weaver, and Winona Ryder, and on and on. I was there all day watching them. Then I was alone at night in this giant spaceship with all the creatures there as I was backing up all my data. And that lasted what seemed like forever – it was something like a six-month shoot. Jean-Pierre really liked me – he said, “Stay with me in Post. You can be my assistant or whatever.”
So I was his assistant, and people were sending him scripts, so I got to read a lot of the scripts that Jean-Pierre was sent. He was like, “Did you like that? Do you think I should do it?” And I’d say, “Nah.” [Laughs]
It was so amazing. And then at the end, I had the opportunity to do some of the visual effects. I called NASA… and that whole ending where they’re on Earth? I supervised that. So it was great. An amazing opportunity.
It’s funny, because in this business, you really can start at the bottom one day but if you have skill and show real passion and excitement and hard work – you can basically do whatever you want. Your dreams will carry you forward. They really will. Your dreams and your excitement. I always tell this to people – never stop dreaming, never stop working. You are your own motivation, you are your own engine. Your creative engine is inside of you. Don’t compare yourself to other people – keep driving, and you’ll make it.
Louis Leterrier, this has been a genuine pleasure. Thank you very much.
Fast X is out in UK cinemas on 19 May.
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