Time, Money and the Invisible Bullshit Line: Chris Morgan on The Fate of the Furious
Chris Morgan discusses The Fate of the Furious, the three things that limit action, and and the heartbreak of losing franchise star, Paul Walker.
Chris Morgan wrote his first script while working in a video store. Now he is the writer behind six out of the eight Fast and Furious films, including the most recent blockbuster, The Fate of the Furious (also known as Fast & Furious 8).
If that wasn’t enough, he has also written other action films such as Cellular, Wanted, and 47 Ronin, as well as creating the series Gang Related, which stars Ramon Rodriguez and Jay Hernandez.
In The Fate of the Furious, the crew’s world gets turned upside down as the Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) goes against his values and his family when a mysterious woman seduces him into the world of hi-tech terrorism.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Morgan about how he got involved with the franchise, his love for 80s Harrison Ford films, the three limits to any action movie, and the heartbreak of losing franchise star, Paul Walker.
What was your background, and how did you first get involved with The Fast And Furious franchise?
Where to start that story? I worked in a video store for like ten years, which is probably the best film school you can go to. I ended up writing a script while I was there, and didn’t know what to do with it.
Then one day, I ended up getting a job as a PA on a movie set. Someone saw this script that I wrote and asked to take a look at it. They ended up reading it and were like, “It’s OK. It’s fine. Thanks.”
So I went back to my job at the video store, and eight months later, I get this call from Wayne Billheimer (Visual Effects for The Avengers, Iron Man). He said he was working with a director, and asked if he could show him the script.
I’m like, “Oh my God! Sure.” So he gave it to the director, who liked it but didn’t want to make it, who gave it to a development person, who liked it but didn’t want to make it, who gave it to the story editor over at Dreamworks.
I’m still working at the video store, and I get this phone call. They say, “My name is Andrea McCall and I work at Dreamworks. I read your script and I was wondering if you could come in for a meeting.”
I went in, sure I was going to sell a script, and the first thing she said was, “Listen, we’re not buying your script. We have this other movie in the works called Gladiator that has some similar, period themes, but I really like your writing and I just wanted to reach out say, here’s a lawyer, here’s an agent.” And she actually gave me a start in the career, just by being a guardian angel—one of the kindest people ever.
So I was kind trying to get a job, and there was this open writing assignment at Universal for Fast and Furious. They were going to do a third movie for ten million dollars, straight to DVD. So I went in with a cattle call of other writers and I ended up pitching a story for Jeff Kirschenbaum who worked at Universal.
I said, they’re doing this thing in Tokyo called drifting. And I think the story is, Dominic Toretto, Vin Diesel’s character, has someone he knows get murdered in Tokyo. He ends up having to go there to solve the crime and he’s got to learn drifting, a whole new style of racing, and fit into a culture that he doesn’t really understand.
They said, “We love the drifting thing and we think that’s cool, but Vin’s not coming back on this one and it sounds expensive—Tokyo—so thanks but no thanks.”
I leave and like two weeks later, my phone rings and its Jeff. He asked about drifting, so I came back in and showed him some videos. He goes, “Look, what we would like to do is put the movie in high school. Set it there and do a lower budget film.”
I said, “Listen, I don’t know if I could write a high schooler. I was terrible in high school, myself. You can just have the idea. Feel free to take it and we’re work again together on something else in the future, hopefully.” But he goes, “No, no, no, you’re right—we should do the Dominic Toretto version.
So they hired me to write it. Back then, you would do a draft and what they called a step. So you would do a draft, they read it, give you notes, then you do a rewrite. I got one note from them, which was, “This is great, now put it in high school!”
So once I was under contract, we ended up shifting to the high school story line for Tokyo Drift.
The first two films are very different to the later ones. How did the big shift come about?
I saw the first film in the theater and I was a huge fan. I’m not a giant car guy, like my technical expertise on cars is actually pretty limited, so I rely on a lot of very capable racers. I’ll ask Dennis McCarthy (Picture Car Coordinator for Batman V. Superman, La La Land) who does all of our cars here for all of our films, for advice.
But what I loved about it was the crew—the family. There’s this Butch and Sundance brotherhood between Dom and Brian. There’s some magic in that.
I think that family grew in the second film. Then, suddenly you get Tyrese (Gibson) and Ludacris (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), but it still has that flavor. All we’re doing is making logical extensions based on what other people started.
We’re kind of drafting off the ground that other great writers broke before we got involved: Gary Scott Thompson, Erik Bergquist, David Ayer. I’d like to think we’re just continuing the lives of great characters that I started out as a fan of.
How important was it to start the new film, The Fate of the Furious, in Cuba, which is known for 1950s classic cars?
In thinking about where to start this film, Cuba was the first place that came to mind. There’s something about the culture there and the car culture there that speaks, very clearly, about the nature of the people who live there as well.
It shows how creative and family oriented they are, to keep those cars running for fifty years, when you’re not able to go down to the shop or take them into a normal auto shop or something. Like, you have to know how to fix something and how to fix it creatively. To me, that kind of ingenuity spoke to Dominic Toretto.
Here’s a guy who would appreciate not only the classic muscle cars, but also the spirit of these people, who know how to keep them running, no matter what. If it’s a boat engine or a piece of a tractor they’ve got to put in, it doesn’t matter. And I just thought, what a special place to pick up with Dom and Letty on their honeymoon.
Fortunately, Universal really pushed to be able to make the movie there. That was not an easy thing to do, with the level of government and cooperation between governments. It’s the first American major film production there in over fifty years.
There’s something that just felt right, enough to motivate not only the script and the story, but also the studios and governments involved. It just felt worthwhile. Shooting over there was a life-changing experience.
With so many films in this franchise, is it somewhat like writing a television series where you’re looking ahead to the next film, or are you completely focused on that two-hour block?
It’s a little of both going on there, but you leave everything on the field. There is no tomorrow. We’ve been very lucky that the audience enjoys the films and continues to come back for them, but I’ve never taken that for granted.
Some people say, “Well, it’s a Fast and Furious film, so it’s going to do OK,” but that is not true. It’s only if they feel the passion from us behind it, and the love for the characters. There has to also be that sense of fun so they will come back and support the film.
Having said that, when we’re on the films, we are thinking about, “Wouldn’t it be nice if down the road we could do this?”
Vin has announced, and the studio has announced, that they would like to do 8, 9, and 10, so we have been thinking of those stories. I do have a very, very clear point of where all of this ends. So breaking story and talking about the saga, and how we get it there is half the fun. I’m always scribbling notes and writing stuff down, but we do take it one-at-a-time, generally.
There are some new action concepts in Fate of the Furious. For example, Jason Statham’s character Deckard has some parkour elements to his fighting. Do you consciously write these different styles—fistfights versus car chases—to balance the action?
I think it comes naturally. You have a two-hour film and we’re an action film, so if you just do car chases, you get fatigued. Also, if you look at our actors—we’ve got Vin, Dwayne, Jason, Charlize—you want to see them mix it up.
Generally, we go for a big brawl fistfight, a chase, and some other kind of action as well. Regarding the parkour, I think one of the fun things is that everyone has their own style. Dwayne is kind of the rhino that has been unleashed in a china shop, and Jason Statham is more like the mongoose who is fighting the cobra. He’s fast and agile.
I also think there’s something about the nature of these films that is very embracing of pretty much everything—cultures, fighting styles, automobiles. We just like to take the many disciplines of the world and make them valid. We want them to stand out with our characters. I’m always looking for new stuff to give it a chance to shine within our films and with our perspective.
Do you consciously think about each character having their fair share of screen time in an ensemble cast? I assume every actor wants to be on screen as much as possible.
You would think that would be the case, but in breaking the story, it actually rarely comes up as something that I have to think about it. The way the crew tends to work, there is a flow to it. There is a natural tendency and I’m really lucky that way.
It naturally works out, but again, how these guys interact was set up in the first couple films, and now I just get to have fun with it. There isn’t really a time when I have to go, “Oh, Jason needs to say this” for one reason or another. I just get to have fun and let those characters flow. I’m pretty lucky that way actually.
The action scenes are incredible in these films. Is there anything that is too big? And how do you go about creating something as realistic as possible or within the realm of a character’s abilities?
There are three things that tend to limit the action for us. The first one is time. We generally make two-hour movies. But, jumping back to your earlier question, we do have the luxury of telling them like a cable TV show. We don’t have to establish the origin of a character every single time. We just get to let them grow, and put new hurdles in front of them, so they get to emotionally level up as well.
But the limit on that is, because they are feature films, you have two hours. So you might come up with something that is so grandiose that you may not be able to fit it in to this particular film.
The other thing is money. We have an incredibly healthy budget, but sometimes there are just things that are way too big. That’s always a factor. For example, and we may end up doing something with it later, but the sequence in Berlin, in this film, which has a wrecking ball, was originally much, much bigger. But, because of time and money, we ended up having to shrink it down a little bit.
The last thing is, there is an invisible bullshit line in the writing and discussing of it that I tend to use like a magnetic north, and it generally involves physics.
We break physics pretty regularly, but I would say not horribly. So yes, we have cars jumping from building to building, but theoretically it’s possible.
We do have a runway where, because of the speed of the aircraft, it would have to be 26 miles long. That is true, but the line for me, in regards to whether or not we will do a stunt is: does it pull the audience out in the moment? Does it make them stop enjoying the action while they’re watching it, because the physics or something is too heightened? If the answer is “Yes,” then we just don’t do it. We generally don’t do it.
We’ve got close on a couple of them. It’s one thing if you go home and say, “That runway had to be really long” and you discuss it. But if it’s something that pops you out of the character drama, or you stop worrying about the characters because they feel way too invulnerable, because we’ve broken some physical law, then that action sequence isn’t right for us.
Those three things kind of shape the action. Is there anything that’s too big? I hope not. I hope we can find a way with the time and the money and the physics to be creative and get it in there.
There are also some technology advancements in the film, particularly around Charlize Theron’s character, Cipher. What kind of research was involved?
I’ll always tend to research things and I’m OK going a little bit heightened with it. So the technology today is theoretically possible, and getting increasingly possible by the day. But I don’t mind taking that leap to make it feel a little more dangerous and a little more doable than it probably actually is. As long as it is theoretically possible, I’m totally happy with it.
Paul Walker passed away between Furious 7 and Fate of the Furious,. How much pressure was involved to play tribute to his character in the franchise?
That was a terrible, terrible tragedy. Paul was such an incredible guy, and everyone’s heard about how nice and supportive and fun he was. That is the truth. I think he touched people in a way that they didn’t even recognize while being a fan.
His loss is really, really deeply felt. And there was a real question, when he died, about whether we even continue the movie or just shut it down. We were all just heading towards the idea to shut it down. But we took some time, and everyone got a chance to grieve. Then, when we really started thinking about it, we kind of agreed that that was not really what Paul would have wanted us to do. I mean, if he was around, he would be like, “Come on guys, you can do it.”
So we dug back in. I went away and wrote that end scene and brought it back to the studio, to Vin, and to Neil Moritz (Producer: Fast & Furious 6). We all read it, and said this is a good end. This feels right. It was emotional and I think it was a cathartic moment for the audience to be able to say goodbye, not only to Paul but also to the character Brian.
Then there was a magnificent effort by everyone on the crew to really dig in deep and figure out what’s next. Paul died having done most of the action in the film, but there’s a lot of the drama that he hadn’t done. Everyone put together this Herculean effort and just pulled off what I think is the toughest job in Hollywood, but also the most rewarding job in Hollywood. It felt like a very rewarding tribute.
To answer the question, looking forward, we could have ended the franchise with Furious 7. It felt like a good standoff, and everyone agreed that if we were going to think about moving forward with it, it would have to be a story that was very different, that we haven’t told yet. It couldn’t’ be just the same old thing. We had done seven movies where Dom and Brian get the crew together and they pull off a heist and save the day or stop the bad guys.
So I kind of had an idea where we turn that on its head. What if we do the unthinkable where Dominic Toretto goes dark? What happens to the crew that has been listening to his lessons about family and loyalty when he abandons them and those lessons?
It leads to the question of what do you do. Do you fall apart? Suddenly, it was very different and we all got excited about that.
Then, the question there was how do you pay tribute to Paul?
We did it in two ways.
One was more of a character way, since this was such a traumatic, earth-shaking event for our characters. In Fast and Furious, if Dom went dark, the first thing they would do is say, “Where is Brian and Mia?” Mia is Dom’s sister and Brian is his defacto brother. They would definitely have an insight on what’s going on with him.
We needed to address that with the audience. There’s a weird meta thing going on there where the audience knows what happened, but they also want to know, for the characters, that there is an internal logic for them as well. So we addressed it there, and gave the reason why they wouldn’t go to Brian and Mia.
Then, in terms of tribute, at the end of the film, there’s a nice moment where we just wanted to say, for our characters and for Paul, that we wanted the audience to know, “you’re thinking about him and so are we. We miss him too.”
I do think it was very well done. Very quick scene, but very powerful.
The BBC announced today that Fate of the Furious broke the global box office record. What does that feel like to pen something so universally successful?
It feels super surreal. Any movie is always stressful and difficult, but it’s also so rewarding if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. And we do. I’m also really thankful for everyone’s hard work, and to see a real win come out of passion.
It’s nice to be able to put so much into these films, work so hard, and have it connect with the audience. I think there’s a magic to that, and I also think it says that the messages of the films are resonating with the world.
Our franchise is an embracing one and a global one. I like that countries around the globe like the message of family and loyalty, and fun. It’s a very humbling thing to have a Fast and Furious movie do that well. I’m really proud of everybody involved with it.
Finally, are there any films from your days working the movie store that made it into The Fate of the Furious, or that just stay with you over the years?
There’s a lot of films. The film that has affected me more than any other film in my entire life is Raiders of the Lost Ark. We have an inside joke with Sung Kang (Live Free or Die Hard, Fast & Furious), where his name is Han, and he has fake ID where his name reads “Han Solo,” but it’s S-E-O-U-L.
We have Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), like Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, from Blade Runner. Dwayne Johnson’s prisoner number in this film are the last four numbers from the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, so there’s always little Easter Eggs.
But I think with those movies, specifically Raiders, there’s something that just spoke to me. One person can make a difference, and there’s a hope and fun within action, even when circumstances are dire.
I also love Notorious (1946), Miller’s Crossing, Jaws, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I think those movies tend to filter into your subconscious and change the way you look at the world. I think that’s why films are such powerful things, and I think those are the touchstones I tend to go back to again and again.
Thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate the interview.
I really appreciate it. Thank you for supporting the films, and specially screenwriters. I mean, there are a lot of people working very hard and working with a lot of passion. I just think that giving them a voice is a really special and important thing. I really appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time today.
Featured image: Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto in The Fate of the Furious © Universal Pictures