Justin Lin isn't a car guy. Although he grew up in SoCal during the `90s, he wasn't into tuning, never owned a Honda, and the only battle of the imports he knew of was as an Asian-American growing up on the basketball courts in working-class Buena Park. So how did this relatively unknown director manage to take a movie franchise, that the core audience took to as well as Hamas did Hanukkah, and turn it around? He knows he isn't a car guy.
Unlike the directors before him, who created films according to their notions of what the tuner world should be like, Justin understood he was an outsider and created a film to respect the people in it (i.e., you and me). And after the experience, for a non-car guy, Justin has a deeper, more profound knowledge of the subject than most. With the film's April 3rd release date looming, Justin spared an afternoon during the editing phase to sit down with 2NR to talk about his opinion of the first two films, how passing on Macaulay Culkin changed his career, why drifting is a metaphor for life, the reason behind all the domestics in the fourth film, and how he's going to take the original cast and make a film both you and I can enjoy. Hey, if he can make Lucas Black and Lil' Bow Wow look convincing in an import, anything is possible.
Growing up in SoCal, how familiar were you with the tuning scene?Not at all. I grew up in Buena Park, CA and I was broke all the time. You were lucky if you had a car, so I wasn't really into the car scene. I was first introduced to it back in 1998 as a grad student in film school at UCLA. I was teaching a documentary film class and three students came back with all this amazing footage of tuned cars racing out in the desert. It was fascinating--the idea of import cars racing against American muscle and how it tied into Asian-American pride--I thought it would make for a great film and two or three years later The Fast and the Furious came out and exposed the scene.
What did you think of the first film?
I remember going to see it and it was a packed, the showing was sold out and the crowd was going nuts. But the one thing that really bugged me afterwards was... here was a culture that was cultivated by Asian-Americans, and all of them were the bad guys. When I saw all the raw footage from the student documentary, it was a form of empowerment I'd never seen growing up in SoCal. I mean, when you think of "Asian-American", it's all the stereotypes: smart kids, gangsters, broken English, etc., but for the first time, it felt like they had something of their own from a scene they built, and it was awesome. I didn't see that in the first F&F.
That was what actually bothered me the most about the first film. Here was something that, for the most part, started as an Asian American sub-culture, yet we were portrayed as nothing more than villains.
It's interesting, because you could have totally used it and had an Asian American character who isn't completely evil. Instead, they had Asians portrayed as typical Asian villains. And not only as an Asian-American, but as a film viewer, I felt a little insulted.
The worse part was the majority of the audience had just been introduced to this scene in that light.
I love basketball and it would be equivalent to, let's say, a basketball movie where the evil guys are all the African-Americans... that would make no sense. When I decided to do Tokyo Drift, having been really involved in sports and really loving it, I wanted to respect the people who really love cars and the culture. I would really hate if someone made a movie about something I love and disregarded everything I love about it.
How did you get into directing?
I tried different things and was far away from film. I didn't know anybody in Hollywood, but I loved basketball and seeing Do the Right Thing really opened my eyes. It gave me a sense that you could do something different, and that got me excited to try film. I applied and was fortunate to get into UCLA's film program.
I remember my first short film cost $4K and it almost killed me. I worked three jobs--the A/V department, the hotel, and a theater box office--but I loved it. Filmmaking was like basketball; as the director, you're like the point guard and you have to work together with your team to get the same vision across. I got addicted. But after my first film I was like, "Oh shit, how do I make a living out of this?" By then, I felt like I had practiced the craft enough and that's when I cracked out the credit cards and went for it.
And this was for Better Luck Tomorrow?
Yeah, I did it for $250K and went into huge debt, but it was my one shot. And I knew the chances of it hitting were next to zero--it's an all Asian-American cast and there were no stars, but making the movie and the issues it explored was something I wanted to do. I thought, "If I go down, I'll go down with this one." So I got some friends and we wrote the script and it felt like every time there was an obstacle, somehow we stumbled on the right choice. I remember the first potential investor we met--an Asian-American--who loved the script and was like, "Change all the characters to Caucasian and we'll get Macaulay Culkin and a million dollars to make it." I remember asking myself, "Do I change it completely into another movie, or do I take a risk and make it according to my original vision?" It's very liberating when you have nothing to lose, so I decided to roll the dice... and it changed my life. And so the lesson learned was that you can say "no". Just because someone flaunts money doesn't mean you have to take it--it served me well. We got into Sundance, got picked up by Paramount/MTV Films, and from that point on, studio opportunities were offered to me, one of which was Tokyo Drift.
Did you want to do Tokyo Drift from the onset?
To be honest, at first, I was a little weary of the premise--the imperialistic view of the White man coming to Tokyo and dominating the culture that he was visiting.
Sort of like Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai.
[laughs] Yeah, but I thought the interesting aspect of making Tokyo Drift was to make it not completely about that, while still having a White protagonist, and make it more of a worldly feel. To create a setting where you can have an African-American kid who is an Army brat and can speak Japanese, or have a female lead who is not of Japanese descent, because that's where we are going as a society. That's what I held out for, and the studio gave me what I wanted. Personally, I thought the Han character was important--to have someone who was Asian and flawed, but was just a human being. All of those challenges were something that was worth exploring, aside from taking on a franchise where a lot of people in the car culture felt betrayed--to try and hopefully rebuild some sort of relationship with the people who are really at the core of its existence. To get the enthusiasts' respect back.
Before we completely dive into Tokyo Drift, what did you think of the second film?
Tonally, I felt disconnected from the second one. When I watch movies, I'm more interested in characters--characters that make interesting decisions or have a goal and a theme. The second film took place in Miami and it felt like a fun, summer popcorn movie. But it wasn't taking into account the people who love cars--the cars were doing crazy stuff that wasn't practical. The one thing I love about car chases in movies like Bullitt or Ronin, is that they are real. They actually mount cameras on cars, so when you're seeing them driven, you're not quite sure what's going to happen. The car can crash at any point. But when you know it's not real, when the footage is going through CG, subconsciously, you know they're on a soundstage and that everything's going to be okay. You don't get the sense of danger to the characters, and that was something we wanted to capture in Tokyo Drift and the fourth film.
Once you agreed to do Tokyo Drift, where did you want to take the franchise?
The first thing I did was get a hold of Toshi Hayama (formerly at A'PEXi) who happened to be the roommate of Roger Fan, an actor in Better Luck Tomorrow, to see if he wanted to get involved. At first, Toshi didn't want any part of Tokyo Drift at all--he felt the movies disrespected the scene that he loved. I explained to him that was exactly why I needed him, someone to give perspective and introduce me to the scene. Toshi ended up taking me drifting on a couple of weekends and I met these groups of guys who appreciated cars. It reminded me of when I was a kid going to Huntington Beach and hanging out with the surfers--a group of guys looking to have fun and respect in what they do. And that was a big hurdle, having people like Toshi getting involved with the project. So, it became my mission for the third film, even though it wasn't my world, to make people from the scene want to watch it and appreciate the film; from the sounds the cars made, to the ways our stunt drivers--Tanner, Rhys or Sam--made them move, I wanted to make it right. I kept going back to the student documentary films. I felt that was the spirit I had to try and capture. You can have the characters, love story and conflict, but at the end, tonally, for someone who loves cars, it's important that we're not dumbing it down or making them feel exploited. I remember after the movie was released, we were in Tokyo and Toshi and a bunch of drifters and I saw it... and afterward, there was sense of respect we all shared for each other. That was one of my greatest joys. I felt like I accomplished what I was setting out to do.
How did the drift theme come about?
Drifting was getting popular and the studio saw it as a way to take the franchise into a new direction. At first, I was unsure, but after I got into it and understood it, thematically, the idea of drifting was perfect. Without sounding corny, drifting is a metaphor for life; it's the balance of trying to control and not to control, a sort of yin and yang. It's really deep. Nothing is duplicated perfectly in drifting and it's all about interaction with the car. It's graceful from far away but when you're inside the car, it's so violent. As a filmmaker, you're always looking for themes... and drifting, in a way, is something that we all try to do in life. We try to find some sort of balance: you steer a little too hard this way and you spin out, too much of the opposite and something else happens.
Arguably the best depiction of our scene, what sort of research did you do?
Since drifting is relatively new, it was never really captured on film. I watched a ton of videos; footage from personal video cameras and long-lens stuff from events.
Moving on to the new film, Fast & Furious, what direction have you taken with it?
The fourth film is to service more of the character, which was why the original cast is back. Vin has his own relationship with the franchise and there was a reason why he didn't want to come back for the second one. When I wanted to get Vin in Tokyo Drift to establish a link between him and the character Han, everyone thought it would be impossible. I ended up getting a meeting and showing him the footage, and once he saw what we were trying to, he agreed to do it. From that, he agreed to do Fast & Furious.
Out of all the guys, Paul got hit the hardest from the franchise. He actually owns a Skyline and he loves imports, so he can understand why people felt betrayed from the films. When I tried to get Paul back, I had long meetings with him and he expressed his disappointment at how the one movie he wasn't in was the one where the cars were respected. I reassured him that we would try to do it right again and give the cars and characters justice. Characters who, like the actors, are now eight years older. They've grown; they've lived life and you can't just throw them in the middle of the car scene. There is a maturity in style and tone in this film--it's still fun, but the theme is much more serious and there is more plot. But at the same time, the cars that they're driving and all the crazy stunts are for real.
It seems like the new film has more of a domestic presence, why?
Since the film is about these characters who loved cars, we asked what they would be driving, and it broke down right in the middle. Vin would drive American muscle; it fits his character and that's all he would be driving. So the Chevelle that he left the first film in, he comes back in, and the Charger he wrecks in the first one is back because it's being rebuilt. The antagonist is the doppelganger to Vin, so I picked the Gran Torino because that Ford was the perfect statement against the Chevelle. When Paul goes back, he chooses an import because that fits his character.
A lot of conversation and effort went into picking the cars, who are essentially characters themselves. American manufacturers were coming in hard with the new Mustang and Charger, and as much as it would've helped financially, it just didn't feel right. But when Subaru came in, it made sense; we have this crazy desert chase scene and a rally car was perfect. Seeing the STI maneuver versus the Charger was impressive. We designed some crazy stunt moves in a dual-lane tunnel we built, and the American cars reacted slowly and heavily, but the Subaru would just zing. For tuners, there's a lot of gems in the film that they'll have to look for.
How was it having four of the original cast members back for the fourth film?
To do this eight years after the first film and to get the original cast back is a testament to this movie. All the actors have gone on to have great careers, so you can't just go to them with money--they had to be won over by the story. And as a director, that felt good because the last thing you want to do is work with people who are in it just for the paycheck.
Where does the fourth film pick up?
After an event that causes Vin and Paul's characters to reunite. The friendship they had is no longer there and they have to re-connect and decide what they want to do with their lives. Dom was a fugitive and hadn't been back in the states, and this event forces him to go back.
I love big Hollywood movies, but I hate sequels that just recycle the story. So the challenge was to take what worked in the first film and push it farther. The thing that works for these movies is the connection between the characters--this new idea of family; how people who love certain things get together and form their own family--and when you first meet Paul's character, he has this surrogate family. Going into that, I thought it appropriate to explore the idea of sacrifice, especially with Vin's character.
And like Tokyo Drift, the stunts had minimal CGI?
Yes, I didn't want to make a movie where the cars would be cartoon CG cars. I wanted to design crazy stunts, but something that someone could actually execute. This film has three times the stunts as Tokyo Drift and the only visual effects used were to support the environment, not the cars. The cars are sacred; when you crash a car, you can't duplicate it. It's like, for a split second, physics doesn't apply, and you have to keep crashing cars to get the right shot. We were crashing cars off cliffs, flipping cars... and having to do it over and over.
How many cars gave their lives making the fourth film?
The amount of cars crashed is in the three figures. It got so bad that we were running out of cars. For one of the cliff scenes, they ended up picking a car up from a 200-foot drop, banging it back into shape and using it again for a roll.
Like a drift car, sans the zip ties. Finally, if there was a car you would build, what would it be?
I really like the R34 GT-R. The GT-R has its own aesthetics and Paul Walker has a white one that looks really good. That, or the G35.
Growing up, my family bought bullshit cars like Pontiacs, so I had a Grand Prix that literally went back 37 times for recalls. After making Better Luck Tomorrow, when I could finally afford to buy a car, I bought the G35. It had just come out and I fell in love with the design... that would be the car I'd want to build.
I see a 2NR G35 project vehicle in the makings!
That would be so cool.