“No one knows how much we went through to finish Furious 7,” said James Wan, the director who inherited the reins to Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise only to find himself at the helm when moviemaking disaster struck.
When I caught up with him just days after Furious 7 opened to $147.2 million at the domestic box office, with analysts projecting a billion dollar-plus overall theatrical run, Wan was finally ready to exhale. Tucked into a table in the back of an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood, the Australian transplant was also ready to take his first break in a long while after spending an unexpected two and a half years piecing together Furious 7 under the watchful gaze of producer Neal Moritz and producer-star Vin Diesel.
“I wasn’t delusional at all when I signed on to do Furious 7, that it wasn’t my creation,” Wan said. “It’s the seventh movie in a series, for goodness sake!” But what was already a high-stakes gig for the horror veteran trying to make the leap into the studio A-list became even more challenging when Paul Walker’s sudden death brought the then-$200 million budgeted actioner to a screeching halt and sent the cast and crew reeling, uncertain if the movie should even go forward.
It did—with the help of Walker’s brothers, a team of WETA VFX artists, resourceful editing, and shots of Walker “stolen” from previous Fast & Furious movies and footage he’d filmed before his death. Script rewrites fashioned the original ending into a touching send-off to Walker.
"Threading that needle meant walking that fine line of making a movie that still belongs in the Fast & Furious world—this crazy, fun movie with over-the-top set pieces—but at the same time knowing there was this really dark and heavy cloud that hung over us, and knowing we needed to service that,” Wan explained.
“We’re lucky we even had a movie to put out, and we’re lucky we have a movie that plays cohesively,” he said, still marveling at the film’s massive commercial and critical success. “Seriously—at one stage there was not going to be a movie to put out, and that was going to be it.”
Eleven years ago, Wan had his first brush with box office “luck” when he and fellow film student Leigh Whannell, inspired by indie successes like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, made the twisted short film that would lead to their first feature, Saw, and lead a wave of profitable “torture porn” horror hits.
“Saw really came from that want, the aspiration to make a feature film on our own,” Wan recalled. “That’s why the first movie was written so cheap and low-budget—it was two guys stuck in a bathroom, right? We knew to cut through all the noise of the independent world we needed to come up with a script that was really high concept that would make it stand out.”
With a shooting budget of $700,000, Saw was acquired by Lionsgate out of Sundance and went on to notch $103 million worldwide—not that Wan and Whannell had anything to measure those figures against. “We had no idea what was good and what wasn’t good,” Wan laughed. “The opening weekend was like $18 million and I had no idea, I was like, ‘Is that good?’”
By the time Furious 7 was in need of a director, Wan had become one of mainstream horror’s most bankable filmmakers with low-budgeted hits like Insidious and The Conjuring under his belt. When longtime Fast & Furious architect Justin Lin vacated the director’s chair after helming the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth films, the job went to Wan, who’d been itching so much to stretch his creative muscles beyond horror he swore in a 2013 interview that he was done with the genre for good.
Now set to return to the Warner Bros./New Line fold to direct The Conjuring 2 this fall, Wan admits he might have spoken too soon about leaving horror behind.
“It’s Hollywood in general. If you’re good at something, they put you in that box,” he said. “If you do great comedy, that’s all they expect you to do, so it’s no different. But you have to make the conscious decision to go, ‘Okay, my career is more than this,’ and you want to pursue other things. I’m a student of cinema in general, not just of one particular genre. So it was very important to me and to my soul to go out and do something different.”
After playing in the Fast & Furious sandbox, Wan was under option with Universal to return for more sequels. But his schedule and his growing relationship with Warner Bros. and New Line may fill up his dance card before Universal can rev up more sequels. After taking a short break, he’ll spend the summer diving into preproduction on The Conjuring 2, which he was lured back to direct with the promise of more control than he had on Furious 7.
“There were a lot of parents on that film. Doing Conjuring 2, I get to be the father again,” he said. "After Furious 7, I think doing Conjuring 2 is going to feel like a holiday break. I never realized how much I cherished having creative freedom. You don’t realize how much you miss something until you don’t really have it.”
Scaling down to tackle the England-set Conjuring 2, Wan will reunite with stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in a follow-up tale based on a poltergeist said to have haunted a U.K. council house in the 1970s. “I think I can pretty much make the movie I want to make—I think that I’ve proven myself in that genre. No one pretty much tells me what kind of horror films to make.”
Wan is also taking his time between movies to build his production company, Atomic Monster, which he set up in a first-look deal at New Line in October. The company launched with Annabelle, a $6.5 million-budgeted horror film that Wan produced which scored $255 million upon release. Citing Jason Blum’s micro-budget hit factory Blumhouse as a role model, he says he hopes to build out the shingle as a “punk version of Bad Robot” with a genre focus.
“For a long time now people told me, ‘You should have your own company, you should have your own brand,’ and I wanted to wait until I was in the right place career-wise before I started out with this,” he said. “Finally I feel like I’ve established myself in the horror world.”
He might finally be in a place to establish his official Wan brand of horror, but his billion-dollar Fast & Furious hit also propels him to the top of big-budget-directing lists—whether he wants to be chained again to the studio life or not. Maybe it’s too soon to start talking Fast & Furious 8 and more with Wan, who says he’s “ecstatic but exhausted” from the long and arduous project.
“I think it’s a great idea for Justin [Lin] to come back,” offered Wan, who says he has “no doubt” Universal will charge forward with more Fast & Furious sequels. “Justin had such a big part to do with where this series has gone, it would be amazing if he closed it out.”
Wan says his involvement in the Fast future “really depends on what [Universal] wants to do moving forward. They really have to think about how they want to proceed with it, and in a lot of ways the next bunch would almost be like finding a new start. If they’re smart about it, they could potentially reinvent the wheel again.”
He paused, carefully choosing his words. “They know the beating that I took on this movie and I think they understood why I kind of need to take a break at this point. So we’ll see what their plans are and how quickly they jump into the next one.”
That’s not to say Wan isn’t up for another mega-budget blockbuster. He’s primed to join Warner Bros.’ DC slate, as New Line President Toby Emmerich teased when Wan’s producing deal was announced. “James will make an important movie for New Line and Warner Bros. or DC, and that is definitely part of the plan, and a reason for bringing him into the family. He's the only overall director with a deal here, because we see him as a class of one,” Emmerich said.
Recent rumors pegged Wan as a potential director of WB’s 2019 DC superhero movie Shazam, set to star Furious 7’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. There’s more juice to a report that Wan’s the studio’s front-runner to direct 2018’s Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa. And while Wan teases that he has met to direct an unnamed superhero movie, he says reports so far “are all speculation.”
“The last two years of my life were so busy making Furious 7 … If I have free time, I want to go to the beach, walk around a shopping mall, go grocery shopping,” said Wan, who’s now sitting on $803 million in worldwide box office just two weeks into release and could break a billion by this weekend. “Live a little bit of life.”