The Drama Behind Completing ‘Fast & Furious 7’ After Paul Walker’s Death

The Drama Behind Completing ‘Fast & Furious 7’ After Paul Walker’s Death
The late Paul Walker, lead actor in the "Fast & Furious" films
The late Paul Walker, lead actor in the “Fast & Furious” films

Following actor Paul Walker’s death last November 30, Universal Studios and the creative team behind the studio’s Fast & Furious 7 were tasked with the difficult decision of how to finish the film. Walker died in a car crash during a Thanksgiving break in shooting, having completed roughly half his scenes. As one of the film’s leads, returning franchise character former federal agent Brian O’Conner, restructuring the film so the story could work using only the scenes Walker had completed was a daunting task for the filmmakers.

Nevertheless, on the day following the fatal crash, director James Wan and several Universal executives announced on a conference call that the production would not be abandoned.

It may be cynical to suggest that not finishing the film was never a consideration, but that’s likely the case. Universal greenlit Fast 7 while Fast 6 was still in post-production, announcing an intended Summer 2014 release date for Fast 7 – a schedule that accelerated the previous two to three year gap between franchise installments to just over a year. The aggressive schedule also forced Fast 6 director Justin Lin – who’d helmed the previous three Fast movies – to decline the director’s seat on Fast 7 due to concerns over being able to deliver a quality film on such a quick timeline.

The reason for the heightened pace? Big numbers. As of the end of April, 2011, the then-five Fast & Furious films had grossed nearly $1.6 billion. And the franchise showed no signs of diminishing earnings – Fast 5, in fact, outgrossed the next highest earner in the series by well over 70%. On top of that, Fast & Furious was Universal’s only reliable franchise.

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So not finishing the film wasn’t an option. How then were director Wan and Universal going to pull it off?

As reported in The Hollywood Reporter on January 3, a plan was taking shape: After poring over Walker’s footage shot for Fast 7, director Wan, writer Chris Morgan, and Universal’s lead Fast exec Jeffrey Kirschenbaum decided Walker’s character was not to be killed off. The plan is to “retire” Brian O’Conner in a manner that will both make use of Walker’s Fast 7 footage and satisfy franchise fans.

The film’s release is now pushed back to April 10, 2015 – an eight month delay that will allow additional scenes to be written and shot. A February 27 Reporter follow-up to their January story detailed that filming was to resume on April 1 in Atlanta, where the production had been shooting prior to the Thanksgiving break, and was to continue for six to eight weeks.

The Daily News then reported on March 21 that the production had “hired four actors with bodies very similar to Paul’s physique, and they will be used for movement and as a base. Paul’s face and voice will be used on top using CGI.” The Reporter added further details on April 15, identifying two of the four actors as Walker’s brothers — 36 year-old Caleb and 25 year-old Cody. A statement on the film’s Facebook page said the brothers’ participation “will allow the character of Brian O’Conner to live on and let us celebrate Paul in his most defining role.”

News of the production was quiet for over a month until a May 21 Reporter story noted the production “is undergoing an effects-packed 13-week shoot that will culminate in July with an enormous crowd scene using 600 people in the town of Rosamond, (CA).” The story was the first report of the production going well beyond its rescheduled six to eight week shoot, which at the outside should have finished by the end of May.

And who’s on the hook for the extra expenditures? Fireman’s Fund — the production’s insurer. While Fireman’s declined to comment in the Reporter story, the company’s entertainment underwriting director Wendy Diaz noted in a 2012 discussion on production insurance that delays on similarly-budgeted movies can cost up to $250,000 a day.

While shooting is proceeding with the script more or less as originally written, an anonymous source identified by the Reporter as having “ties to the project” says everything for Walker’s character gets shot three times — once with each of the three actors (down from four as reported in the March 21 article). Brother Caleb approximates Paul’s body size and mannerisms, while Cody has a better resemblance of his eyes. The unidentified third actor can perform more like Paul, and so is used for his movements. Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, the effects company behind the fantasy director’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, handles the needed CGI, shooting with three cameras (in addition to those on the first-unit) to capture footage needed for eventual face replacement effects.

“There is a massive amount of gear,” says the source, “…a clusterf*** of money being spent.”

On top of that, Fireman’s is on the hook for delays. Fast stars like Vin Diesel were originally to wrap in January. Now they’ll shoot through July. Key crew members are similarly committed.

So what’s the tab? A possible $50 million. According to the March 21 article, the budget has ballooned from its original $200 million to a possible $250 million. By comparison, an Iron Man 3 settlement, incurred when star Robert Downey Jr. broke his ankle, was in the neighborhood of $10 million. A $20 million payout resulted in 1994 when John Candy died while shooting Wagons East!

The article does hint at disagreement between the producers and Fireman’s as to what the budget would have been to finish had Walker not died, versus what expenses are due to having to finish the film without him. Either way, Fast & Furious 7 is on track to be a record-breaker for the production insurance biz. With the franchise having now grossed nearly $2.4 billion, there’s no way the film won’t be completed.

As the saying goes, “The show must go on.” And now we know just how much that might cost to make happen.

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