From “credit card movies” to a billion dollar franchise
Just under 20 years ago, Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin’s second film, was acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival. During the post-screening Q&A, someone berated the filmmakers for portraying Asian Americans in an unflattering light. Roger Ebert rose to defense. “Asian-American characters have a right to be who they want to be,” the big man yelled.
It was still (almost) a golden period for American independent cinema. Lin, born in Taipei, raised in Southern California, could have gone in any direction. However, few people would have guessed that he would end up juggling $ 200 million budgets on the most bizarre ongoing franchise in the industry. He is currently directing his fourth film in the pleasantly crazy Fast & Furious series. Would young Lin be surprised to find himself here?
“Uh… yeah,” he said cheerfully. “It was a credit card movie. I could smell the 19.8% interest rate every hour. I was just happy to be able to make a movie. It was an independent film. It was not considered commercial. I felt lucky that I was able to make a movie with a group of people who really cared about me and what we were trying to say. If it had been that, it would have been good. But Sundance has opened it all. It got me on this journey – to do all those movies and TV shows. It’s amazing what this triggered.
His follow-up to Better Luck Tomorrow Worthy Annapolis was not a success, but he did manage to secure a position directing the second sequel to a gritty and low-key car chase film that had seen modest success in 2001. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift expanded the brief a bit, but it was Lin’s formidable Fast Five that pushed the franchise beyond the stratosphere. The feedback has been breathtaking. Two of the episodes grossed over $ 1 billion.
Now Lin is in charge of saving the cinema. As the world emerges from lockdown, Fast & Furious 9, originally slated for release last summer, is expected to bring the hordes back to the biggest screens. No pressure.
“Well, I think with any movie you feel pressure,” he says. “But I don’t feel like there’s extra pressure. I felt a lot of support. During the pandemic, you start to see movies coming out on streamers. But we make these films so that everyone can go to the movies – with family or friends – to clap and laugh with a bunch of strangers. That’s what I like about cinema. So when we talked about what we should do, I think it was very clear that we had to wait. Let’s make sure it’s safe. So that we can do it. I feel so happy to speak to you – because it means that we are now much closer to it. We’re closer to that simple act of just saying, “I’m going to the movies.”
Lin and his team can already claim some success. When initially released in eight countries, F9 marked, with $ 163 million, the highest opening weekend for a Hollywood film since the start of the pandemic. The lesson seems to be that the biggest franchises can still survive in theaters. But what about small projects? Is the game ready for low and mid-budget movies at the theatrical box office?
“I hope not,” he said. “I love big budget movies and feel like they’re going to be okay. When I was in film school, I liked going to independent theaters. I loved this sense of discovery by loving a movie. Maybe you don’t like a movie, but you give it a chance. I wonder if that kind of commitment has been lost. But I have hope. I think filmmakers want to make a movie because they want to share something. I hope we can find a way to keep this independent cinema going. “
Here’s something else to note. As Hollywood got into a justifiable turn about #OscarsSoWhite and limited opportunities for women, one of the biggest franchises calmly broadcast the action around actors of color and female performers. Was this a conscious decision or is this how it works when you set the playing field?
“When I started in 2005, it was a very different time,” he says. “There are great talents in the world – why don’t we look around the world? Why are we only watching LA and New York? I felt like it just made sense. I don’t think there was any malice. This was how it had been done. So when I asked the question, they were like, ‘Let’s do this.’ “
Gal Gadot of Israel has been in the series. Nathalie Emmanuel, former British Game of Thrones student, is in the current episode. Sung Kang is Korean-American. Texan Michelle Rodriguez is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent. Etc. You don’t get that degree of diversity in most Brooklyn mumblecore movies.
“There has never been a diversity strategy,” says Lin. “It was a question of expediency. Let’s just build a large network and find talented and amazing people to join us. I like this.”
Whether planned or not, the Fast & Furious approach has conquered the universe. The new film will be as big a success as the circumstances allow. In a few weeks, he will be playing on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival. Maybe that’s where Lin thought he would end up after that Sundance premiere. Does he feel like he is doing the same job?
“I think it’s up to you. It depends on how you want the process to be, ”he says. “I don’t want to waste the public’s time. Even if I fail, I want to make sure I respect them enough to help them escape or connect emotionally. I never want to lose this. It’s not worth the shot.”
Fast & Furious 9 opens June 24