Controlling the Uncontrollable: Filmmakers and Cast Drift into Production
In contemplating a return to this world of fast cars and faster attitude, filmmakers behind The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift knew they must retain what was unique about the franchise: misunderstood people on the outskirts of society who are drawn into a world of fantastic cars…a metaphor for losing control in an insane world. For successful filmmaker Neal H. Moritz, producing a third movie in the immensely popular series warranted a fresh take on the car culture of street racers that has continued to intrigue audiences around the world.
Moritz offers, "We didn't want to do a third in the series unless we had somewhere else to go with the storyline. One day, the idea of Tokyo came up, and the team was discussing that it was the birthplace of this new side of racing called 'drifting.' I thought, 'this is something we have to do.' The results speak for themselves, and I couldn't be happier with the film."
He continues, "When we saw underground footage of it, it sparked my interest. It puts you in this trance. You throw caution to the wind. It's controlled chaos where you're sliding into turns…you go around corners…taking fenders so close to any object as you glide around it gracefully."
Vital to Moritz was maintaining the combination of fast-paced action and super-charged riders that established the franchise. The next chapter of the story, set amidst the city's sexy counterculture where the old rules no longer apply, would need to be told under the direction of a young filmmaker who could deliver pulse-pounding action with a new cast of characters. That man was Justin Lin.
"If we were going to do a third Fast and Furious, it needed to feel fresh," says Moritz. "After I'd seen Better Luck Tomorrow, I knew Justin was a director I wanted to do business with. He was the first we approached, and…he loved the idea of filming it. This movie needed enthusiasm, and he was the director to do it. Absolutely tireless."
Recalls Lin, who wasn't intimately familiar with drifting when approached to helm the project, "I was in film school when The Fast and the Furious came out, and I saw it along with a sold-out crowd who just ate it up. What really excited me about directing this film was the chance to harness that energy--create a whole new chapter and up the ante by bringing something new to the table for the audience who loves action and speed."
The director knew that if he was going to tackle the project, he had to stay true to the sport of drifting, and the spirit behind it. Lin remarks, "Drifting came about from a working-class group of kids living in the mountains of Japan on really windy roads. They were attempting to find the fastest way to get down these trails. Visually, that's stunning to observe."
It was fortunate for Lin and Moritz that they found a screenwriter who was obsessed with the series. Chris Morgan--an avid car enthusiast whose unabashed delight at the prospect of owning, let alone driving, a "wicked short block Toyota Supra that puts out 900 horsepower at the rear wheels"--knew that drifting was a natural fit for the next story in The Fast and the Furious franchise.
Morgan laid out the story for the filmmakers, and a new chapter chronicling the next generation of renegades and the newest models of tricked-out rides was set in motion. "Drifting isn't about pushing buttons and stomping pedals and holding on. It's about knowing your car better than the guy who made it. These guys are magicians who take their rides to the very brink of physics, then hold them there, surfing it out on the razor-edge of control. It's loud and dirty and beautiful. Dangerous as hell, and I fell in love with it the instant I saw it."
Key to Lin's approach to the project was to capture an authenticity when it came to the complexities of modern teen life and to create a believable world of young outsiders who live on the edge. The Fast and the Furious franchise has catapulted the careers of its leading men (including Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson and Vin Diesel). Actor Lucas Black, who starred in the high-school football thriller Friday Night Lights and co-starred in the military drama Jarhead, is set on that same trajectory with his tremendous onscreen charisma and natural acting style.
Moritz relates, "The hallmark of Fast and Furious is to introduce fresh, great actors into the series. And the idea of an outsider anywhere makes for a good story. We brought Sean and the concept to Tokyo to have him as a fish out of water that falls into this underground world. I had seen Lucas in Slingblade, Friday Night Lights and Jarhead and thought he was an incredible actor who fit this movie we wanted to make."
The 23-year-old actor, who was coming off back-to-back dramas, wryly admits that his initial excitement, upon hearing the filmmakers were interested in him for the lead role, was all about working around fast cars. The character of renegade Sean Boswell would have to take a back seat.
"The decision was pretty easy. It's The Fast and the Furious series; it's all about the action and the cars," remarks Black. After reading the script, however, he found the character of Sean Boswell, a true renegade with a predilection for street racing, provided as much enticement as the cars could--another welcome challenge for the actor. Read an interview with Lucas Black
Lin knew he'd need a lead with the kind of enthusiasm (and skills) Black could show. "Lucas really knows how to drift now. I think he and Brian [Tee] had a field day out there. They were able to go out onto the Speedway and not worry about having to swap out tires every 20 minutes. I think that really shows in their performance."
Recording artist-turned-actor Bow Wow was looking to take a break from his recent work co-starring in a string of family comedies (Johnson Family Vacation and Roll Bounce) and mix it up on the set of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. He found that in the hustler character of Twinkie. "I loved the character," Bow says. "Twinkie is so smart and has fun--whether he's hustling in Harajuku, kickin' it with the girls in the club, or chillin' with his friends. Underneath it all…it's business, and he knows what he's doing."
From 21-year-old Australian beauty Nathalie Kelley, who makes her feature film debut in Tokyo Drift, to Brian Tee cast as Sean's archrival D.K.--Tokyo's reigning king of drifting--Lin and Moritz felt it vital to tap into fresh new talent for each key role of the film.
"We needed a fresh-faced actress who could hold her own against all these tough guys," remarks Lin. "I found that in Nathalie…when she's on screen, you can't take your eyes off her."
Recalls Moritz, "We wanted truth with D.K.'s character. He starts very adversarial with Sean. We found actor Brian Tee, who happens to be the sweetest guy, but looks so tough on screen. As soon as we saw him come in with that face and those muscles…he was our D.K."
The filmmakers further assembled an eclectic ensemble cast including Sung Kang and Jason Tobin, who previously collaborated with the director on his critically acclaimed directorial debut Better Luck Tomorrow. Also joining the cast are Leonardo Nam, Japanese actress Keiko Kitagawa, Zachery Ty Bryan and Nikki Griffin--providing an international flavor to the production.
For Kang, transitioning from a low budget independent with Lin to a big budget summer release was a bit surreal. "Beautiful cars, beautiful women, beautiful locations," he explains with a grin…"I thank Justin every day. We went from an independent feature to a big studio project. It's a world of difference, and it's nice that you can share it with friends."
Anchoring the youthful cast with a healthy dose of gravitas is Sonny Chiba--the '70s martial arts powerhouse and star of the cult classic The Street Fighter--as D.K.'s menacing uncle/Yakuza boss Kamata.
Recounts Lin, "One of the highlights for me is getting to work with the legendary Sonny Chiba. When we began prepping this film, it was very important for us to cast the role of Kamata with someone who has that iconic value, but also the presence and strength as an actor."
With only two cast members fluent in Japanese (Kitagawa and Chiba), and fewer aware of the burgeoning phenomenon of drifting, Lin knew he had to be meticulous in his research and education. He subsequently developed the curriculum for his young cast of actors to prepare for their roles.
Lin made sure his team was immersed in all aspects of the underground culture. He recruited the film's U.S. technical consultant, Toshi Hayama, to inform the production, and even based the character of drift purist Virgil on numerous conversations with Hayama--promising not to dilute the art form Hayama loved. Lin also gave his students Japanese language lessons replete with Tokyo slang and intense drift training sessions.
Depending upon the cast member, it was either learning the nuances of the Japanese language, or sitting behind the wheel of a $50,000 tuner car and hitting the gas pedal, that made for his or her favorite rite of passage in preparation for shooting.
Training day in the controlled environs of a local Southern California speedway was comprised of ride-a-longs with the film's drift drivers Rhys Millen, the current U.S. Formula Drift Champion, and the film's fellow drift racing stunt driver Tanner Foust. To the delight of the actors, there was even a chance to burn their own rubber in the driver's seat.
Recalls Black, "When they took us to the racetrack for the first time and showed us how to drift…man, it was awesome. I was addicted. I was more comfortable in the driver's seat than I was in the passenger's seat. Even if it was Rhys driving, there were still some trust issues as you're spinning out with the G-forces slamming you."
Adds Tee, "I'm an adrenaline junkie, so when they gave me the keys to the Z (the '02 Nissan Fairlady 350Z) and said, 'Burn as much rubber as you want,' I was all over it. They had to kick me off the track."
It paid off, particularly for Black, who admits that he moved naturally and with surprising ease, whether punching the accelerator at the precise moment or easing into slide when filming his driving sequences.
Prior to filming Tokyo Drift, Kelley--who like Bow Wow--only knew how to drive an automatic (and recently earned her driver's license), gamely took on the simultaneous task of learning how to use a stick shift, timing her braking and understanding the art of drifting. Ironically, as much as the guys eagerly embraced their instruction on the art of the drift, it was Kelley--as the lone female on the track--who executed the difficult driving style and drifted as effortlessly as her character, Neela. A proficient drifter who utilizes the organic, Zen approach to the sport, Kelley chalks it up to the fact that she listened. The actor notes, "I paid attention, because I understood going in that I knew nothing about the sport. Whereas, some of the boys got a bit cocky and decided to take things into their own hands…"
Hello, Ladies: Drifting Hot Wheels in Tokyo Drift
The Fast and the Furious allowed film audiences their first entrée into illegal street racing, and 2 Fast 2 Furious gave a whole new glimpse into the world of hot cars and explosive tempers. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift follows suit with its exposé of the bone-jarring sport of drifting. Drifting originated on the multiple mountains and canyons of rural Japan when young drivers, usually driving late at night, sped along the dark roads with the tail ends of their cars sliding through cliffside turns.
Word of the endorphin rush felt by drifting aficionados soon escaped into the local street racing scene and, eventually, the progressive driving style was exported outside the island nation, and seeded throughout the United States and Europe to become the next trend in sport driving.
Almost 15 years ago, Keiichi Tsuchiya, the drifto emeritus of Japan's racing community and the supervising technical consultant on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was the first to incorporate and perfect drifting into his driving style on Japan's race circuit. Subsequently, he earned back-to-back championship titles and the enduring sobriquet of Drift King.
"We have the best tech people working on this," says Moritz. "Our visual effects guys are the same from the first two films. They all know that we have a code for this series: We don't want the cars to do anything they can't do naturally. The team has just done a terrific job lending the credibility we needed."
Beyond the physics of drifting, it was up to Hayama, whose roots lay deeply imbedded in Japan's street racing culture, to advise the filmmakers on a multitude of arenas of Japanese culture. From car selections to driving slang to music, the racer comments, "I'm a car guy at heart. It's an exciting time…everything about the drifting culture is still evolving. To me, drifting is taking a car--whether it's a Japanese, American, German sports car or four door--and breaking all the rules about what it's supposed to do. You're building it so it loses traction on the rear tires, then driving sideways into turns at speeds up to 100 mph, with those tires spinning and smoking…it's incredible."
While driver skill surely plays an important part in drifting, how the car is built is equally as vital to the drift. The racecar is basically rebuilt to enhance a driver's style and technique, creating a perfect balance between man (or Neela) and machine. When coming into a turn at incredibly high speeds with tires smoking and rpm's revving, it's essential that a drifting car is fine-tuned to its handler, so every specification can be pushed to the limit.
When it came to finding the team to translate the mind-blowing moves from the set to the camera, the filmmakers went to internationally-known pro drift drivers Millen, Foust and Samuel "The Crazy Swede" Hubinette, along with top-ranked Japanese drifter Nobushige Kumakubo and Tsuchiya. While filming on the mountains outside of Tokyo, Tsuchiya got behind the wheel of a car to choreograph a stunning cliffside two-car tandem drift sequence with Kumakubo.
Filming the drivers in action proved to be more exciting than expected for both Lin and director of photography Stephen Windon. They employed a number of specialized rigs (a mobile camera-rigged Porsche Cayenne and Mini Coopers) but also capitalized on the ability of Millen, Foust and Hubinette to repeatedly hit their marks--while handling over 3,000 lbs. of skidding and screeching metal. For Lin and Windon, they now had the luxury of designing precise and complicated camera shots.
"Drifting is a very cinematic sport," relates the director. "It's exciting to do something that's never been done before on film. It's amazing to me how we've found new angles and new camera moves to capture the action. These drivers are so good and so precise, we were able to come up with new ideas on how best to capture it."
"It was fantastic," recalls Black. "A couple of times I'd sneak off and drive between shots. Just don't tell anybody," he laughs.
It was up to the 50-man crew--all with their own specialties--to maintain every aspect of upkeep for the cars. From gassing them to replacing a burnt-out clutch on a moment's notice to ensuring that every car would exceed expectations, the crew accomplished whatever Lin and his cadre of drivers envisioned.
Accustomed to seeing the pricey modifieds cut graceful, smoky arcs, Hayama cringed at the destruction inflicted upon his racers--particularly for one of the first and more visually challenging drift races held inside a multi-level parking garage structure.
He grimaces, "It broke my heart to see those Silvia S-15s (Sean Boswell's introduction to drifting car) crashing, but it's all in the name of great drifting action, right?" The result, however, was an eye-popping race sequence, which unfortunately demolished a total of seven Nissan Silvia's--Hayama's drifting ride of choice.
For Dennis McCarthy, who oversaw all aspects of maintaining every car featured in the film, it was necessary to carve up many of the cars to secure intricate camera angles--resulting in in-your-face action for the audience. "We literally cut up 25 cars and destroyed over 80. The cars we cut were either chopped in half, had their roofs taken off or had one of the sides sliced," says McCarthy.
The filmmakers wanted to raise the stakes when it came to their new cast of cars. Not wanting to duplicate the hundreds of dazzling and unique automobiles showcased in The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious, they utilized the tried-and-true method of an open casting call. Once again, the event boasted a record turnout of proud owners showcasing the next generation of customized eye candy for the filmmakers (and other race enthusiasts) to admire.
Import tuner cars and all cars fast and furious remained in the mix, but the producers now focused their attention on the fantastic rear-wheel modifieds that would initiate newbies to drifting. When all was said and done, close to 250 vehicles were used throughout filming in the U.S. and Japan.
A sizable chunk of the film's budget went toward assembling a selection of right-side driving Japanese imports for the film's principal cast to roll with. Modified by some of Japan's top tuners, each of the main vehicles required multiples (from three to eleven per car) to handle the filming needs--plus the punishment that the drivers were meting out on a daily basis.
The red Mitsubishi Evolution 9--universally known as the EVO--was converted for drifting, courtesy of Millen and his team of mechanics who helped modify a number of cars to accommodate the needs for the drifting sequences.
The car of choice for D.K. and his cohorts (aptly named the Tea-Hairs for their bleached tea-colored hair), the '02 Nissan Fairlady 350Z, channeled the style and substance needed for Tokyo's top thug drifters. Whether decked out in one-of-a-kind graphics--an intricate scarab for D.K.'s gray-on-black model or the tribal design emblazoned on Morimoto's black-on-gold Z--the model surpassed everyone's expectations when it came to performing. D.K.'s 350Z, decked out with a mind-blowing twin-turbo engine, along with its 12 sisters, took the brunt of the action over the course of filming. From drifting in most of the film's balls-to-the-wall race sequences to speeding full-throttle through the streets of Tokyo, it held up to the rigors of what the filmmakers envisioned. The result was original, highly stylized action.
No car defines its owner more than the orange/black '94 VeilSide Mazda RX-7 driven by Han, the drifting patron to the ingénue Sean. With a customized body kit by VeilSide, a top Japan-based car customizer, the showpiece--along with its five identical clones--offered a much more sophisticated take on the high-performance tuner cars of the film. She also melded perfectly with Han's casually hip persona.
Kelley felt her character's car was the perfect complement to her character, a gaijin with a singular style. "Neela's car is an Mazda RX-8, and you definitely wouldn't expect a girl to drive it. It's a serious car that can do some serious drifting," the actor reflects. "We didn't want something that was too obvious for her, because a drifter's car is a true reflection of the driver and Neela is not a prissy girl. She races with the boys and can hold her own in the car and out of it."
Rounding out the supporting roles of the film--comprising a who's who of drifting dream cars--were multiple models of Nissan Silvia S13s and S15s, a Toyota Chaser and a Nissan Skyline R33.
Not to be outdone by the modified, super-charged imports, American muscle cars make their presence quite well-known in the film. From the classic beauty, a '69 Mustang--which houses an unorthodox choice of a Skyline GTR engine--to the newest looker on the block, an '05 Dodge Viper, America represents. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder with Sean's two-toned, primer-covered '71 Chevy Monte Carlo, which masks a stunningly powerful engine under its hood. The Chevy opens the film, and it is the reason he gets the boot from America.
Also joining the elite group of cars in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is a German import: Volkswagen's newly released Touran van. Tokyo's underground car scene boasts multiple subcultures, all dedicated to every make and model of car, motorcycle, truck and van. The filmmakers, naturally, wanted to include a part of it in the film. The sleek van, driven by the comic-book-loving hustler Twinkie, was tricked inside and out into a hulking, pimped-out, party wagon with a bass-thumpin' state-of-the-art multimedia system.
"This," the Touran's driver Bow Wow points out, "is not your average van. The sound system alone probably weighs more than some of the cars we're using. I always have the music blasting in this thing."
Post-Modern Western: Design of the Film
Director Justin Lin and Screenwriter Chris Morgan
Read an interview with Lucas Black