No franchise is more important to Universal Pictures than "Fast & Furious," the car-racing series whose seventh installment grossed $1.5 billion worldwide this year. But the effort to mount an eighth picture is proving more difficult than first imagined for the studio.
As its announced April 2017 release date inches closer and screenwriter Chris Morgan works on the script, Universal still has not found a director for the next outing. And in this case, it seems that the job will involve more than just the usual challenge of overseeing a big-budget thrill ride. There also is the recent exit of studio co-president of production Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, who oversaw the series, and the prickly matter of star-producer Vin Diesel.
Following the death of Paul Walker in November 2013, Universal enlisted Diesel, 48, as the face of the series, updating fans on "Furious 7" via his social media and putting him forward to speak about the cast and crew's desire to finish the movie, which was about half completed when Walker died in a Porsche accident. Diesel not only was a veteran of the series going back to the 2001 original (though he took a break, returning for the fourth installment), but he had the credibility of having been close to Walker.
"Furious 7" nearly doubled the $789 million haul for "Fast & Furious 6." Some of that number likely is attributable to curiosity stirred by Walker's death as well as Universal's shrewd handling of the tricky production, marketing and publicity issues. But with a hit of that magnitude, film studio chair Donna Langley was eager to re-enlist "Furious 7" director James Wan, who emerged from his horror-franchise past ("Saw,""Insidious") into major action with his big-budget breakout.
But while Universal had contractual options on Wan to direct the eighth and ninth installments, the filmmaker informed the studio before the "Furious 7" was finished that he instead wished to direct a sequel to his 2013 hit "The Conjuring" for New Line Cinema. Universal accepted Wan's decision, but according to sources, when Justin Lin, who directed the third through sixth movies in the series, chose to make the next "Star Trek" rather than return for "Furious 8," the studio went back to Wan with an especially rich plea (one source describes it as "life-altering money") to direct at least one more installment.
But Wan, 38, is said to have felt that rather than life altering, the deal could have been life ending. Insiders confirm that the $200 million, two-year production of "Furious 7" was so demanding that it actually compromised Wan's health. In addition to the trauma surrounding Walker's death, which required rewriting the script and concocting elaborate special effects (and the use of his brothers as body doubles) to resurrect the actor for key scenes, sources say Diesel proved extraordinarily difficult. As a producer, he is said to have questioned even small details on elaborate action sequences, often holding up the complex production. He also was known to summon filmmakers to repeated late-night script sessions to make him comfortable with his character and dialogue.
Diesel's spokesperson says any suggestion that he was tough to work with is "complete nonsense," and Wan's rep denies any on-set friction beyond the pressure of soldiering on after Walker's death. "Furious" producer Neal Moritz adds, "Obviously, if there was any issue, we wouldn't be making the eighth [film] with [Diesel] right now." And, in a statement, a Universal spokesperson says "the studio and filmmakers loved working with James on "Furious 7," but he was never in the mix for an eighth film due to a scheduling conflict with "The Conjuring 2." We are actively casting and searching for the right director for the next chapter of the franchise."
To that end, Universal has put out feelers to agents for experienced action directors (including "Non-Stop"'s Jaume Collet-Serra, who wasn't available) and relative newcomers. Sources say Diesel must be consulted on director choices but does not have veto power over studio picks. (Some at Universal fear that Diesel will, at some point, want to direct one of the films himself. The ambition seems to be there: In 2009, Diesel wrote and directed an 18-minute short, "Los Bandoleros," that was intended to set up his return in the fourth "Fast" film.) But another source says Diesel wouldn't want to expose himself to such scrutiny on a high-profile extravaganza.
All of this is happening without Kirschenbaum, who left Universal to partner with producer Joe Roth in August after being credited with working with Morgan and Wan to reshape the "Furious 7" script and pull together the film under extraordinary circumstances. And there is that April 2017 deadline. Universal, riding high with a record year and more than $5 billion in worldwide gross, is looking to plot a course without Walker for at least three more movies. And on that point, one source close to the series says Diesel is fully committed to the franchise: "Vin is tireless. It may be difficult, but he is trying to win with this thing."