Exclusive Interview: Fast Five director Justin Lin

Filmmaker Justin Lin tells HCC about directing big screen action and why he's no great fan of 3D.

Automotive action blockbuster Fast & Furious 5 explodes onto Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on September 5, following a spectacular cinema run that saw it become the highest-grossing entry in the franchise in just 15 days!

To celebrate the release, HCC caught up with director Justin Lin - who also helmed the third and fourth films in the franchise - for a chat about about what it is that keeps drawing him back to the series, the importance of good second unit teams in modern Hollywood cinema, his love of Blu-ray and why he's no great fan of 3D...

This is your third Fast & Furious film. What is it about this franchise that keeps bringing you back for more?

'The thing that I enjoy is that I have a very good partnership with Universal. You know, this is one very unique franchise in that a lot of times when a film is successful and they make sequels there's a tendency to be conservative and say, oh that really worked on the last one so let's do the same thing again.

'What I really enjoyed about this relationship is that, when I came in, the studio really allowed me to really kind of re-establish the sensibilities of the franchise and to respect the growth and maturity of the series and how it's evolved. If you look at all five films in the franchise, they've all been pretty different. And that's something I really enjoyed doing - to be able to be part of a franchise, but not constrained by any boundaries has been the most fun. And I think the biggest challenge also.'

Do you think that having shot the two previous films in the series made Fast Five easier for you - or does the weight of expectation and the need to top what you've done before make it even harder?
'Well I wouldn't say anything is ever any easier. I think what is great is that we've developed through the three films, internally, that I work a certain way. I've been able to find the best craftspeople in the world to work with and we've become a family. We've been able to grow together and we've been able to find the right fit. And that's something that... I wouldn't say it's easier, but it's something that I really appreciate.
'You know, you go to part five of a franchise and people are running out of steam. And the challenge is to not do that. So you do want to put pressure on yourself. You want to put pressure on everything. And I think that is something that, when I knew we had the opportunity to make another one, that's the answer I had to find – to know that we are really going to embrace it and try to push things. Because, at the end of the day, while thousands of people are going to be working on it, it's going to be the fans who give you two hours of their lives. And it's up to us to try to really respect that and try to do something that hopefully justifies their support.'
A film like this has to start with a bang, and Fast Five certainly delivers that with the train heist. How difficult was it to put that sequence together?
'When it comes to scenes like that, you're always trying to put every cent, every dollar, on the screen. That's my goal. What made this very difficult is that we found out that there are not a lot of train sequences being shot these days. So you have to buy your own train, you have to buy the rail, a live yard... Then the sun is going, you're establishing the sun position, so you only have half a day to be able to do anything. And the weather out there was like 120 degrees or whatever. It was crazy. When you do car-to-car action, at least you have a bit more control. But when you're doing stuff with trains, it's something very new. And that's also something that makes it exciting.'
And with sequences like this and films like the Fast and the Furious series, how important is the work of second unit teams?
'Well, they're definitely due a lot of credit. But it also presents a challenge. Because if I have Alexander [Witt – second unit director for the train heist sequence] out there and he's just shooting anything he wants, I don't think that's going to be cohesive with the rest of the movie. It's important to be able to prep the right way, to make sure that we have the right conversations so that he understands every beat, so he knows the essence of what we're trying to achieve.
'The thing about car action sequences versus flying robots is that the cars are for real. They don't land the way you plan them to land. They don't crash the way you plan them to crash. So you need a lieutenant on the ground who is going to understand the essence of what you're trying to do. And that relationship is so fragile.
'I think that second unit is becoming more and more popular because financially it makes more sense. But it also becomes much more difficult to tell a cohesive story. The examples are as simple as having rules – shutter speed, lenses, you know, a lot of the stuff that has to be established for me. I know a lot of other directors that kind of hand it off and say, "you guys go design it and shoot it", but that's a different way of working.
'For me, I am the director and I think it's my job to make sure that they're my team. I need to empower them, but at the same time they need to make sure that they're following everything that's been designed. I like seeing sequences that are shot and designed in advance, rather than being shot and then designed in the editing. It's a very different thing and I think you can see it very clearly.
'When I watch movies now I can tell if a director is intimately involved in prepping a second unit, because that's a whole different thing than just getting a second unit director to go out and just shoot. Because a lot of times, certain second directors have different backgrounds. Alexander, he's also a director of photography, so I can speak to him in specific technical terms, whereas somebody with a stunt background you have a different way of articulating what you want. Ultimately I think it's the biggest challenge for movies like this, to make it cohesive.'
Does this hands-on approach to every aspect of the filming stretch across to overseeing the Blu-ray release as well?
'Well, I'm involved in all the conversations but this is my third one, and I think that working with hardworking, talented people makes things easier. I always enjoy it when they come in with their list of ideas and we're just kind of pitching it back and forth. And having that comfort level, having that trust that I can allow cameras everywhere. That's something that's very important to me because the moviegoing experience is something you enjoy because you're in a dark room with strangers and you can share these moments together. A Blu-ray is all about somebody saying, I want to take that extra time and I want to see what else is there. So I think it's very important for me, and for everybody else involved, to really respect that, and to be able to bring those elements for people that want to dig and find more about it, to be genuine, to be sincere about it.'
What do you think about Blu-ray in terms of what it offers both filmmakers and fans?
'When DVD came out, it was such a new thing to be able to have an image that didn't degrade. Your collection of DVDs is almost what defined you. You would go over to somebody else's house and how they pick their movies is how they want to be seen.
'But then it evolved into Blu-ray. And what I really love about that is that, if you really look at it, the movie's going to exist on Blu-ray. The window at the theatre is finite, it can be there for eight weeks at its peak. But once you go to Blu-ray, it's there forever. So when I do the colour timing for the movie, that's great for the theatrical release. But I spend extra time going through it again on Blu-ray, to make sure. Because when my kids grow up and want to watch my movies, they're going to see it on Blu-ray. So it's very important to me. And I think that all of the extras, all the bonus materials are important, because it's an archival element now. So it means everything for me as a filmmaker, because I know that's where a film is going to go and live most of its life.'
Who do you consider the primary audience for your films these days – is it still the cinemagoer or is it those who will be watching the film at home?
'I feel that the way people are watching films at home is getting closer to what's on offer at the cinemas. Because screens are getting bigger, the sound systems are getting better. But at the end of the day, I still feel that there's something very special about going to the cinema, especially for films like the Fast... franchise. I come from the indie world, so when you make independent films it's a little different. But for a film like something in the Fast... franchise, I think that the best way to experience it is with a sold-out crowd. With popcorn. I think that's still the best way.'
So for our readers, who spend a lot on their home cinema systems, you'd recommend inviting the neighbours around to watch the Blu-ray with them...
'[Laughs] Some of my best experiences with movies have been being able to share that laugh, to share that moment of talking to the screen. That to me has been special thing. So yeah, I think not only should you invest in the best system, but you should also get some extra seats so that you can invite people over!'
Would that be similar to what you have a home yourself? I presume you must have a pretty decent setup.
'I have a very decent setup [laughs]. It's funny, you know, I actually lived in a little loft for a while. There was not a lot of space, and I think my system was probably a little oversized for the space that I had [laughs]. But I enjoyed it. Although I don't think my neighbours enjoyed it as much as I did.'
Looking towards the future, the past 12 months have seen your name linked to new instalments in the Terminator and Fast... franchises, plus a reboot of Highlander. Is there anything you can tell us about these?
'For me, I feel like I'm in a very good place right now. With a lot of these projects, and there's actually a lot more of them that I've been looking at, it's about finding the right fit. Finding the right people to work with. My criteria for my career decisions now are quite different from what they were two years ago or five years ago. So I'm looking forward to what's ahead. Something like a Terminator, a Highlander or even a potential Fast Six are all ones I feel like I have a very good take on. I know where I want to take them. So I'm very excited. And at the same time I also have some indie projects that I'm very excited about. So, again, I hope we'll be talking on the phone again a year from now, two years from now.'
And do any of these future plans involve 3D? Is that a technology that appeals to you?
'No. We talked about 3D on the Fast... movies and I fought very hard not to do it, because I just think that 3D was seen as a business decision rather than an aesthetic decision when it was brought up. And I had to fight that, because ultimately I think that ripping off the fans and making them pay more money just so they can see cheap 3D is a disgrace. I think that for something like Fast Five, if you were going to do it in 3D, you have to do it right. And I think you have to be a filmmaker of Cameron's stature or Peter Jackson's stature to get the right kind of situation and finances to be able to explore that aesthetically. Other than that you're just trying to rip people off, so I fight really hard to make sure that when things like that come into the conversation that we're doing it for the right reasons.'
Fast & Furious 5 is available to buy on DVD and Triple Play Blu-ray from September 5, courtesy of Universal Pictures.