A Furious Return: Director Justin Lin Brings a Billion-Dollar Franchise Back to Cinemas with F9

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

To escape a villain in Furious 7, Vin Diesel revs his Lykan HyperSport out the window of one gleaming Abu Dhabi skyscraper, then crashes through the window of another, but not before flying through the air for several moments. Yet Justin Lin has audaciously claimed on Twitter that F9, the upcoming ninth film in the Fast and the Furious franchise, is “by far the most ambitious film of the series.”

After directing the third through sixth installments, Lin left for a few years to direct other films (Star Trek Beyond) and television shows including episodes of NBC’s “Community” and HBO’s “True Detective.” Now he’s back for Universal’s F9, potentially a billion-dollar film; the prior two installments earned $1.5 billion and $1.2 billion globally.

Boxoffice Pro asked Lin about his reported criticisms of the franchise’s original 2001 installment, whether Fast and Furious has turned him into a “car guy,” and how working on the sitcom “Community” prepared him to helm a billion-dollar franchise. 

Listen to the July 1, 2021 episode of the Boxoffice Podcast, where Boxoffice Pro Chief Analyst Shawn Robbins breaks down F9‘s $70 million domestic debut weekend.

The second film was titled 2 Fast 2 Furious. Did you consider naming this one 9 Fast 9 Furious?

[Laughs.] [The fifth film] was supposed to be Fast Five, and then Furious 6. The title card in the actual movie even says Furious 6. But when Universal actually released it, they called it Fast & Furious 6, just to make sure everybody knew which franchise it was. So F9 shows how we’ve evolved and grown the franchise to the point that now we can just say F9 and everybody knows what that means. It’s a badge of honor.

What do you remember about seeing the first Fast and the Furious in 2001?

I was at UCLA film school and a teaching assistant for a documentary class. These two students were doing a documentary on car races out in the desert. I didn’t really know much about cars, but by the time [The Fast and the Furious] came out six months later, I was really excited. I went to see it at the AMC Santa Monica and the audience was cheering and having a great time.

At the same time, I remember thinking, “All the Asian American faces I see on-screen are the bad guys. They always have to hang out by pagodas and Buddha statues. Oh my God.” I could connect with the excitement, but I was disappointed by the portrayal. That was 2001, and only four years later I had the opportunity to join the franchise, reshape it, and redefine it.

You didn’t know much about cars back in 2001, but after directing five of these movies, are you a “car guy” now?

My passions in life are filmmaking and basketball, and I wanted to treat cars the same, so I went and hung out with all these people who love cars. Over that time, I came to understand and respect the passion some people have for cars. I would not tell you that I’m an aficionado, but now I can appreciate cars and car culture.

You just said filmmaking is your passion, but is it true that as a kid, you only saw two movies in a theater?

Because my parents had this fish-and-chips restaurant, they were always working. E.T. was so big that my dad actually closed the restaurant a little early on a weeknight and took the family to Cerritos Mall [in L.A.]. It was 10 p.m., with me, my two brothers, and my parents together. We knew their sacrifice, but they didn’t want us to miss out. [The other movie Lin saw in a theater as a child was Rocky III.] 

I read that you work every Thanksgiving, in honor of your father.

For 26 years, he worked every day except Thanksgiving. My work ethic was so influenced and inspired by him and my mom. When I went to UCLA’s film school, they don’t fund your movies. You can do whatever you want, and they support you as a filmmaker, but you had to figure out how to [pay for] your movies. I had three jobs: making smoothies, working at an audiovisual service, and working at Tiverton House hotel. It became this ritual that I would put in my name to work on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Not only to honor my dad, but also just for survival!

I really do enjoy working on holidays. It’s a little harder now, with a family and a son. But they still allow me to go off and do some work. Some of my best work is done during holidays. The phone does not ring, so I get to really focus.

Do you have a favorite car or vehicle in this film?

One of the perks of the job is “casting” the cars. We go through months of deliberation, going back and forth. Especially living in L.A., what we drive is kind of an extension of us. On F9, I got to put the Pontiac Fiero in there. In eighth grade, my history teacher, Miss Grant, would show up in her red Pontiac Fiero. I always had this image of how cool it was in eighth grade.

Do you have a favorite story from the set?

People bring their families on set. Whenever the kids show up, whether it’s me or Vin or other cast or crew members, we’re so proud. We’re going to do this big stunt. And the kids are never impressed by what we’re doing. They’re always most impressed by the craft service. “Look at all the candies we can have!” My son just wanted to go to set to get Starburst. 

You directed several episodes of the NBC sitcom “Community,” as did Avengers: Endgame co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo. What about that sitcom apparently translated to directing the biggest blockbusters?

After Better Luck Tomorrow [Lin’s 2002 directorial debut], I didn’t stop working. The only time I took off was when I had my son in 2009. Two weeks into my self-imposed break, Joe calls and says, “Hey, we’re doing this show. We’d love for you to do an episode.” I loved the script, but comedy is probably the scariest genre to direct. Rolling up my sleeves and learning all that?

I was directing the Halloween episode and decided I needed a Technocrane. At first they said “What?” but then they accommodated me. Joe thought that was great, so then Joe upped his game. We were always challenging each other. You never felt like there were any limitations on that show. They were always trying to top themselves: in the scripts, in how it was shot. You were doing 18 hours, it was insane.

Joe and I were actually at UCLA at the same time. In our second year, we took this amazing class with this Polish director Jerzy Antczak. It was basically seven of us on a soundstage with a dolly and a set of lenses. We had to really learn camera moves. It was one of my best experiences in film school.

A profile article described you as having “a perplexingly low profile that belies his blistering box office track record.” Is that intentional, or would you prefer a bigger profile?

Sometimes with success, you can find yourself in a bubble of protection with people who just agree with you. I think that’s dangerous. For me, it’s more about the process than the fame. I love working. It’s humbling to do these tentpoles, but to me it’s all about trying to get better every day. I’m still learning, I’m still growing.

So how did you try to grow when directing F9?

When you make films that are financially successful, the tendency is for studios to repeat that business, so you get creatively hemmed in. “It worked, so let’s do it again.” At least on my watch, that’s never been the case. When I say yes to do a movie, it’s two years of my life, minimum. Every film that I’ve done in this franchise has been completely different. Tokyo Drift (2006) was much more about the drifting culture. We get to redefine ourselves every time.

In this era of streaming, why should people see this film in a cinema?

The convenience of watching things on devices definitely has its perks, but so rarely do we get to go out and make an effort [and experience] that anticipation. The inconvenience of parking or getting a babysitter is all worth it. To this day, I think it’s one of the most magical experiences of my life, to sit in a room with 600 strangers and laugh together or cheer together. That shared emotion really gives you a sense of humanity. Especially with films like F9, you could watch it in any medium — but it’s being built for the big screen, to sit in that dark room and escape for two hours.


What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?

It was in the ’90s; I was at UCLA. We went to see Tommy Boy with a sold-out crowd. There was this sense of discovery and communal, shared laughter throughout the whole movie. It was at the Mann National in Westwood [California], which isn’t there anymore. This huge theater, maybe 2,000 people? To this day, that’s one of my favorite experiences of my life.

What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?

I love a plain pretzel, but I pay for extra cheese. Even sometimes when I go to the movies after a meal, I still love that. Then there’s also the Raisinets. When we were growing up, financially it was tough. When we went to movies, it was this second-run cinema where they’d play two of them back-to-back. I never had money for all the snacks. To this day, I still get so excited because I can afford snacks now. To be able to afford a large water? I really made it!

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

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