By Mekado Murphy
They’ve launched cars into the sky from the back of planes. They’ve jumped cars through buildings in Abu Dhabi, they’ve driven cars on ice and placed them against submarines. What’s next for the filmmakers of the Fast and Furious series, a franchise that has been a magnet for audiences for 20 years?
What about, well, magnets?
For F9 (in theaters June 25), the latest sequel, the filmmakers consulted with scientists to come up with their latest outrageous stunts, though they didn’t exactly follow the laws of physics.
The movie’s hero, Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Vin Diesel), has found a quiet life with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his son. But he springs back into action when the planet is threatened by a man with whom he has a past: his estranged brother, Jakob (John Cena), who happens to possess an electromagnet.
It consists of magnetic disks that can be connected together or used separately. A control dial (with a handy, this-go-to-11-style dial) can increase or decrease the polarity of the magnets. The same disk can create a lower intensity magnetic field that could pull a fork away. But when set to the highest settings, the solenoid can attach to the bottom of an airplane, for example, and catch a car in mid-air as it drives off a cliff. And so the fun begins.
Director Justin Lin, who returned to the franchise after helping the third through sixth installments, said he became intrigued by the magnet concept while traveling in Germany with a producer to get inspiration for the films.
“We ended up in Hamburg and at that point I was interested in particle accelerators,” he said in a video interview. “It was something I thought about, but I didn’t know where it would lead.”
There they visited the DESY research center, home to a particle accelerator used to study the structure of matter. Lin said one of the scientists, Christian Mrotzek, mentioned the idea that magnet technology that uses electric currents can create different degrees of polarity. That concept formed the basis for the weapon that Lin devised together with his fellow screenwriter Daniel Casey.
But it’s not that they stayed close to science. After all, this is the kind of movie that fixes a rocket engine on a Pontiac Fiero. Instead, the crew came up with the idea of magnets that can be turned on and off to create wow-factor stunts.
In a sequence set on the streets of Edinburgh, the electromagnet pulls an entire car on its side, then through a shop and into the back of a van. No, none of that is done with real magnets. But yes, Lin’s crew did indeed take that shot on a stage, creating a practical effect of putting a car on a pulley and sending it through a window in the side of a truck.
Some of the most impressive stunt work comes in the latest car chase in Tblisi, Georgia. Dom’s team turns the electromagnets on and off to send cars to the center of the street and act as roadblocks, or to flip a 14-foot-tall, 26-ton armored vehicle (actually built for the movie).
As part of the series, Dom, who is driving a Dodge Charger equipped with electromagnets, gets stuck between a couple of trucks. He turns the knob up and forces the trucks to ‘stick’ to the side of his car. Then he turns the knob down and the trucks thunder over rows of parked cars.
Lin said that for that scene and others, he pre-visualized all the shots, scanning the locations into the computer so he could determine the angles and lenses. He then took reference images of the trucks on a set to understand their inner workings, “so I could really see what it would be like if you pull a truck and it’s having a hard time,” he said.
Finally, the scene was filmed in Tblisi with stunt drivers driving the trucks into Dom’s car to magnetize them, then sending them off. But the result is deliberately a bit chaotic: Lin likes to direct his scenes and think about the mental states and frustrations of the characters as they perform driving movements.
“While I have the ability to make it perfect, I actually don’t like that,” he said. “I want the fight to be part of the montage so the public can join us.”