Movie Interviews
2:38 am
Thu May 23, 2013

Director Justin Lin Shifts The Identity Of 'Fast & Furious'

Originally published on Fri May 24, 2013 10:54 am

The movie Fast & Furious 6 hits theaters tomorrow. It is director Justin Lin's fourth film in the franchise, and is far different from his very first film, Shopping for Fangs, which starred a young John Cho and became a cult classic among Asian-American indie film fans.

Or is it so different?

The action-packed, billion-dollar movie franchise follows a crew of daredevil street racers who go from being criminals to being heroes. But the 42-year-old director was convinced that even in a bang-bang, big-budget movie, he could explore something deeper: race.

Lin, who was born in Taiwan, came to the states when he was 8. And throughout his career, his work reflects a mix of indie and action films — the former usually catered to an Asian-American audience. His comedic film Finishing the Game was based off of the production of a Bruce Lee movie. He also helped start the Web comedy community You Offend Me You Offend My Family, which highlights the work of Asian-Americans.

But back in 2001, when Lin was still a film student, he saw the original Fast & Furious. He liked it, he said, but he was bothered by how the movie's Asian characters were portrayed.

"I'm probably overly sensitive as an Asian-American, growing up, watching Hollywood films," Lin said. "It was cool to see Asian-Americans on screen. ... But to see they always have to be next to Buddha statues or pagodas, they were always the antagonists, the bad guys who hung out in Chinatown."

So, fast-forward: Lin left film school, became a director and made a name for himself on the indie film scene. And then The Big Opportunity rolled around: He was asked to direct the third Fast & Furious movie, Tokyo Drift. But hold up. An indie director? Asked to come on board a blockbuster franchise?

"I said nah, probably not," Lin recalled.

That was only his first answer. Truth is, he just wanted some conditions.

"I remember reading the script. It's Tokyo. It's about cars drifting around Buddhist statues and geisha girls and ... just stuff that you see when Hollywood cinema portrays other cultures," said Lin.

He hadn't hung out much in Tokyo, he admitted, but he knew that the city was "much more postmodern," as he put it. So he said he wanted to make a film that was on a more global and worldly scale.

And it wasn't so easy.

"It takes a lot of discourse. It goes all the way down to — sometimes — subtitles. I remember having a couple of characters in the franchise where I felt like it was natural for them to be speaking in their native tongue," Lin said. "And [people] were saying, 'Oh, it's a big summer movie and people don't want to read.' I don't think it was out of malice or anything, but every time you try to do something different, you have to expect obstacles and discourse."

As for what Lin is searching for, it's complicated. He wants Hollywood to avoid stereotyping Asians. But he doesn't want that fight to define him.

"As an Asian immigrant coming in, for the longest time I still had problems getting in the lot because they're just not used to seeing someone like me who's directing these films," Lin said. "I do think ultimately there's a point where we can kind of just shed that label and become filmmakers. ... Sometimes, I think it's important to be a filmmaker first and be able to talk about whatever you want to after that."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fast and Furious 6 slams into cinemas tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FAST AND FURIOUS 6")

GREENE: Yeah, you'll be hearing a lot of that. The action-packed, billion-dollar movie franchise follows a crew of daredevil street racers who go from being criminals to heroes. The director of the film, Justin Lin, likes to push the envelope. He was determined to have an old Soviet airplane in one scene - so he built one.

JUSTIN LIN: At first the studio's saying there's no way you're going to be able to build a full plane.

GREENE: A Russian aircraft, right? I mean you're building a Russian aircraft.

(LAUGHTER)

LIN: Yes. Yes. And I said you know what? We'll build it piece by piece and, you know, we'll take care of it. And, you know, at the end, one of the execs came up to me and said, you bastard, you actually built a whole plane.

GREENE: You built a Soviet aircraft. You pulled it off.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And there was something else Lin wanted to pull off. And this was the unexpected part of our conversation. The 42-year-old was convinced that even in a bang-bang, big-budget movie, he could explore something deeper.

LIN: Lin is Asian-American, born in Taiwan, raised in Southern California. And when he was a film student back in 2001, he saw the original "The Fast and the Furious." He liked it. But he was bothered by how the movie's Asian characters were portrayed.

GREENE: I'm probably overly sensitive, as an Asian-American growing up...

(LAUGHTER)

LIN: ...watching Hollywood films. To see Asian-Americans characters on screen is cool. But then to see that they always have to be next to Buddha statues or pagodas, or something like that, you know, they were the antagonists. They were the bad guys. They have to always be hanging out in Chinatown.

GREENE: So fast forward. Lin left film school, became a director and made a name for himself on the indie film scene. Then the big opportunity arrived. He was asked to direct the third "Fast and Furious" movie, "Tokyo Drift." An indie director, asked to come on board a blockbuster franchise?

LIN: I said nah. Nah, probably not.

GREENE: That was only his first answer. Truth is, he just wanted some conditions.

LIN: I remember reading the script and, again it was, you know, you read it and its Tokyo and its about, you know, you have cars drifting around Buddha statue, and there's geisha girls and, you know, just the stuff that you always see in, kind of, Hollywood cinema when they portray other cultures. You know, and I hadn't hung out in Tokyo or anything like that, but I knew enough to know that Tokyo is, in a way, much more post modern and interesting.

So, I wanted to try to create a film through a lens of seeing this story in a more global scale. You know, more worldly. And that was the exercise of trying to shift the identity of the franchise.

GREENE: The franchise has really seen the racial and ethnic diversity of the characters increase, as you've been directing. And it's funny. You don't always think of a loud, bang-bang, blockbuster movie as a venue to, kind of, explore these sensibilities. How do you bring all of this together on one screen?

LIN: Well, it takes a lot of discourse.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Huh-uh.

LIN: You know, it goes all the way down sometimes to the subtitles. You know, I remember having a couple of characters in the franchise where I just felt like it was natural to be speaking in their native tongue. And the first thing you get back is: well, it's a big summer movie, a lot of people don't want to read. And I don't think it's out of malice or anything like that. It's just that - I think anytime you're trying to do something different, you have to expect obstacles and discourse.

Now we're on part six and you see subtitles all over the place. And the fans embrace it, you know, and I think I like that approach. I like the fact that at its core, this franchise is always about exploring this idea of family, but in a very untraditional manner. And to be able to do that, I think, empowers these characters. And you know, I'm open to be able to just explore these characters, three-dimensionally of who they are, instead of trying to jam them into some lens.

GREENE: I don't want to give too much away in the new movie, but you bring up the idea of family. And that really is a theme in this one - maybe even more so than in previous films. Here's a scene with Vin Diesel's character, Dom, to telling one of his enemies that he better not mess with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FAST & FURIOUS 6")

VIN DIESEL ACTOR: (as Dominic Toretto) Your brother never told you never to threaten a man's family? It's a pretty stupid thing to do.

GREENE: And, Justin Lin, Dom - your main character - and his crew, I mean they really are a collection of people from different races, different backgrounds; not blood relatives though. So what message are you sending by having them be a family?

LIN: You know, I think as I travel around the world and get to really talk to the fans, I did it feels like that's something that we're all kind of searching for nowadays. You know, I - my family and I, we immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old. I grew up in America. A lot of my best friends I consider family. And it's through this shared experience that I consider them family.

Analyzing that something that's more common as we grow as a world. You know? And I feel like that's something that everybody is searching out for.

GREENE: As for what Lin is searching for, it's complicated. He wants Hollywood to avoid stereotyping Asians. It's not a cause that defines him, and it doesn't dominate his filmmaking, but this is clearly important to him. There's an earlier movie that he directed called "Finishing the Game." He makes his point in a fun way. The movie mocks Hollywood's search for a new Bruce Lee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FINISHING THE GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) There's something in a loud and intimidating type; a hip Genghis Khan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) You offended me. You offended my family.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I mean it is that - what should we take from that? What role do Asian-Americans play, right now, in Hollywood?

LIN: Oh. You know, I think things have shifted and changed a lot in the last 10 years. But, at the same time, you know, it's still the same fight that you have to go through. And it's not something that I think is a cause or anything like that. But you're talking about a business that when art and commerce collide, even at the lowest budget, it's a lot of money.

And so, when that happened, people tend to just want to keep making stuff or do stuff that they think could guarantee success. You know, and so, as an Asian-American coming in, for the longest time, I mean, I'd still would have kind of problems getting on the lot, because they're just not used to seeing someone like that directing these films.

So, again, I wouldn't want to make a judgment on how anybody approaches their job. But I do think that, ultimately, I hope there is a point where we can kind of shed that label, and we could just become filmmakers. You know, I think to this day I still, you know, whenever they talk about a filmmaker, their ethnicity is always a big part of the discourse. And sometimes I think it's important to be filmmaker first and then to be able to talk about whatever you want to after that.

GREENE: Justin Lin, best of luck with the new movie and thanks so much for talking to us.

LIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Justin Lin, he is the director of "Fast and Furious 6," which is out in theaters tomorrow.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.