The Fast and Furious movies have always capitalized on over-the-top action and stunts that defy the laws of physics, but a sense of family among the major players in the saga, even between those who don’t always get along like the title characters in Hobbs & Shaw, has always been at the core of the drama.
Chris Morgan has been the screenwriter for the franchise since Tokyo Drift, and as each sequel expanded the world beyond street racing, it was clear that a cinematic universe had been born. On the latest The Fourth Wall podcast, we talked to Morgan about Hobbs & Shaw, which is coming to 4K UHD Blu-ray and DVD on November 15, and how this spin-off opens up all sorts of possibilities for reaching new audiences.
DEN OF GEEK: I’ve heard you referred to as the “narrative architect” of Fast and Furious. Is that a description that reflects the fact that now you’re coordinating a cinematic universe rather than a single script?
CHRIS MORGAN: In terms of the story, the journey that the characters are going on, the tone, the trials they have to go through, the action set pieces, and then laying it on the script, I think that’s probably what they mean by that. And just helping and being a part of the expansion of the Fast and Furious world…
There was a very distinctive shift in Fast from the third movie where I came in where it was kind of a smaller film, and then up to the fifth movie where we really got to change and do a heist film, a true heist film and make it bigger, and then the films just kind of grew from there. In Hobbs & Shaw we get to explore a little bit with sci-fi and military tech, which is super fun. That’s one of the best things about these films is that the characters are so good that you want to spend time with them, that you’re allowed to hop genres a little bit, and the audience is willing to go with it because they care about what happens to their crew.
Do you think Fast and Furious not being based on an existing IP like in Marvel movies gives you more freedom to help the franchise grow, even as audience expectations have changed over the past 20 years?
Maybe so because it doesn’t have a specific genre that it really started as, and so you can more easily adapt it to other things… Fast originally started out as a smaller racing [movie]; actually “minor heist movie” was in its DNA. There are these robberies that are happening with some DVD players being shipped in some larger trucks and stuff like that, but the spirit was there. And there is this family code and brotherhood, and all that stuff was laid in in the initial film, and we just get to extrapolate on it and now update it as time goes by and then play genres a little bit.
As long as the tone remains consistent, and as long as those characters and their moral code and what they believe in and that sense of family and honor — as long as all that’s there, you could literally take the franchise in multiple directions. So yeah, I guess it does make it easier.
I guess I was thinking of the fact that you don’t have fans who come in with expectations about their favorite superheroes based on what they’ve read in the comics.
No, I think the only expectation you’re beholden to is to make sure you’re keeping a little bit of the street racing, car modification feel. I think that’s important even in small touches, so it doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a world-ending virus or whatever it turns out the be, you always want to have little touches of a crew and a team being able to upgrade their cars, work on them, that their cars say something about who they are; there’s a reason you choose that car because it speaks to your soul or represents that type of character. I think that’s probably the only thing you’re really beholden to.
With Hobbs & Shaw, you’ve shifted from a “heist” feel to more of sci-fi buddy cop film with a full-on comic book supervillain in Idris Elba. Was that shift in tone purposeful given it’s a spinoff?
I think all the films, including the spin-offs, happen within the Fast and Furious timeline and the Fast and Furious world, and they’ll have ramifications on the universe. But specifically with this, when we went and hired our director David Leitch for the first spinoff in the Fast and Furious universe, one of his very high priorities was to make sure that it feels that it is grounded in the Fast and Furious tone. You recognize it as a Fast film, but you also give it a distinctive flavor.
There’s the elevated sense of humor here and elevated sense of action and tone of action, so not only do you get the very grounded hand-to-hand combat things that David’s known for, but you also get to have these very fun heightened action sequences that have a little bit of a sci-fi flair to them with our Idris Elba character, Brixton, his super-soldier feel. Those were things that David wanted to make sure we felt a part of the Fast world but also have that separate tone so you feel like, “Oh, I’m not watching the exact same thing! I’m watching something that feels like it’s in the world but something that is distinct to itself.”
Also, I’ll say the reason for the kind of heightened sci-fi feel for Idris was you have these two Alpha heroes. You got Hobbs and you got Shaw, and we’ve seen them clear rooms on their own before. Your villain, if you’re up against them, has to be so bad, so tough, has to beat them down so completely on their own that the only way that they could possibly have a shot at beating this dude is if they actually swallow their pride and end up working together. So that was the original thought process of, “Why the tech?”
Fast and Furious has always been able to introduce big name actors as new family members or antagonists. Have you ever created a new character based on a star they were pursuing, or does the character design always come before casting?
Typically it’s the character design first. What is the role that we need to move the story forward or to challenge our heroes? And then we design based on that.
For example, in Fast 5 we knew we had to have this “contagonist.” We needed a guy who’s gonna be chasing Dom and Brian, and they are, for the first time in their lives, afraid. Someone’s coming after them that is a force of nature and is like a storm on the horizon, and it’s going to outrun them. And they need to do something in order to get away from it. And the second we were creating this lawman from hell who will not stop until he gets them, we knew that was going to be Dwayne.
So it’ll vary how the casting part will come about, but typically we’ll know. We had known Helen Mirren was a fan of the films, and we knew we were going to bring her into the franchise at some point. And then the question is: how? And the answer is: well, of course she’s Shaw’s mom! Of course!
With Hobbs & Shaw, you collaborated with Drew Pearce who wrote a Mission: Impossible script as well as Iron Man 3, and you added Vanessa Kirby to the cast, also a veteran of Mission: Impossible. Are these connections to other franchises more about selling it to studio executive, to fans, or to tapping into their relevant experience?
Believe it or not, they are largely coincidental. So like with Drew, we were working on the film and we were in pre-production, and we were doing a re-write on it. And my job is not only to write the script but also to produce the script, and our timeline got pretty tight. And we decided to bring someone in to be able to help, and we would just divvy up sequences and scenes. And I’ve been a fan of Drew’s, and David had been working with Drew. So we brought him in, and we just had a great relationship. And tonally he’s great for exactly what you said, which is the Mission: Impossible sort of stuff.
And then Vanessa we had been aware of prior to her Mission performance and were already targeting, but that just happened… she did a great job there as well.
When you’re writing for movies that rely so heavily on action sequences where there’s not much dialogue, do you end up writing it all out the way a novelist would make use of narration, or is it just sketched out so that you can get input from stunts, the director, and other pre-production collaborators?
I guess it depends. I would say on average, action’s the one thing that I see very clearly, and it’s what I’m passionate about. I always write it out; I will write it out beat by beat. To me the action sequence isn’t just “and the cars scramble away from the whatever.” For me, it’s every moment: why the turn, why the surprise? Where’s the audience gonna be, “Oh my god, what’s he going to do?” How do the characters respond to it?
So all these character moments in the middle of mayhem is what you actually remember about films and action sequences specifically. It’s that heroic line of dialogue; it’s that “Oh shit!” moment; it’s that surprising thing that your character overcomes. So for me typically, I will write out the full action sequence beat for beat.
So then we know A) we can expense it out — that what it’s going to cost to do that, and then B) we have a very collaborative creative team with our director and actors and the studio; everyone can get on the same page. Everyone can react to it. If anyone has an idea that makes it better, it’s in. Best idea always wins; that’s kind of how we operate over here. That’s how I do it… But for me, it’s always in the script.
Morgan is clearly invested in the Fast and Furious franchise, and Hobbs & Shaw seems poised to continue its own branch of the story in sequels to come. As we wait for more news of Fast 9, viewers can enjoy all of the many extras on the Hobbs & Shaw 4K UHD Blu-ray and DVD, including stunt breakdowns, family tree explainers, commentary with director David Leitch, and intimate interviews with star Dwayne Johnson. The movie is already available on digital release, and the home entertainment release is set for November 15, 2019.
The full audio of this interview is available on The Fourth Wall podcast, which seeks to allow creative people behind the scenes to break through the illusory “fourth wall” of stage and cinema to speak directly to the audience of their work. Our interviews with authors, composers, set designers, and others give voice to a whole host of artists we wouldn’t normally get to hear from. Subscribe so that you never miss an episode, or simply listen to our Chris Morgan interview below!
Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.