Hollywood: When The Right Thing To Do, Is The Right Thing To Do

What will Universal Studios do with Fast & Furious 7 after the death of lead actor Paul Walker?


Last weekend (November 30th, 2013) the world learned of the passing of Paul Walker, star of the hit action franchise Fast & Furious. Walker was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, in which he was the passenger. His death, a tragedy for all who knew him, worked with him, and his legion of fans, was met with the typically stoic sense of loss and praise for his life; however, as the world mourned, it also began to ask whether or not his passing would influence the production of then-on-hiatus Fast & Furious 7, the upcoming sequel in the franchise, due to be released in 2014.

Hollywood has a long history of having to deal with actors who pass away midway through production, or even once a film has been completed (case in point, Heath Ledger only barely making it past wrapping as The Joker on The Dark Knight, before dying of a drug overdose). The Crow, another such example, had to deal with lead actor Brandon Lee (son of film legend Bruce Lee), who was accidentally shot on the set of Alex Proyas’ seminal gothic masterpiece, and died. Thankfully for us, in both these instances, the films were able to be completed with only minor alteration, or in the case of The Dark Knight, no alteration at all, save for a re-shift on the marketing campaign to minimize the Joker’s presence so as not to make people uncomfortable.

The difference between those two films, and Fast & Furious 7, is that Walker’s death came at the mid-point of production. Crucial scenes with Walker’s character, Brian, had yet to be filmed. No doubt a lot of post-production work involving Walker was also still to be shot. Universal, director James Wan, and the entire production team faced the prospect of having a film which was, in all likelihood, unable to be completed due to the death of one of the leading performers. While Walker’s death was tragic, from a financial perspective it was a devastating blow…. or was it?

Universal and Fast 7 faced three options.

First, continue to film and work out a way of removing Walker’s character off-screen, in a way that made sense to the story as already partially filmed.

Second, reshoot many of Walker’s scenes with another actor, integrating that footage into material already shot, and proceeding with the movie.

Thirdly, scrap the film and start again.

During the week, word came through that Universal was seriously considering option 3. Bearing in mind that most studio films have insurance to cover significant problems such as the incapacitation (or in this case, death) of an actor, a set or critical footage being destroyed or lost, it made sense that Universal would just scrap the film as it was, and start again. In terms of monetary losses, the figure is vastly insignificant than the bile and anger the studio might face were it to proceed with the film “as is”, with fans divided as to how to properly send off one of the pivotal characters. After all, Walker’s death in a car wreck would be creepily similar to a possible “death by car accident” in the film, and there’s little doubt the backlash would be enormous. Not only that, but a sudden “and Brian left the movie without a word” scene would also ring somewhat hollow, considering how large a personality he was within the franchise.

If the “Start again” scenario is indeed correct, and does play out, this gives director James Wan and his team the ability to not only have a free second chance at the film, but to give Walker’s character (and to a degree, Walker himself) a more fitting, planned send-off. How that might play out, is anybody’s guess. In my opinion, the scrapping of the Fast 7 film as it currently sits would be the best, and most appropriate option. Sure, they miss out on the scheduled summer release in 2014, but I doubt anyone would hold that against them considering the circumstances.

In the old days, before social media and star/fan interactions, and the wave of instant communications, there’s little doubt a major film like this would simply have pushed on, and few people outside the industry would have been the wiser. Now, Universal’s decision has almost instant potential for either praise, or rebuke. They have to be careful which way they tread. Backlash might halt the franchise permanently. Universal don’t want that, because there’s too much money at stake. They also want to want to remain respectful to not only the cast and crew, but to the fans of the franchise, without whom the series would already have died away. The goodwill Universal will generate from this decision may fade slightly over the months to come, but the closer a version of Fast 7 gets to cinemas, the more people are likely to remember how they handled themselves.

If Universal do indeed decide to scrap Fast 7’s current production, and commence with a new story, a new take and a decent send-off for Walker, then I applaud them for it. It’s the right thing to do. It might cost them short-term financially, but in the long run, the foundation for future Fast films might just be laid in concrete.


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5 thoughts on “Hollywood: When The Right Thing To Do, Is The Right Thing To Do

  1. Solid points through and through Rod, definitely a sad day all around — a promising career cut short, a popular and wildly successful 'cash cow' franchise in the lurch, and all the while a volatile and boisterous fan base poised for confrontation at the slightest false move…All I can say is there are a lot of people treading water right about now and they've got a lot of eyes watching their every move. Cutting through to the boardroom with all the cards on the table, the decision makers and creative team in check, I'm sure it will all boil down to how much is 'in the can', what would it take to work around the unfinished scenes and would it all come together in a way that doesn't piss off the fans. As Brikhaus points out, "business is business" and in this particular situation they also have to keep in mind the greater story arc and personally I think the worse thing they could do is replace Walker's character with another sandy hair, blue eyed actor. Perhaps they can fill the void by developing some of the other characters and relationships, a mixture of surprise and fulfilling what fans would like to see. Since this story has become such a media spotlight, perhaps some strategic crowd-sourcing interactive stuff between the filmmakers and fans might just take the whole thing to another level. I'll have my people contact their people for a sit down, brainstorming session. I've got notes. Cheers->

    1. Spot on with your "treading water" comment, Rory; one gets the sense that the studio is waiting to see how audiences might take any of the options they have planned, before committing to any of them. I think it's a stretch asking any of the current crop of characters in the franchise to step up to take Walker's central place, because most of them are one-note and comedy relief only, but perhaps it could be done. I think the crowd-sourcing idea is one that could work: put a solution to the public vote, and go with that. Can't get any complaints then, right? Wrong! You'll always have some people crying "insensitive" and whatnot, but I think Universal need to get this film out as quickly as they can, and move onto the next one. Put some distance between Walker's death and its impact on the franchise.

      Do you think the Furious franchise will survive this, by the way? Or will Walker's death make Fast 7 the final Fast?

  2. Interesting points. I bet that Universal will make its decision based on how much footage is already shot. If, say, 90% of Walker's scenes were done, they'd probably rewrite and reshoot the rest around his absence. That would make the most financial sense, and business is business, after all. If they only had about 50% done, then they'd rewrite and reshoot all the stuff he was in. Scenes without him would certainly be reused.
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    1. The Haus!!

      I think you're right, and from reading between the lines on all the reports coming out of this whole thing, it sounds like Fast7 had only a little way to go in filming (I think it was due out in what, June next year?) so I'd expect they'd have got to around the 70-80% mark. That said, now that the eyes of the world are one them (so to speak) as to how this will be handled, I'd venture a guess that even if they DID have the majority of Walker's scenes shot, and weren't able to edit around it and use what they could, there's a fair chance Universal would just reshoot whole thing to keep the uncomfortableness down.

      I'm not sure what to think, honestly, if the franchise can even continue without the Walker/Diesel duo. There's too much history with the pair for Walker's character to just be "written out" so to speak; it's a shame, but perhaps the next one ought to be the last. Whatever the case, the next film needs to not only honor Walker, but give his character a decent send off and maintain the fluffy, lite-weight fun the films have going for them. As a franchise of brainless fun, it's still one of Hollywood's best these days, and it would be sad to see it go.

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