Behind the Scenes With 'Furious 7's' Car Expert
Car Coordinator Dennis McCarthy on Vin Diesel's Chargers, what it feels like to total a cherry Aston Martin and the real story behind those flying cars (they really flew!).
To make plausible the demolition derby otherwise known as Furious 7, Dennis McCarthy, the car coordinator for the film and four of the previous six installments in the Fast and Furious franchise, amassed a fleet ranging from a $3.4 million Lykan HyperSport to clunkers scavenged from Craigslist — only to wholly or partially destroy many of them.
"We're pretty hard on vehicles," McCarthy, with considerable understatement, tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In order for the cars to appear in multiple scenes shot by separate location units — and to provide backups for scenes where they are damaged or totaled —McCarthy and his crew built identical copies at his Sun Valley, Calif., shop. No less than nine versions of the '69 Dodge R/T Charger driven by Furious mainstay Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) were deployed. "It's a safe bet that if you see any action car, there's never just one," McCarthy says.
Most of the cars underwent extensive modifications to make them more filmable — interiors were reconfigured to make room for camera rigging and lighting, for instance — or sometimes merely drivable.
"We buy junk cars that are rusted beyond repair — you've really got to comb the classifieds," McCarthy says. "Way out in the Mojave desert, places like that, is where we usually track them down. They're still ridiculously expensive — sometimes we'll pay $7,000 for something 90 percent garbage."
Each vehicle needed to accelerate, brake and steer similarly so the film's hair-raising stunts could be choreographed and photographed precisely. McCarthy standardized the drive trains of all of the film's American-made cars with identical 500-horsepower fuel-injected engines and other components.
"We have a pretty good system with these cars for doing what the stunt drivers like: an ample amount of horsepower, locking differentials, the right gear ratios — they need a brake system where they can lock the rears independently of the fronts so they can get sidewise," McCarthy says. "We've got that pretty well dialed in, plus we do test sessions with the stunt department" — at the Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif. — "to make sure they're happy, so when the time comes to roll camera we know they're ready to go."
Swapping out the engines, transmissions and brakes also "helps with parts interchangability," McCarthy says. "If we wreck one car, there are parts we can use to repair another. It allows us to travel with fewer spares — it simplifies the whole process."
Notwithstanding the visual effects that allowed the reanimation of Paul Walker, who was killed in an off-set car accident during filming but appears throughout the finished movie, McCarthy says several of Furious 7's most jaw-dropping action sequences were filmed using actual cars.
"That's all real," McCarthy says of the scene shot outside Mesa, Ariz. where the cars carrying Diesel and his crew are dropped from a C-130 military transport. "The cars went right out of the plane — these were complete running, fully functional cars." Skydivers with cameras leapt from the plane immediately after and filmed the cars' plunge. Each car was rigged with a military grade parachute and most landed without a scratch, McCarthy recalls.
"Unfortunately it was a windy one of the days we were shooting. My favorite offroad car landed perfectly [but] the wind came up and caught the chute and dragged it for a mile across the desert. We were really short of those cars and couldn't afford to lose them." Parachutes on two cars did not deploy at all, with predictable consequences. "It's amazing what a car looks like after it hits the ground from 10,000 feet," McCarthy marvels. "There's just not one salvageable part."
Then there's the mysterious Lykan HyperSport that Diesel and Walker crash through three neighboring Dubai skyscrapers in the film's most elaborate stunt. An actual $3.4 million HyperSport — one of only seven built — is shown at the beginning of the scene; the subsequent action sequences were filmed using six fiberglass replicas built to McCarthy's specifications by W Motors, the Beirut-based company that builds the HyperSport. "The bodies were made from the same molds — they looked 100 percent onscreen." McCarthy says.
To stage the head-on collision between one of the Chargers and an Aston Martin DB9 driven by Furious villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) the cars were attached to cables and launched by remote control. "It's a real crash but no one was driving," McCarthy said. "Both cars came in at around 40 miles an hour, so you had close to an 80 mile an hour impact. It was awesome — it shook the ground like an earthquake."
McCarthy, unsurprisingly, applauds Furious 7's emphasis on using actual iron over illusion wherever possible, especially now that movie audiences are routinely bombarded by flashy visual effects. "That to me is what makes this so cool —although it seems outlandish, the majority of everything you're watching is really happening."
And the cost of all that verisimilitude?
Says McCarthy: "All I can say is, it's not cheap."