For most movies, cars are just another expendable item in the budget; right there with the film in the cameras and 24-hour on-call foot massages for the actors. But for this summer's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift — as it was for 2001's original The Fast and the Furious and the 2003 sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious — cars are at the heart of the story.
Even Universal Studios must now admit that the real stars of any movie carrying the "Fast and Furious" brand name must be the cars. And the man in charge of getting and preparing all the cars for cinematic glory in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was Picture Car Coordinator Dennis McCarthy.
Cars right and left
"We bought cars all over the place," McCarthy told us. "We have over 200 cars for this movie, so they came from different places."
Before they could get anything they had to know what they wanted, and that started with an audition of sorts at Southern California's Irwindale Speedway last June. McCarthy attracted about 40 cars to the oval track, including some from manufacturers like Volkswagen, others from race teams and aftermarket companies, a good chunk from shops that specialize in supplying vehicles for film production, and a few from individuals with homebuilt machines.
McCarthy took Tokyo Drift director Justin Lin from car to car, grabbing inspiration from some and rejecting ideas from others. There were no final decisions that day, but the outlines of the cars to be featured were coming into focus.
"Justin is very hands-on," McCarthy related. "We usually gave him four or five to choose for each character. The Nissan 350Z for D.K. [the 'Drift King' who is the film's heavy and is played by Brian Tee] was one of the first cars we decided on. At Irwindale there was a 350Z with a Veilside conversion kit on it. That was one he liked, so he got some photographs of the car, sent them to the art department. The art department starts doing different renderings, different colors and different graphics on it."
Once a design was agreed upon, McCarthy would gather the cars and take them to the 35,000-square-foot warehouse leased for the production in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale for fabrication. But McCarthy couldn't simply go down to the Nissan dealer and buy a bunch of Z-cars. After all, as the name of the third movie in The Fast and The Furious franchise implies, much of the action takes place in Tokyo, where cars have right-hand drive.
"Originally it was going to be about 90-percent filmed in Japan and 10-percent here," McCarthy recalls. "Then it was going to be half and half, and then the ratio just kept changing because things weren't available there." Ultimately, most of Tokyo Drift, and virtually all the action, was filmed with Southern California doubling for Tokyo. And in order for California to pass for Japan, the production needed a lot of Japanese-market vehicles.
"We had to go to Japan, buy the cars and bring them back," McCarthy explains. "I think we ended up with 11 350Zs. We bought three of them locally for crash scenes — for when it goes off a cliff — and we converted them, but not for the hero cars. Nissan gave us two 350Z convertibles for free which we used as background cars and we did get some very good deals from Nissan Motorsports [Nismo] on differentials and quarter panels and miscellaneous stuff like suspension parts."
McCarthy scoured used car lots in Japan, returning with those 350Zs, and a flock of Mazda RX-7s and RX-8s, Toyota Chasers and Nissan Silvias. In addition, Mitsubishi contributed 10 Japanese-market Lancer Evolution IXs to the project and Volkswagen (which has a co-marketing partnership with Universal Studios) coughed up four right-hand drive Golf R32s and four Touran minivans. McCarthy also imported background vehicles from Japan for authenticity — cabs, nondescript sedans, tiny vans and dinky little garbage trucks.
The almost all-Americans
Beyond those right-hand drivers, the story also needed all-American machinery for the opening of The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (which takes place in California — and California plays itself) and for the final race between "D.K." and the film's hero "Sean Boswell" (played by Lucas Black). For the opening street race that leads to Boswell's exile to live with his Navy-lifer father who is stationed in Japan, McCarthy's crew built a stock car-style 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo (actually nine Monte Carlos) and a Dodge Viper roadster (actually two — one new and the other a salvage to be wrecked again). For the final showdown, they built six '67 Ford Mustang fastbacks; five with V8s under their hoods and, as part of the film's story, one powered by a Nissan RB26DETT turbocharged 2.6-liter straight six ripped out of a Nissan Skyline GT-R.
Multiple examples of each of the featured cars were needed to perform various stunts and keep both the first and second filming units working. For example, one of the Monte Carlos was built without an engine to rotate on a large rotisserie in order to simulate a roll. And a lot of cars were there just to be wrecked. But just as importantly, it costs somewhere around $60,000 or $70,000 an hour to sustain a film crew whether they're exposing film or not. No producer wants his crew waiting around for a car to be fixed.
Building multiple examples of featured cars is standard practice in Hollywood. So is chopping cars up so cameras can move within and around them. And there's no mystery to bolting on body kits and aftermarket wheels or spraying paint. But many of the cars in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift were built, no surprise, to drift. And that was a whole new challenge.
The drifters' greatest hits
In order to drift effectively, for example, two of the 350Zs were treated to APS twin-turbo systems to boost their output to around 475 horsepower and fitted with Nismo limited-slip differentials. The Evos were powerful enough, but had to be converted to rear-wheel drive. The Mustangs were an even greater challenge.
"For all the stunt work initially I figured just some nice 302s you know, with headers," McCarthy recalls about building those Mustangs. "But the first night we went out and drove the cars and [stunt driver] Rhys Millen was like, 'No, no. Not even close.' So OK, the next night we put a 347 stroker motor in with like 350 or 370 hp. He still wasn't satisfied. So for the next night we put a 430-inch Windsor motor in with a 9-inch rear end and a spool. That one he was happy with. That one motor made closer to 500 hp so we built a duplicate of that."
Fix, wreck, fix again
Building all those cars was just the start of the challenge for McCarthy. Because during four months of filming, cars were constantly being wrecked, fixed and sent back out to be wrecked again. With a fleet of flatbeds and transporters, McCarthy would send out cars from his shop in the morning, only to have his guys go out and retrieve their carcasses that night, fix them and send them out again.
Whether the movie is good or not is beyond the control of Dennis McCarthy. But McCarthy spent his $7 million budget well and no matter what Tokyo Drift's merits may be, the producers can't say they didn't have enough cars around to get the job done.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift opens June 16 at every multiplex in the known universe.