When Furious 7 hits theaters this Thursday, moviegoers will be reunited with Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, and the cars that have starred in the street racing movie series for the past 14 years.
Because Furious 7′s tricked-out cars have as much of a starring role in the movie as its actors, these metal and carbon fiber co-stars are hand-picked by a picture car coordinator the same way a casting director selects human performers.
Dennis McCarthy has filled this role on four other Fast and Furious movies, starting in 2006 with Tokyo Drift. For the latest sequel, he was in charge of choosing almost 300 cars.
In some cases, McCarthy’s job is as simple as finding an appropriate ride and getting it to the set. Other times, it’s a far more complicated process that involves modifying cars so they’ll survive the incredible stunts called for in the script.
The 1968 Charger R/T driven by Vin Diesel’s character Dom is McCarthy’s favorite car in the movie, and it’s also the car that required some of the most serious modifications. This car doesn’t street race in Furious 7; it goes off-roading. And as anyone who’s driven or seen a Charger knows, they’re not built for hitting ramps and churning dirt.
“When I read the script, I knew what I wanted the car to look like,” McCarthy says. But it wouldn’t be easy. “It’s obviously hard to make a Charger into an off-road car without it looking horrible.”
Building From Zero
The process didn’t start with a real ’68 Charger. Working out of his Los Angeles shop, McCarthy and his team had to build the car from zero. Actually, they built seven of them, a standard number for a car that plays a big role, to allow for filming multiple scenes simultaneously, with spares in case something breaks down. Spoiler alert: There are nine versions of the new Charger Dom drives in the movie’s third act, and six of the Lykan Hypersport that plays another significant role. Because the Lykan supercar costs $3.4 million, those are far cheaper replicas that W Motors built just for the Furious 7.
Designing the chassis of the ’68 Charger took about a week, and the body (with extra room for wheel travel and fenders designed to make the car still seem low to the ground) took six more. McCarthy and his team did most of that work with CAD, and then computers cut the parts. To speed things up, McCarthy sent orders for parts to different shops around the area, which his team assembles into the cars.
Once the car’s built and tested, it gets painted and decorated accordingly, and loaded onto a trailer for shipment to whatever exotic locale it has for a destination. Universal
The old-school Charger doesn’t look like the cars that surround it on screen, but it actually has the same powertrain as all the cars McCarthy builds: a 500-horsepower fuel injection unit, with a three-speed manual transmission, sans clutch. Each car is fitted with a 9-inch rear lock differential, to make sure both rear wheels spin (it wouldn’t be a Fast and Furious movie without buckets of spinning tires).
It’s all about simplicity: One powertrain means just one set of spare parts to carry around. But it also means every vehicle sounds the same, and that won’t fly. This is why McCarthy works with sound editor Peter Brown in post production. For the ’68 Charger, the picture car coordinator tracked down a car with a powertrain to match what the real car would have had. Then he and Brown cover it in microphones, take it to an empty airport tarmac in California City, and spend the whole day sliding, revving the engine, and smoking the tires. Then they repeat the process for every car in the movie. In the understatement of the year, McCarthy admits, “It is not a bad way to spend a day at work.”
Hitting the Track
Before the cars appear on camera, they have to be tested. Testing is a multi-step process, and it’s about simplifying and saving time. The more McCarthy and his team prepare the cars before the camera rolls, the smoother filming will go. Once a car is drivable but not camera-ready, McCarthy’s team takes it to a track. They run it through a road course to make sure the brakes, suspension, and everything else work properly.
If the car will be doing stunts, it’s then sent to the off-road course set up in a parking lot. The team takes it over ramps, starting at an easy two feet and gradually increasing to three and a half. They build its speed up to 65 or 70 mph, enough to send it 90 feet before touching down. Then they adjust the rebound compression to make sure the car lands the right way, without excessive bouncing. Doing this testing early means that once shooting starts, the driver can hit the ramp at full throttle the first time, without holding back and without breaking anything.
Then it’s on to the dirt, where the stunt driver who’s driving a particular car during filming gets behind the wheel. He or she makes sure it’s to tweaked to suit his or her preferences, adjusting things like the sway bar to allow or more under- or oversteer.
Occasionally all this prep is interrupted by a mechanical problem, but McCarthy’s been doing this for a while, and says they “have that part pretty much dialed in.” Once the car’s built and tested, it gets painted and decorated accordingly, then loaded onto a trailer for shipment to the exotic locale where it will be filmed.
Now that Furious 7 is done, McCarthy has time to relax and take on other projects. Of course, he’s ready to take the call if the movie franchise returns for an eighth installment. “I hope they just keep going and going,” he says.