'Fast and Furious' Cars and Crushes: Original Director Recalls Family Firsts

Meriah Doty
The Fast and the Furious cast, 2001
The Fast and the Furious cast, 2001

‘The Fast and the Furious’ cast, 2001 (Photo: Everett Collection/Universal Pictures)

It has been nearly 15 years since Rob Cohen helmed the surprise international hit The Fast and the Furious, about a group of close-knit, law-flouting street racers. As he tells it to Yahoo Movies, he had no idea the 2001 original would spawn a mega-movie series.

While Cohen didn’t direct the subsequent sequels, he has remained in contact with the main cast, including directing Fast patriarch Vin Diesel in the 2002 extreme-sports action flick XXX. And no, Cohen still hasn’t “gotten over” the untimely death of Fast series star Paul Walker.

Related: The Inside Story of the Real 'Fast & Furious’ House

More recently, Cohen directed Jennifer Lopez in the successful low-budget thriller The Boy Next Door, still in theaters, and has other projects in the pipeline. Cohen took a break to talk to Yahoo Movies about the very first Fast movie — in which he also has a cameo as an angry Pizza Hut delivery guy — recalling how Diesel, Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster forged those early bonds that later blossomed into an almost familial relationship.

What’s the first memory that comes to mind about filming The Fast and the Furious?
I took everybody to a racing school in Las Vegas as a bonding thing. I thought it was important to build memories right away so they’re not strangers to each other. At the race school, driving Formula Ones, we could see right away Paul was going to be an ace driver. It was clear he had a natural talent. He had no fear. You could see he was falling in love with the whole car business. Michelle was so gung-ho. She asked me, “Why can’t I have a race of my own? Why can’t Letty have a race?” I knew that was coming. I had an idea of Letty having a race at the race wars sequence.

How did everyone get along initially?
You could see how certain things were going to go when we finally got into rehearsals and into [Dominic Toretto’s] house. The night shooting was the party [at Toretto’s], a lot of things began to go down. Vin started to get the hots for Michelle… or vice versa. Paul was definitely into Jordana. That’s also when Paul and Vin bonded. Up to that point, shooting lots of scenes, Dom [Diesel] is antagonistic to Brian [O’Conner, played by Walker]. … That night everything I planned, every conjecture about opposites attracting between these two very different men — the chemistry I’d hoped for — took shape. It took the franchise to 12 years, until Paul died — which I haven’t gotten over yet.

How close did you remain with the cast after the film came out?
We remain in touch. I just saw Michelle a few weeks ago. Vinnie and I are in touch. Paul and I were in touch. I see Jordana every once and a while. There was a bit of a family there that we created. I’m very proud of everybody.

Toretto’s house remains a focal point of the series. What was it like filming there?
Memories at the house do stand out because the house sequences were fairly early in the shooting. A lot of the bonding took place at that house. It was a brutally hot summer night filming the party scene. They weren’t fake-sweating in the movie — that’s for real. There were so many undercurrents. The next day we came together and a photographer took that classic photo [above] of everyone on the street in front of the house. We all were young and hopeful.

What do you make of the longevity and success of the series?
Fast and Furious is a dream state. It’s a place in your head where you can go for brotherhood, fast cars, beautiful people, life and death stakes, adrenaline, and living by your own rules. It’s a place you can go each summer and renew that feeling when you saw mine, the first one. It’s a whole secret world. That’s why people were revving their engines in the theater parking lot [when it first came out]. It’s why the phrase “fast and furious” has entered our vocabulary. It was even used in an FBI sting!

Movies that last, be it Titanic or Avatar — are as much a state of mind as they are a movie with a specific story. It’s the joy of being back in Eden. For me, who created that first one, that’s really an amazing thing — that you can take something out of your mind and it can go out and impact so many others, so enduringly. …

But I could have never imagined the run it would have or the impact.

Rob Cohen on set, 2001
Rob Cohen on set, 2001

Rob Cohen on set, 2001 (Photo: Everett Collection/Universal Pictures)

Toretto’s house been intrinsic to the series both physically and symbolically. How did you pick that specific house?
Part of the reason is the owners were trying to get money to renovate it. The movie use is a way of raising money. As I remember, the house was totally vacant. Echo Park was an undiscovered [Los Angeles] neighborhood at that time. I needed room to shoot the party sequence, I needed a backyard with a view of downtown L.A., and I needed an old-fashioned freestanding garage. Whenever you have two or three specific things you need from a location, it’s amazingly difficult. When I found that house, the most important thing to me was the view from the backyard. I felt this movie was quintessentially Los Angeles — about the car culture of Los Angeles, and the multi-ethnicity of Los Angeles. I wanted from the first sequence, from where Paul Walker is trying out the Mitsubishi Eclipse at Dodger Stadium with a view of L.A. to the hijack down at the port — everything was trying to say “look at this city.”

The skyscraper downtown, Dodger Stadium — from the first shot all the way down to dragging down PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] at Neptune’s Net [beachside seafood spot in Malibu], all the different facets of Los Angeles. Echo Park is a multicultural neighborhood. The house needed to have these things. One thing led to another once we found the house. It centers the location. It had all those hills to do fun jumps in the beginning chase with the motorcycles. You just begin to feel you’re building a community in the film, along with the small store right across — Toretto’s store. It began to come alive as it often does when you find location.

Were the interior shots in the original movie filmed inside the Echo Park house? It sure looks like it.
There was not enough money [in the film’s budget to build a set] — $38 million. Everything was shot for real inside the house, including one night shooting the party sequence. Dom [Diesel] and Brian [Walker] come back walking, they wind up on foot going home. I went for breath in the backyard because it was hot in the house. I saw a couple making out on the picnic table — two extras. When they broke they saw it was me. It was two girls! I asked them, “Why don’t you do that in the party sequence?” That’s how that part made it in. [See the kiss at the beginning of the trailer below.]

I later I found out the MPAA thought it was one girl and one boy with long hair. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop because there was violence, illegal car activity, and two girls kissing. I can’t believe we got our PG-13 rating! Sometimes things happen at a location that make it into the movie.

Is it true you had the owners paint the house white to show off the colors of the cars?
Yes. I repainted Neptune’s Net, too.

Watch ‘The Fast and the Furious’ trailer: