Rob Cohen for “The Fast and the Furious”

Director Rob Cohen is nothing but diverse from such critically acclaimed gems as Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, to Dragonheart and TV’s The Rat Pack. With his high octane action thriller The Fast and the Furious, he takes the car genre further than it has in years. In this one-on-one with Paul Fischer, Cohen talks cars, CGI and manages to find time to heap praise on Dark Horizons.

At 52, veteran director Rob Cohen may not seem quite hip enough to hem a furiously fast action pic that centres on the world of illegal drag racing. Yet, based on the reaction of the predominantly male audience at the film’s test screenings, he has the pulse on contemporary movie audiences. Why? “Today I have the perfect secret weapon: My 14-year old son. He’s the one who keeps me in tune what today’s youth is after and I listen. Including the latest music. Everywhere I go I travel with the target audience”.

Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious, is a high octane adventure thriller revolving around a rookie cop (Paul Walker) who goes undercover, posing as a racing team member, in order to investigate a jewellery heist. Managing to ingratiate himself with to the team’s leaders at first, he finds himself in jeopardy when the other members begin to suspect an impostor within their ranks, setting the stage for an exciting, climactic showdown. Cohen remembers first being told of a magazine article that examined this world of frenetic dragsters and not seeing a movie in it – until he entered that world first hand. “I stood there, like a duck out of water, and witnessed this amazing world first-hand. It was at that point that I realised that here was a story worth telling”.

Originally budgeted at $US25m, Cohen wanted to do something unique with this material, “rather than reverting to a kind of Corman formulaic film, the kind they did years ago”. The director convinced Universal to allow him to make “a real high-energy special effects film” allowing the audience to be totally immersed within the action of the film. This could only be achieved through imaginative CGI effects, and admits that “even two years ago, this picture would not have been made this way”. There are some dazzling moments in the film, notably a sequence in which driver and car are at one. “I think as a director, anybody who did not understand the potential of this world might not have even started down the road conceptually”.

Cohen, who jokingly adds that he got “most of my ideas for this film while shaving” was determined to separate The Fast and the Furious “from all the other antecedents to this film” by including a staggering 180 CGI shots. “In the drag car sequence, maybe half the cars you see aren’t even real”. A filmmaker for some 20 years, Cohen has been able to “go with the flow” and follow the advent in CGI effects. “Remember I did Dragonheart, and hanging out while making a dragon come to life, brought me right into the modern era with CGI and what we were capable and NOT capable of doing”. With Fast and the Furious, he adds, he “was able to carry that through and give me a framework to say: “OK, we’re going to work in a three-dimensional world, but unlike the dragon’s world, we don’t expect a car to be CG. One expects a dragon not to be real, but not a Civic”. 

For Cohen, however, using CGI in this movie was also done for thematic, as well as artistic and practical reasons. “It’s one thing to pull off an effects shot because it’s a cool shot, but here it was an emotional connection because in talking to these racers, I began to see that they had a very personal connection to the car and that when they were racing, they don’t even have speedometers on their cars, because they never look down. They FEEL the car, they KNOW how fast they’re going instinctively, so I thought of them as centaurs, half-man, half-car, and through idea devised this shot coming through the engine came to me. Sure it might be a cool shot, but it also shows how a racer understands the mechanism of what he’s doing”.

The director, who was recently involved in a bitter custody dispute over his son, intends to take a year off “so that I can spend time with him. I’ve instructed my agents not to show me any more scripts”. Rob keeps tabs on what is happening in the movie world, thanks to the Internet, and singles out Dark Horizons “for taking the high road in this competitive world of fan sites. and I think it’s a very interesting approach to the whole entertainment scene”. High praise indeed from one of the true great veterans of Hollywood.