It takes a solid vision to pitch a movie, let alone a successful film franchise. Screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson did just that when he initially pitched his high-octane car racing love story between two illegal car racing teams in back in 1998. In 2001, Universal Pictures released the first installment of the Fast & The Furious franchise. Paul Walker is no longer with us and Furious has sprouted new life in Hobbs & Shaw allowing the franchise to total 16 installments with no sign of hitting the brakes.
This interview with Gary Scott Thompson was originally published on this day in 2018. We think it bears a second posting.
Gary Scott Thompson describes himself as a playwright on a very long hiatus. His stage credits include Small Town Syndrome, Cowboy’s Don’t Cry, and Private Hells. Also known as the creator of The Fast and the Furious film franchise, he wrote the successful movies Hollow Man and Split Second. He is also the Executive Producer of NBC’s reboot of Knight Rider. His upcoming projects include the feature Champion, two pilots currently in development, and his first novel.
As a writer, producer and director Gary Scott Thompson truly embraces the ‘multi-hyphenate’ creative which has contributed to his success.
“As a playwright, I didn’t make any money, so I became a screenwriter to pay my rent,” joked writer Gary Scott Thompson. Known largely for his blockbuster action films, Thompson went from struggling screenwriter to a blockbuster penman; every writer’s dream. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing he reminds us. Writers should cut their teeth before graduating to billion dollar movie franchises.
Thompson advises other playwrights to consider writing for television before movies based on the structural familiarity of scene creation and limited locations. In a play, the characters are essentially stuck in one or two locations. In a film, the characters are free to explore multiple locations.
If you get stuck on a scene, “you’re forced to dialogue your way out of it,” said Thompson, who grew up as a cinephile in a blue-collar family. The screenwriter actually got started as an actor before he started writing plays and then moved into film and television. “It’s all about how you tell the story,” asserted the 9-to-5-minded screenwriter.
Early in his career, Thompson discovered his abilities to write action well. These early scripts got him attention and work. Initial credits include a Rambo-esque movie called White Ghost and a Blade Runner-esque thriller called Split Second. These action scenes clearly wouldn’t work as well on the stage, but his playwriting background allowed his write well-developed characters in action movies..
The key to Thompson’s work is likely his ability to never quit. “I’ve actually gotten senior industry suggestions in the past that suggested I should quit writing,” he said. “I got one rejection as a playwright where the rejection letter was longer than the play. I learned early on that critique is all subjective.”
“It only takes one person to say yes,” said Thompson, based on a quote from the man who greenlit Star Wars, Alan Ladd Jr. One teacher actually told the screenwriter he wasn’t a serious writer until he could “wallpaper his room with rejection letters.” And that is exactly what he did.
Creating the Billion-Dollar Movie Franchise
When asked if there was a formula for creating a successful film franchise, Thompson shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s simple. People really relate to the characters,” said Thompson about Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner and Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty. “They relate on a number of levels because they consider themselves family. I think another thing is the cars and our car culture goes way back.” But if the Furious Franchise had been little more than car chases, the movies wouldn’t have been so successful. The cars are integral to the story, but never a gimmick to eclipse the characters.
“No one had seen these cars,” said the screenwriter about the original film. “These small Japanese cars that could outperform a muscle car hadn’t been seen yet [in 2001.] Another element that makes the Fast and the Furious movies so popular, according to Thompson is “I think the key to the success of this film was that the audience found it and made it their own. It wasn’t a movie, in the beginning, that was shoved down their throats.”
He added the original films had very little advertising, which gave the movie somewhat of a cult classic feel out of the gate. The audience didn’t watch the film because the studio told them to, they wached it because they wanted to.
“When the first movie came out, it was also sort of the heyday of DVD. I think it’s still Universal’s No. 1 DVD. A lot of the fan base saw the movie after the theater release.” The series has drastically changed since this initial assessment of course, seeing as the movie went from racing Japanese cars to exploding submarines on ice, but the heart of the films still focuses on family. This core concept has remained constant.
Thompson’s films are testament that successful movies don’t always have to rely on pre-existing material to get greenlit.
“All these years later, you have an audience of people like me and my kids, who are going to see the same movie. We’re all owning it for different reasons. This billion-dollar franchise does not have a Marvel comic behind it. It didn’t start as a sequel. It started as something original we hadn’t seen before. It’s an inclusive movie.”
Thompson peeled back the layers of the franchise to note that it feels like there is a seat at the table for everyone and the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is particularly true with the new plotlines around The Rock and Jason Statham. The entertainment factor still prevails.
Shaping “The Everyman” Superhero
Unlike Marvel and DC movies, the heroes of the Fast and Furious franchise are not meant to be all-powerful. When the idea from a “Racer X” Vibe article first started to float around the studios, Thompson came on board after a hundred writers gave up on the idea. The screenwriter described it as simply, “Romeo and Juliet with cars.” This was how he pitched the film to Universal Studios. He captured the spirit of it in a nutshell.
With this initial approach, Thompson also fused in some real world perspective, based on a group of teens who lived in his neighborhood and were known for rebuilding their cars on the weekends. He hung out with these guys and spent some time watching illegal races and also recalled his time as a kid rebuilding cars.
In the original version of the screenplay, the characters were all anti-hero teens, but then Columbine happened. This high school massacre meant changing the characters and the screenplay, where the studio essentially shelved the project. In the new draft, he made the characters older and tossed in an undercover cop. Four hours after he sent in the new draft, they decided to make the movie. Things can move either incredibly fast or incredibly slowly in Hollywood.
With the new draft, the characters were still Shakespearean (rival gangs around a love interest) but the film wasn’t meant to end as a tragedy. Instead, he wanted to end the movie with one character giving the other a “ten second car.” In the final draft, Thompson didn’t use the source article, so it was dropped from the credits.
“There was no love story. There was no cop aspect of it,” asserted Thompson about the original article from Kenneth Li. “From what I remember, it was just a group of racers who raced late at night, shutting down the Hudson Parkway.” He then used the Shakespeare analogy of Romeo and Juliet to skip some of the setup during the pitch meeting.
“In some ways, Dom and Mia (Jordana Brewster) are the mom and dad (brother and sister characters). I say that loosely, but they’re blood already. He definitely asks like the father and she stops the fight. So it’s set up like a family and then you have these wayward kids who come into it.”
“I think they keep the family together more so than other movies [in the genre]. We live in a pretty religious country, so praying before you eat is important to people and being thankful. Even though you’re a thief, you still give thanks.”
Every movie franchise starts small. There is no grand plan unless the audience demands it. “You see the latest film and these cars are coming out of planes and it’s unbelievable, but many people forget the start. It was a small $38-million dollar movie. That movie had great stunts and great car racing, but not $150 million dollars worth of stunts. This is also true for Marvel. If you look at Iron Man, which started the franchise, it’s a small movie in comparison of the ones now.”
Many young screenwriters forget about the initial setup of this type of film. Sequels work because they had a heartfelt beginning or some sort of IP. The initial Iron Man or the first Fast and Furious films were semi-low-budget, packed with dialogue, and written like a pilot for a longer story that would come later.
“It started with something small that was character based and character driven. New screenwriters are just jumping into the explosions,” he added. Often producers tell Thompson that his work is great in terms of a character-driven story, but it’s not big enough in terms of spectacular action sequences. This is a much easier problem to fix.
“No one is going to spend $150 million on your script unless it’s the best script that’s ever been written. If they’re going to spend that money, they want to spend it on something with an existing IP, like a Marvel comic that’s already out there, or a remake, or a novel.”
Thompson advises young writers to focus on low budget films to get their early movies made, big ideas focusing on universal themes. “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. There are universal themes out there that can help you as a writer. The first thing an exec will say is ‘what is it?’ or ‘tell me about it.’”
“You better be able to describe your script in a handful of words and tell them what it is about,” mused the screenwriter. “Romeo and Juliet with cars is an extreme shortcut to get it out of your mouth before the executive gets away. As a former actor, the toughest acting job I ever had was being a writer and selling myself and my script.”
Thompson said he heard early on it’s important to have a single sentence version, a paragraph version, and a page version of your story. This way, when they do say, “tell me more,” there’s an ongoing dialogue for the pitch. Then, they may read the screenplay. This idea of efficient pitching has been present in Thompson’s mind since the beginning of his career.
The Never-Ending Franchise
The screenwriter would love to come in and write a finale for this cast of Furious, especially if they decide to reboot or move solely into a spinoff franchise (like Hobbs and Shaw). “This would be tough for me since the first movie was so much Paul’s movie. He was the main character in the script.”
Thompson said in one of the early drafts, there was actually a car crash similar to the true story of how Paul Walker died. In the script, Dom cut out Brian and saved him before the car was engulfed in flames. “It was eerily similar. I couldn’t go see the movies after that.”
Currently, Thompson is a consultant on the franchise and the bulk of the story ideas have been passed over to screenwriter Chris Morgan. Morgan has informed Thompson about his ideas for the spinoff, which he described as “cool” but couldn’t give away too many details until he gets the chance to see a first cut.
“It’s a jumping point for a studio to get an audience as oppose to writing an original thing,” said Thompson about the new movie. “It’s going to original to itself, but these characters came from the franchise. I understand completely why they’re doing it and I have no comment until I see what the movie looks like, but I’m rooting for it.”
Read our interview with writer Chris Morgan on The Fate of the Furious HERE.