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To put it simply, the fourth Fast & Furious film sucked. After the second and third films faltered, the fourth installment finally brought Vin Diesel back, which was supposed to fix everything, yet the overall response from fans and critics was that it was flat and unexciting. Perhaps the movie’s biggest sin was that even the car scenes disappointed, with audiences rejecting the CGI-heavy chases. Thirteen years later, the fourth film still sits in the bottom three of just about every ranking of the 10-film franchise.
Nevertheless, the movie made enough money to warrant a sequel. But when a new stunt team was brought on board for Fast Five, they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. As opposed to largely virtual car chases, they wanted to do as much in-camera as they possibly could. This would be especially important in the film’s biggest chase, where Diesel and Paul Walker drag around a bank vault tethered to two Dodge Chargers. While computers would be used for cleanups after the fact, just about everything else in the scene was done practically, with a real vault and real crashes — and fans could feel the difference.
As a result, Fast Five is widely considered the best film in the series, and in particular, the vault chase is usually considered the best car chase in the franchise. In fact, it’s not overstating things to say that the vault chase in Fast Five saved Fast & Furious, allowing it to become the multi-billion dollar powerhouse it is today.
Fast Five was directed by Justin Lin, but it was the second unit — a separate crew that answers to Lin — that was in charge of the film’s biggest action scenes. Leading it was second unit director Spiro Razatos and stunt coordinator Jack Gill, who planned out and filmed the vault chase in Puerto Rico (which doubled for Rio in the film). Here to tell the story of how it all came together is Gill himself, as well as several of the stuntmen under his direction, as they recount the literally bone-breaking story of one of the greatest cinematic car chases of all time.
‘It Was Always Going to Be a CGI Vault’
Andy Gill, Stunt Driver on Fast Five: I’ve always coordinated everything that Spiro Razatos directs, and we were working on a project in India when he got the call for Fast Five. We were entrenched in that project, but we talked and I [told Spiro] he had to go home and do Fast Five. I stayed in India and finished up, then we contacted my brother Jack and asked him if he could be the stunt coordinator for Fast Five.
Jack Gill, Stunt Coordinator on Fast Five: It was always going to be a CGI vault. In Fast & Furious 4, they had done a lot of CGI cars inside of this cave. It didn’t come off great, but they wanted to continue with CGI because they said Fast Five was going to be the end of the franchise. Basically, it was, “Let’s just get through it and move on to something more exciting.” So we thought Fast Five was the end of it, but once we got to Puerto Rico to rehearse, Spiro and myself had the idea of maybe trying to drag a safe for real.
I went to executive producer Neal Moritz and said, “Look, if we can really drag this thing around, that’s what people want to see. They want to see real people doing real stuff. That’s part of the reason you lost your audience in Fast & Furious 4, because once people see that it’s a CGI vehicle, they’ve lost interest.” He goes, “You know what? If you want to drag it around, drag it around. I’ll give you a week.”
We asked the effects department if they could build us a vault that we could drag around in a parking lot, and they said that they already had one for the first unit if we wanted to try it with that. We then got out to a parking lot, got two Chargers and hooked cables up to them.
Andy Gill: I arrived when they were figuring out the vault stuff. We tried vaults with wheels on the bottom, but the vault was way too fast. We also tried it with Delron, which is a layer of plastic we put on the bottom, but even that was too much sliding around. Ultimately, we found that the vault was best with just steel on the bottom.
Jack Gill: We weren’t sure it was going to work for the first couple of days. I was having doubts because we were destroying cars — we just kept pulling the back ends off of them. Still, we kept trying and making little additions. We built up the frames of the cars and put beefier tires on them. Eventually, we got to where we could actually guide this 9,000-pound vault around the parking lot. I sent the video back to the executive producer, and he went crazy for it. He said, “I think this is exactly what we need!”
Having him on board really helped. [Director] Justin Lin always wanted it to be real, but since they’d already done so much CGI in Fast & Furious 4, I think he was expecting that for this film as well. After we got Neal on board, though, that’s when the doors opened up. We got the effects department with us and CGI was with us to do whatever we couldn’t do. It became all of us working together, and Spiro and I just kept making this scene bigger and better every step of the way.
‘We Were Always Really Pulling Something’
Jack Gill: We had six vaults total. There were two 9,000-pound vaults that were dragged around by the Chargers, two drivable vaults for more precise scenes and two that were just three sides of a vault on the front end of a semi-truck. For those, the cars weren’t pulling the vault, they were just guiding and the stunt guy would hit whatever he wanted to hit.
Mike Ryan, Stunt Driver on Fast Five: I was basically driving a 20,000-pound battering ram. The vaults themselves were pretty crude, and they would have just ricocheted off a lot of those cars, so the semi-tractors were used for big impacts. I killed 37 cars in that film, which remained my record until Fast Nine, where I killed 43.
Jack Gill: While the semi-truck was used to destroy things, the drivable vault was used when we had to be more careful. For example, in one shot, we had to drag the vault by a school bus full of children, so it had to be safe. The drivable vault was built from a pickup truck that we cut down and stuck inside a vault. It was Henry Kingi who drove that, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.
Steve Kelso, Stuntman and Stunt Driver on Fast Five: Henry Kingi, oh man, he had the worst job out of anybody.
Henry Kingi, Stunt Driver on Fast Five: When I was driving that vault, I felt like Hannibal Lecter when he’s in that mask. I just had little slits to see out of, and it was very hot. When we were testing it out, they had funneled the exhaust outside, but the heat from the car was still inside, so it kept getting hotter and hotter and hotter. I even bought a thermometer, and at one point, it got up to 135 degrees. I tried to see if I could stand the heat, but it got to a point where it felt like my brain was actually being cooked, so I yelled, “Get me out!”
They covered the motor in the vault to hold down the heat, and they also got me a cool suit, which is a vest attached to a cooler with ice and water. It was still hot though, so Jack had the idea to use fans blowing dry ice.
Jack Gill: I put dry ice in there to keep the inside cool for him, but when I did that, it sucked away all the oxygen, so then he couldn’t breathe. Finally, we had to put a full NASCAR helmet on him with a breathing device on it and run the hose out of the top so that he could get air. Henry might have a little brain damage from that, but he had brain damage before, so I don’t think it’s much different.
‘Whatever You Do, Make Sure You Don’t Flip the Vault’
Jack Gill: In the beginning shots of the sequence — with the Hummer breaking through the wall — that was all done on stage, as were the Chargers strapping up to the vault. Once the two Chargers exit the parking garage, we’re in Puerto Rico. That’s where they took that first big right-hand turn where the vault starts tumbling.
Kingi: That was me and Mike Ryan in those Chargers, and they told us, “Whatever you do, make sure you don’t flip the vault!” The turn was pretty narrow though, so we slid out and that thing swung and hit those pillars and started to flip. We went, “Aw shit!” but we couldn’t stop, so we both figured we’d stay in it. When the shot was over, Spiro called the director and showed him what happened. Lin said, “That’s awesome! Leave that in!”
‘The Chargers Had to Be Dead Even the Whole Time’
Jack Gill: In prep, we figured out that with two cars pulling, the two guys pulling had to be in radio contact the whole time because when one car got ahead, the vault would twist and turn sideways. This would cause the other car to get some slack and then run over the cable. The Chargers had to be dead even the whole time, and when one guy turned, the other guy had to pick up the slack. There was a lot of rehearsing to figure out where we needed to be with the cars so we didn’t break the cables. We broke a lot of cables though.
Oakley Lehman, Stuntman and Stunt Driver on Fast Five: Teamwork was important. You had to be nice to the guy next to you when you were pulling a safe together. Usually, we get a little heavy-footed and we make it about ourselves, but in that scene, we had to work together more. But we also had to be aggressive with the car to make sure the vault moved — you couldn’t baby it. It was a crazy balancing act.
Rich Rutherford, Stunt Driver on Fast Five: You had to pay a lot of attention to what the safe was doing. If the safe was sliding toward the other driver’s side of the road, you’d have to accelerate to get it back in the center. Also, when you stopped, you had to have plenty of room, because the safe would still slide for a bit. If you stopped too soon, the safe could smash into the back of your car.
Markus Mentzer, First Assistant Camera on Fast Five’s Second Unit: We had 13 cameras and five camera teams. There were so many pieces of action, we needed to have options. It was all pretty storyboarded out, but no one knows exactly what’s going to happen when you’re dragging a real vault down a road. It was pretty insane, so you want to capture everything.
‘We Swung That Vault Into That bank at Full Speed — Whatever Happened, Happened’
Jack Gill: When a scene like the vault chase is first conceived at the script level, it’s a very simple chase from “A” to “B.” They know what they want to start with, and they know what they want to finish with. They also have a couple of ideas in the middle that we can work with. Then we try and build it up to make it bigger. With tumbling the vault through a bank, we came up with that about a week or two into pre-production. We said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we built our own bank and tumbled this thing through it?” Everybody went crazy for that.
After that, for these shots, usually Spiro, myself and the effects guys figure out where all the cameras are going to be, where all the bystanders are going be and where all the stunt people are going be. Depending upon the shot, sometimes we get a few takes, but the bank was definitely a one-shot deal.
Lehman: We swung that vault into that bank at full speed — whatever happened, happened.
Jack Gill: We drug the vault in and swung it in sideways. It impacted the bank, but it only crashed through the front side of the wall. Then effects built us a tumbling vault that was on a guide track and the cars outside would just drag along the guide track, so the vault would tumble along the track and then out the other side. Then the stunt drivers picked it up and drug it back out into the street.
‘We Try to Figure Out Everything That Can Go Wrong’
Jack Gill: We all come in knowing there’s an element of risk. With the Fast & Furious movies, we try to figure out everything that can go wrong beforehand. To do that, we get the entire crew involved. Once Spiro and I and the effects people have a shot figured out, we roundtable it with the entire crew and say, “This is what we intend on doing, does anybody have anything that they can see that could go wrong with this?” That’s kind of been our mantra on these films. Still, things can go wrong.
Jalil Jay Lynch, Stuntman and Stunt Driver on Fast Five: Sometimes when you’ve done a gag so many times, you get a little complacent, and maybe you don’t take it as seriously as you should. I did motorcycle work on Fast Five, and I was supposed to hit Paul Walker’s car at a 45-degree angle, then go over the handlebars and land on the car next to him. But, when my front wheel hit the front bumper, the handlebars caught me on my side, which threw me into a flip and I got my arm caught on Paul’s car. I tore my rotator cuff, dislocated my shoulder, tore my bicep muscle. There might be more, but that’s the stuff I try to forget, you know?
I went to the hospital, and the doctors repositioned my shoulder. I needed surgery, but there was nothing they could do until the swelling went down, so I went to work the next day and finished the scene. Nobody knew how hurt I was though, because they never would have let me work like that.
‘It Felt Like It Cut Me in Half’
Andy Gill: There’s a part where Oakley Lehman and I split our cars on opposite sides of the road and we took out this whole bus stop. There had been a real bus stop there, but they took it down and built a breakaway one for us to destroy. They had left some pipe sticking out of the ground, though, and so, when we did the first take, we were going 30 miles an hour, and the vault got caught up on that pipe. My car stopped dead. My seat belt bit into my stomach, and it felt like it cut me in half.
They fixed it after that. They took down the pipe, rebuilt the bus stop, and we did it again. It was a lot of fun taking down the bus stop, but I was all black and blue for a while after that.
‘It Was a Narrow Bridge to Do That Kind of Turn On’
Andy Gill: At the end of the scene — where Vin Diesel cuts Paul Walker loose and is alone on the bridge — I had to sling that safe around on my own. It was possible to do, but it took a lot longer to get the car up to speed. I also had to get the vault swinging before pulling the 180-degree turn, otherwise it would just smash into me. It was a narrow bridge to do that kind of turn on, so it took a lot of rehearsal to get right.
Kingi: For some shots on the bridge, I was in the drivable vault being dragged by the Charger when he’s doing that wheelie. I was giving him just enough tension to keep him up. Plus, he can’t steer well like that, so if I saw him going off to one side, I would go the other way to keep him straight. There was some very strategic driving going on there.
Jack Gill: At one point, we sliced off the top of a cop car. That was all real. We rehearsed that by pitching the vault sideways and putting styrofoam cones up so we could see where the slice was taking place. We then found a car that was the right height, then we cut all the pillars down and told the stunt guy to lay over at the last second. It was very dangerous, but it all worked perfectly.
Jack Gill: When Vin Diesel jumps out of the car, he did that on a stage. On the bridge, we had our stunt double jump out of the car, then we pulled the car out of frame. Then we put the car on a huge crane and swung it in and released it into the SUV. Like everything else, it was all done for real.
‘It’s Just a Legendary Scene’
Kelso: Fast Five is what brought Fast & Furious back. It was kind of on its way out, then Fast Five came along and made it into what it is.
Andy Gill: I’ve worked on every Fast & Furious movie since Fast Five, and now we’re working on number 10 — I still think the vault chase is one of the best chases we’ve ever done.
Mentzer: It’s just a legendary scene. Such a cool thing to be a part of.
Jack Gill: Not only did this scene change the franchise, but it changed movies globally as well. After Fast Five did so well, I got calls from other stunt coordinators saying, “Hey, they’ve seen Fast Five and now on Spider-Man we’re going to do more real things and go with less CGI.”
Of course, it was a complicated scene for Spiro and I to put together. All told, it took us about three weeks to film the whole sequence, and we destroyed well over 200 cars in the process. All of it was worth it, though, because you can feel the action. It just goes to show that the audience can really tell the difference.