‘He saved our ass’: After a major shake-up, this director kept ‘Fast & Furious’ rolling

A man smiles at the camera.
Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter,” “The Incredible Hulk”) stepped into the director’s chair to replace Justin Lin on Universal’s blockbuster “Fast X” and is signed on to helm the series’ 11th and reportedly final film.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

One year ago, Louis Leterrier was in Los Angeles finishing a project when he received the late-night call that would change his fate. Surely it was a mistake, he thought. Had the head of Universal accidentally butt-dialed him?

It was Peter Cramer, the studio’s president, and he was calling with a script and an urgent request for a meeting at 6 a.m. the next day. Leterrier didn’t bother sleeping, reading it over twice. Within days, the French filmmaker was on a last-minute flight to London, buckling up for the craziest ride of his career: taking over as director on Universal’s mega summer sequel “Fast X.”

The blockbuster was a week into production and locked into a release date when the sudden exit of longtime helmer Justin Lin, who had directed five of the previous nine films including 2021’s “F9,” threw Universal’s $6-billion “Fast and Furious” franchise into chaos. The mad dash for a new director happened so fast that the opportunity was overwhelming, said Leterrier.


But he loved the “Fast” films. He’d been up for directing earlier installments. It was his dream to direct a “Fast” movie, his wife reminded him as he sped through a series of high-level interviews before franchise star and producer Vin Diesel officially awarded him the job. “I’ve seen all the movies. I really was a fan,” he told The Times ahead of the film’s May 19 premiere. “And it was the one that got away.”

A car explodes in "Fast X," directed by Louis Leterrier.
When in Rome: A mission goes sideways when the Toretto crew heads to Italy in “Fast X,” directed by Louis Leterrier.
(Giulia Parmigiani / Universal Pictures)

Times entertainment staffers circled these 15 summer movies on their calendars. So should you.

May 12, 2023

Leterrier’s eclectic career made him an ideal candidate. He’d made his debut with the 2002 actioner “The Transporter,” directed the Jet Li film “Unleashed” and worked on the fantasy epic “Clash of the Titans.” He helmed the magician ensemble “Now You See Me” and even took a detour into puppetry with the acclaimed Netflix series “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.”

And he had maintained good relationships with Universal after directing 2008 Marvel outing “The Incredible Hulk,” which landed him on the short list to replace Lin. “He knew a lot of the actors already. He understands action. He’s done visual effects. He’s done drama,” said Cramer. “He really was the perfect guy to step in at a moment’s notice and take over, which is what he did.”

Billed as the beginning of the end for one of Hollywood’s biggest, most lasting franchises, “Fast X” finds Dominic Toretto (Diesel) scrambling to protect his extended family of loved ones and friends when a new madman, Dante (Jason Momoa) materializes from the past seeking vengeance.

The first in a two-part story that takes place in Rome, London, Turin, Portugal and Los Angeles, its ensemble includes core Toretto crew Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Mia (Jordana Brewster), Han (Sung Kang), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel); Dom’s recently un-estranged brother Jakob (John Cena); ex-enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham); former big bad Cipher (Charlize Theron); and newcomers Tess (Brie Larson), Abuela Toretto (Rita Moreno) and Aimes (Alan Ritchson). (Lin, who remains a producer, is credited with the screenplay alongside Dan Mazeau.)

A film crew works around a hot rod on the set of "Fast X."
Behind the scenes of “Fast X,” directed by Louis Leterrier.
(Peter Mountain / Universal Pictures)

He really was the perfect guy to step in at a moment’s notice and take over.

— Universal Pictures President Peter Cramer

The franchise may have begun humbly as the brooding bromantic saga of DVD player-stealing L.A. street racers, but it has swelled to increasingly bombastic heights. Cars have fought planes, helicopters and submarines, skydived and, yes, even launched into space. Characters have suffered amnesia, returned from the dead and unearthed previously unknown siblings over the course of 10 feature films, including the Statham-Dwayne Johnson spin-off “Hobbs & Shaw.”

But for all its onscreen antics and soap-opera twists, the “Fast” films have an undeniable pull with audiences, says Letterier, who has been geeking out over their action sequences for years and remembers the excitement he and Statham felt when they went to see the 2001 original in France while filming “The Transporter.”

“They’re the ne plus ultra of action filmmaking. The ‘Fast and Furious’ set pieces are always amazing because they have three acts within it — there’s a beginning, a middle and [an] end, and you never lose the characters within the action,” he says. “Then Jason got the job and became Shaw, and I was very jealous.”

Stepping into the director’s chair, he worked on rewrites on the plane ride to London and hit the ground running, inheriting the prep and crew Lin had in place, including series cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, production designer Jan Roelfs, editors Dylan Highsmith and Kelly Matsumoto, costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays and composer Brian Tyler. Already friends with Lin through the commercials production collective they share with fellow filmmakers such as the Russo brothers, he spoke briefly with his “Fast” predecessor by phone. “He said, ‘You’re so lucky. Best guys, best crew. Good luck,’” says Leterrier. “And then I was in the midst of it, into a tunnel of work.”

Vin Diesel drives a car with a fire burning behind him in "Fast X."
Vin Diesel, also a franchise producer, stars as Dominic Toretto in “Fast X.”
(Universal Pictures)

Bailey opens up about facing racist trolls, protective fans, grueling stunts and more to take on the role a million little girls dreamed of.

May 12, 2023

Lin’s fingerprints are still all over “Fast X”: A retconned revisitation of Lin’s “Fast Five” vault sequence serves as an opening showcase in “Fast X,” blending new and original footage.

But many of the ideas Leterrier pitched to get the job made their way into the final version of the film, informed by his fanatic knowledge of the characters, themes and motifs that have endeared the franchise to a loyal global audience. “I wanted to go back to cars — that was actually very important to me,” said Leterrier. “Let’s do a real race in the middle of the movie, put Dom behind the wheel and have the bad guy be a driver.”

An important first step was connecting with actors left adrift by Lin’s departure even as production rolled on.

Rodriguez, who’s played Letty for 23 years, described the tumult, which forced her and Theron to film a bruising fight sequence without a director. “You’re ready to shoot the thing, you don’t have a finished third act and your director just quit. Welcome to the heartache,” she said. “There’s tears, because you don’t want things to end up wack because people are rushing things or they’re worried about money so they forget the integrity of the thing. You wonder, ‘Will they find someone who’s passionate enough to take this on and care enough?’” In Leterrier, she says, the cast found a collaborator who “opened the doors of creativity.”

“He saved us,” said Rodriguez. “He saved our ass.

A family barbecue in "Fast X"
“Fast X,” written by Justin Lin and Dan Mazeau, opens on a familiar scene: A family barbecue with, from left, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Han (Sung Kang), Dom (Vin Diesel), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), young Brian Marcos (Leo Abelo Perry), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Abuela Toretto (newcomer Rita Moreno) and Mia (Jordana Brewster).
(Peter Mountain / Universal Pictures)

“F9” star Vin Diesel, director Justin Lin, a returning Sung Kang and more stars on the “Fast & Furious’ family reunion and what’s next for the franchise.

June 18, 2021

It’s not easy to be a “Fast” cast member — the roles require conveying precise emotion and character history in the span of short scenes, says Brewster, who originated the role of Mia in the first film and gets a rare action set piece of her own in “Fast X.” When things felt uncertain, she says, Leterrier earned the cast’s trust by trusting them to know their characters better than anyone.

“I think everyone was looking at us going, ‘Wow, the wheels are coming off’ — no pun intended — and Louis got us back on track,” said Brewster. “I assumed that someone who just took on this job would want to go under a rock, hide and prepare and not be bombarded by everyone’s suggestions. But he spoke to every single one of us and was like, ‘Tell me your ideas. Tell me what you don’t like about the script.’ He was so generous, and that set the tone. And I think that’s very rare for a director, to be that open and not to be precious.”

Making his own directorial debut between “F9” and “Fast X” on the upcoming “Shaky Shivers,” Kang brought the insight from that experience to his relationship with Leterrier.

“I learned that once people felt like I trusted them and valued their creative input and appreciated their presence on set, then they were going to give me the best version of themselves,” Kang said. “I just made an effort to go, ‘Louis, you’re the coach. There’s some drama that’s happened, but that has nothing to do with you and I, and I trust you as our new leader.’”

A hot rod emerging from a wall of flames.
To make “Fast X,” Leterrier and his team first had to determine how the entire saga would conclude: “This is where this franchise is going to end,” he says they decided. “It has to end this way.”
(Universal Pictures)

Leterrier credits his unflappability to being raised by parents in the French cinema. “I grew up with actors, so one thing that doesn’t scare me is actors,” he says with a smile. The family’s Parisian kitchen played host to friends of his costume designer mother Catherine and filmmaker father François, who worked with Louis Malle and enjoyed an eclectic directing career of his own.

Sophia Loren was there with Marcello Mastroianni and Lauren Bacall and Robert Altman. That was a regular day for me — crazy,” he says. “They were doing ‘Prêt-à-Porter.’ Elia Kazan gave me his Stetson hat. He was like, ‘You’ll need this when you become a director.’”

Those childhood experiences also inform his reverence for storytelling — and, as he sees it, the “Fast” films amount to “the greatest long format in history,” where the same actors have played the same characters for more than 20 years. “Where I didn’t need to change anything, because it was perfect, I didn’t change anything. When I was like, ‘I think that can be enhanced or that will work better,’ I’d tweak,” he said.

An early scene he added makes a reference only hardcore fans like him might clock; in it, Dom and Han reminisce over their glory days pulling heists in the Dominican Republic and shout out the 2009 “Fast and Furious” short film, “Los Bandoleros.”

“I could line up a hundred ‘Fast’ fans and maybe 10% would know that film and the references,” said Kang, who appeared alongside Diesel and Rodriguez in the direct-to-video piece, written and directed by Diesel, which connects the events of the first two films with the fourth film, “Fast & Furious.” “This man has really studied the mythology.”

"Fast X" director Louis Leterrier
“We finished each other’s sentences from the get-go,” Leterrier said of “Fast X” star Vin Diesel, who told him he got the directing job after a whirlwind interview process. “I got the first phone call Thursday. I was on set shooting the next Wednesday.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The idea sprang from hours-long conversations Leterrier had with Diesel at the end of each day on set, talking about lore, characters and the filming of big moments in previous films. Emotionally, “Fast X” unfolds in reverse, giving Dom ample opportunity to reflect.

“You start with the barbecue. You finish with the hard stuff. So you start with the good times and you can’t help but reminisce about your past, especially when you’re aging — that’s what I wanted to show,” said Leterrier. “Because we’re coming to the end, so what I’d love is for people to go back to the beginning and understand how this has all evolved.”

The decades of history that characters share with one another — and the history fans have with the films themselves — will become even more significant as the 10th installment builds to its grand finale, an 11th “Fast” film expected in 2025, which Leterrier is already signed on to direct.

Both studio and director expect the writers’ strike will slow progress on the final chapter, to be written by “Birds of Prey” scribe Christina Hodson and “The Lost City’s” Oren Uziel. “The writers’ strike is something that’s on everybody’s mind,” said Cramer. “It depends on how long it goes, but obviously it will interrupt the writing process on the next ‘Fast’ movie. If it lasts for too long, it’ll be hard to imagine that we can get this film up on the timeline we’d like to.”

But the end of the road, at least for the main film series, is already mapped out, says Leterrier — and if you pay close enough attention to “Fast X,” you’ll see seeds of what’s to come.

“We needed to understand where we’re ending in order to create the road to it,” he said. “So on top of everything that we had to do, we had to decide, ‘This is where this franchise is going to end. It has to end this way.’ Yes, yes, yes. Everybody agreed. Shook hands. And then we went back to work.”