These 20 Secrets About The Fast and the Furious Will Take You That First Quarter Mile

For the original 2001 film's 20th anniversary and just in time for the premiere of F9, we looked under the hood of The Fast and the Furious to find out what made it go vroom.

By Natalie Finn Jun 25, 2021 11:00 AMTags
Watch: "Fast & Furious" Turns 20: Live From E! Rewind

Twenty years ago, a simple movie about an undercover cop trying to take down a band of illegal-street-car-racing thieves eased into theaters.

It zoomed away with more than $207 million.

The Fast and the Furious, made for the relatively low sticker price of $38 million, was the sleeper hit of the summer in 2001, an action romp that automatically appealed to gearheads but ended up offering something for everyone and spawning a $6 billion-and-counting franchise, with F9: The Fast Saga finally opening June 25.

Anchored by the core quartet of Paul Walker as LAPD detective Brian O'Conner; Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, the outlaw leader who lives life a quarter mile at a time; Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Dom's ride or die; and Jordana Brewster as Mia, Dom's sister and Brian's crush, TFATF is both a heist flick and a love story—largely between dudes and their cars, but also about the fierce bond among loyal friends. And, sometimes, there is actual romance.   

The Fast & Furious Cast Through the Years

The series has become increasingly more stunt-driven, the stars now Marvel-esque in their feats of automotive derring-do while flow charts are helpful for keeping the growing cast of characters, locations and plot points straight. (Not to mention the timeline of the action, which is all over the map.) But it started with the simple premise of the original: Ambitious cop meets career outlaw with a conscience, conflict ensues and trust hangs in the balance, but at the end of the day it's all about family.

And there's always time for an argument over whose engine is bigger. 

Slick yet old-fashioned, exhilarating and delectably corny in all the right places, The Fast and the Furious may have been unassuming as far as foundations for a franchise go, but it set the table for everything to come. 

So in honor of the blockbuster's 20th anniversary and just in time for the release of the latest model, we checked under the hood of the classic ride and found out what made it go vroom:

1. The film was inspired by the 1998 Vibe article "Racer X," by Kenneth Li, about illegal street racing in New York. Universal executive Kevin Misher happened to read it and showed it to Rob Cohen, the director recalled to Reach Further in 2018.

"As a guy with a degree in anthropology, any time I see a tribal, secret world, my ears perk up because that's where some very interesting stuff can be illuminated for movies," Cohen said. "I found this young guy—[former racer and all-around auto expert] R.J. de Vera—who, for various reasons, was open to taking me out. That night, with the police coming and everybody gathering, became Paul Walker's first night in the street-racing scene in The Fast and the Furious." 

2. De Vera served as a technical advisor on the film and played driver Danny in the big drag race sequence, Brian O'Conner's introduction to that fast, furious world.

3. Cohen had previously directed Walker in the Ivy League secret society thriller The Skulls, during which producer Neal Moritz had asked the actor what he wanted to do next. "To be honest with you, I always liked the idea of playing a cop," Walker recalled telling him in a 2001 interview with E! News. "Within three months he came to me with this idea," saying, "'Look, this is it. We want to do something about modern-day drag-racing, and we think it would be great if you would play an undercover cop. You get to race cars and you get to make out with Jordana Brewster.'"

He was ready to sign on before they even had a script, Walker said, though his team cautioned him that perhaps that wasn't the best idea. "My mind was telling me 'don't' but my heart was telling me 'go for it,' and I'm glad I did," he said with a smile.

Asked if it was as much fun to make as he expected it to be, he replied, "Probably more so."

4. Vin Diesel's Pitch Black was about to be released by what is now Universal's Focus Features, and the film caught Moritz's eye, leading to the beefy New Yorker being offered the part of Dominic Toretto.

On Entertainment Weekly's Binge series in April, Diesel recalled being instantly sold on the character—"tough guy, outlaw, with a heart and a code"—and the film when they described the now-iconic tracking shot that starts with Dom's arm as he shifts into gear before zipping into the core of his engine and out through the back of the car as he he takes off in the first race. That thrilled him, but the script, when he first read it... not so much.

It was "not what I thought it would be," he admitted. So, they asked him to meet with newly hired screenwriter David Ayer and they did a "page-by-page critique-slash-rewrite" of the existing material.

Calling the Suicide Squad director's first draft "very poetic and, as typical, gritty and dark," Cohen told Reach Further, "Another draft or two, and then it started to find its form, which is a combination of David Ayer's street poetry and my action bent and love of cars, mechanics, and garages—things that I grew up doing." (The screenplay was ultimately credited to story creator Gary F. ThompsonErik Bergquist and Ayer.)

5. Born and raised in Southern California, where car culture reigns supreme and his grandfather owned a garage and was "king of the track" in his day, Walker was the self-described gearhead of the bunch. The actor, already the owner of a 1967 Chevy II Nova Super Sport and a 1966 Buick Skylark Gran Sport, had always been into American-made cars ("domestics," he called them), but after getting a taste of the Nissan Skyline R33 in the movie, he bought his own, imported from Japan.

"I was never really into this whole import car scene," he explained to E! News in 2001, "until actually I got more involved with the film. I was pretty hip to what it was about, you know I understand turbos...intake, exhaust, cutting out the air box, putting in an air filter—I know all the lingo, I know what it's about." Still, he added, "It wasn't really my cup of tea, but I'm getting into it. After driving a few of them, I was like [nodding his head], 'Alright.'"

But his own shiny new Nissan was not fluorescent-anything. "Mine's more low-profile," he said with a smile. "I race it out in Palmdale a lot." 

However, when he got to racing school in Las Vegas, where he and his co-stars trained, he said in the film's production notes, "I learned just how little I actually knew about driving."

6. As for Dominic Toretto's unbridled passion for cars, that was pure performance on Diesel's part. "I'm a New Yorker, and I don't think you can live in New York and be a car guy," the actor told Entertainment Weekly in 2001.

However, in the production notes, he said, "Cars and the idea of speed have always fascinated me. I had a GSX-R that we'd drive at incredible speeds on the Belt Parkway and every direction out of Manhattan when I was in college. I was younger and more foolish then—and in love with the liberty that speed can give you. But now I'm an SUV kind of guy. "

7. Jordana Brewster wasn't exactly an automotive enthusiast when she was cast as Mia Toretto, Dom's sister and the reason Brian shows up at the bodega every day to order a crappy tuna sandwich. 

In fact, the 20-year-old didn't even have a license. Her learner's permit had been burning a hole in her wallet for three years "'cause I was just petrified of driving," the actress, who like Diesel grew up in New York, admitted in a 2001 interview.

But she took lessons in NYC and passed her test the day before she was due to leave for L.A. Still, she volunteered to let someone else take the wheel for all of Mia's hard-core driving, but the stunt coordinator took her to a big, empty, hosed-down parking lot so she could practice. "By the end of the day, I was peeling out, doing donuts and 360s," she recalled, "and it was all good."

So she had quite the journey.

"That really does blow me away, actually, now that I think about it," Walker marveled to E! News about his onscreen love barely knowing how to drive in the beginning. "But no, she did a great job...She downplays it to this day, but I like to think she really had a good time."

Perhaps, but Brewster told Entertainment Weekly in 2001, "I don't like risking my life that much. My fastest street speed is 65 miles per hour."

Michelle Rodriguez, however, was bummed that she only got to do so much driving herself before the stunt doubles took over. "I was kind of disappointed," she told EW. "I only had one day of racing school. It was sickening in this beautiful way. It pissed me off I wasn't allowed to go more than 80 miles per hour. I can do that on the freeway, you know?"

8. Rodriguez also wasn't thrilled with the initial version of Letty Ortiz, which had her as more of a one-note sexy Latina girlfriend and involved a love triangle between her, Dom and Brian.

"It was a reality check for them to realize that the streets don't work like that," Rodriguez told EW for a 2021 oral history of the film. "You don't just get with a guy because he's hot. There's a hierarchy there. Can that hot guy get beat up by who you're dating? If he can, then you don't date him, because why would you want to lose the hierarchy? In order to keep it real, I had to school them: 'I know you guys like Hollywood and all that, but if you want it to be realistic, this is how it really works, and I'm not going to be a slut in front of millions of people, so you're going to lose me if you don't change this.' And they figured it out."

As Brewster recalled it appreciatively, "When Michelle read her role, she was like, 'No, I'm not playing that.' And then she changed it completely. It went from a trophy girlfriend to this really layered character."

Walker told E! News of his co-star, who was appearing in only her second movie ever after her breakout in Girlfight, "Michelle Rodriguez probably plays one of the toughest characters you've ever seen in a movie. From knocking out a guy to some of those driving sequences, she's just a tough, really cool character."

Reflecting on the input she'd had in the franchise over the years, Rodriguez told Entertainment Weekly in 2017, "At the end of the day, the only leverage I have as an individual is my participation. That's the only leverage I ever use with anything. It's like, look, this doesn't agree with my ethics, morals. My heart doesn't feel right doing this in front of millions of people, so I can always oblige myself and depart because money, to me, isn't as important as my lines that you're not allowed to cross."

9. Walker and Diesel went to an illegal race to better immerse themselves in the world of Dom and his fellow speed demons—and found themselves having to hightail it out of there when police helicopters showed up to disperse the crowd. "It was awesome," Walker said with a smile in a 2013 Q&A sit-down for Moviefone ahead of the release of The Fast and Furious 6.

On EW's Binge Diesel recalled, "Paul grew up in L.A. and was accustomed to that, and I wasn't, so I remember when the helicopters came, I was like, 'Well which way do you run?!'" Luckily, a friendly law-flouting racer offered them a ride away from the action.

Meanwhile, the crowd at the race where Brian is treated to what he's in for going up against Dom—"You almost had me?"—is full of actual illegal street racers. "They were feeding with such authentic energy that it made it so much easier for Paul and I to delve into the scene and really rip it apart," Diesel said. "We were lucky."

10. That's director Rob Cohen as the Pizza Hut delivery guy who's ticked off to see his route blocked by all the hooligans. "Damn street racers," he grumbles.

11. During some of the most heart-racing scenes, the cars might not have even been moving. "I told them, 'Sometimes you're going to be in front of green screen and going no miles an hour,'" Cohen told EW in 2001. "And then you still might feel stupid going 50 miles per hour, but when the film comes out, it'll look like light speed."'

Stunt coordinator and second-unit director Mic Rodgers crafted what came to be known on set as the "Mic Rig," a truck with the cab chopped off so that they could mount the body of a car (with the chassis removed) in the bed in order to give the illusion that the car was speeding along with one of the actors behind the wheel. A professional stunt driver would then steer the truck while the actors hung on for the ride.

12. "I didn't know just how much they were actually going to let me do [behind the wheel]," Walker told E! News. Ultimately, "they let me do a lot of it. Towards the end of the film and the climax, that was actually me...doing about 80 miles an hour before I jumped to the truck. That was Matt Schulze [who played Vince] and I, dangling on the semi-truck going down the highway at like 80, 90 miles an hour. The only other way to do it would have been green screen, but Rob wanted it to look real."

"I like to mix it up," the Varsity Blues and Pleasantville actor said of doing his own stunts, noting that some actors get a "prima donna" reputation for a reason and that's not how he rolls. Being willing to get dirty and beat up a little bit "makes you one of the boys," he reflected.

13. But Diesel and Walker were nowhere near a moving train when they shot their climactic final race against each other. Rather, the footage was spliced together to make it look as if the train narrowly missed their cars.

Still, each film in the series ever after had to include an explicit message in the credits warning people not to try these car stunts at home or...anywhere at all.

14. The storied bromance between Walker and Diesel that became part of the Fast Family lore was not a given. At first, neither was sure about the other and some of their characters' confrontations—such as when Brian is outed as a cop and Dom stares him down while a member of his crew holds a shotgun to Brian's head—got pretty intense. Like, for real. 

"That was pretty heated...We got into it and we both, for some reason, insecurities were kicking in, we weren't too comfortable with the way it was playing out," Walker told E! News. "Rob stepped up like a good director should and he was like, 'Look, I don't know what you guys are chirping about, this is perfect, just play it out as you have been and I guarantee you the shots are gonna be good.'"

"Rob was right, I think it played pretty well," he concluded. "It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie, actually."

Diesel said they got along from the beginning but also acknowledged an East Coast-West Coast standoff vibe between them at first, recalling to Binge how at the time the world was still processing the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, thought to be casualties of hip-hop's geographical rivalry.

"If you can remember where you are, 1999, this is not common for a New Yorker and a West Coast [guy] to kind of find common ground," he explained, "which in some ways lends itself to each character's journey in the relationship and the objective of finding that brotherhood."

15. "Sitting around on set you got to mix it up, you got to keep it fun," Walker explained when asked about Brewster's claim that he and Diesel were quite the pranksters on set. So if there happened to be a camera lying around, "my favorite thing is, you know, you've got to take a photo of something semi-obscene, maybe someone's bare butt or something like that...So when they go to develop their film, there's a bare ass."

And that, friends, is why in this day and age you don't leave your phone unattended.

16. Ja Rule had a cameo as Edwin, a fellow racer who greets Brian at the scene when he first challenges Dom, and the "Furious" rapper has several songs on the soundtrack—but he turned down a chance to play a much bigger role in the franchise.

When Diesel passed on the sequel, the rapper followed suit, telling MTV News in 2002, "He hollered at me 'cause they still wanted me to do the film and they bumped up my role as a starring role and everything. And you know, we talked about it. I just felt it wasn't the best move for me as far as what I want to do in Hollywood right now. I'm really trying to do this acting thing very seriously. And you know, sometimes every move is not the right move."

It was the right move for Ludacris, whose character Tej was created to fill that Ja Rule-shaped hole, according to 2 Fast 2 Furious director John Singleton. The late filmmaker told Grantland in 2015 of Ja, "He turned down a half a million dollars. He got 15 grand to be in the first movie. He was really big at that time. I guess Murder Inc. was throwing out hits and were making money hand over foot. He was acting like he was too big to be in the sequel. He wouldn't return calls. I went to the studio to go see him—that's just my mantra, I deal with a lot of music people. He was kinda playing me to the side and I was like, 'What? What is this s--t?' This was all initiated by me. I then made a call. I called Ludacris. I said, 'Hey, Luda, I haven't met you before, but I like what you're doing right now.'"

Singleton said he and Ja (who didn't return Grantland's calls, either) laughed about it a year later when they ran into each other at the Source Awards. "I took him under my arm and said, 'Man, when I call you, you listen. I ain't calling you for no bulls--t,'" the director recalled. "He said, ‘Yeah, man, I'm sorry about that.' He apologized. I love Ja. I still think Ja has a lot of personality and can come back in a different way."

17. The humble family abode in Boyle Heights with the street number 1327 whose siren song Dom ultimately can't resist, no matter how many millions he and his crew make off with, can be found at 724 East Kensington Road in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood, not far from Dodger Stadium. And the store that stands in for the Toretto family bodega is right down the street.

18. The movie, for the entirety of production, was called Redline.

"I wanted to keep Red Line," Diesel recalled to Binge, "and it was Neal Moritz who called me and said, 'I got the title.' Right before we were supposed to open the movie!" The film, originally supposed to come out in March, had also been bumped to the summer—another thing Diesel was disappointed by at the time but later realized was a total blessing.

"We had gone through many titles: Redline, Racer X, Race Wars, Street Wars. They were all cheesy," Moritz told EW for the oral history. "And I went to watch a documentary on Roger Corman, who I've known since I was a kid, and there was a little section on a movie he'd made called The Fast and the Furious. I thought, 'That's the title of this movie!'"

Universal Pictures then licensed the title from B-movie master Corman, who wrote and produced the 1954 crime caper of the same name—which involves a wrongfully accused fugitive gunning for the Mexican border in his getaway Jaguar.

19. Not that anyone was too concerned as to how Dom and Letty ended up in the Dominican Republic, where the action in 2009's Fast & Furious (installment No. 4) begins, but to build a bridge from the end of The Fast and the Furious, Diesel wrote (with T.J. Mancini) and directed "Los Bandoleros." The short film takes the couple to the Caribbean and also introduces Sung Kang's Han into the mix.

Or reintroduces, since Kang is a star of 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third film made though you later find out its action unfolds after the events of Fast & Furious 6.

Yes, you can get a little whiplash riding around with this crew.

20. The makers of The Fast and the Furious knew they at least had a fun summer popcorn movie on their hands, but they had to steer around a few skeptics.

"That year, this is the comment I got all the time: 'You do know Jerry Bruckheimer is making Gone in 60 Seconds don't you? And Stallone is making Driven?'" Cohen recalled to Reach Further. "'What chance does your little car movie have against this?' I go, 'I don't know—I'm doing something different.' That's all I said, all that year. When it came out, it blew both movies away."

And yes, Diesel was famously anti-sequel.

"I was a fan of classics, so Rebel Without a Cause, On the Waterfront, older movies that were classics," he told EW's Binge. "I had seen movies get sequelized and quite often studios would just brand the movies...They weren't trying to Francis Ford Coppola the movie, they weren't trying to go the extra level to make sure that you were building off the existing story and the existing characters and having those characters evolve.

"You just simply call it whatever the brand thing is and not evolve the story in an episodic fashion. That's why I said, 'Guys, if you do another one, you'll jeopardize this first one being a classic.'"

Universal Pictures

But in hindsight, it's apparent that everything happened for a reason.

Even his altruistic artist dad was questioning his son's choice back then, Diesel said with a laugh, remembering the reaction to him turning down 2 Fast 2 Furious. "But by doing that you send a message with your actions that you have to continue with integrity," he explained. "So if I didn't opt out of being in the second one I never would've been able to be in the position to become the producer and have such an incredible role in the thinking. When I did the fourth one [after a surprise cameo in Tokyo Drift], roles had reversed."

He saw so far into the future of the saga's mythology, Diesel said, he didn't hold back on his suggestions, advising the studio that they could save money if they just filmed the fourth and fifth movies at the same time. "And they almost kicked me off the Universal lot," he said, chuckling, instead reminding him, "'You're lucky we're making a Fast 4!'"

F9 is in theaters and IMAX Friday, June 25.

(E! and Universal Pictures are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)