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    Furious and furiouser

    Dwayne Johnson in a scene from “Furious 7.”
    Scott Garfield/Universal Pictures
    Dwayne Johnson in a scene from “Furious 7.”

    There’s a new “Fast and Furious” movie opening this week, slickly titled “Furious 7.” It’s the seventh entry in the wildly successful, gasoline-powered, nitrous oxide-charged, adrenaline-driven series that began in 2001 with “The Fast and the Furious.”

    Amidst that first film’s look at illegal car racing in the streets of Los Angeles, there was an undercover cop, some charismatic criminals, a bit of romance, fast editing, pounding music, and great stunt work. It was like “Point Break” in cars instead of on surf boards.

    It earned more than $200 million at the box office. It made stars of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. And with the exception of “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which only took in $158 million, each of the sequels vastly out-grossed its predecessors in ticket sales, with 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6” pulling in $790 million.

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    It’s a big, sprawling, interconnected string of stories that started out with souped-up cars in the spotlight, later moved to heist jobs, and eventually became character studies of heroes and anti-heroes forming into a tight-knit family. A nice touch: The undercover cop (Walker), believing he was a good guy pretending to be a bad guy, finally realized he was a bad guy pretending to be a good guy, a cop who was more at home with the criminals.

    New characters kept showing up in different international locales, but familiar characters also kept returning. Stunts got wilder — if you thought a car jumping from land to a moving boat in Florida was crazy, wait till you saw a 10-ton safe being dragged at high speed through the streets of Rio, mowing down every cop car in town – plots reached outrageous Bondian proportions, and the sense of family got stronger. That the films also had a nonlinear timeline made it even more fun. The second film follows the first, but 4, 5, and 6 are prequels to number 3, and the new one is a sequel to the third.

    Unfortunately, the eagerly awaited “Furious 7” also carries a cloud of tragedy. Paul Walker, who costarred as Brian O’Conner in five of the previous outings, was killed in a car accident during a break from filming in November 2013. He was just 40 years old.

    “Furious 7” is the first installment to be directed by James Wan, who made his name in the horror genre, directing “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “The Conjuring.” Wan, 38, who is an Australian citizen but lives in the States, spoke about the film and about Walker by phone from Los Angeles.

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    Q. The last four films in the series were directed by Justin Lin. How did you get the job when he stepped down?

    A. A lot of people were seen. It was a very coveted gig. I went in there and just did it the old-fashioned way. I pitched them my vision of how I saw the film, and ironically enough I did not focus on any of the action. I talked about the characters and about where they could go and grow. I think that was actually what sold them on me.

    Q. Chris Morgan wrote the four previous films. How much had he worked out on this one by the time you got the job?

    A. I came on pretty early on. Chris was still trying to hash out the overall story line. It was originally supposed to come out in summer of last year. So I needed to just dive right into it. There was no script yet at that point but we all had an idea of what needed to happen because so much pre-production work needs to get going first, like designing the action sequences. So that was happening concurrently as the script was being written.

    Q. The stunts have gotten crazier with each installment. What were your thoughts when you learned that a bunch of cars were going to be dropped from an airplane at 10,000 feet?

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    A. [laughs] I was like, ah ha! OK. I can see that being the natural progression after number 6. There’s nowhere else to go but throw cars out of planes and let them fly through the air before they hit the target. I looked at it as a challenge.

    Q. These films have featured some great fight sequences. Are you carrying on that tradition?

    A. Yeah, I love doing fight scenes, especially if I can get my actors to get in there and really just do their thing. That’s so much more exciting because you can actually see it’s the actors doing all the fighting. I love that part.

    Q. I’m sure it’s difficult to think back on, but could you tell me how you found out about Paul Walker?

    A. [pause] I was driving home on that Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. My phone rang and I saw it was a call from my stunt coordinator. I assumed he wanted to talk about work, but just then the phone died. I figured I’d get back home, plug the phone in, and talk to him. I got home, plugged it in, and moments later the phone just exploded with all these calls and text messages. So I played one of the messages and my heart just sank. I first thought they were just horrible rumors, but I soon knew it was the real thing.

    Q. How much of the film had been shot?

    A. We were slightly past the halfway point. But after the incident we had to go back to the drawing boards. Initially we were just emotionally trying to push through the shock and sadness we were all feeling. But the answer became very apparent. We have to finish this movie. We cannot not finish this movie. This is the final movie that Paul is in, and we need to do what we can to honor his legacy here.

    Q. So you finished it by using Paul’s younger brother Cody and older brother Caleb in some of the shots along with the footage you had of Paul.

    A. Yes, we used his brothers, who do have some resemblance to Paul, and were so gracious to do this for us. But we also had another actor, John Brotherton, who is physically about the same size as Paul. Cody and Caleb are not trained actors, so we knew we needed someone who understood how to play to the camera, to stand in and go through the process. So even if I didn’t use John in the actual shot, he could school Cody and Caleb about how to perform. On top of that we had the same acting coach who had coached Paul in the past. His job was to work with John, Cody, and Caleb. So it took four people to make up one Paul Walker.

    Q. There was talk back then that Justin Bieber was going to come in and take over Paul’s part. What was that all about?

    A. [laughs] That was a stupid rumor right after all of this happened, and I really couldn’t respond to it. It blew up on social media, and I just bit my lip. I didn’t want to say anything then. Now that the movie’s done, I can actually talk about it.

    Q. OK, you’re directing “Furious 8.” Is Justin Bieber going to be in “Furious 8?”

    A. I’ll say this. If he is, it’s not with my knowledge. How’s that?

    Interview has been edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.