Vin Diesel is about to have a good summer. His most famous character — soulful auto-outlaw Dominic Toretto — is returning to screens in Fast & Furious 6, which marks the long-running franchise’s return to the summer blockbuster season. It’s opening on Memorial Day, and Universal is bullish on its box office prospects. (Fast & Furious 7 is already slated for a 2014 release.)
Universal is distributing another Diesel movie this summer, featuring the actor’s other iconic character: Riddick arrives in theaters in September, 13 years after Pitch Black unexpectedly started the sci-fi franchise and nine years after the so-so box office for The Chronicles of Riddick appeared to end it. “Nine years ago, the studio said: ‘You will never make this movie again. There will never be another Riddick,’” says Diesel now. In between then and now, though, Diesel became a social-media phenomenon and an action-hero comeback kid… and he still has his sights set on his long-in-the-works passion project about a certain Carthaginian General. For our Fast & Furious 6 cover story, we talked to Diesel about Fast, Riddick, Facebook, and Hannibal the Conqueror.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Fast films are very different from the other major blockbuster franchises this summer. It’s not a superhero movie or a fantasy saga. What, to you, is the secret to the longevity of the franchise?
VIN DIESEL: The first thing to note is that that was once a curse: The fact that we didn’t have novels, we didn’t have stories that people would accept as a saga. There wasn’t the Harry Potter books. There wasn’t the Tolkien books. There weren’t the various comic issues that the whole public could identify with. We had none of that. If you notice the first three movies, they were fragmented, they were unconnected — which was part of the reason why I wasn’t keen on continuing the franchise in the early stages. After the first movie, they were still treating it the way Hollywood treated franchises in the ’80s and ’90s. Take the brand, throw any story together, and sell the brand.
When I came back, they wanted me to be a producer. It was evident to me that the audience was kind of getting used to episodic storytelling. The only people in Hollywood that could do it were people that had the backing of previously-written novels. If you didn’t have that, you’d be crazy to think that you could tell an episodic story. But that was the game, and that was the goal. In this new age of filmmaking, if the audience sees a movie, they want to carry that equity with them to the next movie. We’re in a gaming society now. It’s about rewards. That approach is what made the difference, and took us from where we were with Tokyo Drift to tripling those numbers for Fast & Furious 4.
To be accurate about Fast, you gotta look at it as two trilogies so far. 6 is the conclusion of the second trilogy. And 6 was fleshed out while we were doing Fast 4. My first approach to the studio — to give you perspective of how deep I was thinking about this trilogy — I went to the studio and said: “Let’s do 4, 5, and 6 together.” After we did 4, I said: “Let’s do 5 and 6 together.” After we did 5, I said: “Let’s do 6 and 7 together.” Now they’re getting the momentum, and they’re starting to feel comfortable in finally recognizing this as a saga, as opposed to a franchise that’s a brand that’s just rehashing, that puts the brand on the poster.
Michelle Rodriguez is back in this movie as Letty. Dom dealt with her apparent death in the last two movies. How does her return affect him?
It throws a wrench on Dom’s perception of reality in many ways. He spent a couple years dealing with this loss. He felt like he was somewhat accountable, because he tried to leave the crew and Letty in order to protect them. The opposite happened. He didn’t protect her. There’s a guilt that he feels he had to get over. He’s used the idea of revenge to try to soothe that guilt, which doesn’t work at the end of 4 as we saw. Him getting this information that she’s alive obviously rocks him to his core.
And where do you see the franchise going from here? Another trilogy?
The audience now appreciates stories that connect and a direction that you’ll take over multiple pictures, as opposed to just one picture. Maybe because I’m a Dungeons & Dragons head, my approach to everything is a little more thought-out. It’s about going into the next trilogy with all your ducks in order, and an idea of where 7, 8, and 9 are to go.
Is it gratifying to have the new Fast film coming out the same year as Riddick?
It’s the first time I’ve ever had two movies come out in the summer in my life. It’s a big deal that both movies are coming out! Universal has placed it in a way where they’re feeling so confident about the movies, they’re defining the beginning and ending of the summer with these two movies. They’re gonna start the summer with Fast 6 and they’re very deliberately going to end the summer with the guy that ends everything, with Riddick.
You’ve developed a big following on Facebook. What do you attribute that to?
Did you ever see the movie Social Network? Do you remember what they said the reason was to make Facebook?
To meet girls?
YOU GOT IT! And when they made the movie, nobody had a million fans. They were promoting it, like, “We came up with a new way for people to check marital status.” That’s not what Facebook was. That’s not why Facebook would be successful. No one gives a s— about people’s marital status. That’s as dated as MySpace! What Facebook didn’t realize is something very big was about to happen, and that was — for the first time in history, and it’s kind of a fluke they didn’t see this coming — when I jumped on that page in April 2009, I started talking to people. In the realest ways. Imagine if you could’ve been a Facebook friend to Marlon Brando, or whoever your role models are. Imagine, if you were able to Facebook Elvis, and talk to him, and hear from him without the Hollywood of it all. That was the Fast & Furious experience.
So, when I had started my page, the only person that had a million fans was Barack Obama. Because it was first-quarter 2009, and he’d just got elected as President, because of social media. So, when I started talking to the fans, I became the No. 1 page in the world. Over Coca-Cola, over huge companies. And it was only because I said: “Hi, guys, I love you.”
Facebook used to ask me to come up to their office to explain what the f— I was doing, and why I had so many fans. What was unique was: I never let anyone do a post, I never let anyone post for me in the last four years. My audience knows me so well on the page that if my producing partner’s in the room when I post, they’ll know somebody was around me. That’s kind of cool, that’s how sophisticated they are. Facebook really owes me billions of dollars. But whatever. [Laughs]
What’s it like being on the other side of 40 million fans?
You have an extra layer of protection in a weird way. I call on my angels because of that. If I’m doing a photo shoot with a leopard, and the leopard gets loose, and nobody got eaten, you kind of go: There must be something to that energy everyone has.
If there was social media in the ’50s, there probably would’ve been a sequel to On the Waterfront. There would’ve been a sequel to Rebel Without a Cause. We would’ve finally gotten the Gone With the Wind answer. So many of these films would’ve continued if the audience was able to speak directly to the braintrust, to the core, to say: “We have to have another one.” I think Hollywood, and the choices Hollywood has made, would’ve been radically different if Clark Gable had 40 million people on his Facebook page.
As far as that social media’s concerned, I feel like I’ve satisfied two of the three most prominent promises that I started the page with. The first was that you would see Riddick, even though it took nine years. The other was that you would see the continuation of the Dom/Letty story. That was also an impossibility. And then the third I didn’t do yet.
Are you referring to the Hannibal the Conqueror project?
That’s the hardest one. I was just looking at a script, 10 years old, by David Franzoni, that was my first Hannibal draft. To think that 10 years later, we’re still marching towards the Alps is surreal. Now, after Universal’s seen me produce this Fast trilogy, they are much more cautious about letting [the Hannibal] trilogy go to another studio. Now they feel like: “This is the trilogy guy, this is the guy who thinks in trilogies, he can do that.” There is another studio that’s saying they want to do all three films, do the trilogy.
It sounds like a pretty large-scale undertaking.
You just keep building. I’ve had Frank Miller in storyboard meetings, where he couldn’t resist taking a pen and drawing out panels for Hannibal. I’ve had Tarantino in my house acting out scenes he’d love to see in the movie. Acting them out! Probably the last great director meeting I had was with Tony Scott. He [told me that] Denzel Washington’s always wanted him to do Hannibal. And he said: “But after looking at the story, after talking to you, we should get Denzel to play your father, Hamilcar Barca.” And that came from Tony Scott, who was just the nicest and most terrific man, one of the nicest directors I’ve ever met in my life.
When your dream’s about to come true, when you’re about to get that shot, it’s like: “Holy s—! Is this really gonna happen? Am I sure I’m ready to immortalize or to channel this spirit that’s been dormant for 2,000 years, and never represented right?”
Time to start practicing riding war elephants!
I started practicing riding African elephants 10 years ago.
For more from Vin Diesel and the cast of Fast & Furious 6, check out this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly!
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich