Paul Walker is all over the world. As Universal Picture’s “Fast & Furious 7” is expected to screech out of the blocks across the globe, the star stares down from billboards everywhere, a deluxe model of boy-next-door appeal.
The ubiquity of the late actor in the marketing campaign has come as a tasteful delight. As one studio insider put it: “At the end of the day, he’s a star of our film, and he should be celebrated.”
Walker’s global family of admirers wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Indeed, there is an argument for saying they made it this way. But it took a while to get there. The studio’s decision to keep the Brian O’Conner character front and centre was born out of tragedy. Walker’s death in an unrelated car accident during production in November 2013 prompted Universal brass to halt the shoot immediately.
There followed a four-month period of soul-searching as those working on the film agonized over how to use the footage they had and get the lucrative series – which has taken $2.4bn (14.9bn yuan )worldwide from the first six episodes – back on track.
Support and encouragement from fans of the franchise has never wavered, and the studio kept them apprised every step of the way. Universal issued three messages via social media during a seven-month period immediately after Walker’s death, until “Fast & Furious 7” wrapped in July 2014. The correspondence was respectful and illustrated the uncommon dialogue the studio, Vin Diesel and other cast members have enjoyed with the films’ audience. “Fast and Furious” had built up a cinematic superpower over 14 years, a borderless social media tribe of millions.
They wanted the show to go on. Who could, or would, ignore that? Not Universal. The screenplay was rejigged and effects wizards superimposed Walker’s face on the bodies of his brothers Cody and Caleb, who joined actor John Brotherton as body doubles.
Universal paid tribute to the fans in its third note, in July 2014, which announced the end of the shoot. “There was a time when we didn’t know how we could go on, or even if we should. But we listened to you, and you inspired us not only to keep going but to try and make the best FAST & FURIOUS movie yet.”
The film’s finale is poignant and deftly executed. So is the presence of Walker in the marketing materials, which the decision makers realized was what everyone wanted to see. On a massive billboard in Los Angeles, the 40-year-old actor stands among the seven key cast members staring into the distance, flanked by Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel. The legend reads: Vengeance Hits Home.