It is the worst-case scenario for any production. Throughout Hollywood history, the death of a star during filming can force one of the most complicated, gut-wrenching and costly business decisions for any filmmaker or studio executive to make.
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Universal Pictures faces that dilemma now with the tragic death of its Fast and Furious 7 star Paul Walker, indelibly linked to its most lucrative franchise. To complete the production, Universal will probably seek the same solution pursued on Gladiator when actor Oliver Reed died of a heart attack during filming in Malta, studio sources say. The insurance allowed Director Ridley Scott to shoot Reed’s remaining scenes with another actor with all changes totaling an estimated $25 million (13 years ago.) But cast and crew were exhausted and Scott didn’t want to lose Reed’s performance as Proximo, a key character, so the script was rewritten for Proximo to die, body doubles were used and Reed’s face was superimposed digitally, costing $3.2 million although one source said it was closer to $5 million. The DreamWorks’ / Universal co-production and 2000 Academy Award winner for Best Picture was dedicated to Reed’s memory.
Universal has broached Cody Walker, 25, a stuntman who bears a strong resemblance to his 40-year-old brother about finishing the remaining scenes, Britain’s The Daily Mail reported. Quoting a studio source, Cody would be shot from behind at a distance and Paul’s face would be superimposed digitally for close-ups. “If Cody agrees its because he wants to honor his brother’s memory,” the source noted.
The offer was made before Walker’s remains were laid to rest and the day after his film Hours was opened in limited release (Friday the 13th.)
Universal shut down the production Dec. 4 allowing all who knew and worked with Walker time to grieve, giving the studio time to consider the best possible solutions for the film, franchise and closure for Walker’s character Brian O’Conner. The face of the Fast & Furious franchise, Walker starred in five of the six previous films. He died in the worst possible way considering the franchise is about fast lives and fast cars. On Nov. 30 he was killed when he and Roger Rodas, 38, his friend and financial advisor, stepped away from the fundraising event for Walker’s charity Reach Out Worldwide at Rodas’ Santa Clarita shop to take a short ride in Rodas’ Porsche Carerra GT. Rodas was driving the car when it crashed into a light pole and a tree and caught fire, killing both within seconds, authorities said. Ruling the deaths accidental, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said Walker died from a combined effect of “traumatic and thermal injuries” – he was alive when the car burst into flames. The investigation is ongoing. Early speculation on the cause focused on the car itself but a law enforcement official told the Associated Press Thursday, “We’re looking at speed and speed alone.” Rodas, a professional driver who competed in 10 Pirelli World Challenge GTS races this year, co-owned an auto racing team with Walker.
Universal has declined comment on all aspects of the case, its impact on the film and franchise and what options it is now considering. It did say it is “committed” to keeping fans informed “and we will provide further information to them when we have it. Until then we know they join us in mourning the passing of our dear friend Paul Walker.”
Originally set for a July 11 release, The Hollywood Reporter (THR) said Universal has spent about $150 million. Half of Walker’s scenes were shot before he was killed – a bill the insurance company Fireman’s Fund may have to pay if Universal decides to start over. It also said screenwriter Chris Morgan is now crafting revisions utilizing the scenes Walker shot.
Insurance Broker Brian Klingman of Gallagher Entertainment says, “it really comes down to – can the movie be completed with what can be saved? Is the quality there and is it still a reasonable plan to make the movie?” The shutdown saves some money but Universal has to contend with the cast and crew guilds and insurance requirements that it pay half of the actors’ salaries. “Completion can be cheaper and will probably be what the insurance company wants,” notes Klingman. “Insurance covers delays, rewrites, recasting but it is still less costly than writing it off. Universal has to do what’s right for the film and the franchise. Its last film (Fast & Furious 6) grossed $798 million in worldwide box office. For a number six in a franchise, that’s huge.”
Since it is Universal’s only tent-pole release for summer 2014, delays could move it to Christmas 2014 or, summer 2015 – its lineup already crowded with Jurassic World, Ted 2, Minions and another Bourne film. That can throw downstream revenues into question. “There will be a version of the film. Its too important to the studio,” says a source on the early films. “Paul is key but he’s not the only lead, like it would be if this were James Bond.”
Will fans still come?
Deadline Hollywood has an ongoing poll asking whether Universal should proceed with the film following Walker’s death? To date, 73% said yes, 27% said no.
Still, James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly asks: “Can you watch Fast & Furious racing, the core action in this six-films-and-counting franchise, and still enjoy it the same way as before — as a deliriously goofy thrill ride? Can you watch Walker’s now-shattered friends and co-stars racing cars, and especially Walker himself, without being haunted by thoughts of his final moments and his friends’ grief? In other words: Does the way an artist died influence how you process his art? Especially when it’s an actor who made car-racing fantasies and he dies in a fiery crash? Or is the manner of Walker’s demise irrelevant?
“It’s not like the films were misguided to embrace a high-speed vehicular fantasy, but it’s like being at a party where there’s a tragic accident — the party wasn’t wrong, yet feels over just the same; the fun has been ripped out of it.”
Hibberd notes the comparison often made made to Heath Ledger dying after The Dark Knight wrapped, “but that’s a poor one. Ledger’s death wasn’t such an eerie ironic echo of the film’s creative content. Walker’s death is like … Aquaman drowning. Superman falling off a cliff.”
Or, as one source said, “Harry Potter blowing himself up with his wand.”
“It’s beyond irony,” says Hibberd. “It’s too close.”
The impact of Walker’s death doesn’t end with Fast & Furious 7.
In Relativity/EuropaCorps’ upcoming Brick Mansions Walker stars in about 80 percent of the film featuring speed racing and car crashes. In one scene Walker crashes a van through a glass building, notes Deadline Hollywood. Relativity, now trying to determine how to market, has declined comment.
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