Warning: The following story contains MAJOR SPOILERS about the final scenes in Furious 7.
Director James Wan faced a lot of challenges finishing Furious 7 after Paul Walker died in an unrelated car accident, but sticking his film's ending was, perhaps, the biggest.
Since Furious 7 is Wan's first film in the franchise, he only really got to know Walker once he'd signed on for the job. But that barely mattered. "When you hear rumors around Hollywood of, like, whether a person is cool, or whether a person is a dick, those are usually true. Paul's reputation is that of a really good human being and a great guy, and just so down to earth," Wan told BuzzFeed News earlier this week. "He was all of that and more when I finally met him."
When it came time to decide Walker's character Brian O'Conner's fate, Wan, the film's producers, and Universal Pictures agreed that killing off Brian would not be the best way to honor him. "If they had gone down the other path, I think I would have refused to finish making this movie," Wan said. The path they went down instead was to "retire Paul's character in the most sincere and elegant way [they] could," Wan said. "We took a lot of care in crafting that last end sequence."
Step one was to emphasize throughout the film that Brian's family with his longtime romantic interest Mia (Jordana Brewster) was growing. Early on in the film, she reveals to her brother and Brian's best friend Dom (Vin Diesel) that she's pregnant with Brian's second child, before telling Brian in an emotional phone conversation toward the end of the film. The underlying message is that Brian's responsibility to Mia and his children would mean he could not continue his dangerous life of insane stunts like driving a car out of a plane, or crashing a car through two skyscrapers, or leaping out of a car just as a paramilitary drone destroys it on the streets of Los Angeles.
Step two was crafting a way for the other characters to say good-bye to Brian, knowing that it would be nearly impossible for Brian to interact with them in any comprehensive way. (Walker's brothers Cody and Caleb, as well as actor John Brotherton, doubled for Walker in the film, with Walker's face digitally animated on top of theirs; Walker's brothers also occasionally dubbed over small snippets of dialogue.) Screenwriter Chris Morgan found a solution, placing the characters on a sunny beach with Brian (played by a double), Mia, and their first child frolicking in the ocean, as Dom and the rest of his crew look on, thinking about Brian's next chapter. "I thought it was amazing the writing that he came up with by showing it through Vin's point of view," said Wan. "Vin had to carry that and allow us to say good-bye to Paul, along with Vin as well."
Step three was coming up with a set of final images that would honor Brian and Walker's place in the Fast and Furious franchise, both representing the character's retirement and touching on the actor's death — in a way that didn't feel maudlin or exploitative. For that, Wan and the filmmaking team landed on two ideas.
The first was a montage of scenes of Walker from all of his Fast and Furious movies. "It became my job as the director to execute the timing," said Wan. "Picking all the right montage moments with my editors, from the music to the way it's edited."
The second idea was "one last ride," as the tagline reads, between Brian and Dom, ending with the film's final shot: their cars splitting at a fork in the road, as Brian drives off into the horizon.
"We all talked about them parting in their separate ways conceptually, and I loved that idea," said Wan. "I knew I wanted the camera to stay with Paul, as his car drives off with the shot just panning up into the sunset and fading to white. We didn't want it to fade to black. It has to fade to white."
Wan exhaled slowly, thinking back on spending so much time looking at Walker's face while he was editing the movie. "That was hard," he said. "Even now, just talking about it is tough. Every time I watch the end of the movie, it is still a tough, tough one to get through."