Why Paul Walker's Death Is ‘Uncharted Territory’ for Hollywood Studios

Why Paul Walker's Death Is 'Uncharted Territory' for Hollywood Studios

Universal must decide how to sensitively address death of the “Fast & Furious” star and protect its lucrative franchise, film and marketing experts tell TheWrap

The death of Paul Walker midway through the filming of “Fast & Furious 7” has left Universal Pictures in a precarious position, with the fate of one of its most important franchises hanging in the balance. Though premature deaths have jeopardized previous film productions, the size of the franchise and the circumstances of the 40-year old actor's demise leave Universal without a precedent for how to proceed.

TheWrap spoke with several executives and producers about how studios should respond to such a tragedy, and given the sensitive nature of Walker's death and the tight-knit business relationships that characterize Hollywood, many of these executives declined to be identified by name.

“This is uncharted territory for everyone involved,” one veteran studio executive told TheWrap. “Studios are so programmed and producers are so programmed to just keep going on a project, to just find a way to make it work, that they need to figure out if that approach is in their best interest in this case. They're going to benefit from being able to take a beat and assess their own feelings and the fan community’s feelings before deciding how to proceed.”

See photos: 25 of Paul Walker's Most Memorable Roles

The circumstances surrounding Walker's death make this situation all the more challenging for Universal. Authorities have said that speed may have been a factor after the 2005 Porsche Carrera GT transporting Walker and his friend Roger Rodas careened out of control, slammed into a light post and burst into flames last weekend.

His death in a race car is especially tricky given the adrenaline junkies at the center of the “Fast & Furious” series, potentially making it more difficult for the film to maintain the sense of fun that was so integral to the success of previous installments in the franchise.

See video: Paul Walker's Death: 5 of the Actor's Early TV Roles

In the past, directors, producers and studios have resorted to various alternatives when lead actors have died or fallen ill before finishing work on a film.

“In the theater, they have understudies; in film they don't,” Howard Suber, professor of film history at UCLA, said. “There's a reason for the old cliche that once a film goes into production, it's like a runaway train.”

River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993 before his work on “Dark Blood” was done, putting the indie production in limbo for two decades until it was released with narration that bridged uncompleted scenes.

Also read: Paul Walker's Death: How It All Went Down — A True ‘Speed Demon's’ Final Day

Likewise, Heath Ledger had yet to wrap work on “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” when he overdosed on prescription drugs in 2008. That necessitated a major rejiggering of the fantasy film that saw his work spliced together with performances by three actors – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell – portraying other incarnations of Ledger's character.

And Brandon Lee was a rising 28 year-old action star with a bright future ahead of him who died during the last day of shooting on “The Crow,” when he was accidentally and fatally wounded in the abdomen by a bullet fired at close range.

“It was the worst experience of my career,” producer Ed Pressman told TheWrap. “It was devastating. Everyone making the film was crushed and didn't want to continue. It would've been emotionally impossible and [director Alex] Proyas was reluctant. It took some time, but Brandon's family felt we should complete it in his name since the film was basically shot.”

See photos: 10 Other Actors Who Died During Shooting

Pressman subsequently hired Walon Green to rewrite the script, and Green proceeded to remove scenes that were reminiscent of what happened to Lee.

“The film was already violent but there were shots of him getting hit in ways that would've been too similar to the real event,” Pressman said of the changes.

The producers eventually used CGI to fill in gaps in Lee's performance. “The tragedy changed the ultimate result of the film because it affected the way it was finally edited,” said Pressman. “We were just starting to edit so there was an attempt to make the romantic aspect of the film more emphatic and steer it away from catastrophe.”

Going further back, Natalie Wood died toward the end of production for the movie “Brainstorm” in 1981. MGM shut down the production and it would take two years before the movie was released.

Also read: Paul Walker Death: Universal, Relativity ‘Shocked’ and ‘Heartbroken’

Universal has yet to make a decision about how it will proceed with “Fast & Furious 7” beyond canceling shooting on Monday, but executives are actively discussing how they can salvage the footage they have while dealing creatively with Walker's absence.

It's hard to imagine that they will scrap the production entirely as they had already shot at least half the movie, according to two individuals with knowledge of the production. Yet they did not shoot enough to resolve Walker's story line without altering the script.

Will filmmakers address Walker's death directly, replace him with another actor or use the insurance money to reshoot all of his scenes? Or find another way to explain his absence? All of these questions are likely being raised on the Universal lot this week, as are debates about whether or not the film can make its July 11, 2014 release date.

Also read: Jeff Sneider Appreciates Paul Walker’s Top 5 Non-’Fast’ Movie Roles

The key is to ensure that the franchise's vast fan base feel that they have an opportunity to grieve Walker's character without Universal appearing to be overly concerned with commercial considerations.

One crisis management expert suggested that Universal poll fans for their reactions to whether or not the studio should cancel production on the film or move forward as a way of engaging them.

“They have to be respectful and transparent,” the crisis marketing expert said. “They should take a moment before making a decision and they should make people feel like their voices have been heard and that they've participated in whatever decision the studio ultimately makes.”

See video: Paul Walker's Grief-Stricken Father: I'm Glad I Told Him I Loved Him

Walker also has two other films set for release — “Hours” and “Brick Mansions.” Lionsgate plans to proceed as scheduled with the Dec. release of the “Hours,” which features Walker as a father desperate to save his child in the hours following Hurricane Katrina. Relativity has a spring release set for “Brick Mansions,”which is also expected to stay on course.

Though the circumstances surrounding Walker's death may be unprecedented, Universal could draw lessons from the manner in which Warner Bros. addressed Ledger's death prior to the release of “The Dark Knight.” Although Ledger had finished filming his scenes on the comic book movie, the studio still had to strike a delicate balance between addressing his death without appearing to exploit it. To that end, Warner Bros., director Christopher Nolan and the cast made a point of stressing in interviews that the film and Ledger's chilling performance as the Joker were a posthumous tribute to his talent.

Warner Bros. “handled it beautifully and professionally, and I suspect the same thing will happen with Universal,” David Weitzner, a faculty member at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the former worldwide marketing president for 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures, said. “They need to stay true to the fan base and true to the legend of Paul Walker. He was an established star and these films have a huge fan base that will support him even in death.”

Lucas Shaw contributed to this report.

  • Blue

    please don't replace Paul. I'm sure one of His secenes can be fixed to where his real life story ended putting it in 7.

  • Luv Always N 4Ever

    Just have a look-a-like stunt man finish his scenes and add his voice & face. OR they can leave at his best last part of his entrance in the film and finish the rest of the movie without his character in it and make it to where he had to suddenly leave due to unforeseen circumstances and finish the rest of the movie without “Brian's” character. And “IF” they ever make a part 8 a New, and HOPEFULLY, VERY GOOD Actor enters as Brian who has had a face lift. He would be VERY hard to replace so they would need to be VERY Picky there. But please do not scrap the scenes he already did, let his last movie with him in it be finished and dedicated to him. All his loyal fans would surely go out and buy it and treasure it forever…

    • Chuck Miller

      The problem with not finishing with his character is that they don't film movies in order of the way we see them – the scenes are not filmed in order. The last scenes may have already been filmed – some of the middle may have been filmed and with the first still needing to be filmed. In other words – Paul may have already filmed the ending and the beginning. So it would be difficult to explain his absence for the middle scenes. I would love to see his final work. I would not watch this movie if they replaced his character with another actor. I would not watch this movie if they wrote his character out completely. Either show his work somehow – or scrap it all together. That is what Paul deserves. They can digitally image his face on another body. We the fans deserve that.

  • stanley hopf

    I think the family should have to approve of how ever they decide to move on if i were them i would want his character to live on even in future films through cgi and

    cuts from the other 6 movies i think they can finish this film see how everyone feel's
    about it after he was a generous guy and I am sure there are some financial issue's
    for his family and all the other actor's and supporting staff and he would not want them to suffer on his behalf in the end the lawyers may have more to say then the studios or his family and friends but the family and friend's should be taken into consideration first there may still be a wrongful death suite against his partner though i doubt that he would want that He was a great example of a good humanitarian he did work with biologists studying sharks on free time as well as all his charitable endeavors and as a professional race car driver he seemed to always be low key you could expect to see him in a store you might go to or restaurant.
    I don't understand that people were upset with wheel of fortune because they had a puzzle with the Fast and Furious as the answer if you cared about this person even as a fan the best thing is to let his name and works live on so many people die and no one ever remembers them if your a true fan then you should buy things he did past movies the one coming out soon make donations in his name to his many Charity's this is how you Honor someone not cry about your lose
    but talk about what you gained he played as did the rest of the crew a modern
    day Robin Hood that movie has been remade many times this one hit home with
    a younger generation who have had few hero's despite being crooks the had a code of honor which doesn't in the real world happen of what have you done for me lately its the store behind the character that allowed him to be larger then life

    honor him by keeping his memory Alive

  • Labbe J Val

    Please keep this movie all intact, Paul needs to be in it with all the hard work he put forth… Ask maybe his brother to fill in? they look so much alike.. But to scrap it , it would be a slap in the face to everything he enjoyed doing with this film.. Paul is and always will be loved by many, and this is our chance to see the Beautiful end to this movie with him in it .. The fans want to see this last film he was doing, because we too feel a need to say good bye… Not forever just seeing the film done on a good note, Paul will forever be in our minds, hearts, souls… he will forever be our blue eyed angel that left to soon.. xoxo We love him and much as you all do too !!

  • always a fan

    I totally agree they should finish the movie honoring Paul! sadly missed! I think of Paul and keep thinking they need to add the song from Montgomery and Gentry “speed”

  • thor2015

    The best way to honor Paul is to take the scenes they have and use what they can in such a way to allow Brian to make a graceful departure from the franchise (he does not necessarily have to die to accomplish this). If they decide to continue the series onward, they need to leave Brian out but I think it would be a slap in the face to Paul to do more movies with a double or with CGI. I think it would be equally insulting to try to put another actor into that role. If another actor comes in they need to make a different and unique character. Paul was much more than a phone in performance to this series.

  • atorontoguy

    I think they should put the production on hold for a year. Try out various things.

    For example, they could use the technology from Tron to make a lookalike for Paul Walker. That was awesome. But I don't think you could use it for any real close-up moments. And you would still need a voice actor.

    I've enjoyed this series and was looking forward to 7. I know that the studio has a lot of money commited for 7, so I expect something will come out. Hopefully it won't be crap. At some point, all series come to an end or get rebooted.

    • Marcus2012

      CGI people look like ass dude. check out Transformers Dark of the Moon, JFK looked like a fucking video game character.

  • Chuck Jones

    He's an actor. Life goes on. They didn't cancel the Harry Potter franchise because Richard Harris died. Walker understood the business, and it's silly to think that it's somehow insulting to his memory to complete the film. Think about all of the other people involved with the production of the film…would Walker want them to lose out due to his death? Of course not. If they can finish using his scenes, fine. If they need to write out his character & replace with another character, fine. I would think that, given the history of the character identified with Walker, it would be better to create a new character (brother?) than to have someone else play the same role. That would probably be a disaster for the studio, the film, and the poor guy chosen to step in. Only if they got a HUGE, well-liked star with a huge fan base (preferably someone who was friends with Walker) or Walker's stunt-person, look-alike brother could the same role work. Hard to imagine people throwing brickbats at his brother for continuing the legacy; in fact, people would probably see it as a loving tribute and career boost for him (but can he act?). At any rate, people should try to separate Walker the person from Walker the character in the F&F movies…they're not the same.