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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.