Features and Columns · Movies

6 Filmmaking Tips From Justin Lin

A fast and fervorous guide beyond the basics.
Justin Lin Directing Fast Five
By  · Published on July 22nd, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Justin Lin.

Justin Lin, like his old UCLA classmate Joe Russo, is a member of the modern generation of Hollywood directors who make us really enjoy franchise filmmaking. Enough to get excited for the Fast and Furious movies after they’d seemed driven into a dead end and now to find a new hope in Star Trek with his satisfying takeover of that series. He soon may have us even caring about Space Jam.

The Taiwan-born Lin has also been an important voice for Asian-American representation, both on-screen and off. He broke out with a great indie, Better Luck Tomorrow, and went on to become a valuable asset as a studio player, for both the industry and the fans. We honor his talent and his output below by sharing advice and guidance gleaned from statements he’s made throughout his career.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Justin Lin

1. Action Should Be Character-Driven

Lin is known, mostly through his four Fast and Furious installments, as an action movie director. But he does have those indie roots and still focuses first on character with every project he takes on, sometimes through an affirmed Robert Altman influence. He loves ensemble pieces, and he likes building action out from them. He addresses this approach in an interview with Collider promoting Star Trek Beyond:

I kind of approach action/non-action very much similarly. It has to be character-based and it has to kind of come off the theme and the overall arc. I had a very strong opinion on what sets this journey off. That’s been the centerpiece of this film….action to me is no fun if it’s not built around character. And that has to come from the very original impetus of why this movie exists. So far, I mean all the action pieces are set off of that incident and all how our characters react to it. So, for me it’s exciting because it’s organic. It’s not artificial. It’s not something that I do an action because people want to see action. It’s because this journey, whatever happens, whatever causes this to happen, whatever our characters do to try to counter it somehow organically creates that.

2. Live or Die By Your Voice

For a filmmaker who has gone whole hog into Hollywood, Lin manages to have a unique voice even when picking up properties started and continued by other writers and directors. He didn’t have to make so many Fast and Furious movies. He didn’t have to take a for-hire gig to helm the third part of a rebooted franchise. He does what interests him where he can maintain integrity, as noted in a 2007 interview with Indiewire:

Do what you love. I’ve seen so many people through the years calculate and speculate on what films to do in order “to make it.” And every time those projects crash and burn. I think when young filmmakers make films trying to impress the industry, they usually won’t work. I think the people with the power and money actually want to work with filmmakers that have something to say. And at the end of the day, if the film is made for the right reasons, then there’s no failure. You live or die by your voice.

Lin learned early on that he would rather do movies how he wanted to do them than make a lot of money compromising either his voice or his fight for diversity in cinema. He told the New York Times earlier this year:

With my first film [“Better Luck Tomorrow”], I was working three jobs [to help pay for it]. I was meeting with potential investors, and right away everybody’s like, “It’s an Asian-American cast. It’ll never sell.” And a lot of them were Asian-American investors. A guy offered $1 million for the budget, and he said, “We’ll get Macaulay Culkin to be the lead.” If I would have said yes, I would have gotten $1 million and I would have gotten to make the movie with a white cast, but it didn’t interest me.

3. You Can Go Big Without Selling Out

A lot of filmmakers might think that giving up that extra $1m would mean never breaking into the big time. Or that breaking into the big time couldn’t be done without giving up some piece of his or her soul. Lin is proof that you can stand ground early on and make ground later and that you can find success without losing yourself. Here’s what he told fans this week during a Reddit AMA alongside actor John Cho:

when John and I started 15 years ago, you know I was making the Credit Card movie [Better Luck Tomorrow], and it was an indie movie. Back then obviously there was no money, so everybody just came on because they either believed in the script or the project. And that spirit was so strong, and in a way something I treasure. And then, going and doing the studio films, it’s always been I think one of the big challenges for the film makers, to make sure that, yeah, there’s money and people are being compensated, but let’s show up and be passionate, you know. To be able to meet up 15 years later, and to do this film with all the physical challenges that were ahead of us, that’s something I take a lot of pride in. Everybody on this set, in the cutting room, everybody went above and beyond, and that’s something that’s really rare. And again, I think when I took this on, I wanted to make it the biggest budgeted indie film ever, and I really am very fortunate. And that’s due to the people that got together to make this.

In the below video from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Lin talks about his evolution as a filmmaker and how he’s maintained his point of view from his indie days through his Fast and Furious work:

4. Be Proud of Everything You Do, Good and Bad

“We make movies and we all try our best and sometimes we connect with the audience, sometimes we don’t,” he says in a 2013 interview with Mike Ryan for The Huffington Post. In the below quote, Lin further responds to his Annapolis star James Franco’s public trashing of the movie.

I will always be proud of that. Without “Annapolis,” I wouldn’t have gotten “Tokyo Drift” ‐ I wouldn’t be here today. And, so, it’s part of who I am. And I’ve gotten my ass kicked more than once, but I will always be proud of it. And for someone to be a big part of that and to publicly go and start talking trash? You know, I just don’t think that’s cool…James Franco is not perfect. I’m not perfect. I’m really proud to be here now, but I’m just as equally proud as when that movie opened and nobody would take my call. Because that makes me who I am. And that experience made me who I am… You know, we all will fall and we will get up and we will learn.

5. Push the Medium Forward

Last year, Lin directed Help, a five-minute virtual reality sci-fi/horror short for the Google Spotlight Stories app, the first live-action 360-degree video for the platform. He clearly isn’t afraid of trying new things and venturing into formats of the future, and not just riding such waves but making them, as well. He talks of how and why he’s trying to push the medium forward in this excerpt of an interview with Wired earlier this year:

“I just drew the idea on a whiteboard, and that was it,” says Lin, who produced the short with his company Bullitt, Google ATAP, and VFX house the Mill. “We didn’t know how to do it then. But Google needed to push the envelope and they weren’t phased. So I kept pushing. And pushing. That’s what I learned from the indie film world: It’s to say, This is the idea ‐ how do we get there? Don’t censor it. Just push to get there.”

He also addresses his aim for advancing not just cinema but VR cinema in an interview with The Verge from last year, in which he says he wants to keep pushing it:

There are a couple of limitations still. The lighting [is hard to figure out]. In film, when you’re lighting the closeup, it’s a different than when we do the wide shot.

And here you can’t. We’re doing tricks just to be able to light [the scene]. And again I push the technology because, you know, the best thing to do is shoot it during the day. That’s why [most people use] GoPros. But I said no, I want to shoot at night, which means we had to light it and they had to do some special filters into the RED camera. I think once we can shoot with a little bit longer lens and be able to light it, I think you could see feature-length potential.

6. Support Others Like You

Another way Lin is advancing cinema is through the support of the next generation of filmmakers, particularly other Asian-American directors, first through the YOMYOMF (You Offend Me You Offend My Family) blog and YouTube channel offshoot and then its short film competition, “Interpretations.” He discusses the project why he started it in a recent interview with Salon here:

“I’m the child of immigrants. My Taiwanese parents came to America with no money and supported my brothers and me as small business owners in Orange County, which is close to L.A. but about as far away from Hollywood as you can be. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, but had a great deal of people help me along in my path,” said Lin. “I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but feel incredibly lucky to be in the position I am now and to be able to play a small part in trying to support talented, aspiring young filmmakers out there through a program like ‘Interpretations’ who, like me, had the desire and passion, but no connections to the industry.”

Lin also discusses his fight for Asian representation even in the Japan-set The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in the following clip from the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen:

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Lin is proof that the old method of going to film school and starting off as an indie darling still works if you want to wind up a success in Hollywood, and you don’t have to lose yourself at any time along the way. He recognizes it’s better to do and fail and learn from mistakes than play it safe, in or out of the mainstream. And once you get there, by making decent studio fare, you can use your success to push for progress in technology and diversity and entertainment value.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.