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An Oral History of the Climactic Battle in ‘Hobbs & Shaw’

Looking for a way to set a bar while also expanding their characters, the minds behind the adrenaline-fueled film turned their eyes toward Samoa. This is the story of how that original concept resulted in Dwayne Johnson’s pulling down a helicopter with his bare hands.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

As Chris Morgan began conceiving the script of Hobbs & Shaw, the Fast & Furious spinoff featuring franchise latecomers Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, the writer-producer pivoted from his usual process.

Responsible for penning the series’ last six screenplays, filled with requisite family banter and friendly burns, Morgan knew that this spinoff would allow him the chance to dive deeper into the prickly pairing of Hobbs and Shaw—who most memorably nearly destroyed an entire prison while trying to kill one another—and the dynamic chemistry of the actors who play them, Johnson and Statham. “What haunts them, what drives them, what are they afraid of?” Morgan asked himself.

The movie’s first two acts mostly spend time peeling back Deckard Shaw’s (Statham) fractured relationship with his sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who is, as these things go, infected with a deadly supervirus capable of killing the majority of humankind. He and Luke Hobbs (Johnson) work separately but together to keep her alive, fending off numerous attacks from a pursuant named Brixton, a genetically enhanced mercenary played by Idris Elba. Amid all of the world-saving business, Hobbs and Shaw develop banter and eventually a begrudging respect for each other.

But while most of the action takes place in London, the movie needed a different location for its finale, and a similar window into Hobbs’s family history as is afforded to Shaw. “I was talking with Dwayne about it,” Morgan says. “The way to solving the problem of the movie is going to have to be twofold: One, you’re going to have to work together with [Shaw], right? And then two, you’re going to have to go home.”

For Hobbs—and, technically, Johnson—that meant a return to Samoa, to confront and heal the rift with his kin that has haunted him for 25 years. It also meant a two-pronged battle and chase sequence tailored specifically to Hobbs’s Pacific Island heritage. In true Fast & Furious form, that required everything from tribal war dances and vicious hand combat to pyrotechnic aerial assaults and superhuman feats of strength. At its most jaw-dropping and silliest, Johnson nearly splits his chest in two keeping a Blackhawk helicopter chained to the back of a tow truck.

The result is another headshaking, smile-inducing action sequence that holds its weight with the rest of the franchise’s progressively rising stakes and stunts. “The last four or five [movies], the stunts got crazier and crazier … and you live in this wish fulfillment of action,” director David Leitch says. “His attributes are strength and will, and he’s not going to let that helicopter go.”

Below is the story of that climactic finale, which took six weeks to shoot and underwent numerous revisions on the fly, all coming together to produce another indelible moment in the Fast & Furious canon.

Part I: In the Trailblazing Business

The end of the movie—in which Hobbs and Shaw tag-team to take down Brixton—had already been filmed. Filmmakers now just needed to lock down the details and location of the third act.

David Leitch (director): We needed a place for Hobbs to be from and have a rich world to dive into, and I think [Dwayne] saw it as an opportunity to talk about his Samoan heritage. Chris and Dwayne had both sort of discussed it before I even came on board.

Morgan (writer, producer): I ended up having a lot of conversations with Dwayne, and just saying, “What if it’s your backstory? What if he has to go home, he hasn’t been there for a while, and he has four big brothers, and Mama still runs the house, we don’t know what happened with the father, [there’s] some big unhealed rift that’s happened?” Dwayne just immediately jumps on like, “OK, and what about this? And what about this?” It was awesome.

Dwayne Johnson (Luke Hobbs, producer): It was a real opportunity to showcase one of my own authentic cultures to the world. There were a lot of creative inroads that we wanted to make sure we were tying up nicely, and then shoot it in a way that felt dynamic and stylistic and cool.

Morgan: We have great location guys, and there’s a lot of places to shoot in the Hawaiian Islands, and [with] Kauai, it just felt that we hadn’t seen it before, that we had a large playground where our major action stuff was. [It sat] on the top of this beautiful mountain with this gorgeous overlook of the ocean, and just below that is the sugar mill—the Hobbs’s custom garage.

Leitch: We sort of approached it like, “OK, what sort of makeshift stuff would they have on the island?” We explained that there’s sugar cane and they produce it from their cars, so ethanol became a big part of it. Shaw knows what to do with fire, he’s pretty good with explosives. … There’s this line in there that “the island will provide,” and we really wanted to tell that story—they’re using the weather, they’re using the geography, they’re using the resources that they have at hand to defeat these guys, analog vs. tech.

Because this was the first large-scale Hollywood production to feature Samoan people, the filmmakers brought in Polynesian actors, stuntmen, and cultural advisers to get every detail right.

Johnson: We wanted to be authentic as possible, hire all Polynesian actors.

Leitch: It’s a long process. There’s not a massive community theater. So we looked all over Hawaii and New Zealand and Samoa, and all over the Pacific Islands.

Morgan: We were lucky to get [Cliff] Curtis.

Cliff Curtis (Jonah): I spent a lot of my teen years in my tribal lands, growing up with some of my elders and learning about some of the old customs and ways of life and values passed down from my ancestors. It’s a bit how I identify.

Johnson: What made it so gratifying to me was this is the very first time in Hollywood history of a movie of this size and capacity that the Samoan culture has ever been showcased. I was able to hire my own cousin in Roman Reigns, Joe Anoa’i. That, in itself, was a whole other level of pride.

Joe “Roman Reigns” Anoa’i (Mateo): We know what [background Dwayne] is, but he’s never really played that character, where he gets to actually take it back to the island. When they said he was going to be casting brothers, it just made a lot of sense. I just really wanted to be part of it, and be a part of the project that puts our people on the map.

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Leitch: You just had guys that cared about making it authentic and cared about making it real and not making it a caricature, but a real portrayal of what this family could be like.

Greg Rementer (second unit director, fight coordinator): The Polynesian stunt guys were just unbelievable. Some of them lost weight, they stuck with it, and in the end they were fighting in barefoot and in Polynesian skirts, and they’re getting thrown to the ground and holding to choreography that takes years for a lot of stunt people to achieve. … We had no air conditioners and we were making them do rep after rep. These guys are big Polynesian guys. They worked really hard.

Reigns: I was so proud to see so many different breakdowns of different Polynesian Islands. I think that just showed the huge respect we had for each other. And, at the end of the day, we’re all sons of the Pacific Ocean.

Johnson: There was a feeling on set that we were all of a sudden in the trailblazing business—not only the Samoans and the Polynesians, but David Leitch, the producers, Idris [Elba], when he came to set, everybody knew that we were doing something that hadn’t been done before. For these men and women of Polynesian descent, they were fully aware of this opportunity and fully aware of the light that was going to be shined on the culture.

Part II: More Than a Movie

The climactic battle between Hobbs’s Polynesian family and island dwellers and the army of tech-enhanced mercenaries begins with the Siva Tau, an ancestral war dance that precedes the chaotic hand-to-hand combat to come.

Reigns: There’s a lot of different styles of war dance. There’s a lot of different cultures that make up Polynesia. So it was very important that we were very specific in what we were doing and which island that we’re portraying.

Johnson: Our Siva Tau was put together by our Samoan consultants and blessed by our elderly. There was a real energy on set, and you could feel that on the sacred ground, but especially when we were doing the Siva Tau and it was time to go to war.

Morgan: Dwayne has never been more fit in his life. He’s so lean there, it’s crazy! He came out, and you’re like, “Whoa!” It’s unbelievable. I mean, that guy is a superhero.

Rementer: The man was shirtless for two days.

Universal Pictures

Johnson: I explained to David we have to approach this in a nontraditional way. Doing the Siva Tau requires so much energy and takes so much out of you and it’s really emotionally intense. We can’t have that many takes. And he goes, “I totally understand, brother.”

Morgan: That sequence specifically was designed to happen right as dawn was happening. [David] wanted to have the Siva Tau at night to feel kind of the darkness and the moodiness.

Johnson: I brought my mom to set and she was aware that we were back in Samoa. She was sitting off to the side by the cameras, and I was speaking in Samoan and walking out with my shirt off, with clearly a lot of baby oil, and I’m calling upon our ancestors for strength. And even though this is a movie, when you’re speaking to God in our culture, it’s more than a movie. And then I call on my brothers to stand up, and then you start the Siva Tau. … Then it becomes very real.

Curtis: There’s something great in his affection for his mother and bringing part of his mother’s heritage to the screen.

Johnson: Right in the middle of it, I look over at my mom, and she is bawling. She is crying so hard. I was looking at my mom, all my brothers were looking at her, and she couldn’t help it.

Morgan: I think she was overwhelmed by seeing her son speak her language.

Johnson: When David yelled cut, it was a really beautiful moment. All the brothers—Roman, John Tui, Cliff, Josh [Mauga]—they all went over to her and gave her a hug, made sure she was OK. Her tears were of great pride. That’s the beauty of culture. It can be so powerful and moving and so sacred. Polynesian people are very large people in nature. The men are big and badass. The women are even bigger and badass. But there’s also a quiet and sensitive side.

Morgan: The idea was we’re going to have this big battle with Samoan warriors, with ancient weapons. And it was kind of more in the jungle, a little more Predator-y.

Rementer: We wanted it to be a really brutal battle, but we also wanted to bring this rawness to the battle. The biggest issue was how were we going to make this a fist-on-fist fight? Leitch came up with a brilliant idea for Hattie to hack the system and shut down the [weapons] satellite for a window of time.

Leitch: I’m known for gun action—you look at John Wick, you look at Deadpool—but for us, we’re trying to access a PG-13 audience. I thought it was great for us to take a departure from the guns in the final set piece, and just say we’re going to do something more original. It just worked on both fronts for us.

Rementer: When we were in London, we kind of started to talk about what weapons to use. In terms of researching fight styles, I wanted to stay true to the Samoan culture. There’s a lot of Filipino influence in Polynesian arts—stick fighting, knife fighting—but the difference with these Polynesian guys is strong powerful blows, these clubs that demolish whoever they fight against. Cliff was the swifter, faster, smarter brother, so we knew we could get him a spear or a staff, and then there was the bigger group’s style that you can see in Dwayne.

Reigns: We wanted to keep the continuity of what we’re doing—we’re islanders, and we’re bringing a bit more of a savage type of fighting style, so we really wanted to stay in that brute strength, explosive area.

Johnson: We are rehearsing this scene, and both of us are supposed to take our clubs over our heads. They say, “OK, guys, a lot of people around, no need to throw the club.” I pretend to throw my club and then I hear, “Oh my God!” I turn around, and the fucking cameraman is knocked out.

Rementer: I actually remember standing right next to the camera guy—he tripped over his own foot, kind of went down. ... Mistakes happen.

Reigns: The one guy that you don’t hit.

Rementer: Whenever we’re hitting or throwing weapons at anybody, it’s always a soft, spongy [material] with metallic paint. He was totally fine. He was right back up with the camera, he finished it, and we got it. Of course, Dwayne is going to rip him apart.

Johnson: Our cameraman’s just like, “Oh, no, I’m OK.” [Mimes spitting teeth into his hands.] “I’m OK.”

Reigns: I haven’t stopped apologizing. We hugged it out but I still feel terrible.

Part III: He Does Things Like That

After Brixton captures Hattie and takes her into the helicopter, an epic chase sequence develops. Three cars latch onto a Peterbilt that’s chained to a chopper—returning the movie to its Fast & Furious roots. Its complicated execution happened only thanks to some late-game changes and ideas.

Leitch: [The final scene] was going to be a way shorter—the helicopter goes off the cliff, they drag the helicopter over the mines.

Johnson: As we were making the movie and shooting the third act, there was something that was gnawing at all of our guts: Is there an action element that is missing? Is there something we can add that can give it just one more force of power before the helicopter crashed into the tunnel for the big fight?

Leitch: We had a smaller sequence in mind, but we had some opportunity with this cliff. It was a last-minute brain trust where we were like, “We have these resources here. Should we try to make this bigger?”

Johnson: Chris Morgan came to set the next day and said, “What if we took this sequence and we turn this into a fucking insane daisy chain of cars that are all created in the Hobbs custom workshop in order to bring the helicopter back down?” It sounded great and bombastic and over the top, and then we finally sat down and we put together some visuals of it.

Morgan: The place where people can go wrong with action is it’s just action, it’s just spectacle. You always have to have character moments, things that are important to the character’s heart.

Leitch: We needed something that’s a metaphor for the brothers working together and family coming back together. That’s where I was coming from a story point. Again, great action scenes have stories, and we needed this moment of brothers helping this estranged brother. [Chris] was pitching the idea of they just keep hooking the cars up, hooking the cars up, hooking the cars up, and so it was a last-minute idea for the amount of logistics it entailed.

Rementer: Chris and I are looking at each other: “Man, this is going to be epic.”

Leitch: Then full-steam ahead, we’re previsualizing it, we got special effects involved, they’re building rigs, we’re suspending cars on two wheels, it’s crazy. It’s crazy movie magic that only you can do on a Fast & Furious movie.

Morgan: So you have a truck being followed by an SUV being chased by a helicopter. That stuff is all real. We have the craziest helicopter pilots that are so skilled, like insanely skilled, and when you have the explosions going on around them, all that stuff is practical, in camera.

Rementer: The helicopter is flying 10 feet over the vehicles. Some of the most impressive stunt work I’ve ever seen.

Curtis: I got behind the wheel, but nowhere near as much as I would like to have.

Leitch: When you look at it, I think this was a really good collaboration of visual effects and stunts. Most of the time the helicopter is practical. Any cars that are on the ground or suspended are real. There are elements where we’re hanging the car on a blue screen and it’s rotating on a gimbal, and Dwayne’s on it, and we’re getting real physics. There’s an element where a car is really driving on the edge of a cliff and we’re countering with the helicopter’s camera. I just found that the more you can put them in camera, the more the CGI looks better and it challenges the digital artist to live up to the real photography.

Reigns: I think that’s just a testament to David and his staff, just getting every shot imaginable. Every single day it felt like we had chopper flybys and they were just getting all the film they could to make this island pop and make it come to life.

Johnson: On the Peterbilt, me holding a chain, that’s one of the fun things that gets you in the Fast & Furious world. We were talking before we were shooting the scene and the question was posed, “Is it too much that Hobbs is holding a helicopter?” And then of course, we justified, “Well, he redirected a torpedo, he does things like that.”

Morgan: Dwayne is holding that chain, for sure. I don’t think the helicopter is attached there.

Rementer: There was never actually a visible chain attached to the helicopter. That was CG. I bet you if we had asked him, he probably would have toyed with the idea, but insurance would have never allowed it. [Laughs.]

Leitch: In the edit, I played with the length of that moment many times. I had it longer, I had it shorter, and I landed on a place where I think it works, where the fans can celebrate [and] we can also not completely go, “What??!!”

Johnson: I said, I don’t think it’s too much if we can find a way to find humor at some point, either within that sequence, or certainly when you get into the cave. Make people smile and laugh. That’s how we got it to that crazy chain finale.

Leitch: I look at it and go, “How the hell did we pull it off?” The amount of time that we had, the logistics.

Reigns: It’s an outlandish, crazy, larger-than-life scenario, but I think it works well within this film. Everything’s on a 10. You can’t really pull back. If you’re going to finish, you gotta finish strong.

Johnson: That wound up being the movie’s big “holy shit” moment.

Reigns: Why not pull a helicopter down with your bare hands?

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com and The New York Times.

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