It’s not an easy thing, to finish a movie without one of your lead actors. When Heath Ledger died midway through filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, director Terry Gilliam seized on the film’s magical-real aesthetic and finished off the movie with Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp fake-Shemping Ledger. When Oliver Reed died before filming key scenes in Gladiator, Ridley Scott pasted Reed’s head onto a body double using digital effects. It’s a tricky thing, morbid and money-grubbing but also well-intentioned and even a little sacred. You want to honor the dead actor’s final work; but you also want to finish your movie. River Phoenix and Marilyn Monroe died too early to salvage Dark Blood or Something’s Got to Give; a tragedy for many reasons, not least because they both looked much better than The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
So: Fast & Furious 7. Paul Walker died in November with filming only half-finished, although given the age we live in fans had already seen Walker on set and in character. Cutting Walker out of the film entirely would have been a costly endeavor. Less cynically, you could argue that keeping Walker in the film was the right move. It would provide closure. And after all, the Fast franchise was something like Walker’s life’s work. But that opened up all kinds of creative problems for the Fast filmmakers – particularly since everyone attached to the film been proclaiming that Fast 7 is an attempt at world-building towards a new trilogy. (Translation: They probably already had half-sketched plans for Brian O’Conner in Fast 10.)
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the crew behind Fast 7 has opted to “retire” Brian O’Conner. He will specifically not be killed off, according to the Reporter’s sources. Universal had no comment on the report, but the rumor smells true. Given the high-speed nature of Paul Walker’s death, it probably felt like bad taste to kill a character played by Walker in a movie about cars driving very fast. Still, it’s difficult to imagine how O’Conner will leave the series. The franchise has a well-stated commitment to Family, and Furious 6 reaffirmed the central tenet – sentimental, but full-hearted – that the characters will die for each other, even after they’ve ridden into several different last-big-score sunsets. We’ll find out O’Conner’s happy fate in April 2015.