As a 24-year-old freelance reporter in 1998, Ken Li had no idea that his articles about urban drag-racing in New York City would get optioned by Universal Studios, let alone turned into 2001's The Fast and the Furious, starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez. But the stories he wrote about a 30-year-old Dominican drag-racer named Rafael Estevez – first in the New York Daily News, and then in Vibe magazine – were so gripping, they became the seed for a 14-year-long movie franchise that would end up grossing around £1.5bn worldwide.
Furious 7, which is the last film that the actor Paul Walker appeared in before his death in a car crash in 2013, opened last week and took a record £96m during its first weekend in the US, and £15.55m over the Easter weekend in the UK. Li's articles spurred a global cultural phenomenon – did he realise the film potential of these articles when he was writing them?
"I had no idea at all. I just thought it'd be a great story," says Li, who is now editor-in-chief of tech site Re/code. "I don't know who found it, but people at the studios have people who read stuff and look for ideas. I assume they saw the story somewhere and thought it was cool."
How did he feel when they got in touch?
"I thought someone was pulling a prank on me. I called back, they wanted to learn more about the story, I got in contact with an agent – and the next thing I knew, it was optioned. An option is like renting an idea, and if they exercise the option, that's when they grab the copyright. Exercising means they're going to put it in production, hire scriptwriters, etc."
And what about the paycheck? "I've mentioned this before, but I was paid in the low six figures. I was ridiculed widely when I shot my mouth off and said I bought a car and stuff like that, stuff you'd say in your 20s. The figure wasn't life-changing, but it makes for great cocktail party banter."
Although Li hasn't seen all of the films, he says: "I saw a lot of them. It [the franchise] got increasingly crazier when it went along: cars were flying in the air and suddenly guys were bulkier and more oiled. And there were more guns, which I'd never really encountered." He says that they captured some of his story. "I was really happy that as the films went on, they tapped into Hispanic culture and Latino music which wasn't as prominent in the first film. It wasn't until the fourth or fifth that you started really seeing more culture, more colour playing a more prominent role in the films."
Did the people Li interviewed say anything about the films when they came out? Did they keep in touch? What happened to Rafael Estevez?
"I just saw him a week ago. He has a garage in Queens now. Vibe is doing a retrospective so they put us together for the interview. I hadn't seen him in 15 years. He pretty much stopped racing the year or two after I wrote about him. He opened a garage at the time and built that. The things they can do with the cars these days is absolutely incredible.
At the time they were trying to make cars like a Honda Civic do a 10-second quarter mile, which means racing a quarter of a mile on a track in a certain amount of time which is a basic metric of car performance. Now I hear they can do six to eight seconds, easy. Which is absolutely insane. I'm not sure a Ferrari can go six seconds."
What did Estevez say about being the inspiration for these films? "Initially it was all a shock, it was weird and bizarre for me at the time, too. I found a good story. I got paid for it. Move on. And for it to turn into this crazy franchise is unbelievable."
Did Estevez get paid anything? "Eventually he did. He struck a deal with the studio at some point."
Could Li, in his wildest imagination, have envisioned the franchise lasting this long, or being this lucrative? "No. There are more Fast and Furious films than there are Star Wars films. Maybe not as many Star Trek films. But for something about cars, youth culture – it's inconceivable that it would have been that big. But probably the best thing about this whole experience: my niece thinks I'm cool."
This is an edited version of a piece that appeared in "International Business Times" © Newsweek Europe