Empire (UK), July 2010

Carmageddon Double-Bill! - Speed

(Scans with thanks to Hypercaz. The article is from the Australian edition of Empire magazine.)

Speed really shouldn't have worked. Hell, it was a miracle it was ever even made. Look at the pedigree: a screenwriter who'd never written an action movie, who was actually only filling time until he could audition for a job on, get this, Roseanne! A director who'd never called "Action!" before in his life. A producer without a hit to his name. A star better known as an icon of surf-slackerdom and a budget at best a third of what was the minimum you needed to make a half-decent actioner. Its original studio nad so much confidence in it that they slapped a "For Sale" sign on it and got it off the lot as quickly as possible. "In Hollywood nobody knows anything," William Goldman once wrote. In this case, what they didn't know was that this mongrel movie was about to become one of the greatest action movies ever made.

Pop quiz, hotshot. There's a bomb on a bus... "

Graham Yost (screenwriter): I had been working for a teen show on Nickelodeon called Hey Dude, which was really my first paid writing job. Writing stuff one day and a few days later seeing it shot. I wrote a couple of spec scripts for Murphy Brown and Roseanne and my agent said, "Well, these are great but they don't start staffing until May," and this was January, so I said, "Okay, I'll go work on a feature." I had this notion in the back of my mind for a movie about a bomb on a bus ...

Mark Gordon (producer): I had made a bunch of television films, and independent films. I hadn't particularly been looking for an action movie.

Yost: I had got the idea from my dad, Elwy Yost - he had a show on television for 25 years that was all about movies. He had heard about a Kurosawa script about a train that couldn't slow down or it would blow up. Yars go by and I saw Runaway Train, loosely based on that Kurosawa script. I thought it was great, but that it would be better if it was a bomb; that's more tension-filled . And you know, a train is just too linear, there's no surprises where it was going. A bus would be better. I started working on it in '91. I knew that it was a good idea. So I really took my time.

Gordon: It was a spec script that was sent around to a number of producers. When I read it - I remember I was on my way to Prague to shoot Swing Kids - I was completely knocked out.

Yost: You've got to remember that this was the era of high concept - Two cops! One's black, the other's an alien! A man travels back in time to kill himself! [Laughs] Speed was about the highest a concept could get.

Gordon: It completely jumped off the page. There are lots of great action movies but they're not always there on the page. The director has some interesting set-pieces and the movie hangs around those, and so on. But this thng read as exciting as it eventually played on the screen. Right from that first elevator sequence. We set it up at Paramount. But it took nearly a year to get together what should have been a simple deal.

Yost: During that time I was poking away at new drafts. Paramount had said, "Y'know, maybe too much bus, we need a different third act." That's when I came up with the subway sequence, which is to me the weakest part of the movie. The only thing you get from that sequence is face to face with the bad guy and he gets his head torn off. To me the movie really ends when they come out from underneath the bus in the airport. The rest of it is just a 20-minute epilogue.

Gordon: Paramount wanted to do it - and then they didn't want to do it so much... I kind of understand. Honestly, the idea of a bus that couldn't slow down, it was a pretty goofy notion when you think about it. When you think about the image ... and at that point the screenplay had the bus driving round and round Dodger Stadium, not the airport.

Yost: An executive at 20th Century Fox was looking for a writer to rewrite a script they had called Hamlet - about a pig in the witness protection program. My agent says, "Well, there's this guy who's got a script at Paramount called Speed." He says, "Can I read that?" He really became my hero. He put a huge sign on his office wall: "10 Reasons Why Fox Should Buy Speed". All these things go into the happy fortune of the film. And I was not an expensive writer - it was pretty cheap for Fox to buy it.

"You're not too bright, man, but ya got some big, round hairy cojones."

Gordon: A-list directors just weren't interested, and there were a lot of directors hanging around in the middle who I just wasn't excited by. And then there was Jan. Jan had shot Die Hard and Basic Instinct and all of the early Verhoeven movies. So he was a great action cameraman. And we knew we were taking a chance, but I knew that if he nailed it it could be really exciting and different. So it was a risk, but I think it was a calculated risk where we felt that we really could get something special, and we did.

Jan de Bont (director): Actually I had started thinking about directing a few years before. While I was shooting Lethal Weapon and Die Hard and so on. I really loved that genre of movies. AIl directors have their own vision, and I thought you could actually do more with action movies. I had to try myself, just to prove that really there was so much more possible.

Keanu Reeves (Jack Traven): The danger was not having a director who loved the genre, you know, but going with someone who had done it before and knew how to make an action movie but just didn't care about the genre. When I met him, Jan de Bont seemed genuinely excited. I had seen a few of the movies that he had worked on and thought he had a very unique take on things - the way his shots were always looking up at people, the constantly moving camera, the vibrant colours. He has a very strong style.

De Bont: I tried to set up a movie first at Paramount, it was a skydiving movie, and we got really close but at the last minute they decided to hire a big-name star and you know... I'm an unknown. [The film was finally released as Drop Zone starring Wesley Snipes, directed by John Badham.] And instead they had this project called Speed, and it couldn't get off the ground. I read the script and I was like, "Oh my God! This is much better than the skydiving movie!" But they obviously didn't see it that way [laughs].

Reeves: Jan had, I guess the right word is vision. He really seemed like a man on a mission. He's kind of a beautiful warrior master...

De Bont: I was incredibly excited by the idea. Living in LA I knew exactly what it meant. It's almost impossible to drive in LA. Normally a movie like this is about going as fast as you can and that's what the name Speed implies almost. But the movie isn't about that - all you have to do is 50 miles an hour. That's more difficult than anything in LA. I saw right away what you could do by getting the bus onto smaller streets, off the freeway.

Gordon: Casting-wise, well, frankly we were talking with anyone who was interested [laughs]. We had neither a script by a star writer, nor did we have a big director. So there were a number of people we talked about. Obviously Bruce Willis, who was of that mould. We also talked about Billy Baldwin, who at the time was being talked about for this kind of movie. Yost: The Jack Traven part got offered to everybody. It got offered to Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. It was offered to Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. They all turned it down. Someone at the studio said, "Well, what about Keanu Reeves?" He'd done Point Break, but I don't think that was Kathryn Bigelow's best movie, and he was a little goofy and over-the-top. But it was, "Okay, let's meet him." Keanu drives up on a motorcycle, gets off and, y'know, he's 6'2" and in pretty good shape. Just looking at him it was, "Okay, he's a young studly cop." And we sat down for lunch and he's an incredibly smart guy with a really dry sense of humour but really sweet, so we knew he would be fun. And he could do all the athletic stuff. It ended up a perfect match. There was some initial resistance, but that resistance evaporated on meeting him. Once the work started it was, "This is gold."

De Bont: I really liked the idea - it was out of the ordinary. And I had the feeling that he could become a really big action star. But I told him, "This can only work if you really enjoy what you're going to do." Actors often see action movies as a lot of work. To them it's not fun, they can feel that they're just props. But in reality there's no action movie without actors and no good one without good actors. Look at Steve McQueen in Bullitt - you don't have to have 10 pages of dialogue. Reactions are often more powerful than the best dialogue. I said, "If you want it - and you really have to ask yourself that question very seriously - I guarantee that it will make you a star."

Reeves: It had this wonderfully silly premise - the bus that can't slow down. It was so over-the-top. There were tons of problems with that script. The dialogue, particularly with some of the other characters, was really bad. My character was making jokes that were almost perverse - he was just kind of flippant and not believable as a police officer.

De Bont: For the Annie role the studio wanted a big name. This is not unusual. I felt really strongly that we really had to believe her character. We tested a lot of actresses but I kept thinking, Will this girl ever drive a bus in LA? A lot of them I wouldn't even believe had ridden on a bus. When I met Sandy I thought, She's perfect. Really kind of the new Doris Day.

Yost: In the summer of '93 I got booted off and they brought in another writer, much to my chagrin, and what came back was not good. It was by a writer who will go unnamed - y'know, I'm a good Canadian boy [laughs], but it was bad casting. So it was a dark night of the soul when I read that draft. I came back for, like, another week for another draft, did some big changes. They made the choice: let's make the bad guy a separate person.

Gordon: In the original script it turned out that the Dennis Hopper character is actually killed in the beginning but the Harry character, played by Jeff Daniels, kind of uses him as a phantom: in reality it's the Harry character who is the villain. It was a big reveal. But it was getting a little complicated, so we just kept the villain.

Yost: Once you've cast Dennis Hopper, actually that works.

Reeves: Jan wanted to make it really pure. He wanted bad guys to be bad and good guys to be good. Not cartoony, but uncomplicated - no need for useless dramatic gestures. He didn't want people walking out feeling bad: "Oh no! The good guy's evil!"

Yost: I came back and repaired it and then they put Joss [Whedon] on. I read Joss's work and went, "Oh, thank God, he's good. He gets it." He's got a very similar sense of humour. In fact, I would say he's better at that. So I was delighted with what Joss did. I was used to being rewritten in television. It's never easy. It's just the nature of that beast.

Gordon: Joss Whedon tweaked some of the dialogue- the script was written by Graham and he ended up with sole credit. Joss did a little character polish and did a really nice job for us.

"If he gets the money he wins, if the bus blows up he wins ... "

De Bont: If we were going to make Keanu into an action hero he really had to shed that old surfer-dude image, and we did that literally by giving him a buzz-cut. Without it, it would have been too easy for him to float back to that old Keanu. But I didn't want it to be that short. I looked at him and said, "The studio's going to kill me." They saw him walking across the lot - it was, "Oh hell, woah! What's he done?" They were talking about putting a wig on him, as if that wouldn't have been even more ridiculous...

Gordon: All the while, we were trying to figure out where we were going to shoot it. There was talk at one point of going to Texas because there were stretches of freeway that we figured we could shut down.

De Bont: It was a threat. There was no way I was going to shoot in Texas.

Gordon: There was a new freeway being built that was almost finished - it went from the airport all the way into East LA. We had to paint lines on the freeway because they hadn't been painted yet. And then we had to take them out because they were slightly different from what the city wanted. We had miles and miles of freeway we could use. We got very lucky. We finished and they opened 10 days later. It was wild.

De Bont: I said to Keanu, "You have to do some of the stunts. I'll never put you in any danger, of course, but the key thing to the success of this is that I can see you." In action sequences quite often you go to doubles at the most exciting moment - backs of heads and side shots. The audience instantly knows that there's something not quite right. But if you can film the reaction on the actor's face when something like that is happening, you get a great reaction from the audience because now they know it's real.

Reeves: I enjoyed it. I really wanted to express the exertion, you know? To show the audience the sheer physical effort it takes to get under a moving bus. I wanted to make these crazy stupid faces...

De Bont: So I had Keanu jumping around. Jumping from the Jaguar to the bus - they're going at the same speed so actually it's just a step... it looks dangerous the way I shoot it. Once I had got him over that initial nervousness, and he was a little wary, he understood that he could rely on the stunt coordinator to ensure that it's absolutely safe. It gets you those shots that to me are absolutely key - the reaction on an actor's face when something really difficult is happening. It gives you the character.

Yost: The bus jump was not in the original screenplay. Jan said, "I would love it if the bus could be basically faced with a brick wall." Something that just logically it shouldn't be able to survive. Jan suggested, "What if there was a gap in the freeway?" It doesn't make physical sense - I tried in the draft to have a construction site with a pile of dirt as a ramp, all that kind of stuff, but you know, by that point, you have the audience or you don't. We had won the audience so they were willing to go with that leap.

Gordon: It was really the first preview where I got a feeling we had a hit. It was so strong. It really shocked us all. The audience went crazy for the film. At that time we weren't sure when the movie was going to open.

Yost: I went to a screening on the Fox lot. There were 20 or so people there. I remember thinking, The elevator sequence is good. And once Keanu is on the bus, from that moment on I just had this sense, literally a conscious thought, Okay, my life is changing before my eyes.

De Bont: I think we were scheduled for the end of August...

Gordon: After the preview Tom Sherak, Head of Distribution at Fox, walked over and said, "We're going to release this movie mid-summer." I was like, "But Tom, we're going to be going up against these huge summer movies. Do you really think we can hang in there?" He said, "Absolutely."

Yost: Tom Sherak said he knew they had a hit because when he saw people leaving to go to the bathroom, they were walking backwards.

"A bomb is made to explode. That's its meaning... "

De Bont: That skydiving movie eventually did nothing...

Yost: It did totally change my life. I became a feature film writer for a number of years. I didn't really go back to television until Tom Hanks came calling for Band Of Brothers.

Gordon: It was my first hit. All of our lives changed. I'll look at Speed every few years or catch a bit of it on TV as I'm flipping. The set -pieces are wonderful. But there's a particular tone to the movie - comedic and exciting and thrilling at the same time. Which is not easy to pull off.

Yost: My dad came down from Canada with my mom and my brother and saw the premiere at Mann's Chinese. He just loved it. It was also fun because Tarantino sat behind us and recognised my dad from his TV shows. We said, "So what are you working on?" He said, ''I'm doing this little movie called Pulp Fiction."

Reeves: You know, I was talking to a friend. and he was like, " Listen, man, if it's a Saturday afternoon and Speed comes on cable, I'm watching it to the end." Some movies are just like that.



What the hell happened with Speed 2?

"I had an executive producer credit, but I saw the sequel when everybody else did in the theatres. So, er... I'll take no credit for that. The idea of going from a bus to a boat, which can only go so fast - that's unlikely to work. Off of the success of the first movie, they tried to replicate the first movie and yet make it different. Look, you didn't have Keanu. Which is a huge problem. And you know, Jan isn't a writer.

"I was not invited to a party that I didn't want to go to. Jan had really taken it over by then. I didn't understand the concept; I was trying to look for that central tension - that unifying principle you never lose sight of. The fun for me of writing Speed was making up the solutions that Keanu's character would try. And they would all fail. I had a boat idea - it was Vietnam-era munitions that would explode if they came into contact with water, so they had to be kept absolutely dry. Also a plane that can't ascend above 10,000 feet but has to get through the Andes - having to weave between mountains.

"I had a contract to do it - you sign it just to get the first one made. How could we get the same chemistry? Certainly after Keanu wasn't going to do it because he had a bad experience on another action movie. Then we got hurricanes while shooting. It was horrendous. Sets were destroyed. The experience was exactly the opposite of the first one. The first shot we did with Jason Patric was him riding a motorbike. He gave it too much gas and drove into a ravine. I should have taken that as an omen..."


Article Focus:



Speed , Point Break


GuestCaroline (2010-06-02 13:39:53)
 Just as Keanu's friend said, Speed is definitely a movie that must be watched from beginning to end...no matter how many times you've watched it! And boy have I watched this film!

Love love love this movie! One of my all time favorites!

(2010-06-03 01:40:15)
 there's a particular tone to the movie - comedic and exciting and thrilling at the same time. Which is not easy to pull off.

... and yet they did. ;)

(2010-06-03 23:46:33)
 Watched it last weekend and still loved it - just like the first time.
Guest (2010-06-04 15:05:24)
 excellent article..thanks so much for posting :D
mascnzHa! (2010-06-06 12:30:58)
 I just got the Australian Empire yesterday. I'm part-way through reading the article, and thought, 'I should see whether Anakin at WINM has seen this.' Good to know you're ahead of me.
Now to finish reading the article...

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