Tony Scott is clearly a speed freak. That is, his movies usually operate at somewhere between 90 and 120 miles-per-hour, from the control tower-buzzing fighter jets of Top Gun, to the zooming cars of Days of Thunder, to the hyperkinetic, whirlwind editing of every movie he’s made in the last decade. Now there’s Unstoppable — out tomorrow — about a massive freight train loaded down with dangerous chemicals that … just … can’t … slow … down, and it’s quite possibly his most high-velocity film yet. We spoke with Scott about his latest project, as well as just what it is that gives him the need for speed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, this is your second movie in a row about trains starring Denzel Washington. Coincidence?
TONY SCOTT: If you think about Pelham, that was a hostage situation in the bowels of New York, and there’s very little in terms of train movement. This here, the Beast is the third character in the movie, which is a train that starts at 50 m.p.h. and ends at 150. It’s basically a character. It’s obviously still a train, but it’s very different conceptually from my last movie. I’m trying to think what you’d parallel it with: Well, it’s Speed on speed. When I read the script, I couldn’t put it down. Usually I’m a terribly slow reader, but I just flashed through it and I said, “F—!” So I did my homework, I went to Pennsylvania and met the people, learned the world, met role models for my cast members, and then I said, “I’m in.”
Was it difficult to maintain the breakneck pace?
I find difficulty a challenge. I’m perverse. I always look for things that challenge me, so I said, “Damn, there’s only one static part in this whole movie, so 90% of this movie, I’m on a train that’s going 70 m.p.h.” But I wasn’t going to be inhibited by the fact that I’m shooting on a train. I’ve got my two principals, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, in a confined space. For me it’s interesting creatively because you’re balancing these two characters, unfolding their differences head-to-head through the course of this insane journey for 90 minutes. It’s like a piece of theater.
You’re one of the very few modern directors who’s really developed a unique visual style. How would you describe your aesthetic?
My style is always inspired by my characters and my world. For instance, in Man on Fire, I said as a rule of thumb that if Denzel feels it, smells it, or sees it, I will articulate it in terms of style, in terms of the camera. With this one here, it was not being intimidated by my stage being at 70 m.p.h. and trying to shoot it as if it were in a controlled environment. Each movie has a different style that’s dictated by the world that I’m showing.
So you don’t think you have a specific personal look that carries over from film to film?
I think I have a very distinctive style, but you look at all of my movies and you’ll see that I never like to repeat myself. I hate repeating myself. My movies do have a distinctive style, but each time, as with painting, you move from one painting to the next and the next and the next. I think I always do that, so if you look at my body of work, there’s something that carries over, but you’ll also see there’s a shift and a move and a difference.
You’ve worked with Denzel a number of times now. Do you guys have some sort of telepathy or shorthand at this point?
It’s what’s called in Hollywood “trust” or “respect.” I think we trust and respect each other: It’s never easy with Denzel, and I’m never easy with him. He’s always chasing difference and I always applaud it, and I’m always chasing difference and he’ll applaud it. But we trust in those chases, that we’ll get it there. In the five movies I’ve done with him, there’s always a different aspect of his personality that we want to hone. I’ll never ask an actor to be someone he’s not; I tell them to reach inside and then find a real-life role model for him to reference.
You don’t seem to use a lot of CGI in this. Was that a conscious decision?
When I started work on this movie, I thought of doing a bunch of it with CGI, but then I thought, “It’s real characters, a real world, a real story, so I should probably shoot it in a real way.” This is a movie about feeling you’re inside this train: the weight, the power. Audiences are so sophisticated now that, while they won’t be able to articulate what’s wrong with the CGI, or why it’s not working, they’ll feel it’s off. Even my mom when she was 95, she’d say [old woman’s voice] “You know what? This sequence feels funny to me!” And it was always because it was CGI.
How fast was the train actually going as you were filming? How did you achieve the illusion of it going 150 mph?
I sometimes did little speed-ups in post, but I also selected locations where I’d be tracking alongside with trees. The train would be doing 40-50 mph, but when you’re tracking through foreground trees, it looks like it’s doing 100. Also, I’d just use my cameras. The world in the background looks like it’s going crazy but it’s actually just the camera moving. It’s all smokes and mirrors.
Were there any close calls while shooting on a speeding train?
It was dangerous. It’s the most dangerous movie I’ve done. There weren’t really major stunts, but you’ve got a camera crew on a train that’s sometimes going 70 m.p.h., and then somebody’s not paying attention and there’s a telegraph pole a foot away from you, so it was very worrying everyday. Those trains are unforgiving.
So if something goes wrong in the shot, do you then have to back the train all the way up and start again?
Yeah, like if Denzel’s like, “What’s my line?” Or Chris goes, “Aah, I haven’t got my props!”
“Roll it back!”
Forty minute reset! What I did was select locations where I’d have a ten-mile run, and I’d strap sections of dialogue together and just roll my camera until I’d run out of film.
Now that there’s a resurgence of a vampire craze, would you be interested in revisiting your first film, The Hunger?
Definitely. We’re actually in the process right now with a major studio, not necessarily a remake or a reinvention, but shooting The Hunger in Brazil, in Rio. The Hunger was a horror movie, but it was psychological. Now it’s going to be City of God meets The Hunger. And it’s going to be all about the nightlife where the feeding is easy and people go missing undetected.
At what point in that process are you?
We’re in development with a writer from City of God. Man, I loved that movie, and I ripped it off mercilessly with Man on Fire.
Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I think people are all lying when they say they’re all original. I’m the best plagiarist in the world. Actually, The Hunger was a total rip-off of Performance, Nicolas Roeg’s movie.
With David Bowie instead of Mick Jagger.
So you’ve done fighter jets, stock cars, submarines, and now trains. What do you think will be the next mode of conveyance you tackle?
Motorcycles? I’ve been working on Hell’s Angels, the Hunter S. Thompson book, for 12 years. I’ve got a script and I’m getting close.
Last question and it’s a stupid one: In Top Gun, Maverick had the need for speed. But in this movie, your characters need to slow it down. Is this a metaphor for how you’ve changed in the past 24 years?
Maybe. [Laughs.] Actually, I think the need for speed is still in Unstoppable, for most of it, at least on my part as a movie-maker. I think I actually took a leaf out of Top Gun’s book and drove it into Unstoppable. Just kept the momentum going.