Q&A: How Tony Scott kept 'Unstoppable' real — at 60 mph
Director and producer Tony Scott has made movies involving fighter planes ("Top Gun"), racing cars ("Days of Thunder"), submarines ("Crimson Tide"), subways ("The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") and now trains with his latest film, "Unstoppable," which opens Friday.
Inspired by a true story, the movie finds Denzel Washington — collaborating with Scott for the fifth time — playing a veteran train engineer and Chris Pine as a young conductor who are racing against time to stop a runaway freight train that is hauling combustible liquids and poisonous gas.
The movie was shot from September until Christmas Eve 2009 in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Scott and the production used several trains and tracks and had to deal with rain, snow and even one real derailment. Through it all, though, Scott, 66, stuck to his guns and made the film with just a modicum of CGI.
In an interview, Scott told us about about the making of "Unstoppable" and his decision to keep it as realistic as possible.
Tony Scott: I think it's the nature of the material: It's about real people in a real-life situation, and I shot it in a real way. I think the decision has more to do with creative than to do with being anti-CG. My mum, she died at 96, she would would always say, 'There's something funny about that scene' and the scene was always the one that was digitally generated.
Also, the performances from Denzel and Chris. I watched when you put them in a real train going at 50 or 60 miles an hour, they are fighting the vibration and the noise and they are concentrating on what their differences are as characters in the piece, so you get a whole different level of performance than when you put actors on stage sitting in some cut-out.
What I like to do is that I lump together blocks of dialogue so it's almost like I am running eight- or 10- minute sections and it gives the boys a chance to get a feel and get a sense of a scene. You watch them grow and you watch the characters grow.
Q: How do you choose a project?
Tony Scott: I read the script and I couldn't put it down — it goes from 50 mph to 150 mph. What I did before I made a commitment to the movie I went and spent time in Pennsylvania with the real people, and I found role models. I touch the world and say, 'I want to do it.' I have a vision and I know how I am going to do it and then I come home and I give those role models to my real people and say, 'This is who I believe you are.' So it's a great short hand.
Q: How did you get access to the train tracks?
A: We used private railway lines. We used two private companies who were fantastic. We rented those tracks so we could control our day. Imagine if you were trying to work a track that was a commercial track — it would be impossible.
Q: What are those tracks generally used for? Freight?
A: Yes, freight. They ran nights while we were running days. They would change their schedule.
Q: How many miles did you have to work with on the tracks?
A: Depending on the scenes — the scene with Chris Pine and the grain storm as I call it [in which Pine is attempting to attach the speeding train to another train and is blasted with grain], I had to a find a section of track that ran alongside the road. I scouted endlessly to find sections of track that ran alongside the road so I could have four cameras on the camera car running alongside it, shooting a close-up on Chris Pine and a wide shot and I got a helicopter camera and I had a camera on the train. And it was a 10-mile run. The reset on those 10 miles [for another take] was anywhere from 20 minutes to a half-hour to get the train back.
Q: How many trains did you use?
A: We involved people from the business and people who have actually done movies and who hadn't done movies and the companies we rented the tracks from. ... I think we had a total of nine locomotives. The red ones we rented up in Canada in Ontario and brought them down to Pennsylvania, and the blue ones I think we got locally.
We had the real guys running the trains; they were fantastic. They never had such an adventure in their lives. It was wild. For me it was the biggest and toughest adventure I have ever had in terms of movie making.
Q: How many cameras at a time to capture all of this?
A: If you think about the movie and I shot it for real, 90 percent of the movie was done on the train at anywhere from 40 to 70 mph. The only normal setup was with Rosario Dawson, who was the eyes and ears of the audience in the control room. I said I am not going to be inhibited by the fact I am moving at an average of 60 mph. I am going to shoot it like I'm on a stage.
But that was obviously hard to do because it's freezing cold and you are doing 60 mph. But the actors, they love it because they get to feel part of the real environment and my cameras are never invasive into their process.
I get everything in one setup with three or four cameras. People call me indulgent by the numbers of cameras, but I maybe do only two or three takes. I had very little hand-held. I had my guys in my helicopters. I had my guys in the camera cars.
Q: Isn't it true you had a derailment?
A: We had a derailment. When the train was going from one location to another and it derailed. It was just going slowly over these tracks, and it actually derailed.
Q: This is the first time you worked with cinematographer Ben Seresin?
A: Yes, but he was my clapper loader at 18 for a bunch of commercials. So he goes way back. Most of my crew go way back.
Q: You are sort of the British Clint Eastwood [who as a director is known for keeping takes to a minimum].
A: I have a tremendous shorthand and I work quickly, and when I work that quickly in conditions that were arduous and trying as that. ... I give my boys storyboards every morning so they know what the day is. Then they build off that, and they take it to another level.
Q: How did you do the scene where the runaway train is coming around the bend on the tracks and nearly derails? You couldn't have done that without CGI.
A: That was done with a real train coming through the bend, but it wasn't up on two wheels — that was the only thing we cheated. The big fuel tanks there were CGI. We also did little cleanups with CG.
— Susan King
Photo: Chris Pine in "Unstoppable." Credit: Robert Zuckerman / Twentieth Century Fox.