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The Taking of Pelham 123 – Brian Helgeland

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John Travolta © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was determined not to re-do the classic movie The Taking of Pelham 123, but to return to the novel, retelling the story as a highly contemporary thriller, and reinventing it for a modern-day New York. Still set in the Manhattan subway, dispatcher Walter Garber’s (Denzel Washington) ordinary day is thrown into chaos when one of his trains is hijacked by a criminal mastermind named Ryder (John Travolta) who is threatening to execute the passengers one-by-one unless he’s given a large ransom.


What was it about the original movie that made you want to revisit it?

John Travolta © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
John Travolta © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

I write R-rated action dramas and every year that goes by, it gets to be a smaller and smaller world that you have to work in. You have to think about how to get the studio excited, how to sell them something. I was interested in that situation of two guys who are on opposite sides of an issue, an antagonist and protagonist. I knew that Sony owned the rights to Pelham, and I really loved the original film, and the last thing that I wanted to do was go in and muddy around what they did so well.

The idea for me at the start was using that as the title, being something that the studio felt comfortable making, rather than just a nameless sort of orphan idea that you might have on your own, using Pelham as a way to springboard your own crime movie that you might had want to do. And the idea was to always stay away from Pelham, the original because we stated that we couldn’t do it better than they had done it.

Denzel Washington © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Denzel Washington © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

But we have that same situation as before, one guy in the train with the hostages and another guy outside dealing with them over the radio. And that is where the similarities end because we took our guys in the direction we want to take them from there, rather than in the direction that they go in the original movie.

How did you decide to retell it?

I was interested in developing much more of a relationship between the dispatcher and the hijacker. I felt neither the novel nor the original movie really forced Garber and Ryder to crawl under each other’s skin to figure each other out.

This version of Pelham focuses a lot on the way the MTA deals with hostages, rather than the police. Did you research all of that?

We did research as far as what the police response would be, but I think we tried to stick to the union response. If you are on the other end of the phone, all you’re thinking about is the guy you’re dealing with and the passengers. Once you get past the, ‘Is this a terrorist situation or not?’ we just tried to be true to how the people would react in a hostage situation.

How was James Gandolfini’s character of the Mayor conceived?

Denzel Washington and James Gandolfini © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Denzel Washington and James Gandolfini © Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

We started with [Rudy] Guiliani, and when Gandolfini read it he wanted it to be more of a [Michael] Bloomberg. So we tried to incorporate how he could wear $3,000 suits for a dollar a year. All of those kinds of elements gave John [Travolta] a foil for his anger towards the city; it’s personified by the mayor. We had fun with it, because the part wasn’t really a part. Tony [Scott, the movie’s director], in his indomitable style, sent the script to Gandolfini and said, ‘Do you want to play the mayor?’ And Gandolfini said, ‘There’s no part for the mayor. I just have two lines.’ Tony said, ‘Well yeah, but if you do it, we’ll come up with something.’ So he took a leap of faith and we invented the part. I think it was Denzel who said, ‘This is the mayor of New York, so it can’t be Joe Blow playing the part. We need somebody with some weight.’