Director Tony Scott describes his re-imagining of the movie The Taking of Pelham 123, which pits an overburdened train dispatcher, Walter Garber, played by Denzel Washington, against a mercurial vengeful killer, Ryder, portrayed by John Travolta, who hijacks a subway train, as a terrifying cat-and-mouse game. We spoke with him about the movie, his fourth collaboration with Denzel Washington.
How close to the original movie is this film?
It’s similar in that it’s a hostage situation in the subway, but I think the motivation of the characters is very different.
Well, for one thing, Walter Matthau was playing a cop, [Denzel plays a train dispatcher], also in terms of John’s [Travolta] character, it’s based on a real guy, who actually came out of Brooklyn and gravitated to Wall Street and worked for the city and then he went and did time in jail. He just got out of jail, before the movie, and his character is motivated by taking revenge on the city of New York. The original movie was about let’s hold hostages in a subway for a million dollars, which was sort of a stupid place to hold hostages, because it’s a cul de sac. In this John’s character has a plan. It is based off of real events and real characters.
For weeks John and Denzel didn’t shoot on-camera together, they only work off-camera.
That made it great for the characters, because John developed that relationship [with Denzel through the phone]. It’s really a tough movie to do, because two-thirds of the movie is two guys on the phone. I saw that as being a challenge, because I said, ‘How do we keep this anxiety and momentum going?’ It comes with the actors and the writing. The boys stayed separate; John was on one side of the studio, and they shook hands once a [day].
What does John bring to this film?
John has a big heart, and he’s dangerous, he’s funny; he’s smart, so he plays against what you’d normally expect from the bad guy.
Was shooting this film in the subway really dangerous?
It’s a tremendous responsibility for a director being down there, so we never did dangerous things. The driving above ground was much more dangerous than some of the things in the subway. It’s actually a lot more dangerous because we were shooting at night most of the time, people get tired and there’s this thing called the third rail, so people that loose concentration [can get killed]. To me it was a huge responsibility. I think one of the stamps of my movies is that I love shooting with real things in the real world and it gives a level of drama and performance and everything just seems to rise to the occasion. At the same time, it’s worrying because all you need is for somebody to step the wrong way or put their hand in the wrong direction and you’ve got a serious accident.
How do you feel about CGI?
My mum was 95 when she died, and she would watch movies and she’d say, ‘That scene doesn’t quite work,’ and she always managed to finger out the scene that didn’t work because it was digitally-regenerated. On this film, when we’re on Manhattan Bridge at the end, there are helicopters and the guy just turning the dial on the computer can get it, but [in real life] what it does is it just elevates the performance, elevates drama. When we were down in the subway we have real trains running behind the boys standing there. [Laughs] We would do rehearsals but when you run a real train through it, you’ll watch everything change. There’s a whole shift, in the best possible way. In terms of the drama and the performances it gives me a reality and more of an edge.
Since you and Denzel have worked together so many times, have you developed a short hand between yourselves that you use while on the set?
No, I think we are both insecure about what we do, and secure in terms of reaching. I want to see this world in a different way and Denzel’s always reaching inside himself, trying to interpret, carefully, the character in a different way. So I think there is a short hand, I think the short hand is trust. We’ve been together for four movies now, so it’s trust in terms that we have the same work ethic and trust in terms that we trust each other’s process.