Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: What Makes Tony Scott Run?

The new action thriller “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” a remake of the 1974 movie, is helmed by Tony Scott, the director of such popular actioners as “Top Gun,” “Crimson Tide,” “True Romance,” “Man on Fire,” and “Déjà Vu.”  Scott frames the hijacking of a subway train and the subsequent standoff between cops and crooks as a terrifying cat-and-mouse game, pitting an ordinary, overburdened train dispatcher, played by Denzel Washington, against a vengeful killer portrayed by John Travolta.


“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” began life as a bestselling novel by John Godey.  The book’s central puzzle kept readers guessing.  Who would rob a subway train?  You’d have to be crazy – the subway is a closed system.  Even if you get the money, there’s nowhere to escape.  The novel was first adapted for the screen in 1974, starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and today remains a cult classic.


The filmmakers approached the new adaptation, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and producers Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, and Steve Tisch, along with Scott, not as a remake of the classic film, which they felt stands on its own.  Instead, they returned to the novel, retelling the story as a highly contemporary thriller and reinventing it for a modern-day New York. 


“It’s a great story, yet unknown to new generations of filmgoers,” Scott says.  “The world, and New York City in particular, has changed a lot since 1974.”  The characters are as opposed as the worlds they inhabit.  “Garber works for MTA NYC Transit, above ground, and when we researched it, we found it was very high-tech, like NASA,” says Scott.  “I took that world, the quiet and cleanliness and high tech quality of the MTA, and balanced that with the darkness and grittiness and bowels of New York in the subways.”


The director believed there was only one way to achieve his vision. “Tony felt very strongly about shooting the real tunnels when we decided to make this movie,” Barry Waldman, exec producer, remembers. “He wanted the sound and the fright of being in and around moving trains, for the subway to become a third character after Denzel and John.”


“Usually people build sets and try to reconstruct it on a stage instead, but there’s nothing like capturing reality,” Waldman continues.  “It’s difficult, it’s dirty, but it’s exciting. It’s a challenge, and I always love a challenge.”  And a challenge it was – with temperatures above ground hitting 100 degrees and below ground even hotter.


Scott ended up filming in the subway for four weeks, the longest and most extensive shoot ever in New York’s subway.  The production was granted access to areas NYC Transit had never before allowed a film crew, including the makers of the original Pelham.


Shooting in the tunnels can be a harrowing experience, with 400 tons of train roaring past only inches away, while the train’s third rail shoes, or electrical conductors, speed by even closer, with 600 volts of electricity coursing through them. “You don’t realize how big the trains are when you’re on the platform,” Washington explains. “But when you’re down on the tracks, those things are monsters, rolling at 40, 50 miles an hour. The wind can whip you around, so you’ve got to brace yourself.”


NYC Transit officials kept close watch to ensure safety; still, actors and crew were forewarned, as is every individual who enters the tunnels, that trains could come on any track, at any moment, and from any direction… and everyone should always assume the third rail is live at all times.


With camera movement, quick pans, saturated colors, and selected focus among his inimitable visual vocabulary, the director builds an escalating sense of suspense and dread in the thriller. “Tony is really a painter,” says Black. “The way he shot the scenes in the subway completely hypnotizes you and makes you feel like you’re right there.”  Scott views the tunnels as a unique and separate world. “My goal was to touch that world in a way that I felt nobody has ever touched it before.”


Washington had a long history with Scott, starring in three of the director’s films, Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, and Crimson Tide. “He’s the best,” Washington says about Scott. “Tony works harder than anybody, so whenever he calls I come running.” 


Scott was impressed by Washington’s take on the character.  “He said, ‘I’ve played FBI, I’ve played CIA.’  He recently played a hostage negotiator in Inside Man, so he didn’t want to do that.  He was looking for something different.  We found the difference in simplicity.  Denzel plays Garber as the Everyman, the guy next door, in a very honest way, and it’s the perfect counterpoint to John Travolta’s angry character.”


Scott and his team researched prison culture, which influenced Ryder’s closely cropped hair, handlebar mustache, and tattooed neck.  While imprisoned for a white-collar crime, Ryder underwent a fundamental transformation.


For supporting roles, the filmmakers drew from New York City’s rich pool of talent, including several actors who previously had worked with Washington, Travolta, or Scott. James Gandolfini appeared in the director’s True Romance and Crimson Tide before becoming a household name as the crime boss of “The Sopranos.”  He goes from mobster to mayor of New York in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.


Scott had long wanted to work with John Turturro and had come close on several projects, but it has never worked out until now.  The director recruited the actor (a favorite of the Coen Brothers) to portray Lieutenant Vincent Camonetti, the head of the New York Police Department’s hostage negotiation team.


Inside a nondescript building in a secret location in midtown Manhattan lies NYC Transit’s brand-spanking-new, state-of-the-art Rail Control Center, which handles the entire subway system’s never-ending flow of human traffic. In The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, this is where Garber sits at his desk and wages a battle of life or death with a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like hijacker.  Although much of the movie was shot on site – due to the doggedness of Tony Scott’s long-time location manager Janice Polley, along with NYC Transit’s liaison, Alberteen Anderson – the locale that sets the pulse of the film remained hidden from cameras. 


Back down in the tunnels, things were getting cramped. As anyone who rides the subway at rush hour knows, space is tight. Explains exec producer Barry Waldman: “When you’re trying to film inside the train operator’s cab, which is probably five-by-three, there is no way to squeeze in two actors, a make-up artist, hair, wardrobe, and sound person.”


Not to mention the four, sometimes five, cameras that Scott employed. “Directors are getting used to having multiple cameras, but Tony definitely brings it to another level,” cinematographer Tobias Schliessler says. From his perch on an apple box, Scott quietly guided his multiple camera operators during each take, like a maestro conducting his orchestra.  Even in the smallest of spaces, Scott often brought in a 360-degree dolly track. Yet not even the director could magically fit his actors, crews, and cameras into a closet designed for a solitary train operator.


The solution: build a better subway car. On stage at Kaufman Astoria Studios, the crew constructed a car from scratch, using pieces from real trains. NYC Transit was eager to help; after all, it’s not easy finding ways to recycle 40 tons of steel. (And yet they do: old subway cars are buried at sea, used to rebuild eroding barrier reefs.)


To distinguish his Pelham from the first, Scott aimed to create a more visually exciting atmosphere by filming part of the “money run” under an elevated train, almost as homage to another classic New York film of the 1970s, The French Connection.


For the uninitiated to New York City, negotiating the subway is like swimming ocean waters in January:  alien, scary, exhilarating.  Some five million people pass through these tunnels each day; learning to master the mysteries of a modern transport system more than a century old is a rite of passage into New York City’s urban tribe. Riders try not to think about what might lurk outside the train’s doors in the pitch black:  the occasional trash fire, rats, the unforgiving third rail.


“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” had to confront these challenges and more on a daily basis in order to make a film with a plot that unfolds below ground.  Then again, movies have a long history of exploring the tunnels, dating back to 1904 when the subway first opened and Thomas Edison mounted a camera on a train to capture its trek along the path of the city’s first subway. 


In July 2007, nine months prior to filming, Scott’s production team arrived in New York to research and prep for “Pelham.”  Their liaison, and keeper of the key to all things transit, was Alberteen Anderson, director, Film and Special Events for NYC Transit’s Department of Corporate Communications.  One of the unit’s primary purposes is to acclimate people not accustomed to working around 400 tons of moving steel and guarantee their safety.  The unit also helps accommodate a movie company’s special requests.