Los Angeles SWAT cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) gets on the wrong side of Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) after foiling his plot to take an elevator full of people hostage. Hellbent on revenge, Payne then rigs a city bus to explode if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour. And so, with the help of a plucky commuter called Annie (Sandra Bullock), Jack has to figure out how to defuse the bomb and catch the elusive villain, all while he’s stuck on a speeding bus trying to keep the passengers and the public safe from harm.
Sometimes it’s the flawed and forgettable flops that inspire something even better. Such was the case with Runaway Train (1985), a prison escape thriller starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as escaped convicts trapped on a high-speed train without any brakes, together with railroad worker (Rebecca De Mornay), while being pursued by an overzealous head of security (Don Pugsley).
Runaway Train is mildly entertaining but dreadfully predictable. It also tanked at the box office and was panned by critics. However, five years after its release, Runaway Train became the seed a smash hit movie that’s earned a spot in pop culture: Speed.
A Sitcom Writers’ Dream
Graham Yost was a television writer and producer in the late-1980s. In the autumn of 1990, he took a short break from sitcoms to work on a totally different idea. It was during a conversation with his father that Yost brought up Runaway Train and how much cooler it would’ve been if there had also been a bomb involved.
That idea was high-concept but simple enough to get Yost writing and, four weeks later, he produced a finished screenplay: an action thriller titled Minimum Speed (later shortened to Speed, of course). Yost gave the spec script to his agent to shop around Hollywood, which for him held his hopes and dreams.
I would be sitting in that [TV writers’] room, just hoping and praying that an assistant would come in and say, “there’s a phone call for you,” and that it had sold, and I could quit Full House. Full House was just not the right fit for me. And occasionally, the assistant would come in and say “there is a call,” and I’d go in, and it would always be “well, there’s no news,” and I’d be like “oh no, come on, please.”—Yost interviewed by EW in 2014.
Tired of waiting for the call and realising things weren’t working out for him on Full House, Yost quit the show. A short while later, he and his wife were in Oregon attending a wedding… and that’s when he got the call people were interested in his screenplay.
After a short-lived courtship with Paramount Pictures, it was 20th Century Fox who picked up Speed. Yost was able to stay involved as the studio chose a director and found actors to play the leads.
A Rookie Director Gets His Shot
Jan de Bont was enjoying a long career in Hollywood. He started as a cinematographer in the mid-1960s, but although he’d worked on several big television and film projects, it would be nearly three decades before de Bont got a chance to direct his first feature.
His previous work with director John McTiernan on Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990) had given producers the confidence they needed to choose him to usher Speed into being. McTiernan had been the studio’s top choice for the job, but he turned them down because he felt the story was too similar to Die Hard.
However, McTiernan fully endorsed his frequent collaborator and colleague. Yost remembers that de Bont understood from the beginning what the film needed.
We knew that this thing just needed to really look great and have an incredible sense of propulsion and reality, because it was such a crazy concept. Jan got that, and the sense of humor, and he just knew how to shoot it, and he figured it out for the money allowed. In general, Jan just really got it.—Yost interview with EW in 2014.
The Bus Jump
De Bont is credited with understanding how to shoot the film, giving it a clear ‘action flick’ feel, but added several key stunt sequences of his own. The biggest of those was the infamous bus jump scene on the freeway. In an age before digital FX became commonplace, having a bus jump across a 50-foot gap in a road was no small feat! The crew used five different camera angles to stretch a jump that lasted less than half a second into an eleven-second long sequence.
According to Cinefix, the stunt almost didn’t make into the movie. The first take failed when a stuntman missed the ramp and destroyed the bus. However, de Bont managed to keep that fact from the studio, so nobody from management had any reason to object to the crew taking a second run at it.
While de Bont certainly deserves credit for the idea and orchestrating all the moving pieces on set, it was the film’s editor, John Wright, who was the project’s true unsung hero. Wright’s work splicing together the footage not only made the bus stunt work but gave Speed a heart-pounding pace. Like de Bont, Wright had been a frequent collaborator with McTiernan, but his work on Speed became a milestone. He was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Arthur Schmidt for Forrest Gump (1994).
The Film’s “Secret” Writer
Pop quiz hot shot: what uncredited Hollywood scribe and director is responsible for “98.9%” of the final dialogue in Speed?
If you said Joss Whedon, take a bow. The man who went on to create Buffy the Vampire Slayer and direct the first two Avengers films was originally a script doctor de Bont hired for Speed. Jack Traven originally delivered the kind of quippy one-liners that accompanied almost every cop movie of the ’80s and ’90s, but after signing on to play the lead, Keanu Reeves expressed concern over his character’s lack of depth and cliched dialogue.
At the time, Whedon was a young writer trying to carve out a career when de Bont reached out to him. Whedon had done some writing on ABC’s sitcom Roseanne and seemed to have a knack for crafting memorable dialogue, so he came in did a pass on the script by expanding the lead characters and adding to their discourse.
Although some of Whedon’s additions (like Annie’s backstory as a failed graphic artist) ended on the cutting room floor, his fingerprints are all over the film. For example, it was Whedon who came up with Dennis Hopper’s now-famous catchphrase “pop quiz, hotshot”. Remarkably, however, he didn’t receive any credit for his extensive work. This wasn’t down to de Bont or Yost, who Whedon has stated was very “generous”, but down to a technicality with the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
In 2014, Whedon spoke with Lauren Duca of the Huffington Post and explained what happened and the impact it had on him.
It has to do with WGA bylaws. You can come in and rewrite all of the dialogue, and still not get credit. They didn’t think I made big enough changes to the plot, Whedon said. The studio gave me one [credit], but then the Writers Guild of America took it away, and I was pretty devastated. I have the only poster with my credit on it.
Whedon’s memories of Speed might be bittersweet due to the technocrats at the WGA, but his impact on the film was substantial.
Jack and Annie’s Real Chemistry
It’s hard to imagine Speed without its two stars, but Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock weren’t actually the first choices. For the lead of Jack Traven, the producers looked for an established A-list action star. Yost recalled the casting process when he spoke to EW a few years ago.
We went to the Toms first - you know, you go to Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks - and I think Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who were going to do Money Train. We went down many different avenues.—Graham Yost interview with EW in 2014.
In a story that’s become legendary, the part of Traven was offered to one of the Baldwin brothers. Stephen Baldwin, not his more successful sibling Alec. If that’s not hard enough to believe, Stephen Baldwin turned it down because he thought it was too much of a Die Hard copycat. And while he did get a meaty role in classic crime noir The Usual Suspects (1995), one has to wonder how the younger Baldwin’s career might have been different if he’d agreed to get on that speeding bus?
In another twist that seems too outrageous to be true, one of today’s biggest daytime talk show hosts was the first choice for Annie: Ellen DeGeneres. It’s likely hard for modern audiences to get their brains around TV’s Ellen in this role, but DeGeneres’ career was in a very different place in 1994. As Yost has said several times in subsequent interviews, DeGeneres’s version of Annie would’ve been more of a wise-ass joke cracking character and less of a love interest. Keep in mind that DeGeneres didn’t go public with her own sexuality until later, too.
Nevertheless, producers ended up going with Bullock, fresh from playing Lenina Huxley in Demolition Man (1994) opposite Sylvester Stallone. The logic was that Bullock could pull off a similar type of dynamic with Keanu Reeves’ ultra-macho Jack.
What neither the stars nor producers could have predicted was the real-life chemistry that formed between the Reeves and Bullock. In a recent appearance on The Ellen Show—ironically!—Reeves revealed that he has a crush on Bullock while they were making Speed. And his revelation came six months after Bullock likewise revealed she had a crush on Reeves while they were working together. But neither acted on their personal feelings out of professionalism, and the two never dated, although they stayed good friends after shooting ended. This genuine chemistry between the leads certainly played well on screen.
Speed Explodes at the Box Office
Test screenings of an early cut of the film were favourable. In fact, those early audiences were so excited about Speed the studio took the unusual step of moving its release date forward from August to June of ’94. It wasn’t just those test audiences that loved the film, either. Speed became critically and financially successful, grossing $350M at the box office against a $30M budget.
Critics praised first-time director Jan de Bont and the technical work of the film’s crew.
Action directing is a put-up-or-shut-up game, a skill that can’t be faked or finessed; even a 10-year-old can tell if you’ve got it or not. And on the evidence of the invigorating Speed, Jan De Bont has definitely got it.—Kenneth Turan, The LA Times.
De Bont has assembled it with masterly precision. And Speed looks terrific. There are breathtaking aerial shots, mind-boggling stunts, and camera positioning that you just don’t expect. It’s a rocketing eyeful.—Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer.
The praise was worth it. Speed was nominated for three Academy Awards and went home with two, for ‘Best Sound Mixing’ and ‘Best Sound Editing’.
Speed also cemented Reeves and Bullock as bonafide movie stars and spawned a big-budget sequel three years later. Unfortunately, despite its far larger $160M budget, Speed 2: Cruise Control crashed and burned without Reeves returning. He hated Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson’s script, so only Sandra Bullock came back alongside Jason Patric as a new character. Despite being directed by de Bont once again, Speed 2 failed to recapture the magic of the original. It probably didn’t help that a cruise liner isn’t exactly a speedy mode of transport, either!
In the pantheon of 20th-century action movies, Speed holds its own and is amongst the best of the genre. Much more than yet another Die Hard clone, it blazed its own trail and raised the standard for others to try and match in the remainder of the ’90s.
Speed turns 25 this year and is a noteworthy milestone for a fun blockbuster, created before the dominance of CGI and astronomical budgets of $150-250M. The premise is corny, the plotting simplistic, and the ending a little contrived, but Speed doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is : a summertime popcorn flick to be enjoyed with lights and logic dimmed.
Cast & Crew
director: Jan de Bont.
writer: Graham Yost.
starring: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Joe Morton, Alan Ruck & Jeff Daniels.