21 MPH / Hell on Wheels

The Bus: Part 1

With Speed‘s production ducks all in a row, it’s time to call “action” on this whirlwind Hollywood spectacle. Cast and crew launch into the first half of the film’s hour-long bus section, beginning with work on city streets in Los Angeles and Long Beach and, soon after, the 105 freeway. Tons more crew voices come into the fold to help detail the many stunts conceived and executed for this phase that would make Speed one of the most gripping action films of its era.

We begin by digging into the many buses purchased and outfitted for various usages throughout the production, which has become a hallmark feature of the Speed lore.

“I’d have to think about what they all did, but it seems like the more we talk I go, ‘Oh, yeah, that was a bus. And that was a bus,'” special effects coordinator John Frazier says. “Because the buses were cheap, but the time wasn’t cheap. There was no changeovers or anything. When we went from one to another, it was just, drive the other bus in. They were all in my shop there at Fxperts in Sun Valley. We had them stashed everywhere.”

Behind the scenes of SPEED
Lighting and camera rigs adorn one of the many buses used in the production of Speed

Adds unit production manager Ian Bryce: “What you don’t see on the screen, obviously, is all of the repair  work that had to be done, constantly. There was one time where I think the bus was coming off the off-ramp and there’s cars, like, all in the off-ramp, and so the bus is, like, sideswiping them as they’re going along and hitting the fence. What people don’t realize is that night that bus has to go in the shop and have all those repairs made and Bondo and whatever you’ve got time for to get it back out at six o’clock in the morning.”

Moving through the on-screen story, we recount the first bus explosion in Venice and that fateful phone call between Jack Traven and Howard Payne before coming onto the first real harrowing stunt of the film: Jack’s valiant leap from a speeding Jaguar to the armed-and-ready-to-blow Bus 2525.

“I’m jumping to the bus, and I had some webbing inside the bus, like, where the stairs were, so I had something to grab onto,” recalls assistant stunt coordinator Brian Smrz, who performed the stunt for the most dangerous shots. “But I remember specifically, it was Jophery Brown was driving the Jaguar and if he would get, like, a foot closer, I’d go, ‘Oh, that’s easy. You can go a little further.’ And then he’d go, like, a foot away, I’m like, ‘No, no. I can’t do that.’ It was a very definitive line that I felt like I could make.”

We also round up the many drivers on hand for the proceedings, including an unsung fleet of precision drivers headed up by legendary Hollywood figure Bill Young, as well as the two key members of the stunt team most often tasked with driving the bus itself: Gil Combs and Donna Evans.

Glenn Plummer and Keanu Reeves in Speed
Glenn Plummer and Keanu Reeves in Speed

“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in something that had so many different places for the driver to be,” Combs says of Frazier’s blind-drive configuration for the stunt drivers. “I made conversations with the actors. I said, ‘Guys, I think I can pretty much find holes and stuff as you guys move around, depending on the situation, but if I say move, just dive to the side immediately, because obviously I can’t see.’ The first time I hollered it out, and, I mean, the actors literally dove to the seats. Parting of the sea, man. They weren’t taking any chances. Because if I couldn’t see, they knew we were all in trouble. I didn’t have to say it twice. Put it that way.”

We also meet a few new cast members who start to fill out the film’s broader world, including Joe Morton, Margaret Medina and Richard Lineback, not to mention Glenn Plummer, who stars as the poor Jaguar owner that Jack commandeers to kick things off.

“I played the dialogue the way [Jan] said play it, and it was the funniest part in the whole God damn movie when I told Keanu to take that phone,” Plummer says. “That was Jan. He was like, ‘Glenn, no, just tell him to take the fucking phone.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it like that.’ And I did. ‘Take the phone!’ And everybody fell over laughing.”

And rest assured, there are plenty of crazy anecdotes to go around on a production that was a down and dirty as they came in the early-90s.

“I was prepping second unit and they were running out of lenses,” first assistant camera Vern Nobles Jr. says. “So, they told me – and, you know, really bad traffic to get there – they said, ‘Can you go get in your airplane and fly them? You can land on the freeway.’ And I’m like, ‘Let me talk to the highway patrol.’ They said, ‘You own the freeway. You can do whatever you want. You’ve just got to deal with LAX,’ and I went, ‘OK.’ I got my airplane and I flew the lenses out there.”

All of that and more in this week’s extra-stuffed episode of 50 MPH!


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.