26 MPH / Going Down?

The Elevator

We may be finished with Bus 2525, but Speed hasn’t quite wrapped production yet. From the highways and byways of Los Angeles, production now moves to some location work downtown and, more to the point, stage 14 at 20th Century Fox for the film’s riveting opening sequence set in an elevator shaft. Filmed after the bus material, this sequence, by many accounts, was even more harrowing.

Gulp...
Gulp…

“Obviously, the movie is remembered for its bus work, but for me, the most challenging and in some ways dangerous sequence of the whole movie was the elevator sequence,” first assistant director David Sardi confides. “We built that on a sound stage all the way to the grid, an elevator shaft that had all the danger of a practical elevator shaft, and none of the benefits. I mean, we were moving the elevator with a crane outside of the studio with cables run out and stop and start on a walkie-talkie. There was no precision to any of it. It was all just eyeballing stuff.”

Adds special effects coordinator John Frazier: “We would never do this today. It was so dangerous.”

With all of those nuts and bolts in mind, there’s plenty to discuss about the filmmaking of the sequence. Speed‘s visual effects supervisor, Boyd Shermis, chimes in for the first time with perspective on that.

“We did a sort of old-school painted backing, so that when you’re looking down, it was sort of a fixed forced perspective on the elevator shaft,” Shermis says. “The elevator car is 10 feet off the ground, if that, but it’s sitting on a painted backing, much as like a cyc that you might have done in the old days, in old Hollywood. It was painted to the perspective of being 40 feet in the air looking down an elevator shaft at a 40-degree angle. That was a very old-school technique that Jan wanted to do, because it was cheaper and he shot a number of movies using that kind of gag and he was comfortable and confident he could pull off a handful of shots.”

The passengers of Speed's ill-fated elevator
The passengers of Speed‘s ill-fated elevator

But quite a lot of the episode is dedicated to a handful of the actors who were tapped to perform inside that elevator. Much like the stunts executed throughout the bus portion, the concept here would be elevating heart rates and getting real reactions on camera. For someone like actor Patrick Fischler, then new on the scene but today a widely recognized film and television character actor, it would be an absolute blast.

“That’s Jan’s thing that I think maybe went too far on Twister,” Fischler (who starred in de Bont’s follow-up) says. “I was so young and I just was, like, ‘This is so fucking cool!’ This was my SAG card. This was my first job making money as an actor and I didn’t have to wait tables, and never did again, actually. Speed was the beginning of never having to – 30 years later, I’ve never had to have another job.”

All of that and more on this week’s episode of 50 MPH!

Episode 26 Transcript

Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. 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.