27 MPH / Underground Technique

The Subway

After months of photography all across Los Angeles and even to the desert and back, Speed is closing in on a wrap. The bus material is shot and in the post-production pipeline. The elevator sequence has started clicking into place in the edit as well. But there is one massive element left to finish: the third-act subway finale!

For many, this section of the movie would prove to be the weakest, but when you peek behind the scenes at the craft involved, it might be the most exciting part of the entire shoot. An amalgam of filmmaking techniques would be deployed to achieve the sequence, which sees Jack Traven finally face off with Howard Payne deep beneath the surface streets of Los Angeles on a runaway subway train for one last thrill. After a hair-raising rooftop scuffle, the train will jump the rail, disintegrate as it blasts through an unfinished subway station and finally, breach Hollywood Blvd. as it grinds to a stop in front of Tinseltown’s famed Chinese Theatre.

Keanu Reeves in Speed
Rear projection was deployed to see the illusion of actors Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper fighting on top of a moving subway train.

Beginning with the fight, Jan de Bont and company opt for rear projection to sell the illusion of actors Keanu Reeves and Dennis Hopper slugging it out on top of a speeding subway train. That means the visual effects team will have to go out into the field to shoot that background imagery for VFX plates.

“Dave Drzewiecki and I spent a couple of nights on [that],” visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis says. “They gave us the subway and a couple of tunnels for a couple of nights to just set some VistaVision cameras up on a train with a couple of different positions and get a bunch of footage. It was kind of the perfect way to use rear projection, where a lot of its flaws weren’t revealed. Because it was such a kinetic, fast-moving thing, and there was wind blowing and the train’s rattling and rolling on the tracks. If it didn’t sync up, it sort of made sense, almost. It was the last time I ever used that technology.”

Next would come the derailment portion, which is where, much like the elevator sequence, the world of miniatures would come into play. Enter the late Jack Sessums, train miniature extraordinaire, whose team would build and help photograph a set of 10-foot, 150-pound subway trains.

Speed Subway Sequence Behind the Scenes
Speed‘s subway train crew

“We were gearing up to do Speed and the studio got a call from James Cameron saying, ‘I’m not going to have True Lies ready for its early summer release. I want at least another month,'” recalls Sessums Engineering-based photographic consultant Michael Sajbel. “And Speed was all filmed, except for a few of the things at the beginning with the elevator and toward the end with the wreck of the subway cars. They said, ‘We’re going to move Speed up.’ And there was this real tough lady at 20th Century Fox who called us and said, ‘You no longer have a personal life. You are going to work every day to the point of exhaustion and all day Saturday and all day Sunday until you are done.'”

After that, the cherry on top and one of the last major stunts of production as the subway train explodes out and onto Hollywood’s most famous thoroughfare. What a treat for those tourists.

“That was very well-crafted,” set decorator K.C. Fox says. “That sort of ricochet system, when it finally breached the street in front of the El Capitan Theatre, how they made that happen, it was just fascinating. It was this giant rubber band thing that just allowed it to push through.”

Kisses, artful glass falling in front of the lens, and… cue the Billy Idol!

Check the gate!

That’s a wrap!!

All of that and more in this week’s final production-focused episode of 50 MPH!

Episode 27 Transcript

(Subway crew photo courtesy of Dave Drzewiecki)

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.