There's a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. As movie premises go, this one is absolutely ridiculous, right? You'd have been forgiven for thinking so, at least, as few involved with Jan de Bont's "Speed," which was released by 20th Century Fox on June 10, 1994, could have anticipated its popularity. The film was a runaway hit, winning two Oscars and grossing over $350 million worldwide. Now, 20 years later, it's a celebrated relic of an era before blockbuster filmmaking was so awash in digital wizardry, an era when practical movie magic sold the highest of concepts to the masses.
For actor Keanu Reeves, who starred as the film's hero, LAPD S.W.A.T. officer Jack Traven, it feels like that long ago if only because so much has changed over the last two decades. Though he had already starred in Kathryn Bigelow's "Point Break," it was "Speed" that turned him into an action star Hollywood would test in films like "Johnny Mnemonic," "Chain Reaction" and "The Matrix" throughout the rest of the '90s. He looks back on the film today as a fond memory in the unassuming early years of his career.
"I think there's something that people respond to in the film in the sense that it feels so accessible and human, in a way," Reeves says. "There's a vulnerability to it. Having participated in that, and having had a great opportunity, and then to be here 20 years later, it feels like that came from a more innocent time."
It also came from a time when audiences only knew actress Sandra Bullock, if at all, from work in comedies like "Love Potion No. 9" or futuristic actioner "Demolition Man" opposite Sylvester Stallone. It was "Speed" that sent her career soaring, but, of course, she couldn't have possibly seen that coming.
"I don't think anyone had any idea what was going to happen with that film," the Oscar-winning actress says. "If someone says they did, they're lying — unless in the editing process they felt something come together. But I certainly didn't feel it. I think we were sort of ridiculed a bit for being the 'low budget bomb-on-the-bus movie.' Not that I cared. I was just so happy to have a job and that I got to work with Keanu. I was grateful no matter what it was."
Indeed, Bullock wasn't at all ideal for Fox at the time. The list of more established actresses who were up for the role is long and considerable, from Meryl Streep to Kim Basinger and all points in between. They all turned it down, unmoved by the outlandish concept. But director Jan de Bont fought for Bullock, who had the girl-next-door look and appeal that he felt the role of bus-riding graphic designer (turned bus-driving heroine) Annie needed.
"Initially every studio wants bigger stars for lead roles, and I understand that," de Bont says. "But I could not see Julia Roberts driving this bus. I could not see several other actresses. I would never believe they would ever even be on a bus. I felt I needed an actress who you could believe would have taken the bus, and Sandra had this kind of every day look – I mean that in a good way — in the way she dresses, the way she behaves, very casual."
The character of Annie was as important as Jack Traven, de Bont says, because "she had to keep this whole team together and keep the tension going. And responses — secondary reactions are really key in movies like this. How real are they? How believable are they? She did a fantastic job on that. She was exactly what I hoped for, and thank God the studio, at the very last moment, let me choose her."
The ever-affable Bullock remains indebted to the director, with whom she worked once more on the film's ill-fated sequel in 1997, for going to the mat for her. "He chose me over so many people that probably would have helped that movie get kicked off in a bigger way," she says. "He gave me the opportunity. So I've got to say, he had some pretty big balls. And I'm grateful for his large balls. And you can quote me on that. And if you can get a visual to go along with that quote, that would be great!"
Filling the bus with reality
De Bont was developing a film about sky-diving at Paramount Pictures when "Speed" first crossed his desk. Even after the studio put it into turnaround, he still maintained an interest in making it his directorial debut because he had a wealth of ideas for how to ground the seemingly fantastical story.
For instance, his desire for a sort of workaday realism didn't stop with Bullock; it also extended to the characters on bus number 2525. It was important to him that the passengers reflect the multicultural world you encounter on the streets of Los Angeles every day. The studio pushed back, but de Bont was adamant that he have a large number of character actors along for the ride. He was interested not only in realism in his choices, but also the sort of intangible quality that comes with casting less-established actors and the honest reactions they can supply in the heat of an action thriller such as this.
"I really wanted people that happened to connect a little bit," he says. "You cannot 'act' out a lot of those scenes."
The very reason the film worked at all, Bullock says, is "because of every face and actor you saw on that bus. There was not one false casting note. You genuinely felt that these people would find each other on a bus, and their level of acting and showing the horror — I mean, we're driving in circles on a bus pretending. They were the ones that I really feel sold the premise and made the movie so good. It could have been so ridiculous, but instead it felt really real and gritty and fresh."
Nevertheless, Graham Yost's original screenplay presented more opportunities for a number of those actors, opportunities that they lost as the project was developed further (right up until and during shooting, in fact). Joss Whedon was brought on very late in the game to do a re-write that streamlined the film. In some ways it was by artful necessity; many of the actors will tell you the script needed the tightening. But it was also an economic consideration, as de Bont recalls he wasn't able to give speaking parts to everyone who was expecting them due to the amount of residuals they would be owed in perpetuity.
"But I wanted to make sure there was a complete balance between the people that had some lines and the people that had no lines, because they're all the same characters, they all experience the same thing," de Bont says. "I told them, 'Listen, even if you think you're going to just sit on this bus, believe me, you're not, because I really want you to respond and relate to the events and I'm going to put you right in the middle of it. I'm not just going to try to hide you behind some speaking part. No, you're going to get a lot of close-ups. I need your reactions. I want the audience to get the same experience, that this is real; these people just happened to wait at the bus stop and get on and suddenly their lives are changed.'"
Yost — a showrunner these days for TV's "Justified" who sold "Speed" after years toiling away on series like "Full House" and Nickelodeon's "Hey Dude" — has readily admitted that "98.9 percent of the dialogue" from the film can be attributed to Joss Whedon. But the "Avengers" director, who was a well-regarded script doctor in those days patching up everything from Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead" to the Kevin Costner bomb "Waterworld," was arbitrated out of credit for his work. Whedon spoke about his involvement in an interview with NATO's In Focus magazine in 2005.
"Part of what I did on 'Speed' was pare down what they had created, which was kind of artificial," he told journalist Jim Kozak at the time. "The whole thing about '[Jack Traven is] a maverick hotshot,' I was sort of like, 'Well, no, what if he’s not? He thinks a little bit laterally for a cop. What if he’s just the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed?'"
Whedon made significant alterations to the plot throughout as well, from killing off Jack's partner Harry (played by Jeff Daniels) to the disbursement of clues that would lead the LAPD to villainous former cop Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) to transforming character actor Alan Ruck's role from that of a smarmy lawyer who gets dispatched to a gee-golly tourist who picked the wrong bus. But Yost — who Whedon has conceded is always very polite to him and is, again, quick to praise his contributions — was lobbied to push for sole credit and got it.
"At that time, and to this day, scripts are fluid," Reeves says. "I think the director has to put their stamp on it and actors come in. With Jan's vision, there was a kind of economy to it. There was still a lot of room. But I don't remember feeling any kind of, like, 'What's happening!? Where's the movie going!?' while we were doing it."
De Bont, who utilized Whedon's talents once again on his 1996 "Speed" follow-up "Twister," was also looking for, there again, authenticity in the rewrite. He felt the dialogue had to reflect how real people would more or less react in a situation like this, and that's no easy chore.
"They're not going to be long discussions on the bus," de Bont says. "It's all going to be quick and fast. And there's nothing worse and nothing more difficult or complicated than to come up with short lines for people in panic. It's one of the most difficult things you could ever ask a writer to do. We tried to come up with some believable variations and also sometimes let the actors on the bus see what they would do and what they would say, how they would react, because it had to feel real."
So he needed somebody who could think on his or her feet, someone who, if an actor couldn't come up with something, could spring into action. "I could call him early in the morning and say, 'Joss, I need two lines for this,'" de Bont explains. "And then he'd called me back 10 minutes later. He'd come up with some great little sayings that were basically continuing the tension, while at the same time pushing some relief into it as well, because you cannot have two hours of constant similarity in reactions. There are all these people who are turning a little cynical or trying to escape the danger by saying something lighthearted. He was extremely good at that and I really, really, totally have respect. I really tried hard to get him credit."
Additionally, there was an array of action beats that de Bont conceived, ideas that would come to him that he thought he'd like to see in a movie like this. That includes the iconic 50-foot jump the bus makes over a gap in the freeway, easily one of the key money shots of '90s action filmmaking.
The arbitration became a sticking point for Whedon. He's admitted that "Speed" is one of the few movies from that era that he worked on that he actually liked, but beyond one of the rare posters he owns that still bears his name, there's nothing to reflect his participation in the project.
"I’ve always just disagreed with the WGA’s policy that says you can write every line of dialogue for a movie – and they literally say this – and not deserve credit on it," Whedon told In Focus in 2005. "Because I think that makes no sense of any kind. Writers get very protective of themselves. They’re worried that some producer will want to add a line so he can put his name on it. But what they can do is throw writers at it forever without putting their names on it because of this rule. So I actually don’t think it works for writers. It certainly didn’t work for me."
Jack and Annie and freaking out the suits with a new 'do
When the project was finally off to the races, Reeves really dived into the role of Jack Traven, right down to the costume. He went out and found the jacket Jack wears himself. The pants, everything, he had a vision for it. "I worked with the costume designer to kind of have this beach guy who, by day he's a kind of easy-going guy, and then when he puts the kit on, it's 'go' time," the actor recalls. But he also had a certain take on the character's hair that ultimately made the studio a bit uneasy.
"Once you say, 'Yes,' you go for it," he says. "I think I had longer hair and going into the role you start the physical training, you start working with the S.W.A.T. — we had some great people helping out with that. And for my take on Jack, I wanted to have the influence of the military. It was strong at that time, and still is, on the LAPD S.W.A.T. So I went and got a military haircut and came back with, like, a 'one' on the top and a fade on the side and I was a jarhead, LAPD, gum-chewing, badass motherfucker cowboy who wants to save the day and ain't afraid. Young dumb and you know how the rest goes. I didn't think it looked that bad, but it freaked some people out. I don't think they were expecting flowing locks but I don't think they were expecting to see a complete shave to the side of the head."
Reeves really liked the character. He sensed something endearing about him beyond the gruff exterior. He felt this was a guy who wanted to save people, who wanted to be the hero, who came alive in a heightened experience. "But he also has a vulnerability," Reeves says. "He runs out of answers, you know?"
The actor also thinks back fondly to the partnership Jack strikes up with Annie, how they support each other and make it through the day together. And that had to be seeded off-camera if it was going to show up on film at all. "I remember Jan kept having me come back in and audition with the ever-so-beautiful Keanu with some fold-out chairs pretending I was driving," Bullock recalls. Part of that was due to the director's need to sell the studio on her virtues, but it also helped lay the groundwork for an eventual camaraderie captured in behind-the-scenes footage of the two actors playing and laughing together on set. (The two would work together again on the romance drama "The Lake House" 12 years later.)
Reeves, however, as countless individuals interviewed for this piece attest, is a much shier, much more private and withdrawn person than his co-star. It took someone with the intangible spark of a Sandra Bullock to draw him out of his shell, a curiosity you can still see play out in the film to this day as Annie flirts with a Jack ambivalent about taking his mind off the emergency at hand.
"His type of acting has always been a little bit awkward," de Bont confides. "It's almost like that syndrome where people have trouble expressing themselves emotionally and they don't want to give that away; they want to keep it to themselves. I thought that was going to be the hardest part. But still, there's something to it, which is in a way kind of interesting. Keanu is not a regular action hero. He acts a little bit from a meter or three feet away. He kind of sees himself acting and then he looks back from it and then tries to adjust. There's a double personality on the set and it's kind of interesting."
De Bont is also quick to point out that the film, at least beginning with the bus portion, almost takes place in real time. So it's difficult to go to find extremes in any sort of relationship or love interest angle. "If you meet somebody for the first time, in two hours, how can you actually come to a complete resolved relationship," he asks rhetorically. "It's impossible." It also, funnily enough, gets at the heart of Annie's warning at the end of the film that relationships that start "under intense experiences" never work out.
For Reeves, the film walked that line very well simply because it never goes too far. "I think the bonding that goes on through high tension and confrontation and duress and crisis is real," he says. "And I think that they made a nice couple. They were opposites of a kind, but also the same. Because Annie, in the heightened situation, rises to it as well. In terms of the love story, they liked each other and they bonded through the experience. I liked that it wasn't too far. It was heightened, of course, and there's some playful dialogue in it, but I think that's part of the charm of the film, and charm, when it works in movies, is great. You enjoy seeing this couple together."
A humble little action thriller
If "Speed" were made today it would cost well over $100 million and feature wall-to-wall digital effects. But in 1994, it was a mid-budget ($30 million) actioner full of practical special effects and stunts, the result of honest-to-God grunt work from the various teams involved. It was almost like a documentary, de Bont says, in that he conceived it to put the viewer in the thick of the action, as if you were going on this thrill ride with Jack and Annie and the 17 terrified passengers (plus one wounded bus driver). It was just another extension of his overall desire to make an impact with authenticity, and what looked like such a high-octane blockbuster on the big screen was really a modest production.
"You needed someone who could visually tell this story," Bullock says. "It was all in the camera movements. It felt very, very small, but his storytelling through the camera is what sold the energy of the film. Had this been locked-off shots, you never would have sold this film, but because of where he instinctively knew to place the camera — and he would grab the camera away from the cinematographer and throw it on his own shoulder and put himself in peril just to get that sense of fear and urgency. I don't know who else could have done that. It was the perfect vehicle for him to sort of step in and show what he was able to do."
De Bont used a large number of cameras to capture the visuals from many different angles. There are even shots in the finished film where you can spot a camera in the distance, one of the director's many eyes focused on the action. He in fact developed a reputation for destroying equipment, like when the first attempt at the freeway jump sequence ended with the bus landing on a row of cameras.
When it came to stunts with the actors, de Bont says he didn't want there to be anything that he himself couldn't do. Meaning, his goal of realism even stretched to things like Jack leaping from a car to a moving bus, or hopping onto the side of a subway, things that are heroic, but not necessarily superhuman. In fact, when all of the passengers transfer from the bus to the large rescue vehicle toward the end of the film? That was the real actors (who received extra pay as a result of one of them, the late Paula Montes, holding firm that stunt work should yield more reimbursement).
"I think that created a big change with the actors and they started getting very, very excited about it," de Bont says. "And then at one point they of course wanted to do everything!"
The production was incredibly lucky in that the 105 freeway in south Los Angeles was still being constructed and wasn't yet in use. It became a huge playground for de Bont and company. His crew even helped with its completion by adding signage along the way, as the route was set to open immediately after production was finished.
"It was so fantastic because you really could create situations with all the cars and you could go at speed," de Bont says. "The helicopters over the top, you could get them really low to the ground, and those were all things that would be very hard to do right now, I think. I mean close to impossible."
Nevertheless, there were a few times when production was halted due to gunshots in the surrounding South Central neighborhoods. "That was one thing I had never expected," de Bont says.
There were quite a few buses used to play the film's true star, each of them separately outfitted for a variety of things. There was the jump bus, there was a bus for tilting on two wheels, there were a few to blow up and a couple of different rigs for drivers, because, of course, Bullock wasn't driving at any time. There was the "Popemobile," as it was affectionately named, which had its entire front cavity altered to allow for a stripped-down camera crew to be situated inside a tiny bubble to film head-on action. There was another version that had the actual driver of the bus on the roof so other angles could be achieved.
De Bont's creativity knew no bounds and, as a celebrated director of photography in his own right who had worked on films like "Die Hard," "The Hunt for Red October" and "Basic Instinct," the project was an opportunity for him to do wonders with his crew. He even had fun with rear projection during the climactic subway fight between Reeves and Dennis Hopper, rigging ceiling lights to pass by from time to time to sell the illusion with tangible elements (and, eventually, bring the duel to a bloody end).
"I was really struck by his passion, his energy, his focus," Reeves says of de Bont. "'Speed' has a humble beginning. It has a humility to it. That's what the project could bring. It was really important for Jan to put my character and all of the actors in real situations, buses jumping, buses hitting cars, fight scenes on top of subway cars, hostage-taking, things blowing up. The scale and the challenges brought this kind of compression and energy. It was technical but it was also emotional and he told a story. So for me, I think he really shined in that project."
Hitting the brakes with "Speed 2"
When a film is as successful as "Speed" was, it should be no surprise to anyone that the studio would try to capture lightning in a bottle once more. But "Speed 2: Cruise Control" was the antithesis of its predecessor, budgeted at a bloated $110 million, without the dynamic of the tight-knit ensemble element of the first film or any semblance of the charm de Bont and company had conjured three years prior. Reeves, perhaps sensing something was amiss, turned the opportunity down. De Bont and Bullock might have been wise to do the same.
Indeed, at an event for the film "Gravity" last December, she cringed when casually asked to recall her "Speed" experience. "But we don't have to talk about the sequel, right," she laughed.
"I think in hindsight there's always a lot of things that become more clear to you," de Bont says. "The reality is the studio wanted to make the movie and I had a deal with them and I felt like they had given me a chance to make the first one, so I felt obliged, almost, to do that as well. But the moment Keanu wasn't going to be in the movie, I started getting very worried."
Reeves had just come off another action movie in 1996's "Chain Reaction" and was feeling a bit drained as it was. If he was going to be up for it at all, his interest waned when the script simply didn't get at what made the original so special.
"I was totally fine with doing a sequel," he says. "I loved the experience of working with Sandra, who is amazing in the film and is a bright light, and again, the reality that she brought and the vulnerability — and I thought we made a great couple. And I loved Jan. But when I read the script, it just didn't deliver. Fundamentally, I thought a film called 'Speed' on an ocean liner was counter-intuitive. I always felt like if it was going to be in that scenario, then it was going to be, like, Jack Traven was trying to propose to Annie, but that this thing got in the way and in the middle of some crazy thing he's like, 'Will you marry me?' And she's like, 'What??' But at the time, just where I was at, I was physically exhausted and the script, I just didn't think it was quite there. So I couldn't get on the boat."
De Bont says the sequel, which starred Bullock opposite love interest Jason Patric and Willem Dafoe as the villain, should have stayed in tune with the modesty of the original. The production became gangly with the need for rescue boats surrounding the ship at all times and a screenplay that could have been much more focused. It just got out of hand.
"It should have been a much smaller concept," he says. "There was also no chemistry between the two leads. That was clear. But I've worked on so many movies in my life and big directors and some of them work great and some of them don't. You need luck as well. The luck we had on the first one where everything fell in place perfectly, we didn't have that luck as much on the second one. We got stuck in a fucking hurricane — in a real hurricane. And then people got so goddamn sick on the ship. I mean, actors would run in front of the camera, say the line, and run out to throw up outside the window and then back in. For the actors, it was definitely not a fun place to be.
"But I think that's life. There's a lot of movies made that should never have been made, or at least for a much lower budget, that's for sure. And that was maybe the mistake. But it still has good scenes. It's not a total loss."
"It was one of the good ones."
"We were all in it together," Reeves says, coming back around to the original's success. "Day in, day out, you're standing on the bus, everyone has their moments. They're reacting. There was always something that was happening to us and that we were sharing together. And everyone really enjoyed the material. Everyone was looking to bond and have fun. It was one of the good ones like that."
Indeed, even a poorly realized sequel can't sully the magic of "Speed." The film endures, and it's worldwide. Speaking of which, de Bont recalls a story from a year and a half ago when he was in Indonesia scouting for, of all things, a "Point Break" remake, an incarnation of the still-proceeding project that never did get off the ground. It was there he was met with evidence of the immortality of his work two decades ago.
"I was on an island and there was nothing there and it was getting dark," he says. "I had to get on a little boat to get to the other side, so I started a long walk. There was a pier. At the very end there was a little hut. I mean, nobody lived there; there was this one guy taking care of the boat. And he was looking at 'Speed' in Indonesian. This little guy, on this little battery-powered TV, I mean not bigger than 12-by-12 inches or so, was looking at that movie."
Today, Bullock, of course, continues to delight and inspire with work in films like "The Blind Side," "Gravity" and "The Heat." Reeves continues to take advantage of his screen presence in actioners while expanding into producing and directing with films like "Side by Side" and "Man of Tai Chi." And de Bont, who says he's not eager to direct anything again any time soon (it's been eight years since "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life"), maintains his passion for photography as chair of the Getty Museum Photograph Council. Unlike Reeves, he is shocked that it's been 20 years since "Speed" raced into theaters. It's an anniversary that feels like it's at least another five years off, he says.
But that's the funny thing about time. Like a runaway bus, it flies.