A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Pop Quiz Hotshot” An Appreciation Of Keanu Reeves & Sandra Bullock’s “Speed”. After 25 Years It’s Still A Well Executed, Taut, Tense & Wonderfully Crafted Action Essential.
When “Die Hard” was released in 1988, it set the bar for action films to follow. Any action film that would take place in one particular setting was dubbed “Die Hard” on a…bus, plane, building, etc. Such as Wesley Snipes “Passenger 57”, (“Die Hard” on a plane), Steven Segal’s “Under Siege” (“Die Hard” on a ship), Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” (“Die Hard” on a mountain), Van Damme’s “Sudden Death” (“Die Hard” at a sporting arena). No film is a better example of that then Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s “Die Hard” on a bus actioner “Speed”, which celebrates it’s 25th anniversary on June 10th 2019.
“Speed” would be the first feature film screenplay that all started from screenwriter Graham Yost. He was told by his father, Canadian television host Elwy Yost, about a film called “Runaway Train” starring Jon Voight, about a train that speeds out of control. After seeing the Voight film, Graham thought that it would have been better premise, if there had been a bomb on board a bus with the bus being forced to travel at 20 mph to prevent an actual explosion.
A friend of Yost’s suggested that the speed be increased to 50 mph. After writing a quick draft, Yost had initially named the film “Minimum Speed” to reflect on the plot element of the bus unable to drop below a minimum speed. He realized that using “minimum” in the title would immediately apply a negative reaction to the title, and with the consideration of the suggested 50 mph speed, he simply renamed it to “Speed”.
Yost’s initial script would have the film completely occur on the bus; there was no initial elevator scene in the opening of the film, the bus would have driven around Dodger Stadium due to the ability to drive around in circles, and would have culminated with the bus running into the Hollywood Sign and destroying it. Yost took his idea and first draft to Paramount Pictures, which expressed interest in green-lighting the film and chose director John McTiernan due to directing one blockbuster film after another with “Predator”, “Die Hard”, and “The Hunt for Red October”. However, McTiernan declined to do so, feeling the script was too much of a “Die Hard” retread.
Renny Harlin (“Cliffhanger”, “Die Hard 2”) and Quentin Tarantino were offered the chance to direct, but both turned it down. Tarantino had later named the film as one of his twenty favorite films of the 90’s. McTiernan then had suggested Dutch cinematographer Jan De Bont, who had never directed a film before but served as cinematographer on McTiernan’s “Die Hard”.
De Bont had agreed to direct because he felt he had enough experience as a cinematographer. Despite a promising script, Paramount passed on the project, feeling audiences would not want to see a movie which takes place for two hours on a bus. De Bont and Yost then took the project to 20th Century Fox who also distributed “Die Hard”. Fox had agreed to green-light the project on the condition there would be other action sequences in the film other than just being on the bus.
After the agreement with 20th Century Fox, De Bont had come up with the films opening action sequence of having a bomb on an elevator. The set was built with four fully-functioning elevators, and was five stories high. It was both an opportunity to establish the character of Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves), his partner Harry (Jeff Daniels) and the films villain (Dennis Hopper). It was also inspired by an experience De Bont had of being trapped in an elevator while working on “Die Hard”. Screenwriter Yost then decided to conclude the film on a subway train to have a final plot twist not involving the bus. With the new addition of two action scenes not involving the bus, Fox immediately approved the project.
In preparing the final shooting script, an unnamed author had revised Yost’s script in a manner that Yost had called “terrible”. Yost spent the next three days “reconfiguring” the draft. Jan de Bont brought in then unknown writer Joss Whedon, who went on to create “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, “Firefly” and directing the first two “Avengers” films. Whedon came on board a week before principal photography to start work on the script. According to Yost: “Joss Whedon wrote 98.9 percent of the dialogue. We were very much in sync, it’s just that I didn’t write the dialogue as well as he did”.
One of Whedon’s contributions was reworking Traven’s character once Keanu Reeves was cast. Reeves was not keen to how Jack Traven came across in Yost’s original screenplay. Keanu Reeves said “Their were situations set up for one-liners and I felt it was forced Die Hard mixed with some kind of screwball comedy”. With Reeves’ input, Whedon changed Traven from being “a maverick hotshot” to “the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed”, and removed the character’s glib dialogue and made him more earnest. Yost has also given Whedon credit for the “Pop quiz, hotshot” line that is used between Reeves and Hopper.
Actor Stephen Baldwin, was the first choice for the role of Jack Traven, Baldwin declined because he felt the character (as written in the earlier version of the script) was too much like the John McClane from “Die Hard”. Yost said they had a long list of considerations that included: William Baldwin, Jeff Bridges, Kurt Russell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Nicolas Cage, Mickey Rourke, John Travolta, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford.
Director Jan de Bont ultimately cast Keanu Reeves as Jack Traven after seeing him in 1991’s excellent “Point Break”. He felt that the actor was “vulnerable on the screen. He’s not threatening to men because he’s not that bulky, but he looks great to women”. Jan De Bont insisted that Keanu Reeves get a sensible haircut as to what would befit a hard-working Los Angeles cop. 20th Century Fox was horrified when they saw the buzzcut that he had gotten for the film, and they threatened to postpone the film to allow his hair to grow back.
The watch that Keanu Reeves noticeably wears, the Casio G-Shock DW-5600C, had been discontinued when filming commenced. Due to the film’s success, the watch was in such popular demand, the company had to start making them again. Like most of his films, Keanu Reeves did approximately ninety percent of his own stunts.
For the role of Annie, Yost said that they initially wrote the character as African American and as a paramedic to justify how she would be able to handle driving a speeding bus through traffic. The role was offered to Halle Berry but she declined the part. Later, the character had then been changed to a driver’s education teacher, and made the character more of a comic-relief sidekick to Jack, with Jeff Bridges and Ellen DeGeneres to star as the leads.,Instead, Annie became both Jack’s sidekick and later love interest, leading to the casting of Sandra Bullock. Sandra Bullock came to read for “Speed” with Reeves to make sure there was the right chemistry between the two actors. She recalls that they had to do “all these really physical scenes together, rolling around on the floor and stuff”.
Rosanna Arquette, Joan Cusack, Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brooke Shields, Madonna, Demi Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone, Lea Thompson and Debra Winger were considered for the role of Annie. Sandra Bullock had actually learned to drive a bus for the film, she passed her test on her first attempt. “Speed” is what catapulted Sandra Bullock into international stardom. After “Speed” she became one of the most in-demand and highest paid actresses. For the films villain, director Jan de Bont casted Dennis Hopper because he didn’t want a typical villain. He wanted Payne to be a regular guy who just snapped one day. Originally Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro were considered for the role of Howard Payne.
In one of the films biggest stunts: “The Bus Jump”, Ten buses were used in the making of the sequence. Each one was modified so that it could reach a speed of seventy miles per hour, and it was equipped with powerful shock absorbers. The driver’s seat was moved back fifteen feet, so that if something went wrong, the driver wasn’t ejected from the bus. The seat itself was a suspension mechanism between the ceiling and the bus floor to avoid the driver from suffering spinal compression on impact.
The regular buses used through the rest of the film had two steering wheels, one for Sandra Bullock, the other for the stunt driver. For the jump a special ramp had to be built. The bus was started from a mile back, and accelerated towards the ramp. When it hit the ramp, it had reached a speed of 61 miles per hour. The bus traveled 109 feet, and its front wheels reached an altitude of twenty feet from the ground, which was higher than anyone had anticipated. Because of this, the cameras were not placed correctly, and the top front part of the bus goes out of the frame when the bus reaches the maximum point of the jump. The jump was done twice, as the bus landed too smoothly the first time. The bus jump scene was not in the original script, director Jan de Bont came up with the idea one day when he was driving around Los Angeles, and noticed one section of I-105 was missing.
The film had ran out of money before it was completed. When the film was first previewed for an audience, the subway scenes were animated story boards, nothing was shot. The audience loved them so much, the studio came up with the funds to shoot the scenes. Once the climax was completed shooting it was again screen tested to an audience. A Fox producer who was at the screening realized they might have a hit movie on their hands when he noticed that, audience members would walk backwards when they needed to go to the bathroom, so they would miss as little as possible.
“Speed” was the winner of 2 Oscars for best sound and sound effects editing. It was originally to be released in August 1994, as 20th Century Fox had concerns that the film would underperform at the box office, and they felt it would be a worthy action successor to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies”, which opened that July. However, the film performed so well during test screenings, and test audiences loved it so much, it prompted Fox to move the release date up to June, as their first movie of the summer season, and to provide adult action competition in comparison with the family-friendly “The Flintstones”, which opened two weeks earlier. In the end the film grossed $121 million in the U.S. and $350 million worldwide, against a budget of only $30 million. Not to mention the reputation it has made as an essential film of the action genre. Log onto YouTube and check out the trailer for “Speed”, it has one of the best trailers ever cut together.
In 1997, a sequel “Speed 2: Cruise Control”, was released. Sandra Bullock agreed to star again as Annie, for financial backing for another project, but Keanu Reeves declined the offer to return as Jack. As a result, Jason Patric (“The Lost Boys”) was written into the story as Alex Shaw, Annie’s new boyfriend, with her and Jack having broken up due to her worry about Jack’s dangerous lifestyle. Willem Dafoe starred as the villain who takes over a cruise liner. “Speed 2” was directed by original “Speed” filmmaker Jan De Bont, while the film didn’t have the same impact as “Speed”, it is still an immensely fun action picture and in my opinion underrated.
Reeves and Bullock have good chemistry; they appreciate the humor that is always flickering just beneath the surface of the plot. And Dennis Hopper’s dialogue has been twisted into savagely ironic understatements that provide their own form of comic relief. Like The Bus Itself, It Keeps Barreling At You At Full Speed. It goes from 0 to 50 in the opening minutes and never lets up. Just when you think “Speed” is over, it takes you on a new high. Not only is it a taut and wonderfully-crafted thriller, but “Speed” has some of the highest rewatch-ability factor in an any action flick.
As a thriller, “Speed” ranks with the fun-loving excitement of the “Die Hard” pictures. Films like “Speed”, if done wrong they seem like tired replays of old chase cliches. Done well, they can be fun. If done as well as “Speed,” they generate a kind of manic exhilaration. In his directorial debut, Jan De Bont shows his own mastery in a great entertainment. De Bont went on to an elusive filmmaking career directing: “Twister”, “The Haunting” and the last film he has directed “Tomb Raider” in 2003.
“Speed” is a smart and inventive thriller with wall to wall with action, stunts, special effects and excitement. We’ve seen this done before, but never as well as “Speed” or at such a high pitch of energy.