For the past couple of months, MTV News has been taking you behind the scenes of Hollywood’s biggest movies, showing you how cool scenes and stunning effects are created. We’ve touched on Taylor Lautner’s CGI wolf in “Eclipse,” the scariest moments in “Paranormal Activity 2,” the wackiest bits in “The Other Guys” and much more.
Now, we run up against “Unstoppable,” the Tony Scott-directed, Denzel Washington-starring flick about a runaway train carrying a cargo of toxic chemicals. Scott’s longtime editor, Chris Lebenzon, gave us a call and revealed a few secrets behind the production.
Scott Shot 30,000 Minutes of Film for a 99-Minute Movie
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is that the audience spends a great deal of time watching trains shoot across the screen, and yet the scenes never become repetitive or yawn-inducing. The key here is simply that Scott shot so much freaking footage.
“Tony shoots so much with so many cameras, and we placed them in the best possible places to make everything look different,” Lebenzon explained. “He shot 30,000 minutes of footage. He had cameras in the sky, in the ground. Tony shoots with long lenses and a lot of foreground, so it gives you the illusion that the environment is speeding by. Sometimes we sped up shots and sometimes we slowed others down.”
The filmmakers also spent a great deal of time turning the runaway train, which they referred to as “triple 7, ” from an inanimate object into essentially the film’s villain. “Creating the sense of the beast of 777, which was really the antagonist — that was very important,” Lebenzon said. “Not only picking the right shots, but selecting where they would go to build the most impact throughout.”
The Key to ’Unstoppable’ Is ’Top Gun’
Many folks have noted the similarity between “Unstoppable” and Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” — both star Washington, both unfold aboard trains — but Lebenzon revealed to us that there’s also a deep connection between “Unstoppable” and Scott’s “Top Gun,” which Lebenzon also edited.
“We learned a lot on ’Top Gun,’ because they were in a control room on an aircraft carrier. You learn when is the most exciting time to cut back to the control room in the middle of the action. We carried that through to ’The Taking of Pelham.’ And so we really knew what we were doing when it came to those cuts on ’Unstoppable.’ ”
Early Cuts Stole From ’Runaway Train’
One of the most high-stakes scenes in the film is when a Marine is lowered down from a helicopter and attempts to land on top of the speeding train. Lebenzon told us that filmmakers originally didn’t have the shots they needed, and so they temporarily inserted clips from other flicks, including the 1985 Jon Voight-starring “Runaway Train.”
“We stole a bunch of shots as placeholders from ’Runaway Train,’ ” he said. “We borrowed other shots from ’The Taking of Pelham’ and different trick shots from other movies and then went back and shot them ourselves as recently as eight weeks ago. The shot of the Marine smashing through the glass windshield — we did that two months ago.”
Denzel’s Stunt Double Looked Nothing Like Him
God bless Denzel for taking part in as many action sequences as he did — including a few that had him running and jumping on top of the moving train (albeit while secured with safety wires that were later digitally erased). But the filmmakers, of course, had to use stuntmen as well, and Washington’s simply looked nothing like him. Thanks to some nifty editing choices, however, audiences can’t tell the difference.
“[Denzel] did those stunts a few times on ropes that we then erased with visual effects,” Lebenzon said. “Then we had to get the right stunt double who didn’t look like he was laboring too much but also didn’t make it look too easy. How old should he be? He didn’t look like Denzel at all, but we cut it fast enough that it didn’t really matter.”
Chris Pine’s Nemesis Is … Corn?
Moviegoers are savvy these days. They can tell the difference between a visual effect and a practical one. And “Unstoppable,” it is apparent from the get-go, employed very little CGI.
“This movie didn’t have too much visual effects — to the delight of the studio when they realized how much money we were saving them,” Lebenzon said. “For something like when 777 goes around a big curve, that was visual effects, because you can’t tip a train. But people were still worried the train was going to tip when Tony shot it. It didn’t, thankfully.”
Most of the time, though, Scott and his team relied on practical effects, such as during a scene in which Washington’s co-star, Chris Pine, straddles two train cars in an attempt to connect them. “He did a lot of that stunt work himself,” Lebenzon said. “Then the car bursts open and all that stuff starts flying out at him. The stuff they used was actually some kind of kernel corn that was flying in his face. Movie magic!”
Check out everything we’ve got on “Unstoppable.”
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