Inspired by actual events, “Unstoppable” is an adrenaline rush fueled by director Tony Scott’s signature mark of propulsive action rooted in the reality of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. A veteran train engineer (Denzel Washington) and a young conductor (Chris Pine) race the clock to stop an unmanned runaway train – effectively a missile the size of a skyscraper – and prevent disaster in a heavily populated area. As they face imminent danger, their one solace is Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), who’s in a control room miles away from all the action but provides a voice of reason and direction throughout the chaos.
MoviesOnline sat down with Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson and director Tony Scott to talk about their new film. They told us about the challenges of mixing non-stop action with finely-tuned characters to bring an audience further into the action and drama. They also described how the film used practical effects rather than CGI and employed some of the industry’s most inventive stunt people to create the film’s heart-stopping action sequences.
Q: Tony, Can you talk about the dialogue that the actors must use? Was it all in the script or did the actors do some additional research to get the lingo for their particular jobs just right?
Tony: There’s always a fine line in terms of research. I like to give it a validation with the lingo or the trade craft as we call it now. Then we put that in the script and sometimes we embellish it and sometimes we trim it back. I think in the main we trimmed it back. Often the audience gets confused and it made Tom Rothman say “There’s too much trade craft in here.”
Q: But did you guys pick it up pretty quickly in terms of getting that lingo and did you understand what it was or was it like speaking another language?
Rosario: I think it falls into the research category. That’s why I spent a lot of time talking to Marian Alexander who we had chosen to be sort of the background person for Connie’s background and so we drilled her. She was constantly talking to Tony and she talked to me and then we would go over the transcripts and he’d highlight certain points. A lot of the time was spent asking her what does this mean. “Tying off the air brakes” – what does it mean if it’s not? Like really getting into it so that at least whatever I was saying I knew what I was talking about which was really helpful. But also then just the energy behind it. Is this really important? Is that not important? Because all of it as technical as it sounds sounds really huge but you’d be like “No, that’s actually kind of something stupid. That’s pretty simple. Don’t emphasize that.” So, it was very helpful.
Q: Tony, what was the most challenging for you – to shoot this or to edit it?
Tony: Shooting. I wouldn’t say challenging. I love the challenge of this. This is the biggest adventure of my life because, in a way, even though we didn’t do what I’d call major stunts in terms of how you look at movies today, it was a very dangerous movie to shoot because if you just happen to be looking in the wrong way at the wrong time. My goal was to not be inhibited by shooting on a train going 50-60 miles per hour and to take what I use, my trade that I use, my craft that I use on a stage with a circular track going 60 miles per hour with three cameras and then you’ve got to watch at the same time that you don’t get in the way of the performance of the guys. But, I think shooting in a real life situation helps actors. It helps them because they’re competing against the noise and the wind and out of that comes mistakes or things that shift and change in terms of tone – not in terms of re-honing the whole sequence.
Q: Denzel, could you talk a little bit about playing an average guy that’s pushed into doing heroic things? Was this role interesting because it was based on a true story?
Denzel: What’s a not average guy? I’m just asking. I’ve been asked that, about playing an average guy.
Q: It’s a 9-5 guy that does his job.
Denzel: Like most people in the world.
Rosario: He’s not famous.
Denzel: Well he is now. He’s sitting somewhere now, right? I need my people. Tell Denzel I’ll have to call him back. I’m sorry. What was the question?
Q: It’s about playing average guys.
Denzel: I don’t know what that means so I don’t worry about that. There’s nothing average about someone who can control a 100,000 ton machine or make it stop or risk his life to do it. So I’m the average guy. Definitely they weren’t average and what they did was not average. Again, just to answer your question, I don’t look at it that way. I don’t go “Oh, this is a…” You know, like you put them in a slot before you start. Slightly above average.
Q: Chris and Denzel, what’s the most interesting or helpful thing you learned from the real railroad workers that you talked to and did you actually get to drive a train?
Chris: It was interesting and frightening, I remember when we went to the rail yard in L.A., they said that the most dangerous place was not actually out on the track really, it’s in the yard because the trains can be so quiet and so seemingly innocuous, but of course they’re thousand ton beasts. I remember this one guy telling this story that this guy got surprised on the track in the yard. The train was only going 3 or 4 miles an hour and pinned the guy and they had to call the family out because the guy was still alive as he was pinned. They said their goodbyes and the train separates from the guy and then the guy passed away. That’s how dangerous these things are. And also, pretty much everyone we talked to had an experience, whether it be a conductor or an engineer, with life and death stuff – people trying to cross the tracks and there’s no emergency stop button on the train. A lot of people experienced traumatic events so there were counselors and stuff like that.
Denzel: It was great to get to drive the train. Everything on them hurts. It’s all heavy. You know, you step on it, you hit your knee. As I think Tony was saying earlier, it was dangerous all the time. It was actually kinda more, not dangerous but I was always more nervous because Chris and I were looking forward and he had all these guys and women on this platform going 50 mph so we could see what’s coming and they couldn’t and we might be talking (whispers). It was just trippy. It was great to be able to be…I couldn’t imagine making this movie on green screens. It wouldn’t have worked because you didn’t know what – Chris knows real well – you wouldn’t know what getting hit by puffed wheat cereal [was like]. (Laughs) How does that feel?
Chris: I mean, I’m in pain just as I started reading [the script] “and then cue cereal action sequence” and it’s like who knew that cereal could be such a pain in the ass? But yeah, it’s a credit to Tony really too that everything was practical, so not only were we on trains, on tracks, moving, but then Tony set up the… We had two trains. One was the train that looked like the train and another was chopped up so that that cab could be circled by this kind of 360 camera so that we could run scenes over and over and over again and feel like we were driving the train and not be hindered by worrying about a master and coverage, coverage, coverage. We could just run the scene and it was such a freedom and a liberty to be able to do that.
Q: Denzel and Chris, it looked like it was you running on top of the trains in all those outdoor scenes. What were the most challenging sequences and how many of those did you do and how many did stuntmen do?
Chris: [Joking] I didn’t have a stuntman.
Denzel: [Laughs] I had seven.
Chris: For every day of the week.
Denzel: I remember early on I was reading the thing and we were way back in the thing and thinking why does the other guy get to jump in the truck and be the hero. I want to be that guy. And as we kept working on the material, I started looking at the train and thinking maybe I shouldn’t be the guy who jumps in the truck. Chris should be the guy. I can see why he’s the guy that jumps. We had very experienced stuntmen. They were those guys that did “Casino Royale” and stuff and they knew how to jump from thing to thing. Chris pissed me off because he’s doing a lot of his own stunts. (Chris laughs) Punk!
Q: You guys had a lot of stuff to do but it looked like it was them doing it.
Chris: I was enjoying it.
Denzel: No, them doing it.
Tony: D’s got a fear of heights so we had him up at 25 feet on a 50 mph train and that wasn’t an easy task getting him up there. (Laughs) This train is doing this and so we mixed and matched stunt guys with the real guys. Chris was down there in between the two trains and the grain blowing which was actually sugar puffs. Those sugar puffs are hard coated so they travel better when they’re airborne.
Chris: Thank you.
Tony: And that’s mixed with potato flakes. What I really wanted was a snowstorm but I thought damn, I can’t do a snowstorm this time of year so I thought we’d come up with this idea of a grain car and the seal breaks on the grain car when they hit. So we recreated the grain with sugar puffs and potato flakes.
Q: Was that the hardest scene?
Tony: The hardest scene for me is always the scene when I’m dealing with performances, when I’m actually looking at the guys and hoping that I’m covering it in the right way and that I’m handling it in the right way and especially when you’re on a train going at that speed that all of a sudden the logistics are not taking over from the performance. This is about two guys resolving their differences through the course of this journey which is great. So, you’ve got the beast and these guys having to come to terms with who they are and their differences so it’s a great vehicle for me in terms of the drama of putting together these two different worlds.
Q: Denzel, you’ve worked with Tony now five times. On the set, have you guys gotten to the point where you almost speak each other’s unspoken language? Also, are you still learning something from him about the craft of filmmaking?
Denzel: Definitely I learn and know that I cannot do what he does. He makes films. I’ve directed a couple of films which has got nothing to do with what he’s doing. I’ve learned so much from him. I think there’s obviously a shorthand. He knows how I like to work. I know what he likes to do. He knows I like research. He’s going to have a ton of stuff long before we start. You know, things like that.
Tony: There’s never been a complacency at all. Both of us are similar. We’re always reaching for difference. We never want to repeat ourselves. That’s my goal. Every movie I do and every day I go to work my goal is to say not just the fact that I’m reaching for difference, it’s how do I look at this world and these characters in a different way and then Denzel does the same. He reaches back inside himself and he finds a different aspect of his personality which we’ve done in five movies and every character is very different from “Crimson Tide” to “Man on Fire” to “Unstoppable.”
Denzel: Rosario and I worked together twice too so I think we have a shorthand too.
Rosario: I’d say the same thing. I’d agree on that. I’m still learning. I’m still learning from you, darling. And, by the way, I also did my own stunts. (Laughs) I know you guys could tell so that’s why…
Q: Denzel, there’s a new cast member on Saturday Night Live who did an impression of you and a sketch of you a few weeks ago. Did you get a chance to see that and what did you think?
Denzel: Nah. I didn’t see it.
Rosario: Are you going to do it for us?
Q: I couldn’t possibly do it justice.
Denzel: I think you could if you really tried.
Rosario: I know you want to.
Denzel: I have a fear of heights. Tony, maybe if you directed him now? I’ve been hearing about it today but I haven’t seen it.
Q: Okay. Then I have a question for Chris. Obviously you must be dealing with offers on a different scale after “Star Trek.” One of the things we know you’re considering is Jack Ryan. So how are you choosing roles after that at this point?
Chris: I’ve just been very blessed. It’s such a shock to me that I get to sit on a dais and have people ask questions and are very interested in who I am and what I do and sit opposite these people that I’ve watched since I was a kid. To answer your question, I guess really it’s afforded me the luxury of choice. “Star Trek.” It’s afforded me the luxury of being able to cherry pick for I don’t know how long, but I’m in a time right now where I can at least say yes and no to certain things. I think the guiding principle for me is working with people who — because I don’t know how long it’s going to last — I want to seize the moment and I want to work with people who I…
Denzel: …want to work with.
Chris: (Laughs) want to work with. And that’s Tony, that’s Denzel, that’s Rosario, that’s people like this so I’ve been very lucky.
Q: Rosario, how was it for you working with Denzel?
Rosario: In the one scene that we had together? Brilliant.
Denzel: We didn’t even talk together.
Q: You kissed at the end though.
Denzel: No, no. Obviously we talked then. Not for long.
Rosario: It’s interesting because on the last movie that we had done together, we also had one scene together and it’s the same thing on this one. So I figure, I don’t know if I talk to you (Denzel) or Tony about this but maybe we can figure out on the next movie where we can have a couple more scenes together because that would be really, really nice. Yeah, it’s an amazing and odd and interesting thing to watch. I feel when you see this movie one of the things that’s so impressive about it and something that I think Tony is such a genius at is having a great, fun ride in an action film but you actually care about everybody. The time is taken to really establish the different types of personalities that are there and give them time even if it seems mundane or inane some of the conversation. It’s deeply connecting you to caring about these characters as the story goes along which is very unusual for an action film of this kind. So I think it’s just amazing and remarkable that I feel there’s a chemistry between Frank and Connie that’s there that was only brought together because of Tony being able to gauge our performances in the weeks and months that were separated between them while we were in different cities. It’s magical to me that in that one moment at the end of the movie you can see a chemistry and a comraderie of spirit. I think they’re cut of the same cloth. They’re people of the same stock. They would appreciate each other and they would get what each other’s deep sort of connection to doing life so you can see a hereafter after that. I think that’s something really amazing that that’s possible. I would like to flesh that out on screen a little bit more next time personally.
Q: Rosario, in some scenes your character is very emotional and very stressed out but yet there is a calmness about you. I know you practice yoga. Did any of that transfer over to your character?
Rosario: I think it was the alcohol that Tony would dazzle me with every night. (Laughs) I think that was something really amazing that we had an opportunity to create with her. We had a lot of choices to make about how we were going to express Connie and there’s a lot of clichés about a woman in a man’s world and a lot of clichés about a woman in a high position of power and how she should behave and I think we walked that line really well. We were very clear about what we wanted Connie to come across as. She’s someone very capable and very sensible and at the end of the film I think you’re not thinking about her being a woman in a man’s world but just the right person for a very stressful situation – someone who doesn’t get hysterical.
Tony: There’s that moment when Connie goes into the bathroom and you see how she’s really feeling. That moment was carefully put in there so you could actually access all the panic and all that was really going on. The rest of the time it was cool and calm and collected.
Rosario: And all through it too you were saying pull my hair up and pull it down. We had whole conversations about which scenes we should put it up. I mean, every single beat physically of who she was to express the frustration of being in this control room miles away from where this action is and how you just wanted to show as calm and collected as she is that if she could physically propel herself out a window into that train and pull that lever herself, she would. But that’s what makes those octopus arms come out and get on every phone and anything that she could possibly do to make those blinking lights go the way she wants them to. I think that was something that we really played with to show how her levels of emotions were and how much she showed to other people because it is a high stress situation and she’s in charge so you can’t freak everybody out and panic them. Your options only disappear as the time goes by. You don’t have time to freak out. You have to do the next thing protocol-wise that’s going to save lives.
Q: This is a huge action film with a lot of energy and machinery. Was there anything that was done to counterbalance that at all and maybe reduce the carbon footprint of the film?
Tony: The deer in Pennsylvania are very happy because they love sugar puffs. I think we’d dumped 10,000 pounds of potato flakes and sugar puffs and when we came back in the morning the tracks were clear and all these deer were struggling to get up the hillside. We were very eco-friendly. When you make a film in an environment like that, they’re all over you in terms of watching you and making sure that you do clean up your mess. But I have to say the animals loved us.
Q: How much time did you guys get to spend with the actual people that you were playing? Did you have an opportunity to sit down with them, have a cup of coffee and talk?
Chris: Yes, Terry and Jess came out here and we went to the Pig and Whistle and had a couple of beers and talked and it was great to get a sense of them. Because their dynamic in real life, they call it they were married to one another for a while in the sense that they were conductor and engineer together. They were the couple, you know. What I think was really interesting in terms of what I learned from them is that that hierarchy in the train is very real and those guys who are old hands and have been around for a long time, they demand a certain level of respect. Just because the newbie has gone to school and has learned to do his job doesn’t mean that he knows all the ins and outs of the job itself and practicality. So, they told a lot of stories about how if a newbie came in and was pressing his luck in terms of trying to show the old guys how it was done, he was in for a world of hurt.
Tony: I’m sure you guys know that research is what drives me. I love when I get a script, then I go into the real world and I touch the real people and Chris’s character was … Terry was a pretty boy who got the job because of nepotism. So that’s what turned me around because originally I’m thinking of blue collar, then I met these two guys and we took out of their lives and put into the characters in the script so it’s great. I get to educate and entertain myself by touching these roles and these people.
Rosario: That’s how Hooters came back into the script. Right?
Denzel: Jesse’s daughters really work at Hooters. That’s a big one. Huh?
Rosario: I love that because it seems like one of those Hollywood beats but it’s true.
“Unstoppable” opens in theaters on November 12th.