In “Unstoppable,” director Tony Scott had to solve a classic problem: If a runaway train leaves Northern Pennsylvania traveling up to 80 miles an hour, and another train with 150 schoolchildren heads toward it on the same track, can Denzel Washington intervene in time to save the day?
These kinds of problems are Scott’s specialty. He directed the alpha-male epics “Top Gun” and “Enemy of the State.” This is his fifth collaboration with Washington, who he also directed in “The Taking of Pelham 123.” He’s the grown-up equivalent of the kid who liked to send his toy trains smashing into each other.
“I’m like a general. I’m like Patton in a way,” Scott says. “I get to choreograph all these different elements, which are dangerous but great and fun elements to choreograph.”
He and 20th Century Fox are hoping that audiences will find it impossible to look away from the train wreck when “Unstoppable,”opens Friday. The film was shot in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, and in West Virginia and Ohio from Aug. 31 to Dec. 18 of 2009.
“The studio was terrified,” says Scott of the film, which is the most expensive film ever shot in Western Pennsylvania. “They said ‘How are you going to cope with this change of season?’ I coped by shooting it sequentially.”
“Unstoppable” also was shot in State College and Bradford. They filmed in small Pennsylvania towns like Port Allegany, Eldred, Turtlepoint and Blanchard. Scott says he wanted places where a road ran parallel to the tracks so he could mount cameras on the truck and film as they drove alongside the train.
“I love Pittsburgh,” says Scott, who is the brother of fellow action director Ridley Scott. “I grew up in North England. It reminds me of where I grew up. … If you saw the movie, I embrace the landscape. I felt I was back home in my youth.”
Scott, who directed commercials before he graduated to big budget pictures, originally envisioned Montana as the setting for the story.
“I was the Marlboro king,” he says. “I’d shot all these commercials in Montana and Idaho. It’s almost like another planet. … I went to Pennsylvania and I said ‘Nope, I’ve got it wrong. I should be doing it here.'”
Screenwriter Mark Bomback was inspired by an incident in May 2001, when a runaway CSX train that carried hazardous chemicals left Toledo, Ohio, and traveled more than 60 miles through three counties before CSX employees successfully stopped it. There were no injuries or damages.
“Unstoppable” exaggerates the story with a derailment, car wrecks, helicopter stunts and one scene where Washington actually does one of his own stunts.
“He doesn’t like heights, and this was tough,” Scott says. “He was up at 25 feet going 60 miles an hour.”
Washington’s co-star is Chris Pine, who played James T. Kirk in the “Star Trek” prequel. The two are making their first run together on Engine 1206 when they learn that an unmanned train is headed their way. Thanks to a careless railroad worker, Engine 777 has “escaped” from the railroad yard under full power. It’s hauling 39 cars, including eight that contain a hazardous chemical called molten phenol.
“It’s two guys stuck in this tight environment in this out of control runaway train,” Scott says. “You have to be careful the action doesn’t hurt or interfere with the unfolding drama between the two boys. It’s them coming to terms with their differences.”
Interiors were shot at the former Mogul Mind Studios in the Strip District. A soundstage was built to resemble the dispatch center at the railroad company, where a character played by Rosario Dawson relays the developments to railroad executives and attempts to redirect the runaway train.
Most of the police in the film were played by real-life sheriffs, firefighters, police officers and state troopers.
“Tony’s a very intense, know-what-he wants kind of guy,” says Walter, “O.J.” Oggier, a retired Pittsburgh police officer who served as police coordinator for the film. “He’s very good at what he does.”
Scott kept costs down by deploying as many as four cameras in a scene. A spectacular train derailment was shot in Emporium in Central Pennsylvania. Scott mostly avoided CGI in favor of staging the real thing.
Joe Nuss, 62, was railroad set coordinator and technical adviser for the film. Nuss, a retired manager of the Norfolk Southern Railroad, was in charge of moving as many as three trains on and off camera during a day’s shooting.
The film’s climax was filmed on an elevated rail line on the tracks of the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway track in Bellaire, Ohio, where the runaway train careens wildly around a series of ‘S’ curves.
“It was not fun riding the train,” Nuss says. “It was a little scary. Tony had picked this location because of the huge trestle bridge. But on the Ohio side approach to the trestle bridge itself, he went up this elevation around a very, very sharp curve.”
Real runaway freight trains are a one-in-a-million occurrence, Nuss says.
Veteran casting director Donna Belajac cast nearly 50 local speaking roles for the movie “Unstoppable,” which opens Friday.
â¢ Alicia Murton plays a harried teacher who chaperones a group of 150 fourth graders on a field trip aboard a train. They don’t realize that they’re on a collision course with an unmanned train that’s headed toward them at more than 70 miles per hour.
As a veteran of Shop ‘n Save and UPMC commercials, Murton knows the drill: About eight hours of work can mean maybe three seconds in a scene — assuming you get in at all.
“My brother still calls me ‘Flash’ from the time I was in ‘Seinfeld,’ ” says Murton, of Wilkinsburg. “It’s such a fast scene.”
A Boston native, she relocated to Pittsburgh, the hometown of her husband, Crawford. She auditioned for director Tony Scott, who asked her to improvise what she might say and do as a stressed out teacher.
“It was pretty easy. I took all my experience at having three kids. It was definitely easy to channel that energy.”
â¢ Mike Clark, co-anchor for the morning and noon news broadcasts on WTAE-TV, plays a television reporter whose periodic updates on the runaway train move the story along.
“I’m in the trailer,” says Clark, a native of Long Island. “I’m in the actually 30-second commercial. My phone has been blowing up. People all over the country, friends, relatives, people I’ve worked with at another station are saying ‘Is this you?’ ”
Clark says he and Scott compared notes about their kids.
“He just has a vitality about him. Here I grew up watching his movies. Here I am face to face with him. It’s certainly something I didn’t plan.”
â¢ Bill Lang of Slippery Rock, has a film resume that includes his role as the title character in “The Mothman Prophecies.”
In “Unstoppable,” he plays a truck driver who rams a horse trailer and pushes it onto the railroad tracks. “On ‘Unstoppable’ I had a stunt double,” says Lang, a musician and filmmaker. “That was the first anybody has been made up to look like me. Usually, I’m made up to look like someone else.”
When Scott yelled “action!’ Lang had to drive his truck toward the railroad tracks.
“Quite honesty I had to thread the needle with this truck, with the crew on the left and right side of me,” he says. “You do that a multitude of times from different angles. You deliver what dialogue you have, then they wrecked the truck and then they smashed up the horse trailer.”