CASTING THE FILM
At the moment that the filmmakers began to consider a new adaptation of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, they had one name in mind for their leading man. "Only an actor like Denzel Washington, with his powerful screen presence and immense talent, could make such an ordinary character in an ordinary desk job so compelling to watch," Helgeland says.
Nor did it hurt that Washington had a long history with Scott, starring in three of the director's films, Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, and Crimson Tide. "He's the best, he has a good heart," Washington says about Scott. "Tony works harder than anybody, so whenever he calls I come running."
Washington also had a strong professional relationship with the screenwriter and the producer who courted him. Helgeland had written Man on Fire that starred Washington, while Black produced the actor's two acclaimed directorial efforts, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. Washington was eager to work with Black again. "Todd Black knows what he's doing," says Washington. "He's the consummate professional producer, one of the biggest in Hollywood."
Scott was impressed by Washington's take on the character. "He said, 'I've played FBI, I've played CIA.' He recently played a hostage negotiator in Inside Man, so he didn't want to do that. He was looking for something different. We found the difference in simplicity. Denzel plays Garber as the Everyman, the guy next door, in a very honest way, and it's the perfect counterpoint to John Travolta's angry character."
Helgeland adds, "It's compelling to watch how someone who has no experience reacts when the phone rings and a killer is on the other end."
For the role, Washington talked to veteran subway workers, including one who just retired after 60 years. He also befriended Joseph Jackson, a train dispatcher in the Rail Control Center. Like Washington's character, Jackson began his career driving a subway train. Responsible each day for the safety of the five million passengers that traverse an underground system as large as the city itself, a dispatcher's most critical skill is staying cool during an emergency. "Passengers tend to get panicky, especially in the tunnels," says Jackson, who served as a technical advisor on the film. "Plus, there are only two crew members aboard each train to help. You don't want people trying to get off the trains in between stations." In this case, the dispatcher can be the critical liaison that smooths out an emergency situation.
Observing the dispatcher, Washington seemed "like a computer, taking it all in," remembers producer Todd Black. "Denzel would watch silently, then ask questions. He knows how to embody real people, to capture their gestures, things they would say. There's no one better at that."
In a sense, Washington had spent many years preparing for the role. "I grew up in New York and I took the 2 train from 241st and White Plains Road every day," he says. "When I was a kid, I'd go between cars, between stations, sneak down the side of the train. You never went too far. It was interesting, after 30 years, to be on the subway."
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 was also unusual for the actors in that the two main characters, Garber and Ryder, are apart for so much of the film. Garber is above ground in the control center as Ryder manipulates him from the subways below. "For the first six weeks, I didn't even see John," says Washington. "We were both on set, but I was in one room and he was in another. We had a very interesting scene in which he embarrasses Garber; he finds out a lot about Garber and vice versa. We develop a relationship, twisted as it may be. The trick, when you have these two characters on opposite ends, is how you're going to get them together."
Indeed, with Garber cast, the list of actors who could hold their own opposite Washington's dynamic screen presence was short. The role of Ryder required an actor who could make the character larger than life. John Travolta fit the bill. "When you give him a truly imposing role, Travolta knows how to pump a color and energy into it that I think no other actor can," Black says.
Tony Scott and his team researched prison culture, which influenced Ryder's closely cropped hair, handlebar mustache, and tattooed neck. While imprisoned for a white-collar crime, Ryder underwent a fundamental transformation. "We found several people who'd embezzled money and gone to prison for it and came out very changed by their experience," Helgeland says.
Ryder aims his rage at New York City as a living, breathing, byzantine entity that destroys lives. "He's built up resentment toward the city, feeling betrayed and mistreated," Travolta says. "I decided he was calculated to some degree, but at the same time, he is a stimulus/response type of guy, meaning you can push his buttons. Say the wrong word, and he goes off."
For supporting roles, the filmmakers drew from New York City's rich pool of talent, including several actors who previously had worked with Washington, Travolta, or Scott. James Gandolfini appeared in the director's True Romance and Crimson Tide before becoming a household name as the crime boss of "The Sopranos." He goes from mobster to mayor of New York in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
Travolta was also delighted that Gandolfini took on an altogether different role from his seasoned bad-guy persona; their professional relationship dates back to Get Shorty. "I've known him for 14 years - this is our fifth movie together," Travolta says. Travolta sees Gandolfini's mayor, an independently wealthy businessman plagued by waning popularity, as a departure. "He plays someone who is more aware of self-image, and what he means to his public. I think that was a nice change for James."
Tony Scott had long wanted to work with John Turturro and had come close on several projects, but it has never worked out until now. The director recruited the actor - a favorite of the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou) and Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues) - to portray Lieutenant Vincent Camonetti, the head of the New York Police Department's hostage negotiation team.
As a native New Yorker, Turturro was a big fan of the 1974 film. He points out his character wasn't in the original Pelham. "Back then, the NYPD didn't have a hostage negotiator," Turturro explains. "The job was invented afterwards."
The screenwriters based the role on the current commanding officer of the NYPD's Hostage Negotiation Team, Lt. Jack Cambria. "Almost all of John's dialogue comes directly from Cambria. He told us exactly what he would say to a terrorist," Helgeland says.
Lt. Cambria, who also served as a technical advisor, compliments Turturro as a quick study. "We know very well every time we have to enter somebody's house for an arrest, there's probably a 50/50 chance at best of coming out, but the hostages expect you're going to save the world. You have to maintain an air of confidence to do this work, and John Turturro is outstanding at pulling that off."
"After each take, I'd talk to Jack," says Turturro. "It's essential that you have these people around you. He was very thoughtful and not inhibiting. He's been doing the job for so long that the acting challenge is to capture a piece of it while knowing that you're not going to get the whole thing. So I'd check with Jack - 'what do you think, what would you do, was that real, was that bogus' - and he'd say, 'Yeah, I can buy that.'"
Though not surprising, it is interesting the way Turturro draws a distinction between acting and police work. If the job of acting is finding the emotion of a scene, he says, "being a cop is about separating your feelings from your job. I've played a few cops, I've done some research, and I have tremendous respect for what they do. It's a hard job."
Washington says that when he got together with Turturro and Gandolfini, he would experience another transformation. "John, Gandolfini and myself, we're a bunch of New York guys, so it was a lot of fun. All I had to do was sit in a room with them and before you know it, I'm Italian."
Hovering over Garber's desk is his hard-nosed boss, the head of NYC Transit's Rail Control Center. John Johnson, portrayed by Michael Rispoli, has no doubt Garber is guilty of the bribery charges and openly insults and harasses him. The character of Johnson takes his name from the real chief transportation officer at NYC Transit (but not modeled on him). "The real John Johnson is a pretty formidable guy," according to Rispoli. "I said to him, 'You're an ex-Marine?' and he says, 'There are no ex-Marines.' That's the way he runs the Control Center, with real organizational skill and command."
The lone NYC Transit employee who believes in Garber is Delgado, a rookie, up-and-coming train dispatcher. During his research, Ramon Rodriguez observed camaraderie among dispatchers in the frequently high-pressured environment of the Rail Control Center. "They're on the mic all day, giving instructions. It's almost like working at an airport," says Rodriguez, whose credits include HBO's "The Wire" and the recent feature Surfer, Dude. "They look out for each other. There's a brotherhood."
Below ground, Ryder relies on Ramos, a brooding, disgruntled former train operator he met in prison, whose first-hand experience of the tunnels is vital to the hijacking and, most importantly, the escape. Travolta easily played off Luis Guzman, familiar with the veteran actor from working together before. "He does a very simple, very introspective take on his character in the movie, which I like," Travolta says. "He doesn't realize what he's gotten into until he's in the middle of madness."
Guzman understood how Ryder could sell his character such an outrageous scheme. "Ryder is Mr. Smooth Talker, Mr. Salesman, and Ramos naively buys the whole plan," says Guzman. "Once the gang has taken over the train and starts killing passengers, though, he has second thoughts. During filming, I spent a lot of the time in my own head, saying 'What the hell am I doing here, and how can I get out of this?'"
The added strength of such a diverse supporting cast only intensifies and accentuates the heavy pairing of Washington and Travolta. "Viewers should see this film if they want to be thoroughly entertained by two brilliant actors dancing with one another for two hours," Black says. "It constantly keeps you on the edge of your chair."
FILMING ABOVE GROUND: THE SETS AND LOCATIONS
Inside a nondescript building in a secret location in midtown Manhattan lies NYC Transit's brand-spanking-new, state-of-the-art Rail Control Center, which handles the entire subway system's never-ending flow of human traffic. In The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, this is where Garber sits at his desk and wages a battle of life or death with a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like hijacker.
Although much of the movie was shot on site - due to the doggedness of Tony Scott's long-time location manager Janice Polley, along with NYC Transit's liaison, Alberteen Anderson - the locale that sets the pulse of the film remained hidden from cameras.
Anderson initially took the filmmakers to the recently vacated former Rail Control Center in Brooklyn, made famous in the 1974 version of Pelham. Though dormant, the space is still functional and serves as a backup to the new center. "The Brooklyn facility gave us good insight into the layout and how the system works," production designer Chris Seagers says. "We would have loved to film there, but logistically it wasn't practical. Everything was hard-wired in, none of the desks moved, and obviously we couldn't pull out walls or control the computer screens."
After the initial visit to the former facility, Scott and a select few members of the filmmaking team were granted access to the new facility. "It was like NASA, this amazing, huge space," Seagers says. The new Control Center looked like - according to Seagers - a movie set. "We decided to create our own version," the production designer explains. "We took the essence of the new center's design, with all its flash, and combined it with bits-and-pieces of details from the older control room, which was classic New York City, down and dirty."
The crew erected the fantasy Rail Control Center on a soundstage at Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens. Among its features: 150-foot-long video boards with interactive playback. "Chris Seagers got the guy who designed the actual NYC Transit boards to design ours, so it's virtually a carbon copy," says Black.
Meanwhile, back down in the tunnels, things were getting cramped. As anyone who rides the subway at rush hour knows, space is tight. Explains executive producer Barry Waldman: "When you're trying to film inside the train operator's cab, which is probably five-by-three, there is no way to squeeze in two actors, a make-up artist, hair, wardrobe, and sound person."
Not to mention the four, sometimes five, cameras that Scott employed. "Directors are getting used to having multiple cameras, but Tony definitely brings it to another level," cinematographer Tobias Schliessler says. From his perch on an apple box, Scott quietly guided his multiple camera operators during each take, like a maestro conducting his orchestra. Even in the smallest of spaces, Scott often brought in a 360-degree dolly track. Yet not even the director could magically fit his actors, crews, and cameras into a closet designed for a solitary train operator.
The solution: build a better subway car. On stage at Kaufman Astoria Studios, the crew constructed a car from scratch, using pieces from real trains. NYC Transit was eager to help; after all, it's not easy finding ways to recycle 40 tons of steel. (And yet they do: old subway cars are buried at sea, used to rebuild eroding barrier reefs.)
The new subway car was designed to accommodate all the cameras the director could want and more. "We could open all the doors where we wanted to, remove all the panels that we needed to, light it any way we wanted to, and build shooting platforms all the way around it," Waldman says. Built on a hydraulics system and placed on a track, the car could move 40 feet then stop on a dime.
Even the actors couldn't tell the faux car from the real deal. "The first time I saw it, I thought they brought a New York City subway train into the studios," says Luis Guzman. "I said, 'Wow, how did they do that?' It was just made out of wood and metal, but it looked absolutely real."
As any production crew can attest, filming in New York is its own experience. "It's a city with nine million people, and the volume of traffic is tremendous," says executive producer Barry Waldman. "You don't get a sense of it until you're standing in the middle of a street trying to shoot a scene where there's nothing but honking cars that just want to get from point A to point B and really don't care that you're making a movie."
The "money run" offered an especially challenging sequence to design and execute. "It was unique in the sense that it wasn't really a car chase," explains Chuck Picerni, Tony Scott's stunt coordinator for 17 years. "It was about the jeopardy involved in driving this money to the train station in time."
To distinguish his Pelham from the first, Scott aimed to create a more visually exciting atmosphere by filming part of the "money run" under an elevated train, almost as homage to another classic New York film of the 1970s, The French Connection. "There's such interesting light beneath the elevated train," says production designer Chris Seagers. "Though its dark, light punches in through the buildings which looks great when you're going at high speed. Tony wanted to capture that."
BELOW GROUND: FILMING IN THE SUBWAY
For the uninitiated to New York City, negotiating the subway is like swimming ocean waters in January: alien, scary, exhilarating. Some five million people pass through these tunnels each day; learning to master the mysteries of a modern transport system more than a century old is a rite of passage into New York City's urban tribe. Riders try not to think about what might lurk outside the train's doors in the pitch black: the occasional trash fire, rats, the unforgiving third rail.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 had to confront these challenges and more on a daily basis in order to make a film with a plot that unfolds below ground. Then again, movies have a long history of exploring the tunnels, dating back to 1904 when the subway first opened and Thomas Edison mounted a camera on a train to capture its trek along the path of the city's first subway.
In July 2007, nine months prior to filming, Tony Scott's production team arrived in New York to research and prep for Pelham. Their liaison, and keeper of the key to all things transit, was Alberteen Anderson, director, Film and Special Events for NYC Transit's Department of Corporate Communications. One of the unit's primary purposes is to acclimate people not accustomed to working around 400 tons of moving steel and guarantee their safety. The unit also helps accommodate a movie company's special requests. For example, for the 1994 film The Cowboy Way, Anderson's unit helped get horses onto the Manhattan Bridge so that Keifer Sutherland and Woody Harrelson could make the leap from horseback to a racing B-train. And when producers of Money Train and Die Hard With a Vengeance wanted to buy their very own subway cars, Anderson managed to fill the order (as both productions happened to coincide with NYC Transit's scrapping of a fleet of 40-year-old cars).
What NYC Transit granted Pelham was unprecedented access. The team scouted practically the entire system: tunnels, stations, Grand Central, and the new Rail Control Center. "In the past, we've allowed filming on a platform or inside a train, but very little filming with actors down on the track," says Joe Grodzinsky, Superintendent Rapid Transit Operations, who has overseen several shoots in a 35-year career. "Pelham shot scenes with the actors on the track as trains moved past them. That was unique."
Any production company seeking to film must first enroll in an eight-hour safety-training course - the same required of any NYC Transit employee who steps foot in the tunnel. For Pelham, this meant the entire cast and crew, ultimately some 400 people. Anderson says, "I was impressed. Some productions have balked, but this group understood filming down here was too scary not to do everything exactly right. The attitude came from the top down: 'I don't want to be carried out of here, I want to go home to my family.'"
In an old, converted public school, where red and green circles resembling track lights mark exits and entrances, actors and crew learned under the tutelage of Bob Willis at the NYC Transit Learning Center how to navigate tracks, identify hazards, and most importantly, avoid the electrical contact rail, better known as the third rail.
"John Travolta loved the class because he's so into transportation," Willis says. "Luis Guzman grew up in New York and used to like watching the train yards as a kid."
The third rail is just as dangerous as legend would have it. A touch can lose a limb or a life. "They showed us a photograph of what happens if you hit that third rail," Washington says. "And it ain't nice."
After class, students hopped a subway to an R station. In regulation boots and safety vest, flashlight in hand, one by one they descended into the subway. Movie stars and production assistants alike stepped around garbage, cast-off syringes, or whatever else the tunnel offered. Also to be avoided: any puddles of liquid, because, Willis says, "if you're from New York, you can assume it is what you think it is."
Second only to the danger of the third rail is the danger of an oncoming train - in fact, failing to look both ways is the number one cause of fatalities in the subway. So what do you do if you're in the tunnel and you hear the two whistles indicating a train is coming? "Center yourself between the columns, press your shoulder against one, place your hand flat against the opposite," Willis instructs. "Now don't move. If you stand with your hands in your pocket, the wind can pull you right in. And don't stick your neck out to see if the train is coming!" The train rumbles down the track with a deafening roar, whipping up dust and dirt (and who knows what else), tall as a building (too high to see in the windows)… and all with double-intensity when one train passes in front and another passes behind. "And don't turn around to look at it!" Willis barks.
Willis's lessons were the top priority during filming, even more important than filming. "Tony Scott listened when we recommended that a scene could be shot in a safer and more expedient manner," says Grodzinsky. "We've worked with a lot of movie people before, but Tony was the most approachable and agreeable. Every day, he stood on a milk crate and gave a safety talk or made changes based on our recommendations. The film crew got used to asking Transit personnel questions before they did anything on or near the track area."
As production designer Chris Seagers describes it, "Shooting became an immensely complicated and highly organized set of military maneuvers every day."
The Hoyt-Schermerhorn Station in downtown Brooklyn became the shooting location for a number of sequences: the sniper scene, the criminals' escape, and throwing the train operator's body out of the car. 50 to 100 crewmembers crammed onto a narrow platform, while beneath them, actors shot in an isolated section of a dusty, very dark "ghost tunnel" - the track for the now-defunct HH shuttle, which happened to lay next to the very-much-in-service tracks for the A, C, and G trains.