Tony Scott is among the last remaining masters of real, practical, non-CGI action filmmaking. In his latest film, “Unstoppable,” he uses these almost forgotten techniques to give modern movie audiences a thrill-ride on a runaway train. Scott largely eschewed the use of CGI, opting instead for real action and the skills of some of the industry’s most inventive stunt people, according to publicity materials provided by distributor 20th Century Fox.
Star Denzel Washington did some of his own stuntwork, actually running on top of a moving train.
“I must be insane,” Washington is quoted in the studio’s press release. “The train is going down the track at 50 miles an hour, I’m running across the top, a helicopter is hovering ten feet above me, I’m hanging off the side; it’s crazy! I was very happy when my stuntman left town because I knew Tony wouldn’t be asking me to do his job anymore.”
Scott first asked Washington to run across a low platform train car made to look like the top of the train. Slowly but surely Washington became comfortable with the movement and before he knew what was happening, Scott switched the stakebed for an actual train car rigged with a harness and pulley system.
“Tony is very slick; he didn’t say anything,” recalls Washington. “They warmed me up and before I knew it, I ended up on top of the train. Trains are a lot taller than you’d imagine.”
“Obviously the biggest challenge in performing any stunt was the train,” says stunt coordinator Gary Powell. “Whether it was a stunt double or an actor, we took the same precautions because if someone falls, that train is not stopping. From the cast iron wheels spinning in your face to the ear splitting noise of metal on metal, when you have a couple of tons of steel moving 40 miles per hour down the track, it’s all very intimidating. But the stunts we did for this were real, which is rare these days with so much CGI. We did the movie old school with real stuntmen jumping from a truck onto a moving train, running across the top and hanging off the side with the ballast inches from someone’s head; they were all proper stunts.”
The company used eight locomotives and about 60 individual train cars when all was said and done, all of which were maintained on a consistent basis with brake changes and regular inspections, as typically occurs in the industry. Working on the movie was akin to operating a small railroad. Because of the inclement weather, long working hours and the overall demands on the trains for filming, the engineers decided to keep the locomotives running 24/7.
In one of the most intense moments of the film, the train rounds a hairpin curve but the track was strictly regulated to speeds less than 15 miles per hour. “Tony really resisted resorting to any CG when it came to this type of problem,” says director of photography Ben Seresin. “When you’re forced into a corner, you sometimes come up with great results.” Seresin resorted to what he calls “old fashioned smoke and mirrors tricks” to increase the train’s momentum.
“I was lucky to have all those toys to be able to shoot in as real a situation as possible,” says Scott. “We also had plenty of helicopters in many scenes, two of which had cameras filming all the time. Shooting on the actual train helps the audience to sense what it’s like for the characters out in the real elements. You can’t get that kind of energy shooting on a stage.”