'Speed' 20th anniversary: Screenwriter Graham Yost looks back
Screenwriter Graham Yost, now the showrunner of FX’s Justified, admits that the plot of Speed sounds ridiculous: A bomb on a bus will detonate if the bus travels below 50 mph. But when the movie was released June 10, 1994, a funny thing happened: It became a hit with moviegoers and critics alike. To quote EW’s grade-A review: “The film takes off from formula elements — it’s yet another variation on Die Hard — but it manipulates those elements so skillfully, with such a canny mixture of delirium and restraint, that I walked out of the picture with the rare sensation that every gaudy thrill had been earned.”
Here, on the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, Yost looks back on early script changes (Jack’s partner, Harry, was supposed to be the bad guy), casting picks (Ellen DeGeneres?), the twist he’s most proud of (it was just cans!), classic lines (thank you, Joss Whedon), and the dark night when he thought the movie had been ruined.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I listened to the highly entertaining commentary track you and producer Mark Gordon did for the Five Star Collection 2002 DVD release. You said the idea for the film came when your father [Saturday Night at the Movies host Elwy Yost] told you about Akira Kurosawa’s brakeless Runaway Train script, and you thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if it was a bomb on a bus?” You were a TV writer at the time.
GRAHAM YOST: It was after Hey Dude. So Hey Dude wrapped up in the fall of ’90, and darn those Nickelodeon people, they didn’t offer me any sweet development deal, so I was on my own. I quickly wrote two half-hour specs of Murphy Brown and Roseanne, and my agent at the time said, “Yeah, I think I can get you work based off these,” but no one’s staffed until May and this was February. So she said, “I got nothing for you until then,” and I was having lunch with a friend, and I said, “I want to spend this time writing something, I’ve got this idea,” and he said, “Oh yeah, do that.”
I finished up the script the first four weeks I was on Full House, and then it went out to the town. I would be sitting in that [writers’] room, just hoping and praying that an assistant would come in and say, “There’s a phone call for you,” and that it had sold, and I could quit Full House. Full House was just not the right fit for me. And occasionally, the assistant would come in and say, “There is a call,” and I’d go in, and it would always be, “Well, there’s no news,” and I’d be like, “Oh no, come on, please.” Then I quit Full House — because I was days away from being fired, so I thought, well I’ll do it first — and then [my wife] Connie and I went off to a wedding in Oregon, and while I was there, I got a call at the hotel from my agent saying that it sold.
Paramount bought it, put it in turn-around, and then 20th Century Fox made the film. Let’s start at the beginning: Was it always called Speed?
I think I first called it Minimum Speed, because you can’t drop below this minimum speed, and then I was looking at it and I’m thinking, “Yeah, you don’t want the word ‘minimum’ in the title of anything.” It was a little bit like the sequel [which Yost and Gordon were not involved with], Speed 2: Cruise Control. Cruise control is when you just press a button, and you stop worrying about pressing the accelerator pedal — I don’t think that’s a good title for a movie either.
Was Keanu Reeves the first choice for hero Jack?
Oh God, no. Keanu would totally know that and cop to it. We went to the Toms first — you know, you go to Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks — and I think Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who were going to do Money Train. We went down many different avenues. The way I recall it, someone’s kid at the studio said, “What about Keanu Reeves? He’s hot.” And we all looked at each other and said, “Well, Bill & Ted?” And then we said, “Well, wait a second, he was great in Parenthood, let’s meet him.” As I probably said in the commentary, he drove up on a motorcycle at Disney, where Mark had his deal, and he’s six foot whatever, and already had a cool haircut, and was long and lean. He’d done Point Break, so we knew he could handle a gun and be cop-like. We were looking for that ease and that sort of cop-ishness.
The role of Annie, which ultimately went to Sandra Bullock, had some interesting incarnations. At one point, you thought of her as a funny driver’s ed teacher for people who got tickets. Is that true?
There was one version where she was a driver’s ed teacher, yes. In the first version, she was African-American, and a paramedic — I wanted to explain why she could drive so well at high speeds through traffic. You come up with these rationalizations for a character, and you start peeling them back. For one thing, that’s convenient, and even the driver’s ed thing was kind of convenient as well, so she just became a person. One of the ironies was after we made it just whatever this character will be, the first person we went to was Halle Berry, and she was not interested. And I was interested in Ellen DeGeneres, next question.
You knew that was coming! You mention her on the commentary.
Listen, this is 20 years ago. She’d done little bits in movies and sitcoms, and she was funny, and I wanted someone who was funny. I don’t think it’s as ludicrous as people make it out to sound now because I think she’s incredibly talented. I think that she probably could’ve been a pretty good actress…. But anyway, I’m not going to go down that long road of defending Ellen DeGeneres as the heroine in Speed.
Jan de Bont wasn’t the first director approached either. John McTiernan and Walter Hill were considered.
Jan had worked for McTiernan [as cinematographer] on The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard, and we knew that this thing just needed to really look great and have an incredible sense of propulsion and reality, because it was such a crazy concept. Jan got that, and the sense of humor, and he just knew how to shoot it, and he figured it out for the money allowed. In general, Jan just really got it.
Let’s talk about some of the big changes to the script: Harry (Jeff Daniels), Jack’s partner, was originally going to be the big bad with an accomplice. Tell me about that switch.
That happened fairly late in the game. The film went into production in September of ’93, and I believe it was in July or August that the decision was made to not have Harry be complicit in the whole thing. I’m never very fond of off-screen bad guys that don’t have a lot of contact with the hero, and I thought it would be interesting if there’s a lot of contact between Harry and Jack and then you find out that Harry’s involved with this whole thing. But man, it takes so much work to make that believable and to make it not feel like just a big switch for the sake of a switch. And the other thing was, I wasn’t counting on the brilliance of casting Dennis Hopper [as cop-turned-bomber Howard Payne]. He was America’s favorite psychopath on camera from Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet — my god, Frank Booth is one of the great characters of all time. He just brought so much to it, you didn’t need back story. It’s just that’s him, and it works.
The bus was originally going to circle Dodger Stadium, not LAX, and then blow up by the Hollywood sign.
There was no subway sequence originally, so the bus was going around Dodger Stadium, and then goes back into traffic, and Jack was trying to get it away from people, and he’s climbing the hills, and yeah, it was going to blow up above the Hollywood sign. And then Paramount said, “No, too much time on the bus,” and so I came up with the subway sequence. The O’Malleys, who owned the Dodgers at that time, were just not really that interested in having anything blow up in and around Dodger Stadium. [Laughs] And frankly, I only picked Dodger Stadium because I just looked at a map and went, “Where could you drive in a big circle?” And it was like, “Oh, the parking lot at Dodger Stadium, that makes sense.”
The infamous/iconic bus jump didn’t exist in early drafts.
I can think of 10 shots in that movie that are just, “Oh my God, how did Jan think of that? That was just brilliant,” but the big thing was the bus jump. He said, “I want it to hit a metaphorical wall. I want there to be a point in the middle of the movie where it looks like it’s game over and there’s no way they can get out of it.” According to the laws of physics, they couldn’t get out of that, but according to the laws of moviemaking, they managed to survive. That is a big dividing point in the movie: If you throw up your hands and say, “Well, that’s just ridiculous, that wouldn’t happen,” then you might as well walk out. We’ve lost you, and we’ve blown it. But if you go, “Well, that was awesome,” then we’ve got you. You’re enjoying the ride, and it’s a movie, and away we go for the next hour.
Which twist are you most proud of?
The cans in the baby carriage sequence. I’d heard that there was someone at Fox who said, “Couldn’t it almost hit, like, a baby carriage or something?” It was like, “Man, we can’t have it almost hit a baby carriage because people do that in every movie. That’s like hitting a fruit stand. The only way to do it is if it actually hits the baby carriage, and if we do that, then we will lose the audience.” And then I remembered a guy I’d seen with a shopping cart in New York, just collecting cans and bottles, and I thought, “Well, wait a second, what if someone used a baby carriage like that?” And then it was Jan’s idea to use a really classic English pram, instead of just a modern baby carriage, and then his brilliant idea was to have the woman, who was pushing it, talking to someone. So you’re not thinking “desperate homeless person collecting cans,” you’re thinking, “this is someone just walking down the street with their baby and a friend.”
That gasp in the audience was fantastic when that happened. For 1.6 seconds they hated us and could not believe we’d done it, and then the cans come out and just the relief and the laughter — that’s fun. It’s an example of the collaborative nature of making a film like this. It wasn’t just my vision. I was a big part of it, and so was Joss, so was Mark Gordon, so was Jan obviously, and the actors, and the production designer. Mark Mancina wrote the music. The editor, John Wright, cut it [and earned an Oscar nomination]. The sound people who won Oscars — everyone just came together, and got it, and made it work.
On the commentary, you mention that an academic friend gave you the idea to use a hole in the sidewalk under a garbage can for the money drop — that’s how he’d imagined stealing a rare book.
He and I had written a bunch of scripts together, and then I said, “Paul, this one I want to do on my own.” He was the one who said, “Make it 50 miles an hour,” because I was stuck on this thing that 20 miles an hour was the maximum speed that a human can run, so what if the bus is just going faster than you can run? That’s cool for the first 30 seconds, but after that, it’s kind of meaningless. And he said, “Here, I’ve got an idea for the money drop for you.” So I owe Paul Budra, who’s an English professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver now, a great debt. I’m not going to give him any money or buy him a car or anything, but I’ll be forever grateful.
You reference Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of Speed in the commentary track, how you never thought of something she mentioned: Why didn’t Jack just shoot out the tires of the bus when he was running alongside it before it hit 50 mph and armed the bomb?
It’s funny, I will continue to work on stories 20 years after the fact, so I came up with a solution this morning: It would have been okay if, let’s say, Keanu stopped and took aim at the bus tires, and then the Jaguar [he ultimately commandeers] hit him because Glenn Plummer, who drives the Jaguar, sees someone with a gun, he’s trying to be a hero, and he doesn’t know he’s a cop. We could have done that and answered it; we didn’t think of that question. Other people in the production have maintained that they thought of it, but I don’t recall being part of that conversation.
NEXT: Joss Whedon’s contribution, that one dark night, and beating City Slickers II[pagebreak]
When did you know Speed would change your life?
It was the moment when Keanu rips off the door of the Jag and then jumps on the bus. It was like, “Okay, here we go, my life just changed.”
At one test screening, audience members walked up the aisles backward to go to the restroom because they didn’t want to miss anything.
I remember Tom Sherak, God rest his soul, who was at 20th, saying that in the postmortem of that screening. I’ve been on the bad side of that, by the way: I’ve been at test screenings that haven’t gone well, and the conversation in the lobby is not so cheerful and fun, but that was the conversation of, “Yeah, let’s move up the release date.” It was going to be released in August. “Let’s move it up to June. We think we got something here.”
Speed opened against City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, which was actually playing in more theaters.
City Slickers had been a big hit and I loved it, so that was part of the night: Fox had a party on the lot for us, a nice big outdoor barbecue on one of the streets. Then a group of us went up to Tom Sherak’s office as he got phone calls from theater owners and distributors all across the country. He was writing down the box office of theater after theater, and if it was a multiplex, “Okay, how is City Slickers 2 doing? How are we doing? How is everything else doing?” There was no computer program that was crunching all the data, it was just simply, “Okay, we’re winning here, we’re winning there,” and “Oh, we’re second place here.” The preponderance of information that was coming through was that it was doing really well. There was that feeling of it being a dark horse, a fan favorite, a movie that people could discover and tell their friends about. I think it’s changed in 20 years — that doesn’t happen as much. Something Speed-size would be something like Taken: I do remember when Taken came out, it took off and people were saying, “Oh, it’s really cool. It’s a really good action film. Liam Neeson’s great.” “I have a very particular set of skills” — people knew the lines from the trailer.
On your commentary track, you don’t mention that Joss Whedon did some uncredited work punching up Speed‘s dialogue.
Joss is one of the things we were not allowed to talk about in the commentary. I can’t remember if it was a WGA thing or a legal thing, but it was like, “Really, you can’t mention Joss.” There had been someone else who had done a draft before Joss, and then I was brought back on and did a quick 72-hour polish — well reconfiguration, frankly. And then Joss came in. But when I read that first rewrite by the other writer, I had a truly dark night of the soul. Did I mention this on the commentary, how in Springsteen and Peter Gabriel’s songs people go for drives in their cars to think about things and life?
I actually got in my car and went driving. I ended up on the Bluffs in the Palisades looking out to sea going, “What the hell happened here?” because the draft was terrible. Then I read Joss’s and just had a huge sigh of relief — he totally got it. We’re all prone to moments of being overly dramatic, and that was mine. But I had so much invested in it, and I loved the story so much and really wanted this action/suspense/thriller to work, and to read someone else kind of screw it up was painful.
Is Joss responsible for the famous “Pop quiz, hotshot” line?
I had the “What do you do?” in a far less poppy version. I had this thing between Harry and Jack: As they’re going through stuff, Harry would say, “Okay, here’s the scenario. You’ve got blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What do you do?” And Jack would say, “Okay, you do this, that, or the other thing.” I think I had one or two before he gets to the one where he says, “Well, you shoot the hostage.” It was Joss’s idea in his writing to say, “Pop quiz, hotshot” — it’s just a more fun way of having him speak and it also really sort of established their relationship — he knew that Jack was incredibly good at his job, but he also knew that Jack was younger and maybe a little more hotheaded.
Can you believe it’s been 20 years?
I can’t. Mark and I were talking about it last week. That’s just the nature of life: it just rolls on and you look back, and it’s like, “Wow, it’s been 20 years since Speed came out, that’s crazy.” At the same time, my son’s graduating from high school, so how did that happen? But it’s sure been fun.
On the commentary, you said you showed Speed to your kids when they were six and eight — that’s pretty impressive ages for them to see this movie.
You know, my dad took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was nine, so I come by that honestly. We had a dear friend who was babysitting our daughter, Clem, when she was three, and she put it on. She didn’t think it was inappropriate. But we swear to God, the next day Clementine — she was three years old — said, “Oh, elevator go boom.” That wasn’t the best choice for self-entertainment.
We didn’t even talk about that opening elevator scene: Mark Gordon said he wanted to buy the script off that scene alone.
Initially that wasn’t in my outline, and I thought, “No, I’ve got to kick it off with something. I’ve got to establish that this guy is a SWAT guy and they’re really good at what they do, and that he’s great at the trick.” My whole premise, basically, is that heroes in literature aren’t necessarily the fastest, the smartest, the strongest whatever — but they’re clever and they figure out the trick. They figure out how to beat the bad guy, not just through strength or even by being more intelligent, but just by being something that the bad guy doesn’t see. And that’s Perseus with Medusa and the shield. So I wanted Jack to be one of those guys who’s able to figure out the trick.
I’m so glad you wanted to hop on the phone and talk about a movie you made 20 years ago.
I love that movie. There are some things I’ve done that go unmentioned, or I hear Denis Leary making fun of them on talk shows. But this one is one that we all kind of smile and say, “Yeah, I’m so lucky to have been a part of it.”