Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter celebrates the long overdue release of Breakdown on Blu-ray by listening to the new commentary with Kurt Russell and Jonathan Mostow.
Fans of action movies know that one of the best to come out of the 90s is 1997’s Breakdown. Weirdly, it didn’t actually hit Blu-ray until earlier this year with a slick release… in Australia. Paramount Pictures finally realized the error of their ways, though, and has released it in North America as part of their Paramount Presents line. It’s a terrific Blu-ray complete with a new transfer and extra features.
The highlight, of course, is a new commentary track with director Jonathan Mostow and star Kurt Russell. The latter is well known around these parts for giving great commentary tracks, but it’s been a while — would he still have a spark? A clear and complimentary affection for his fellow cast and crew members?That ridiculously infectious laugh? The short answer is yes. The long answer? Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Breakdown!
Commentators: Jonathan Mostow (director, co-writer), Kurt Russell (actor, legend)
1. Mostow considers Dino De Laurentiis to be “old school” in that he was a hands on, involved producer. “What I loved about Dino is that he loved movies,” adds Russell. “He really cared.”
2. The film originally opened with a dialogue sequence between Jeff (Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) meant to establish their characters and dynamic, but Mostow never liked it. Executives wanted it claiming it was necessary to get to know these people, but the director fought and thankfully cut the scene. Russell agrees with the decision saying that the opening sequence showing this Massachusetts couple driving through the desert already gives viewers all they need to know about them.
3. “Fundamentally we share a belief about storytelling which is that character is revealed through behavior,” says Mostow about his lead actor, adding that he recalls Russell suggesting numerous lines of dialogue be dropped as unnecessary “because I can act it.”
4. Russell recalls reading the script and enjoying the idea of playing a character who was “slightly comically obnoxious.”
5. Dennis Liddiard, Russell’s longtime makeup artist — since 1989’s Tango & Cash — was unsure about this character saying he preferred the idea of Snake Plissken kicking the bad guys’ asses.
6. “This was a tough show for a female to do, physically,” says Russell, showing a mild naivete when it comes to kick-ass women.
7. The story idea came about after a deal to adapt Stephen King’s “Trucks” — previously adapted in 1986 as Maximum Overdrive — fell through. Mostow had already done research and location scouting, so he repurposed it all into Breakdown. A tipping point was a friend in the FBI who mentioned how missing adults often get lost between the cracks.
8. Russell says J.T. Walsh might just be his favorite American actor. He also recalls how both he and Mostow had independently decided on who should play the trucker and were pleased to discover they were both thinking of Walsh. “He’s flawless. Nothing fake, nothing phony.”
9. The roadside cafe at 15:25 was built for the production, and Mostow regrets not buying it outright after filming. “It has been in five gazillion car commercials, you see it constantly.”
10. Russell had hesitated on signing on to the film as he had just finished a movie and wanted to be home every night, so De Laurentiis worked some extra magic to make it happen. “You were picked up every morning, taken to a private airstrip, flown by jet then there’d be a helicopter waiting to fly you to the makeup trailer,” says Mostow, “we’d finish somewhere around 4:30 in the afternoon and we’d hear the helicopter coming back.”
11. Mostow and Russell met a couple years prior when the director was trying to land The Game. Neither talent ended up on the film which instead went to David Fincher and Michael Douglas.
12. Russell says this was the most exhausting film he’s ever made, “and it was couched in impotence.”
13. Mostow suggests this isn’t the kind of film that could get made today if only because the transportation department was one of the budget’s biggest expenses. “I don’t think it’d be practical.”
14. The director recalls meeting with Walsh to go over the script, and when the actor passed it back to him he had scratched off nearly half his own dialogue. Mostow was confused, but Walsh told him “I am a much better villain if I don’t need anything from him, just the money. Anytime I need something emotional from him it takes away my own power.” Genius.
15. The shot of the town at 42:03 is “the one visual effect in the movie.” It’s a digital matte, but it’s actually one of only a few visual effects including a digitally augmented truck stop to exaggerate the number of trucks in the lot.
16. Mostow recalls his wife overhearing a conversation in a theater bathroom after a test screening, and the people were talking about how the movie was incredibly stressful. That was good to hear for a suspense thriller, but then they mentioned they gave the film a terrible score… because it was so stressful.
17. The bathroom at 48:16 was a “cover set” that the production basically carried around in a truck for weeks ready to construct and use at a moment’s notice.
18. Russell says he’s been lucky as an actor and that there are only a handful of films that he realized halfway through production were a chore that he just wanted to end.
19. Hollywood was already into digital editing when Breakdown was produced, but Mostow had it cut on film anyway. His editors (Derek Brechin, Kevin Stitt) were initially annoyed, but they came to realize the added time doing physical manipulations — cutting the strip, moving pieces, etc — offered more time to think.
20. Early drafts of Mostow’s script included a substantial role for “in my mind” Morgan Freeman as a man whose own wife had been abducted by this gang years prior. “He just lived in a camper van traveling the western United States trying to find his wife.” Russell talked him out of it, but Russell doesn’t remember that and instead suggests that had Mostow mentioned Freeman’s name he would have said yes immediately.
21. “When you’re an actor, you act,” says Russell after Mostow asks if he ever doubted the character or his portrayal. He references Dakota Fanning in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, saying “She screams as much as she talks in that movie, but she’s got fifteen different screams.” His point is that “you’re playing the same beat, but you can’t play it the same way.”
22. Russell believes the movies are a visceral experience, not an intellectual one. “You might see things that teach you something or educate you or make you think, but it’s the feeling overall that you remember.”
23. Mostow noticed the crew seeming a bit sluggish in the final weeks of shooting, and he pressed his First A.D. as to a reason why. He finally relented and said that the crew was disheartened because they think “this movie doesn’t work.” It left the director depressed, but once it was all wrapped and delivered he realized that they don’t know any different from anyone else.
24. There are some miniatures used during the bridge sequence, “but you’d never know it.”
25. The original script had Jeff drop the truck on the villain, but Russell suggested while filming the sequence that it should actually be Amy.
26. Kurt Russell movies mentioned by Kurt Russell include Escape from L.A., Tequila Sunrise, Executive Decision, and Backdraft.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“This is an interesting time to be able to sit down and watch a movie on the big screen.”
“I’m looking at my wardrobe choices, and the guy doesn’t belong there.”
“It’s about as far from Snake Plissken as you can get.”
“Every studio passed on it.”
“There’s some crazy shit about to happen.”
“There goes the sequel.”
Real talk? Breakdown is still a tight, thrilling, banger of a movie. Russell is the beating heart of it, but the cast is aces across the board. A deference towards practical effects and stunts means there’s a tangible feel to the car chases and other action beats. it’s just a fantastic ride from beginning to end. The commentary track once again sees Russell as a fun, enthusiastic talent and real fan of movies. Rewatch the movie then give this track a listen.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.