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24 Things We Learned from the ‘Speed’ Commentary

“There’s no way a director can do everything himself.”
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on May 4th, 2021

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 boards a bus destined for destruction with the 90s action classic, Speed.

Jan de Bont‘s directorial debut, 1994’s Speed, remains one of the decade’s great action hits, and it continues to thrill on multiple rewatches over the years. It’s new to 4K UltraHD this week, and to celebrate we finally gave a listen to the filmmaker’s commentary track. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Speed!

Speed (1994)

Commentator: Jan de Bont (director)

1. The opening credits sequence descending down an elevator shaft was created with a thirty-five-foot miniature laying horizontally.

2. He views the title track during the credits as a prologue of sorts to the entire score. “All the themes in the movie, every single one, is represented,” he says while complimenting Mark Mancina’s work.

3. After nearly three decades as a cinematographer on films like Die Hard (1988) and Basic Instinct (1992), De Bont decided he wanted to take a shot at directing. “Quite often when I worked with other directors I felt like ‘Oh my god I would have done this different,’ and at one point it became a frustration for me.”

4. When he was first given Graham Yost’s script for Speed it came with a warning that “it was about a bus.” De Bont thought it would be boring, but he was happily proven wrong as the script immediately filled his head with images.

5. He helped shape the elevator scene based, in part, on his own experience being stuck in an elevator while filming Die Hard at the Fox Plaza building in Los Angeles. They were stuck hanging at the 40th floor and had to be rescued by the fire department through the rooftop hatch.

6. Keanu Reeves wasn’t all that interested in starring in an action movie, so De Bont had to convince him that it would be fun. How? By telling Reeves he’d be allowed to do as many of his own stunts as possible on Speed. The filmmaker credits Reeves’ willingness to do more stunts with the film’s success as it’s clear that the cast is enmeshed in the action. “Of course, you have to be really careful because then they want to do everything themselves, which of course you can’t let them do.”

7. It was Dennis Hopper’s idea to stick his fingers in Jeff Daniels’ nose to lift him up, and while De Bont worried it would look silly he agreed after trying it and discovering it’s actually pretty painful.

8. “I had to cast the bus as much as I had to cast the actors,” he says which led him to an older model Santa Monica line bus.

9. His preference when it comes to effects — both visual and stunts — is to include the actors in the shot. He mentions the bus exploding over Reeves’ shoulder, the reflection of fire in the phone booth, the out of focus flames behind Hopper. “Whatever happens, you get the sense that there’s more in the shot than the effect.”

10. It was Sandra Bullock’s idea to get out of the Alan Ruck situation by feigning a gum emergency.

11. The bulk of the freeway action was filmed on an unfinished freeway stretch in LA. All of the cars, on both sides, are production cars under their control. “It was a major choreography every time.”

12. They used a total of thirteen busses standing in for the main one. Some were designed for exterior shots, others for interiors, some to house a hidden stunt driver, and more. One version, dubbed “the Popemobile,” featured a plexiglass front which allowed cameras clear access to film characters by the steering wheel.

13. Gang violence in LA was at a high in the mid 90s, and De Bont recalls how they would hear not-too distant gunshots nearby during Speed‘s production.

14. The sequence where the bus exits the freeway and hits several cars on its way down the ramp actually saw the bus stop every twenty-five feet or so “because it didn’t have enough power.” They obviously couldn’t actually keep the bus going over fifty mph — movie magic! — so it often came down to camera tricks, movement, and speeds.

15. He says sharp-eyed viewers will spot “hidden” cameras during some of the bus action as they often only had single takes and had cameras in cars, trucks, and elsewhere.

16. The scene where the injured driver is helped off the bus to the waiting cops sees De Bont comment about a change he wishes he made. “One of the things that I wish I would have done in this particular scene, I wish I would have had everybody try to storm to the front and try to get off, so that you really get more sense of the urgency.”

17. He was given the opportunity to add back any deleted scenes of his choice, but he declined. There aren’t really much in the way of completed scenes that didn’t already make the cut, in part because Speed was storyboarded so rigidly that there was no excess filmed.

18. The bus jump over the “missing” piece of the raised freeway was the most expensive shot in the film due both to the digital effects and the stunt work. There’s no actual gap meaning it was created via visual fx, and De Bont had them add birds where the gap is to help complete the illusion. He was also told that the bus would only go fifteen feet or so, despite being a stripped down model, so he set most of his cameras accordingly to catch the landing. In reality, the bus jumped over and past the cameras having more than doubled the expected distance. It landed on and destroyed one camera set further back while a second was able to capture the landing.

19. Yost’s script originally had the bus head to Dodgers Stadium where it would circle around in the parking lot, but De Bont thought that would be “so boring” and changed it to LAX.

20. “The bus needed an ending too,” he says as each lead character needs an arc, so they bought an old freight plane for $80,000 and blew them up together.

21. The prosthetic dummy head of Hopper was “too realistic” and looked grotesque as it got beheaded, so they went with the rear shot instead.

22. He remains a big, big fan of miniatures. “If you do it right it looks so incredibly real, something you can never never duplicate [with] computer effects.”

23. The subway car that comes crashing out of the tunnel was actually a bus dressed up to look like a subway car.

24. De Bont loves Stanley Kubrick and tries to include a nod to the filmmaker in all of his movies. Here it’s a literal reference as they crash in front of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where they’re showing a re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“There’s a lot of miniatures in my movie.”

“This was a very low budget picture.”

“There’s no way a director can do everything himself.”

“What do you do?”

“I didn’t want to blow up any people.”

“We all like to destroy things, especially when they’re not ours.”

“Simple devices are quite often the best illusions.”

“It wouldn’t be a movie about LA if it didn’t have either a surf or a skateboard in it.”

Final Thoughts

Speed was a massive hit for 20th Century Fox, kickstarted Jan de Bont’s directorial career with a bang, cemented Keanu Reeves as a star, and launched Sandra Bullock towards her own stardom. It’s the kind of simple, high concept action/thriller we really don’t get enough of anymore. De Bont’s commentary has some gaps here and there, but he maintains most of the running time with production notes, anecdotes, and thoughts about filmmaking in general. It’s a solid listen.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.