Denzel Washington and Tony Scott Interview THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123

     June 10, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 movie poster.jpgOpening this Friday is director Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123″. The film stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta and it’s a remake of the 1974 film that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Here’s the synopsis:

Denzel Washington stars as New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber, whose ordinary day is thrown into chaos by an audacious crime: the hijacking of a subway train.  John Travolta stars as Ryder, the criminal mastermind who, as leader of a highly-armed gang of four, threatens to execute the train’s passengers unless a large ransom is paid within one hour. As the tension mounts beneath his feet, Garber employs his vast knowledge of the subway system in a battle to outwit Ryder and save the hostages.  But there’s one riddle Garber can’t solve: even if the thieves get the money, how can they possibly escape?

To help promote the film, I recently attended a press conference with director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington. They talked about all the usual subjects like what was it like to make the movie, filming in New York, how did Denzel create his character, what they have coming up, and a lot more.

If you’d like to read the transcript, it’s after the jump. But if you’d rather listen to the press conference, you can click here to download/listen to the audio. If you have the time, I’d recommend listening. Press conferences are always better that way.

Finally, here’s a link to some movie clips from “Taking of Pelham 123”.

The Taking of Pelham 123 movie image (5).jpgQuestion:  Denzel Washington enters and says ‘Don’t get quiet now.’  He’s wearing a black suit with a striped tie.  You’re obviously not adverse to doing remakes.  What do you see that is necessary in a movie that you think it should be remade and you want to be part of it?

Washington:  I think that number one, and especially in the case of this film more than ‘Manchurian’, I think it’s basically the story of a hostage situation on a train in New York City.  I think that is what the two films have in common, and the fact that it’s New York City.  I don’t know that my character and the character that Walter Matthau played are that similar necessarily.  I don’t know why anybody would remake a film.  I mean, literally the translation or definition of the word.  Why would you redo it the same way?  That’s my two cents.

Scott: I think the motivation of the characters is very different.  The similarities, for example it’s a hostage situation in the Subway but think about the Robert Shaw character, and you think about Denzel’s character and the whole motivation is very different.  For instance Walter Matthau is playing a cop.

Washington:  I don’t want to be a cop.

Scott: But also, in terms of John’s character is based off of a real guy who actually came out of Brooklyn, gravitated to Wall Street, and worked for the city.  He went and did time in jail and got out of jail before the movie.  This cat was motivated by revenge.  Take revenge on the city of New York.  In the original movie it was about the million dollars.  It was about lets hold hostages in a subway for a million bucks.   It was a sort of stupid place to have to hold hostages because it’s a cul-de-sac.  The John character had a plan, he had a plot, and Luis Guzman was the guy who he hatched the plot with when he was in jail.  It’s based off of real events and real characters.

Washington:  Now I haven’t been lying when I said that the back story for Garber was based on a guy at the MTA.

Scott:  Yes, and a family member.  It was a mixture of the two.

Washington:  But it was based on a guy that took the money.

Question:  You mentioned that you didn’t want to play a cop or FBI agent.  You wanted to play an ordinary guy.  Where did you have to go to become this ordinary guy?

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Washington:  The deli.  Just ate a lot and kept getting smaller and smaller sweaters to wear.  I spilled coffee on myself.  I was concerned a little bit about ‘Inside Man’ where I was a cop and a hostage negotiator.  I just liked the idea of when they hand him a gun he had never held one before.  He was an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation.  He had a cloud over his head.  He didn’t come to work knowing he was going to get an opportunity to redeem himself.  He didn’t even know if he was going to redeem himself.  It was something he felt like he needed to do.  As he got into it deeper and deeper he just went for it, and he brought home the milk.

Question: Were the glasses your idea?

Washington:  I don’t remember.  I remember we tried a bunch.  ‘How about these?  How about these?’ so if you didn’t like the glasses then blame it on Todd [Black].  Todd was the one who said he liked that pair of glasses.  Todd Black.  One of the producers back there, you can blame the glasses on him.

Scott:  It’s an organic process how we build a character.  Then we build the character and it was an MTA worker that we had as a role model but then also Brian [Helgeland] brought this other back story from this other character.  The glasses all becomes part and parcel and you feel how the character feels, whether it’s the wardrobe, glasses, with lines in conjunction with manners.

Question:  What did you do to research this guy?  Did you drive the subway in this movie?  Did you talk about how the control center drives?  What was in the yellow plastic bag?

Washington:  My sweater with the coffee stains.  I brought my lunch in that bag and I took home my sweater.  One of the reasons I like working with Tony [Scott] is because, like myself, he’s a research fanatic.  I know going in he’s going to have a lot of stuff for me to look at, to go to, so he got the MTA command center.  That was one of the first things I did, months before we started shooting, I went to the command center.  It was huge.  It was 10 times bigger than our set or something.

Scott:  It’s the size of a football field and it’s like NASA.  That’s the last thing you would expect, especially if you look at the old movie.  The old movie is this grubby office with this Subway thing on the wall.  The real world is where I get to educate and entertain myself.  I go and touch the real world and touch real people.  That’s my way into movies.  I love that and bring it with Brian and Denzel.

Washington:  It’s huge.  We share a lot of these elements.  Same things for me, I like being with the real folks.  Once I got there and we made introductions I kept going back.  You sit and you talk with people.  Our technical advisor was a guy that started at the bottom and worked his way up.  You talk to him and ask how you get to be in the position I’m in.  He said ‘You start at track maintenance.  You might become a flag man.  You work your way up, local dispatch, might be a conductor.  You work your way all the way up the ladder.’  I don’t think that the character I played went to college.  I think he got a job at 17 or 18, as track maintenance, and he worked his way up.

Question: There is some great music in the film.  Does music every help inform your performances?  What’s on your play list?

Washington:  It does, but the music I was playing is not in the movie.  That is obviously the director’s decision.  On ‘Man on Fire’ we talked about ‘Nine Inch Nails’.

Scott: What we do is that it’s a process of research, in terms of finding people, and also we do rip sheets.  The first thing we did was cut together a DVD.  We cut that from the old movie and different movies, Denzel and different movies, to inform the tone of the movie.  I gave that to Denzel.  It’s an organic process of research.  Organic is the word I keep using but it begins and ends with homework.  Its very hard trying to talk to an actor about how they should deliver lines, or cut their hair, unless it comes from a place of a strong point of view.  I think that strong point of view comes from research.

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Washington:  Not much of my music on this one though.  I just realized the glasses I wore in the movie are much like the ones you have on now, Tony.

Question:  Did you ever have John Travolta’s voice in your ear?  I wondered if it was like animation?

Washington:  No.  We were always there for each other.  We were always off camera.

Question: How did that work?

Washington:  I wouldn’t be on camera and I would talk.  Then he wouldn’t be on camera and he’d talk.  It’s the same thing as being on camera but it’s off camera.  You actually do develop a relationship.  For the first six, seven, eight weeks we didn’t shoot any scenes together on camera.  But we were developing a relationship through the microphone and through the speakers.

Scott:  It was great for the characters because John and Denzel develop their relations.  It’s a tough movie to do 90 percent of the movie with two guys on the phone.  I saw that as being a challenge because I said ‘How do we keep this anxiety and the mental thing going.  It comes with the actors and the writing.  It’s a daunting challenge because as I sad two thirds of the movie is two guys on the phone with each other.  The two boys are separated.  John’s on one side of the studio, and I think you shook hands once?

Washington:  I would see him at lunch.  They wrote in there we never saw each other but I saw him everyday.

Question:  What do you think John brings to the mix?

Scott: He’s got a big heart, he’s dangerous, and sweet, and smart.  As a bad guy in this role he brings a contradiction.  You don’t expect the bad guy.  He’s funny, he’s smart, and he has a big heart.  It plays against what you normally expect of bad guys.

Question:  Were both of you for the full two or three months?

Washington:  Yes.

Question: Isn’t it more like a radio play?

Washington:  Yeah, I guess you could say that, and you had the luxury of practice.  He did anyway.  For three weeks I was on camera first.  We shot all the command center stuff first.  Day one, I’m on camera.  There is no ‘Can I change it tomorrow?’  we were moving on.  He had a chance to work on his part and develop it.

Question:  Was it like a reunion of sorts?  What was it like working with him?

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Washington:  I actually didn’t know him very well.  My wife knew him, but I know him pretty well now, I think.  I didn’t know him that well.

Question: What was it like when it connected and came together?  His performance is such a ten!

Washington:  And I’m a three?  Is that what you are saying?

Question: No, you’re kind of holding the fort down and he’s really cranked up and out there.

Washington:  It didn’t just happen once we got on screen together.  We have five senses.  The other four were heightened.  Yes, we didn’t see each other.  It’s like an old courtship over the phone.  It’s a long distance relationship.  You get to know a person.  We would sing songs, tell jokes, and do Broadway tunes.  ‘Good morning, Mr. Travolta.’  ‘Good morning, Mr. Washington.’ And we would just go.  That was the nature of the relationship.

Question:  When did you shoot this movie and could you explain again who John’s character is based on?

Scott: John’s character is based upon a mixture.  A guy from Brooklyn who gravitated to Wall Street and got caught up in the Parking Violations Scandal in 1994.  He then did time and his life was taken away.  We started shooting in January of last year.  We finished in June.  We started shooting in the winter in New York and finished in the summer.  That’s why you might see snow in places or trees without leaves, and then trees with leaves.

Question:  The Subway is inherently a green thing.  Was there anything done on the production to be environmentally friendly?  Did you try to reduce waste on set and things?

Scott: No.  It’s a tremendous responsibility for a director, being down there, so we never did dangerous things.  The driving above ground is much more dangerous than staying in the Subway.  But staying in the Subway is actually a lot more dangerous because we’re shooting at night most of the time.  People get tired and think of the third rail.  People lose concentration.  For me it was a huge responsibility.  Every night we went down in the Subway and I loved shooting it.  I think that’s one of the stamps of my movies.  I love shooting with real things in the real world.  I think it gives a level of drama, performance, and everything seems to rise to the occasion.  It’s very worrying at the same time.  All you need is somebody to step the wrong way or put their hand in the wrong direction.  Then you’ve got an accident and something more serious.

Question:  Denzel, had you been in the subway at all until you made this movie?

Washington:  I grew up in New York so I was born in the Subway.  I rode it almost everyday for many years.

Question:  Any memories or feelings about it one way or the other?

Washington:  Yeah.  If you can do it on a Subway then I’ve seen it.  From robbery to parenting.

Question: Was there anything new you discovered about the city or subway system during this film?

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Washington:  When you are young you sneak on the trains, have fun, go down the steps, and take a few steps down that dark tunnel.  You don’t go too far because you don’t know what’s down there.  You know you have to get back before the train pulls in there.  Our day started at the steps.  We would go a quarter of a mile or half mile down.  It’s just a whole other world under there.  Wasn’t there one set that was an old station they didn’t use anymore?  Church Avenue or something.  That was trippy being on the other end.  I remember coming home late at night, two, three, four in the morning, and from wherever.  The train would slow down and you would see the guys working and looking up.  You were like ‘Man, what are they doing out here?’  We were those guys out there at four or five in the morning.  I remember a woman was looking and I was standing there and she was like [silent] ‘I’m down here working on the trains.’

Question:  What are the challenges of making the city part of the story?  It was another character.  In ‘Man on Fire’ it felt that the city was another character in the movie.  This one is the same thing.

Scott:  For me, the city is a character in the movie, the third character.  It’s the bad guy.  John wanted to take revenge and humiliation on the city like it took from the city.  It became a very important factor in the movie.  That’s why I opened the movie with that kinetics, that anxiety. For me this movie was a brilliant canvas.  It was the bowels of the city of New York in the subway system, to the calmness and quietness, of the NASA, MTA control center.  I had the luxury of being able to punctuate that adrenaline with the money car coming through the story when we need it.  I had a great canvas on which to work.

Question: You have a big slate coming up. Are you going to be able to do this Sammy Davis Jr. bio pic? Have you seen a cut of ‘Book of Eli’?

Washington:  I don’t have a big slate.  Forget that IMDB.  75 percent of what that says is not true.  I am not doing all the films it says I’m doing on there.

Question: Are you doing ‘Inside Man 2’?

Washington:  No, I’m not.  Not yet.

Question: You shot ‘Book of Eli’.  Have you seen a cut and are you still trying to develop the Sammy project?

Washington:  No, I’m not developing a Sammy pic and I haven’t seen a cut of the film.

Question: A lot of directors seem to be pulling back from CGI.  You’ve never really gone that way much.

Scott: CGI feels… my mom was 95 when she died.  She would watch movies and say ‘That scene doesn’t quite work.’ And she always managed to finger why it didn’t work, because it was digitally generated.  There is something here.  There is something to be said about what you get in terms of working in a real life situation.  Whether its on Manhattan bridge at the end, with the helicopters, and guys struggling with to compete against it.  What it most of all elevates the performer, elevates drama.  Down in the Subway we have real trains running behind the boys.  At the same time is that we do rehearsals and stuff.  Then you run a real train through and watch everything change.  It has a whole shift in the best possible way.  I’ve always tried to avoid CGI my whole career.  I don’t care whether it’s planes, cars, and trains.  It elicits something in terms of the drama and the performances that gives me a reality and more edge.

Question:  Can you talk about the Gandolfini Mayor of New York?

Scott: Those roles are always hard, the Mayor of New York, or the President of the United States, but Gandolfini obviously personifies New York.  He’s great, it’s the third time I’ve worked with him and Denzel third time.

Question: Have you had a chance to be in touch with John Travolta and get a sense of where he’s at these days?

Washington:  I talked to John two and a half weeks ago.  Needless to say, he’s struggling.  He’s struggling.  More than talking to him, I listened to him, for about two or three hours.  It’s going to take time.  What can you say but just be there as a friend?  He’s such a sweet, sweet person.  Our prayers are with he, his wife, and family.

Question: Usually we see you about once a year but we haven’t seen you since before the election.  How do you think the world is a better place?  What were your impressions of the inauguration?

Washington:  I thought Barack was brilliant in the film.  [Laughs]  The way he transforms himself into John Travolta’s henchman is great.  You didn’t even realize it was him did you?  That’s why I voted for him because I understood what a brilliant actor he is.  He was a fine addition to ‘Taking of Pelham 1 2 3’.

Question:  What about playing this guy?  You mentioned you didn’t want to be a cop or hostage negotiator because you had done that already.  Is there a special something that it takes, when you are a leading role normally, to play a character role like this?

Washington:  These are all categories.  Leading man is something that someone calls you when you do press junkets.  I’m not a leading man, I’m an actor, and so you get the part and interpret it.  So, I like the idea of him not knowing anything about how to solve this problem.  He has problems of his own.  I think I said it earlier, I like the fact that he spills coffee on himself.  He’s very good as a dispatcher.  He’s a star in that world, but he’s taken out of his element.  I like the fact that he doesn’t wan to take the Mayor’s truck home.  He takes the Subway.  It’s like class, he knows where he belongs, and he’s comfortable in that world.  Important decisions to him are whether to get a gallon of milk or half of a gallon.

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Question: But he’s come down in the world.

Washington:  Yeah, and he’s come down, but he started at the bottom.  He got all the way close to the top.  He’s brought back down and he’s in denial.  Everybody knows what has gone on and he’s gaining weight.  It’s comfort.  I think he’s eating because of under lying tension.  He gets an opportunity in some way to redeem himself.

Question: Did you see there was a potential for this film to be very static? How about getting a sense of momentum without getting mimicky?

Washington:  I think that Brian [Helgeland] and Tony really fashioned an excellent drama in this two character play.  These guys, it’s a sad scene when I had to confess to stealing this money.  This poor guy makes me do it in front of everybody.  Then he has the nerve to say we’re the same.  It’s good writing.  Tony can tell you about it.

Scott: I think the way the characters and story are structured, its call in built drama.  What I do is watch, listen, and say.  This is how I can amplify that with my camera moves or editing.  I think as a broad stroke, if you look at the later sequences, as the tension and drama are built more and more, between Denzel and John, the camera moves faster.  The edits are a little harder.  I support what I see and feel.

Washington:  I think also there is an inherent promise.  It wasn’t my idea, but I’ll take credit for it now, going to John Travolta.  It’s like ‘Oh, Denzel and John Travolta.  Let me see what’s going to happen when they get together.’  Just by the nature of whom we are it suggested or promised that something is going to happen.

Question:  That same promise is made whenever you two make a film together.  Is there a short hand when you arrive on set to do a project?

Scott: No, I think we’re both insecure about what we do. I think there is a short hand and I think that short hand is trust.  We’ve been together four movies now.  There is trust in that we have the same work ethic, and trust that we trust each other’s process.

Question:  You do some very interesting things with the aesthetic of film.  Have you ever thought of using IMAX cameras or shooting any future films in 3D?

Scott:   No.  Now we’re going into the age of HD.  That’s the wave of the future.  I not only shot this whole movie, but HD when you want to get it to a big screen finish and quality, the equipment is still the elephant in the room.  You’ve got the mother ship, the umbilical cord, so a week before shooting I went from HD, back to film.  Kodak produced this stock called the ‘HD Killer’.  We went back to film because its still that much more mobile.  I can pick up a camera and run with it, but being down in the Subways with the mother ship, the tent, the extra people.  HD is the way of the future, but all my aerials if I mix and match, maybe a third of the movie is in HD.  The aerial stuff is in HD.  ‘Deja Vu’ we did it half.

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Question: When you put on your socks you didn’t know this was going to happen.  At some moment on set or in your own personal life, was there a moment where you had something extraordinary happen, that you had no idea was going to happen?

Washington:  I’m sure.  I can’t think of anything, nothing like this.  Unfortunately, for all of us a morning like that was the morning of September 11th.  Todd Black and I were working on ‘Antwone Fisher’.  I was at the Naval Base in Coronado.  I got up to work on the script, get up early because we were going to the base, and I woke him up.  I said ‘Well, let me check the news before I start working.’  That’s a morning that I will never forget.

Question: You didn’t end up working that day did you?

Washington:  No, they locked down the Naval Base.  In fact we had our kids on a ship out at sea.  They immediately flew them back in on a helicopter.  That was it.  I remember we were driving back to L.A. from San Diego and the roads were empty.  It was a trip.

Question: Did you get to ride a subway for this movie and be an engineer?

Washington:  Drive one?  No.  I shouldn’t say…well, I can say.  If you look real close, when I’m driving, the guy on the other side is actually the driver.

Question: Is that a legal thing that they wouldn’t allow you?

Washington:  I would imagine.  I would hope so!

Question:  Tony, when you are updating a film you use current elements like Skype, Bluetooth, so do you feel an obligation to do that stuff?  I’m halfway surprised nobody was Twittering on the train.  Do you Twitter?

Washington:  How long has that been out?  We finished shooting a year ago.

Question: Are you a big computer guy?

Washington:  Yeah, I’m a big computer guy.  On.  Off.

Scott: A big story on it was the kid with the iChat.  That was Brian’s idea to have a third eye in the train.  We didn’t try hard to embrace the new world it was just a fact of life.  The footage in the film is of an iChat screen, we used the actual footage, and it sort of degenerates but it looks like a snuff movie, it a good way.

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