FILM / Picture that majors on motion: No characters, no motives, no trickery: 'Speed' is a film like no other, and a hit. Mary Harron talks to the people behind it

IT IS safe to bet that none of the Hollywood executives behind Speed has ever been on a bus in Los Angeles. No one in Los Angeles takes the bus; no one, that is, with the slightest access to money or power or position. Those who do are the working poor, mainly black and Hispanic. They wait at the stop slumped in resignation, knowing they are excluded from the city's rapid pulse, knowing that if a bus ever does arrive it will take hours to crawl downtown. One of Speed's many in-jokes is its title.

Speed began in 1991 when aspiring screenwriter Graham Yost had a simple, but perfect, idea. There is a bomb on a bus. If the speedometer goes above 50 mph, the bomb will be primed. After that, if it goes below 50, the bomb will go off. The idea owes something to Kurosawa's Runaway Train, or you could see it as an airhead version of Clouzot's Wages of Fear, in which all tension is focused on a moving vehicle, its spinning wheels, its speedometer and the obstacles ahead. Hollywood studios specialise in ruining simple ideas, and perhaps Speed was lucky that no one took it very seriously. It wasn't an A-list picture like the summer's other big action hit, James Cameron's True Lies, which had Arnold Schwarzenegger, a dollars 100m budget and enough hardware to relaunch Desert Storm. Instead, 20th Century Fox cast Speed from the B list, and hired a first-time director, Jan De Bont. A celebrated cameraman who had begun his career in Holland, De Bont, now 50, shot most of Paul Verhoeven's movies, including Basic Instinct, and was director of photography on innumerable action pictures (The Hunt for Red October, Black Rain, Lethal Weapon 3), including the best one of the Eighties, Die Hard.

When De Bont first heard about the project, he went to Fox and pleaded for it. 'I knew I could really do something with it because it's pure excitement, it starts on a high level and just escalates. I wanted to make it rough, pure - not high-style, because then you'd lose the power of this big dumb bus.'

Meanwhile, Yost's screenplay went through what he estimates as 17 versions, including 10 major rewrites. The hero, Jack Traven, is a policeman who, taunted on the telephone by the bomber (Dennis Hopper), boards the bus and sets about saving the passengers' lives. In the script's early stages, Traven was burdened with guilt over the death of a hostage and tormented by his relationship with his authoritarian father, also a policeman. Hollywood action heroes are always tormented. It puts a redemptive gloss on all that random slaughter by giving the violence a purpose: to enhance the hero's self-esteem. It also makes actors and writers feel better, giving an impression of complexity - even though what passes for psychology in Hollywood is often banal and formulaic.

De Bont wasn't having any of that. 'People always say you have to know the character's background, you have to understand his psychology. The audience doesn't need all that bullshit. We learn everything we need to know about the characters from how they react to things.'

Jack Traven, too, was changing with the script. He began as a wisecracking thirtysomething cop: Bruce Willis, say, or Mel Gibson. For a while he became black, as Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes were offered the role. But he ended up as a Canadian / Hawaiian dreamboat with a limited range of expression: Keanu Reeves. 'Denzel would have got dollars 5m; Keanu probably got dollars 1m,' estimates Yost. (It was a bargain; following Speed's enormous success, Reeves is now said to command dollars 7m.)

'I thought of Keanu after I saw him in Point Break,' De Bont says. 'He's young, he has a vulnerable quality - open, romantic. To me, Keanu - if you had a daughter you'd let him take her out. A little old-fashioned, chivalrous.' There is a passivity about Reeves that makes him perfect for a new kind of role: the action hero as New Man. A key element in the sexual dynamic of Speed is that it is the heroine, Sandra Bullock, who actually drives the bus. There is no good reason for this. When the driver is injured, Jack Traven just picks the most attractive female passenger and asks her to take over. She drives magnificently and he looks on, adoring and supportive, and occasionally does something life-threatening to show he's a man.

Not much of Speed's plot stands up to close examination, but De Bont argues that logic doesn't matter if you can keep the action moving. The filming was run like a military operation. A real freeway was out of the question so the production team had to create their own. They found a stretch of freeway that was still under construction and finished it for the city. ('We painted the stripes on the road.')

Then they laid on a fleet of 500 cars, driven by extras, to simulate freeway traffic. The cars were divided into squads of 25, each with a group leader, and directed by their own AM radio system. Still, there were problems: if just one car broke down and caused traffic to snarl, all 500 had to go back and start again.

Having cut the picture loose from motivation, De Bont now freed it from acting. Whenever possible he wanted the stunts, and the actors' reactions to them, to be real, refusing the help of special effects. Many of the scenes were done in one take, with multiple cameras hidden all over the bus. 'I'd have two cameras on Sandra, one on Keanu, maybe two on the passengers. I planned it very carefully. I hid the cameras behind passengers, between seats, on the walls. Maybe if you replay a scene in slow motion 20 times you can spot one.' There were two steering wheels, a fake one inside the bus and the real one on top with a stunt man driving. In one key scene the bus turns off the freeway and into a side road, only to find a truck blocking its path. 'I didn't rehearse the actors for that scene. I told them something was going to happen, but I didn't say what. When Sandra starts screaming 'Get out of the way' at the truck, that's not in the script.'

The key to De Bont's handling of the picture comes in the opening minutes, when a car flies over a bump: a homage to Bullitt, the Steve McQueen car-chase film of the Sixties. 'In the last few years action pictures have gotten bigger and bigger and more and more expensive, as if you blow up more, you crash more, you'll make a better film. I wanted to do something like Bullitt, just a plain good story that follows one guy and tries to stay close to reality.'

Speed is both very old-fashioned and very new. It is the year's most abstract adventure film: most of the genre's usual attributes are stripped away. No chase sequence. No big stars. No special effects. No motivation. No wonder Keanu Reeves stepped so easily from Little Buddha to Speed: this is pure motion, the action film as Zen.

This is a time of extraordinary freedom and vitality in American film, at least in the independent sector where no subject is too outre and no tech too low. The year's best films have included Spanking the Monkey, a black comedy about mother-son incest, Go Fish, a romantic comedy about young lesbians, and Clerks, a hilarious movie about two deadbeat clerks in a convenience store, with a plot that embraces necrophilia. Shot in murky black-and-white for only dollars 27,000, financed, like so many indie films, with a fistful of credit cards, it has been picked up for distribution by Miramax.

In American movies today you can be experimental on a shoestring or you can be mindlessly violent at huge expense. But where are the comedies and the thrillers of the past? Somewhere in that forgotten middle ground of entertainment, where Hitchcock and Howard Hawks used to play, is Jan De Bont's big dumb bus, endlessly travelling its artificial freeway.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders