Tony Scott's final movie was an instant classic.
The late and great Tony Scott was a filmmaking giant whose movies gripped the audience viscerally, and who favored lots of cuts, amazing cinematography, and incredibly punchy dialogue. Scott's final movie was Unstoppable, a runaway train epic that did well at the box office, but has become heralded in the later years as maybe one of the last great disaster thrillers.
We called it one of the best films in the last decade, and we meant it. It helps that Tarantino agreed with us as well.
This is a movie that is firing on all cylinders, frenetic and exciting, it holds you on the edge of your seat for the short runtime and allows character actors to shine in small parts, while stars Denzel Washinton, Chris Pine, and Rosario Dawson flaunt their chops.
There are way more than eight filmmaking lessons we can glean from this masterpiece, but I figured we would start there.
Let's release the airbrakes and get this thing going.
8 Great Filmmaking Lessons from Unstoppable
1. Our world, built
So many people think the idea of worldbuilding only applies to fantasy writers and stuff that happens in magical realism or other genres. In actuality, every story needs its world built out. How much did you know about trains and the rail system before seeing this movie?
We take an interesting subculture here and build out who works there, why, and how a lot of these people know each other. We also expose the naivete of how people don't understand how trains work, allowing the runaway train to truly become unstoppable as our heroes engage in finding a way to bring it to its knees.
Worldbuilding is crucial to whatever story you're telling. Steep us in the facts and show us why this place is special.
2. Characters that arc
What puts this movie above others is the strong character arcs at its center. Denzel Washinton plays an absentee father trying to put his life back together before mandatory retirement. Chris Pine is a jealous husband who's lost his way and might lose the right to see his kid.
Each of them has burning internal issues brought out by risking their lives. Rosario Dawson's character is not left behind either, actually having not just desk duty but earning the respect of her colleagues and taking control of the situation.
No matter the kind of movie you do, characters need to be central to the story. The audience wants to understand and care about them.
3. Get creative in the edit
No one, and I mean no one, edits a movie like Tony Scott. To be fair, the editing was actually done by Robert Duffy and Chris Lebenzon, but if you've seen a Tony Scott movie, you know he makes sure the editors have enough footage to keep switching angles and shots every few seconds.
The creativity and tightness of the edit here match the themes and story of the movie. It's creative and almost anti-Hollywood, never lingering on the stars, but constantly switching perspectives, showing us how the fever around the train builds within the town and then on the national news.
Get creative in the edit, take chances, and try to match it to the kind of movie you want to make.
4. Leave them wanting more
The magic of this movie is that it's under 100 minutes long. It feels so fast and so smart, but every beat is perfection. It speaks to the wonderfully crafted script by Mark Bomback. At minute 11 they lose the train, and at minute 55, they decide to go back to catch it. We get all the beats in this movie. We meet the characters, they have great intros as they walk into the yard. We don't see any over-long scenes or unnecessary moments.
This movie ends when the train finally stops. There's no fat here. It's a lean and mean look at storytelling.
We want more as an audience. We love this world and don't get enough, which is great. It means we had a ton of fun. Long movies are fine, but can you tell a great movie at a perfect, punchy length?
5. Moments matter
Another thing that puts this movie over the top is that the small moments matter. I love seeing the country-bred conductor at the diner talking trains to the bored waitress, or the horses that have to be taken off the track as the train barrels through their carrier.
Side characters like daughters who work in Hooters and Ethan Suplee chasing the train, falling and being laughed at. These really set the tone of the story. There are even creative instances of exposition, as they use news footage to tell us where the train is, how to derail it, and how the science of everything works.
6. Angles matter
I love the cinematography in this movie. Shot through rainy windows, overhead helicopter shots, and mixed media footage all crammed together in a careful and deliberate edit. The movie has no sheen. It's blue, overcast, and it feels like the camera never settles. We are constantly moving with a flurry of action.
Ben Seresin shot the movie, and he pulls everything out of his bag of tricks. Snap zooms, pans, and even creative coverage angles that seem to make us a fly on the wall for this entire endeavor.
What kind of fun can you have behind the camera? Be unique and use your voice.
7. Sound editing is crucial
The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound Editing at the 83rd Academy Awards but lost to Inception. That was a bummer because the sound changes everything about this movie.
Mark P. Stoeckinger handled the sound editing, and what he did here was special. There's a blend of train noises, helicopters, people, and all sorts of other little things, like the ringing of a phone against the howl of the wind, or the screeching sound of brakes that fail.
How can sound contribute to the audience's experience? How can it accentuate the genre for you? Can it liven the mood or create some sense of dread? Do what you can.
8. Blue Collar Heroes and IP are valuable
We all know that intellectual property is hot in Hollywood. While there's always a best-selling book being optioned or someone famous's life hitting the big screen, there are a lot of valuable stories in the blue-collar arena.
This was the true story of the CSX-8888 incident of May 2001, a runaway train carrying chemicals that could destroy a region. It was not a hot property at the time, it was just a cool story people knew could become a tight thriller. It took over a decade from the incident to hit the big screen.
The script was sent to Tony Scott, who had just done a train movie—The Taking of Pelham 123. No one thought he would want to get involved, but after reading it and loving it, Scott was on board. He brought along his longtime collaborator Denzel Washington, and they flew to Pennsylvania to get started.
Look everywhere for story ideas. Don't ignore the things that happen close to you. Look into those blue-collar jobs and communities that have legends you can acquire or chase.
The best stories are out there. They don't have to be books, they just have to be compelling.
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