When I was a junior in college, Hollywood came to Centre County, Pennsylvania, and set up shop. It was not unthinkable to see Chris Pine eating sticky buns at Ye Old College Diner (a real place!) or catch a glimpse of Denzel Washington enjoying a late dinner at The Corner Room.
They were there to shoot a movie no one had heard of, a little thriller called Unstoppable, directed by the legend Tony Scott.
Unstoppable Picks Up Steam
At the time, Scott was coming off The Taking of Pelham 123 remake, which was a flop at the box office and didn't hit any critic lists. Scott's career was in flux. The 2000s saw him attaching to a ton of scripts but only making a handful that would stand the test of time. Spy Game and Man of Fire were his instant hits, showcasing the mastery and fast editing he was known for in the 90s.
But Domino, Deja Vu, and Pelham put his career in reverse.
He was a director searching for a hit.
Enter Mark Bomback, a writer who had some success but was looking for the thing that really changed his perception in town. He knew he had a great script in Unstoppable. Fox President Tom Rothman called him to tell him so, but directors kept coming and going.
It was the true story of the CSX-8888 incident of May 2001, a runaway train carrying chemicals that could destroy a region.
The script was sent to Tony Scott, who had just done a train movie. 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.
How Do You Get a Train to Hit a Mark?
There were so many details that went into making Unstoppable a hit. There were small things, like making sure the scenery matched the story. Production began in September but would shoot past Christmas, meaning they would go from leaves on trees to barren forests.
Scott had to also mind how many miles of track he had access to because trains took a long time to reset. They could shoot maybe three takes over 10 miles. One take over the only two or so miles they got in some places.
And how do you get a train to hit a mark?
If they missed it, they had to be loaded onto flatbeds and driven backward to the start.
“Scheduling was a nightmare,” Scott said in the film's commentary.
Compounding this, the director was not a green screen guy. He wanted to do everything practically. That meant Denzel needed seven stunt doubles but even had to do some of his own precarious work.
That scene when he's running on top of the train?
Yeah, that was real.
And Chris Pine couldn't let Denzel do it all on his own. That jump in the final scene was real... and he missed it!
“On the first jump, [Pine] missed,” Scott said in his commentary. “He nearly came unhinged.”
That miss shook the actor up, but they reset, and he did it again.
30,000 Minutes of Footage to Edit
If production was crazy, think about post.
Scott was famous for shooting a lot of footage. Unstoppable clocked in with 30,000 minutes of footage filmed. Editor Chris Lebenzon worked on nine of Scott’s 19 films, earning Oscar nods for Top Gun and Crimson Tide.
He told The Ringer there was a simple goal for each movie. Don’t let the audience catch its breath.
“Tony always had this mantra, and he’d tell me at the beginning of the movie, ‘Chris, I don’t want the audience to relax.' [Scott] had gotten better about cutting down his movies. Some directors treat what they shoot as precious material. They’re a bit more attached to it than they should be. By Unstoppable, Tony was like, ‘Okay, take it out, let’s get to the essence of it.’”
Boiling down the film from 30,000 minutes to 98 minutes is a masterful and humbling experience. But Scott didn't care about the amount he shot, he cared that only the best stuff hit the screen.
How Did Critics Respond to Unstoppable?
When the movie was finished and released, Scott was back on top of the world. On Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an approval rating of 87%, certified fresh based on 193 reviews.
Roger Ebert rated the film three and a half stars out of four, remarking, "In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film."
In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis praised the film's visual style, saying that Scott "creates an unexpectedly rich world of chugging, rushing trains slicing across equally beautiful industrial and natural landscapes."
And director Quentin Tarantino highlighted the film in a January 2020 episode of the podcast Rewatchables and included it in his list of the 10 best of the decade. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.
\u201cIt turns out Francis Ford Coppola's film 'Apocalypse Now' influenced not only 'Unstoppable,' but also Quentin Tarantino's latest film, 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.' Hear the full conversation on @TheRewatchables:\u201d— The Rewatchables (@The Rewatchables) 1578607320
This was a movie I loved, and one I got to see come together. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2012, I had the pleasure of my first job ever being a runner at Scott Free. I will never forget running to the V Cut cigar shop on Melrose to pick up cigars for Tony. Or driving scripts up to his house. Or bringing him and Tom Cruise lunch inside Scott Free.
Tony passed away in 2012 and left Hollywood desperate for his kind of filmmaking. He was a pure voice who could shake up tired genres and stories. He was an actor's director who knew when to let his talent do the heavy lifting.
Unstoppable was his last film, and certainly one of his best.
Rewatch it this weekend or watch it for the first time, and go for the ride of your life.