In The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Denzel Washington stars as New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber, a man 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 Garber and Ryder strike up a strange relationship that reveals many secrets from both of them, tension mounts when the city employee is forced to head into the subway to personally deliver the ransom and try and outwit Ryder and save the hostages. The film, directed by Tony Scott, was shot on location in New York City’s subway and marks the fourth collaboration between the actor and director after Crimson Tide, Déjà vu and Man on Fire. Based on the novel by John Godey that became a 1974 film starring Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau, the new drama is a retelling more than a remaking of the original story, with significant changes made in the characters and the story. Denzel Washington is one of an elite group of actors who has won an Academy Award in both Best Supporting Actor (Glory) and Best Actor (Training Day) and his impressive credits include; The Hurricane, Remember the Titans, Out of Time, Man on Fire, The Manchurian Candidate and American Gangster. The married father of four has also directed two films; Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters.
DID YOU KNOW JOHN TRAVOLTA BEFORE MAKING THIS FILM?
I didn’t know him but I’d met him before. We’d say ‘hey how are you doing?’ at a few different events but this was the first time we got to work together and even then we didn’t spend much time together in the beginning. We actually filmed separately the first three or four weeks and so much of it is us talking back and forth on the microphone, so the sound department set it up in our dressing rooms so the first three weeks they were shooting the stuff in the command center and I was on camera and John was in the dressing room talking over the microphone and then John was on camera and I was in the dressing room. But over the mike, we’d exchange, ‘good morning, John, how are you today?’ and sing songs and tell jokes. It was an interesting relationship and interesting the way it developed, the way it did in the film.
WHAT IS YOUR OWN RELATIONSHIP WITH SUBWAYS?
I grew up in New York and subways were the way to get around so I spent many many hours on subways as a kid. I hadn’t taken the subway in over twenty years because I used to spend two hours each way on it every day going to school and back and did everything on it – slept, ate, homework – and I swore as soon as I had two pennies to rub together I would never ride it again and I didn’t! Until this movie of course!
WHAT IS IT LIKE SHOOTING A MOVIE IN A SUBWAY?
It was trippy. You had to take a full eight hour safety course so that was a real introduction. You had to walk from one station to the next and stand between trains and have two trains pass you so by the time I got finished with that day and got to the first day of shooting, I felt like I’d been down there a while. I did some scouting locations with Tony Scott too, going through a lot of subway tunnels and lines, so it really felt familiar. As a kid you always wanted to go down there and I had done that, but you never went too far back then, because it was the unknown. But a lot of the scenes, especially when I’m with John and his gang and we were between stations, when we came to work we’d come down to the station, we might walk a quarter of a mile down the tracks to work. Sometimes there were a couple of hatches that came from the street which we could climb down to go to work but it was a whole other world down there. It was interesting seeing the people’s faces if there was another train that we had to let go by while we would be working at 4 in the morning and we might stop shooting just for a moment until they went by. You’d see the faces in the train window and them going, ‘what the heck?’ but you get used to it down there.
WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH DID YOU DO?
I spent time with a retired dispatcher who worked there for sixty years and another train dispatcher, Joseph Jackson, from the Rail Control Center who also began his career like my character, driving a subway train. I like to do research. You get a sense of what the job is, what’s important to them.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN THAT WAS MOST HELPFUL?
The third rail is very dangerous. They showed you pictures of what happens to people – they fry and it’s not nice – but what happens is you relax after a few weeks or months, so I made sure not to. They were turning power on and off for us all the time but I kept acting like the power was always on. You don’t realize it from the platform but there is another six or seven feet of train under there, below the platform down to the track, and it’s huge. And the wind will move you a bit when it comes screaming by too, so it can be a very dangerous place to be down on those tracks and you have to always be on your toes if you want to stay alive.
DID YOU PUT ON WEIGHT FOR THE ROLE?
Yes, I had been heading that way and so I went with it and kept going. I put on more weight, put it that way. I embraced it and really liked that aspect of this character that made him human and normal and struggling with the same things we all struggle with.
HOW DID YOU PUT ON THE WEIGHT?
You just don’t exercise, eat late and have that burger and all the fries and the shake and dessert and you can get there really easy! I liked it for this guy; it felt right for him that it was another thing he was struggling with. I don’t even think he realizes he’s overweight but it comes with the job.
WHY DID YOU WANT HIM TO BE A DISPATCHER WHEN IN THE ORIGINAL FILM HE’S A COP?
Early on, I said to Tony when we were just beginning to work on the material with the writer, I said, ‘I don’t want to be a cop. How about if he’s never had anything to do with hostage negotiations or handling guns?’ So the fact of the matter is Ryder, John’s character, just likes the guy and he’s a sociopath and thinks he has a relationship with my character and only wants to talk to him. So that seemed more interesting, that a civilian was caught in the middle but volunteered to help anyway and ends up saving himself.
COULD YOU SYMPATHIZE WITH THE CHARACTER BEING ACCUSED OF TAKING A BRIBE?
Yes, that’s what makes it interesting. He’s overweight, he’s clumsy but he’s a decent guy. John’s character tries to say they are the same kind of person but the audience doesn’t find out the truth for a while until crazy Travolta pulls it out of him!
YOU WORKED WITH TONY SCOTT ON THREE OTHER FILMS. IS THAT WHY YOU DID THIS ONE?
It was probably the first reason. I was willing to listen because it was him. The script wasn’t there when I first got it but I trust him and I know the kind of research he likes to do, like I do, and usually if he comes to me he’s already prepared and he will have found a guy they base a character on and stuff like that. So I trust him and we keep working until we get something we are both happy with
WHAT KIND OF DIRECTOR IS HE?
He doesn’t give me a lot of notes but he works really hard and we talk about what he has in mind and then he gives me room to hash it out. One of the reasons I love working with him is he likes working with multiple cameras so I don’t have to continue to repeat the performance for close-ups. He might shoot two wide shots and close-ups all at the same time and I like to improvise a lot so he’ll catch whatever is going on. He’ll take more time between shots, which is good for me too as that gives me time to work things out, but then when it’s time to shoot we might do it all in one set-up.
SINCE YOU DIRECTED YOUR OWN FILMS BETWEEN WORKING WITH HIM ON OTHERS, HAS THAT CHANGED YOUR WORKING RELATIONSHIP?
Yes, now I realize how hard the job is, I appreciate what directors do and I try to be on time because now I see what it is when someone else isn’t on time and prepared and ready to go. And it’s like getting paid to go to film school, working with the Hughes Brothers and Spike Lee and Jonathan Demme, Ed Zwick and Tony and Ridley Scott. Unless you’re a dummy, something is going to stick!
PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO LOOK FOR THEMES IN YOUR WORK, THAT YOU PLAY A LOT OF REAL-LIFE CHARACTERS OR DON’T DO A LOT OF ROMANTIC FILMS. DO YOU THINK THERE IS A THEME?
No, but I don’t think back. All I care about is decent material. What I’ve done is done, the past is the past and I don’t believe in looking back. I never even thought about that kind of evaluation. A thought might come into my head occasionally about what I did and why but I don’t sit around trying to look for a reason. If you are looking for a reason, you’ll find one – but it doesn’t mean it’s the right one!
SO WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FROM READING A SCRIPT TO DECIDING WHICH FILMS YOU WILL ACTUALLY MAKE?
It’s no mystery, you just read it and ask yourself if you like it, is it something interesting? After playing Frank Lucas in American Gangster, I wasn’t looking to play a big time drug dealer next and that was my only criteria for this one. But it’s all about the material; if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!
WHAT WAS THE DYNAMIC BETWEEN YOU AND TRAVOLTA?
It was fun because he was a really sweet person, one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. Between takes on the microphone, we would sing songs and tell jokes and somewhere along the line there will be a tape that will come out of Denzel’s greatest hits with John and I doing a duet! But the fact that John is so sweet and plays such a heinous character makes it even more effective. When my character finally meets him, he’s strangely seductive, like, ‘you’re taller than I thought, handsome too, come sit down’. It’s like we are having tea but he’s sitting there next to a guy with his head blown off! That’s what is so sick about it, the nicer he is, the sicker it is.
WHAT WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF THIS JOB?
All that running, I remember. I had just had knee surgery and it was heavily wrapped and the last thing the doctor said was, ‘now don’t do any running’! While I did spend a lot of time behind a desk in this movie, when you see me run, that is 18 or 19 takes of me running really hard and then chasing the taxi and on the bridge and running on a bad wheel, so that was challenging because then your ego is involved and you are thinking, ‘I can’t be out here huffing and puffing and looking bad’ even though I’m overweight and had surgery. So I’m thinking, ‘wait, I have to have some sense of style and grace about this!’
HOW WAS SHOOTING IN NEW YORK?
I’ve done a lot of movies in New York and to me it was like home. Just to sit there and remember days when I was a kid and didn’t have enough money to get on the train and I would have to sneak on, and now I am sitting there at the same subway stations in a $100 million movie, life is so interesting!
HOW HAVE YOU MANAGED TO STAY MARRIED AND RAISE SUCH GREAT KIDS, ONE OF WHOM IS CO-PRODUCING YOUR NEXT FILM, ‘THE BOOK OF ELI’?
I think most people are like me but it’s just not interesting for the press to write about. The overwhelming majority knows how to have normal lives but the tabloids don’t write about that because it doesn’t sell newspapers. My life is really kind of regular and private and normal. I haven’t done press in a year and a half and haven’t sat down with anyone since the last movie came out, so it really isn’t about that for me and so between films I just get on my normal life. I liked that my character had a regular marriage too with a woman who supported and loved him.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE JOURNEY OF YOUR CHARACTER IN THIS FILM?In essence the train saved him; his first love saved him. He moved all the way up the ladder, fell all the way down but his love for trains pulled him all the way back again.
WILL YOU RIDE A SUBWAY AGAIN?
No, I did enough subways on this film over five months and it smells just the same as I remember it! But it was cleaner than it used to be and I didn’t see any rats, which surprised me, but I think they were all scared off by the noise with the lighting guys and the crew who would get down there before me!