The Taking of Two Pelhams: Q&A with Screenwriter Brian Helgeland

by | June 5, 2009 at 1:07 AM | The Movies

Coming to theaters soon is Tony Scott’s reworking of The Taking of Pelham 123. It tells the story of a beleaguered Metro Transit Authority dispatcher named Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), whose life is turned inside out when a guy calling himself Ryder (John Travolta) and a small crew decides to take a subway train hostage, demanding $10 million in ransom from the city of New York and a much heavier toll on Garber’s state of mind by forcing him to play the role of negotiator. It’s based on a 1973 novel by Morton Freedgood, which was immediately translated into a feature film by Joseph Sargent in 1974, starring Walter Matthau as Garber and Robert Shaw as much less demonstrative nemesis Mr. Blue (and yes, there was a Mr. Green, a Mr. Grey and a Mr. Brown as well – you thought Quentin Tarantino invented that for Reservoir Dogs? FYI – this wasn’t the other job Mr. Purple was on, either).

Watch the original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham 123 right here on Fancast in its entirety!

So how does one take a classic film and “reimagineer” it for a new generation? That was the task screenwriter Brian Helgeland took on, and I recently talked to him about what was great about the original and the directions he had to take the new version to change things up. First up, dispel the idea of a straight remake. “Making this movie was a little bit like trying to pull off a heist – trying to put the pieces together, get the getaway car driver, get the safecracker and all that stuff,” Helgeland said. “I write R-rated action dramas, and every year that goes by, that gets to be a smaller and smaller world you have to work in. You have to think of how to get the studio excited and sell them something. I was trying to use Pelham as a way to springboard into my own crime movie that, in my head, I wanted to do. I’m interested in that situation of two guys, an antagonist and a protagonist, and doing a two-character play in the middle of this whole thing going on. I knew Sony owned the rights to Pelham, and I really love the original film and the last thing I’d want to do is go in and muddy around with what they did so well. We have that same situation as the core, but that’s where the similarities end, because we took our guys in the direction we wanted to take them from there.”

He sums it up thusly: “If it was music, the original film is the bass.”


Q: What did you like about the original film?
Brian Helgeland: I love the original film. I’m a fan of 70s movies – not that I’m alone – and that kind of grittiness. Grittiness is kind of an odd word -just the fact that the good guys don’t have to be saints and the bad guys don’t have to be evil. There’s so much gray between everybody, but you still understand who the good guys are and the bad guys are and all that.

As far as doing a straight remake of Pelham would be a waste, because the original is such a good film and it would be, from my point of view, is pointless. But what I think is remake-able in it is the core hostage situation. This has been done in several movies, that idea of the guy on one end of the phone and a guy on the other end of the phone and the relationship that happens in separate physical locations. That, to me, was something I could make my own – not better, but different than what’s in the original Pelham.

Q: Is there anything from the original film you really wanted to retain?
BH: The original is always listed in great movies about New York, and I think it’s because they capture New York at that time, which is that bankrupt New York that needs Gerald Ford and the government to bail them out, crime rampant, graffiti on everything, Central Park grass is dying, Times Square is a different place than it is now. Obviously, that particular version of New York doesn’t exist anymore, so we had to do our own version. I don’t think it plays as big a part in this movie as it does in that movie, but we try to capture a little bit of New York and what it’s like.

Q: It was interesting that there was no actual mention of 9/11 – has enough time passed that it’s a given and you don’t have to say it?
BH: I think so. I think it exists as a ghost in it. You don’t have to address it directly. It just is what it is and everyone understands it. Obviously, in the original movie, when the guy calls and says “I’ve taken a train hostage,” it’s “oh, okay, a nut with a gun is down on the train.” It’s not taken that seriously at first because it feels like they don’t quite grasp what it is, whereas in this it immediately is, you could almost argue, overreacted to, and that’s part of his plan as a villain is playing on what he knows the post-9/11 reaction would be and the assumption of terrorism. I think they actually share that trying to deal with New York and the attitudes, but obviously they have two different New Yorks to try to address.

Q: One of the things I love about the original is the supporting cast, with guys like Dick O’Neill and Fat Caz as highly compelling and amusing characters – with that kind of New York.
BH: That’s a good example, because if you had that guy in this movie, you could only rip him off, you know what I mean? So in a way, we tried to avoid that. Sometimes people say ‘does it have the sneeze in it?’ A.) it can’t, because he physically sees what they look like, so there’s no audio mystery to solve, but B.) it’s such a great moment in the original film, you can only do it not as well, or just be blatantly ripping it off. I think it’s the individual strokes that make that movie great that we tried to avoid repeating in this movie. Otherwise, it’s just “oh, they did that better in the first movie.”

Q: Were you tempted at all to carry over the Mr. Blue and Mr. Green, or can you not do that anymore because of Reservoir Dogs?
BH: That becomes a weird thing. If we did that, a lot of people would sit there and go “they stole that from Reservoir Dogs” and no one would think this. We consciously avoided that idea. It’s a can of worms to start dealing with them trying to hide their identity. In reality, they’d all probably have stocking masks on.

Q: I did like that Luiz Guzman is sporting the look all the bad guys had in the original, with the hat and glasses and stache.
BH: He tries. He’s conscious of the fact that someone could recognize him, but the other guys – you can’t have Travolta in a hood the whole movie, you know.

Q: When you were writing this, did you have these actors in mind?
BH: No. The joke for me when people say ‘do you write for actors?’ and I go “yeah, dead ones.” I want to get Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck and those guys. Maybe you think of a version of Gregory Peck for the Denzel part. Once an actor comes on, then I’ll write for him.

[Watch Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday, Burt Lancaster in The Train, and Gregory Peck in Billy Two Hats right here on Fancast.]

Q: You’ve worked with Denzel before – is there anything you specifically do to craft a role for him?
BH: He understands that the less you say as an actor, the stronger what you say ends up being. Stuff like that. Once I knew it was him, you wanted to minimize the dialog from his end. He likes to try, and does very well, to play to some certain things that other people might say to get across – and at the same time, he wants to become the guy you’ve written, too. You end up meeting each other halfway, in a good way.

Q: How much input did you have during the actual filming?
BH: Tony and I worked together before, and we trust each other quite a bit. Having directed, I would always say on Man On Fire and this that I couldn’t have directed those scripts better than Tony did. So it’s great when you find the one guy that I don’t sit there and think “I could do better than he’s doing.” And I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he trusts what I do. We go through it a lot, trying to hone it down. Not that we verbalize it this way, but we try to get together. It’s not a negotiation either, like you’re compromising, but you try to get the version that you’re both diggin’ and feel like you can throw yourself behind.

Q: Is there anything that was cut out of the finished film that you wish would have stayed?
BH: We had a whole sequence with the cops driving the car. There’s a vestige of them left, saying ‘what would you do for 10 million dollars?’ They start going back and forth, each more outrageous – ‘would you have sex with a corpse on the 50 yard line during the Super Bowl?’ That kind of thing, and it just got bigger and more and more outrageous. It ended up being a dividing line, in a way, where a certain segment of the audience was going to love it and a certain segment of the audience was going to be really turned off by it. It became one of those victims to going down the middle. I wish that was in there.

Watch the original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham 123 right now!