These two are 'unstoppable'

Unlikely Pairing

Dream Team : Denzel Washington (left) and director Tony Scott. Photo by Kevin Scanlon/The New York TimesDirector Tony Scott has found his go-to hero, an often flawed, seemingly ordinary guy who rises to the occasion, in the Oscar winner Denzel Washington. Together the unlikely pairing of the British action director who specialises in fast-paced, stylised action flicks (Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout) and an American leading man typically associated for his stirring portrayals of inspirational men like Malcolm X and the football coach Herman Boone, have made five films together.

In their latest, Unstoppable, Washington plays a veteran engineer who must safely halt an out-of-control locomotive in Pennsylvania carrying combustible liquids, with or without the assistance of his headstrong rookie conductor (Chris Pine). The movie is loosely based on an actual incident in which a train in Ohio travelled 66 miles without a crew member on board.

Scott and Washington discuss a range of subjects, including how their joint projects come about as well as the exact speed at which a nugget of sugary breakfast cereal can be frightening. Excerpts from an interview.

Who initiated ‘Unstoppable’?

Tony Scott: (points to Washington) You told me about the script when we were doing Pelham. Then I got someone to send me a copy of it. (He laughs.)
Denzel Washington: You’re right. I forgot I read it a year or two earlier. I think what happened is that I’d already signed on to do Pelham. It was like, “I can’t do both of these at the same time.”

So there’s a script you both like. What’s next?

Scott I went to Pennsylvania and interviewed different guys. I made a mini-movie using old movies like Runaway Train, television footage from the actual event and the interviews. Then I showed it to D and said, “This is the tone of the movie.” For me, that’s part of how I find my vision. I do a tremendous amount of research. Then I come to the studio with this little movie. No matter how much you talk about it, they still don’t get it.

But you show them a four-minute movie? Denzel, how does Tony’s research affect you?

Washington: It’s a treat to get a glimpse into the man’s head. Sometimes it’s like, “If you don’t want to do the movie, don’t go to that office.” Because you know he’s going to have all this stuff. One of the key things for Man on Fire [about a former assassin out to avenge the girl he was hired to protect] was that he gave me The Iceman, a tape about a guy who killed about 200 people. What helped me was how he talked about killing. He was so matter of fact.

You’ve just spent hours talking to the press. What’s your answer to ‘Why another train movie?’

Scott I didn’t do another train movie. Pelham was a hostage movie, a full-on character-driven piece. This is a combination of character and action. It’s a hundred thousand tons of steel crossed with two guys in conflict. People wanted to know why I didn’t use CG (computer graphics). It’s that it felt wrong. I wanted to put the audience inside that cab with those guys. I loved the reality, the weight of the train. The windows are open. It’s cold. It’s different when you get actors on a stage and ask them to respond to a tennis ball at the end of a bit of wire. To capture that energy and momentum and feel with CG, you’d have to be Einstein.

Speaking of real, there’s a scene in Unstoppable where a train car opens up. Whatever it is — grain? — that comes gusting towards him, Denzel gives a very convincing performance of a man trying not to be hit by it.

Washington: What was that? Sugar Pops and potato flakes? What you don’t realise is that when you look out the window of a train going 50 miles per hour, and that stuff starts flying out and you’re like. ... (He holds up arms to protect eyes.) A Sugar Pop at 50 miles per hour is nothing to be played with.

Denzel, you are heights-phobic, yet at one point in Unstoppable Tony had you run along the top of a speeding train. Why say yes?

Washington: Heights didn’t use to bother me. It’s only since I’ve been in the movie business. But I’ve got an ego. A year later I don’t want to be having a conversation like the one we’re having right now, and you’re asking me, “So I heard you were afraid to do the stunt.”

What’s most appealing about working together?

Scott: What I get off on is that we challenge each other. Out of the five movies Denzel gives me a different aspect of his personality, always something different inside of him.
Washington: One of the reasons I love working for Tony is because it’s like, “Damn, you can’t outwork this guy.” I’m there at 4 am, and I’ll find out that Tony’s already been there for seven hours. I’m like, “That means he never left!” He’s tough. He can fight.

He’s thorough, he’s done his homework. He can shoot, edit. He can do everything. But he also still loves it. That’s infectious. You get on board because you know it’s going to be a good ride.

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