Tobias Schliessler and company hit the tracks running for Tony Scott’s frenetic “re-telling” of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
In the exciting 1974 New York City-based thriller, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Robert Shaw and his gang of machine-gun wielding thugs hold a subway car for ransom as a leather-faced Walter Matthau, of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Police, races against time to resolve the dangerous standoff. Based on the novel by John Godey, directed by Joseph Sargent and shot by Owen Roizman, ASC, this gritty cat-and-mouse story created plenty of suspense, albeit confined for the most part to two claustrophobic locations: the MTA control room and the single train car.
Sony Pictures is marketing its new summer release, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, as a “re-telling of the novel” rather than a remake, and the big-budget studio picture is aimed squarely at modern audiences, many of whom have never seen the ‘70s era original. Starring Denzel Washington in the transit cop role and John Travolta as the wily trainnapper, the new film, directed by Tony Scott and shot by Tobias Schliessler, is a film for our times: faster-paced and much more kinetic, with the thrill ride quotient amped through the roof for a new generation of action-crime junkies.
That said, even this version takes place mostly inside a government bureau and a single subway car. In fact, as Scott laughs, “When I read the script, I thought, ‘damn, this is great. But 80 percent of it is two guys talking on the phone to each other!’” The director of such action pictures as Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and Man on Fire explains that this fact provided the filmmakers with a challenge to keep the movie highly charged and kinetic. “You’ll never leave the edge of your seat,” he promises. “The performances and dynamics between the two guys are so strong. Denzel is so different from what you’ve seen in the past and John is just completely out there. And then there’s the camera, which is always moving!”
Schliessler details that the production used a minimum of three cameras and often four, which is Scott’s preferred method of covering scenes. The DP carried Panavision Platinums and a Millennium for the small amount of Steadicam work, and shot on the long end of Primo telephoto zooms. The film was shot mainly on Kodak’s 5219 500T in Super 35 format and blown up to anamorphic during the DI at Company 3. Schliessler, whose last effort was the equally kinetic Hancock for director Peter Berg, adds that, “[Pelham] keeps going so fast that most of the time we had all the cameras on tracks, all covering the action in different ways, which brings out so much energy.”
“One camera would do a 360 dolly move around John or Denzel,” Scott expands. “On the train set, for example, we’d cut out an area of the car that [production designer] Chris Seagers built so we could lay [dolly] tracks that circle completely around the motorman’s cab on the subway car when John is in there. The camera could go all the way around, disappear behind windows and walls and come back around from the other side. We might also be doing a two-shot and a single from cameras dollying [in and out or side to side] and then maybe a fourth camera would be grabbing a shot of another character somewhere.”
“You’re basically being challenged on 95 percent of the shots,” relates 1st A.C. Tony Nagy, whose days saw him constantly moving at Scott’s famously manic pace. No sooner would the cameras be placed, then they’d be rolling and Nagy holding focus at 400mm-plus focal lengths on optics opened up to between a T2.8 and T4 (on the soundstage) for operator Duane Manwiller’s camera – usually the one doing the 360 moves – while Scott would call out framing instructions to the operators over headsets mid-take. As Nagy notes, “Everybody gave their all and it separates the men from the boys!”
The first assistant says he likes to work the lens (rather than a remote system) whenever possible. He would get two or three lens marks based on certain known distances between the camera (i.e., a pole on the subway car), but beyond that he’d rely on his own 5-inch Panasonic monitor to find focus. “We do get so tight to where we’re looking at eyeballs or I’m focusing on eyeglasses,” he explains. “The actors are moving. The camera is moving. So you really have to depend on a good monitor and get what you need in focus by eye.”
Naturally, with cameras shooting in all directions, and Scott not being a proponent of down time for relighting, Schliessler couldn’t bring a load of stands and trusses for his lighting elements. “Chris Seagers helped me out immensely,” the DP explains. “So much of the movie is practical lighting and the circumstances were so tight and with so many cameras moving in every direction the lighting had to be built into the sets.”
Seagers, a frequent Scott collaborator, worked with gaffer William O’Leary to build practical illumination into the three primary sets – the real subway car they used for any shot that showed that car and the subway tunnels together, the subway car set where the rest of those scenes could be shot in the convenience of the Kaufman Astoria Studios in nearby Queens, and the MTA offices, which were also constructed at Kaufman Astoria.
The actual subway car that the production used came from the MTA with the condition the production wouldn’t tear it apart. Lights had to go into existing fixtures or be the kind of small, lightweight Kino Flo or Litepanels units that could be set with gaffer tape. Early in the story, the train is evenly illuminated from overhead, as it would be prior to the invasion. Then deeper into the story, the lights go out save for some emergency illumination. For that look, the filmmakers took poetic license, creating lighting schemes that were darker and more of a cool blue color, bringing it down from above and shaping it more than what would happen if the power really went down.
“The look of the real emergency lighting would have been fine dramatically for a couple of sequences,” says Seagers. “But half the movie was in this so-called emergency situation and Tony wanted a way to let the audience know we left normality and are now in a different place altogether.”
“We have scenes of John Travolta pacing up and down the center of the car,” Schliessler continues. “We had some light from the floor but we needed something on his face from above. In order to make that feasible from a continuity point of view, we went to where the existing train lights come from just above the window and those advertising boards and we put in [blue-gelled] Kino Flo tubes; down the center of the ceiling there were AC outlets we could use to put Kino Flo tubes all the way down the car’s ceiling so there would always be some light just above his face.”
Normally, the subway tunnel is lined with low-wattage tungsten light bulbs powered by the third rail. Schliessler realized that even wide open with the 5219 – the stock’s shadow latitude had so impressed him and Scott that they chose film instead of the original plan to shoot digitally – this kind of illumination would be insufficient for the tunnel. He and Seagers worked out the concept based on the film medium, and the MTA lit these tunnels with sodium vapor lights. O’Leary ran power far down the tunnel to allow placement of 1K sodium vapor lamps at key points inside the tunnel. Schliessler then had him hide a few additional 1K and 2K tungsten units gelled orange (to match the sodium vapor look), which were hidden to extend the illusion of these tunnel lamps’ reach. Later, for the subway set on the soundstage, the cinematographer would make use again of some of the real and synthetic sodium sources from outside the windows. “The combination of the blue emergency lighting and the orange sodium look gives the train interior a really interesting look,” Schliessler says.
Shooting inside the real subway tunnel offered some other challenges that (one would hope) are rare on movie sets. The MTA safety people made sure the third rail was always off, but the cinematographer recalls, “They were also very good about telling us not to trust our lives that someone didn’t push the wrong thing or forget to do something they were supposed to.” He credits key grip Tom Prate and the entire Pelham crew, along with MTA personnel, for keeping a potentially dangerous situation safe. Still, another set of tracks right next to the location was still active. “We had trains go by every four or five minutes at 50 miles an hour,” says Schliessler. “You had to wear hearing protection and face protection for the big dust storm that blew up every time a train went by.” The one positive surprise, notes the DP, was “you see more rats closer to the stations, where the food is, than where we were.” Though, he admits, “we did see plenty of rats.”
Shooting the subway portions on the soundstage was luxurious by comparison. In addition to the obvious comforts, the crew could fly walls, windows or doors to fit all the cameras in place. And while some filmmakers might have asked for greenscreen on the set’s windows to later layer in CGI effects, Scott prefers to avoid such tricks, except where absolutely necessary. “In all my films, I embrace the real world as much as I can,” the director says. “I will do cleanup with the best people at places like Asylum but I want to get as much in-camera, first generation, as possible. It’s good for actors to be able to tap into the situation they’re in instead of just reacting to greenscreen.”
Despite the film’s healthy budget, the team resorted to a kind of poor man’s process to create the impression (out the windows) of other subways racing past. Seagers, Schliessler and members of their crews went out to real subway stations and took still shots of trains going by at various shutter speeds. Then they selected a group of these shots (somewhere around 1/13th of a second seemed to be the sweet spot between too much and too little motion blur). Seagers subsequently inkjet printed these images onto pieces of translucent plastic frequently used for ads on the sides of buildings.
The production design team then mounted the 90-by-4.5-foot strip of blurred subway windows behind the subway set’s windows with Duvateen above and below to black out everything else. O’Leary then lit the material from behind using a series of flicker gags that only lit up certain still train images for a brief instant at a time. “That’s really all you’d see if a real subway was speeding along on the next track,” Schliessler explains. “You just see some blurred lights and windows that seem to fly by. It was Chris’s idea and it was very effective.”
The MTA control room also had to be lit primarily with practicals for the same reason as the subway car – multiple cameras were flying around for every shot. Though influenced by a real station where MTA can monitor their trains, Seagers had more freedom to control the look of this set. He started with the idea of fluorescent top light as would be found in such an office. Then he enhanced that by making extensive use of light from a semi-circular control desk Washington sits at with monitoring screens.
“Tony really wanted to get this light from the surface of this table under Denzel’s eyes without having it ever reflect in his glasses,” the designer explains. “At first we were just going to create a flat LED panel that Tobias could dim as needed, but that didn’t quite control the light enough and I was also concerned it looked a little ‘Trekkie.’ So then we built these LED panels on gimbals that could be pivoted for more control and we created some little baffles like the eggcrates you see on Kino Flos that could go over the LED panels if Tobias wanted it. You could almost light entirely from that because you could point the light exactly where you wanted it.”
Even though the meat of the movie takes place inside the two cramped locations, Scott promises relentless suspense, due mostly to an updated script, gripping performances, and the relentlessly kinetic camerawork.
“I think the whole movie is just really cool,” Schliessler enthuses. “It keeps going faster and never seems to pause. A lot of that energy comes from the dialogue between John and Denzel, but the way Tony established all these 360s around the actors and kept the cameras constantly moving ensured that the adrenaline level would never let up.”