Tony Scott’s last film was an instant classic.
The late and great Tony Scott was a filmmaking giant whose films deeply captivated audiences and who preferred lots of cuts, amazing cinematography, and incredibly punchy dialogue. Scott’s last film was Unstoppable, a runaway additive that went down well at the box office but was heralded in the later years as perhaps one of the last great disaster thrillers.
We called it one of the best movies of the last decade and we meant it. It helps that Tarantino agreed with us too.
This is a film that fires on all cylinders, frenetic and exciting, it keeps you on the edge of your seat for the short duration and lets character actors shine in small parts while the stars Denzel Washinton, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson flaunt their chops .
There are well over eight filmmaking lessons we can learn from this masterpiece, but I thought we’d start there.
Let’s release the airbrakes and get the thing going.
8 great lessons on filmmaking from Unstoppable
1. Our world, built
So many people think that the idea of worldbuilding only applies to fantasy writers and things that appear in magical realism or other genres. In fact, every story needs its built world. How much did you know about trains and the rail system before you saw this movie?
We’re taking an interesting subculture here and finding out who works there, why and how many of these people know each other. We also reveal the naivety that people don’t understand how trains work, and make the runaway train really unstoppable as our heroes find a way to bring it to its knees.
Worldbuilding is crucial to any story you tell. Let’s dive into the facts and show us why this place is special.
2. Characters that bow
What puts this film above others is the strong character arcs at the center. Denzel Washinton plays an absent father who tries to get his life back on track before he retires. Chris Pine is a jealous husband who got lost and may lose the right to see his child.
Each of them have burning internal problems brought about by the risk of their life. Rosario Dawson’s character doesn’t lag behind either, she doesn’t just have desk work, but earns the respect of her colleagues and takes control of the situation.
No matter what type of movie you’re making, the characters have to be at the center of the story. The audience wants to understand them and take care of them.
3. Get creative with editing
Nobody, and I mean nobody, cuts a film like Tony Scott. To be fair, the editing was actually done by Robert Duffy and Chris life zone, but if you’ve seen a Tony Scott movie, you know he makes sure the editors have enough footage to switch angles and settings every few seconds.
The creativity and tightness of the cut fit the themes and the story of the film. It’s creative and almost anti-Hollywood, never lingering by the stars but constantly changing perspective, showing us how the fever builds up around the train in the city and then on the national news.
Be creative with the editing, take risks and try to adapt it to the type of movie you want to make.
4. Leave them wanting more
The magic of this movie is that it is less than 100 minutes long. It feels so fast and so smart, but every beat is perfection. It speaks to the wonderfully crafted script by Mark Bomback. In minute 11 they lose the train and in minute 55 they decide to go back to catch him. We all get beats in this movie. We meet the characters, they have great intros when they walk into the yard. We don’t see overly long scenes or unnecessary moments.
This film ends when the train finally stops. There is no fat here. It’s a sleek and mean look at storytelling.
We want more than an audience. We love this world and we don’t get enough of what’s great. It means we had a lot of fun. Long films are fine, but can you tell a great film in perfect, punchy length?
5. Moments are important
Another thing that makes this movie over the top is that the little moments matter. I love to see the country conductor in the train diner talking to the bored waitress or the horses that need to be taken off the track as the train drives through their van.
Supporting characters like Daughters who work in Hooters and Ethan Suplee who chase the train fall and get laughed at. These really set the tone of the story. There are even creative examples of the exhibition as they use news footage to tell us where the train is, how to derail it, and how the science of everything works.
6. Angles are important
I love the cinematography in this film. Shot through rainy windows, helicopter overhead shots and mixed media shots, all crammed together in a careful and deliberate cut. The film has no shine. It’s blue, cloudy, and it feels like the camera never stands still. We are constantly moving with a barrage of action.
Ben Seresin shot the film and he gets everything out of his bag of tricks. Snap zooms, pans, and even creative coverage angles that seem to make us fly on the wall for this entire endeavor.
What fun can you have behind the camera? Be unique and use your voice.
7. Sound editing is crucial
The film was nominated for one Oscar to the Best sound editing In the 83rd Academy Awards but lost too Beginning. That was a shame because the sound changes everything about this film.
Mark P. Stockinger took care of the sound editing, and what he was doing here was special. There’s a mix of train noises, helicopters, people and all sorts of other little things like the ringing of a phone against the howl of the wind or the screeching sound of brakes failing.
How can sound add to the audience experience? How can it accentuate the genre for you? Can it liven up the mood or create a sense of fear? Do what you can.
8. Blue Collar Heroes and IP are valuable
We all know that intellectual property is in great demand in Hollywood. While a bestseller book is always optioned or the life of a famous hit the big screen, there are many valuable stories in the workers’ arena.
That was the real story of the May 2001 CSX-8888 incident, a runaway train carrying chemicals that could destroy a region. It wasn’t a hot item back then, it was just a cool story that people knew was going to be a close quarters thriller. It took over a decade for the incident to hit the big screen.
The script was sent to Tony Scott, who had just made a train movie—The Taking of Pelham 123. Nobody thought they wanted to join in, but after reading it and loving it, Scott was on board. He brought along his longtime associate, Denzel Washington, and they flew to Pennsylvania to get started.
Look for story ideas everywhere. Don’t ignore the things that happen around you. Check out these worker jobs and communities that have legends to earn or pursue.
There are the best stories. It doesn’t have to be books, they just have to be engaging.
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