It's not a total secret that Joss Whedon wrote the production script for "Speed" -- credited writer Graham Yost has frequently mentioned Whedon's contributions in interviews -- but the acclaimed director has rarely commented on the work he did for Jan de Bont's 1994 blockbuster. HuffPost Entertainment spoke with Whedon about "Speed" 20 years after the film's release.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about "Speed."
In my whole career, I’ve never had to talk about it. I’ve never signed a copy of it, I’ve never sort of been a part of it. And I was proud of it, I worked hard on it, I had a really great time and I worked with really cool people. I thought it was good stuff. Graham has been very generous, but I did not get a credit on it. The studio gave me one, but then the Writers Guild of America took it away, and I was pretty devastated. I have the only poster with my credit on it.
Why did they pull your credit?
It has to do with WGA bylaws. You can come in and rewrite all of the dialogue, and still not get credit. They didn't think I made big enough changes to the plot. I actually did a lot of overhaul, but much of it was to a later draft, so it went back to what Graham originally had.
Graham credits you with most of the dialogue, and has mentioned that many of the more ridiculous scenes worked because of the lines you wrote for them. How did you go about handling those more over-the-top plot turns?
For me, it’s only about everybody playing the reality of the situation, and having time to take out some of the “movie stuff.” There was a draft -- after Graham’s, before I came on –- that was very not good. One of the things it had in it was that Sandra Bullock’s character was a stand-up comic, and I’m like, "Nobody can ever root for a stand-up comic in this kind of movie!" And they said, "Well, if she says something funny, that will explain it." [Laughs] I thought, "They’re all going to die and she’s trying to get new material? That’s not it."
Did you make a lot of changes to the characters? I know the biggest overhaul was with Alan Ruck [the tourist].
Alan Ruck’s character was written as an angry lawyer. He was a bad dude. He was like, "You are a bad cop! I want blah blah blah!” He was that guy. Nobody is doing that in a disaster. They’re frightened, and they’re pulling together. And what was a lawyer doing on a bus? So, I wanted him to be a nicer guy. In an earlier draft, there was sort of this format where everybody told their backstory, and I didn’t think we needed all of that necessarily. But the tourist, he’s a very grounding figure, and Alan is so sympathetic. For me, the whole essence of what I felt was useful in the movie was him saying, “We’re at the airport, I’ve already seen the airport.” When the absurdity has just gone to the point where I can turn to the mundane.
Overall, that approach to absurdity is huge part of what keeps "Speed" so grounded.
I feel the important thing is to let the characters know that they’re in an insane movie. The audience knows it, and unless it’s a fantasy, you need the audience to feel like that’s what they’d be doing on that bus. In the drafts I read, everybody explains their backstory. You know, I say “I,” but [producers] Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald were also brought on right before shooting to shepherd the thing. So, from the start I was working with them, and we had wonderful simpatico. They also felt we should bleed out the things that didn’t feel real, because you are always in danger with this movie.
When you worked through the dialogue, did you still operate with those original backstories in mind?
There was enough of a background. People were hired to play the people that were in the other drafts. With the exception of Alan Ruck, I didn’t change anybody’s character, so they had something to work off of. You also can read a lot about a person just from who they cast, you know? This guy has a tool belt, this person is wearing a stethoscope, this lady clearly owns cats -- not the album, the creature. So, there’s enough there. Whatever doesn’t need to be dialed in, you want to leave open, in case the actor wants to bring something else. When they’re reacting to something you came up with, you want to leave them that space.
Jan spoke about the limitations on dialogue in action films, and mentioned that he appreciated the versatility you brought to "Speed." How do you deal with those restrictions in more cliché moments?
First of all, you must watch all the movies, as I do -- or did. So, you know all of the clichés, and you know how to avoid them. Sometimes you plant a flag on it and say the opposite of what you expect the person to say. Sometimes you get inside the person’s head, and realize the situation does not require them to say something like, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” You just want to be them. If there’s a way to cleverly tweak a line we’ve heard before, fine, good. But sometimes you don’t want people to notice what they’re saying, because you want them to worry about whether they’re going to live or die.
What were some of the biggest changes you saw in reworking those other drafts that weren't great?
The biggest change for me came for me came from Keanu. The whole "Pop quiz, hot shot," was not me. There was this idea of Jack as this cop on the edge, who plays by his own rules, you know, "He's a maverick! He's out of control!" Apart from “Die Hard,” which really made room for a thoughtful action hero, everybody had been that sort of thing. So, when we sat down with Keanu, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Jan, I think, they said, “Keanu, these guys are not mavericks. They’re whole thing is diffusing the situation, and they’re unfailingly polite, and they always say sir or ma’am.” And I was like, “I know exactly what to do! That’s it, that’s the whole meeting, we’re there.”
"Pop quiz, hot shot," which Jack repeats back to Dennis Hopper's Howard Payne after he says it earlier in the film, doesn't fit with the character you had in mind?
So, I'm not a fan of “Pop quiz, hot shot!” It became a catchphrase, and everybody was led to it, and I get why, but in mind he was a lateral thinker. He would see things, and be calm about it. He would see things -- this came after we sat down and redefined this character -- not as a maverick, but someone whose whole goal is diffusing the situation. These people on the bomb squad are unfailingly polite, and they always say “sir or ma’am, you know? They’re bureaucratic.
Despite that line, overall Jack does embody that more thoughtful, pragmatic mindset.
You know, even on the bus, his energy is very kind and giving, and supports the choices he’s trying to make. So, I think that was a huge scene change, getting him from being a rootin’-tootin’ maverick, to being a guy who has a problem he must solve.
Going off that redefined idea of a hero, where do you think "Speed" fits in the genre?
You know, “Die Hard” is one of those movies that’s not only seminal, but also the best version of itself. Sometimes, directors put work out and wait for someone to do a good version of it, but “Die Hard” really was the best “Die Hard.” Although, I don’t think of “Speed” as a “Die Hard,” I do think it falls into the spectrum of updating the action movie so that the people in it aren’t immortal, gigantic, Schwarzenegger, Dirty Harry, above-the-law kind of titans. We had gone from cool ‘70s guys and Popeye Doyle [from "The French Connection"] to a much more hyperbolic era. I feel like “Speed” was part of our way out of that, into an action movie that understands that everybody matters. It's more of a disaster-movie-action-movie hybrid. It's based on saving these people, it’s not based on killing the bad guy. It’s also a really inventive notion ... I look to the progression to films like "The Matrix," and I think there's the idea of the peaceful warrior germinating in ["Speed"], and I think that's important.
This interview has been edited and condensed.