Denzel Washington in Tony Scott's "Unstoppable." (20th Century Fox )
Tony Scott was the sort of director often viewed as a creature of Hollywood, in all the good and other ways that phrase implies. But while thriving in that hothouse environment can sometimes seem like simply a matter of listening to and playing well with others, it also requires a singularity of conviction and purpose.
Just ask Fox and Denzel Washington. The studio and the star were both ambivalent about “Unstoppable,” an action-thriller script set aboard a runaway train that Scott, who apparently committed suicide on Sunday, urgently wanted to direct a number of years ago. Though the movie would in fact turn out to be Scott’s last directorial effort, it nearly didn’t come into being.
During the spring and summer of 2009, the movie was on the brink of falling apart as Fox was concerned about the budget, which in one iteration was said to climb as high as $100 million. Fox executives were especially concerned about the elaborate set-pieces the production would entail—and also not unaware of Scott’s recent previous collaborations with Washington, which performed only decently for big-budget wide releases (in the $60s and $70s of millions in domestic box office).
I was reporting on the troubled project at the time and was struck by how often I heard the sentiment from people on all sides that, essentially, “Tony really wants this. It would have gone away a long time ago if not for him.”
And sure enough, after much back-and-forth and hammering out of budgets and deals, the movie was greenlit, then produced and released.
Scott’s instincts were right. With $81 million in domestic box office, the Washington-Chris Pine movie became Scott's largest grosser in more than a decade. It was also well-reviewed, garnering an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, his best-regarded film in 15 years. As Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote, “’Unstoppable’ is as good as its name. A runaway train drama that never slows down, it fashions familiarity into a virtue and shows why old-school professionalism never goes out of style.”
About six months after the inside-Hollywood drama of that summer, I interviewed Washington, who had witnessed Scott’s conviction firsthand. The actor had no real desire to make the movie, but a certain director wouldn’t let it go. As Washington put it, “I didn’t want to do ‘Unstoppable.” I didn’t want it and the studio didn’t want it. But Tony kept saying ‘Come on.’ And finally I just had to say okay.”
Shortly after, I talked to Scott and asked him why he kept pushing for it. He said it was simply a question of a clever premise and the right cast, and as a filmmaker, when you found that you had no choice but to follow through.
“I knew Denzel could always surprise me by pulling out a different aspect, and I know that would be a great combination with Chris in making us believe these were real people,” Scott said. “How can you not make a movie when you have all of that?”
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