'Speed' 20th anniversary: Screenwriter Graham Yost looks back on 'the bus movie' that became a classic

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Image Credit: Richard Foreman

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When did you know Speed would change your life?
It was the moment when Keanu rips off the door of the Jag and then jumps on the bus. It was like, “Okay, here we go, my life just changed.”

At one test screening, audience members walked up the aisles backward to go to the restroom because they didn’t want to miss anything.
I remember Tom Sherak, God rest his soul, who was at 20th, saying that in the postmortem of that screening. I’ve been on the bad side of that, by the way: I’ve been at test screenings that haven’t gone well, and the conversation in the lobby is not so cheerful and fun, but that was the conversation of, “Yeah, let’s move up the release date.” It was going to be released in August. “Let’s move it up to June. We think we got something here.”

Speed opened against City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, which was actually playing in more theaters.
City Slickers had been a big hit and I loved it, so that was part of the night: Fox had a party on the lot for us, a nice big outdoor barbecue on one of the streets. Then a group of us went up to Tom Sherak’s office as he got phone calls from theater owners and distributors all across the country. He was writing down the box office of theater after theater, and if it was a multiplex, “Okay, how is City Slickers 2 doing? How are we doing? How is everything else doing?” There was no computer program that was crunching all the data, it was just simply, “Okay, we’re winning here, we’re winning there,” and “Oh, we’re second place here.” The preponderance of information that was coming through was that it was doing really well. There was that feeling of it being a dark horse, a fan favorite, a movie that people could discover and tell their friends about. I think it’s changed in 20 years — that doesn’t happen as much. Something Speed-size would be something like Taken: I do remember when Taken came out, it took off and people were saying, “Oh, it’s really cool. It’s a really good action film. Liam Neeson’s great.” “I have a very particular set of skills” — people knew the lines from the trailer.

On your commentary track, you don’t mention that Joss Whedon did some uncredited work punching up Speed‘s dialogue.
Joss is one of the things we were not allowed to talk about in the commentary. I can’t remember if it was a WGA thing or a legal thing, but it was like, “Really, you can’t mention Joss.” There had been someone else who had done a draft before Joss, and then I was brought back on and did a quick 72-hour polish — well reconfiguration, frankly. And then Joss came in. But when I read that first rewrite by the other writer, I had a truly dark night of the soul. Did I mention this on the commentary, how in Springsteen and Peter Gabriel’s songs people go for drives in their cars to think about things and life?

No.
I actually got in my car and went driving. I ended up on the Bluffs in the Palisades looking out to sea going, “What the hell happened here?” because the draft was terrible. Then I read Joss’s and just had a huge sigh of relief — he totally got it. We’re all prone to moments of being overly dramatic, and that was mine. But I had so much invested in it, and I loved the story so much and really wanted this action/suspense/thriller to work, and to read someone else kind of screw it up was painful.

Is Joss responsible for the famous “Pop quiz, hotshot” line?
I had the “What do you do?” in a far less poppy version. I had this thing between Harry and Jack: As they’re going through stuff, Harry would say, “Okay, here’s the scenario. You’ve got blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What do you do?” And Jack would say, “Okay, you do this, that, or the other thing.” I think I had one or two before he gets to the one where he says, “Well, you shoot the hostage.” It was Joss’s idea in his writing to say, “Pop quiz, hotshot” — it’s just a more fun way of having him speak and it also really sort of established their relationship — he knew that Jack was incredibly good at his job, but he also knew that Jack was younger and maybe a little more hotheaded.

Can you believe it’s been 20 years?
I can’t. Mark and I were talking about it last week. That’s just the nature of life: it just rolls on and you look back, and it’s like, “Wow, it’s been 20 years since Speed came out, that’s crazy.” At the same time, my son’s graduating from high school, so how did that happen? But it’s sure been fun.

On the commentary, you said you showed Speed to your kids when they were six and eight — that’s pretty impressive ages for them to see this movie.
You know, my dad took me to see The Wild Bunch when I was nine, so I come by that honestly. We had a dear friend who was babysitting our daughter, Clem, when she was three, and she put it on. She didn’t think it was inappropriate. But we swear to God, the next day Clementine — she was three years old — said, “Oh, elevator go boom.” That wasn’t the best choice for self-entertainment.

We didn’t even talk about that opening elevator scene: Mark Gordon said he wanted to buy the script off that scene alone.
Initially that wasn’t in my outline, and I thought, “No, I’ve got to kick it off with something. I’ve got to establish that this guy is a SWAT guy and they’re really good at what they do, and that he’s great at the trick.” My whole premise, basically, is that heroes in literature aren’t necessarily the fastest, the smartest, the strongest whatever — but they’re clever and they figure out the trick. They figure out how to beat the bad guy, not just through strength or even by being more intelligent, but just by being something that the bad guy doesn’t see. And that’s Perseus with Medusa and the shield. So I wanted Jack to be one of those guys who’s able to figure out the trick.

I’m so glad you wanted to hop on the phone and talk about a movie you made 20 years ago.
I love that movie. There are some things I’ve done that go unmentioned, or I hear Denis Leary making fun of them on talk shows. But this one is one that we all kind of smile and say, “Yeah, I’m so lucky to have been a part of it.”


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