Speed is your classic boy-meets-girl romance with the added twist of a moving bus rigged to detonate. Not exactly your average first date, but the heady mix of adrenaline and the sizzling on-screen chemistry between stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock was enough to make the movie a box office smash in the summer of '94. Over two decades after its release, the film is considered to have stood the test of time and may be one of the best movies ever made.
Along with Reeves and Bullock, the movie further cemented Dennis Hopper's reputation as "America's favorite psychopath" with a chilling turn as the movie's villain, Howard Payne. This was not always the case, however. A lot changed throughout the movie's production, including the identity of the lead villain. There were major rewrites to make the film less of a Die Hard knockoff; in the process, actors were replaced or recast, major scenes were written at the last minute, and the most memorable stunt in the film almost ended in tragedy.
The making of Speed went as smoothly as a drive through Los Angeles in a bus that can't drop below 50 mph.
The bus jumping stunt onto California’s 105 freeway wasn’t anywhere near as successful as the movie made it look. Even though the bus didn't have to leap a 50-foot gap in the road, the crew did have to get it to lift off the ground. The first attempt of the stunt was unfavorable: the lightweight bus they designed specifically for the trick missed the ramp and was totaled.
The second managed to pull it off with the bus intact, but launched it 109 feet into the air - a lot more than the planned 20 feet - and landed right on top of a camera. The footage was captured by another camera 90 feet away.
To have a huge vehicle launch off a ramp, someone needed to be in the driver's seat. There was a lot of concern over the stunt driver's safety. The crew feared a camera rig could fall on top of the performer in all the chaos or that the impact would hurt their spine. Thankfully, the bus landed safely and there were no injuries.
The passing of rising teen idol River Phoenix had a profound effect on Reeves. Reeves was a close friend of Phoenix, and they had recently worked together on My Own Private Idaho. Speed's filming schedule in 1993 was altered to allow the actor to grieve.
"It got to him emotionally," director Jan de Bont said. "He became very quiet, and it took him quite a while to work it out by himself and calm down. It scared the hell out of him."
During an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 1994, Reeves was reluctant to speak about Phoenix, except to say that he missed him.
Screenwriter Graham Yost had a much more prominent, overground target in mind for the film's finale. The original draft had the bus go around Dodger stadium and go off at the Hollywood sign. Executives at Paramount, however, felt there was "too much time on the bus," and Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley didn't want anything to detonate near the stadium.
Yost wrote the final subway scene in response to these problems.
Speed wouldn't be Speed without its most memorable stunt. But that moment of movie magic was supposedly never in the original script. Instead, it was devised by director Jan de Bont during location scouting. When he was driving through Los Angeles, he saw an incomplete interchange on the 105 freeway and told screenwriter Graham Yost to put it in the script.
Yost loved the idea as a way for the characters to "hit a metaphorical wall." Though he admitted that "according to the laws of physics, they couldn't get out of that, but according to the laws of moviemaking, they managed to survive."