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The Untold Truth Of Speed

There's a need for "Speed" in the world of pop culture. Even Sonic the Hedgehog can be counted as a major fan of the 1994 action classic, listing it as his favorite movie in his own 2020 film. Yet, when filmmaker Jan de Bont stepped behind the camera to direct "Speed," no one at 20th Century Fox knew what to expect from the project. Screenwriter Graham Yost's script was certainly thrilling and tense, but was Keanu Reeves a big-enough action star to lead the film? At the time, he was primarily known for playing the happy-go-lucky Ted Logan in the "Bill & Ted" franchise — a far cry from the action star he would later become.

Of course, after a big success at the box office and widespread critical praise, it was crystal clear that "Speed" was a hit. No one looked at high-speed buses the same way again, and Reeves began his evolution into a bona fide action superstar. However, as heart-stopping as the events on screen were, "Speed" was equally as dramatic behind the scenes. From the studio freaking out about their star getting a haircut to major rewrites on the original script, here's the untold truth of "Speed."

Keanu Reeves wasn't the first choice for Jack Traven

Pop quiz time: Imagine it's 1993 and production on "Speed" is about to commence. The studio wants a big action star to lead the film — someone with a notable name to slap on the center of the poster. Keanu Reeves isn't on the radar at all, so what are some of the first names that come to mind? Bruce Willis? Jean-Claude Van Damme? Sylvester Stallone? Lorenzo Lamas? As it turns out, 20th Century Fox wasn't looking in that direction either, as revealed by Graham Yost in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.

"We went to the Toms first — you know, you go to Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks — and I think Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who were going to do 'Money Train,'" Yost said. "We went down many different avenues." The screenwriter revealed that the child of a studio executive suggested Reeves for the part. The higher-ups weren't sold on the idea (based on only knowing him from "Bill & Ted"), but they decided to meet with him anyway. Once Reeves showed up on his motorcycle and they saw him in person, the mindset changed, and the role of Jack Traven was finally cast.

How River Phoenix's death impacted the filming of Speed

People still rightfully mourn the tragic death of River Phoenix. Many were deeply affected by the young star's passing in 1993, from his friends and family to his countless fans. Keanu Reeves was particularly close with Phoenix, and he heard about the tragedy when "Speed" was in the middle of production. Jan de Bont noticed that Reeves was struggling afterward, and he changed the shooting schedule to help the actor process his grief.

"It got to him emotionally," de Bont revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "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." Reeves' co-star Dennis Hopper, who also had a friendship with Phoenix, added that neither he nor Reeves discussed the young actor's death on set. "I thought it was admirable on both of our parts," Hopper said. "Hollywood's a very glib kind of town, and it's easy to have dialogue, and it's easy to make serious things light. I felt that not talking about River Phoenix's death didn't put it in a common place."

Speed's story was the result of a misunderstanding

Ever heard of the broken telephone effect? While it's terrible for the flow of accurate information, it has the ability to inspire new and unexpected ideas. Just ask Graham Yost, who wrote the "Speed" script based on an inaccurate story his father had told him about a movie. Speaking with Empire Magazine, Yost revealed that his father had wrongly described Akira Kurosawa's story for the 1985 film "Runaway Train" to him, saying that it centered on a train that couldn't slow down because it had a bomb on board.

When Yost watched the film, he realized that his father had been mistaken and mixed up the story somehow, but he thought the concept of not being able to stop due to a bomb being on board was still a great idea for a movie. Playing around with the concept, the screenwriter thought a bus would make for a better setting than a train. He ran his plans past a friend, who suggested he raise the minimum speed from 20 miles per hour to 50, and the rest is history.

Joss Whedon wrote a lot of Speed's dialogue

Before his rise to TV prominence and subsequent fall from grace, Joss Whedon often worked as a script doctor for different Hollywood studios. Coming in and making changes to other people's work is a job he continued performing for decades, such as in the case of the controversial "Justice League" rewrites and reshoots. Leading up to production on "Speed," Whedon was brought on to make some changes to the dialogue.

While most screenwriters are precious about their drafts and stories, Graham Yost has claimed that Whedon rewrote most of the dialogue for "Speed" and that the film was better off because of it. In an interview with The Post-Star, Yost said, "Joss Whedon wrote 98.9 percent of the dialogue. We were very much in sync, it's just that I didn't write the dialogue as well as he did." He added that it irked him a bit knowing that he didn't write the whole movie, but he learned to live with it. Hollywood truly is a strange business.

Keanu Reeves did a lot of his own stunts

Looking back at "Speed," it's remarkable to see how much of the film utilized practical effects. Remember, these were the days before the CGI wave washed over Hollywood, when movies still relied more on stunts and in-camera effects. In de Bont's movie, there were explosions, actors leaping from moving vehicles, a bus jump, and lots of dangerous high-speed driving. Having worked on "Die Hard" as a cinematographer, de Bont realized what a difference it made to the authenticity of the performances when the actors did their own stunts, so he tried to get the cast trained up to a place where they felt comfortable doing the bulk of their own stunt work (per HuffPost).

While Keanu Reeves wasn't pulling a Tom Cruise by jumping from helicopters or motorbikes, he did perform quite a few of his own risky stunts. "I tried to do as much as I could," Reeves explained to HuffPost. "The stunt coordinator Gary Hymes really took care of me and came up with inventive ways of putting me in those situations. Through harnessing he got me under the bus at 30 mph."

The co-stars had a crush on each other

There's always been a tendency among movie audiences to wonder if two romantic co-stars are involved in real life as well. That was true in the 1990s, and despite some shifts in how we view celebrities, it remains true today as well. In the case of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, who starred opposite each other in "Speed," rumors were bound to circulate, but the two confirmed on multiple occasions that they never dated.

While a romance never occurred between Reeves and Bullock, they did reveal that there was a little spark between them. Reeves found out that Bullock had a crush on him on The Ellen Show, prompting him to share that he'd felt the same way. "She obviously didn't know I had a crush on her, either," Reeves said, before adding, "It was nice to go to work." The two actors have remained good friends since then and teamed up once again for 2006's "The Lake House."

Speed's screenwriter prayed it would sell so he could quit his job

According to a global Gallup poll, the vast majority of employees don't feel engaged at work. It isn't a new phenomenon, and it's often been the punchline of various sitcoms. Speaking of which, Graham Yost apparently wasn't a fan of his time as a writer on "Full House," and he secretly hoped that the "Speed" script would sell so that he'd be able to quit the job. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Yost said he simply didn't enjoy his time writing for Joey, Jesse, Danny, and the rest of the kids. 

"I finished up the script the first four weeks I was on 'Full House', and then it went out to the town," Yost said. "I would be sitting in that [writers'] room, just hoping and praying that an assistant would come in and say, 'There's a phone call for you,' and that it had sold, and I could quit 'Full House.'" Eventually, Yost left the sitcom, saying he feared that he was only one step shy of being axed anyway. A short while after, he received the call that his script had been sold.

Keanu Reeves didn't want to be an action star

Keanu Reeves putting the pedal to the metal in "Speed" wasn't his first rodeo as in the action genre. He proved himself as more than capable alongside Patrick Swayze in the cult classic "Point Break," but according to Jan de Bont, Reeves wasn't really interested in becoming an action star, which is apparently what drew the director to him.

As de Bont explained in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he found that many big-name stars actually impeded their characters from shining on screen, since their films became more about their status than the characters' actual arcs. "When I did 'Speed,' I was very happy to get Keanu, because at the time he wasn't really an action star; in fact, he didn't really like action," the director revealed. "He was afraid of it, and that meant when he had to do things you could see how uncomfortable he was and really feel it, and therefore it becomes much more realistic." 

Considering that Reeves went on to star in many major action franchises like "The Matrix" and "John Wick," it's funny to know that he was once so averse to and inexperienced in the genre. It's common knowledge that people in Hollywood love working with Reeves and that he's one of the nicest folks in the business, but he's also built an impressive image as the ultimate tough guy.

No need to release the de Bont cut

Ah, the director's cut. It's always a hot topic among film fans, who often clamor for the release of creators' original visions, untainted by studio interference or producer politics. In the case of "Speed," though, don't even bother asking for the de Bont cut, because the director is more than happy with the theatrical version of the film. In fact, the studio actually encouraged him to add more scenes if he wanted.

As revealed in the official commentary for "Speed," 20th Century Fox offered de Bont the opportunity to add deleted scenes back into the film, but he declined (via Film School Rejects). According to the director, he storyboarded the film and planned the production so well that there were hardly any extra scenes that didn't make the final cut. The theatrical version is also his personal choice for the film, and he has no extra boxes of footage hidden away in some secret studio lot. It seems that without the suffocating pressure of modern billion-dollar franchises pressing down on them, filmmakers have a bit of an easier time.

The studio freaked out over Keanu Reeves' haircut

Keanu Reeves has come full circle in his career. He started out as a likable actor with flowing, jet-black hair, and reclaimed that same look and public image decades later (though to be fair, he never really dropped the "nice guy" persona). Though he gradually shortened his locks in the early '90s, many fans were left shocked by his cropped look as Jack Traven in "Speed." Apparently, so were the executives at 20th Century Fox when they saw the star with his new hairdo for the first time.

Jan de Bont revealed to Entertainment Weekly that he was against Jack having long hair and suggested that Reeves cut his mane for the role. "I wanted him to look strong and in control of himself," he said. "Everyone at the studio was scared s—less when they first saw it. There was only like a millimeter. What you see in the movie is actually grown in." Imagine if Reeves had shown up on set with a glorious mohawk like Eli from "Cobra Kai" or even a skullet like Hulk Hogan — now that would have caused a priceless reaction from the studio!

The character of Annie was changed a lot

The script for "Speed" went through several drafts and tweaks before it hit production. Such revisions are always part of the process with big studios, often to the original writers' chagrin. All told, there are some big differences between Graham Yost's original plan and what was eventually filmed. Several of those changes involve the character of Annie Porter, who was ultimately played by Sandra Bullock.

Yost discussed his original idea for Annie in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "In the first version, she was African American, and a paramedic," he explained. I wanted to explain why she could drive so well at high speeds through traffic. You come up with these rationalizations for a character, and you start peeling them back." He added that the first actor the studio approached for the part of Annie was Halle Berry, but she turned down the role. Yost also mentioned that he had imagined Ellen DeGeneres in the part at some point before all parties settled on Bullock.

The real reason Keanu Reeves didn't return for Speed 2

After the triumph of "Speed," a sequel seemed inevitable, and "Speed 2: Cruise Control" arrived in theaters three years later. Unfortunately, it lacked a lot of important elements that made the first film successful, including Keanu Reeves himself. As a result, the follow-up flopped spectacularly in both box office return and overall reception, earning a reputation as one of the worst sequels of all time. Even Jason Patric, who replaced Reeves in the leading role, didn't have anything good to say about the film, calling it "just an innocuous, boring movie," in an interview with IGN. "It doesn't hurt anyone, it's not violent, it's just stupid," Patric said. "That was not a good experience for me."

But why didn't Reeves return for "Speed 2?" The actor revealed the truth on "The Graham Norton Show" in 2021 (via Business Insider). Reeves explained that he didn't connect with the script and questioned why the story was taking place on a cruise ship. "It wasn't against any of the artists that were involved in the project, but at that time — I'm sure we've all had this kind of feeling sometimes when things just don't feel right, and that was how I was feeling," he said. In a nutshell, Reeves summed up how a lot of people ended up feeling about "Speed 2," and it's understandable why he backed out.