'Unstoppable' director Tony Scott loved filming in Pennsylvania

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The Renaissance Hotel could erect a plaque that says: "Director Tony Scott slept here." Sort of.

When he was shooting "Unstoppable" and using Pittsburgh as a center of operations, he stayed at the Downtown location but got very little sleep, as is his habit.

"My ritual is I wake bolt upright at 2:30 [a.m.] and do storyboards from 2:30 to 4:30 or 5." Then in the morning, he bathes and heads to the set. He gets by on as little as four hours of sleep a day but is fueled by the adventurous work he loves.

Denzel Washington recently told The New York Times, "You can't outwork this guy," adding, "I'm there at 4 a.m. and I'll find out that Tony's already been there for seven hours," meaning he never left.

"He's tough. He can fight. He's thorough. He's done his homework. He can shoot, edit. He can do everything. But he also still loves it. That's infectious."

Asked whether he got to visit any tourist haunts during the Pittsburgh leg of the "Unstoppable" tour, the filmmaker laughed in a recent call and said, "Swear to God, if I got to the bathroom, I was lucky."

"Unstoppable" marks Mr. Scott's fifth collaboration with Mr. Washington, coming on the heels of "Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," "Deja Vu," "Man on Fire" and "Crimson Tide."

The four films made roughly $299 million at the U.S. box office and this time, the director and his muse bring Chris Pine, Captain Kirk for a new generation of "Star Trek" fans, along for the ride.

Mr. Washington is a veteran train engineer and Mr. Pine a youthful, inexperienced conductor. They are paired one fateful day when they try to stop an unmanned runaway train carrying dangerous chemicals through heavily populated areas.

It's a beast and even sounds like one because Mr. Scott incorporated animal noises -- from elephants, for example -- in the wild roar of the train.

The movie filmed "all over Pennsylvania ... I loved it there," Mr. Scott added, particularly since many of the towns reminded him of his native northern England.

Shooting from September 2009 to almost Christmas, he spanned the seasons with trees ablaze with fall colors and then stripped of leaves by freak snowstorms like one that hit State College not long after the production's arrival.

The filmmaker initially had sent location scouts to "Marlboro country" in Colorado and Montana to weigh the wide open spaces but realized the drama and danger quotient would be higher in a densely populated area.

Mountainous regions couldn't compete with the elevated, curved track of Bellaire, Ohio, which figures prominently and perfectly into the story.

Mr. Scott used some computer generated imagery to clean up some scenes -- or perform feats that would not be possible -- but most of the movie is real, as was the research by the director and performers.

The movie was inspired by true events in 2001 when an engineer's mistake sent a CSX freight train on a wild, two-hour ride through northwest Ohio.

Actors and stuntmen shared the riskiest scenes that put characters atop speeding trains, in between moving cars while being pelted by grain (a blizzard of sugary cereal and potato flakes) and in a pickup truck racing next to the tracks.

In the movie's press notes and in interviews, Mr. Pine gives credit to his stunt double, Daniel Stevens, for some of the most heart-stopping scenes. While trying to couple the knuckles of adjacent but moving cars, Mr. Stevens "slipped the first time and had to use his upper body strength not to get dragged under the ballast, but he did it five times."

Rosario Dawson turns up as a yardmaster who modeled her character on a real woman outside Los Angeles, and smaller roles are filled by the likes of Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan and T.J. Miller while familiar news faces Mike Clark and Ellen Gamble are among the dozen-plus screen reporters.

Principal photography began Aug. 31, 2009, in Brewster, Ohio, at the Brewster Rail Yard just south of Canton. After a week of filming at the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad yard, the production moved its base to Bradford, McKean County.

From there, it ventured to remote Western New York & Pennsylvania freight track lines and locations such as Port Allegany, Eldred, Turtlepoint, Blanchard and Emporium along with Olean, N.Y.

On Oct. 10, it shifted to State College, for access to the Nittany Bald Eagle tracks. From there, "Unstoppable" moved to southeastern Ohio along the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad and eventually finished at the then-Mogul Mind Studios in the Strip District.

Western Pennsylvanians also may recognize slices of Beaver County along with Lawrenceville, Carnegie, Monroeville, and Downtown's One PPG Place. The windows in a corporate boardroom look over to the North Shore where you can spot the telltale yellow seats of Heinz Field.

The story proves timely as it addresses economic downturns and how older, experienced workers are being forced out and replaced by younger, less expensive ones.

An exchange early in the picture has an old-timer making a wisecrack about working at a day-care center while Mr. Pine's character returns fire with a quip about a retirement home.

"Unstoppable" is the first of three movies shot entirely or partially here to open this month. "The Next Three Days," a Paul Haggis thriller starring Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks, will be released Nov. 19 and "Love and Other Drugs," Nov. 24.

According to the Pittsburgh Film Office, the three productions hired 633 local crew members and booked 40,159 hotel room nights. They spent $1 million-plus on car rentals, more than $1.7 million on construction materials and more than $1.2 million on groceries and catering supplies.

The trio of projects also paid more than $1.4 million to residents or businesses for use of locations.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.


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