Speed 2: How a Dream Sparked One of the Biggest Stunts Ever

For Speed 2, director Jan De Bont spent millions building a town and crashing a luxury liner into it - and all because of a dream...

In 1994, Jan De Bont found himself in something of a quandary. The former Die Hard and Hunt for Red October cinematographer had just scored a major hit with Speed, an action disaster flick in which a bulked-up Keanu Reeves hopped aboard a bus with a bomb wired up to its speedometer. If the bus’ speed dropped below 50 miles per hour, the bomb would go off, killing all the passengers – including the likably hapless Sandra Bullock.

It was Die Hard on a bus, and it starred Dennis Hopper as its crazed villain. Speed was just the kind of high-concept fare audiences wanted to see in the summer of 1994, and they duly lined up to buy a ticket.

Jan De Bont was no doubt thrilled when his directorial debut made around $350m—more than 10 times its relatively lean budget. Fox was clearly pleased, because it ordered a sequel the very week the box office numbers started coming through. The trouble was, De Bont hadn’t made Speed with a sequel in mind, and didn’t really think there was much potential for a follow-up. De Bont’s contract, however, stated plainly that he had to make one—and thus the plans were put in motion. 

Between the summer of 1994 and September 1996, De Bont reviewed dozens of screenplays, a couple of them written by Graham Yost, the screenwriter of the original Speed script (Joss Whedon was brought in to add sparkle to the dialogue later in the first film’s production). Seemingly unmoved by any of the scripts piling up on his desk, De Bont was more obsessed with the idea of committing a recurring nightmare to celuloid.

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In the dream, De Bont saw a cruise ship crashing into an island, with predictably devastating results. Given that De Bont had made the hit disaster flick Twister in 1996, it seems possible that the director’s nightmare vision was born from that film. Whatever its origins, it was an image De Bont found so indelible that he demanded that it be used as a basis for his Speed sequel.

“It’s always fun to destroy things that look and appear to be very expensive,” De Bont would later reason. “It’s a lot more fun than destroying a paper box. And what would be better than to have a five-star luxury cruise liner basically end up in the middle of a hotel?” 

With the unlikely setting of a cruise ship now chosen, screenwriters Randall McCormick and Jeff Nathanson were brought in to reverse engineer a story with De Bont’s apocalyptic vision at its end. They came up with a new villain, John Geiger, a wild-eyed ex-employee who decides to reprogram the computer of a luxury cruise liner so that it’s set on a collision course with an oil tanker. Along for the ride are Jack and Annie—Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s characters from the first film. 

Unfortunately for De Bont, Reeves didn’t want to do the sequel. At the time, De Bont said in interviews that Reeves wasn’t interested in making another action movie after having just completed another film in the genre, Chain Reaction, which had gone through drastic script changes during its production. Or maybe it was because Reeves didn’t like the idea of all those action sequences in the water.

“We met several times about the project, and at the beginning, we were all very excited about it,” De Bont said back in 1997. “Then something happened—I think it had to do with the movie he was working on at the time, Chain Reaction—and Keanu started getting worried about all the physicality of this. In this movie, he needed to do all this stuff underwater, and I think that scared him.” 

About 18 years later, the subject of Speed 2 came up on Jimmy Kimmel Live. According to Reeves, he turned the sequel down because he really, really didn’t like the premise.

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“I loved working with Jan de Bont and Sandra, of course. It was just a situation in life where I got the script and I read the script and I was like ‘ugggghhh,'” Reeves said. “It was about a cruise ship and I was thinking, ‘a bus, a cruise ship… Speed, bus, but then a cruise ship is even slower than a bus and I was like, ‘I love you guys but I just can’t do it.'” 

With Reeves out of the picture, Jason Patric was brought in as a new other half for Annie, Special Weapons and Tactics cop Alex Shaw. Willem Dafoe was cast as the boat-obsessed villain. Fox, clearly thinking it had a sure-fire hit on its hands, earmarked around $100m for Speed 2‘s budget, and filming began in September 1996.

It’s worth pausing here to mention that Jan De Bont was a stickler for realism, and seemed keen to put his actors through all kinds of rigors to capture that realism on camera. In Twister, for example, leads Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton were temporarily blinded by extremely intense electronic lights. The actors also had to have injections to avoid getting hepatitis after spending hours in a soggy ditch. Hunt additionally banged her head several times on the underside of a wooden bridge, and again bashed her skull during a stunt involving a moving vehicle.

De Bont would later say of these incidents, “I love Helen to death, but, you know, she could also be a bit clumsy.”

“Clumsy?” Hunt huffily responded. “The guy burned my retinas, but I’m clumsy…”

For Speed 2: Cruise Control, De Bont planned to go for an even greater level of realism, with his actors performing their own stunts wherever they could.

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“I prefer the real thing, You have to have stunt people there for legal reasons but they can’t really act, and I don’t want to see someone who has done this all his life,” De Bont said. “I prefer to see someone struggling.”

And struggle they did. 

Speed 2‘s shoot in the Caribbean required Jason Patric and Sandra Bullock to spend long stretches in the water, often close to moving boats or, even more scarily, the 459-foot-long Seabourne Legend liner hired for the production. At one point, Bullock reportedly missed being decapitated by the ship’s rudder by a hair’s breadth.

On dry land, a stunt involving a Ducati motorcycle and Jason Patric ended with the bike flying 30 feet up in the air and Patric clinging for dear life to a tree hanging over a cliff. Bullock later said of the stunt, “Jason should be dead.”

“So much came very close to going wrong,” Bullock told The Nation newspaper. “We’ve all done some amazingly wild stuff that people shouldn’t be doing.”

“…it’s the day-in and day-out of five months that does you in,” Patric concurred. “It’s also difficult treading water for two hours hanging off the side of a ship, but you’ll only see two minutes of that. You don’t see the 10-foot swells whacking you into the boat, or the extra water I swallow holding Sandy up because she’s got her hands tied and weights attached to her feet.”

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Things weren’t much easier aboard the Seabourn Legend. De Bont had the vessel on hire for six weeks, but even here, things went awry in ways the director couldn’t have foreseen—including a violent hurricane that pursued the liner while he was trying to get some scenes in the can.

“We were thrown around quite a bit, and there were a lot of sick people,” De Bont said. “I had to give the actors time to go out, throw up, and come back in before each scene.”

Further frustration came when De Bont tried to shoot a scene where the liner strikes a series of boats in the Caribbean harbor of St Martin. The ship’s captain was so inept at steering his vessel that he couldn’t hit the boats even when he wanted to.

“It seemed so easy; all I wanted him to do was hit a bunch of small, 30-foot sailing boats in the harbor, and he never really did it,” De Bont said, ruefully. “We aimed the ship, put video cameras on the boats so the captain could look at them on the bridge. But he’d pass on the left side, then pass on the right […] It just didn’t work. I was so disappointed.”

There was, however, one sequence on which De Bont refused to yield: the ship crash from his dream. Despite the 90s leap forward in digital effects, the director insisted that it had to be done in-camera, with a full-scale ship colliding with real buildings.  

“How do you do that and get a ship into the middle of a town?” De Bont asked. “You can’t really do it with computers or models because you need that physical presence there and interaction between the people and the ship crashing. So in the end we built full scale replicas of parts of the ship.”

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Besides, production designer Joseph Nemec III told The New York Times, creating the sequence would be far too expensive to create with the digital effects of the day; $500m was the somewhat arbitrary-sounding figure he quoted to that outlet.

With models and computers ruled out, work began on constructing a one-third-size, 150-foot long replica of the Seabourn Legend’s prow, which weighed 300 tonnes and was powered by four diesel engines. The rest of the ship would be added in digitally for the sequence’s long shots.

Meanwhile, a small army of carpenters spent six months building a jetty in St. Martin, on which they constructed a total of 35 buildings for De Bont’s replica liner to crash into. Beneath the jetty, 1,000 feet of track was built just below the surface of the water—allowing Speed 2‘s crew to guide the prow precisely towards its target like a giant train set.

Unfortunately, inclement weather again put a spanner in the works: a hurricane damaged the set, which forced a new one to be built out of storm-proof materials. 

The shoot itself, however, went well: the use of a track to guide the ship’s prow meant that it could crash through the buildings and stop precisely on target – a feat achieved on its first take. On screen, the effect is certainly impressive; as extras flee in terror, it really does look as though a ship’s hull is tearing a sun-drenched resort to pieces. This is, arguably, one of the biggest practical stunts ever put to film. But all that realism came at a considerable cost: $25m was spent on that five minute sequence alone, a sum that translates, as The New York Times pointed out, to more than $83,000 for every second of film.

By the time Speed 2 had completed filming, it had gone more than a little over budget. Some suggested the price tag could have been $165m, an extraordinary figure for the time. More conservative estimates put it much lower, at $110m. It was, in any case, a considerably more expensive movie to make than its predecessor—an increase De Bont put down in part to star salaries, including Bullock’s reported $11-12m fee (a figure she refuted). But even accounting for star wages, it was realizing De Bont’s recurring nightmare that appeared to put the biggest dent in Speed 2s budget.

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As the film neared release, Bullock defended De Bont’s single-minded approach to getting Speed 2 made. “He is insane, certifiably,” the actress said. “Anyone who does films like this needs to have an element of danger in them or he’ll never do what he does.”

Unfortunately, the recipe that had worked so well in Speed failed to come off the second time around. Even some frenzied camerawork from cinematographer Jack N. Green couldn’t hide the plodding pace of the ocean-going liner, and critics, sensing blood in the water, bared their teeth. Speed 2 still just about made money, but less than half as much as the more modestly-budgeted original.

Even De Bont, who insisted he was “happy” with the film, admitted that the long shoot at sea had taken its toll—and vowed never to make another movie on an ocean-going liner.

“Obviously, I talked to people from Waterworld,” De Bont said, “and I know Jim Cameron [director of Titanic], and I thought, ‘We’re different. We’re on a large ship in a controlled environment,’ but I was wrong […] This turned out great and I’m very happy with the film, but I’ll never do another ship movie.

“I thought I was prepared for anything – and it was still far worse than I ever imagined.”