And what makes the movie unique is that the production took great pains to make this New York story as authentically New York as possible, including traipsing through dusty subway tunnels, trying to film in crowded Grand Central and risking death from the ever-humming third rail.
Much of the action takes place down in the dark, rat-infested tunnels beneath the city streets, and when director Tony Scott signed on for the project, he had one demand: that as much as possible, it would be shot in the actual subway system.
“When Tony and I were prepping the picture, what we always spoke about was that we needed authenticity,” says producer Todd Black. “We didn’t want people going, ‘This isn’t New York. That’s not the real subway. That’s a set. That’s Montreal or Vancouver.’ It needed to have that whole New York flavor, on the streets and in the subway.”
That meant heading underground for what Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, says is “probably one of the biggest productions shot in the subway.”
Most of the subway scenes were filmed on a stretch of abandoned track off Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, along which the HH shuttle used to run. (Service was discontinued in 1946.) Those particular tracks were unused, but the location gave the filmmaker’s the advantage of having active A, C and G trains passing along the neighboring tracks, giving scenes a realistic feel.
[Railfanwindow.com Blog Editor's note: This would be the abandoned "side" platforms at Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, as well as the tunnel between that station and the former Court Street station, which is now the New York Transit Museum.]
“In the past, we’ve allowed filming on a platform or inside a train, but very little filming with actors down on the track,” says Joe Grodzinsky, superintendent of Rapid Transit Operations. “‘Pelham’ shot scenes with the actors on the track as trains moved past them. That was unique.”
To make sure no accidents happened, everyone involved with the production (some 400 people, including a high-up executive at Sony) was forced to enroll in an eight-hour NYC Transit safety course. The group took a classroom lesson at the NYC Transit Learning Center in Gravesend, then strapped on regulation boots and safety vests, grabbed flashlights and headed down onto the tracks from a Brooklyn R station.
Because there’s only so much space in an actual subway car — as anyone who’s been smashed up against a weird, sweaty guy during rush hour can attest — the production built a fake car on a stage at Kaufman Astoria Studios. It was made from scratch using pieces of decommissioned subway cars and powered by hydraulics, so it could zip along a 40-foot section of track.
In truth, much more of the film would have had to been shot on sound stages had NYC Transit not consented to allow the crew access to the subway. The agency has turned down requests before for many reasons, including when a plot is considered too sensitive because it involves destruction or terrorism.
“There was concern [about "Pelham"], but we were very careful to say in the film, this isn’t about terrorism,” Black says. “Particularly after 9/11, we didn’t want to make anything about this movie be about terrorism. And the original wasn’t about terrorism. It was about greed and money.”