Had there ever been a film that so succinctly enacted its high concept than Speed? [See end of post for some notes on “high concept”] It’s so precisely executed that I can’t even decide whether I like it or not – all the adjectives I reach for are double-edged admirations of its “efficiency”. In case you need a reminder, the idea is this: a former bomb disposals expert (Dennis Hopper), thwarted in his attempt to extort money by threatening to kill a lift full of hostages, plants a bomb on a bus that will explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50mph. LAPD SWAT guy Jack Traven (named after B. Traven, mysterious pseudonymised writer of Treasure of the Sierra Madre) has the task of keeping the bus moving and plotting a solution while passenger Annie (Sandra Bullock) takes the wheel. The third act (each act built around a different hostage situation) sees Annie kidnapped and strapped with explosives on a brakeless subway train. In short, the film generates situations of “suspense” out of a literal, downright Newtonian articulation of that word: a an elevator hung on insecure cables threatening to plummet, a bus maintaining constant velocity against a succession of solid impediments and gravitational pulls, hanging slo-moed in the air as it makes an impossible leap across a gulf in the road, a train performing the opposite action of trying to slow to a halt (and landing, self-reflexively outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where that other epic of vehicular trajectory, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is showing).
Mapped onto the skeleton of these machinically structured sequences is a burgeoning romance between the two leads, borne perfunctorily out of the intensity of the situations (they even say so themselves). The forward thrust of bus and train force them (twice) into hurtling embraces, as if trajectories of plot and object are perfectly twinned. The multicultural group of passengers are mainly there as ballast for the bus, fodder for the threat, and to utter expressions of amazement designed to prompt and voice the expected audience responses: “This guy is nuts!”, “This is not a good plan!”, “What?!”, “You gotta be kidding!” (actually, I can’t remember whether or not anyone says that, but I’m gonna take a guess) or, directed knowingly at Keanu/Jack, “You’re not very bright but you got some big round hairy cojones” (if only the marketing department could have worked that line into the title…). The film’s every machination is manouevred into frame by the simplicity of its concept, stated out loud by Hopper’s terrorist, as if it were not clear enough, when he details “the rules” – the bus’s bomb-rigged structure is a promise of non-stop action, a promise of shark-like relentlessness: if it stops moving, it dies. Terrorist plot = narrative conceit.
What happened to transform Dennis Hopper from countercultural icon of the New Hollywood cinema into perfect casting for a deranged terrorist? Or maybe it was never such a stretch from cinema’s edgiest biker-hippie in Easy Rider to a guy over the edge entertaining himself by placing elaborate booby traps in the Man’s own modes of transport – elevators, buses, trains. The cause just got a little confused along the way. This was the 1990s, back when terrorism was a consequence free plot-device perpetrated by disillusioned white guys out of step with society but at least highly rational and precise in their plotting. As Sandra Bullock asks at one point: “What did we do, bomb the guy’s country or something?” “No”, replies Keanu, “It’s just a guy who wants money.” But Speed refuses to go there on some of the dilemma’s terrorist threats; despite an early reference to “shooting the hostage” to save the rest of the endangered citizens, Keanu never has to make that choice, never has to flatten the schoolkids on the crossing, and the pram the bus crushes turns out to be full of tin cans. This film doesn’t deliver grotesque or shocking thrills, as Richard Dyer writes:
Speed teasingly draws back from delivering such an experience, even when it titillates us with the promise that it’s about to show us a white, middle-class mother and baby smashed to smithereens. […] Speed largely avoids giving us time to note death: there are innocent bystanders knocked off and some police, but by and large the film is oddly benign. Old ladies petrified to leap from leaps, babies in prams, poor commuters of colour on the unstoppable bus, such people are safe in Speed, not expendable as they might be in many other films. The price is elsewhere, in things. It is the transport system itself that is smashed about: cars, lorries, barriers, planes and even the roadway in a final eruption of a subway train from below. It is an orgy of destruction of one of the great frustrations of modern urban living – getting about.
Many of the films set-pieces are dependent on the workings of machines, the red-hot friction of careening metal, the tenacious but faltering grip of overladen cables, the disconnection of wires from bombs, overheated conversations over telecommunication systems, all measured by numeric displays, speedometers and time pressures. The strained disintegration of metal and plastic pushed to its limits, of vehicles on the verge of breaking down and/or up, is a nice metaphor for the machinic construction of Speed, with its single-entendre title, minimal dialogue and set-piece simplicity.
Justin Wyatt on “high concept”, from his 1994 book High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood:
The term “high concept” originated in the television and film industries, but it was soon adopted by the popular presses, who seized the term as an indictment of Hollywood’s privileging those films which seemed most likely to reap huge dollars at the box office. Clearly the studios are most interested in those films with an increased likelihood of a solid return, and high concept has been used as one catchphrase to describe any number of commericial projects. […] According to the folklore of the entertainment industry, high concept as a term was first associated with Barry Diller, during his tenure in the early 1970s as a programming executive at ABC. Diller received much credit for bolstering the network’s poor ratings, partly through the introduction of the made-for-television movie format. Since Diller needed stories which could be easily summarised for a thirty-second television spot, he approved those projects which could be sold in a single sentence. This sentence woud then appear in the advertising spots and in TV Guide synopses. […] Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg, on the other hand, attributes the term high concept to Michael Eisner. According to Katzenberg, Eisner used high concept while working as a creative executive at Paramount to describe a unique idea whose originality could be conveyed briefly. Similarly, Columbia Pictures Entertainment president Peter Guber defines high concept in narrative terms. Rather than stressing the uniqueness of the idea, Guber states that high concept can be understood as a narrative which is very straightforward, easily communicated and easily comprehended. The emphasis on narrative as the driving force behind high concept masks another aspect to the usage of the term within both the film and television industries. While the idea must be easily communicated and summarised, the concept must also be marketable in two significant ways: through the initial “pitch” for the project, and through the marketing, the “pitch” to the public.
An article by Steve Kaire at the Writers Store, “High Concept Defined Once and For All“, offers some advice on how to write a good high concept pitch. These are the five suggested requirements:
YOUR PREMISE SHOULD BE ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE: In seeking originality, we are not talking about reinventing the wheel. We can take traditional subject matter that’s been done before and add a hook or twist to it which then qualifies the material as original. Using the kidnapping plot, there have been dozens of films which covered that subject area before. In the film Ransom, Mel Gibson plays a wealthy businessman whose son is kidnapped. That story in itself offers nothing new. The hook of the movie which makes it original is that instead of paying the ransom, Gibson uses the ransom money to pay for a contract hit on the kidnappers. That twist makes the film original and therefore High Concept.
YOUR STORY HAS TO HAVE MASS AUDIENCE APPEAL: That means it’s possible to meet Requirement #1 by creating an original story that’s never been done before. But that story may be so odd or strange that the appeal exists only in the mind of the writer who created it. No one else. An example would be if a girl woke up one morning, turned into a butterfly, and flew to the land of Shangri-La. That’s never been done before but who cares? Mass appeal means that nine out of ten people who you pitch your story to would say that they’d pay ten dollars to see your movie first run based solely on your pitch. You have to decide either you’re writing for your own enjoyment or you’re writing to sell. If it’s to sell, then you have to take the marketplace into account.
YOUR PITCH HAS TO BE STORY SPECIFIC: That means that within your pitch, you have to have specific details which make your story different and adds color and depth. Let’s take the bank robbing plot. If you came up with a story about three people who want to rob a bank by digging a tunnel underneath it, the response would be, “So what?” A twist on that genre is the movie Going In Style. It’s about three senior citizens who attempt to rob a bank. The wheelman has had his license revoked, the lookout is visually impaired, and the brains of the operation is 75-year-old George Burns. Those specific details enhance the story and keep it from being stale and generic.
THE POTENTIAL IS OBVIOUS: If you’re pitching a comedy, then the potential for humor should be obvious within your pitch. People should smile or laugh when you tell it. If you’re pitching an action movie, the listener should be able to imagine the action scenes in his head as your pitching. I sold a project to Miramax called My Kind of Town with the Wayans Brothers attached to star. It is about two guys who want to make a new start in life. They pack up their car and take off with no particular destination in mind. Entering City Hall in some tiny Southern town to get a map, the roof collapses on them and they sue. They win the lawsuit but the town can’t afford to pay them so they’re given the town. The potential for humor is obvious when the Wayans Brothers are given a Southern town to do whatever they please with it.
YOUR PITCH SHOULD BE ONE TO THREE SENTENCES LONG: I’ve had thousands of projects pitched to me in over twenty years and writers mistakenly think that the longer the pitch, the better the story. No one wants to listen to a pitch that’s a half hour long when I could read the script in less time. I tell writers “Pitch me your story in a couple of sentences.” Most cannot because they don’t know what the five requirements are and lack the practice in condensing and fine-tuning their pitches in advance.