It took a lot of nerve for director David Koepp to include a chase under an elevated New York City train in "Premium Rush," about a bike messenger's frantic race to deliver a package from one end of Manhattan to the other.
Audiences could easily have been distracted by memories of one of the best-known chases in cinema history: when Gene Hackman barrels perilously through traffic in a car to catch a criminal who has hijacked a subway train on an elevated track in William Friedkin's 1971 film "The French Connection."
"Shooting a chase scene in New York City, you're standing on the shoulders of that giant," Koepp admitted. "I almost didn't do it, but I love the trestles."
New York City has changed so much since that seminal chase was shot that the logistics alone could daunt even a director willing to challenge "The French Connection" on its own territory. And few directors have returned to the city to stage such a scene with similar aplomb, or at least without a great deal of computer help.
Besides, it's not just the legacy of "The French Connection" they have to contend with. Ever since the Ku Klux Klan galloped across the screen on horseback in "The Birth of a Nation," filmmakers have been finding new ways to thrill audiences with chase scenes.
During a phone interview, Friedkin admitted that his mandate for the "French Connection" scene was that it be better than the one in the 1968 film "Bullitt," in which Steve McQueen powered his Ford Mustang over the hills of San Francisco. What followed during the '70s was a veritable pileup of films with extended chase scenes that competed for box office, including at least one that rivaled Friedkin's: "The Seven-Ups," from 1973, which has a car driven at a breakneck pace through New York City by stuntman Bill Hickman, who was also behind the wheel in "Bullitt" and "The French Connection."
"The chase is a pure invention of cinema," said Friedkin, who is adamant that Buster Keaton was the greatest in this regard. "The best elements that go into a chase scene cannot be done onstage, in a novel, painting or photograph."
He outlined a few rules for a great chase scene: It should make audiences "feel like the guy is in real jeopardy" and have a sense of spontaneity. "It can't feel planned out," he added, noting that the action has to seem "totally possible nothing supernatural." It's best to place it in a dense setting as well, "so that you are afraid innocent people can get hurt," he said.
Koepp, 59, whose credits include four smaller-budgeted films under his directing belt but is best known as an A-list screenwriter of Hollywood blockbusters, studied a wide swath of chase scenes, from the classic chariot race in "Ben-Hur" to the breathless, techno dash of 1999's art-house hit "Run Lola Run." He was preparing for "a stunt movie, not an effects movie, that was reliant on human ability," he said.
Koepp described "Premium Rush," which opened Friday, as a "map movie, where you see this guy who has to get from here to here,"putting one hand was above his head and the other near his waist, signifying a route from Columbia University to Chinatown.
Wilee, the courier played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has to beat a deadline, a corrupt cop and the many obstacles that the city throws at him. The key was to make the journey feel real, said Koepp, who noted that his film is "96 percent" computer-trickery free: "We want audiences to be amazed by what people are capable of."
Friedkin bemoaned how today's movie chases are dominated by the implausible. Consider how a helicopter can be tethered to a train in a tunnel, as in "Mission: Impossible," or, in "Spider-Man," the hero's ballet through buildings; both films were co-written by Koepp.
"There are two kinds of chase scenes in movies today," Koepp said. "The ones that are shot with CGI" computer-generated imaging "and the ones that are not."
He is no stranger to authentic-looking chase scenes, having co-written "Carlito's Way," which has one of the most heart-stopping sequences in movie history, in which Al Pacino is pursued on subway cars and through Grand Central Terminal.
Koepp embraced realistic stunt-action for "Premium Rush" because "with CG, you can always feel the fingers on the keyboard, no matter how good it gets," he said. "With stunts, you know it had to hurt."
And it did. In a nine-day stretch, at least one member of the production needed emergency medical treatment each day. This included an incident when two lanes of the Avenue of the Americas had been closed to traffic. An irate man driving a car with a diplomat's license plate swerved onto the set, causing a domino effect that catapulted Gordon-Levitt off his bike, into a taxi window and to the hospital for 31 stitches.
"It was my fault," said Gordon-Levitt, who had sped past the motorcycle-riding camera operator who was filming him. "I was going too fast." He agreed to "hold back" after the accident.
Koepp's vision was confirmed early on when George Aguilar, a seasoned assistant director and stunt coordinator, asked one of the stunt doubles, a real-life bike messenger, Austin Horse, to "ride as fast as you can." "Really?" Horse replied in Aguilar's retelling, "I'm pretty fast."
With camera rolling, Aguilar said, he was stunned at how fast Horse accelerated from a standstill to a winding weave in deep traffic. When he showed the footage to Koepp, Aguilar said, "Now we know what this movie is about."
Koepp used an array of techniques to capture bicyclists speeding through traffic, including a 10-foot camera arm rigged to the trunk of a Porsche Carrera. One of the most difficult tasks was simply maintaining camera focus. But Koepp dismissed shortcuts, like ferrying Gordon-Levitt and his bike on a moving vehicle. The production never shot an action sequence off location, on a studio set, he said.
Despite Koepp's efforts, Gordon-Levitt said he didn't think "Premium Rush" could top the best chase scenes from the more reckless past because "we're more concerned with safety now."
Friedkin admits that "The French Connection" lacked proper insurance and permissions and that there were three unintended collisions during the scene. "I would never do anything like that again," he added.
Koepp may not have been able to emulate the same catch-as-catch-can filmmaking, but he can certainly claim to be riding into uncharted territory. There are few convincingly thrilling urban bike chase sequences in film.
Then again, audiences may choose to compare his film to the real thing.
Aguilar is a Manhattan resident and regular bike rider. "You just have to ride one time to know how dangerous it is to be on a bicycle in this city," he said. "It's wild and woolly out there."