How a Keanu Reeves Suggestion Saved the Script for ‘Speed’

Speed is arguably one of Keanu Reeves’ best films, a propulsive thriller that somehow pulls off a ludicrous premise with a just-right balance of seriousness and humor.

As part of a fascinating podcast — titled 50 MPH — on the making of the film, director Jan de Bont and many of the 1994 hit’s writers, actors, producers and executives are detailing their experiences on the movie.

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During one sequence, Joss Whedon (The Avengers) — who has been largely silent in the public space over the past year after on-set misconduct allegations (more on that below) — breaks down his uncredited contribution to the script. Whedon was brought in last-minute as a script doctor, and some of those interviewed say he wrote roughly 90 percent of the film’s final dialogue, yet Whedon lost a WGA arbitration to receive a credit on the film. The film’s originating writer, Graham Yost, labored on the project for years and is responsible for the film’s concept, characters and major story beats and received sole credit.

At any rate, Whedon says that one simple suggestion made by Reeves helped him immensely in figuring out how to write the actor’s heroic character — a Los Angeles SWAT officer struggling to save a bus full of passengers, including Reeves’ co-lead played by Sandra Bullock, who are targeted by a mad bomber.

“[Reeves] talked about [doing research for the role by hanging out] with the SWAT guys and how they were unfailingly polite,” Whedon recalls. “[He said that] they’re only about defusing the situation, they call everybody ‘sir or ‘ma’am.’ It was like click — that was it. I understand this character now. My take on it was: He wasn’t a hot shot, he was a lateral thinker. He was going to do what felt right and have an odd approach to it, but generally speaking, it would work out. That ‘sir or ma’am’ gave me so much, because bluster [in action movie heroes] was the order of the day and this was the opposite. He also said, ‘I don’t want to pull my gun.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want you to either, but you kind of have to. … [The studio is] not going to let you not pull your gun.’”

Speaking of “hot shot,” Whedon says he was not responsible for the film’s most famous line — “Pop quiz, hot shot!” — despite fans and many who worked on the film assuming it was his. Said Yost: “For the past 25 years of my life, people would come up to me and say, ‘Pop quiz, hot shot.’ And I have to nod and smile. That was Joss’ line, that wasn’t me.” But Whedon said: “No, it’s not. That was already in. It’s the only line people remember. But I cannot take credit for it, for it is not mine.”

Oddly enough, not one person who worked on the film’s script takes credit for the line, but the podcast’s host, Kris Tapley, examined all the available drafts and determined that another script doctor who worked on the project, Paul Attanasio, most likely came up with the line (even though Attanasio himself couldn’t recall it).

After Whedon lost his fight for a credit, Whedon and Yost ran into each other at the film’s premiere. “Where things went bad between us is when he didn’t get any credit,” Yost recalled. “It was like he was blaming me. I was like, ‘That’s the WGA; of course I’m going to write a letter saying I deserve sole credit. I sat with that thing for years, that’s my baby. You did great work, but they no longer allow the “additional dialogue” credit.’”

Whedon counters: “He was like, ‘You’d have done the same thing.’ That really upset me. Because it’s not true. And I lived long enough to find out it wasn’t true. My next thing was Toy Story and [then-Pixar chief] John Lasseter was like, ‘I think the key animators should get screenplay credit’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah.’ So I was like, ‘Oh good, because I would have hated to have found out that was true.’ I don’t like taking credit for things I haven’t done. … It’s OK, [not getting credit] doesn’t bother me anymore. There are a lot of things out there that are mine that I care much more about.”

Whedon went from an acclaimed writer-director of TV and film to being accused of a litany of misconduct allegations made in 2020 through 2022 — such as being verbally abusive to co-workers dating back to his days as showrunner on the 1990s series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and extending to when he took over as director on 2017’s Justice League. He also had conflicts with several female actors, including Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot; Buffy actress Michelle Trachtenberg, who said there had been a rule on the set barring Whedon from being alone with her; and Justice League actor Ray Fisher, who accused Whedon of gutting his character’s backstory.

New York magazine did a deep-dive look at the allegations where Whedon admitted being “not mannerly” or “civilized” when running Buffy and its spinoff, Angel. He otherwise denied allegations of threatening people, or claims his comments were often misconstrued. “I was young,” he said. “I yelled, and sometimes you had to yell. This was a very young cast, and it was easy for everything to turn into a cocktail party.” He added that accusers used “every weaponizable word of the modern era to make it seem like I was an abusive monster. I think I’m one of the nicer showrunners that’s ever been.”

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