How Money Train ended up with one of the biggest movie sets of all time

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The reunion of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson for Money Train wasn’t supposed to end up with a record-breaking movie set – but then logistics got in the way.

When White Men Can’t Jump became a sizeable success in 1992 (earning $90m at the US box office alone), it didn’t take long for Hollywood to explore other projects in which to team up its two stars, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. The natural chemistry of the pair, combined with their box office pulling power, meant a reunion was almost certainly going to be on the cards. And it came to pass just a few years later, with the action thriller Money Train.

To jump to the end of the story a little, lightning didn’t strike twice here. The film was not particularly warmly received, and with a budget creeping towards $70m, the box office returns of $77.2m worldwide were below expectations.

Yet there was a point where the film may not have been in contention for a box office record, but instead a record of a different kind. For one part of the film’s story lost in the shadows of time is that of its incredible set: whilst it was never officially awarded such recognition, Money Train was said to have had the longest individual physical film set of all time.

The movie shot in the early part of 1995, but the New York-set film – about a pair of transit cops involved in a plot to rob the ‘money train’ that collects the cash from the city’s subway stations – was primarily filmed in Los Angeles.

This was not the original plan though. The filmmakers – including director Joseph Ruben (replacing Tony Scott, who had been developing the film, and would go on to make two train-centric movies later in his career) – wanted to shoot the film on the real New York subway system. The logistics of this, given how much footage they needed to get, proved impossible. Plan B? They needed to build their own subway station and track in Los Angeles instead.

Work on construction thus began in December 1995 with the film completing the New York exteriors part of its shoot first. 85 carpenters worked on the LA set, completing seven day weeks to get it ready for filming.

Thus, whilst Ruben, Snipes, Harrelson et al were filming on one side of America, fifteen New York subway cars were shipped in the opposite direction. They had to be converted to run on propane rather than electricity, but other than that, they were the same cars ferrying passengers every day on the real New York subway system. The main train engine too came from the same source, a retired service locomotive that was set to be junked. It got spruced up for the film, and had a faster engine fitted.

As for the subway station set itself? It was not small. It consisted of four railway tracks, and as per this Los Angeles Times report from the time, it was six tenths of a mile long. So long, in fact, that the subway cars the film was using could get up to speeds of 40mph. To put that in context, when the Batmobile in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman was roaring around Gotham City, the car and set constrictions never allowed it to go that quickly at any point in the film.

Inevitably, Money Train's was not a cheap set to build either. Still, the reported $4.5m expense of making a subway of their own was still set to be a cheaper and more practical option than using the real thing. It was a make or break moment for the project when Columbia Pictures was presented with the problem and the potential bill, but it duly coughed up a cheque, and the film could press ahead.

After all, making a set specifically for the movie meant that concessions to filming could be built in. The ceiling was made higher, for instance, and three separate subway stations were built on the set’s line too, to intersperse with the aforementioned New York footage.

Notably though, co-producer Doug Claybourne added that “what we discovered was that we would be taking six or seven weeks, five days a week, to film within the subway system”. And had they gone with the New York plan? “What we found was that the kind of things we were trying to do–trains crashing, people jumping over tracks–were just not possible from a safety standpoint with any degree of control”.

Furthermore, they’d only be able to shoot for eight hours a day in New York, and would risk being hostage to the weather as well (the winter weather forecast that year was on the grim side). One more variable too: a 600-volt rail that helps power New York trains was a further problem. “All you have to do is drop a piece of metal on the third rail and it’s like a grenade going off in front of you”, Claybourne noted. It’s not hard to see that might be a concern.

The cast and crew would shoot on their California-based New York subway system for two months in the end. Various methods have been used to describe just what a long set it was. Two Empire State Buildings put next to each other is one of the go-to options, multiple football fields laid side by side, those sort of descriptors. What was clear was that it was one of the longest film sets ever built. The biggest set of all time is believed to be the Middle Earth set-up for the Hobbit films in New Zealand. But the last time we checked, Middle Earth didn’t have a subway line running for 3000 feet and more in the midst of it. The Hobbit may have had the depth, Money Train had the length, if you will.

The film then may have been the last and least of the three unions of Snipes and Harrelson on screen (there are no known plans for them to make a fourth film together). But it might, had someone got the measuring tape out officially, be the longest film set ever constructed. It’s hard to think of too many to rival it in that regard. And it’s just a shame that, after all that effort, a more successful production didn’t result from it all…


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