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Below Ground Filming In The Subway
For the uninitiated to New York City, negotiating the subway is like swimming ocean waters in January: alien, scary, exhilarating. Some five million people pass through these tunnels each day; learning to master the mysteries of a modern transport system more than a century old is a rite of passage into New York City's urban tribe. Riders try not to think about what might lurk outside the train's doors in the pitch black: the occasional trash fire, rats, the unforgiving third rail.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 had to confront these challenges and more on a daily basis in order to make a film with a plot that unfolds below ground. Then again, movies have a long history of exploring the tunnels, dating back to 1904 when the subway first opened and Thomas Edison mounted a camera on a train to capture its trek along the path of the city's first subway. 

In July 2007, nine months prior to filming, Tony Scott's production team arrived in New York to research and prep for Pelham. Their liaison, and keeper of the key to all things transit, was Alberteen Anderson, director, Film and Special Events for NYC Transit's Department of Corporate Communications. One of the unit's primary purposes is to acclimate people not accustomed to working around 400 tons of moving steel and guarantee their safety. The unit also helps accommodate a movie company's special requests. For example, for the 1994 film The Cowboy Way, Anderson's unit helped get horses onto the Manhattan Bridge so that Keifer Sutherland and Woody Harrelson could make the leap from horseback to a racing B-train. And when producers of Money Train and Die Hard With a Vengeance wanted to buy their very own subway cars, Anderson managed to fill the order (as both productions happened to coincide with NYC Transit's scrapping of a fleet of 40-year-old cars). 

What NYC Transit granted Pelham was unprecedented access. The team scouted practically the entire system: tunnels, stations, Grand Central, and the new Rail Control Center. "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 Rapid Transit Operations, who has overseen several shoots in a 35-year career. "Pelham shot scenes with the actors on the track as trains moved past them. That was unique.”

Any production company seeking to film must first enroll in an eight-hour safety-training course – the same required of any NYC Transit employee who steps foot in the tunnel. For Pelham, this meant the entire cast and crew, ultimately some 400 people. Anderson says, "I was impressed. Some productions have balked, but this group understood filming down here was too scary not to do everything exactly right. The attitude came from the top down: ‘I don't want to be carried out of here, I want to go home to my family.'” 

In an old, converted public school, where red and green circles resembling track lights mark exits and entrances, actors and crew learned under the tutelage of Bob Willis at the NYC Transit Learning Center how to navigate tracks, identify hazards, and most importantly, avoid the electrical contact rail, better known as the third rail.

"John Travolta loved the class because he's so into transportation,” Willis says. "Luis Guzman grew up in New York and used to like watching the train yards as a kid.”

The third rail is just as dangerous as legend would have it. A touch can lose a limb or a life. "They showed us a photograph of what happens if you hit that third rail,” Washington says. "And it ain't nice.”

After class, students hopped a subway to an R station. In regulation boots and safety vest, flashlight in hand, one by one they descended into the subway. Movie stars and production assistants alike stepped around garbage, cast-off syringes, or whateve

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