So, you want to make a train movie. Great! Pick a plot! Any of the six standard ones will do. Mismatched cop duo, murder mystery, terrorist hostage scenario, spy thriller, honeymoon gone wrong, diamond heist - they're all excellent choices. No need to limit yourself, either. Choose two or three. Mix and Match. If your wacky honeymoon dialogue is getting a little over-intellectual, have terrorists seize the train with the real objective of stealing 100 million in diamonds. Remember: the more plots you have running, the less interesting any individual plot has to be. It's like making sausage - grind together enough ingredients, and no one notices that some of them are a little past their prime.
Add the following Classic Elements, and you're done. Voila!
Punching The Tickets:
For some reason they don't check your ticket before you board the train. Instead, the railways employ a clean cut young man to go from passenger car to passenger car, saying "ticket please?" This is a good opportunity for your stowaways to hide themselves, or to stumble across the first dead body of the film. Or maybe the ticket-boy can pull out a handgun with a 6" silencer, emotionlessly executing the film's first victim. Who else on this train is in league with the terrorists?
The Dining Car:
Your train must have dining facilities sufficient to determine whether a given diner's palate is as refined as it should be, given his claimed identity. The real French ambassador would never order a '63 Chardonnay with the duck confit! J'accuse!
The Sleeper Car:
This is where all the sex almost happens. Your script contains a man and a woman. They seem attracted to each other, and after a few drinks in the dining car they retire, giggling, to a cozy little sleep chamber where they pull down a barrier for privacy. Unfortunately, there is no sex allowed in the sleeper car. It must be interrupted by A) bumbling neighbors, B) the sudden appearance of a jealous spouse, C) your hero, under fear of death, who must hide in that particular sleeper compartment or D) the woman withdraws a garrote from her handbag and throttles her would-be lover. She pulls out a walkie-talkie, reverts to her native Russian accent, and says "Falcon, zees ess Nightengale. Phase two ees complete."
The Caboose Fight:
The caboose is a good place for a fight mostly because of the visuals. That long expanse of track behind the train helps remind the viewers that their heroes are really on a moving object. Someone can be dragged behind the caboose, or the caboose can be approached and boarded by men on horses. It's the less dangerous, more accessible end of the train. Solid, non-pivotal filler to push your film to the full 84 minutes.
The Baggage Car:
An excellent hiding spot, as well as a fine place to locate any random tool or gadget that will be necessary for your hero later in the film. Why look! Someone left a cellphone, a pda, a hunting knife, and a screwdriver in their bag! I wonder if any of these will come in handy...
The tunnel is a classic but satisfying plot element. It can make everything go black for a short time (in a non-modern setting), disrupt phone or computer transmissions (in a modern setting), or provide extra fun during the inevitable fight on the top of the train. (details to follow) They also provide your train brief but timely protection from 98% of all helicopter assaults. (Results may vary in the unlikely event that you're making Mission Impossible I.)
The Fight On The Top Of The Train:
Ideally, this fight should include at least one disposable minion, so the audience can watch him fall off. Either so that he falls beneath the wheels, where he is ground to pulp, or as the train passes over a bridge, so he can plummet a satisfyingly long distance to his death. Tunnels are useful here, as they create darkness and require ducking. (Hint: disposable minions frequently forget to duck.) Should your hero fall off the train in this melee, it will be onto a soft grassy spot, bringing us to our next element.
Getting Back On The Train:
Once your hero has left the train, he must get back on it. This can be accomplished by either accelerating your hero (through the use of some other vehicle), or slowing down the train. Your hero can, for instance, drive a car really fast alongside the train, then jump out and re-board, or find some rural Nebraska yokel with a cropduster he can use. Alternately, your hero can contact the authorities and give them a reason to stop and search the train. The authorities won't be able to help further, of course, because they'll be bumbling idiots in the face of the enemy's fake credentials and flawless backup strategies, but it will give your hero an opportunity to sneak aboard the train once again. The real advantage here, of course, is since they saw him fall off the train, they think he's dead!
The Other Train Coming Your Direction On The Same Track:
Oh my god! There's another train on this same track! Coming right this way! Given the sort of precautions taken against this possibility, the odds against this happening are astronomical. So placing the means to switch one of the trains to a parallel track at precisely the last possible location isn't much of a stretch. Just remember that this switch must be triggered manually, using an old, rusty, hopelessly stuck lever.
The Train Wreck:
Your film must end with a train wreck. I cannot stress this enough. It's why people come to the theater in the first place. Or, in the case of most train movies, why people haven't changed the channel to something better yet. See, trains are big. Trains are powerful. We want to see the immense physical force they've harnessed go horribly, horribly wrong. Your train can go off a cliff. It can crash into the train station. If it's the sort of movie where you want some of the people to live (like a comedy), you can have it fly off the rails and skid to a stop on its side. But it must crash. They don't call it "like watching a train wreck" for nothing.
Columns by Cindy