It is one of the biggest--and certainly longest--movie sets ever constructed in Los Angeles: a replica of a New York City subway being built near L.A.'s Chinatown district for the Woody Harrelson-Wesley Snipes action film "Money Train."
Stretching six-tenths of a mile--long enough to allow subway cars to reach speeds of 40 m.p.h.--the elaborate set has been under construction since December atop the Cornfield, a historic Southern Pacific rail yard.
To commuters, the set looks like a giant, elongated plywood box, but the interior is being transformed into Manhattan's teeming underground subway system, with station platforms patterned after those under Wall Street, Times Square and Rockefeller Center.
For the past eight weeks, "Money Train" has been filming in New York City, but in about a week the production will shift to Los Angeles for an additional seven weeks of shooting. The mock subway will become the centerpiece of the film's action sequences, including wild train chases, fires in the tunnel and stuntmen leaping from one speeding train to another.
Fifteen subway cars--each weighing more than 80,000 pounds--have been shipped in for use on the film--five for the money train itself and 10 more for passenger cars.
Ironically, Columbia Pictures is building the multimillion-dollar set only blocks from the Los Angeles Red Line, the 4.4-mile subway system that courses under the city from downtown's Union Station west to MacArthur Park.
Directed by Joseph Ruben, "Money Train" revolves around two New York City decoy cops and the heist of a subway train carrying millions of dollars. The film, which is planned for release during the holiday season, is being produced by Jon Peters and Neil Canton, brother of Mark Canton, who heads Columbia and its sister studio, TriStar Pictures.
In Hollywood, where the size of film budgets are regular grist for the media, rumors have surfaced that "Money Train" is a runaway train in terms of costs. New York magazine recently reported that the film was 25% to 30% over budget. But the studio and filmmakers strongly deny the film is over budget.
"After seven weeks shooting in New York," said co-producer Doug Claybourne, "we were only one day over schedule."
Claybourne does not deny that building the set has been expensive, and he praised Columbia for "stepping up to the plate" when it became apparent a real subway would not do. The cost of building the mock subway, he said, is about $4.5 million on a picture whose budget is in the "upper 40s."
Snipes and Harrelson are a proven commodity after the success of their 1992 hit "White Men Can't Jump," but big-budget action movies have caused problems for Columbia in recent years. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Last Action Hero" and Bruce Willis' "Striking Distance" were both box-office disappointments.
But some familiar with "Money Train" say the size of the subway set has even caused crew members to talk about costs.
"One of the crew people was saying that every time a Columbia executive comes out there, they're afraid they will pull the plug (on the film)," said a source familiar with the project. "(The Columbia executives) see all those carpenters working and, you know how much they spend on lumber. All you have to do is look at that thing. It must have cost a fortune."
So why did Columbia decide to build a fake subway in the heart of Los Angeles when a real one already exists in New York, not to mention a real one in Los Angeles--the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's nearby Red Line?
Claybourne said the filmmakers had all along thought they would film inside New York's subway system, but it quickly became apparent that that would pose daunting problems.
"What we discovered was that we would be taking six or seven weeks, five days a week, to film within the subway system," he said. "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."
The producer noted that New York's subways are powered by a 600-volt "third rail" running underneath the cars. "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 said. "It's very dangerous."
"We went to Columbia and said, 'We have good news and bad news,' " Claybourne recalled. " 'The good news is we can make the movie. The bad news is we think it's unsafe and we can't deliver first-rate action stuff totally in the system.' "
Claybourne noted that the crew spent two weeks filming in the subway system beneath Times Square.
Another reason for building the set, Claybourne said, was that the filmmakers feared that winter storms in New York might cause costly delays in filming.
"Farmer's Almanac was reporting this potentially would be one of the worst winters the city ever faced," Claybourne recalled. "We were concerned about building a multimillion-dollar set and then being wiped out by weather. Then we went to L.A. and were nearly wiped out by the (rains)." Ironically, he added, New York has had a mild winter.
"Another reason we left the system," he added, "was that we could only film from 9 o'clock at night to 5 o'clock in the morning in New York."
Meanwhile, using the Los Angeles Red Line for the shoot wouldn't do, he explained, because it doesn't look like New York's system.
Filming began in New York in January, where a giant replica of a rapid transit operation command center has been constructed near City Hall. Shooting has also taken place from 110th Street to the Staten Island Ferry.
While that was under way, the mock subway began going up just off North Broadway near the north end of Chinatown. Built over four existing tracks, the structure is roughly 3,000 feet long, 20 feet high and 60 feet across. Inside, it will have three 300-foot-long subway stations and 13 different sets can go in the stations.
A team of 85 carpenters has been working virtually seven-day weeks on the set, using 18,000 sheets of plywood, 25,000 feet of 2-by-4s and 190,000 feet of 1-by-3s for framing.
In addition, 28 truckloads of Styrofoam and 20,000 square feet of plastic tiles have been brought in for the interior of the set.
Meanwhile, the subway trains have been retrofitted with Chevy engines that enable them to go from zero to 40 m.p.h. in only 400 feet.
Cody Cluff, the city's assistant deputy mayor for entertainment industry affairs, praised the project for giving a boost to the local economy.
"It's one of the biggest sets we've ever seen," Cluff said.