10 Facts About Steven Spielberg’s Duel

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A Steven Spielberg movie, made in the 1970s, about an unstoppable force and the regular American guy trying to stop it—no, we’re not talking about Jaws. In 1971, the legendary director was just a twenty-something directing TV shows and looking to break out with his first movie gig. He eventually found it in the TV movie Duel, about an anonymous truck driver stalking a hapless businessman driving around the lonely canyon roads of California.

Duel, which is filled with thrills and road rage, was the precursor to Jaws and effectively launched Spielberg’s career. Here are some things you might not know about the Golden Globe-nominated thriller.

1. THE MOVIE WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT.

Carey Loftin and Dennis Weaver in 'Duel' (1971)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson based his original novella, which first appeared in the April 1971 issue of Playboy, on an actual road rage incident. Matheson had played a round of golf on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On his car ride home, and in a daze after receiving the terrible news, he was ruthlessly tailgated by a truck driver.

Matheson initially pitched the idea to TV producers but, after it was rejected numerous times, he decided to put his real-life incident into prose form. In order to gather details of the open road, Matheson set out from his home in Ventura, California with a voice recorder in hand and simply described what he saw. Those descriptions of the desolate landscape ended up in the novella.

2. IT WAS STEVEN SPIELBERG’S SECRETARY WHO DISCOVERED RICHARD MATHESON'S STORY.

Spielberg got his start directing for TV at the age of 21, helming episodes of such shows as Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D. But the aspiring filmmaker was desperately searching for a property he could turn into a feature film. It was Spielberg's secretary, Nona Tyson, who found Matheson’s story in Playboy and first sent it to her boss to potentially adapt into a movie.

“I started laughing because she's giving me a Playboy to read, and she said, 'Don't look at the girls, read the short story. It is right up your alley,'” Spielberg said. “She had a real intuition about me, and not since my own mom had anybody really had my number. She really understood my tastes, and my ambition, and my fear, my anxiety about wanting to do everything by Thursday morning.”

Tyson helped track down whether the movie rights to Matheson’s story had been optioned, and eventually discovered that a teleplay was in development at ABC and Universal with producer George Eckstein. Spielberg took a meeting with Eckstein, and brought a rough cut of his legendary 73-minute series premiere episode of Columbo, “Murder by the Book.” Eckstein was impressed, and gave Spielberg the job to direct Duel after a follow-up meeting where the filmmaker laid out how he envisioned the film from Matheson’s screenplay in full.

3. DENNIS WEAVER’S WORK WITH ORSON WELLES GOT HIM THE LEAD IN DUEL.

For the lowly protagonist, David Mann, Spielberg hand-picked character actor Dennis Weaver because he loved his performance as the jittery and feeble hotel night manager in Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch of Evil.

Weaver drove more than 2000 miles while shooting his scenes, and did many of the stunts himself, including the dangerous phone booth scene at the "Snakerama" gas station in a single take.

Of working with the rookie director, the veteran Weaver later said, “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I said, ‘There’s no reason for me to judge him because of his age. Let’s see what he does.’ And he did extremely well ... I really think it’s one of the most creative jobs he’s ever done.”

4. THERE WAS A CASTING CALL FOR THE TRUCK.

Matheson's script stated that the villainous, unnamed truck driver would never be seen besides the insert shots of his arms and boots. (Weirdly enough, Matheson’s novella actually names the driver: “Keller,” Matheson’s own spin on the word killer.)

Since the truck itself is the movie’s main antagonist, Spielberg chose to cast it like he would any other actor: an in-person audition. The filmmaker auditioned seven different styles of semi-trucks on the Universal backlot, finally settling on a 1955 Peterbilt 281 because he felt that the split windshield, rounded lights, and elongated hood represented the menacing features of the truck’s “face.”

For Mann’s car, Spielberg chose the relatively small red Plymouth Valiant to stand out in size and color from the enormous truck and the earth tones of the California landscape.

5. CAREFUL PLANNING AND LOW-BUDGET CAMERA TRICKERY HELPED CAPTURE THE HIGH-SPEED CHASES.

Spielberg was given just $400,000 and 10 days to shoot Duel, but the schedule ballooned into a full 13 days to shoot the entire movie after the rookie director fell behind. To save time in shooting the high-speed chases on location in California's Soledad Canyon, Spielberg strategically set up multiple cameras along a single stretch of road to capture the shots needed for multiple scenes in one take. He had the camera turned 180 degrees and the cars driven in the opposite direction to get multiple shots for additional scenes.

Instead of creating individual storyboards, Spielberg mapped out the entire path of Mann and the truck driver on a mural of drafting paper with notes about each plot point peppering the sheet.

6. A FEW VERY FAMOUS CAR MOVIES MADE DUEL POSSIBLE.

To capture the truck and the car at seemingly high speeds, Spielberg shot each at low angles. To create those harrowing shots, Spielberg borrowed the specially-made camera car from the 1968 Steve McQueen thriller Bullitt, which could lower the camera to only 6 inches off the ground.

Spielberg also enlisted 50-year stunt veteran Carey Loftin as his stunt coordinator. Loftin, who played the driver, also designed the legendary car chase sequences in Vanishing Point, Bullitt, and The French Connection.

7. SPIELBERG ONLY HAD ONE SHOT AT THE CLIFF CRASH.

Carey Loftin and Dennis Weaver in 'Duel' (1971)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Spielberg only had one take to pull off the climactic cliff crash because the initial shoot only had a single truck at their disposal. (A backup truck was built during reshoots in case the engine of the main truck stopped working. The backup truck is now owned by classic car restorer Brad Wike, who is based in North Carolina.)

Loftin rigged the truck with a dead clutch so the 18-wheeler could drive without anyone behind the wheel. Spielberg filmed the crash with seven cameras from multiple angles to be able to use some editing tricks to stretch out the scene.

As the truck rams the car over the cliff and falls off in the final film, there is a low roar sound effect that the filmmaker included to emphasize the death of the truck. Spielberg, who wanted the truck to seem Godzilla-like, took the effect from the creature’s roar from the 1954 Universal monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon, and would go on to reuse the effect for the death of the great white shark in Jaws.

8. SPIELBERG HAD TO FIGHT TO NOT BLOW UP THE TRUCK.

Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the word “flammable” scrawled across the back of the truck, yet when it careens off the cliff at the end of the movie it doesn’t go boom. The studio wanted a big explosion, but the director wanted a slower demise for his film’s villain.

In an interview with filmmaker Edgar Wright, Spielberg explained, “[Producer] George Eckstein told me after the network saw it, ‘Well, we’re going back to the desert, they want to push the truck off the cliff again and blow it up again.' I told George why that was such a terrible idea. I’d worked so hard to give the truck a long and painful death and I thought that’s what the audience wanted out of the resolution. I said, ‘If the network does force you to blow the truck up again, you get another director to do it because I’m not going to do it.' George fought for me, and for himself because he agreed with me.”

9. SPIELBERG ADDED SCENES TO GET TO THE BIG SCREEN.

The movie debuted on November 13, 1971 as ABC’s Movie of the Week, and proved to be so successful that Spielberg was given the opportunity to shoot additional footage (the school bus scene and the railroad crossing scene) to be able to release it in theaters at feature length.

10. SPIELBERG HAS REVISITED DUEL MORE THAN ONCE—AND PEOPLE HAVE STOLEN FROM HIM, TOO.

Duel was something of lucky charm once Spielberg’s career began to take off, and he’d continually reference parts of the movie in subsequent films.

The Snakerama gas station seen in the film also appears in Spielberg's 1979 World War II comedy, 1941, with actress Lucille Benson again appearing as the proprietor. The two elderly people Weaver tries to flag down in a car also appear as helpless motorists in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it wasn’t all good luck. Spielberg was not happy when stock footage of both vehicles was later used in an episode of the television series The Incredible Hulk, titled "Never Give a Trucker an Even Break." The recycled footage was completely legal since the show was also produced by Universal.

Additional Sources:
Duel Blu-ray Special Features

8 Sequels That Received Oscar Nominations for Best Picture

Jasin Boland, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Jasin Boland, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s rare when a movie sequel manages to stand up to the original entry in a film series. Even rarer? When a sequel is so good that it nabs an Oscars nomination for Best Picture. Here are eight movies that did just that.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

When Mad Max: Fury Road was released in theaters in 2015, no one thought that it would be a critical darling—or an awards contender . But when the Academy Award nominations were announced in 2016, the latest entry in George Miller’s Mad Max franchise earned a whopping 10 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fury Road is the fourth installment in the series and was the first to hit theaters in 30 years (since the release of 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). It’s also the first movie in the franchise to receive any recognition from the Academy.

2. Toy Story 3 (2010)

A still from 'Toy Story 3' (2010)
Disney/Pixar

In 2011, Toy Story 3 was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Animated Feature. Though The King’s Speech ended up taking the night’s top prize, Toy Story 3 (which was named Best Animated Feature) made history that night, as it was the third ever animated movie to score a Best Picture nod; 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and 2009’s Up are the other two films to earn the same accolade.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Although the first two installments in The Lord of the Rings trilogy—2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring and 2002’s The Two Towers—were each nominated for Best Picture, it was the final movie that ended up winning the Academy Award in 2004. In fact, The Return of the King won 11 Oscars that year, sweeping every category in which it was nominated, and tying Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most awards received in one night.

4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

In 2003, The Two Towers won two of the six Oscars for which it was nominated, for Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects. Rob Marshall’s musical Chicago beat it out for Best Picture.  

5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1992, The Silence of the Lambs made a clean sweep of the “Big Five” categories: Best Picture, Best Director for Jonathan Demme, Best Actor for Sir Anthony Hopkins, Best Actress for Jodie Foster, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally. Although The Silence of the Lambs isn’t a direct sequel to Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter, it’s based on the sequel novel to author Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, on which Manhunter was based. It also features the character Hannibal Lecter in a major role, who was played by Brian Cox in Manhunter—before Hopkins made the role his own. Got that?

6. The Godfather: Part III (1990)

Though it’s often considered the far inferior film in The Godfather trilogy, The Godfather: Part III received seven Academy Award nominations in 1991, including Best Picture and Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola. Ultimately, it lost to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, making it the only installment in The Godfather Saga not to win a Best Picture Oscar.

7. The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Al Pacino in 'The Godfather: Part II' (1974)
Paramount Pictures

In 1975, The Godfather: Part II became the first sequel in Oscar history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It won the coveted award two years after the original film was named Best Picture. The sequel was nominated for a total of 11 Oscars, with three separate nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category alone: one for Michael Vincenzo Gazzo (who played Frankie Pentangeli) and Lee Strasberg (as Hyman Roth), and one for Robert De Niro, who took home the statuette for playing the younger version of Vito Corleone.

8. The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)

Though it lost Best Picture to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend at the 1946 Oscars, The Bells of St. Mary’s is the first movie sequel to be nominated for the Academy’s biggest prize. The film is a sequel to Leo McCarey’s previous film, 1944’s Going My Way, which won the Oscar for Best Picture a year earlier. While Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s feature different stories and casts, Bing Crosby stars in both movies as Father Chuck O'Malley.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2016.

James Cameron Directed Entourage's Aquaman, But He Could Never Direct the Real One

Tommaso Boddi, Getty Images for AMC
Tommaso Boddi, Getty Images for AMC

Oscar-winning director James Cameron is no stranger to CGI. With movies like Avatar under his belt, you’d expect Cameron to find a particular sort of enjoyment in special effects-heavy movies like James Wan's Aquaman. But Cameron—who directed the fictional version of Aquaman featuring fictional movie star Vinnie Chase in the very real HBO series Entourage—has a little trouble with suspension of disbelief.

In a recent interview with Yahoo!, Cameron said that while he did enjoy Aquaman, he would never have been able to direct the movie itself because of its lack of realism.

"I think it’s great fun,” Cameron said. “I never could have made that film, because it requires this kind of total dreamlike disconnection from any sense of physics or reality. People just kind of zoom around underwater, because they propel themselves mentally, I guess, I don’t know. But it’s cool! You buy it on its own terms.”

"I’ve spent thousands of hours underwater," the Titanic director went on to say. "While I can enjoy that film, I don’t resonate with it because it doesn’t look real.”

While Aquaman was shot on a soundstage, Cameron will be employing state-of-the-art technology that will allow him to actually be underwater while shooting underwater scenes for his upcoming Avatar sequels.

[h/t Yahoo!]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER