In The Face Of Fear, Ordinary People Can Do The Extraordinary.
From Clint Eastwood comes The 15:17 to Paris, which tells the real-life story of three men whose brave act turned them into heroes during a highspeed railway ride, which he directed from a screenplay by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern.
“It hasn’t been a conscious choice to tell heroic stories or make movies about everyday heroes,” says veteran director and producer Clint Eastwood, whose previous two films, “Sully” and “American Sniper,” highlighted the efforts of rather singular men. “I just do the stories that come along and interest me. Some feats are exceptional, and beneficial to society, and it’s nice when you can tell a story like that.”
In the early evening of August 21, 2015, the world watched in stunned silence as the media reported a thwarted terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris—an attack prevented by three courageous young Americans traveling through Europe. The film follows the course of the friends’ lives, from the struggles of childhood through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack. Throughout the harrowing ordeal, their friendship never wavers, making it their greatest weapon and allowing them to save the lives of the more than 500 passengers on board.
The heroic trio is comprised of Anthony Sadler, former Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and former U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone, who play themselves in the film. Starring alongside them are Judy Greer (“War for the Planet of the Apes”); Jenna Fischer (“Hall Pass,” TV’s “The Office”); P.J. Byrne (“The Wolf of Wall Street”); Tony Hale (TV’s “Veep”); and Thomas Lennon (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”). William Jennings plays the younger Spencer, Bryce Gheisar plays the younger Alek, and Paul-Mikél Williams plays the younger Anthony.
Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is an incredible true story of ordinary individuals taking extraordinary action under the most intense, life-threatening circumstances, recreated for the screen and portrayed by the men who lived it—and survived to tell the tale.
In the film, one of those men, Spencer Stone, asks in the days leading up to the event, “Do you ever feel like life is just pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?” At that moment, Stone could not possibly have known what was to come just a few days later, or the actions he and his friends, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, would take, or the hundreds of lives they would save. On that day, in that moment, he was just a carefree young man taking in the beauty of a foreign land.
Stone and Sadler left historic Berlin to meet up with Skarlatos in Amsterdam, where the trio boarded an afternoon train at 15:17, headed for Paris. The events of that ride would later shock the world and reveal these men to be heroes, earn them the Legion of Honor, and inspire them to write their story. They came to the attention of Eastwood when he presented them with the Hero Award at the Spike Guy’s Choice Awards in 2016. Eastwood chatted with them, and offered to read their book when it was finished.
As soon as it was, Stone sent him the galleys.
Despite his long career, Eastwood has yet to rest on his laurels. Instead, he seeks to challenge himself further with each project, and this one would be no different. “These three boys really stepped up, and their efforts had a big effect on a lot of people. When we were casting, we looked at a lot of good actors, but I kept looking at the guys and thinking, ‘Why not do something unexpected?’ Finally, one day I just said to them, ‘Do you think you can play yourselves?’”
Having them not only play themselves, but star as the three leads in the film, would be an experiment for the filmmaker as well as for Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone.
“Just the fact that our story was going to be made into a movie was unbelievable for us,” Skarlatos states. “On top of that, Clint Eastwood being Spencer’s and my favorite since we were kids watching ‘High Plains Drifter’ and ‘Hang ‘em High’… It was amazing to have Mr. Eastwood be the one.”
Recalling his first serious discussion with the director about the film, Stone says, “I was sitting on my front porch, super nervous, thinking, ‘I’m about to have a phone conversation with Clint Eastwood.’ Then he told me how much he loved the story, and things just went from there. But we never imagined playing ourselves, so it was a complete surprise when he brought it up.”
After considering they’d have Eastwood steering the ship, all three were on board. Sadler admits, “We took a couple of days to think about it, but we knew when we left the room that we were going to say yes. Mr. Eastwood just gave us the confidence to do it. He’s such a legendary director and actor.”
Like Eastwood, producer Tim Moore was also as interested in the boys’ history as in their recent heroics. “From what they saw in the news, everybody knew what happened on the train, but none of us knew that these guys grew up together, went to school together, got called to the principal’s office together,” he laughs, “and still have a very strong relationship now. They were just good buddies, average guys, suddenly put in a situation where you find out what you would do, what you’re made of, essentially.”
Moore further acknowledges that most of us would likely not act in the manner that Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler did. “These guys were clearly meant for something bigger than even they knew, and that’s what I think appealed to all of us, especially Clint.”
Dorothy Blyskal, who adapted the book for the screen, was especially intrigued by her subjects’ upbringing. Stone and Skarlatos had grown up together; Sadler had befriended them as a young teen. None of them was raised with heroic aspirations or great expectations; if anything, they could have been viewed as having somewhat challenging childhoods when it came to both academics and discipline. Yet each one of them would find it within himself to rise to the occasion that fateful day.
Dorothy Blyskal hails from Easton, Pennsylvania, and is the rebellious daughter of two writer parents who pleaded with her never to become a writer. “The 15:17 to Paris” marks her feature screenplay debut.
Blyskal was just named one of Variety’s 10 Writers to Watch. She received her BFA from Emerson College and studied television writing at UCLA.
Jeffrey E. Stern (Co-Author) went to Afghanistan at the age of 23 as a freelance writer. While reporting on the conflict in the region for several national publications, he worked with the American University of Afghanistan as it launched its Professional Development Institute. He also co-authored a proposal for a women’s business program that became the first Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative. The Afghanistan program has provided training to 300 women, more than 60% of whom either start a new business, or increase their business’s revenue, within a year of graduating.
After overseeing the launch of the 10,000 Women program in Afghanistan, he was hired in 2008 to build a new international program at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he designed and managed projects that provided civic education to, and exchange with, emerging democracies. The program culminated in a U.S. State Department-funded partnership between a religious minority community in Afghanistan and an inner city school in Philadelphia, in which Afghan and American students worked together to produce an interactive museum exhibition, opening simultaneously in Kabul and Philadelphia.
Originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he received his Bachelor’s in Public Policy Studies and a certificate in media and democracy from Duke University, and a Masters in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, where he was named a Graduate Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Conflict and Negotiation.
“I’m always rooting for the underdog,” she relates. “What drew me to their story was the backstory—their faith, their relationship with their mothers and how they raised these men who triumphed, these heroes who affected so many lives. That’s what made it so human, so relatable and so interesting to me.”
“They really are just average guys, and I think that’s what is so special about them,” offers producer Kristina Rivera. “They did something extraordinary, but they could be anybody’s brother, anybody’s friend. Everyone knows a Spencer, an Alek or an Anthony.”
Producer Jessica Meier adds, “These young men really do complement one another. There’s a balance to their friendship, their different personalities, how they work together and, of course, how they came together in a split second to change the fate of that train ride.”
In addition to striving for reality in the casting of the leads, Eastwood and his team were also determined to shoot the film in as many of the actual locations as possible. That meant taking the production across Italy and France—coincidentally filming in and around (though not actually on) the two-year anniversary of the real event—and on a real train exactly like the one they’d ridden that day.
Eastwood surmises, “These are regular people, like the majority of us out there, who get the gift of life and do the best we can with it, and maybe we get lucky. That day, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, but these guys all ended up doing the right thing at the right time. They could have been very unlucky, but they took charge of their fate. It’s all about what fate hands you…and how you handle it.”
From Page To Screen
Being able to shoot at the Arras Station was quite a coup, yet critical for maintaining Eastwood’s realistic vision of the film. The producers were able to secure a Thalys train where the real trip took place—on a different track—and film the sequence in motion.
“Some people might go the safe route and build a train on a stage,” says Rivera, “but not Clint Eastwood. He wanted the real thing, so we got it, and we did the whole route, backwards, starting in Paris and heading to Amsterdam, with a stop in Brussels.”
Shooting on a real train was one of the bigger challenges for director of photography Tom Stern and his team, due to the limited timetable of the ride, and especially the tightness of the aisles. Stern had experience, though, having previously shot “Sully” in the equally narrow workspace of an airplane.
“The entire Thalys organization was wonderful in helping us deal with the uncharted logistics of shooting a feature film at 300 kilometers an hour on a train,” Stern remarks.
Meier admits it was a challenge, for sure, but a great experience. “Being in Arras to recreate those moments made those scenes as authentic as possible, and that was just amazing for us. We were even able to recruit several of the same first responders from that day to recreate their part in the event as well, which was really special.”
While shooting in and around Paris, the filmmakers were also tasked with finding streets that could match Berlin and Amsterdam, and additional parts of Rome as well, since the trio had gone to these areas but the main production would not. Moore credits production designer Kevin Ishioka with capturing the right look and feel, regardless of locale. “Kevin really made it look like we had indeed been to all of those places—just like movie magic is supposed to do,” he grins.
“Upon reading the script and envisioning the events that occurred, I could not help but get an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the accuracy of its portrayal,” says Ishioka. “I felt like a journalistic reporter, needing to get the story right so that the magnitude of the event was not lost. Hopefully, the audience will get an understanding of what the boys had gone through to face such an ordeal.”
The efforts of the filmmakers and crew paid off for Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler. “Being in the actual locations really helped set the tone and reestablish the environments for us,” Stone observes, almost feeling like they’d come full circle. “All the tourists around us, plus the people of the different countries, made it feel like we were just on that vacation again, not there for a movie.”
While “The 15:17 to Paris” recreates a heroic moment in recent history, Eastwood also felt that making the film, telling the story of these heroes, was an opportunity to explore something more. “This was a revered event in France and America, and it came along at a time when we’re asking ourselves how we would react under adversity,” he says. “What these boys did was to show that the common man can not only have great instincts, but act on them. Sure, they were prepared in that they had some military and medical training, but they weren’t on a battlefield, they weren’t prepared for this. They just saw something happening and came together, one, two, three, and saved a lot of lives that way. If they can do it, so can we.”