12 May 2008Webmiss
This summer, audiences everywhere will get a chance to experience the ultimate high-octane ride with the release of Speed Racer, the revolutionary new live-action adventure from the Wachowski brothers, creators of The Matrix Trilogy.
The film is based on the pioneering Japanese cartoon series by Tatsuo Yoshida, which has garnered a worldwide following that spans generations. Among the young fans of the property were Larry and Andy Wachowski. â€œThey fell in love with Speed Racer when they first saw it,â€ explains Joel Silver, the veteran producer of The Matrix Trilogy, as well as such blockbuster film franchises as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. â€œSpeed Racer was a progenitor of todayâ€™s Japanese animation, and was discovered by kids all over the world. What captured the Wachowskisâ€™ imaginations about the series was how different it was from the other American cartoons at the time. And, of course, they went on to become big fans of animÃ©, which inspired a lot of their work.â€
When the Wachowskis approached Silver about making the first-ever live action adaptation of Speed Racer, the producer understood that this adaptation would be anything but conventional. â€œThey created a visual style on The Matrix that altered your consciousness as you watched the movie. You saw things that you could not imagine happening on film,â€ Silver says. â€œAnd with Speed Racer, they really want to change the way you see movies again. They had a concept of a cinematic style that is incredible to experience. Itâ€™s a whole different way of visual storytelling that has never been seen before; they love to break the mold, and they wanted to keep the essence of Speed Racer, but take it into the new millennium.â€
While The Matrix Trilogy revolutionized visceral action for adults, Silver points out that Speed Racer is both an action ride featuring racecar driving as it has never been seen before and the Wachowskisâ€™ first film for audiences of all ages. â€œThe boys felt that this was finally a movie that their nieces and nephews could see,â€ he explains. â€œWhen they wrote the script, they wrote it as a pure family movie; it was an opportunity for them to do something theyâ€™ve never done before. Itâ€™s for everybody; itâ€™s got great characters; itâ€™s funny; itâ€™s got great action beats and, of course, incredible visuals. Itâ€™s just a really fun movie.â€
The film centers on Speed Racerâ€™s journey to become the best racecar driver on the circuit on his own terms. To find an actor with the right mix of youthful enthusiasm and competitive intensity, the filmmakers cast Emile Hirsch, who recently garnered universal accolades for his performance in Into the Wild. â€œSpeed Racer, for me, is about a guy who loves racing and does everything he can to do it the way he wants to do it,â€ says the actor. â€œSpeed eats, drinks, thinks and breathes racing. Cars and racing are the essence of the family. I mean, their last name is Racer.â€
At heart, says Hirsch, Speed is a â€œsweet, earnest, sincere guy who is tough and has a strict edge of morality that is pretty much unwavering. It gives him a strong emotional backbone. Heâ€™s unbending and ruffles a lot of peopleâ€™s feathers because of that. But at the same time, thatâ€™s what makes him who he is and what makes him a good person.â€
In the world of Speed Racer, racing is more than the #1 sport â€“ itâ€™s a way of life â€“ and most racers are backed by the international mega-corporations that advertise on every square inch of the expansive racing circuit. But Speed drives for the family team, his fatherâ€™s company, Racer Motors. â€œHis story follows his struggle to race a clean race, and to not give in to these corporate sponsors who want him to be fixed,â€ Hirsch notes. â€œItâ€™s a power struggle between Speed trying to do the right thing and finishing the race how he should, versus these corporate moguls who want to control him. And when he wonâ€™t be controlled, they do everything they can to destroy him and stop him.â€
Matthew Fox, star of the hit television series Lost, plays Racer X â€“ a mysterious driver on the circuit who seems more interested in what happens on the racetrack than being the first to cross the finish line. â€œWe really donâ€™t know who he is,â€ says Fox of the mysterious masked racer. â€œThis is not just a guy thatâ€™s walking around disguised because he wants to. Heâ€™s operating at a really deep level of intelligence gathering, and working for this organization that is trying to stop corruption. He keeps his identity a secret because the stakes are life and death for a lot of people.â€
Fox, who grew up without a TV in the house, took a crash course in all things Speed Racer upon hearing of the project and found himself drawn to the mysterious character the Wachowskis cast him to play. â€œHeâ€™s a pretty complicated guy,â€ says the actor. â€œHeâ€™s got a darker, edgier side to him, but I think heâ€™s very misunderstood. Heâ€™s a bit of a vigilante, so itâ€™s fantastic. Those are the kinds of things Iâ€™m attracted to as an actor.â€
For Fox, who has two children of his own, participating in a movie families could watch together was a particular attraction. â€œOne of the first things they said was that this was the first time that they were going to make something that their nieces and nephews could enjoy,â€ says Fox. â€œI have a son who just turned six, and a daughter who is 11 years old, and to see Larry and Andy talking that way was obviously very attractive to me. My kids are so excited.â€
In striking contrast to the bigger-than-life world of corporate sponsors and high-stakes racing in the city of Cosmopolis is the tightly knit family unit that surrounds and supports Speed in his race to be the best. â€œThe Racer family really works together as a unit,â€ explains Hirsch. â€œThe whole family is a team wanting to do good together. Thatâ€™s what makes it such an appealing story because everyone really gets to participate in the adventure of saving the day.â€
Pops Racer is played by John Goodman, the veteran actor who has played memorable roles in movies like The Big Lebowski and The Flintstones, as well as the long-running television series Roseanne. â€œPops just lives for cars and his family, thatâ€™s it,â€ says Goodman. â€œHis religion, his lifeblood â€“ besides his children and Mrs. Racer â€“ is based on the automobile. And Pops is a real motorhead. The whole culture is predicated on racecars and races, and theyâ€™re tempted by large offers of money, which they kind of frown on. They just want to do their own family thing and stay together.â€
Pops is a mechanic and engineer who builds the cars Speed drives, including the powerful Mach 5 â€“ a custom street car with a panel of buttons that gives it more capabilities than any car in existence. The contemporary model has roots in the original Mach 5, but exists in a whole new world of car design. â€œAfter exploring several possibilities, Larry and Andy looked at the original Mach 5â€™s iconic profile and decided to retain the essence of the original because its look is truly timeless and unique,â€ says Joel Silver.
The Racer family incorporates their business right in the middle of their house. â€œYou can see the cars right from the living room,â€ explains Hirsch. â€œThe whole family is interested in this business that Pops has of designing and building cars. Theyâ€™re kind of pitted against the corporate world, which has the ability to spend so much money and suck all the life out of all these tiny mom-and-pop types of businesses. But Racer Motors has managed to survive this far.â€
Susan Sarandon, who won an Academy Award for her performance in Dead Man Walking, plays Mom Racer, who is the heart of the family. Says Sarandon, â€œI liked the idea that in the midst of all this cutting-edge technology, this movie really exalts the family as a unit and a mom who is supportive of her kidsâ€™ creativity, even if it doesnâ€™t speak to what most schools value.â€
While the other kids were studying math and grammar, Speed was daydreaming about racecar driving throughout his childhood. â€œHereâ€™s a kid who really has a passion for something that doesnâ€™t fit into the mold of what theyâ€™re teaching, and the familyâ€™s completely supportive of him,â€ says Sarandon. â€œTheyâ€™re this very close, eccentric family with this incredibly bright house placed in some timeless little pod, where people all sit down to eat dinner at the same time every night.â€
The Racer family also includes Speedâ€™s little brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), and Spritleâ€™s pet chimpanzee, best friend and partner in mischief, Chim-Chim (the chimpanzee Willie). Their extended family encompasses two close friends and compatriots, Trixie (Christina Ricci), who is also Speedâ€™s girlfriend, and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry).
â€œSpeedâ€™s relationship with Trixie is funny,â€ says Hirsch. â€œThey met when they were 10 years old and love each other a lot, but theyâ€™re also best friends. She spots him in the helicopter when he races. Sheâ€™s part of the team. They all do their part in the family.â€
Christina Ricci, who has been on-screen since a young age starring in such films as The Addams Family movies and Sleepy Hollow, was drawn to Trixieâ€™s mix of toughness and femininity. â€œSheâ€™s my kind of girl,â€ says the actress. â€œSheâ€™s in with all the boys and is always there for Speed because she loves him and loves what theyâ€™re doing. She really is a part of the family and is very protective of them. She loves cars, and sheâ€™s ready for whatever kind of adventure they get into. I like her because sheâ€™s sort of tomboyish but then really cute, and super capable at the same time. I think I found her once I started actually doing the fight scenes and hardcore action scenes, because thatâ€™s where Trixie really shines.â€
Sparky is a mechanic who works in the garage with Pops and calls races for Speed. â€œSparky is an interesting character because he isnâ€™t actually part of the family by blood, but he becomes a member of the family through years of loyalty,â€ says Australian actor Kick Gurry, star of such films as Spartan and Garage Days.
Gurry relished the opportunity to shoot scenes that unfold at the Racer household.
â€œItâ€™s a very old school traditional story of a family in this heightened environment, and itâ€™s very cool to hang out in,â€ he says. â€œI really love the scenes we shot in that house. All the actors are a lot of fun. Theyâ€™re not just talented and good actors, but good people.â€
But the family also lives with the memory of Speedâ€™s lost brother, Rex Racer, a promising driver who still holds the record at Speedâ€™s home track, the Thunderhead Raceway, but who died under mysterious circumstances during the Casa Cristo Road Rally. â€œSpeed is traumatized by the death of his brother, Rex,â€ says Hirsch. â€œHeâ€™s haunted by the ghost of his brother. And part of him feels like heâ€™ll never escape the shadow of Rex.â€
In supporting roles, the filmmakers cast a diverse and acclaimed ensemble of international actors, including Benno FÃ¼rmann (Wolfsburg) as Inspector Detector; Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) as Mr. Musha, head of Musha Motors; Richard Roundtree (Shaft) as Ben Burns; Korean pop superstar Ji Hoon Jung (popularly known as Rain) making his major feature film debut as a rival driver named Taejo Togokahn; and UK actor Roger Allam (The Queen) as E.P. Arnold Royalton, the ruthless owner of Royalton Industries.
Allam describes Royalton as â€œa self-made man. Heâ€™s not from a wealthy background as one might assume for someone in his position. He is someone who started out as an ambitious businessman who has worked hard for his success and, in doing so, created a vast industrial empire. He is powerful to an extent where he thinks he can influence the outcome of every race.â€
Hiroyuki Sanada grew up watching the original Japanese version of â€œMach Go Go Goâ€ in his native Japan. â€œI can still remember the opening song. Speed Racer made history for Japanese animation in the United States and the Wachowski brothers are always making history with their films, so I am very happy to be a part of this movie.â€
Rain, a pop sensation in Asia with a growing fan base all over the world, was in the middle of a concert tour when he taped his audition for the role of Taejo Togokahn. An enthusiastic fan of The Matrix Trilogy, he was excited by the prospect of making his major motion picture debut in a Wachowski brothers movie. â€œI was just very honored to work with them because I really love their work and their creativity,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s a really great opportunity for me to make my debut in Hollywood.â€
Producer Grant Hill reflects that the filmmakers were all thrilled to amass such an international cast. â€œI think Larry and Andy did a wonderful job populating the world of Speed Racer,â€ says producer Grant Hill, an Oscar nominee for The Thin Red Line, now producing his fourth film with the Wachowskis. â€œIt was cool to hear so many different languages being used on set, and an international project such as Speed Racer deserves a truly international cast.â€
On the first day the actors arrived at the Babelsberg Studio in Berlin, the Wachowski brothers assembled the core cast together to show them a first look at the world they would be entering, including paintings, storyboards and artwork, as well as an extended pre-vis (3D storyboard animation) of a race sequence. When the pre-vis finished playing, no one could speak. â€œThere were 12 actors in the room, and I guarantee you itâ€™s the only time 12 actors have ever stood in a room and had nothing to say,â€ recalls Matthew Fox. â€œI mean, everyone was looking at each other. It was pretty exciting. There are not many times in your life when youâ€™re part of a project that is actually endeavoring to do something thatâ€™s never been done before, and this is one of those times.â€
â€œThe pre-vis of the races was humbling,â€ recalls Hirsch. â€œI was like, â€˜Oh, man, better do some good acting if you want to keep up with the cinematic dynamic thatâ€™s in it.â€™ It doesnâ€™t feel sci-fi, like the Matrix films. It has for the Wachowskis a much different feel. It feels more magical than sci-fi. Itâ€™s more about colors than darkness.â€
The vibrant, candy-colored world of Speed Racer is one in which many eras and styles co-exist, all intersecting in the dominant sport of racing. â€œYouâ€™re seeing whatâ€™s past, present and future in the aesthetic of this film,â€ says Joel Silver. â€œThe society is car crazy, and Larry and Andy and their team have been able to come up with amazing designs for cars. Weâ€™ve seen fancy concept cars in magazines and movies, but this film takes that to a totally new level. These cars can do anything. Theyâ€™re designed to fly through the air, strike each other, and move in ways weâ€™re not used to seeing cars race. The races are thrilling and exciting beyond anything you could imagine.â€
But production designer Owen Paterson, who has worked with the Wachowskis since The Matrix, notes that at every stage of design and production, the spirit of fun infused their work. â€œWeâ€™re hoping that people from the age of six to eighty would like to see the film,â€ says Paterson. â€œWeâ€™ve gone about that in the sense of the design, the colors and the fun in the action. They have fantastic looking stunts, but theyâ€™re also safe stunts. The drivers are protected by a Kwiksave Foam system. There might be a spectacular crash, but the driver will always survive it.â€
In the world of Speed Racer, each individual car reflects the personality of its driver. Paterson and his team began work nearly a year in advance of principal photography to create more than 100 individual car designs. â€œWe brought together some of the most talented artists in the field, from storyboard artists to top designers within the automotive industry. We wanted to have fun with them and let everyone bounce ideas off of one another,â€ says Grant Hill.
The races themselves are unlike anything ever seen before on film. â€œTheyâ€™re working on tracks that are suspended,â€ describes Fox. â€œItâ€™s sort of like a seven-year-old-boyâ€™s ultimate toy race track, and yet all the drama of the story is being played out through these races.â€
â€œLarry and Andy have taken the best things from videogames and the best things from car films and incorporated them into the script, so that our races are both exciting and very fast,â€ Paterson explains. â€œOur tracks are very stylized. Theyâ€™ve got big jumps and curves; the cars are traveling at seven or eight hundred kilometers an hour, but you can also use tricks to take advantage of your opponent: You might use a slipstream for the car to slide past; you might bump off one car to ricochet; or if someone is coming to hit you, you can hit a button and your jump jacks will shoot you up in the air. But itâ€™s all done in fun. Itâ€™s terrific.â€
For the three main races in the film â€“ at Thunderhead Raceway, the Casa Cristo Road Rally and the Grand Prix â€“ the Wachowskis and their team devised a high intensity form of racing called â€œCar-Fu.â€ â€œWe looked at other sports in the current day that are embraced by young people, like the X-Games, skateboards, snowboards and motorcycles, and transformed them into something even more exciting,â€ explains visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, who won an Academy AwardÂ® for his work with the Wachowskis on The Matrix. â€œWe took that sensibility, futurized it, and bolted it into motor sport, and added some of the spectacle of martial arts and wire-fu-like choreography. But weâ€™re playing it for fun. It takes place in a world thatâ€™s obsessed by acrobatic combative car racing, but the story is focused on the aspect of being true to yourself and to what you value most, which tends to be your bonds with family and friends.â€
â€œWe looked at the way aikido works in that thereâ€™s a lot of body contact, of throwing the weight of the cars around and trying to make it look natural,â€ adds visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, who worked with the Wachowskis on The Matrix Trilogy and V For Vendetta. â€œBut itâ€™s also not strictly realistic. Weâ€™re playing it for fun and spectacle. The goal is very much about trying to produce interesting, cool-looking imagery that best serves the energy and emotion of a scene, and that often means deliberately breaking rules that weâ€™re used to as part of the process.â€
Particularly enthralling to the cast were the heart-stopping races, in which the aesthetic of the film â€“ what the filmmakers call â€œ2 Â½D technologyâ€ â€“ would greatly enhance the visual experience. This technique is a seamless mix of live actors with 360-degree digital backgrounds of such far-flung locations as Italy, Morocco, Austria and Death Valley. â€œEssentially, what theyâ€™re doing is bringing all levels of depth of field into focus, which creates this really interesting real person within this spectacular landscape,â€ describes Matthew Fox. â€œItâ€™s going to be its own world, a place that only exists for this film. Itâ€™s going to feel incredibly rich, with lots of magnificent imagery, down to little details within huge panoramic backgrounds.â€
Even at the earliest stages, the Wachowskis sought to give everyone involved a full picture of their vision for this parallel but no-less-fully realized world â€“ from the suburban pop design of the Racer home to the sprawling city of Cosmopolis, lit up with moving advertisements competing for space. â€œItâ€™s a world youâ€™ve never seen before,â€ says Hirsch. â€œThe worlds are so lush; thereâ€™s so much detail. I couldnâ€™t believe how much artistry went into it, even before we shot the film. Itâ€™s just visually mesmerizing for me.â€
The costumes for the film would be equally stylized. â€œIn my first meeting with Larry and Andy, they told me they wanted rich primary colors,â€ recalls costume designer Kym Barrett, a Wachowskis veteran since The Matrix Reloaded. â€œInstead of getting into too many specifics right away, they started the process by describing their concept of creating a live-action cartoon for all ages. Once that was established, they left me to my own devices.â€
â€œI love the costumes,â€ Ricci enthuses. â€œThis has been the most fun film for me in terms of what my character wears. Trixie is definitely very stylish and attractive, but itâ€™s not anything that is inappropriate and thatâ€™s my favorite thing. I love what I wear, and I love everybody elseâ€™s outfits too.â€
For Matthew Fox, playing Racer X would mean a full-body leather racing suit and mask. â€œWardrobe is a very important thing for me as an actor, and when I put the suit on, it was really cool,â€ he describes. â€œA certain power comes along with the disguise of it and the fact that nobody can see where youâ€™re looking. Itâ€™s been really fun to do.â€
Since Fox would be fighting in the suit, he went to numerous fittings to make sure it fit exactly right, but even so, fighting in it would sometimes become a challenge. â€œThe minute you start to sweat, the lenses in the mask get fogged from the inside, so I managed to actually make contact with two stunt guys,â€ he recalls with a laugh. â€œBut it was really important to me that the fight looked very intense, like when heâ€™s thrown into action, he doesnâ€™t mess around. So, you have to go full bore and hope for the best.â€
For many of the actors working with the Wachowskis for the first time, their humor and sense of fun infused every aspect of the project. â€œI had no idea that they would be funny,â€ says Emile Hirsch. â€œYou see The Matrix Trilogy and you think, â€˜Those are pretty serious guys.â€™ But theyâ€™re both extremely funny people. On set, weâ€™d just joke around all day, every day. It was a really fun set. I think theyâ€™re both kind of kids at heart. Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re the perfect writer/directors for this project. They really love it, and it comes across.â€
â€œTo be in one of their movies is so exciting,â€ says Ricci. â€œThey really managed to inject modern tension and excitement and a lot of the real elements that people love about Speed Racer into a very modern and almost futuristic vision. Theyâ€™re doing stuff that theyâ€™ve never done before with script and story, so I was really excited. They find some way to make everything just so cool.â€
â€œIt was an amazing summer, and an incredible experience,â€ says Fox. â€œWorking with an incredible cast and crew, and working with Larry and Andy and everyone was awesome. Those moments where you get to see the entire cast assembled, like the rendezvous fight, you look around at everybody in costume and certain poses that are being struck, like in certain comic book-like moments, and itâ€™s amazing. Everybody fits the image perfectly.â€
With the extensive visual effects, the actors are all eagerly anticipating seeing the final product. â€œAdults will see the movie for the amazing visual effects, which will go beyond whatever you expected,â€ says Rain. â€œBut I think this movie is about hopes and dreams, so if there are kids watching, the movie might give them hope that if you try very hard, you can get to do amazing things.â€
â€œYou want to be transported somewhere else and have fun doing it, and I think that is exactly what this film is going to do,â€ says Goodman.
â€œSome of the stuff is so visually mind-blowing, itâ€™s going to be very different movie from anything people have ever really seen before, especially in the family film genre,â€ says Hirsch. â€œHopefully, itâ€™s going to be a big summer movie!â€
Silver concludes, â€œWe have wanted to make this movie for a long time, and weâ€™re fortunate enough to have had such a great team of actors, artisans and technicians working together to drive this 20th-century classic into the new millennium. Weâ€™re thrilled to have the chance to introduce â€˜Speed Racerâ€™ to a new generation and very proud to make a family film that audiences of all ages can enjoy.â€
Speed Racer is relased in UK cinemas on 9th May 2008.