At the Long Beach Grand Prix, the roar of high-powered race car engines fills the air, a deep bass thrum cutting through the smell of exhaust in the early summer heat. Tens of thousands of race fans have gathered to take in the metal-and-rubber reality of racing, but in the Long Beach Convention Center, a small group of journalists have gathered to talk about a big-screen fantasy vision of the spectacle roaring around us, Cinematical was there to speak with the people behind Speed Racer: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and Matthew Fox, as well as producer Joel Silver.
Emile Hirsch, relaxed and fairly amused, is asked about embodying a classic character. "It's pretty cool." He laughs; "I was a very big fan of the show growing up ... I would just watch it every morning with cereal ... sometimes soda in the cereal. ..." I then asked Hirsch if, after reading the script, he was worried about being Mark Hamill to Matthew Fox's Harrison Ford, that Speed would be out-cooled by Racer X. "Well, now I am ..." The rest of the sentence is unprintable, but Hirsch then mocked Fox's masked mystery man and spoke sincerely about Speed's virtues: "Yeah, (Racer X) is so cool ... No, no, no; Speed's got the nobility; Speed does the right thing; Speed is ... Speed's cool."
(Hirsch on coolness:)
More importantly, Hirsch felt his directors would be able to capture the series he grew up with: "It's a whole different visual style, what the Wachowskis have done. And it's so easy to trust the directors; they made The Matrix. The first Matrix film, when I saw that in the theaters, I was so blown away. ... So, as soon as I heard they were going to take Speed Racer -- which is already a great show -- and make it into a movie, I was like, 'What are they gonna come up with?' And I fell into the trap of thinking they were just going to Matrix-ify Speed Racer, but they didn't; they really re-invented a whole genre; it's live-action animation."
But that blend had to be hard to imagine for actors who filmed many of their scenes in front of a green screen, with final effects to come much later; I asked Hirsch what his reaction was when he saw the final film. "When I finally saw it, I was so stoked; the racing was so engaging, the effects were so different; it had me constantly engaged. The little details; the Wachowskis are all about the little details in the visuals; when you drive up alongside the cast, in the Grand Prix, and you see the zebras -- and suddenly, you go alongside and the zebras are running; it's little touches like that."
At the same time, Hirsch is aware of the film's roots; asked if he was worried that Speed Racer was going to be cornball or over the top, Hirsch puts things in perspective: "If you're making a movie based on a '60s cartoon, and you're worried about that ... probably shouldn't have done it. If anything, I was pushing to go, at some points, more over-the-top, and ... I mean, I'd be in the car, (screaming), and (the Wachowski's would) be like, "Uhhhh. .... Nnnnnnnnn. ..."
(Hirsch on over-acting:)
And closing things out on a lighter note, I ask Hirsch if he thinks he might be helping bring the ascot back with this film, thanks to Speed's distinctive neckerchief; his reply comes with a smile, but it also demonstrates that Hirsch really does care about the look and traditions of Speed Racer -- and looks forward to a possible future: "Yes. Actually, watching the film, I wished I had wore the neckerchief in more scenes. I was like "Man, shoulda had that on a lot more." Sequel? Next time? Gonna wear it a lot more. ..."
(Hirsch on Speed Racer fashion:)
Later, Matthew Fox talks about playing the leather-clad, gun-toting, mysterious Racer X: "X is, by half the population, considered to be a bad guy, and they're not sure where he's coming from; he's considered to be a very aggressive driver who causes all kind of things to happen on the track; he's called ..." (and here, Fox's voice drops a few notes as he quotes and gently mocks the movie) " ... 'the harbinger of boom. ...' I ask Fox if it was an acting challenge to ramp up out of his day-to-day life to play a larger-than-life character. "It's a real pleasure to ramp up into somebody that's as badass as X. I really enjoyed that, honestly.
"And one of the things I remember Larry and Andy saying to me in the first meeting was 'We want to make a family movie; we want to make a movie our nieces and nephews can see, because we've never made anything like that.' And it just hit an immediate chord with me, like 'Of course.' I haven't ever made anything my kids can see. I was so immediately attracted the idea of being a part of that. And also, of course, when I started discovering who Racer X was, and how iconic he was, this masked vigilante guy that's ultimately more complex than that, and all the layers. ... It was the only project I wanted to do (while on hiatus from Lost). ... It became, 'If I don't get this role, I'm not gonna work this summer.' "
(Fox on wanting to play X:)
Christina Ricci, who plays Speed's chase-copter pilot Trixie, explained how playing a part among green screens and special effects wasn't that much of a challenge with the Wachowski Brothers behind the film: "They inspire such confidence, because you know they have such a complete vision in their head; at times, you can't really quite get what they're seeing ..." I ask if it was difficult to handle the disconnect between the mechanics of filming not knowing what a scene would wind up looking like. "No. Because when you have directors you know have got that covered, you kind of do what they tell you to do. They inspire such confidence and such trust that you would be doing yourself a great disservice in trying to argue in some way, or trying to do anything but really put yourself in their hands." I asked her what her initial reaction was when she finally saw the finished film. "I was really excited. Really excited. And kind of overwhelmed. I was like "Holy shit!" I felt like I needed to see it again, because it's a lot at once. ..."
(Ricci on seeing the film:)
Producer Joel Silver explained how his ownership of the property led to him being contacted by the Wachowskis. While extolling their virtues, he even addressed their absence from the press day: "They never believe in engaging in this part of the process. I remember my friend Tom Cruise told me when he went to start working on Eyes Wide Shut, he went 'There's Kubrick sitting in the director's chair!' And I'm not trying to make a parallel between Stanley and the boys, but he didn't want to engage in this stuff, either. And that creates a mystique. He was just a regular guy working, he didn't want to leave his house, he was just making movies with his crew. ... They're not above it, but what happened is on the first Matrix, they did everything. They did the junkets, they did the tours, they did the articles, they did the one-on-ones ... and they said, 'Look, we don't like ... we're uncomfortable. If you insist on us doing this, we're not making any more movies. But if you will let us not do it, we'll make all the movies you want. ... ' So I said 'Fine.' "
That bargain seems to have worked; it brought the Wachowskis to Speed Racer. "They knew that I had this project, and they knew that Speed Racer was a project that I had been working on for a long time. And they called me one day after V (for Vendetta) and they said 'What are you doing with that Speed Racer thing?' And I said 'I'm struggling with it.' And they said 'We have an idea ...'
I said 'Okay, what's your idea?' and they said 'Well, we'll show you.' So, the studio put up some dough, and they made a pre-visualization of one race; and actually some of those shots made it all the way into the movie. ... It was a five-minute reel to show what the movie would look like. ..."
That was enough to get the project rolling, after years of Silver owning the rights to the property. I asked Silver to rewind and share how he came to own the rights to a 40-year old children's TV show with a monkey in it; what made him write the check in the first place? "Well, it was about 20 years ago I got the rights, in the late '80s, early '90s ... I just remember when I was a kid ... when it came on in the late '60s, I remembered liking it; I was intrigued by what it was, and the stories, and the music, and the buttons in the car; my six-year old, who I've shown the cartoons to, the idea of buttons, you press a button in the car and it does things. I know that idea is a fresh idea. And when they brought me the project in, I said 'Yeah, I'd like to try to develop a script.' And I developed it for years; I had a lot of different people develop scripts, a lot of directors were attached, a lot of actors were rumored to be interested ... but it never got to the place where it was a movie." That is, until now.
Finally, I ask Silver if in the years between purchasing the rights and now he thought "Potential ticket buyer ..." every time he saw a hipster in a Speed Racer shirt. Silver not only acknowledges the nostalgia appeal of the series but also makes the case the film's hopes aren't just based on fond memories: "Well, in the early '90s, MTV started running the show again, so it got a whole new audience watching it. But that went off, too. But I think the film works on its own even if you don't know Speed Racer."
(Silver on Speed Racer's past:)