Inside 'Speed Racer'

Toon to Screen

Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer in one of the many racing scenes in the movie.
Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer in one of the many racing scenes in the movie.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Talk about tenacity: producer Joel Silver acquired rights to "Speed Racer" nearly 20 years ago, and never gave up on getting the movie made -- despite many false starts with several scripts written and filmmakers attached. One abandoned live-action version called for an all-chrome car that would have cost $1 million to make. Because it was less expensive, animation was clearly the way to go, but Silver wanted to wait until the right technology existed so he could get it right.

As it turns out, the "Speed Racer" cartoon was the Wachowskis' first exposure to anime, and they've wanted to remake it for years. Silver had them create a five-minute previs -- or previsualization -- video of a race scene to show to Warner Bros. in December 2006. The studio liked what they saw and told the brothers to "take a shot."

Silver worked with the directors on the "Matrix" trilogy, but notes this is the first film the Wachowskis made that had a decidedly family feel to it. They wanted their families -- nieces, nephews, all young people -- to be able to see the film.

In the story, the manipulative, greedy and corrupt head of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam), infiltrates the World Racing League in order to fix races and boost his own bottom line. He first tempts, then coerces and threatens Speed. "The corporations are trying to crush him, use him for his skills to make them money, but he doesn't want to play ball," says the film's star, Emilie Hirsch.

Hirsch, a childhood "Speed Racer" fan who re-watched all 52 episodes to prepare for the role, admits to being "a hardcore geek" who has seen the "Matrix' films "an unhealthy amount of times." The chance to work with the Wachowskis was a major lure for him, as it was for his co-stars.

Susan Sarandon confesses she had no idea what the directors were talking about when they explained their plan for the movie to her. The computer generated action sequences and green screen technology were a little bit over her head. But she notes that she was excited to work with them and enjoyed filming the movie.

Nevertheless, the actors had to trust that the Wachowskis would be able to pull it off. "Going into it this was one of the most terrifying experiences ever," confesses Matthew Fox, who'd grown up on a Wyoming ranch without TV and was unaware of 'Speed Racer.' There are so many ways that you, wrapped in a leather suit, can be very bad," he admits. "But I had complete and utter faith in the Wachowskis making me look good."

Matthew Fox as Racer X in his all-leather suit. Matthew Fox as Racer X in his all-leather suit.
Matthew Fox as Racer X in his all-leather suit.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It helped that the directors made an effort to give the cast as much information as possible. Sarandon notes the directors had pictures to illustrate their vision from day one. And Ricci says the art department was willing to answer questions and had an open-door policy about the production design. Read on to find out how the green screen and a computer took the production design to a finished product.­