Always the Silver Lining for Über Producer
by Paul Fischer
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Joel Silver reteams with his Matrix directors to do something he has rarely attempted: a family film. Speed Racer. Emile Hirsch takes on the iconic title role as Speed Racer who is aggressive, instinctive and, most of all, fearless. His only real competition is the memory of the brother he idolized—the legendary Rex Racer, whose death in a race has left behind a legacy that Speed is driven to fulfill. Speed is loyal to the family racing business, led by his father, Pops Racer, the designer of Speed’s thundering Mach 5. When Speed turns down a lucrative and tempting offer from Royalton Industries, he not only infuriates the company’s maniacal owner but uncovers a terrible secret—some of the biggest races are being fixed by a handful of ruthless moguls who manipulate the top drivers to boost profits. If Speed won’t drive for Royalton, Royalton will see to it that the Mach 5 never crosses another finish line. The only way for Speed to save his family’s business and the sport he loves is to beat Royalton at his own game. With the support of his family and his loyal girlfriend, Trixie, Speed teams with his one-time rival—the mysterious Racer X—to win the race that had taken his brother’s life: the death-defying, cross-country rally known as The Crucible.
Silver is clearly excited as he discusses this latest visually inventive venture. Paul Fischer reports.
Paul Fischer: I guess you were at the screening with everyone prior to this junket. Did you watch it just to see the reaction of everyone?
Joel Silver: Look, I mean we had a screening down here in Long Beach about two weeks ago for a recruited screening and it was just a dream come true, I mean it was just a huge response and the numbers were just through the roof in the high 90’s. You don’t ever see that, but it was a big family audience. There were a lot of kids and a lot of parents—I didn’t have that last night. There were some kids there, but it wasn’t the kind of family audience that I think the movie will play the most, but I think it played great. I was very happy to be there.
PF: Talk about the biggest challenges on the film—technically, logistically.
JS: It was a technical nightmare to have the realization of what the boys wanted to do. I mean, the brothers had this—when it all came about, I mean, they knew I had the project for awhile, and after V, or some point after V, they called me up one day and said, “What are you doing with that Speed Racer thing?” and I said, “Well, I’m struggling,” and they said, “We have an idea,” and I said “Well, go for it,” so they had this notion of making what they considered live-action anime and that’s what it is—live-action anime. And they said, “We want to show you what we want to do, and if the studio likes it, we have a way of making a movie of this, and if they don’t, then we’ll do something else.”
PF: How long did you have it? You said you had it for a while.
JS: Almost 20 years.
PF: Well, what was initial idea for it? Where you going to do it strictly as an animated movie?
JS: No, a lot of people had been involved. There were a lot of scripts written, a lot of directors attached. I mean, there were rumors of actors attached. No one was ever really attached, I mean there was a lot of discussion about the movie but really it couldn’t have been made in this fashion until right now.
JS: Because the technology didn’t really exist to do this. I mean, yeah, there was a version that they were scouting locations for racetracks and they were designing cars to be built, and I remember one of the of the things—the cost of the car was $1 million, to build this car that was all chrome, and it couldn’t be photographed from any angle—I don’t know what the hell they were doing, you know? But the way that it was done, where the cars could do things that you’ve never seen before, could only be done in this fashion with the way these guys want to do it.
PF: When Larry and Andy say to you they have an idea, do you sort of turn away and just are smiling from ear to ear?
PF: And was the studio immediately enthusiastic when they found out they wanted to do it? How did that work?
JS: Well, of course they were enthusiastic because we’d been struggling with the movie for a long time so a lot of people had been through the process. I mean a lot of—J.J. Abrams—a lot of people wrote scripts for this thing but again they were conventional type stories. So the Wachowski Brothers went off and they made a five-minutes kind of pre-viz—a pre-visualization of a race in this movie. And there are actually some shots in that pre-viz that actually made it through to the finished movie. I mean, that first pre-vis actually had images that went right through to the end. But it was a race. It had elements of all three races. Elements of Thunderhead, elements of Casa Cristo, elements of the Grand Prix. It was just a race which was shown to the studio in December, I think, of ‘06, and we sat in a room at the studio and a bunch of people in the room and the lights went down and they showed this.
PF: And you said before that you’d made a lot of silly action films, but after The Matrix, you walked away realizing that people wanted more, you know you knew what that was. So what was that that you realized post-Matrix that you brought with you into this film?
JS: Well, I’ll just finish this quick, and then I’ll go to that. When the lights went up and everybody stood there quietly in the room and the studio said, “Well, what is it? Is it Roger Rabbit? I mean, what is it? Is it animation, is it live-action?” They said, “Look, this is what it is.” So they said, “Take a shot,” you know. I think that this movie—this is a family movie, which I’d been involved in a few movies that were family but not with the Wachowski Brothers, and, you know, this is the first time they really intended to do something for the family—for everybody—and they had nieces and nephews and friends and family, and they wanted everybody to see their movie. They hadn’t been able to do that with everything we’ve made up to now. So it was a story about the family. It is a story about, you know—it has really kind of basic family structure, family story, family type values of this movie and it’s also just a movie about a quest and an ambition and dreams and all the things that seem to work in those kinds of movies. It’s brilliant in its execution, but it’s simple in its tale, and I think the end of this movie—I mean, “cheaters never prosper,” you know, “be true to your family, stay together and you can prevail, you can win.” And I think that those elements are effective and I hope that the audience embraces it and enjoys it.
PF: What was it about the story that made you hold onto it for so long?
JS: When I first saw Speed Racer, which I was a kid and I wasn’t as young as my son, who is six, who has since has seen the original show and loves it, I wasn’t that age. I was older than that. But I always remembered it being fresh and unique and having. you know, a cool quality and, again, the Brothers have said that it was the first time they ever saw anime, so that was fresh for them. But I remember that I just liked it, and when they brought it to me, and they said, “Do you want the rights to this thing?” and I said, “Yeah, sure, let’s take a shot,” which was almost 20 years ago—I think it was ‘89-90 I did that, and we struggled with it. We tried to make it, but I just felt it had something about it that was fresh, and I never let it go.
PF: As a producer who claimed you didn’t want to see something go over-budget, you feel more comfortable when you’re making a film in these kinds of circumstances—relatively controlled studio green-screen as opposed to out in the real world where anything could possibly go wrong?
JS: I mean, look, this movie, as expensive as it was—and it wasn’t a cheap film—is nowhere near the cost of other films I’ve made, or other films that are being made now. I mean, it was controllable. Once we finished, there was a 60-day shoot in a big green room. Once you finish that, then the real work begins in the post-production. But, you know, it depends. The next movie out is called RocknRolla. I did it with Guy Ritchie, and it’s about London. There’s probably not a single visual-effect shot in the whole movie, you know. It’s real, it’s just a way we make movies, you know. But I think that this is a pioneering step on picture-making—this movie. It’s a way to—it’s not just in how it’s shot but how it was photographed—I mean, the editorial process is very different. The way the camera—the lens moves are very different. The camera has no form. You see shots where the camera zooms into Speed and zooms past him to Trixie and past her into Rex, and where is the camera? I mean, what is it? It’s not on a dolly—it’s just there. It’s just showing you what you want to see and editorially the way they put this film together I think there’s a lot of groundbreaking things in it, but yes, it was controllable and done in a way that was kind of easier to make but not so much easier to conceive.
PF: Do you think things could even get crazier from here? I mean this is just the startÉ
JS:I was reading last week in USA Today about the Bond film—The Quantum of Solace—and they were shooting in Chile in some desert at 120 degrees, they’re running on a metal building, the crew was dying, they can’t function, they don’t know how they’re going it, they mayor of the city is mad at them because it’s supposed to be Colombia. Everybody’s going crazy. I mean, they could be shooting in Pinewood. They could be in a big green room. I mean, certain things I can see not wanting to do that, but I mean George Lucas didn’t have go to Tatooine, I mean, you don’t have to—you can make movies in ways that are different, but I think with the technology as exists now—I mean, this movie was all shot digitally. I mean, it’s going to be a matter of years when the film is not a factor anymore. We can still actually shoot on film but you don’t have to shoot on film. You’d have to finish on film, and it’s all going to make it a lot easier to make movies in a way that I mean, you can sit at your kitchen table and make a movie.
PF: Did it come in on budget?
JS:Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. There weren’t a lot of things to get in the way of it.
PF: Since Larry and Andy never do press, have they started thinking about 3D filmmaking?
JS:Yeah, we talked about this being 3D. We actually discussed this being 3D. There aren’t enough theatres yet right now to make it really—it would have taxed us to make this 3D right now. But maybe if we make a sequel, I mean, they have a story for a sequel and if they make it—
PF: What is it? Any hints on where it might go?
JS:Well, there’s things they want to do with him. There’s as many episodes of this cartoon so there’s a lot of ideas, but if we make the sequel maybe that will be in 3D, but I mean it would have been possible because it was digital to begin with to do it in 3D and all those shots were rendered so it would have been possible.
PF: Do you think they want to do a sequel or do you think they want to take on another property?
JS:Well, I mean, I don’t know if they will direct the sequel. Maybe somebody else will—maybe they will, I don’t know. This was pretty tough this one to do, but to create this you know, but I don’t know if they’d want to give that to somebody else, I don’t know. But they—the only thing I like to say is they don’t—the only part they don’t engage in is this part right here. They don’t like to engage in this and my friend, Tom Cruise, told me a story he went to work on “Eyes Wide Shut” and he said there was Kubrick just sitting there in the director’s chair. It was Kubrick! And not trying to make a connection between Kubrick and the boys but he didn’t want to engage in this part either so that gives him mystique and when everybody’s here—all the guys are here, and Matthew’s here, and Emile and these are fantastic friends of ours, these filmmakers, and they’re great guys. They just don’t like to talk about their movies, and they did the whole thing for me on the first Matrix. They did all the junkets. All the press tours—they did everything, and they hated it. And they said to me, “If you want us to work with you again, you’ve got to promise we’d never do this again.” And I said, “Fine.” What could I say? I couldn’t say, “No, you’ve got to do it.” So I’m happy to try to impart to you their thoughts and their ideas, but, you know, their thoughts and their ideas are on that screen, and that’s what they give you. That’s their gift to all of you. I hope you liked it.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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