After the ferocious innovations of the Matrix films, it goes without saying that Speed Racer, the latest film by the Wachowski brothers, will take us into a place unconfined by mere logic or physics.
Taking the Japanese proto-anime classic as its source material, the Wachowskis sought to put a comic book onscreen, with countless sliding layers of graphic detail and a camera that moves impossibly through space around the actors.
What this meant for the actors was that little, if any, of what we see onscreen was actually in front of the cameras during filming in Berlin. For Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, who play Mom and Pop Racer, the heads of the car-addicted Racer clan, it required a leap into the unknown.
“When they called me,” recalled Sarandon at a press event at the Long Beach Grand Prix, “after a few phone calls I said I just don’t know what you’re talking about but I’ll jump. They were telling me all the different things they were doing technically — I just learned to text like a month ago. I’m way behind the learning curve. I can’t even wear a watch, it stops on my body. Inanimate objects have never been my thing. If you’re going to do a big film, these are the guys to do it with. If you’re going to do something cutting edge, instead of just some old green-screen movie, do it with the Wachowskis, and Berlin’s not a bad place to spend the summer. They said the family in this movie was really important, and they really wanted to try to find a way that the emotional core survives what is happening onscreen.”
Goodman said that, technical innovation aside, on the set he relied on the same training he had used in ultra-low budget New York theatre productions.
“It harkened back to me to a time without money, without throwing a lot money into a set, off-off-Broadway. When I first got into college I did a play in a church basement by Thornton Wilder and the directions were there are no props. There are chairs, tables. You use whatever you can, and not hone in on the props that are supposed to be there, and after a while the audience doesn’t care. So that’s what it was like for me, like going back to off-off-Broadway. And you concentrate more on the person you’re working with.”
For Matthew Fox, the Lost star who plays the mysterious and masked Racer X, the preparation the Wachowskis put into creating their universe helped him visualize the setting that would be painted all around him after the actors had done their work on the green-screen soundstage.
“They did an amazing job of collecting these artists’ renderings, and even these digital images that they’d been sending out, these satellite images from all over the world, collecting these images and putting them into the computer and building these bubbles, so that when you’re standing on a green screen you can actually walk around and look at these big plasma monitors that would already have the world that you’re existing in laid in behind you. They did an amazing job of bringing all of that help to you.”
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