Embracing the Limitations: David Soren and Lisa Stewart on Turbo

The directors talk all about their new CG-animated snail racing movie starring Ryan Reynolds.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

A DJ pumped music into the courtyard on the 20th Century Fox lot, because that’s how Dreamworks rolls. It was a bit much for Turbo producer Lisa Stewart at 10:30 in the morning, but she and director David Soren spoke with me while others got crunk to Foster the People and Bon Jovi. Turbo was the second Ryan Reynolds movie Dreamworks previewed for 2013. In this one he plays the ultimate underdog: a snail who dreams of being a NASCAR racer. Now that’s crazy, how could a snail drive a car? How could he reach the pedals?

Well, one day Theo (Reynolds) falls into a drag racing car and gets NOSed, so he becomes Turbo. Turbo gets the power of super speed, his eyes become headlights and his he has break lights in his shell. This makes him a star when a taco truck chef (Michael Pena) kidnaps him for snail races. Paul Giamati plays Theo/Turbo’s practical, dream crushing brother and a slew of other celebrities play the taco truck racers. The snails in this movie also use their eyestalks as hands when they need to grab ledges or hold something. Turbo will be out July 19, 2013.

CraveOnline: When you cast Ryan Reynolds, did you know he was becoming Dreamworks’ go-to guy?

David Soren: [Laughs]I think we made him Dreamworks’ go-to guy. We knew Croods was using him and kind of overlooked him as a result. The way we approach casting, we get our character designs figured out, we listen to different actors, we find clips from various movies and match them against the design and we just weren’t finding somebody that really felt like he was clicking. Jeffrey [Katzenberg] actually kind of suggested Ryan, or was he already part of our list?

Lisa Stewart: He was on our list. He was always on our list.

David Soren: I think we just assumed we weren’t going to use him because Croods was using him, but we really liked him and he just seemed kind of right for the part. There was a combination of humor and earnestness that he can capture, and his voice is not massively recognizable. Visually he certainly is but his voice isn’t.

Lisa Stewart: So you don’t spend the whole time thinking, “Oh, I’m looking at Ryan Reynolds as a snail.” You can actually look at the character.

Do these snails basically use their eyes as arms as well?

David Soren: Yeah, we found all kinds of crazy ways to get them to function so that the eyes can serve as arms, they can be emotional tools.

When did you realize it was necessary that they have some sort of digits?

David Soren: Well, I knew I didn’t want to have arms on the snails because I’ve seen that look in various images before. I’d experimented with it myself and it just looked creepy to me. I was trying to ground the movie in this believable reality so arms just seemed to fight that. And then without arms, there’s not a lot to work with so it felt like an opportunity to actually force people to get more creative with how we use that, whether it’s using their eyestalks to clap with or grab onto things or to hold each other with, embrace each other with.

Lisa Stewart: Honestly, we don’t use them [that much]. The eyestalks are mostly what they emote with. There are a handful at best of moments that we have to use them to incorporate other things. When you have characters that are so simple in their design, you really do have to be incredibly creative how you get around and emote.

David Soren: A good friend of mine was the head of animation on [Finding] Nemo and we would talk a lot about the limitations of the fish early on. I just felt like it was actually an opportunity to push people to come up with something that you haven’t seen before. Create those limitations but then really embrace them.

Where is that VHS collection of NASCAR tapes that Theo watches?

David Soren: [Laughs] He lives in this house in the valley, or he lives in the garden of this house in the valley and he sneaks into the garage of the house at night. So we’re sort of implying that somebody who lives in the house is a race fan. He found ways to use this dusty old TV in the garage.

And how is he putting the tapes in the machine?

Lisa Stewart: That’s sort of where you’ve just got to suspend your disbelief.

I’m picturing it.

Lisa Stewart: That’s how we get to cut out a lot of the leggy business of how it happens.

David Soren: I think you make a leap when you’re watching the movie though. There’s enough moments where you see him pushing things along. They all work at this tomato plant and they’re pushing tomatoes along with their eyes or their shells or they’re nudging things.

Lisa Stewart: We kind of set it up.

Did you enjoy doing the Fast and the Furious drag race sequence or was that a pain?

David Soren: No, it was great. It was great fun to do that. I’ve always loved those movies that take place in the L.A. River and I think when you live in L.A., you’re constantly looking at that aqueduct, so the chance to be part of that legacy of movies is great. I’ve always been a fan of those racing movies.

Did that inspire any of how the snails trick out their shells?

David Soren: Absolutely. The very first pitch that I did for the studio was basically like a Fast and the Furious with snails. That’s kind of the idea Jeffrey really latched onto so when we had that group of racing snails that Turbo meets at the strip mall that was absolutely like finding a whacked out version of Vin Diesel’s gang.

Lisa Stewart: One of the people we cast in the movie as a bit of an homage was Michelle Rodriguez as one of the shopkeepers who tricks out one of the snails. It’s our tip to The Fast and the Furious.

And it’s multi-cultural like Fast and the Furious, isn’t it?

Lisa Stewart: Yeah.

David Soren: Yeah, and that was important I think to all of us because the Valley is diverse, the city is diverse.

Lisa Stewart: It’s an honest reflection of the city.

David Soren: It’s sort of a celebration of difference and diversity. Snails are oddballs in their world and Turbo’s an underdog and there’s two brothers who also have a parallel dynamic to him and Chet. Just trying to find that celebration really of difference.

Has the switch to Fox come midway through your production?

David Soren: It came early enough for us that it didn’t really affect anything.

Lisa Stewart: Yeah, in the actual timeline it came midway through our development and production but it came before we started dealing with any marketing materials or what our campaign was going to be. They came on actually a couple months before we started to dig into how we’re going to try to promote this movie.

So you’ve only dealt with one team.

Lisa Stewart: Yes, which has been nice.

Are you going to have any of the 3D come out of the screen?

David Soren: We’re using it as a tool thematically which I don’t think has really been done much before, if at all. Using at this dreamer vs. realist approach and any time we’ve got these kind of dreamer moments in the movie where we want to show Turbo seeing the potential of where he wants to go, whether it’s racing or whether it’s just his rich fantasy life, but really opening up the stereo. And then when the naysaying brothers come in and it seems like they’re going to get shut down, shrinking it back down. It’s been surprisingly effective.

Does Turbo have any vulnerabilities with his power?

David Soren: He doesn’t know.

Lisa Stewart: Yes.

David Soren: Yes, ultimately.

Lisa Stewart: But you’ll have to see.

David Soren: Ultimately yes but he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if it’s going to go away tomorrow, he doesn’t know if it’s going to be there for the rest of his life but yes, it’s ultimately a fragile thing.

Where did you come up with the idea for zip lining snails?

David Soren: I think we were just looking at all those things in the environment of that strip mall and those racing snails really embody this philosophy of not letting our limitations limit what they can do and just feeling like, “Well, what’s the most kind of impossible race we could have for a snail at this mall?”

Lisa Stewart: We did a lot of brainstorming early on with a lot of different ways that a snail could propel themselves, kind of Parkour.

David Soren: Without actually having super powers.

Lisa Stewart: We had a lot of stuff that we threw away but in the actual setting of that scene, that seemed like an organic ability. 


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel