DreamWorks Tries a Change of Snail’s Pace in Turbo
David Soren’s Turbo stars a supercharged snail who can easily break 200 mph on his way to winning the Indianapolis 500. However, right now all Soren can think about is taking things nice and slow. “I’m pretty toasted at this point. The most important thing to me right now is to take a vacation and recharge the batteries.”
It would be hard to blame him. Helming DreamWorks’ latest animated feature was the culmination of a 10-year marathon for Soren, one that began with an unusual event at the studio – a “pitch fest.” “Now they have an open policy now where anybody can pitch an idea and set up a meeting with the development department. The fest was a one-off event – the department opened up the contest to the entire studio. Anyone could turn in a one page synopsis and the night before deadline I sort of knocked it off and turned it in.”
“It” was an idea inspired by a pair of at-home events, one very fast – and one rather slow. “Since before my son could talk he was obsessed with speed as many boys are, he was always zooming toy cars around the living room. At the same time I had a snail problem: there was a tomato plant in the corner of the yard the snails were slowly demolishing. Watching the slow-moving creatures and the toy cars racing around my living room got me thinking of a story about a snail with a need for speed.
“I had all my research right in front of me.”
Ten pitches made it past the fest’s first go-round, one of which was Soren’s. “We had to pitch our ideas to the top executives; mine won and they bought it. I don’t think any of the other nine were picked up afterwards. The pitch fest was an interesting idea, but it was a massive amount of work for everybody in development.”
It would be years before what ultimately became Turbo began picking up speed. In the meantime any number of other DreamWorks projects kept Soren occupied, from serving as Shark Tale’s head of story, to directing several Madagascar holiday specials and helping set up How to Train Your Dragon. All the while though, he had Turbo on his mind. “It was essentially a log line they bought: ‘Fast and Furious with snails,’ without a significant story attached to it. It took a while to come up a story that sustained itself.
“I started to see parallels between my snail and the classic underdogs from the movies that I love: Rocky, The Karate Kid and one in particular called Breaking Away that was really an inspiration. If you think about the hallmarks of an underdog, no one expects anything of them. Their lives are stacked with obstacles and a snail’s is exactly that – they’re smushed by children, despised by gardeners, plucked by crows… they’re the butt of slow jokes all around the world.
“It led me to think about my character in a different way, to start with the template of a classic underdog story that we obviously subvert because of our characters. Then we fold in this aspect of dreamers and their counterparts – the realists in their lives.
“I eventually hit on a version built around a Van Nuys strip mall and the characters who work there, in particular two brothers who run a taco stand.” (The two brothers – Tito and Angelo – would eventually be voiced by Michael Peña and Luiz Guzmán.) “The entire time I thought I was way out on a limb – ‘there’s no way Jeffrey Katzenberg will go for this.’ The funny thing is those were the elements he responded to the best; he greenlit that version and from that point on it was an extremely smooth production.”
The parallel between snail brothers Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) and Chet (Paul Giamatti) and the human siblings (neither Chet nor Angelo believe in their brother’s dreams of Indy 500 glory) undoubtedly played a major part in earning Katzenberg’s thumbs-up. “A movie strictly about a snail could be really alienating to humans. We wanted to make sure our story was absolutely universal in its appeal; when the humans got involved I was able to tell a story on a much bigger canvas.”
Van Nuys, the multi-ethnic San Fernando Valley neighborhood just west of Burbank became a character in the story in its own right – and a destination for Soren and his crew: “We got our artists out of their offices, away from their computers and into the real world on little field trips. We took them to places like Henry’s Tacos. It’s a Valley landmark, a classic old taco stand and we spent a bit of time there; it inspired the look of our taco stand.”