SXSW Interview: Edgar Wright on Baby Driver
Edgar Wright has been a favorite of the South by Southwest festival for years and years, but he’s never had a film premiere there before. That changed in 2017 when his newest effort – Baby Driver – was shown there for the first time (read our review). And it’s a fitting change for Wright, who is embarking on a new path of his own career, transitioning from genre-bending comedy director to more classical auteur, writing and directing his first straight-forward crime film.
Ahead of the premiere, Wright and Sony’s TriStar Pictures (who are distributing the film) gathered the forces of the press at a BBQ joint outside downtown Austin to delve into the creation of the film and what audiences can expect from it. In a bright blue blazer and tennis shoes, with the shaggy hair and excited mannerisms, he is exactly the man you’d expect the director of Scott Pilgrim to be.
ComingSoon.net: This is your first solo writing and directing credit.
Edgar Wright: My first solo writing and directing credit after 22 years, so it does feel very special. And the idea goes back that far as well, so I’m very excited that it exists now on screen and not just in my brain.
CS: It feels very much like an Edgar Wright film, but… not.
Edgar Wright: It is not specifically a comedy. If Blockbuster still existed, it would be in the action section or the thriller section. It is funny in places but it is a crime action thriller. But there are elements of my other movies in there and I think almost the entire movie is built out of doing sequences in my other films and TV work, scenes choreographed to music and I had so much fun doing those, that I basically came up with this movie to have a way to do that for an entire film. It is a movie that is heavily sound centric, so the action and the drama is choreographed to the music but also in a way that it’s not score layed on. The main character is listening to the tracks in the movie, so it is diegetic music in a way. We are essentially seeing it through the main character’s ears.
CS: What kind of person is Baby?
Edgar Wright: From the title, it’s about a young getaway driver and when I was auditioning young actors for the part, Ansel as soon as I saw him he was a favorite from the get go, not just because he is a music fan and plays music but also because he is genuinely young. His presence as a young actor, 20 and turned 21 on set, is worked into the film as this young apprentice to this gang, which, within the movie, the way it comes about is he is on the bubble about whether he wants to be involved in this life or not. So at the start of the movie, the character of Baby is someone who is working within a gang but does not see himself as part of the gang. So the question of the movie is, ‘can you be involved in crime without being a criminal?’ The answer is no. [laughs]. As you will discover over 130 minutes.
CS: Did being a musician help with the character?
Edgar Wright: Yeah in that he can play which factors into it. There’s one scene where he is listening to Dave Brubeck and he can’t help playing along at the table. And there’s something so beguiling to me, watching a 21-year-old actor – born in 1994 or 95…
CS: Makes you feel old.
Edgar Wright: Makes everyone feel old. Seeing him play along with Dave Brubeck, that moment sort of crystallized the character, because he’s slightly born out of time. There’s a thing that’s sort of hinted at, he has lots and lots of iPods because he steals lots of cars, the idea that he has inherited other people’s iPods and has listened to other people’s record collections. So this 21-year old is listening to all this eclectic music and Ansel himself has quite eclectic taste. What’s also interesting is his dad is a photographer and so was my dad, so that was something that was quite charming – he listened to his dad’s record collection, which was not too dissimilar to my dad’s.
CS: Speaking of eclectic, this cast – Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Lily James – how did you put this together?
Edgar Wright: It was amazing. Jon is actually the only person I wrote with in mind. I did a read-through of the first draft, I finished the first draft in 2011, Jon Hamm was the only person at the table who is still here playing the same part. So I had Jon in mind, obviously I didn’t necessarily know who would be Baby. And then people like Kevin and Jamie, it’s like one of those things that happens on films, big actors’ names come up and you go ‘well they’d be amazing, but I don’t know if they’d do it’ and then they did. The thing you’ll see is it’s not one of those movies where you have a big cast that’s doing like short cameos they did in 32 hours. They’re in the movie, they’re part of the ensemble. Kevin and Jamie and Jon were there for the entire shoot and really felt like an ensemble.
CS: It must have been amazing to have Kevin Spacey there saying your words. That must have been cool.
Edgar Wright: His first day on set, we’d already done rehearsals, but when he was first filming he had a long dialogue scene and I had a sort of out of body experience doing his first take, because he is so magnetic to watch and I had take a moment and go ‘oh yeah, I wrote this.’ It was a magical moment and it’s amazing to be able to write dialogue and know that someone will be absolutely able to tear through it and just be a pleasure to watch that.
CS: And then you have Lily James playing Deborah.
Edgar Wright: I actually admitted this to her the other day, I had never seen Downton Abbey. The only thing I’d seen her in was Cinderella and I auditioned her and it was great, she came in doing the accent and became this other person, so it was a great way to meet someone through being the character rather than this general knowledge of their work. She’s really, incredibly charming and there’s a sweetness to her that factors into this movie, because she’s sort of the ray of light from a completely different life in the movie. And it was great. Especially for her third American role. And she’s quite a comedian as well. I showed this to a director friend of mine and he said, ‘who’s that girl playing Debra?’ ‘That’s Lily James.’ ‘What would I have seen her in?’ ‘Have you seen Cinderella?’ ‘Yeah, who did she play?’ [beat] ‘She played Cinderella.’ So that was really her disappearing into the role. We were the only Brits on set and I would call her, in a cockney accent, Cinders the entire time. She was also rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet for Kenneth Branagh at the time, so I’d also call her Jules. I’d get Romeo & Juliet out on my phone and start reading it out to her, ‘hark, what light through yonder window breaks,’ and she’d start doing it back to me. When you’re doing a car chase movie, you’re sitting in car waiting for places or grips or stuff for quite a while.
CS: Because you did the car chases for real, which is a difficult process.
Edgar Wright: I’d done action in previous movies but never to this extent, and definitely not car chases. Car chases are as painstaking to make as they are fun to watch. They take a lot of time and you have to keep the energy up. I don’t think we’d have gotten through what we did on this film with this time and budget without having such an amazing team. We also did a lot of it for real so a lot of the driving shots – a lot of contemporary action films the main cast may not be anywhere near the cars. The second unit will shoot the chase and they’ll green screen in the actors later. We didn’t do that to the raised eyebrows of some production people: ‘You want to do this for real?’ Which is incredibly arduous, because you shoot the main stunts and then you get the actors in and do it all again and the continuity cars and you’re using these rigs… they’ve really gotten advanced over the last 10 years. You’re not attached to a trailer, but they’re on a weighted cable so you can have nothing but the actors and scenery is going by at a 100 miles an hour. We closed down Interstate 85 in Atlanta twice. They’ll let you do it up to a point and I’ve got to give it to Georgia State for letting us run riot on a Sunday morning. It’s so different to have your actors bombing down the road for real. It was a practical thing, I wanted it to feel as real as possible. Action seems to get bigger and bigger, a need to top the last thing, but there are real visceral pleasures to watching a real car chase and that’s what we tried to do, going real fast and on residential streets as well. And we did them all during the day, to be extra challenging. A lot of the time you see them at night because it’s easier, you can close the roads, but during the day everything is a lot more vivid. And also banks are open during the day, not at night. Sort of a no brainer.
CS: And then doing it to music.
Edgar Wright: It has a number of layers. I wrote the script and when there were sequences to music I would write the scenes to the music I wanted to use and so before I started writing I had the idea of a big song for the big numbers. I took that idea of Hong Kong films where they’re like big musicals, they’ve got five big numbers, five big action set pieces, a song for each and I’d write them to the songs. Luckily we cleared all of them before, so they stuck. Then we’d storyboard and edit them to the song and then factors like stunts and locations would come in, so the actual practicalities of how long a stunt would take, where in the location it would be. And then choreography as well, so we had this guy Ryan Heffington, I don’t know if you know his work, he did Sia’s Chandelier video, he did Spike Jonze recent Enzo short, which is amazing. He’s this great up and coming, well not up and coming anymore, he’s the hottest choreographer now, but he worked with the actors and the stunt guys, so it became an amalgam of a great stunt team lead by Darren Prescott and Ryan working with the actors and so you get every sort of different form of action to the music. The practical application of that, if there was no dialogue, you could play the music out loud, if there was dialogue you could wear ear wigs where maybe Ansel can hear the song and the camera operator can hear the song and I can hear the song but the others can’t. And then sometimes there were bits like the things in the scene were so loud, like cars and guns, that the actors learned their parts by counts. It’s not something where the footage is edited to the music after the fact, the action is performed to the music.
CS: There was no changing of the songs after the fact.
Edgar Wright: I think there was one song we changed after the fact, and we reshot part of the scene to make it work better. I’d written the script a long time ago and we had to wait for Ansel for six months and in that time we cleared the music and that was amazing. It would have been nerve wracking to launch into a scene not knowing if we’d have that track.
CS: Any songs you wanted but couldn’t make final cut?
Edgar Wright: No, but something different happened. We have an amazing clearance person and there was nothing I wanted that I couldn’t get, because there were a lot of people who wanted to be involved. But sometimes there are dance tracks or hip hop tracks which have samples which have not been cleared. In a couple of occasions I ended up clearing where the original sample came from.
CS: Can’t wait to get the soundtrack. Do you do any previz to keep the action together?
Edgar Wright: Not in computer animation. We did old-school animatics where you draw it but not CG previz. Sometimes that stuff doesn’t always… I’m not a big fan of that, I like old school animatics more. You don’t want to be dictated by the timing of the animation, you want to dictate the timing. And then you start to build it up. Sometimes you’d do the drawings and then you’d do the music and then the stunt guy or my DP Bill Pope will say ‘that stunt will take longer than you’ve allowed,’ so you’d get a video of the rehearsal and change it around based on that. But pretty much it was old school animatics, drawings all cut together to see how it generally works.
CS: This is much more straight forward than some of your past films. Is there a line you have to be careful of that it might veer into comedy?
Edgar Wright: I tried to keep it in realms of reality in terms of things you can do with cars and guns and not go too crazy. It was something where even at the start the action is all stuff that can really happen. I wanted people to feel what it would be like to be a getaway driver and in the middle of a pursuit with the police. One of the things about the movie, not everyone fantasizes about robbing a bank, but I think a lot fantasize about being in a high speed chase and one of the things the movie is about is how the dream of that quickly becomes the nightmare of that. If you ever watch police chases on like helicopter cams, they very quickly become nightmarish when you start to see the police coming in from the edge of the frame. I always find that terrifying. So as you’ll see in the movie, it starts with a dream and quickly becomes about the nightmare of this crime and the collateral damage and the human consequence and getting out alive and not harming somebody else. That’s what it’s about, the fantasy of the job versus the reality.
I wrote the script for Los Angeles initially and then when we were going to go to Atlanta I rewrote for Atlanta and then just started looking the newspapers for similar police chases and to my surprise there were several similar to the ones in the film which happened in the last 10 years and by expert getaway drivers. If you don’t have a plan beyond get on the freeway and head north, its not going to work out. [laughs]. Some of the smarter getaway drivers, you’ll see some of the techniques, I interviewed several ex-cons, including some ex-getaway drivers, for the movie and part of the premise is to blend in as quickly as you can. In a lot of action films, a lot of guys are driving muscle cars or vintage cars whereas in reality a lot of getaway drivers would actually choose like commuter cars and find a way to blend into freeway traffic as quickly as possible. There’s nods to that kind of technique in the movie, being in a car that can blend in, getting on the off ramp, switching the car, disappearing in a different car or cars rather than being in like a limited edition muscle car in hot pink. Though we have one of those later as well.
CS: How has the film changed since starting?
Edgar Wright: The first track in the Agent Orange album Virtually Indestructible (this is after I made my first movie). I thought that would make a great car chase song, didn’t know about the rest of the movie, just that. Then about a getaway driver who could not operate without the right music. But I hadn’t really started to write it and we don’t really have car chases in the UK. London has sort of been car-chased proof since the 1980s; if you’ve driven around London and seen the amount of one-way systems, it’s basically like rubbed out all car chase crime. You get bank robbers getting away on bicycles. So I had the general idea then in 2002, I did this music video for a band called Mint Royale [Blue Song was the video], and I sort of used my opening scene for that video. At the time I was annoyed with myself for wasting it that way, but I did it and that video is one of those videos that kept coming around because one of the actors [Noel Fielding] became very famous after the video. So it kept reoccurring throughout my career. So the first time I said the idea out loud to my producers, we’d just done a two-picture deal and were deciding on the movies and one was World’s End and I said ‘I want the other to be Baby Driver’ and said it was a car chase film all set to music with a lead character who has to listen to the right music and they loved the idea and it was always between other projects. Then I set down to write it in 2010 and did a lot of research, meeting ex-cons and FBI guys; it’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. When I made the decision ‘this is the next movie’ it was focused on getting it to the screen. In this day and age making original films at a studio is a rarity, so I feel really honored I got to do one.
CS: You said recently you like to take genre conventions and sneak in broader storylines, like World’s End has alcoholism, is there something like that here?
Edgar Wright: It’s like a character study that becomes an action film. We’ve all seen a million heist films, but I like the idea of seeing it almost entirely from his perspective. There’s not a scene without him in it. I don’t think it has a sneaky message in it beyond our relationships to sound and music and how it forms our lives. The main character has tinnitus, which I had when I was a child. People playing music quite loud to drown out the whine is quite common – I wish I’d known that! That was interesting, finding a reason – you have this tradition for a strong silent type, but I like finding the reason why your main character doesn’t say a lot.
CS: I’ve heard you have a clear picture with movies, how they’re going to be put together. How does that work with editors?
Edgar Wright: I’ve been really lucky to work with three great editors. On this one Paul Machliss and Jon Amos, first time I worked with them as feature editors was on Scott Pilgrim, but Paul I worked with on Spaced and Jon was an assistant editor on Hot Fuzz, so I had a chance to promote them to their first feature editor role against the studios wishes and they both got nominated for the ACE for that movie. So they both worked on this. They’re both amazing but have different skills, but like me have a love of music as well. It’s very much planned out; I don’t usually have someone editing on set, but on this one I did and it was a huge benefit because we could see how the scenes were working. Something always comes up and then you’re able to look at why. Here’s an example – pretty much everything worked like clockwork, but there was one sequence where the chase was clearly longer than the song, we had too much chase. I didn’t really want to change the song or have second song, so on the last day of the shoot I shot an extra bit where Ansel rewound the song; the song finishes entirely and when he gets things back on track he rewinds on camera and gets back on track. That comes from editing on set, you can quickly see, ‘we’ve got so much good stuff, it would be ashamed to lose it because the song is too short.’
CS: We’re you able to show the actors some of that?
Edgar Wright: Like 50% of actors want to see stuff back and 50% don’t. There are some that never watch takes back. Ansel and Jamie would always be watching stuff. Jamie is like the most enthusiastic audience. He used to say this thing which would make laugh every time; he’d be looking at the monitor and if Jon Hamm was on screen, he’d be like, ‘he’s handsome.’ [Laughs]. And then walk off.
CS: Were there some movie influences you particularly looked at?
Edgar Wright: There is a holy trinity of ’90s heist movies I hold very dear – Reservoir Dogs, Point Break and Heat. They’re all in California and all in similar ways have this aspect of the planning that goes into a heist and what happens when they take a serious left turn. If you go further back, like Straight Time is another one that I’m a big fan of based on Edward Baum’s book, which I think weirdly is an influence on Raising Arizona and Reservoir Dogs, but they all have sequences that are somewhat similar. There’s a scene in Straight Time where the getaway driver chickens out and leaves them there and it turns into a foot chase. Then the most obvious one that is a big influence on me and is even referenced in the title is Walter Hill’s The Driver, which is one of my favorite films and I’ve always been really beguiled by that movie. I saw it as a teenager. I actually got to know Walter through doing a Q&A with him on The Driver and I think I spent most of the last 12 years convincing Walter Hill it is a classic. [Laughs]. He’s a very modest man and I think I finally convinced him by going on about it the entire time. Walter makes sort of an appearance in the movie as you’ll see or hear. If there is one movie you can trace the family tree back to, it would be that one.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)