Spinning Out: Edgar Wright on Baby Driver
Writer and director Edgar Wright has long been a fan of mixing tones and genres in his movies, from his celebrated feature debut Shaun of the Dead and its unofficial companion pieces (Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) to the graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. All of those movies were at least partially, if not primarily, comedies, and Wright’s latest film Baby Driver, which shares its title with a memoir by Jan Kerouac (Jack’s daughter), has plenty of verbal and visual laughs scattered throughout its narrative. This time, however, the laughs coexist with an emotional weight that’s new to Wright’s work.
The story of Baby, an exceptionally skilled young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) working to pay off a debt to Doc, a principled but brutal crime boss (Kevin Spacey), contains a genuinely affecting love story and thoughtful explorations of difficult moral choices — though this being an Edgar Wright movie, it’s also crammed with viscerally supercharged action sequences and a playful use of a wide variety of source cues that make the film almost as much a musical as an action flick. Elgort’s character is essentially, as Wright puts it, “an unpaid intern” to Spacey; in order to get clear of the crime lord, he provides his services for a series of robberies committed by a colorful ensemble of crooks including Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx. When he meets Deborah, the girl of his dreams (a waitress in a local diner played by Lily James), Baby hatches a plan to flee the criminal life once and for all, but part of Wright’s subversion of genre here is complicating that goal in unexpectedly realistic ways.
While the movie is filled with bravura set pieces like an opening car chase perfectly timed to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” and a shoot-out choreographed to the drumbeat of “Tequila,” Wright puts just as much thought and care into the staging of ensemble dialogue scenes like the recurring warehouse meetings in which the characters’ spatial relationships reflect and express their evolving feelings about each other and the situation. The result is a film that’s both more audacious and more mature than Wright’s previous releases, a seamless integration of personal expression and genre that implies new directions for his filmmaking. I spoke to Wright about the project’s decades-long gestation period, keeping all the actors in the same movie and giving his finale a “moral sting” on the eve of the picture’s summer release.
I’m curious how you get started on a movie like this, where there seem to be so many disparate influences, elements and tones you’re trying to balance. Do you start with a core idea, an image, a character or a film tradition you want to work within? With this one it’s a little different from everything else. I’ve had this film in my head in some form for 22 years, way before Spaced or Shaun of the Dead. It was a vivid image before I knew exactly what it was and how I was going to do it. I had made A Fistful of Fingers, a 16mm short I made in 1994, but I wouldn’t have really called myself a film director at that point.
It was 21, 22 years ago. I was living in London for the first time and listening a lot to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album Orange. The opening track, “Bellbottoms,” which eventually became the opening track of the film — as I was listening to that song I could visualize a car chase. I couldn’t stop thinking about a car chase scene which started with somebody waiting outside a bank, and then it kicking off and all being in time to the music. I didn’t really know what the plot was, but then later I came up with the idea of, “What if there was a young getaway driver who couldn’t operate at his fullest unless the right song was playing?” I sort of adapted that idea into a music video [Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”] in 2002, which I did after Spaced and before Shaun of the Dead. At the time, I was mad at myself, burning the idea on a music video that could have been a good film. The music video stuck around because the actor in it, Noel Fielding, became very famous after the music video, so it kept coming around and around.
About 10 years ago, after Hot Fuzz, I signed a two-picture deal with Working Title. I was working with Nira Park and Eric Fellner — Nira is my producer and Eric is the producer at Working Title — and we were talking about what those two potential films would be. One of them was The World’s End, which I eventually wrote with Simon Pegg. The other one was, I said, something different, a departure from the other movies. They said, “What’s that?” and I gave them the basic, elemental pitch: “Well, it’s sort of a car chase musical. It’s a car movie driven by music and the entire thing is choreographed to music.” Eric said, “I want to see you do a car movie. Let’s do that!”
I didn’t really start writing it until after Scott Pilgrim, but in the time of gearing up for that movie, some key things happened. I was spending more time in Los Angeles, I had started doing research on Baby Driver, which included interviewing ex-cons, and then also I started breaking down some of the key songs I wanted to use. It was actually my introduction to a guy who was then a music editor, Steve Price, who now is the Oscar-winning composer of Gravity. (laughs) He became the music editor on Scott Pilgrim, and around that time, Alfonso Cuarón emailed me and said “Hey, how’s Steve Price working on Scott Pilgrim?” I said, “He’s amazing, you should hire him.” He did World’s End with me, and then did Baby Driver with me as well. Even though there’s not a huge amount of score in it, he was there 10 years ago when I literally said, “I need somebody to break down these songs for me: ‘Bellbottoms,’ ‘Harlem Shuffle,’ “Never Ever Gonna Give You Up,’ ‘Hocus Pocus,’ ‘Brighton Rock,’ ‘Neat Neat Neat’” — I think I gave him like eight tracks. I still have the PDFs of what he did.
I also drove across the states, from New York to L.A., on my own and had my Jack Kerouac adventure. Later, I drove from L.A. to Vancouver and back as well, so I needed to do my tarmac time in the United States to feel like I had traversed the country. After Scott Pilgrim, with all of this stuff amassed and having done more interviews with ex-cons, I started getting the writing moving. It was definitely a tough one, because it’s less of a plot movie; it’s a character study that turns into an action movie, so I tried to write the movie as if I was experiencing it through Baby. Baby is in every single scene, a young kid experienced in some ways and inexperienced in others, so I wrote the movie experiencing everything firsthand with the lead character. It’s definitely the toughest thing I’ve had to write. Writing action is an interesting art, in that it’s for the reader only. It’s not dialogue; you’re trying on the page to sell how exciting this is going to be with different adjectives and verbs, which is an odd thing to have to do, because it’s the one part of the screenplay that will never be onscreen.
One of the big inspirations for the film is, obviously, Walter Hill’s The Driver. Walter Hill is a fantastic screenwriter of action. If you’ve ever read one of his screenplays, the way that he writes is so vivid. His screenplay was one that I read because I was just looking at it on a formal level, like, “How does Walter Hill write action?” Of course, he writes action beautifully. It sounds like amazing Beat poetry. Whenever I was actually finally writing it, around 2010, I was writing on my own for the first time in forever, which, having worked with co-writers, is a lonely process. I would go to the coffee shop in the morning, read the LA Times, read the crime stories, and then find the right song for a scene — not start writing until I had the right song — and just will this movie into existence.
It’s such an interesting blend of action, comedy, musical and, as you said, to a certain degree, weighty drama. How much of that tonal balance is something that you have to get right in script stage, how much of it is in shooting, and how much do you have to finesse in editing? I think if you’ve done your job correctly, it comes off in the screenplay. One of the reasons it attracted the cast that it did is I think the tone was on the page; it’s funny in places, but it has real stakes and it gets intense, and there’s real-life consequences. It’s not maybe as meta as some of my other movies, so the threat of injury or death to these people makes the whole thing a little more vivid. I don’t think it was something where it became more serious as we made the movie; that element was always there. I like the old Warner Bros. gangster movies: They always have a strong moral sting in the tail, and I tried to do that in this because I wanted to do something where, without giving too much away, the ending was a moral, pragmatic antidote to the usual endings of these movies. “Okay, you might get to run away with the girl, but what if the girl had nothing to do with all of this? Are you going to implicate her in a crime, and is she going to be a criminal for the rest of her life? Is that fair on her?” Usually the way films deal with that aspect is cut to them driving off in the sunset, or cut to them dying in a hail of bullets, and I wanted to show a third way that was in some ways a very tough decision to make. Baby has the warning from the outset, that you can’t be in crime without being a little criminal, so here’s a test to stay on the fringes, as, essentially, an unpaid intern. As the film goes on and gets deeper into it, Ansel Elgort’s character can only make the least bad of some terrible decisions, where he’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It’s still a bad thing that he’s doing, but in this particular moment it’s either his head or somebody else’s, [so] what is he going to do? A character who’s both a very proficient criminal but also an innocent lamb at the same time — I like that. You’re shearing him so he’s completely vulnerable to all of the violent consequences and has to toughen up and start making decisions for himself and not just being the gofer.
The other thing that was not necessarily an influence on the movie but it was definitely something where I thought, “This would be an interesting thing to play with and subvert,” is [from] the last 15 years, the enormous amount of video games that deal in this, Grand Theft Auto being the most famous one. For an entire generation of people who have grown up on those games, [they] are about you vicariously being a criminal, in terms of kids getting to run around and beat people up and do violent carjackings and get into multiple police chases, but with none of the real-life consequences of that. The idea existed before I saw one of those games, but I thought, “it’d be interesting to put a character who’s of the age that he would play that game, and put him in the driving seat, but actually give him trickier moral conundrums and more obvious human collateral.” The structure of the movie — hopefully it’s all clear, or the intention of it at least — is that the opening chase is almost like the dream of being a getaway driver, and then as the movie goes on, the nightmare of being a criminal becomes more and more evident. The thing that I try to do in terms of both the ensemble work and the story is to keep dragging Baby closer and closer to the crucible of crime. As the film goes on he’s fully implicated; he has to make decisions, he’s literally got blood on his hands.
You’re very helped along in that way by the actors, because you’ve got great performances, especially Ansel Elgort. How do you create an environment that facilitates the best work from the actors? Is there any difficulty on a movie like this in reconciling their needs and contributions with what you have planned on the visual design end of things? Somebody watched the movie, and it made me laugh because I hadn’t heard it put this way — they said, “All the actors are in the same movie.” As a director, that’s your job, to make sure that all of the actors are in the same movie. Ansel, I think, gives a fantastic performance, but there’s an element to it that mirrors in him the character himself. He is a young actor — he turned 21 or 22 on set: but he’s in a scene with veteran tough guys — Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey. There’s something about the sheer visual of putting him in the room with those guys. Those characters could eat him for breakfast. It immediately creates the visual you’re looking for: There’s this literal baby-faced kid and these more experienced professionals. I think what Ansel does — which is sometimes rare in younger actors — is even when he’s doing nothing, he has presence. In some scenes he’s very proactive. In other scenes, the character himself is trying to disappear into the wall, because in the first half of the movie when he’s on this job, he doesn’t really want to attract extra attention. When he’s in the scene back in Doc’s warehouse, Ansel is sitting as far away from the others as possible because he’s drawing a line, essentially saying, “I’m not really part of this. I’m over here, I’m just the driver.” I think that was a great scene for Ansel, because he had to really think about posture and turn from being fresh-faced puppy-dog to more overwrought. I was really impressed with him in the later stages, where he’s now public enemy number one. I feel like his entire demeanor and posture changes. We talked a lot about that. It’s an interesting performance because he’s at the center of every scene, but sometimes entire scenes can go by without him saying anything. And then when he suddenly does say something — I think he says nothing for two scenes in a row, and then he says “No” to Jamie Foxx’s psycho character, and you can feel the audience go, “Oh, dear.”
The action sequences are all staged like musical numbers; the opening almost feels like something out of West Side Story. Are all of those cuts and camera moves in time with the music figured out ahead of time or do you find some in editing? It’s all worked out before. All of the music was cleared before we started shooting, and it’s all written into the script. Even before we started shooting, I storyboarded the entire movie, and then we would cut the storyboards to the music. Even though there’d be some room to maneuver within there, some of those things were very specific. In the “Tequila” sequence, there’s a dueling drum solo, and every single one of their drumbeats is in time with the shooting, so that was something that we worked out in editing. We shot it on video so we knew exactly which part was which. The order of shots never changed. They are shooting in a very specific order. It’s a lot of work, but it also means that there’s also zero fat in the coverage. There’s not a shot in that “Tequila” sequence that we shot and didn’t use. Within the song, you have the anchor point, in terms of, “Okay, it’s this point in ‘Bellbottoms’ when he turns around the corner, and it’s this part in the music where he’s being chased by six police cars. In this part of ‘Hocus Pocus,’ when there’s the yodeling breakdown, Ansel’s going to be hiding behind this tree, and he’s going to look around at four different points, and then he’s going to start running again when the guitar kicks in. At this point in ‘Let It Rock,’ when there’s this downbeat bridge, this is when Baby goes into hiding and they’re searching for him.” So we have all the animatics, and we work it out for the entire song.
One time it changed and became something that’s a happy accident — because I don’t want it to sound completely sterile, that we made the movie in a robotic fashion just following the boards. In the second car chase, which is the Damned song “Neat Neat Neat,” we’d done the storyboards and the animatics. I remember Bill Pope, my DP, saying, “You haven’t given enough time to some of these stunts in the animatic. The animatic is going very fast, and some of these stunts are going to play out longer onscreen. You should think about that.” I did, and he was right, because as we started doing that sequence, I had basically run out of song maybe about 60 seconds before the scene was over. We had shot all of this action stuff and it was really good, so you go into this conundrum: “I don’t really want to cut this scene down to fit the song, and I don’t really want to have a second song,” because when you start the second song I feel like people start to feel the scene is overextended. So in that sequence, they get out of their car, they get back in the traffic jam, they run to the front of the traffic and carjack the lady’s truck, and as they get in I shot this insert — after we knew we had a duration problem — there’s a little bit where Baby rewinds the song and starts playing it again. That was not in the script. I’d seen the sequence cut together, and I thought, “Oh, boy, we need to find another 60 seconds.” Literally on the last day of shooting, we shot a shot of Ansel rewinding the iPod, sitting in that car, and then put it into the sequence. I think they put it into one of the trailers. It also makes sense for the character: He had it all worked out to that bit of music, but what they weren’t counting on was a member of the public ramming their car, curtailing their escape by 30 seconds. So Baby feels like, “We’re in the clear now, let me rewind the song to the last chorus and we’ll start again.”
As a fan of yours, I’m so happy that you continue to do original material as opposed to for-hire assignments or things based on pre-existing properties, but I was wondering if that’s gotten harder for you since Shaun of the Dead. Do you see the industry having changed for guys who do the kind of thing you do, these midrange, personal genre films? Definitely. Yes, for sure. One thing I’d say, I feel incredibly fortunate. It feels miraculous in this day and age to make an original movie. I have to give credit to so many at [production company] MRC for letting me make an original movie at a studio, which is rare. I was actually at the ArcLight in Los Angeles the other day. Do you know the ArcLight?
Yeah, I live two blocks away from it. So you know that big wall of posters? I saw Chris Nolan the other day. I said, “Do you know what our movies have in common now among all of those posters?” “What?” “They’re the only two original posters on that wall!” Everything else is a sequel or a reboot or an adaptation of pre-existing material. It is difficult. That’s not to say that I would never do a franchise movie — I would never be foolish enough to say in print that I would never do one, because if the right one came along and I felt like I could do my thing with it, why not? But on the flip side, if you have the chance to make an original movie and you can, I think in this day and age it’s so important to the future of film history to make as many original movies as possible. It’s almost like planting seeds for the future. I don’t think you can keep doing the same 15 franchises until the end of time.