The Great Escape
Written by Valentina Valentini | Photographed by Myles Pettengill
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder sits on Edgar Wright’s coffee table. It’s the infamous how-to-be-a-screenwriter book that half of Hollywood hates and the other half lives by. “I find [those types of books] fascinating even if you don't agree with them,” says Wright, sitting in his under-utilized backyard at his Los Feliz home.
The other books and DVDs, records and posters that haphazardly mark Wright’s Spanish revival home are exactly what you’d want in a director’s home: Cult Movies by Danny Peary, the vinyl soundtrack of Aliens, A Chorus Line DVD still with it’s orange $4.99 sticker slapped on, a mini Taschen on Stanley Kubrick and a VHS of Shaun of the Dead (2004). That last one is his. As in, he made it.
Wright was only 20 when he made his first film, A Fistful of Fingers (1995), a quirky comedic western set in southwestern England. Since then he’s given us Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (2007), The World’s End (2013) all part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy co-written with Simon Pegg Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and more. This August, he’s bringing Baby Driver to the screen; his first departure from his comedic chops in the form of a thriller- heist-getaway starring Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx and Lily James.
Malibu Magazine sat with the 43-year-old British director to talk about his process as a filmmaker, his challenges he hopes are yet to come and why film criticism is important to him.
MM What was it like writing on your own for the first time since your first film?
EW Perhaps it’s because Baby Driver is a departure from the other movies that I felt like it was something I wanted to do solo. And also because it isn't specifically a comedy; writing comedies is always more fun in a pair because you're bouncing off each other. I was forging some new ground writing on my own, and there was just so much more research scouring the L.A. Times crime section and such and meeting experts on this one, like ex- cons and police officers. That was a really interesting experience. So after having this idea in my head for the better part of 22 years, I didn't really know how to start writing it. It was probably the most difficult thing I have written because I could see the movie so clearly I even remember telling a producer friend that I could draw the whole movie and shoot it tomorrow but writing it down was proving to be really tough.
MM What was the writing process like?
EW That’s an interesting thing with an action film—it's an odd process to write visuals because usually what happens is a screenwriter writes for a director. I mean, if you're a writer and somebody else is directing, you're also trying to get across what it might look and feel like in the script, but if you're writing for yourself to direct, there is an element of wondering who you are trying to communicate to. This screenplay is probably an interesting read because what I’m trying to get across in words is what eventually will be action and sound.
MM Do you have an audience in mind when you're writing?
EW First and foremost you have to make a movie that you would want to go and see. Maybe that's clear from the kind of movies I make? I'm making something I would want to see and hope that other people would want that too. I don’t write in terms of, “This is what people want or this is what’s hip right now.” Usually I start by thinking about what kind of movie do I miss; what would I like to see that hasn't been done for a while or a different take on something? I’m trying to make somebody's favorite movie. It might not be the biggest grossing movie of all time, but if it touches somebody else in a way that the movies I loved when I was little did, [then I’ve done well].
MM Do you ever change aspects of the film once you’re shooting?
EW I don't really do a lot of that. Once I’m making the movie, it's pretty much locked down. I'm not a big improv guy, and even on the comedies I think people always just assume that they were semi-improvised. But I really don’t know what gives that impression—all the lines are really tight.
"I’m trying to make somebody's favorite movie. It might not be the biggest grossing movie of all time, but if it touches somebody else in a way that the movies I loved when I was little did, [then I’ve done well]."
MM When making your movies, is there anything that you’re obsessive over?
EW If I've seen it in my head a certain way, I can't really imagine it another way [he laughs]. That is probably a blessing and a curse. It’s good in terms of being absolutely laser-focused on [your vision]. I'm definitely obsessive in terms of the way it's shot and how many shots we need to make it work. We did three extra days of close-ups of hands and gear sticks and tachometers and steering wheels on Baby Driver, and then we did another three days of reshoots after that. I think the thing is, when I made that movie [A Fistful of Fingers] when I was 20, straight out of art college, zero- budget, the first time I’d shot on Super 16, I really gave myself over to the professionals. Because I was so young I submitted to their way of doing things, which was totally fine and more traditional, but one thing that haunted me about that movie is that I never really got enough coverage— not enough angles or shots. That has been the biggest motivator in the rest of my work visually, having been in that situation with my first film of not being able to do anything with the footage because there was nothing to cut to.
MM Is there something you want to accomplish as a filmmaker that you haven't already?
EW Always challenging myself is the important thing. There are lots of genres I haven't done before that I’d like to do—a true story or a drama or a straight horror film, not a comedy, that would be a real challenge. I was challenging myself with this one, because my inspiration for the movie stemmed from having done musical sequences in my other work. I’d always really loved doing them and I guess was me saying, “How can I do that for an entire movie? How do I come up with a premise whereby the entire movie is like a musical sequence?”
MM What is your relationship to music?
EW It’s similar to the lead character [Baby, played by Elgort] in a way—I did have tinnitus as a kid, and [music] is a way to get inspired or get motivated. I use music as a kind of audio caffeine, a soundtrack to my life. I usually can't write without the right kind of music playing – nothing with too many lyrics because they can be distracting—I’ve got endless playlists of instrumentals and scores: Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone and John Barry... I can listen to John Barry scores forever. For Baby Driver I made a heist playlist that was like 200 tracks.
MM What is your take on film criticism?
EW I would be sad if it was gone. I mean, I think it's great. It’s a necessary thing and really it’s how I got interested in films in the first place, through film writing. I used to memorize like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. I remember finding Danny Peary’s books in the library at art college, pre- Internet days. I used to make little lists of all these movies I wanted to see. Also, Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide was a great influence. In this day and age though, it’s interesting with Twitter—there's a real rush to write a review 60-seconds after leaving the cinema. And I do that myself sometimes, but also maybe you need to let things stew a little bit before you have a response. After [the premiere at] South by Southwest, there were some reviews. My favorite one said: “Gone in 60 Seconds directed by Busby Berkeley” and I was like, “That sounds like my kind of movie!” And I made it. It is my kind of movie.
MM That must feel so amazing...
EW It was great. That quote is too esoteric for the poster, but I love that writer for it, so that's why I love film criticism, he said into the mic very loudly [laughs].
MM Baby Driver had its challenges—driving stunts, action sequences, a big cast – but what was the most challenging thing for you personally?
EW I feel very fortunate having a movie out this summer that’s an original movie. I was at the Arclight and they have all of the summer posters up. Baby Driver was the odd one out among those posters because it was the only original screenplay. Every other one was a sequel or a reboot or an adaptation of a comic or an adaptation of some pre-existing material. So for me, the biggest challenge is making an original movie in this climate, and one that’s backed by a studio as well. I feel extremely fortunate that I got to make this movie right now. MM