Edgar Wright Explains His Best Musical Moments

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Edgar Wright at Vulture Festival. Photo: Kyle Dorosz/Vulture

It’s sort of a shame that Edgar Wright hasn’t done more music videos. The writer-director has memorably blended sizzling scenes with titillating tunes on a variety of filmic occasions, in works of his like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End, and his turn-of-the-millennium U.K. TV series Spaced. His latest film, Baby Driver, is perhaps his most audio-focused project to date — it stars Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver who constantly listens to music on headphones while working, and desperately needs the perfect song for every occasion. In an onstage interview at this year’s Vulture Festival, I sat down with Wright to talk about some of his most effective musical moments.

Music video: “Blue Song” by Mint Royale

Tell me about making that video.
I shot it in 2002. There was a period when, between Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, we were trying to get Shaun of the Dead made. Which was probably, I guess, a two-year period where I wasn’t really directing anything. I occasionally did music videos, and so that was one. And what’s funny is that Baby Driver — I’d already had the idea for that movie. And I did this video, it was basically sort of that last-minute cramming thing, when you’re supposed to do a music video and you don’t have an idea, and then it’s like, “Oh, fuck it. I’ll do this idea from this movie.” And I was really mad at myself, because I thought, Aw, I was gonna do a movie out of that and I used it in this music video. And now it’s gone. It’s funny, I actually had the idea for Baby Driver  which we’ll talk about at the end — but it’s literally as old as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song, “Bellbottoms,” which is, like, 22 years old.

[To audience:] That reference is significant for the rest of our conversation. He doesn’t just measure years by how distant they are from the release of “Bellbottoms.”
Yes. That’s how I set my watch, to when that song came out. [Laughs.] But what’s funny is that I did this screening, this thing at the L.A. Film Festival about seven years ago with J.J. Abrams, in conversation with him. And he wanted to show that video. And whilst we were showing the video to the audience, he leaned over to me and he said, “This would make a great movie.” [Audience laughs.] And I was like, “I am way ahead of you.” It’s actually sweet, he got to watch it last night after me talking about it for years.

Good review?
Yeah, he loved it. Which was great. But I’ve done some music videos, and there were some I liked doing. I love doing them. It doesn’t often come about that it’s the right thing at the right time and with the right people. I mean, something like that, that video cost like 20 grand. And all of those actors did it for nothing. Just for a laugh, you know?

Low on CGI.
Very low on CGI.

What’s different about doing a music video versus doing a scene in a movie or a show that is heavy on music?
Not that much. In fact, in a way, the best thing about doing music videos or commercials is — you should road test something that you want to do. So actually there were a couple of music videos around that time where I was sort of trying things out for Shaun of the Dead. There’s another music video I did around the same time for the Blue Tones, which was all in one shot with a long Steadicam shot. And, again, I had a scene in Shaun of the Dead that was a big Steadicam thing. So sometimes it’s like using music videos to just try something out, like a piece of equipment or something you want to do, and just have the confidence to do it. It gave me the confidence to do scenes like that in other films. Working with a choreographer, that kind of thing.

Jumping back in time, what were some songs in film and television that you remember watching as a youth and going, Oh, that’d be really cool to do if I ever got the opportunity to sync up music and film?
I think there’s so many directors that their use of music I really admire and love. Like, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But the one that I think is really the light bulb, in terms of the perfect marriage of music and film, is also one of my favorite movies, An American Werewolf in London. And John Landis’s use of pop songs in that movie, I honestly think … I’m not gonna spoil it if you haven’t see the movie.

There’s a werewolf.
There’s a werewolf in it. It’s in London. And he’s American. The end of the movie, they cut to black. And the song that comes on I think is one of the best music cues ever. It’s just the timing of it, the song that plays. So I won’t tell you what happens at the end if you haven’t seen the movie, because you should. But it’s just a cut to black and this doo-wop version of “Blue Moon.” And any time I see that movie, I’m just like, Ugh. It’s just the best. The other big film as well that predates all of those, I think, that doesn’t really get enough credit that’s a great jukebox movie is American Graffiti. When that came out in the early ’70s, I think that was one of the first movies that had an entirely diegetic soundtrack. Diegetic meaning that it’s not a score, it’s all happening in the scene. It’s all at prom, or at the diner, or on somebody’s radio.

Were there songs that you, before you were a professional filmmaker, would listen to and would just start to choreograph a scene in your head with?
Yeah. That’s basically how Baby Driver came about. I was listening to the song “Bellbottoms” from the album Orange a lot.

[To audience:] I told you it was going to be important later!
And this is before I was really a director. It was actually after I’d made A Fistful of Fingers, but before I was really working. I just listened to this song, and I’d start to imagine a car chase. And I didn’t know what the story was, or who the characters were or what was gonna happen, other than that it would be great to do a car chase to this song. A lot of times you kind of come up with songs and you think, This would be great in something. That’s probably where the Queen song in Shaun of the Dead came from. It’s a song I really love, and you sort of just get inspired by it. And sometimes, if an old song doesn’t really have a music video, you start to imagine. But like, you don’t really listen to “Thriller” and think, I’ve got a great idea!

Right, “Thriller” is sort of taken at this point.
“Thriller” is done. Somebody did that already. But when it’s music that doesn’t have an image that you immediately jump to, then it sets your imagination running riot, y’know?

Spaced

Have you watched that recently? You were really enjoying it there.
[Laughs.] I actually teared up, it made me laugh so much. It begs the question, If you were shooting an imaginary gun, why would it jam?

Yes, there’s a lot of questions about that scene. So tell me about the origins of it. 
I don’t know. Spaced was a show I did with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. Brief backstory is that I used to make films as a kid, and then I went to art college and making amateur films turned into doing a film on 16mm. I moved to London to edit that movie and I very quickly — through Matt Lucas and David Williams, the Little Britain guys, they saw my movie at the one cinema in London that it played, I started doing TV with them — immediately after that show, one of their friends was Simon Pegg. Like, David Williams and Simon Pegg went to the same college.

So I met Simon through them, I did a show with Simon that also had Jessica in it, and then it worked so well together that we ended up doing Spaced on Channel 4, which is one of the main networks in the U.K. It was an amazing time. And during that time, I had also started doing other TV stuff. For probably about three years between first doing TV and Spaced coming around. And I love the other TV shows I did, but they were already established shows with performers who were maybe 20 years older than me. And then when Spaced came around, it was great because we were all in our mid-20s. I was 24 when I directed Spaced.

It’s like a tech start-up now. Everybody’s young and doesn’t really know how to run a professional operation.
It’s amazing. It’s one of those things where people say, “How did you do it? How did you get away with it?” You don’t really have the answer, because as you’re doing it, nobody’s telling you. It was not a big enough budget show for [the channel] ever to really … We didn’t really have any notes or anything. I think the only rule that we had is that you couldn’t say “fuck” more than twice.

That’s more than you can do in the U.S.
It was really strange. It was also weird, it was on Channel 4 and it used to be on in between Friends and Frasier.

That’s a primo spot!
We would lose the lead from Friends every week. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Spaced, but there’s an episode that starts with a zombie scene, which is the thing that sort of inspired Shaun of the Dead. And one of my proudest moments is the network announcer saying after Friends, “Next up, Spaced. Which features strong language, and violent imagery from the start.” And I was like, “Yeah! Fuck you, Friends!” It was just weird that this show was on in between these two shows, and we had this kind of primo spot. And it wasn’t like it was a big hit at the time. It didn’t really start taking off until it was on DVD. Just an amazing time with a great bunch of people. It was Nick Frost’s first acting gig at all in that show. Simon Pegg actually lied to get him the job, because he’d never acted before. And the producer said that there was another actor … In the U.K. it’s called Equity. It’s like SAG. There was another guy in Equity called Nick Frost. So they lied to the producers. They said, “What else has Nick been in?” And they said, “Oh, he’s done The Bill, and Heartbeat.” Poor other Nick Frost. We apologize.

One of the other things I love about Spaced is you have all of these action sequences that look like they were made for 20 bucks, but you throw the actors and the camera angles into them as though you have this enormous budget. How do you shoot a scene like that to make it look exciting when you just have people with their fingers?
I don’t know. I mean, I guess this continues through into the U.K. films. I think the product of Spaced and also some of the British movies that I did with Simon, it that thing of … I came from a pretty quiet part of the U.K. In fact, the Hot Fuzz town is my hometown. So that’s my neck of the woods, southwestern England. And so I think a lot of the work is that disparity of where I live and how quiet it is and the kind of movies I love. It’s always this sort of aspirational escapism of living vicariously. That’s kind of what Spaced was about, as well — these people who are sort of not working and sort of living in a shitty apartment, dreaming in the media they consume, whether it’s video games, or films, or TV, or music. I guess that was it, really. I think it’s one of those things where people say, “How did you learn to direct?” It’s like, look at your favorite films and figure out how they’re made by just doing it. Just break down a bunch of John Woo movies and then try to get a camera and figure out how to do it.

Shaun of the Dead

Tell me about the origins of that scene.
I don’t know if jukeboxes in this country do this, but in jukeboxes and pubs in the U.K., if you don’t put money in, they just start playing on their own. I used to find it funny. Simon and Nick always used to go to the same pub around the corner from their house. And they used to kind of annoy me. It’s sort of like the dialogue that Kate Ashfield has in the movie is like me talking. If you wanted to hang out with Simon and Nick, you had to go to this pub. They — and I’ll say this on record — thought it was amazing, but it was a shit hole. Simon absolutely disagrees on that. Around the time we were writing it, I used to find it funny. Like, why do you guys love this pub so much? There’s nothing special about it. You’d be sitting there in the afternoon, talking, and then the jukebox would — suddenly, ELO would just come on. So it was just the idea of, in the tense situation, what if [the jukebox] just started playing? And what if it was the most joyous song possible? And I always used to love that Queen song, and I thought it sounds like a show tune. The other good thing is they let us use this for the movie, and they didn’t charge us that much money, because we’re not a big-budget film. Our B plan, in case it didn’t clear, was the song “Rasputin” by Boney M.

Classic.
Definitely worth a listen. It’s a disco version of the history of Rasputin.

Hot Fuzz

So what’s funny or exciting to you about montages? You’re quite good at them.
Having grown up in the country, it’s not that bad things didn’t go on in my hometown, but it’s very quiet, and rural, and pastoral. And I just thought it would be funny to do a cop movie set in my sleepy hometown, as if Tony Scott or Michael Bay would shoot there. So it’s super adrenalized. I was thinking about Tony Scott the other day. Because in a way, Tony Scott, a lot of his work is sort of the biggest Hollywood bombast in terms of things like Man on Fire and Domino. And then you think, well, Tony Scott is English. Tony Scott is an English director from the Northeast. So I like a lot of those movies. I like action movies and stuff, so the idea of going all-out with that technique, with British police that don’t carry guns, was inherently funny to me. I like doing montages. I think a lot of that came through in Spaced. I like sequences that are really dense in visual information. I don’t even know how many whip pans are in Hot Fuzz.

I was about to say, you also love the zooms. The fast zoom.
It was the tenth anniversary [of Hot Fuzz] the other day and I did a Q&A with the DP, and I think Hot Fuzz had, like, 1,700 camera setups in it. A ridiculous amount. But particularly for that kind of thing, I like the visual density of it. Hopefully, if you enjoy the movie, you just want to watch it again to just take everything in. That particular one, that’s one of the reasons to have that really long shot of him walking out. To sort of have that, then a barrage of a thousand shots.

And I can’t imagine how much footage you had to shoot in order to get this 90-second thing. Because you have to get all these different scenes.
I will say this, and this has continued into the new movies: There’s not a lot, in fact. I don’t shoot it like Michael Bay or Tony Scott would, where those guys have got 14 cameras running and they’re burning footage of stuff. Because it’s a lower-budget film, there isn’t any other shot than the ones you saw. It’s very precise, and it’s all storyboarded. It’s not like those are 5 percent of the shots we did. Pretty much every shot of those 1,700 setups is in the movie. There’s no waste, so it is quite precise.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

What was it like to suddenly have access to a comparatively enormous budget to do big scenes like that?
It’s funny thinking about watching the assistant director explain that scene to the extras. “So, you’re looking up and there’s, like, two sonic dragons. And over here, they’ve got a yeti.” [Laughs.] Fond recollection. I mean, I think the thing is, with something like that, all of them just become about the planning, really. And this goes for any movie, but especially something like that. You sort of have to go in with it completely planned out before. I don’t usually do this anyway, but it’s not the kind of movie where you’re going in and winging anything. It’s plotted out to the millisecond, everything is very precise. And that’s the only real way to get through doing complicated scenes like that.

I remember that was towards the end of the shoot, and I remember at some points feeling like an octopus because I was standing by the monitor and you have to cue so many different things. And I remember, there was always light bulbs going off in Scott Pilgrim. We had endless light bulb cues, which are linked sometimes to music, sometimes just to impacts of stuff. So my main memory of doing that movie is standing with my monitor, and eventually they put a switch — it was, like, the Edgar button. And it was the button to set off the light bulbs. In the end of the movie, when he’s having a sword fight with Jason Schwartzman, every time they hit each other a light bulb would go off. And it’s all painted out later, but there’s these light bulbs everywhere. And Michael Cera always said it took him weeks afterwards not to hear the sound. And I just remember shooting that scene with a button, and watching the monitor, and setting the button off to bits of the music. It’s very complicated. It’s usually those scenes that, whatever order you do the film in, always get scheduled two-thirds through the shoot and everybody’s exhausted. People reached their wit’s end, and I think that was probably a scene where everybody’s tired. But I have such fond memories of the shoot because of the cast.

Baby Driver

How narrowly did you avert disaster while shooting that?
I mean, there’s some amazing stunt driving in that. Jeremy Fry is the stunt driver, and that shot in the alley is pretty hairy. There are some times when you’re watching the monitor, and when he reverses out the street and then does that 270 and comes right past the camera. I mean, right past the camera, you watch that and you go, Whoa. Nobody crashed into anybody, but it was sort of hairy. I’d done some car stuff in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. And Shaun, in fact, as well. But nothing to this extent. And I knew it was gonna be like this, but car chases are as painstaking to make as they are fun to watch. Because there’s no easy shot, and every shot has to be safe. So everything takes a long time.

And the other thing that we did in that sequence, which sort of flies against what people are doing in other movies now — not mentioning any names of any current big car-chase movies — but a lot of those actor shots are on green screen. Those guys are nowhere near the rest of the action. Usually on a practical level. They might be shooting in Atlanta and the other people are in Iceland or whatever. Again, not mentioning any names. [Audience laughs.] And some of the people who worked on those movies worked on this. But we shot all of the actor shots for real on the freeways and stuff.

Oh my god!
When you say that, the producers are looking at you like, Are you crazy? Every time you’re doing one of those sequences, the stunt guys do the wide shots, and then you go in with the actors and you basically follow up. So there’s the shots with Ansel [Elgort] and Jon Hamm and Jon Bernthal and Eiza González. They’re traveling at high speeds in this thing called the Pod. Occasionally, there’s some shots in the movie where Ansel’s actually free-driving. And most of the other ones, there’s this thing called the Pod. Well, not the Pod. There’s the Pod, and then there’s also the Biscuit. [Audience laughs.] It’s called the Biscuit — this is true — because it was developed for the movie Seabiscuit. They figured out a way to make a horse rig and stuff. It’s not on a trailer. It’s literally the Subaru mounted on a really low trailer, and then a driver is in a pod on the outside. But that means that you can go 80 miles an hour. So Ansel and Jon and company are all on the I-85. And that’s the thing. It adds so much realism to it. You just get all the real talk, and people’s hair moving and stuff. Ansel, he’s not driving, but he has to mirror exactly what the driver’s doing. So you’ve still got to think about your 180s and what the order is you’ve got to do it in and do it at the same time that they’re actually doing it. It’s sort of amazing to watch that stuff, doing those crazy turns. But yeah, it’s a huge, herculean amount of work. It’s more fun to watch.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Baby Driver’s Edgar Wright on His Best Musical Moments