You know that feeling at the end of a kickass movie when you just want to hug someone because you are SO. PUMPED. UP? Well, get ready for Baby Driver, the first solo writing effort from Edgar Wright, the mad co-creator of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which debuted in front of exactly the kind of late-night audience that would appreciate the hell out of it at the South by Southwest Film Festival Saturday night.
The world got a sense of what we in that Austin movie theater were experiencing when the trailer started flying across Twitter just after the screening ended, and viewers started sharing their praise.
But nothing can prepare you for the 112-minute adrenaline rush that is Baby Driver, a heist extravaganza that plays out like blasting your coolest friend’s record collection in your car at 100 mph on the Atlanta freeway while cops close in on all sides — essentially what happens in the movie again and again, to always-riveting effect. The simple story of a baby-faced getaway driver named Baby (a nimble, supremely confident Ansel Elgort) trying to do enough jobs to get out of the crime biz, it has the manic energy of Go, the rock-and-roll marauding of Quadrophenia, the party-time joy of Wayne’s World’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene, the earnest romance of Say Anything — and I’ll probably come up with a whole new set of references today. (Wright mentioned he’d been inspired by the “holy trinity” of ’90s heist movies: Heat, Point Break, and Reservoir Dogs.) If you don’t want to go home and blast the soundtrack for hours after watching it, I worry for your soul. I’m writing this on three cups of coffee, listening to the opening song, “Bellbottoms,” from the Jon Specter Blues Explosion on repeat. Does it show?
Want to get a sense of the virtuosic opening scene, which, like every other action scene in the movie, is timed to music to the second and choreographed by Ryan Heffington (of Sia’s “Chandelier” video fame)? Take a look at the music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song,” which Wright directed in 2002, and focuses on a getaway driver jamming out while his cohorts rob a bank. Then add on the high-speed pursuit you imagine follows — then throw that idea out completely because Baby Driver’s opening is so much more exhilarating that that. It’s full of cars driving backwards, flying over barricades, and weaving against traffic. Jon Hamm’s slick-haired sadist Buddy spends the sequence freaking out but also loving it. I’m guessing that’s exactly how you’ll feel, too.
In a post-screening Q&A moderated by Austin’s own Robert Rodriguez, Wright said he actually first dreamed up a car-chase-jukebox-movie-musical back in 1995, and got “really mad at myself for using up this idea in a music video.” Luckily, he got financing in 2007 and had the luxury of spending the last four years doing “research,” riding around with ex-cons and real bank robbers to make sure his action was as realistic as possible. In all, he’s spent a total of 22 years on this project; as Wright points out, that’s as long as Elgort has been alive. “He literally is the baby of this movie.”
Many on Twitter compared Baby Driver to a revved up La La Land with its endless stream of tracks and vibrant cityscapes. (A laundromat love scene where every dryer is spinning clothes of a different primary color is particularly arresting.) But beyond the car chases, violence, and music is the abundance of juicy roles for actors of all ages and ethnicities/ There’s Jamie Foxx’s paranoid criminal; Eliza González’s AK-47-toting badass; tattooed thug Lanny Joon; C.J. Jones, who is black and deaf, as Baby’s foster father; and Kevin Spacey as an evil bossman. That’s not to mention the many ATL rappers who pop up, like Big Boi and Killer Mike.
The actors clearly relished working with one another, and it’s a joy to behold. Wright says that every time Jon Hamm’s face showed up on a monitor, Jamie Foxx would talk about how handsome he was, then walk away. For his part, Hamm goes literal ham as the movie’s villain. “How did I learn to be mean and awful and vindictive?” he said at the Q&A. “Just be an actor in L.A. for 20-some-odd years.”
There is so, so much to love in Baby Driver, from the intentionally overwrought dialogue (“He’s either hard as nails or scared as shit”) to the breathtaking car chases that keep getting more uncomfortable to watch as the stakes get higher. Adding to the intensity is how real it all looks: There’s no CGI, and almost no green-screen shots. Those insane freeway chases were really shot on Atlanta’s I-85, which Wright somehow got the city to shut down in the middle of the day, twice — a feat that’s almost unheard of. (There’s a reason most movie car chases take place at night.)
Every time Wright wanted Elgort to look tough, he’d shout out code commands like, “Man driver!” or “Clockwork Orange Face!”, which meant to lean his head down, but keep his eyes up. Of course, Elgort is so young he’s never seen the movie. “I literally got a still of Malcolm McDowell and was like, ‘Like this,’” says Wright.
To get the shots he needed, Wright would strap himself to the car rather than follow in a pursuit vehicle. “Sometimes if you’re in the command van that’s following,” he explained, “the satellite thing can [break] and you can’t see, can’t direct, can’t talk to the actors. It’s one of those hare-brained things that once you’ve committed to it, you have to do it.”
For Hamm, seeing the director in his harness was like “looking at a floppy, sunburned muppet.” He remembers thinking, “That can’t be healthy. He’s really going to pull something.”
“Every single take would catch me by surprise,” Wright said. “I would never, ever be ready for the speed that the car was taking off. I hit my head on my monitors so many times. And because you’re in front of a bunch of stunt dudes you’re like, ‘I’m good! I’m good!’”
To give away any more would in itself be highway robbery, but I’ll leave you with this: If the making of this movie included a diminutive, sunburnt Englishman strapped to a speeding car, shouting “Man Driver!” to Don Draper, Django, Kaiser Söze, and the kid from Fault in Our Stars, well, just imagine what treasures await onscreen.