Edgar Wright on ‘Baby Driver’ and the Song That Started It All
When Baby Driver premiered at SXSW, critics and festival attendees were quick to invoke La La Land, with many (myself included) calling Edgar Wright’s latest film an even more effective love letter to ( and subversion of) cinematic classics — perhaps because he’s not really interested in playing the “greatest hits,” as evidenced by the films he’s paying homage to as well as his eclectic song selections. And that’s exactly what makes Baby Driver an instant hit in Wright’s filmography.
Wright’s long-awaited follow-up to The World’s End stars Ansel Elgort as a talented getaway driver who relies on the beat of his personal soundtrack to enhance his skills. Inspired by heist films like Point Break and The Driver, Baby Driver is not a musical in the conventional sense, but one in which the action (like its title character) is driven by diegetic sound. I spoke with Wright about all of this and much more during his recent trip to Austin, where he was the surprise guest at a special screening to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater that holds a very special place in his heart. Our 10-minute interview quickly morphed into 20 because, as Wright himself would tell you, the man can talk.
What brings you to town?
I am here because it is the Alamo Drafthouse’s 20th anniversary. I did not know that until they told me that, that it had started in 1997.
And the Drafthouse is really special to you because it’s the first place where you screened Shaun of the Dead in the U.S., right?
Yeah, I remember it vividly. Actually, the first time I ever showed the movie to anybody in the States was in 2004, early 2004 before the movie was even coming out, and this might not be a great story for your website, but it’s true. There was no U.S. profile for the movie at all, even though it was essentially a Universal movie, ’cause Universal financed Shaun of the Dead but it was a Working Title movie. So there were no plans for a U.S. release at all and I thought that I’ll get it to the guys at Ain’t It Cool News. So I convinced Universal UK to fly me to Austin, which I did — first time, I came on my own, and I want to say it was at South Lamar [Drafthouse location], but maybe it was ... was there one called Lakeside as well?
There was a Lake Creek location.
You know, Tim [League, Alamo Drafthouse CEO] will remember either way. I came out and it’s this cinema with only a couple of people in it, a few writers and Tim as well, watching Shaun of the Dead in an otherwise empty Alamo Drafthouse theater. They had no idea what they were watching, none of them had seen Spaced, and they all, like, flipped over it. And then they ran reviews on the website, and those quotes ended up on the UK poster. Then Focus decided to release it [in the U.S.] because prior to that it was going to go straight to video.
And then on top of that, I remember vividly our first kind of Q&A for Shaun of the Dead with Simon [Pegg] and Nick [Frost] in Austin, and Robert Rodriguez was in the audience — and you know we always had a fond connection to Austin and they’ve been so very nice to us over the years. It was actually nice then to do SXSW, which was the first place to show Baby Driver.
It’s such a great film. It made me so happy.
It’s both the most you movie you’ve ever made and sort of unexpected — it’s not as visually stylized as something like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. This time so much of the style is in the music and the rhythm.
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny in a way. It’s a departure, but it’s also something that’s been in my brain for longer than Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, so in a way maybe those things were building up to this one. And I certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this before Shaun of the Dead or even 10 years ago.
I actually saw this through the time I spent in the States. Specifically, about 10 years ago, I drove from New York to Los Angeles on my own and did my whole Jack Kerouac episode. I think I wouldn’t have felt that confident making the movie if I hadn’t. I was spending a lot of time here and I wrote the film in Los Angeles — I originally wrote it for Los Angeles, and then because of tax breaks and things we went looking elsewhere. Atlanta is a place I’ve been to a bunch of times, but every time I’ve been there I’d either been on a press tour or stuck in a hotel or stuck in the studio in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t until Atlanta became one of the potential candidates to do the movie that I had to ask the location manager, “Can we just spend like four days going around, seeing everywhere I’ve never seen before?”
And through that it really started to jump out at me, that this is the place to make the movie, partly because it is such a music and cars city, and it’s such a muscle car city as well, but L.A. is like, very much the city of Prius — even I drive a Prius in Los Angeles. But when you go around Atlanta, there’s still, like, Chargers, Challengers, Trans Ams, Mustangs, Camaros. It’s everywhere. And also there’s the spirit of Smokey and the Bandit looming large over Atlanta, Georgia. So it felt spiritually right.
Also, actually, I think what benefits the script is that Los Angeles is in the West, and for anybody in any part of the country in a movie, whether you’re in Georgia or even in Arizona, it’s always about heading for the coast or heading West.
You know, it was also spending a lot of time of the States and seeing all of the endless retro diners and that sort of crystallized Americana thing. I always wonder what it’s like for characters who, at the age of Deborah [Lily James’ character in the film], people in their early 20s, in these diners with these kind of 50s aesthetics — it’s kind of interesting, because when I was growing up, I used to watch Happy Days as a kid, and I didn’t realize that Happy Days was set in the ’50s. I thought that’s what ’70s America was like. Let’s be honest, Scott Baio’s haircut strategy is very ’70s, so it kind of confuses the whole thing. I just assumed that’s what the States must be like. Oh, that was a very long answer.
It’s okay [laughs]. I know you’ve spoken at length about some of the films that inspired Baby Driver, but the one that sticks out to me the most is Point Break, which is one of the greatest films ever made.
I agree! I think it should be taken off the guilty pleasure shelf and just be regarded as an outright classic.
Anyone who calls that movie a guilty pleasure is a monster.
I think I’ve gone off the whole idea of guilty pleasures, full stop. When you start making movies, you start to realize nobody sets out to make a bad movie, so even just the idea of guilty pleasures — and I’ve done it before with things like Riki-Oh, and I remember feeling bad about it. l was doing a screening of Riki-Oh and sort of ragging on it and my staff coordinator said, “Oh, I know the star of that! He’s actually a really good guy and is much better than that movie.” As soon as he said that it made me think twice about ever doing anything like that again.
Let’s talk about the music that inspired Baby Driver. There was one song in particular that sort of kicked the whole thing off, right?
Yeah, that’s how the whole thing started. The reality of it is that, when I was 21 and living in London, I was broke. I was living in this flat in Bounds Green, and at that time I’d made my first movie, A Fistful of Fingers, but I certainly was not calling myself a film director at that point and I didn’t really know what was the next step. But I would be listening to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s album Orange, and I listened to “Bellbottoms” over and over again. And without even thinking that it was necessarily even a movie, it was just a completely unconscious visualization of action.
Growing up I always sort of liked pop music and rock music in films, but I would listen to that song and I would think of what I would see. A lot of the script came to me in that way, in terms of songs that would just inspire visuals. So the idea of literally doing a car chase, like the opening of the movie, is what I was imagining 22 years ago. Literally the thing of like, a car pulls up and then you cut around inside the car to the opening stabs, and then the guys get out and then they get in at this point in the song, and the lyrics kick in and that’s where he’s on his own and he’s goofing around.
So even just that alone then sparks off: Well, who’s this person who’s dancing in the car? And why is he dancing? Is he completely a “slave to the rhythm,” to quote Grace Jones? So then the idea of who’s that character becomes what about a getaway driver, who cannot operate without the rap music playing? I don’t know if you ever do that kind of thing where you are trying to soundtrack your own life.
Like, have you ever pulled up in front of a Starbucks and the song is about to finish and you wait until the song’s finished and then you get out of the car?
All the time.
So you and I are both Baby. I had that idea and it really came from that song, and then other songs, a lot of the other songs that are in the movie are ones that I would listen to them and they would really ... I don’t know, I don’t want to say I have synesthesia or something, but I wish I did. My synesthesia would be: I just start imagining scenes and that would go for the “Bellbottoms” scene or the “Tequila” scene. The scene with “Hocus Pocus,” the Barry White scene, like the whole ending with Queen — and things would speak to me and that in its essence, even that act of it has become synonymous with the character. So then it’s like the character is an extension of me. It’s like if you take something that you do and you push it to its furthest degree. I listened to music to motivate myself.
And you have to curate specific playlists, not just for different moods, but different actions and habits and places and moments in time.
I know! I do exactly the same thing. I have this whole gym playlist, but then I had a playlist of all the Rolling Stones songs and I’m thinking, “Oh, I should just get only Rolling Stones running songs!” You know, so you get very specific about it.
I think that’s the thing. In a way, imagining the movie and then the creation of the character sort of came hand-in-hand because you saw it coming with this fictitious character, but it’s also that thing, for example, where it’s not just the movies but the video games inspired by the movies, and the other way around.
Not necessarily by me playing a lot, but when my brother would play things like Driver and Grand Theft Auto, I started to think it’d be interesting to take a character who’s the age of a gamer and put him in these situations for real and give him a moral quandary, do you know what I mean? When you’re playing a game you can just start again, and I like the idea that the movie sort of takes him to account. It starts with the fantasy of being a getaway driver and ends up with this nightmare of being a criminal. I thought that was kind of an interesting thing, to see a crime movie through the perspective of a young lead and somebody who’s on the bubble of whether they’re a criminal or not.
With a film that’s heavy on automotive action, and knowing your cinematic sensibilities, what would you say is the ratio of CGI to practical effects in Baby Driver?
I’d say like, 95 percent practical. There’s a couple of green-screen shots toward the end of the movie, just when there’s some rigs. But 95 percent is real, because if you look at the chases on the freeways those X’s are on the freeway, which is crazy, so it’s a certain thing where you don’t have to do an enormous amount to get them hyped up.
If you’re doing something where people are doing stuff on a green screen, it’s all about getting them hyped up and having wind machines and all that kind of stuff. You don’t need to do any of that stuff when you’re traveling at 70 miles an hour on a freeway because it’s already exciting — it’s straight-up terrifying. And especially because they have to be so precise because we shot for two days on the I-85 in Atlanta, which is like the main highway there.
The thing is, you get a take and then if you have to stop again, you have to go about seven miles back around to start again. So with that sequence, it’s like “Okay, we’ve got three shots at this,” so everything becomes incredibly, intensely focused because the actors are all aware that we got a take and then we’ve got to go back around for take two. So it is all in camera, and that’s something that was very important to me, and it made it a lot more difficult for the production because the other thing we did is shoot the majority of the action during the day — which, you know, a lot of action films you’ll notice take place at night because it’s easier to close locations down.
We did all of it during the day because we thought it would raise the stakes, and it’s also more realistic because bank robberies don’t happen at night because banks aren’t open at night. So that was something to really make it pop from other movies that have nighttime car chases, like let’s do these all in broad daylight and right in the middle of town. It’s not easy but it really adds to the intensity.