Once upon a pair of wheels: Edgar Wright on Baby Driver
‘Closest thing to a British Quentin Tarantino’ on his movie about a getaway driver who loves tunes
“We’ve met before. For World’s End. No. Before then. Scott Pilgrim. In Dublin. I remember the room.” We always knew that Edgar Wright was a clever clogs. But only the top 10 per cent of the clever clogs community could - we’re guessing - describe exactly where you were sitting during a 30-minute interview from four years ago.
His passion for culture has dulled about as much as his memory. Indeed, the writer-director behind the Cornetto Trilogy – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – has lost little of the boyish enthusiasm he once brought to Spaced, his TV breakthrough, and to Shaun, his debut feature film.
Back in 1994, Wright, the closest thing there is to a British Quentin Tarantino, burst out of the local video store and on to TV with his spaghetti spoof, A Fistful Of Fingers (The Greatest Western Ever Made … In Somerset). Released in 2004, Shaun of the Dead would attract celebrity fans, including Tarantino and Landis. Since then, Wright has written The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, has racked up production credits on Son of Rambow, Attack the Block and Sightseers, and featured in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Land of the Dead and Sing.
“It never gets any easier,” he says. “I sometimes get asked about the difference between making low-budget films and Hollywood films. What difference? The sun is always going to be coming down or going up. Even with all the money in the world, you still have hard out when the sun goes down. Once it gets late, it gets dark. And I’m not King Canute.”
It’s just as well he’s philosophical about the business of moviemaking. In May, 2014, after developing Ant-Man for eight years, Wright abruptly left the project, citing differences with Marvel over its “vision of the film”. The finished film, as directed by Peyton Reed, with re-writes by Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd, retained plenty of Wright’s tics and wit. But it did rather leave fans pining for Wright’s original script (co-written with Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish), a script Joss Whedon described as “the best . . . Marvel ever had”.
Onwards and upwards. That setback brought Wright back to a project that has been germinating for more than 20 years. Just as Shaun of the Dead prided itself as being the planet’s first zom-rom-com, Baby Driver, Wright’s novel new action-comedy, is, as he puts it, “a car-chase musical; a car movie driven by music”.
“The kernel of the idea came around 22 years ago,” he says. “I had been listening to the John Spencer Blues Explosion album Orange. For the opening track Bellbottoms, I visualised a car chase. And over the years, I started to wonder what that car chase was about. What if it’s about a getaway driver who has to find the right music before he can drive? And I road-tested that idea in a music video in 2002 with Noel Fielding [for Mint Royale]. Which you see a tiny bit of in the movie.”
The film’s hero, named for a song by Simon and Garfunkel, is a youthful getaway driver played by Ansel Elgort (The Divergent Series, The Fault in Our Stars). Baby Driver repeatedly puts a pedal to the metal in order to pay off a debt to criminal kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), a job that brings him into contact with such undesirable fellows as the increasingly unhinged Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the entirely psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx). Baby hardly ever speaks, preferring sign language when he’s at home with his deaf foster father (the deaf stand-up CJ Jones) and his headphones. A romantic subplot brings Baby together with a singing waitress called Debora (Lily James), but the real love story here is between the boy and his headphones. Might this be an autobiographical detail?
I think that’s the thing. For a lot of people music is a really positive thing. There’s nobody in the world who doesn’t connect with music in some way."
“Funnily enough, I never had a Walkman as a kid,” says Wright. “I used to listen to music all the time. But I would listen to it on vinyl or audio cassette in my bedroom. Or in the car after I started driving. I didn’t start listening to headphones until after the iPod came out. That was around the time I started working on movies and travelling for work. So the iPod became an escape.
“I think that’s the thing. For a lot of people music is a really positive thing. There’s nobody in the world who doesn’t connect with music in some way. But choosing music also gives you some semblance of control. It’s that idea of being able to control your mood and somehow make your life better by playing the right song at the right time.”
Baby Driver’s hero suffers from driving dysfunction in the absence of a killer choon. The ensuing (and heist-enabling) sweet jam features The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”, Queen’s “Brighton Rock”, Blur’s “Intermission”, and, of course, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms”. The idea of requiring a perfect getaway track was finessed after Wright encountered a real life bank robber.
“I met a few ex-cons in Los Angeles. So some bits in the film came directly from their anecdotes. That scene in the film when Jamie Foxx is talking about hex songs. That came from a guy I spoke to in Boston. He had a story about robbing a bank. And as they were waiting outside, Guns n’ Roses’ Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door came on the radio. And one of the robbers said: ‘This is a bad omen. We can’t go on’. So that wound up in the movie.”
Because I’m a middle class English kid from Somerset making an American crime film. I wanted it to feel authentic."
How does an English director go about meeting bank robbers? “Some have written non-fiction books so that’s where we started. We got in touch with them first. And then they put you on to other people who are just out of prison. So I spoke a lot to four people but especially to Joe Loya (author of The Man Who Outgrew His Cell) who became a central advisor on the movie and who makes an appearance as a security guard.
“That was very important for me. Because I’m a middle class English kid from Somerset making an American crime film. I wanted it to feel authentic. So I’m going to talk with people who have been in San Quentin for 10 years, I’m going to show them my script, and they can tell me what they think. So that was an amazing experience because they would say ‘this is dead on’, or ‘that person would never say that’, or ‘that’s too rhetorical; they’d be much more direct’. It was all gold.”
There are nods to what Wright calls the “holy trinity” of 1990s heist films, Heat, Point Break and Reservoir Dogs, and more than a dash of early Walter Hill: The Driver and The Warriors in particular. Long-time Wright watchers, however, will likely be stuck by the pleasing similarities between Baby Driver and The Blues Brothers.
His face lights up: “I love The Blues Brothers. That scene when you see all the cop cars fan out? That was very much my tribute to Landis. I love that movie. It’s amazing. And it really holds up.”
To achieve The Blues Brothers effect, Baby Driver required a two-mile motorcade bubble, with 40 stunt cars, right in the middle of Atlanta’s busiest freeway. “We’re all familiar with a certain car chase franchise - one that shall not be mentioned - that only uses its actors on green screen. They’re never actually driving the cars. And that’s fair. Car chases are fun to watch but painstaking to shoot. There’s no easy shot in a car chase film. Apart from the vehicular mayhem, there are so many moving parts.
“I think some people thought I was bonkers. But when Ansel does a 180 degree turn and joins the traffic that actually happened. Jon Hamm made the point that you don’t really have to act when you’re travelling down the freeway at 100mph. And I think he’s right.”
- Baby Driver opens on June 28th