Interview: Edgar Wright's Interview Of Epic Epicness, Part One
This one's a little late.
Here's the thing… Edgar Wright is a bundle of energy that is almost unmatched in anyone I know, and an hour of Edgar talking is the equal of about six hours of anyone else talking. This interview caused six different transcriptionists to kill themselves. I became afraid to pass it along to a new one, because every time, they would say, "Oh, no, don't worry about it." Next thing I hear? Dead. Expired. At their own hand.
I stuck with it, though, and now, finally, after all this time, I have an hour with Edgar Wright for no good reason other than I love his film and I thought this was a great conversation. And it'll have to be two articles because there's no way to publish something this big as one article on this site. It's a behemoth.
Actually, I'll get into "reasons" at the end of this piece. First, though, all kidding aside, this is how interviews should work... real time to sit and chat without someone hovering nearby to cut you off after your third question. I understand the realities of time constraints during press tours, but still... it makes a big difference, both as an interviewer and (hopefully) for you guys as readers. With a few interviews here at HitFix, like Terry Gilliam or Rob Reiner or David Fincher, I feel like I got a chance to sit down and chat with someone I've always wanted to talk to but never had the chance before, and by the end of it, I felt like we'd formed a rapport that resulted in a genuine conversation and not just a promotional opportunity. Yes, they're selling something, but the goal from my end is always to try to break through to even a few moments of something real.
With Edgar Wright, there's a whole different comfort level. I've been talking to Edgar about his work since before "Shaun Of The Dead," and I've never seen one slight bit of difference in him as a person or as a film nerd between the "who is Edgar Wright?" phase of his career to the "Ohmygod, it's Edgar Wright!" phase that he's entering with fandom. He's still just as open and engaging and impassioned as he's ever been.
"Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" was the most demanding process in his career so far, and sitting down to talk to him about it was great and informative, even if it did feel like we were just getting warmed up when we had to wrap it up.
We met at the Bar Marmont, just down the hill from the famous Chateau Marmont, which I believe is where I actually did my last formal interview with Edgar on the eve of the release of "Hot Fuzz."
In this case, it was the morning after the premiere, a beautiful Wednesday in Hollywood. I can’t even imagine how Edgar was up at that point and he still had the entire press tour ahead of him internationally. Devin Faraci was in with Edgar before me, and as I sat with Greg, Edgar's publicist, it felt like wrapping something up for me since I'd been writing and talking about "Pilgrim" almost continuously from the Comic-Con screening to that point.
Finally, Devin walked out, and I walked in and took a seat next to Edgar.
We shook hands, exchanged some general greetings, and I began with, "So how are you feeling after last night?"
The premiere was packed with Edgar's friends and with people he admired. One of the craziest moments of the night was watching him meet Rivers Cuomo for the first time and seeing the sort of mutual admiration they had for each other. It ran late, too, with so many people there to wish Edgar well. "It was good. It was funny. You know, we’d all kind of prepared ourselves that it wasn’t going to quite as bananas as Comic-Con, so I think we kind of knew that it’s different with industry crowds, a little bit. It’s always a little bit more quiet and stuff. I remember seeing 'Superbad' at the premiere and even though it went well, I remember thinking, 'Oh, the audience preview I saw two weeks ago was completely different.'"
That's a truth in the business. Premiere crowds are polite, but they're never the same as when you see a screening packed with real fans. "But it was cool. To see the film on that big screen, and it’s probably the best sound I’ve ever heard in the Mann’s Chinese. You can actually hear the dialogue."
I laughed. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1990, the very first theater I had to see a movie in was the Mann's Chinese, and it was the weekend they upgraded to digital sound for the DTS release of "Days Of Thunder." I have never heard a theater's sound system turned up louder in my entire life. It was amazing.
Edgar confessed that it's moments like the end of "Blazing Saddles" that made the theater so iconic for him in England. "Yeah, it was sort of a fascinating roster of people there last night. Like, not just Jason, but also Talia Shire, Jason’s mother, who I’d never met before was just lovely. She said to me afterwards, 'I put that film up there with 'The Red Shoes.' I was like, 'What? Oh, my God. That’s ridiculous. That is, like, 'The Red Shoes' is one of the best films ever made.' But I think she meant in terms of the visuals. Maybe?"
I told him that I found it hard to compare the film to any other single film because I think it has its own voice. Getting it through the system at Universal, or any studio for that matter, is accomplishment enough, whether someone likes the film or not. I asked him if he was aware just how much of a hustle he got away with, making something this personal and eccentric on a scale like this.
"It's certainly been incredibly painstaking and I think the shoot was exhausting but a lot of fun, because it was, like, a really great crew and a really great cast were all in Toronto for nine months. And the editing was this different sort of painstaking... almost a year of editing. Because I was going back to London to do it... at the time, that felt like a fun thing to do, and then felt a bit like a prison sentence. You know? You’ve made your first Hollywood film, now go back to London and sit in a dark room for a year. I have to give credit to Universal for green lighting it and after five test screenings, getting my film through that process. With test screenings, obviously things can get homogenized after they’ve been shot. So I’m very pleased that the cut that’s out there is my final cut and one that... the last screening we had scored like a 91, and it’s like, 'Okay, that’s amazing,' you know?"
He shook his head, annoyed at the idea that someone might not understand the film. "Given that... I don’t think the material is challenging. All of the separate elements and things are very relatable. The central story is very relatable and I always said in the pitch meetings that even though the style is very intense and fantastical, the young love aspects of it should be as easy to understand as 'Grease', you know? So that there’s always that to latch onto. And just before we got green-lit, 'Speed Racer' had just came out, and that’s a film that splits people right down the middle. And I liked some of that film. I think some of it is quite hypnotic, but the thing that loses me is the thing I was conscious of with this: make sure the actors literally have their feet on the ground. Like this is going to be shot on location and on sets with real things you can touch. Things are there. There are blue screen bits in it, but it’s not a blue screen film. I think some people when they saw the first trailer assumed that it’s like, 'Oh, is it going to be 'The Spirit' or 'Speed Racer' or '300'?'. No! We’ve got sets. The last set is like a Ken Adam nightmare. It’s a real set with people fighting on it. That was really important, and also making sure that we use very mundane settings, like the apartments. Stephen Stills's apartment, Wallace’s apartment, the coffee shop, the venues. They’re all very every day. It was a way of going from these places that are every day pizza joints and suburban streets to, like, it starts to morph into a more fantastical world. And in some cases doing that was just simplifying everything."
That's one of the visual touches in the film I find most interesting, and I asked him to explain further. "Like Bryan's artwork is so simple, so we had the idea of taking real locations and... it’s almost like a 'spot the difference' picture. You take a shot of something. It wasn’t like we were doing digital matte painting to create a huge digital Hogwarts or something. It’s like we’re taking the school, but now we’ve got trees, like what would Bryan not draw. Let’s take out branches and trees. So it’s like everything’s been like stripped down. You see some of the shots of the park, and what’s funny is some of those shots are so simple they might as well be a faked moon landing, but we’re actually in a park. We’re on a real location." He laughed. "So my big idea, weirdly, is we made real locations look like a stage set."
I argued that what he'd really done was romanticize Toronto, something no one's ever done in all the thousands of movies that have shot in that city. It's why I always laugh at Scott's line in the film: "They shoot movies in Toronto?" It's a city where they constantly disguise its identity, and here's Edgar making a movie that positively wallows in that identity. All of the sets are just amazing, starting with reproductions of real places and moving on to more and more fantastic environments.
Edgar agreed. "Oh, yeah. In the first one, you can see stuff etched into every single table and chair like cigarette burns. Each one of the nightclubs and the venues was absolutely supposed to feel like levels of a video game that were getting bigger and more sophisticated. So the music venues mirror his progress not in terms of the spectacle of the fight but you’re going through different environments and then the final one is the most extravagant and it’s like the boss battle one. But something this crazy, it’s something that has to be anchored all the time. Part of that is the love story, part of that is the real locations and sets, and part of that is having somebody like Michael Cera at the center of it. You have a lead that doesn’t bat an eyelid as this stuff is going on around him. And some of the other cast as well... they really don’t give a shit what’s going on and don’t bat an eyelid, or sometimes they’re voicing what the audience is thinking, like there’s the point during the Matthew Patel fight where Anna [Kendrick] goes, 'What?!', before anybody else has a chance to say it or in sync with the audience exactly at the point they’re thinking, 'What?! Why the fuck are they singing?' One of the biggest challenges of adapting the book is that there are things you can get away with in that book that are difficult to do onscreen. The biggest thing was how do you have a fight and somebody burst into coins at the end and the entire venue not completely freak out and lose their minds or the cops get called? How do you deal with that reality that somebody just burst into coins? That was where the musicals idea came from, play it like a musical and it’s a dance number and all of these things are like production numbers, and then we’re just going to move on, you know? Most of the time at the end of the fights the characters are preoccupied with something else. Either a problem that was there before or a problem that now has to be resolved."
Now, here's what I mean about Edgar. When he has a point to make, he will go after it. He continued, really picking up steam. "At the end of the first fight, Ramona wants to get out of there. Scott realizes there’s not enough coins for the bus. Sex Bob-omb won by default. Knives has fainted. Stacey is distracted by the fact that Wallace is kissing Jimmy. Everybody’s got different shit going on and it’s like, 'Oh, did you see that fight?' 'Hey, wait you’re kissing my boyfriend.' 'Hey, wait, we just won." "Hey, wait, I’ve been asleep for the last ten minutes.' So I was really trying to play with what did the rest of the world think when this just happened? And then with each successive fight, maintain that reality. When he goes through the second fight, it's like, 'Ramona was there at the start of the fight and now she’s gone. And is she ever going to come back?' Is this an example of her flightiness that she was standing next to him at the start of the fight, he turns around, she’s gone? At the end of the third fight, it’s coming to terms with his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. At the end of the fourth fight, it’s coming to terms with the fact that his girlfriend has a bisexual past. So I tried to make each each set piece an expression of how Scott Pilgrim’s feeling. And in the first fight, Scott Pilgrim does very well and thrashes Matthew Patel because he’s in the first flowerings of his crush. He’s in that kind of honeymoon period where he feels so empowered by the fact that he just made out with this girl last night that he could like sort of kill a giant. The second one, he’s completely star struck by Lucas Lee. The third one, he’s kind of intimidated by the musical prowess and the fact that Todd Ingram is like his Greek god doppelganger or the Greek god version of him. And then by the fourth one, he doesn’t want to play anymore. He’s just over it. So there’s this thing about your hero having to literally jump through these hoops and then start to think, 'I don’t know if I want to play this game anymore.' It’s really only the first and the last fight where Scott Pilgrim is in it for the right reasons."
This is what I love. You know that Edgar and his collaborators had these conversations, parsing every scene, every page, really digging into the material. Bill Pope, for example, was his cinematographer. He's the guy who shot the "Matrix" films, among other things. Bill Pope is, to put it bluntly, a badass, and I said as much to Edgar.
"Oh, my god, the experience of working with Bill on this was amazing because….the easiest thing to say about Bill is that he doesn’t just care about the photography. I mean, he’s amazing. I was doing things I’d never done before and even with your most ambitious ideas, he’s unphased. Nothing is a big problem or everything has to be figured out, but most importantly, like myself, if there’s easy way of doing something in camera that’s actually the simple low-fi way, he'll always go for that. So as much as there’s digital effects in the film, there’s an enormous amount of in-camera and theatrical effects, too. Like in several scenes the lights go out at the end of the scene, and one of our favorite things to do is like sort of is have the big old fucking soundstage switch going KLONK!, you know? Just turning off all the lights on the stage at the end and making it really theatrical. So as much as there were like incredibly like fancy lighting setups and camera moves in it, there are also things that are incredibly simple. He’s just, you know, he’s really great to the actors. He doesn’t ever treat the actors like cattle and stuff, and he thinks about the whole scene and he knows where the gag is and you know… he’s great." Edgar smiled, amused at his own exuberance. "Also just to have him and Brad Allen and that stunt team. They have so much experience in terms of not just shooting action but framing action and stuff. They’re just a dream team in terms of this stuff. Also on top of that, Bill is equally at home with action stuff and comedy. So this is the unusual thing about Bill Pope. He’d done some of the best action movies of all time. He’s done some amazing comedy films and TV shows and he’s also 200 music videos in his time. So he’s the perfect person to shoot this film. The bits we shot with the band, the film actually turns into a musical for the two minutes that each song is playing. I have the greatest camera operator in the world right now shooting these music sequences. I would leap at the chance to work with him any other opportunity, you know?"
If you want to discuss "Pilgrim," obviously one of the most striking things about the film is the ways the fights are built, and I asked Edgar about working with Brad Allen, his fight team coordinator on the film. "Well," he replied, "it's actually Brad Allen and Jang. Like Brad’s the coordinator and Jang’s the choreographer, although Brad also does choreography as well you see. What was really great about that is Brad, I have no doubt, will go on to become a great action director because he’s really incredibly inventive. What’s interesting is we’re of similar age and we both grew up on Jackie Chan in different ways. I grew up watching him and enjoying him, and Brad Allen basically becomes Jackie Chan. So here I am watching and thinking, 'Oh, that’s so cool. I’d like to direct a film like that." And Brad goes, "I’m going to fight like that." And so Brad’s the guy in Australia that like wants to be Bruce Lee at the age of nine. I mean what’s amazing about those guys is that they just take the ball and run with it basically. Like if you see the storyboards for the film, we kind of plotted out each fight in terms of the hero moves, but then what they do which is just so incredible is unless you’re a dancer or a fighter, you cannot figure this shit out yourself entirely. I can’t say that I could choreograph those fights like that. I certainly know what I want and I know what sort of beat I want here and I know how to design the whole thing, especially because a lot of the fights go from action into a line into comedy into kind of like a hero shot."
I told him that one of my favorite things about the fights is the way they all focus on character, and he described the process further. "I think what basically what happens is that these guys do lots of R&D. They work out amazing moves and in some cases, especially in the case of like how to frame something that’ s best for the double, this is what they were brilliant at working out. Because it's unlike a super hero film. None of the actors are hiding their faces. It’s not like 'Spider-man' or even 'Kick-Ass' where there’s a mask. You know Michael’s face and Jason’s face and Mary and May and Ellen. They’re all right in there. So it’s very carefully designed to kind of like maximize the principals. Like there’s usually always a shot with one of the principals in, and a whole bunch of the shot of all of them doing it together. And they worked that stuff out brilliantly. Bill Pope said when he first started doing action films, he would really put his all into terms of where the best camera position was for a particular stunt. But then you meet these guys, and they’ve done these things so many times in Hong Kong, it’s like the actual succession of blows and the camera angle and the lens length is all worked out. Because that’s the main thing you start to learn. 'Oh, you can’t shoot the punch looking this way. The punch is only going to look good from this way.' So it’s an incredibly meticulous process and the Asian way of doing it even though Brad is sort of like an honorary Asian essentially because he came from Australia, but he’s sort of hard-won respect in Beijing with Jackie Chan’s team."
Brad Allen, by the way, is the only non-Asian to ever double for Jackie Chan on film, something not many people of any race can claim to have done. "What they’re brilliant at is just designing it," Edgar continued, "and the Hong Kong way of shooting is to shoot all in order. You never ever do master coverage. Like Michael Cera never has to do a full two-minute long shot. It’s broken up into like 100 pieces. That made it really tough and incredibly painstaking and especially the last fight. I think we went 10 days over just on that final set piece because of the combination of all the shit going on and the fact that actors were 100 foot in the air."
One of those days was the day we were there on-set watching, and it was frustrating as an observer because they were doing exactly what Edgar describes, shooting two or three second shots instead of running entire scenes. It's the reason the film is so tight and kinetic, but on-set, it was almost the opposite.
Edgar continued, "What’s really great about those things is how it all feeds back to the musical thing. That was my big note to those guys was that it should be as much Bob Fosse as we can mix in with the Jackie Chan. And I think that’s what hopefully makes the scene feel like a bit of rush is that you’re watching a dance routine which has a beginning middle and end. It’s not just coverage, you know what I mean?"
I agreed, and at this point, Edgar was on a roll. "I get a rush watching it because it’s like the fight is moving now and it ain’t going to stop until the last blow. Even the cutaways are designed, and what we would do is that we would have the storyboards, then we could shoot and cut a rough version of the fight which could usually go sprawling and be like ten minutes long, and they’d put in every single thing they’d rehearsed with the actors. Then I would go in and say, 'Bring it back down and put the dialogue in different places and work out where the lines would go and where I wanted to do the big gag with like the glitter ball exploding and turning into Mortal Kombat shots coming down. This bit comes here, this bit leads up to the hammer,' and they take that and they rework that, then they re-edit it, and so by the time you actually film, you actually have something to show the actors and say, 'Okay, here’s the scene.' And what’s so funny is then you have these takes which, sometimes it has the actors in it, sometimes it has the stuntmen with wigs on, sometimes it has me in it like if I was playing Scott, and sometimes it has Michael in it, and it’s just so sort of funny to watch this. It’s crazy. I was watching the making-of the other day, and what’s really funny is watching me and Brad in the monitor watching fights because I never know I’m doing this but there’s plenty of footage of me doing it now. When the fights are happening, Brad is standing there like Simon Cowell, and I’m standing there like going crazy, acting out the fight whilst they’re doing it, watching the monitor and making all these faces and kind of making the noises and stuff. The other thing that was crazy is, especially in the final fight, every time somebody connects, a light bulb goes off. Because there’s no blood in the film, the only way we could make it seem really impactful is there are flashes on every single connect. Sometimes on punches, sometimes on swords. In the final fight, every time they smash swords, it’s not a digital effect, it’s light bulbs."
It's a great solution to finding a way to crank up the impact without cranking up the violence and Edgar described the rig they had in place to do that. "Around this pyramid they’d be like… it was incredibly complicated. By the end of it he went through 8,000 light bulbs. Now the thing is you don’t want to delegate that timing. The only people I would ever delegate it to would be Brad, but most of the time I would have the button because you’re doing it so fast, you’re watching something and suddenly it’s like playing a fucking game. I’m standing next to the monitor with this button going ping, ping, ping, ping, and watching Michael and Jason fighting and just having this button which sets off these flashbulbs that are really fucking loud, and suddenly you you feel like the Puppet Master. That was so cool. At the end of the shoot I was given the lead and the button. It’s this long black lead and a button on the end with 'Edgar' written around it. It just summed up everything about the film. There was my monitor and hanging off it was a button with 'Edgar' written on it." The mixture of pride and pure geek glee in Edgar as he described it was evident. "Those guys are just incredible, and I think a lot of times in Western films, that stuff gets really comprised. Sometimes you can see it, if you actually look at their rough fight tapes of things from Hollywood films, the ones that don’t get used. It’s like 'The one you did on VHS looked cooler than the one in the finished film.' But I think on this one, the thing that I would hope and the thing that pleased me most is that those guys would be happy with what we actually achieved in the finished film. I know that so many times the stunts are just incredible and the work gets weirdly compromised, sometimes by the way it’s covered, sometimes by the way it’s edited. Sometimes it’s like an amazing fight scene and it’s just ruined because they cut to like the buddy cop in the corridor making stupid jokes. Guess what I’m talking about. That side is fascinating. And again, it’s a real collaboration. It would be foolish for me to say I could do all this shit on my own. Across the board, it was like having the Guns of Navarone, with Bill Pope and Brad Allen and Nigel Godrich doing the score and Beck doing the songs. And the cast, across the board, just amazing as an ensemble. It’s definitely an embarrassment of riches in terms of working with all these people. But as such, you know, to go back to the studio thing in terms of 'How did you get this film made? How did you get this film out?' is that I feel a responsibility to these artists. It’s not just not letting myself down or letting the studio down by making sure it made it to the screen, but it's also about letting Bryan down and about letting fans down. I got all these amazing crew members and actors, and I don’t want to let any of them down. I would hate to have somebody brilliant to be working on the film and then they don’t get their shining moment. So I think if anything, I think sometimes my films are sort of intense because it’s been three years since the last one and it’s like I’m backed up. It’s like I haven’t have sex in like three years and I really, really need it right now."
We'll break there. There's still half an interview left with Edgar, and as soon as I take care of some of the things that backed up while my Internet was down this week, I'll run part two. Look for it by this weekend, and thanks for continually asking me to publish this one. It was all just a matter of setting aside some time and really fine-tuning that transcript.
"Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" is on Blu-ray and DVD now.