Before Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, his Cornetto trilogy, even before Spaced, Edgar Wright started working out the beginnings of Baby Driver. Back in 2002, Wright directed a music video for Mint Royale that finally brought this idea to the screen for him, for the first time. Wright tells us that he’d actually had the idea seven years before that—and the Mint Royale “Blue Song” video was really “a test run” for the story he wanted to tell. Now, over twenty years later, Wright finally has his vision realized with his latest film, Baby Driver.
In Baby Driver, a young man by the name of Baby (Ansel Engort) is an escape driver for a group of criminals, led by the intimidating Doc (Kevin Spacey). To drone out the buzzing he has in his ears due to tinnitus, Baby is constantly listening to music while performing some of the most exciting chase driving maneuvers brought to screens in years. This combination of action, comedy and fantastic music is a dream come true for Wright fans, a pseudo-musical with cars and breathtaking stunts.
Wright spoke to Paste about what made Atlanta perfect for his highly-anticipated action film, his penchant for casting musicians and the film that most inspired this long-gestating passion project.
Paste Magazine: How do you even go about making a film like this, where every single scene has to be edited perfectly and synced to the music in just the right way?
Edgar Wright: I think most movies that use music will probably shoot a bunch of cool shit, and then try on a bunch of different records afterwards. Not everything is like that, but the majority of films are. But with this, all of the songs are written into the script, and then we had to clear all those songs before we started shooting. Then in the rehearsal period, we rehearsed with the actors, and the stunt people and the choreographers because we were actually planning the scenes to the tracks. On top of that, we did animatics, so we would cut those storyboards to the music. So once you’re actually there on set, everyone is coming to a shoot day with a pretty good idea of what they’re doing. It’s not like something where you come on set and say, “Oh hey, this ‘Tequila’ sequence, we’re gonna shoot the guns in time with the music.” You’ve figured all that stuff out before.
So one of my editors was on set the entire time, and the reason I had him on set is because you’re editing to make sure it all works musically. But you know the reality of it is that some of it is, sometimes it’s editing, but the majority of it is things that are actually happening on set for real—people are shooting in time with the music, or Ansel Elgort is walking to the coffee shop and back in time with the music. Or, with this Barry White intro, Ansel is getting out of the car and opening doors in time with the bass and stuff. And throughout the scenes, there will be every different possible permutation of the music playing, whether it’s in somebody’s ears or on the stereo. But either the actors would be able to hear it, or if it was a scene with no dialogue, everybody would be able to hear it. So you can sometimes play those things completely out loud. And sometimes you even do a rehearsal where you just play it out loud so everybody can just get their head around the tone of the scene. It changes everything when people can hear it. There’s that scene later in the movie, where there’s sort of a confrontation, with Barry White playing, and that scene plays a lot differently if you’re not listening to that music. But when you’re listening to it, you can take the pauses you want, or just the way you move about is different because you’re thinking about where you are in the song, and building up to a point where you’re in sync with the song.
Baby Driver sort of reminded me of that scene in Shaun of the Dead where you’re telling the story of the zombie apocalypse through commercials, in the way that the dialogue goes from one to another nonstop. There’s this constant storytelling going on that made me think of how you use music to interconnect various scenes together, in Baby Driver. How important was it to you to connect each scene, and basically have no silence throughout?
Wright: I’d done it before in some of my other films, sequence set to music, like in Shaun of the Dead, there’s the Queen scene, which people seem to really enjoy. I had already had the idea for this movie, but I kept thinking my big idea for the movie was, like, how could you do a movie where every scene is a different song? Thereby the experience of watching the movie is almost like listening to a playlist. The character has almost made his playlist for the movie. It was a really fun challenge to sort of figure out a way to do that, and also to sometimes have the music compliment what was happening, or motivate what’s happening. Sometimes it would be countering what is happening. And sometimes the music is interrupted. I just tried to think of as many different ways of using the music within the movie. Sometimes everybody can hear it, sometimes only [Baby] can hear it. Sometimes it’s kind of changed, sometimes it’s rewound to get back in sync.
Paste: And sometimes it’s shocking—like the scene in the diner when Jon Hamm pulls out Baby’s headphones.
Wright: I know! You’re suddenly reminded of silence. And also because the character has tinnitus, even if you look at the very opening of the movie when the studio logo is building up, you can hear the whine, and it’s sort of building up to the point where the first song starts and then it’s gone. You want the audience to experience it in the same way as Baby—you feel the relief when the music is playing.
Paste: In your films that are more centered around music, like Scott Pilgrim and this one, your leads always have a musical background. Was that something you intentionally looked for when casting?
Wright: It certainly helps. It even helps with the action, to be honest. Like in this movie, pretty much everybody except for Jon Hamm, have recorded. Ansel, Eiza, Jamie and Lily and Kevin all have a musical background. It is important and it is really helpful. It isn’t the sole reason to cast somebody, but people who have a natural rhythm or are musicians or are singers, they bring their own rhythm to the dialogue. Also, the choreography—it is just easier for people who play an instrument or have some kind of musical background. And I was always a big fan of Jonathan Demme, or John Landis—them casting real musicians, so I tried to do that in here. So Flea, Sky Ferreira, Jon Spencer, Paul Williams, Big Boi and Killer Mike briefly, I would’ve done even more of that if there had been parts.
Paste: With your other movies, the location is an important part of the film, but in this one, you changed the location from L.A. to Atlanta. Was there a big shift in the story with that change?
Wright: I had to rewrite the script and initially I was reluctant to go there, because everyone was filming there. But then I got my head around it, and I got to thinking, “Oh, well everybody is shooting in Atlanta, but very few people are setting it in Atlanta.” I’d been there a bunch of times, but when I went there specifically with the idea of rewriting the script, it actually seemed like this was a better location for it anyway. Because being in Atlanta, you sort of escape the shadow of the L.A.-set heist movies: Heat, Reservoir Dogs, Point Break, To Live and Die in L.A., The Driver, Drive. You know, all of them, basically. Then Atlanta, it has a history of car chase movies, back in the ‘70s with all of the Burt Reynolds…
Smokey and the Bandit
White Lightning, Smokey and the Bandit, and Paul Williams is in fact in Smokey and the Bandit. Paul Williams is like a returning actor in a way. But also Atlanta makes more sense, in terms of the characters being in the southeast, they would sort of dream of heading west. And you know, the idea that Atlanta is like a travel hub, in terms of freeways, trains and planes—and therefore is also kind of a center for crime. Then the city itself on just a cultural level is a huge music city and a big car city. The Hybrid isn’t really a thing in Atlanta. Muscle cars are still dominating. So it actually seemed like once I’d made the change to Atlanta, I felt like it was actually a superior choice to L.A.
Paste: What led you to focus on the driver, instead of the actual crime going on inside?
Wright: I always thought it was interesting, focusing on the character that is on the sidelines. It’s funny, like even in Shaun of the Dead, we described that as being Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the zombie world—the idea of the whole movie is that you see it all through Baby’s eyes and ears. And you have a character that is The Driver, and at the start of the movie is fooling himself that he is not one of the robbers. He thinks of himself as the driver only, but of course it’s not a game. It’s not Grand Theft Auto. It doesn’t work like that. Then on top of that, I like the idea of seeing it through the eyes of a young apprentice, so you’re seeing a crime movie through the eyes of a twenty-year-old and someone who, rather than aspiring to the fantasy of being a getaway driver, is actually aspiring to be a regular Joe.
Paste: Your main characters are always these singular characters who adjust their expectations to the reality of the world around them, and are trying to avoid the ramifications of their actions. How would you say Baby is different?
Wright: Well, at the start of the movie, he is almost compartmentalizing what he’s doing by creating this persona. He’s disappeared into a myth about himself. But, even having the thing about the shades on, and the earbuds in is a sort of “see no evil, hear no evil” approach. The events in the movie are to bring the reality of what he’s doing and the consequences down hard on him. I wanted it to not be too moralistic, but it does have a theme of responsibility—that at some point you can’t keep running. At some point you have to face the music.
Paste: Through your 1,000 Favorite Films list and your screenings at the New Beverly, you’ve been trying to get a wider audience for great, classic films that you love. Are there any underrated films that you would recommend?
Wright: I don’t think that many people have seen Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978. There are countless heist and car chase films that have inspired me since I was young to make this movie, but if I could pick one, I would pick that one.
Paste: I remember Nicolas Winding Refn saying that it was a big influence for him on Drive. I feel like it’s finally starting to become more popular.
Wright: I think on my own personal level, I’m trying to convince Walter Hill that it’s a great movie. He always plays it down, and I don’t know if you saw the interview I did with him about it.
Paste: No, I haven’t yet.
Wright: I interviewed Walter Hill about The Driver for Empire, and I had this theory. It’s such an influence on people like myself, Refn, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Michael Mann even. So I had this theory about it, ‘cause it wasn’t a hit at the time, and I thought about what Brian Eno said about the album The Velvet Underground and Nico—that nobody bought it at the time, but everybody who did formed a band. With The Driver, everybody who did watch it, wanted to be a director.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his work at RossBonaime.com and follow him on Twitter.