Published at: Aug. 13, 2010, 10:37 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
You all know Edgar Wright... know how he earns a living. So I'll dispense with a lengthy introduction to this interview and just remind you he a) directed and co-wrote two seasons of superlative television in SPACED, b) went on to make one of the previous decade's greatest films in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and c) will unleash magnificence on theaters this Friday with SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD.
Wright was surprisingly animated when we sat down to chat the day after SCOTT PILGRIM's Hollywood premiere at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre; if he was at all exhausted after his big night, he'd successfully beat back the lethargy with an onslaught of Bar Marmont espressos. I've talked with Wright countless times over the years, but this was the first time we'd ever convened for a formal Q&A. Amazingly, we never veered too far off topic.
For the most part, this is Wright holding forth on the experience of making his first big studio movie, and what he hopes audiences - young and old - get out of his brilliant adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels. Only at the end do we move on to other topics, most notably his much-anticipated third big screen collaboration with pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. There's also a very special plea to noted video game despiser, Roger Ebert. Dig in.
Beaks: On your last two films, you had a bit of a safety net working with Simon and Nick. Here, you're on your own, and working on a big studio film. Was there any trepidation heading into production?
Wright: I was definitely excited to get into it. It'd been three years between SPACED and SHAUN, three years between SHAUN and HOT FUZZ, and three years between HOT FUZZ and this. When the greenlight finally flashes, I'm rarin' to go. It's like I haven't had sex in three years; I'm really backed up. (Laughs) Bill Pope commented on the fact that, in the first week of shooting, we'd shot 200 slates, which is kind of unheard of. He thought that was mind-boggling. And I said, "It's because I haven't directed in three years!"
The great thing in terms of a safety net is that half of the crew [on SCOTT PILGRIM] I'd worked with before, and the other half were world-class professionals. When the new people on the team are Bill Pope on camera, Brad Allan on stunts, and Nigel Godrich and Beck on music, you're in good hands. We had an A-Team, basically. That was cool. And Universal, I've got to say... I certainly never felt compromised at any point. The main thing, and the way of maybe keeping your head above water with that stuff, is to just be really responsible. My main thing, what I always try to do is work really fast and know exactly what I'm doing; I come to the set totally prepared, and know what we've got to do in the day. I've heard stories of much bigger-budgeted films just winging it, and I wonder how that can even happen. Or films where the director isn't even in charge; someone else is running the show, like the AD or the producer. From the positions I've been in... I'll do a shot list where there are thirty-five shots I'd like to get that day - which is pretty ambitious. But if I get thirty-four instead of thirty-five, someone will go, "Oh, my god! We didn't get that thirty-fifth shot!" And I'll say, "Yes, but thirty-four is pretty good."
I've just always been in a position of making sure I make my days and that the money is on the screen. That's the most important thing, especially with this project - and it may account for why the film is dazzling to some and overwhelming to others. I feel a real responsibility to every aspect of the production: to Bryan and the fans of the book, and to the crew members... I mean, you don't want to have Bill Pope and Nigel Godrich working on your film and not let them shine. And I've got all these amazing actors, and you don't want any of them to feel compromised. You don't want to have a cast of absolute ringers in every role, and then have someone watch the film and say, "So-and-so was wasted." The same thing happened on HOT FUZZ. We had all these amazing actors, and then you think, "I can't give so-and-so short shrift."
Sometimes you go to see summer movies, stuff that cost four times as much as this, and think "Where the hell did the money go?" No matter what you think of TRANSFORMERS 2, it looks like what it cost; it looks really expensive. Other films, you wonder where it all went. I find that fascinating, and always want to make sure that never happens. I want people to watch my movie, for non-3-D ticket prices, and feel like they got their value.
Beaks: You're not going to get that 3-D bump.
Wright: I'm not! (Laughs) I think my biggest problem with 3-D is that... when it's done well, it's great. I think it's less about whether it works or not, but that con where theaters don't put the projectors at full lamp. Sometimes you go and see something, and it's already dark with the glasses on, and then you've got them playing the movie at seventy-five-percent bulb power. It's a double-whammy of murkiness!
Beaks: This is true of all of your movies, but it's most impressive to me with SCOTT PILGRIM: every single shot seems planned; it feels completely storyboarded. I feel like you got every shot you wanted.
Wright: In SHAUN OF THE DEAD, there were like ten pages of storyboards at the end that just had to go. As soon as you finish the film and it's out there, you come to terms with it: that's the film. You don't really think about the extra scenes you had planned. With this, I definitely feel like I got everything - although, it wasn't easy. I think the thing is... the book is so beautifully drawn [that] I wanted to give you the feel of a comic book, where every shot feels meant. Artists spend a long time drawing a frame or a panel; what they don't do is coverage. You see a lot of action films or comedies that are just wide-shot, mid-shot, close. What I tried to do, and we failed a couple of times, but what I said to Bill Pope was, "Every cut is a new shot." There are bits where there's coverage, but every cut should be a new shot, so it feels as propulsive as reading a comic. Bryan Lee O'Malley wouldn't draw the same frame twice, so you shouldn't do the same shot twice. And with the transitions, it's sort of like my hand turning the page for you - and sometimes we're going to read fast. Some people rip through comics so fast; they can read a SCOTT PILGRIM book in a half-hour. I remember when I would read Marvel comics... how long do you spend reading an action sequence? Some people pore over every frame; others tend to read it as fast as the beats. If you're reading a Spider-Man comic book, and it's talking, talking, talking, and then "Pow", "Pow", Pow", you take it in like it's animation; it's like (rapid fire) this-is-happening, this-is-happening, this-is-happening.
Beaks: You want to read at the speed of the fight. At least, that's what I did. But then I'd go back and study the composition of certain frames.
Wright: Exactly. Frank Miller was the king of that. You could look at a Frank Miller fight at the speed at which it's happening, but then you'd go back and study it like it's on the wall of the Getty.
What I felt with this... I didn't want to dumb-down the film. It's not like the dialogue is difficult to understand; most of it is stylized and rhyming, kind of like teen or early-twentysomething speak. There are a lot of double meanings about love and fighting, and metaphors about love through different gauges. But I definitely wanted to have a machine-gun pace to it where it didn't really stop for you. When I met Bryan, I started to read the comics in his voice - and he's very mellow and laid-back. But I thought it would be interesting to do the machine-gun version of the deadpan dialogue you're used to in indie comedies. They're not speaking fast as if it's THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, but the film doesn't stop for anything.
Beaks: It's a film cut to the rhythm of the media we devoured as kids - and the way we devoured it. We were the children of MTV, and reading comic books, and, speaking for myself, watching GREMLINS forty-seven times on cable. It was just this constant barrage of imagery. We have the capacity to process this, but older viewers may not.
Wright: It's interesting. It was always there in the books. Two things: because it was a comedy, and it was very imaginative, what attracted me to the source material, apart from the central conceit, is that because it was a comedy, you could embrace some of the things most comic-book adaptations leave out. Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT is not going to have the "Pows" and "Whaps". SIN CITY and 300 are much more stylized like the books, but in a gritty fashion. Because [SCOTT PILGRIM] was something that was fun and magical, I kind of saw the books as... a bubble-gum pop-art explosion like Roy Lichtenstein; embrace the beauty of the medium in its simplest form. When the BATMAN TV series had the "Bams" and "Kapows" in them... I mean, I love Tim Burton's version, Frank Miller's version and Chris Nolan's version, but I'm certainly not sniffy about the BATMAN TV series. I think it's absolutely hilarious. But it definitely became a dirty word in terms of... for probably twenty years afterward, superheroes were a joke. The irony of it is... do you know why they had the "Kapows" in the BATMAN series? It was censorship. It was a kids' show, and they didn't want to have that much fighting, so they actually covered up the rumbles; while the stunt men are fighting, they're covering it up. You see people falling down, but you don't see many punches landing. It was a part of the censorship thing.
I don't want to make it a generational thing, but there's definitely this idea that if you've grown up with comics or video games, or watch TV and are on the internet at the same time - the amount of information we process is extraordinary - you can have a lot happening on the screen at the same time. Sometimes the graphics in SCOTT PILGRIM are the same as in video games: it doesn't matter that you can't read it; it's not important; you can go back later [on DVD] and read it. It's like the ownership gag [in Wallace's apartment]:i it's kind of too fast to read, but it's more about the rhythm than the content.
Beaks: The sound cues get it across.
Wright: With that ownership diagram, we did a test screening and one of the producers said, "Why do you think they didn't laugh so much at that?" And I said, "It's probably because not many comedies ask you to do some work." Romantic comedies are the kinds of things I like to watch in planes and hotels; they kind of wash over you like a hair drier. You know what to expect, and people want that mac-and-cheese: "I know the beginning and the end, and I don't want to do any work watching this comedy." But then at Comic Con, some of these things were getting huge laughs, and I was like, "Ah! We've got a roomful of readers!" (Laughs)
But in terms of video game adaptations, no video game film has really employed the most famous things about video games. To take the iconography, the graphics and points and all of those things, that was what really intrigued me. We tried to take that further in the film than in the comics, because, obviously, SUPER MARIO BROS., PRINCE OF PERSIA or TOMB RAIDER don't feature the most famous things from the games. I guess DOOM sort of did it.
Beaks: Yeah, they did have a first-person shooter scene.
Wright: Some journalists over the weekend have asked, "Are you worried about people who don't play games?" The irony is, I haven't had a console in my house for ten years, since the second series of SPACED. If anything, the references in SCOTT PILGRIM make me feel nostalgic; they all felt like the computer game iconography of twenty-five years ago. The technology in the film is outmoded: Scott Pilgrim has a desktop PC and is on AOL; there are [SONIC THE HEDGEHOG] and [SUPER MARIO BROS.] sounds from the older games; Young Neil has a Nintendo DS, but he's playing SUPER MARIO BROS. 3 or ZELDA: LINK TO THE PAST; and Scott doesn't even have a cell phone, he uses a pay phone. This all made me feel very nostalgic.
Beaks: But it should connect with most people because, at its core, SCOTT PILGRIM is a comedy about viewing one's life as a monomyth. It gets at that whole Joseph Campbell/"Hero's Journey" thing we've been obsessed with since STAR WARS hit. And though Scott's not a noble or heroic guy, here he is at the center of a monomyth.
Wright: That's exactly the thing. One of the themes we were trying to get across is that Scott Pilgrim... if you take it to the level of a wish-fullfilment fantasy, if you ask, "It's Michael Cera! How can he fight? How is he such a badass fighter?" That always came back to the thought of, "Well, if you played lots and lots of TEKKEN..." I mean, it's fair enough to think that if you played lots of flight simulators, you'd probably have a better chance of landing a plane than someone who's never played a flight simulator.
Beaks: (Laughing) Um, marginally.
Wright: Yes, marginally. The "Barefoot Bandit" guy apparently learned on some kind of a computer simulator.
Now, fighting games would not necessarily help you in the real world, but they do in Scott Pilgrim's world; the idea is that he's played so many fighting games that he is a kick-ass fighter in the real world. What I liked about that is that Scott Pilgrim is governed by the media he consumes, particularly gaming, for good and for bad. For good in that he has this unearned confidence and is the hero of this movie inside his own head. But there's this solipsism of being a gamer, that you are the center of your universe, and as such you don't think about the feelings of the bit players around you. The way that he treats Knives or Kim - or even the way he treats Envy, who in his mind is a villain. He gets karmic comeuppance first through Ramona dating him, and then sort of cheating without thinking about other people's feelings. I don't think Scott Pilgrim is a bad person, but he is thoughtless and naive and immature. And what the film is about - in terms of that gaming thing and getting a second chance by putting another coin in and starting again - is that he has a chance to rectify some wrongs. There is a rite-of-passage aspect to it. "Are you going to man-up and take responsibility for your own actions? Are you going to take a leap with this girl who's obviously more mature than you are? Are you going to forgive somebody's past?" There are lots of elements of the rhyming of the relationship and fighting and gaming that go throughout.
And it isn't the case that Scott Pilgrim has to fight these seven Exes to win her hand; he actually makes out with her before the first battle. What it's about is fighting to keep this relationship alive. There's this "Labours of Hercules" aspect to it, of like, "Can you get through these seven levels to be with this person?" There's a point by the fourth fight where he's not really sure he wants to play anymore. I really like that aspect of it: you set up this premise where Scott Pilgrim has to defeat seven Evil Exes, but by the end of number three he's already over it and wants to opt out of the game. I felt those things were interesting in the books, but because we had to compress the books into making a movie, one of the ideas me and Michael Bacall looked back at was the structure of some of the classic Shaw Brothers films that have a tournament aspect, or a sense of unlocking achievement, be it THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN or ONE-ARMED BOXER or MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE or FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH... just this sense of stages of enlightenment. But what you're dealing with is a hero who doesn't know his own strength - and I mean that on an emotional level. He has no idea how much he's crushed Knives's world.
Beaks: That's because, emotionally, he's the same age she is.
Wright: Yes. At the start of the film, he's dating Knives Chau seemingly as an ego boost. What the books are about, and what the film is about, is that young love isn't all, to quote the film, "peaches and gravy". Scott Pilgrim is a character that deals in absolutes: any new relationship is the most amazing thing ever, every new girl is his dream girl, and every break-up is the worst thing ever. I was that person between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. I was like, "Oh, my god, I just got the best girlfriend ever!" And then "Oh, my god, she's dumping me! This is the end of the world!" Unfortunately for Knives, Scott is the first boy who treats her badly. What I liked about that is that when he's dating her at the start for his ego boost, he says it's because it's nice and simple - a break after having a bad relationship. When Ramona comes into his life, he thinks of her as the dream girl. But she thinks of him in the same way he thought about Knives; she wants to take a break from these seven douches with a nice guy. As you know, there's a point in the film where Scott isn't happy with being the placeholder; he isn't happy with being the nice guy, and he's started to become paranoid that he's next - which is also sort of in the books, the idea that if Scott Pilgrim gets dumped by Ramona, does he become one of the Evil Exes? Is this his path to the dark side? Or if he only goes out with her for a couple of weeks, is he going to become a mass of jealousy and insecurity and take his revenge on her or another girl? That frequently happens when you break up with someone; you take out your frustrations on the next person, who didn't do anything to you. So I like that Scott makes his mistakes and gets his comic comeuppance. I also like that the crime of cheating is punishable by death in this film. (Laughs)
Beaks: This movie is riddled with influences. As De Palma nerds, we've talked about how PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE informed the film tonally. But there's so much more. In my review, I called it "The action-musical Vincente Minnelli never made after taking ecstasy for the first time." It's just this wild melange of all these things.
Wright: Well, the musical thing came up because, first of all, there's a lot music in the film with the performance segments. But there's two things: one is that the link between musicals and Hong Kong action is strong. It was my note to Bill Pope and Brad Allan that I wanted the fights to seem like dance numbers. All of those guys - John Woo, Jackie Chan - came from the Peking Opera. Jackie Chan is pretty much the martial-arts Gene Kelly, and John Woo's favorite film is WEST SIDE STORY. I thought there was a real link between the structure of martial arts films and musicals: different fights are like different production numbers; two people fighting is a duet, while Scott fighting lots of henchmen is like a big dance number. And there are literally musical numbers in [SCOTT PILGRIM] as well.
The other aspect to it, where the musical thing really came in, was... it works in the comic, but in a film, how do you deal with the reality of somebody exploding into coins at the end of a scene, and with how the rest of the world thinks about that? Essentially, someone just died onscreen, but seemingly the rest of the peanut gallery - or Scott Pilgrim's ensemble of friends - don't really seem to comment on what just happened. So I felt it should be a thing where people break into fights like they break into songs, and at the end of the fight, you've reached a new stage in the story, or you pick up where you left off, or it's made the situation worse - like how at the end of the Roxy and Scott fight, it just exacerbates how Scott is feeling. He doesn't feel good about defeating Roxy, and feels like he's been sexually humiliated in front of this club.
In GREASE, once they finish "Summer Lovin'", no one comes up to Sandy and Danny and goes, "Fuck, that was awesome! That dance that you did on the bleachers was incredible!" I thought that was an interesting way of keeping this level of reality going: the fights break out like songs, and then everything goes back to normal. And even in the first fight scene, where Matthew Patel explodes into coins, all of the people around him have things they're preoccupied with so they don't have the chance to say, "What the fuck was up with that big fight with the Indian guy who just exploded into coins?" Scott is distracted by the fact that he doesn't have enough change for the bus; Ramona wants to get the hell out of there because she's embarrassed; Stephen Stills is briefly thinking "What the fuck was that?", but is then like "Oh, we won, great!"; Stacey is distracted because her boyfriend is getting off with Wallace; Wallace is too busy kissing Jimmy to give a shit; and Knives has been unconscious and doesn't know the band has won.
That's fight number one. Then it's about keeping the ball in the air. Basically, we never comment on how people can fight, and we never comment on the fact that people are exploding into coins. I just like setting up this magical realism and letting the music, which is integral in all the fights, take over.
I didn't feel compromised by Universal, but when you have your first test screening and there's a whole bunch of cards saying, "Why do they fight?", the impulse is to say, "We have to explain why they fight!" And we said, "No, you don't have to explain why they fight, because then it becomes THE KARATE KID, and the whole film is spent explaining how he gets his powers."
Beaks: I think you give those who might be resisting this reality a way in by having Stacey exclaim "What?" as soon as Patel starts his Bollywood number. She speaks for the audience that doesn't get it.
Wright: Ironically, that wasn't in the script. At the end of that whole sequence - and it probably took ten days to shoot that first fight - I shot a bunch of reactions. Kieran had lots of alternative, funny lines, and we shot some reactions of Anna [Kendrick]. That's the best one she came up with. It didn't really have a place. I thought it was going to be at the beginning of the fight, but then I thought it should go right when Matthew starts to sing. As soon as he breaks into a Bollywood song, beat the audience to the punch - because they're going to be going "What the fuck?" So, yeah, she reacts for someone in the audience wondering, "What the hell am I watching?"
And one line we took out, that was in the original draft, was Scott Pilgrim saying, "I just don't understand what the rules are!" (Laughs) There is also a hilarious deleted scene that I think would only be funny to readers of Creative Screenwriting; Scott has this monologue in the dark talking about "The Hero's Journey". It's funny because, when you do a film with a studio, you get notes asking, "How do we explain the rules?", and "What is Scott feeling right now?" So sometimes we address that head-on, like when he says, "I think I learned something!" That always gets a laugh. It's one of those things when you're trying to say he's learned something, so you're like, "Just write that!"
Beaks: "I have an arc!"
Wright: We have a whole speech that will be on the DVD where he recites the entire "Hero's Journey" as a monologue. That was a bit too smart for the room, but it made me laugh.
Beaks: You've said that Gideon Graves is kind of like your Swan [from PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE].
Wright: Well, to be fair, Bryan Lee O'Malley had never seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE before I put it to him. But all roads lead back to Phil Spector. Anyone who's a sort of hipster producer in a movie...
Wright: Yeah, Z-Man Barzell from BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. But, basically, all roads lead back to Phil Spector. Both of those characters were based on Spector - Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell spookily so. They basically predicted what he would do. I talked once to Roger Ebert about that. When I did that screening of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS at The New Beverly, I got into an email conversation with him because he'd written a lovely introduction for the screening. (Leaning into my recorder) And Roger, if you're reading this, don't let the video game aspect of SCOTT PILGRIM affect your grade. You know how much of a fan I am of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS... he plead. (Laughs) But once I got into an email conversation with him, I asked him what he thought of the whole Phil Spector thing. And Roger said, "I never met the man. We only went on what we'd heard."
The most amazing thing about watching PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is seeing the 20th Century Fox logo at the start. (Laughs) You're like, "Oh, shit, this is a studio film!" Same with BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
Beaks: Where the fanfare is used again during the movie!
Wright: Somebody actually asked if our use of the Universal music within SCOTT PILGRIM was a reference to the Fox fanfare turning up in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and I'd never thought of it like that. I just thought that it'd be funny if that music played when someone walked on set.
Beaks: By the way, was Chris's "That's actually hilarious" scripted?
Wright: That was scripted. And Evans's whole bit about letting his stunt double do the wide shot so he can get stoned in his trailer is based on an action star; that's based on a real anecdote. Some people have probably already guessed who that is. Perhaps I shouldn't comment.
Beaks: With the passage of time, does it get more difficult to return to the "Cornetto Trilogy" with Simon and Nick?
Wright: At this point, I feel like the longer we wait it's more about saying something personal. I think we need to take a break because, at the end of the HOT FUZZ press tour, we got tired of the question, "You've done zombies, you've done cop movies, what's next?" People just wanted us to say, "Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright, blah, blah, blah, aliens!", so they could go, "Ah, they're doing aliens next!" As much as I lover the Zucker brothers and stuff, I didn't want it to be, "And what's your next spoof going to be?" It was nice to go our separate ways. I feel like returning to that has got to be something personal. The idea we do have is something that's personal. I feel like doing stuff with Simon and Nick could be our version of [Michael Apted's documentary series] 7 UP, where we go back and get older with our characters. One of the reasons that we never did a third SPACED, and one of the reasons why we should never return to it, is that you want to leave those characters at that age. Nobody wants to see Tim and Daisy in their forties.
When we did the DVD stuff on SPACED, and we went to the old locations and started talking about where the characters would be now... it's really tricky, that. It has been possible to get older with the characters, and I feel like the idea we have for the third movie is going along with that vein. But it's been interesting... there are some films that have taken the SHAUN OF THE DEAD model and tweaked it to have a similar kind of thing but to insert a different monster in a sort of social situation. Not to say we created that, but it definitely makes us think twice. We can't go back and do that again; it has to be something really special. We've got a really strong idea, but I haven't been in a rush to write it. I want to write it when I feel like it; I don't want it to be done on a mandated schedule.
Beaks: I don't think anyone wants you to go back until it's the right time.
Wright: But some fans think I should never work with anyone other than Simon and Nick. And I'm like, "Well, Simon and Nick get to go off and star in other things. They get to work with Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. I want to sleep around, too!"
Beaks: Anything specific you can say about the idea?
Wright: It has a getting-the-band-back-together theme to it. So the longer we wait, the more we'll have to say!
Sounds good. For now, I'm just as excited to see what Wright does next on his own.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD assaults theaters August 13th, 2010.