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Edgar Wright on the Mechanics of a Perfect Action Scene and the Timing of ‘Baby Driver’

Written by on June 27, 2017 

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It’s fortuitous enough that Edgar Wright‘s films will inspire any number of questions — fairly often along the lines of “how did they even do that?,” admittedly, but one takes what they can get — and all the more fortunate that the writer-director stands among the more verbose and open of his generation. (And that’s to say nothing of those working in the mainstream.) With the latest, Baby Driver, being a praise-worthy bit of craftsmanship from top to bottom and the man himself standing in something of a spotlight, now might be the best time to get his attention.

Although I could’ve thrown inquiry after inquiry at Wright for, say, two hours, our talk was a good bit of ground-covering — an update on how feeling about the progression of his career, where one film feeds into another, and, because it’d be silly to sit down with a great craftsman and not get into some nuts-and-bolts business, what contemporary editing systems and particular processes add to a picture’s final shape.

Your last few films percolated for several years before entering production, or, at least, almost reaching it: The World’s End had been a known commodity since Hot Fuzz; Ant-Man moved along for a good stretch of time; Baby Driver was first name-checked in 2009, and had a music video prelude it some fifteen years ago. With this one done, is there a certain sense of freeness, of freedom? Now, perhaps, you’re moving to projects that will come at you a little more quickly.

I think the thing is: it might seem like a director can plan their filmography, but that’s not really sort of the case. The truth with “original movies,” or whatever, is that they’re just difficult to get made, full stop, so the particular order in which they happen is not always by design. Funny enough, I finished the first draft of this before I even started writing The World’s End. It’s just the sort of way that it worked out: we wanted to make The World’s End the year that we did and other things were on the back burner. It’s not always part of a precise plan, sometimes, in terms of… but in terms of whether it’s “freeing”: I get a funny sense, with Baby Driver, that I keep having to pinch myself that it actually exists as a movie and is not just a thing that I’ve been talking about.

Because I feel like, with Baby Driver, it would start to feel like the boy who cried wolf. “I have this thing; I have this idea.” But there’s a sort of thing to build up the confidence to do a movie like Baby Driver. I couldn’t have made this movie ten years ago, even though I started working on it. I wouldn’t have made the same movie ten years ago, so there is just a sense of your building up to things. In terms of whether it’s “freeing”: I mean, I thought about it in those terms, in that I don’t know exactly what film is next — and that’s actually quite pleasant, in a way. Because I think when you’re making original films you’re not necessarily on anybody’s schedule. [Laughs] It’s like, there’s a Star Wars movie coming out every year, so that’s kind of on its own schedule. Or an X-Men movie has already been dated by Fox three years in the future. Something like Baby Driver literally lives or dies on your own persistence to get it made.

You’ve said that you couldn’t have made this movie ten years ago —

Well, not so much that. I think I just wouldn’t have the confidence to do it. I started to write it and had it in my head, and feel like it came at the perfect time, you know?

Did the productions of Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End ever bring this film to mind in specific ways? Did shooting, staging, or editing them form an idea that would come to be applied in Baby Driver?

By the time I had started work on the script, it was before Scott Pilgrim; and before we did The World’s End, I had written the script. I mean, it kind of changed a bit afterwards and got better, but it already existed. I think the truth of it is is that you sometimes, less so in films, do a dry run for things. So actually that music video from fifteen years ago: I had already had the idea for Baby Driver, and I did that video as a dry run for the movie because I didn’t have any other ideas for that video and I was supposed to turn in, like, a treatment for this video, and I was like, “Agh, I don’t know what to do!” I think, “Maybe I should do that ‘getaway driver’ thing,” and then I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to use this cool idea for a movie on this 20-grand music video for a dance act.”

At the time, when I did that video [see below], I was mad at myself for squandering the idea — mad at myself and nobody else. Nobody knew the thing existed. But then it actually ended up being something that was really helpful, because it would be, like, something that stuck around. That video sort of stuck around for, like, ten years or more after we did it because Noel Fielding got more and more famous — he’s still very famous, in fact — and so that video stuck around to the point where, and this is absolutely true, seven years ago, I was doing an event for the L.A. Film Festival for Scott Pilgrim, and J.J. Abrams was interviewing me. We had clips of my career, and he specifically said, “Can we show that getaway-driver video?” I said, “Sure,” so we showed that on the big screen, and during the clip, while the audience were watching it, J.J. leaned over to me and said, “I think this would make a great movie,” and I said, “I am way ahead of you.”

So it was funny. I think, sometimes, those things, when you’re doing music videos… I’ve done less than ten music videos, or maybe I’ve done ten exactly. Most of them were between Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and certainly some of those ones were like dry runs for something. Like, in Shaun of the Dead, there’s that Steadicam shot where he walks through the shops and back, and I’d done a music video for the Bluetones called “After Hours” where I was like, “This is a dry run for that Steadicam shot.” With commercials and music videos, sometimes the reason to do them is to experiment with a piece or kit you’ve never done before, a chance to test this thing. So you do that sometimes. I don’t know whether in Scott Pilgrim or The World’s End… I’m thinking about those movies. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to do in Baby Driver.

Ansel Elgort;Lily James

Which is funny, because Baby Driver‘s opening-credits tracking shot made me think of that scene in Shaun of the Dead.

And the similarity between both of those is that they were shot on the first day of the shoot. Which is a way of setting out your store to the studio and cast and crew. “This is the kind of movie this is going to be, guys.” [Laughs] It’s also a good thing, doing a shot like that on your first day of the shoot — it’s a really good way of getting everybody involved. Something like that, which requires the concentration of the cast and crew on every level, and also something that they can watch back and say, “Hey, we did it!” Because it’s something I think is a good kind of team-building exercise as well as a shot, you know?

I get such pleasure from how you transition between sequences and what that can evoke. In the 13 years between Shaun and Baby, has the process changed much with advancements in editing systems, whether you’re using Avid or Premiere or Final Cut, that have made the many ins and outs easier to orchestrate?

I don’t think I’ve noticed anything in that time, because I’ve only ever used Avid with any of the movies. Also, like, my editors are so kind of… I mean, particularly Paul Machliss, who I’ve worked with since Spaced. I worked with him on the first series of Spaced. He was the online editor, so he was doing the online effects. And then I did two films with Chris Dickens, who was the other editor on Spaced. And then, on Scott Pilgrim, Paul Machliss has his first feature credit, which is crazy, and Jon Amos, who was the assistant editor on Hot Fuzz, also kind of stepped up. When I was doing Scott Pilgrim, Donna Langley initially said “absolutely not” to Paul and Jon. She said, “You cannot use, on this big movie, two first-time feature editors.” I said, “Well, the two of them together would be cheaper than a big Hollywood editor, and if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them.” She said, “Fair enough.” Then they stuck it out and both got nominated for the ACE after that movie, and they both have “ACE” after their name because of that movie — on one credit.

So those guys are amazing. And this is now my third movie with them because they did The World’s End and Baby Driver. I don’t know if things have changed in terms of the process. I’d only say doing the effects on the Avid is a lot easier and quicker than it ever was. Paul Machliss is so good at this stuff. You can do what, essentially, back in the day you would have to do with film opticals, you can do now with transitions, where it’s like, “Oh, this frame wipe is good, but it would be great if it landed, like, six frames earlier. Can we do that?” “Okay. Let’s cut around it.” They change the timing of this framework and stuff. But most of those things are sort of designed in the storyboards — nearly all of the transitions are designed in the storyboards — and some of them are, like, super old-school.

A director friend of mine watched the movie the other day and he goes, “How did you do that transition from the parking lot to the junkyard? Is that with motion control?” I go, “It’s so low-fi. It’s literally like: we’ve got the shot from the parking lot; the camera system measures Ansel’s distance to the camera, the height of the camera, everything else; and then, when you’re in the junkyard, you get the monitor and you pull up the old shot and you do a half-mix to see the new shot. And then you go, ‘Okay, one inch higher. Ansel, one shot to the left.’” It’s done like that, so it’s super low-fi.

There’ll be little ones that come up on the day. Nearly all of them are in the storyboards, and sometimes you come up with something — one bit like Ansel puts down a coffee cup and it says “Baby,” and I was looking at it thinking, “Oh, that’s a good way to the end the scene. End on that.” And then I’m going, “Oh, let’s get a shot of the button, and let’s make sure the buttons look exactly the same size as the coffee cup.” I shot those two bits, but that wasn’t in the storyboards. But the majority of them are in the storyboards.

You did on-set editing of a day’s work.

And at the end of the day we’d be able to watch what we’d done.

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That’s rather interesting. I wonder how, even with storyboards, that might change an approach, even in small ways, to shooting a sequence or working with actors.

I think the reason we did that… I didn’t really start doing that. I was always against the idea, because I was always much more secretive about my process when I started out. Then I think you start to sort of be like, “Stop being so paranoid and actually realize that sharing things with your crew is just going to make the whole experience more enriching.” And so I think Scott Pilgrim onwards… Scott Pilgrim, we actually started editing some of the action on the set and it was really useful. On Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, nearly all the action is designed in such a way that it’s like one-ers — as in: there’s no other coverage — because it’s very difficult, on the set, to edit between, like, five different cameras. But if you’re doing an action scene with one camera, then you can stick together the edit by the end of the day and say, “This is what it looks like.”

I remember, with The World’s End particularly, there’s that big brawl in the Beehive where we shot for, like, six days — I think six days — and on the last day we already had a shit load to do, and I said to my AD, “Don’t freak out, but there’s a shot that we did earlier that I want to re-do.” He goes, “Really?” I show him what shot and he goes, “Okay. Why do you want to re-do the shot?” I say, “Look at this guy here. I think this guy here can be much quicker. It’s okay, but it should be better.” It’s that thing of, “We’re re-doing something,” and then you announce to the crew, “Guys, we’re going to re-do the shot. I want you to gather around the monitor and watch it and I’ll tell you how it can be better.”

With Baby Driver, having done that with the action scenes on Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, we only did it with action scenes — not dialogue scenes. Because the dialogue scenes are something like, as long as you know you’ve got it, then you’re going to create the best version of that scene in the edit. With this, it was specifically about making sure that the music stuff worked. Are we keeping on track with the songs? Are the scenes the right length for the songs? Are the bits there in-time with the music? So it’s literally something like, Jon Hamm is firing his assault rifle in time with “Hocus Pocus.” We do the shot and Paul said, “Paul, does it… does it work?” He goes, “Yeah, no, it’s good!” [Laughs] Like that, you know? That’s enough for me; I don’t even need to watch it. It’s just, like, the fact that he’s doing it and getting ahead.

Not many actors like watching stuff back, but Jamie Foxx would constantly be going over to Paul because he just couldn’t believe that it was coming together. He just, like, was over-awed by it because he kept watching stuff and going, “I can’t believe it’s this sharp. We’d just shot it and you’ve done it already.” But we really did it on this movie to enter into a movie where it’s like, “Okay, every single scene is going to be to music and we’ve got to keep an eye on the duration.” Because you don’t want to get into a situation where… and there’s one or two scenes in the movie where the scene expanded longer than the song. In the second car chase, we literally put a shot in where Ansel rewinds the song so it gets back to the point he wanted to be at. But that was the thing: it was basically a way of keeping the soundtrack in check.

The pleasure I get from your films remains very consistent over the years. But what about for you? Is there pleasure in looking back at them, even just in seeing what you and your team accomplished? Or is it a thing of remembering the day, the difficulties, the step-by-step processes, and that creates a distance?

No, it depends. I think in all of the movies there’s something where I go, “Oh, I wish I’d done that.” But then there are long stretches of them where it feels like it’s firing on all cylinders — like, “I don’t think we could’ve got it better on that.” So I think it goes between the two. I don’t watch my movies unless I have to. But it’s funny: I watched the whole of Hot Fuzz the other day because we had a ten-year-anniversary screening and I ended up watching the whole thing. There’s little bits where I go, “Oh, yeah, I would’ve done that differently,” or, “There’s too much of that.” And then there’s other parts where I’m thinking, “Yeah. [Laughs] This is about as good as it could possibly get with this.”

So it’s sort of a bit of both, really. I mean, I do take… the best part of it, most of the time — and Baby Driver is no exception — is when the crew watch it back, the people who work so hard on the movie. I’m able to say to them, “Oh, you’re going to be able to see your hard work on the big screen.” Actually, our camera operator and Steadicam operator, Roberto De Angelis, I just saw him in Paris and he came to watch the movie. He goes, “How is it? Are you happy?” I said, “It’s all up there, man.” [Laughs] Like, that’s the only way I could describe it: “It’s all there.” You’re not going to watch it and say… it’s just that thing: people do these movies that are so ambitious and so complicated that you just want to make sure that everybody who worked on it felt like their hard work is reflected on the big screen. It’s also a budget thing as well: you want to make a film where it’s like you got the most bang for your buck, you know?

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Baby Driver opens in wide release on June 28.


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