In Edgar Wright’s sixth feature film, “Baby Driver,” due out June 28, Ansel Elgort plays a getaway driver whose job is propelled by his own musical playlist. His cherubic face and gentle nature belie a focused intelligence beyond his years — everything is mapped out in his head, even when those around him think he’s not paying attention. He also possesses a savant-like skill with music, using it as both motivation and security.
There’s a direct correlation between Baby the character and Wright, the writer-director who created him. “You said it, not me!” laughs Wright’s longtime producer Nira Park. Baby uses music to drown out his tinnitus, a condition that causes ringing in the ears; Park learned during the making of the film that Wright had the same ailment as a child.
Wright, too, has a quiet, focused intelligence that surfaced when he was in his early 20s working with Park on “Spaced,” the BBC comedy that launched his career. Though he was young — he was once mistaken as a production assistant on the show — Wright already had a singular vision. “One time I explained why there was something we couldn’t do, but he stood his ground,” recalls Park. “Back then, it took people by surprise this young kid had a strong vision and wouldn’t compromise. And he hasn’t changed in 20 years.”
At 43, Wright still looks remarkably young, and his unique vision has turned what is known as the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy — “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), “Hot Fuzz” (2007) and the less successful “The World’s End” (2013) — into cult favorites. During his hour-long interview with Variety at a Hollywood coffee shop, the filmmaker is recognized by several fans who come up to express their enthusiasm. Wright’s direction has become a character in itself and his films are synonymous with dizzying camerawork and finding humor in the most unlikely, often violent, places.
His first attempt at a big Hollywood movie — Universal Pictures’ 2010 release “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” an adaptation of a graphic novel — failed miserably. The film cost more than $100 million to produce and market, and it grossed just $47 million worldwide. Five years later, he walked away from directing Marvel’s big-budget “Ant-Man” because of creative differences over the script.
“Baby Driver,” which Sony Pictures is releasing, is Wright’s latest opportunity for a potential big score with a broad audience. While built on familiar tropes, the movie manages to be wildly original and features an impressive ensemble including Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. “This might be my most accessible film,” concurs the writer-director. “It has elements like car chases and gunfights and big stars and beautiful ladies,” including Lily James. “In this day and age of trying to make original movies and get them seen, there’s a balancing act of finding something that isn’t an existing IP but is familiar and fresh at the same time. So I made a car-chase movie, but it’s Edgar Wright’s version of a heist movie.”
What it was never meant to be, surprisingly, is a comedy. “When it was first listed online, there was a site that called it an ‘action comedy,’ and I asked the studio to change it to ‘action thriller,’” Wright recalls. “While there’s a lot of funny stuff, I don’t want people to get the wrong idea and think it’s going to be like ‘Hot Fuzz.’ I read one review saying the first half was a great action comedy, but the second half gets really dark. Well, that was the intention. It’s not by mistake — it’s by design.”
The idea for “Baby Driver” came to Wright 22 years ago while he was repeatedly listening to “Bellbottoms,” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. “I started to visualize this car chase, but I didn’t know what the rest of the story was,” he says. “I’m very inspired by music and tend to conjure up scenes inspired by songs. Usually it’s with songs that don’t already have a significant visual image that goes with them. You wouldn’t listen to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and say, ‘I’ve got a great idea for this!’ because there already is one.”
Eventually, Wright developed the idea of a getaway driver who is so committed to music, he can’t start driving until he has the proper song. He used this idea in a 2003 music video for the band Mint Royale called “Blue Song,” starring Noel Fielding, prior to the actor’s breakthrough on British TV show “The Mighty Boosh.” “That video is essentially the opening scene to ‘Baby Driver,’” Wright notes. “And it kept making the rounds. Every few years, it would pop up and people would remember it.”
After the success of “Hot Fuzz,” Wright signed a deal to make two movies, including “Baby Driver.” But first he had to tackle “Scott Pilgrim” and “The World’s End.” He believes that the delay was good for “Baby Driver.” “I would not have been able to make this movie 20 years ago when I was 21. I would not have been able to even make it 10 years ago,” he says. “One thing I did 10 years ago that had a big impact on the film was take long road trips. I drove from New York to L.A. Then later I drove from L.A. to Vancouver.”
In those trips he listened to music nonstop and came up with ideas central to the plot, such as the character of Baby’s love interest (played by James) working in a retro Americana diner. “Every city in every town across the States has one of those old 1950s-style diners,” he says.
Wright completed his first draft in 2011, with many of the songs already written into the script. Only a few additions were made by the time the film was shot, including a seminal moment when Elgort lip-syncs the Commodores’ “Easy” — something that came from the actor’s audition.
“Edgar was having me lip-sync some of the songs in the script, but I didn’t know them as well; they weren’t in my bones,” Elgort reveals. “He suggested I do a song I knew well. I chose ‘Easy’ and he loved it — in fact, he put it on the sizzle reel he showed to Spacey when he was trying to convince him to sign on.” Elgort was touched to see the song made it into the script. “It became a big part of the movie, and it’s great because it’s an important song to my life that I’ve loved since I was 8 or 9 years old.”
Elgort also has a passion for music — he DJs under the name Ansolo — and says that at his first meeting with Wright they spent two hours talking about their favorite music. Only at the end of their conversation did the director mention “Baby Driver.” It was a long process, with Elgort and Wright first meeting in 2014, the actor being formally cast in 2015, and the film shooting in 2016.
The lengthy preproduction time was necessary to clear all the music and plan the elaborate car chases. Wright was determined to not use a green screen and keep everything as practical as possible. He spoke to several action directors, including George Miller and Quentin Tarantino, for advice. “Car chases are as painstaking to film as they are fun to watch,” he notes. “So teenage-boy fantasies of ‘Oh goody, a car chase’ are immediately contrasted by the sheer complexity of it and the fact everything has to be safe.”
Wright also shot actor reaction shots on the road, estimating that 95% of the movie has its stars behind the wheel at high speeds. “If you have an actor doing 180 [mph] on the road, their hair is flying, they’re sliding around — it’s not the same on a green screen,” he says. Elgort, for one, says he was never worried. “The stuntmen and crew made you feel incredibly safe,” he says. “No pun intended, but they really baby you. So it ends up just being fun.”
“Baby Driver” received an enthusiastic response from audiences and critics earlier this year when it was unveiled at SXSW. Wright, who had never had a film play a festival prior to its release, was relieved and thrilled. Sony, also happy about the positive reaction, moved up the release of “Baby Driver” to June from its original August date.
“With a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes and stellar audience reaction out of SXSW, we moved ‘Baby Driver’ to the perfect summer date that will allow for extended play well into the season,” says Adrian Smith, president of domestic distribution at Sony Pictures Releasing.
Wright describes himself as “cautiously optimistic” about the film’s prospects. There were high hopes for “Scott Pilgrim,” and after the disappointing returns, he says many people seemed to expect him to throw Universal’s marketing team under the bus. “I would never do that because I loved the trailer and thought they did a great job,” he says. “The lesson I learned is that movies outside the box are difficult to market.”
He adds that after that film’s disappointing opening weekend, he received an email from a Universal marketing executive that reminded him films have a long life after their theatrical release, and that appreciation would come. “It was three words. It said, ‘Years, not days.’ And I feel like he was right.”