You could describe “Baby Driver” as a car-chase movie set to rock and roll. Or, conversely, you could think of it as a playlist that happens to have a crime film attached. That’s because vehicular mayhem and music compete for top billing in Edgar Wright’s action-comedy-romance, with the whole idea of “incidental” music going by the wayside as the director lets most of the 30-plus songs on the soundtrack play out at close to full length.
Wright is as much of a music geek as a tire-squeal fetishist, and time spent with this mixtape — whether it’s via the packed two-CD soundtrack, or just as it plays out to picture, very loudly, in theaters — is time few rock fans would regret. The automotive scenes tend toward recently underexposed, revved-up ’70s rock classics by the likes of Queen and Golden Earring, but the “Baby Driver” soundtrack also offers cuts of various styles and vintage from Beck, Brubeck, Barry White, the Beach Boys, and soul duo Bob and Earl, just to touch on Wright’s B-list.
On the morning of the movie’s release, Wright took time out from celebrating to talk with Variety about the kicks of creating a movie so infused with music that the characters actually talk about songs, on top of peeling out from bank heists to them.
You’ve got these chase sequences set to high-energy tracks from the 1970s by Queen, the Damned, Focus, and Golden Earring. But it sounds like it was a slightly less vintage track, “Bellbottoms,” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (from 1994), that was really the instigating track for you and this project.
Edgar Wright: Yeah. When I was 21 and I was living in London for the first time, and had made my first low-budget movie but certainly wouldn’t have called myself a film director, and was completely broke and sitting in my bedroom, not sure how I was going to really break into the industry, I listened to that song a lot. And I just started visualizing this car chase. At the time, I wasn’t necessarily [saying], “This is a movie I’m gonna make.” But it was almost like the closest thing to having action-movie synesthesia, [where] I would listen to that song and imagine this car chase. And then it’s like, what is the story that goes with these visuals? So the idea that started it all off was: Maybe a getaway driver is listening to this song, and he’s actually trying to time out his getaways and literally have the perfect score for the perfect score. So I would say Jon Spencer and the album “Orange” inspired me to make this movie.
And you’ve got a cameo by Jon Spencer in the movie, presumably as a way of thanking him?
Yeah, but I don’t want to divulge exactly what he does, because it gives away the ending of the movie. I will say that he’s in the last five minutes of the movie, so he essentially bookends it. He’s at the start — the first voice you hear on the soundtrack—and he’s one of the last voices you hear in the movie.
How challenging was it for your editor, cinematographer, and stunt people to go along with your wanting the action scenes to synch up exactly with a song’s running time?
Queen’s “Brighton Rock” would be one of the toughest ones, because it’s quite a dense song. When I wrote this script, I basically put the beats of the song into the stage direction along with the action. We did storyboards, and then we cut the storyboards to the songs so we could try and time it out and make sure that it worked. Of course things that you plotted out on the page are a little different when you try and do it with real cars. It was a challenge for [cinematographer] Bill Pope and also the stunt coordinator, Darrin Prescott, because you’d have these bits worked out with the song, and then they’d say, “Oh, um, in reality, this stunt is going to take a little bit longer than you’ve given it on screen, so do you want to cut it tight, or do you want to change the timing a little bit?” So we’d do quite a lot of modulation of it. But it was a reverse-engineering thing that the stunt guys had never had to do before. I don’t think they’d ever had a director say, “Can we make this alley bit last 12 seconds, because that’s the length of this guitar solo?” They’d be like, okay!
“Brighton Rock” is an example of a very exciting song that has a not-quite-as-exciting part in the middle. Did you ever consider editing the track down to just the most exciting parts, or did that inspire you, to find a way to use the interlude somehow?
Wait, wait, are you saying that the guitar solo is not exciting?
Well, there is a kind of quiet, noodle-y part of the guitar solo where most of the band drops out, and it’s less intense than the rest of the song.
The main reason for using that song is that it’s Brian May’s greatest guitar solo. It’s a five-minute song, and I think 90 seconds or two minutes of it is the solo. [Editor’s note: The May guitar solo is even longer than Wright remembers: roughly 2 minutes and 45 seconds out of a 5:10 track.] So to me, it was listening to that song —which was an album track, never a single — and thinking, “This guitar solo would make such an amazing piece of action.” The reason I picked some of the songs is because they had some kind of dramatic structure to them, like “Brighton Rock” with this incredible guitar solo. And “Hocus Pocus” by Focus has a very interesting and energetic stop/start structure, where it’s like fast guitars, fast guitars, fast guitars — then a yodel break. Not many songs can claim to have a yodeling break.
In the non-action sequences, you have people talking about music in a movie, which rarely happens. I never imagined hearing Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Egyptian Reggae” called out in a movie. (A fellow member of the crime team picks up Baby’s iPod and announces the track title, unimpressed.)
The way that [cast member] Jon Bernthal lands that line is really funny to me, when he says “I just want to know what’s going on between this kid’s ears, aside from… ‘Egyptian Reggae.’ He says it so dismissively, as if he’s confused about whether it’s the song title or a genre of music. And there are other tiny little character things [related to music]. Like, Ansel Elgort, when he’s trying to woo Lily James, says “Trex” instead of “T. Rex,” and when he’s corrected, he looks really embarrassed. And then it’s kind of clear, even though he’s a music fan, that he’s never said the name of the band aloud.
That’s a fun scene because there have been so many in movies where a guy man-splains something about music to a girl. For once you have the girl knowing a little something more than the guy.
Oh, it’s one of my favorite bits in the movie. You’re right, in other movies, it would go the other way around. But she says “[You mean] T. Rex?” And Ansel, who is a really confident character, at least about music, looks so beautifully embarrassed for about three seconds. It’s that thing where, if you’re trying to impress a date and you get something wrong, they might have forgotten about it 15 seconds later, but you will remember it for the rest of your life. [Laughs.]
On a practical level, you’ve got 30 songs on the soundtrack album and more than that in the film. Were music rights an unusual part of your budget, or did you have some unusually good deal-makers, to be able to have wall-to-wall songs?
We had an amazing clearance person, Kirsten Lane, from a company called Right Music, who did all the hard work on this one. We’ve been working with her on this production for something like two years. Even before the movie was at Sony, we had sort of quietly started clearing the tracks. Because, you know, if you’re going to do a movie called “Baby Driver” and try and use that song, you should approach them way ahead of time to make sure that that’s okay. You don’t want to be in a situation where you’ve made the movie and Simon & Garfunkel are saying, “Come on, pay up. We know you want this.” But I want to think that part of the reason we managed to get 35 songs in a movie that is not as expensive as some people might think — we get maximum bang for our buck, in the action but also on the soundtrack — is because the songs are used creatively, and they’re also very foregrounded. So I would think that some of these songs would get picked up quite a lot [for future usage]. It’s not the kind of standard thing where you hear five seconds of an intro and then it’s dipped down under dialogue. All the songs are very much in the movie.
The average viewer may not realize until the end credits that a song called “Baby Driver” by Simon & Garfunkel gave the movie its name. That had to have been the spark for the lead character’s name, too, right?
I already had the idea of the movie in terms of getaway driver who is himself driven by music, and then I’d always liked that song. My parents only had a small record collection, but “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was one of those albums, so I knew every track on that album. Early on, I kind of thought, “Oh, Baby Driver, a young getaway driver — that’s the title,” and it sort of stuck from there.
It sounds like the Commodores’ “Easy” is the one song choice that wasn’t yours, and it came from Ansel?
Yeah, but I wrote it into the script. Me and Ryan Hefferton, the choreographer, did this audition with Ansel, and it was Ryan who said, “Why don’t you ask Ansel to lip-synch something that he knows by heart?” Because Ansel had heard the soundtrack for “Baby Driver” and knew a couple of the songs, but most of them he was getting to know. So I said to him — and bear in mind that Ansel was 20 at this time, and I didn’t let him practice, either— “Which song could you lip-synch by heart right now?” And he paused for a second, and then he said, “Uh, ’Easy’ by the Commodores.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah! That’s an interesting one for you to bring out of the bag. I like that song. I have it on my iTunes [to call up].” So he did this audition to “Easy” that was astonishing. I hope it will be on the DVD; it might be that thing where we have to clear it again to put it on. But it was at that point that I thought, well, this is clearly the guy. After that I did a redraft of the movie and changed some things. There was an idea of a tape that was special to him that was already in the script, but I changed it so that it actually revolved around his late mother doing a demo of a cover of “Easy.” So we used the original Lionel Richie/Commodores version, and then we had this new version sung by Sky Ferreira, who plays Baby’s mother, produced by Nigel Godrich, and I think it’s beautiful.
Is there an evangelistic element for you, that you might be introducing millennials or even younger people to some classic rock and soul and jazz they wouldn’t otherwise hear?
Who wouldn’t want to be introduced to Focus and “Hocus Pocus”? I keep saying to people, “If you love the song, watch them performing it on YouTube. It’s astonishing.” I mean, that’s how I know that song, is because there used to be a British music show called “The Old Gray Whistle Test,” which is slightly before my time, but there’s a great DVD of that, and the clip of Focus is amazing.
“Hocus Pocus” was famous in the ‘70s but hasn’t been kept alive much since then, so it’s hard to explain to people that it’s one of the most exciting rock songs ever recorded… and it has both yodeling and flute.
Yes. And accordion!