Putting the Pedal to the Metal
Edgar Wright cranks up the jams for his new film Baby Driver
If you didn’t guess already, Hollywood lied to you. Getaway drivers don’t make off from a bank heist in a limited edition Mustang or an overpowered BMW. So if you’re looking for fantasy rides in Edgar Wright’s new thriller Baby Driver, he has an important lesson for you: “Actual bank robbers use commuter cars.”
Baby Driver, which receives its world premiere at SXSW, puts Ansel Elgort in the driver’s seat as Baby, a wheelman who depends on a constant soundtrack to get him into gear. It’s been portrayed as a change of pace for Wright, who made his reputation lovingly pastiching genre tropes in his famous Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End). However, Wright sees it as in many ways the same song as his earlier work, just in a very different key.
Last month, he Instagrammed the script’s front page, containing one vital sentence: “Every scene in this film is driven by music.” Every film he’s made so far, he said, “has a scene connected to music, and I wanted to take that aspect, [and] make an entire film about it.”
He’s been tinkering with the idea since 1994. That’s five years before his breakout success with subversive British sitcom Spaced, when “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion earwormed its way into his skull. The 19-year-old Wright kept it on constant repeat, “and I kept visualizing this car chase, and thinking, ‘This would be a great car chase song.’” His 2002 heist-themed music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” was arguably a proof-of-concept, so much so that when it screened as part of a 2010 Q&A with J.J. Abrams, “while we were watching it, [Abrams] leaned over and said, ‘I think this would make a great movie,’ and I said, ‘I’m way ahead of you.’”
In fact, he’d been working on the script since 2007, when he first pitched the idea to Eric Fellner at Working Title Films. “I took the advance to write it then,” said Wright, “but didn’t deliver the script until 2011.”
That time was all about preparation, like fitting the right scene to the right song. He said, “I know there’s some directors who find things on-set, and sometimes that’s on a small budget, and sometimes that’s on a big budget, ‘Let’s just wing it.’ But I try to map it out with military precision.” Not that he’s closed off to happy accidents. During the editing of one key scene, Wright said, “I quickly realized we’ve got too much action with this song, but it’s too cool to cut the action, and I didn’t want to lose the song.” His solution was simple: That’s what the repeat button is for.
Of course, with the same encyclopedic education in film history that informed his earlier comedies, Wright filtered the best of Hollywood into his inspirational playlist. There was the Holy Trinity of Nineties L.A. action-crime thrillers (Reservoir Dogs, Point Break, and Heat), and of course Peter Yates, who defined the modern car chase with Bullitt. Plus, Wright said, “I feel like I’ve spent the last six years telling Walter Hill how great his movies are.” Most pertinent was Hill’s seminal, supercool, white-knuckle ride The Driver, which Wright calls “a touchstone. ... It’s hugely influential to Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron. What I like about it is how precise it is.”
His own drive for precision also included finding out more about how real wheelmen work. Wright explained, “They don’t drive vintage muscle cars. They drive cars that are intended to blend in.” Moreover, don’t expect any Gone in 60 Seconds-style thefts from Ferrari showrooms, as criminals are far more likely to steal standard production cars from long-term parking structures or airports. “They get it in the morning, because they know it won’t be missed for 48 hours.”
So with his engine revving for the premiere, will “Bellbottoms,” the song that started it all, be part of the soundtrack? Wright won’t say whether, after 22 years, he managed to get it into the action. But, he slyly noted, “You won’t be disappointed with the amount of Jon Spencer.”