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Has the movie event of the summer season finally arrived? It most certainly has if you're a fan of British director Edgar Wright, whose previous films Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) — and his U.K. sitcom series Spaced (1999-2001), starring Simon Pegg — have made him a cult-pop hero akin to Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith. With Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, his first big-budget Hollywood film, Wright has made a next-level leap in ambition and perhaps popularity. Adapted from a series of acclaimed digest-size graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Pilgrim tells the tale of an immature slacker and aspiring rock n' roller (Michael Cera) who falls in love with the exotic and colorfully coiffed Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and must defeat her seven deadly superpowered ex-lovers to win her heart. The comic was a quirky-smart and self-aware romantic comedy with outrageously fun fight scenes that played knowingly with the conventions of videogames, superhero comics, and action movies. As such, it was a perfect fit for Wright, 36, a self-described ''pop culture sponge'' whose quick-paced, visually rich films are suffused with references and homage to their respective genres. A peek inside the mind of this engaging and energetic Englishman reveals the influences that shaped him, and more, reminds us that the experience of pop culture impacts us as much as the pop culture itself.
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Edgar Wright grew up a fan of superhero comics, and as such, he had to make a defining choice: Marvel or DC? To the undiscerning mind (i.e., ''non-geek''), this may seem like a potato/potatoe choice, but for fanboys, the publishers (rightly or wrongly) seemed to embody different values and sensibilities. Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men) was more rock 'n' roll — contemporary, culturally relevant, irreverent. DC Comics (Superman, Batman, The Flash) was more classical — iconic, old-fashioned, just...old. To whom did Wright pledge his fanboy allegiance? ''I was a big Marvel head, because of the sense of fun and because they were less self-serious,'' says the director, adding that his introduction to the Marvel universe was actually a TV show: The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982), starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. His favorite comic version of the green behemoth was actually the gray Hulk drawn by Todd McFarlane in the late '80s. ''Now Marvel comics were imports, so you couldn't buy them in normal stores,'' says Wright. ''But there was one newsstand on my way to school that would get a single issue of each Marvel title every month. I would try to figure out which day of the month each one would arrive, so I could get there early in the morning and buy them, or at least as many as I could afford, because I didn't want anyone to have them.'' Since 2008, Wright has been attached to a big-screen adaptation of Marvel's character Ant-Man. He says he's still attached, but there's no update. ''I've been focused on making Scott Pilgrim for the past two years,'' he says. ''My update on Ant-Man? Exactly where I was in 2008!''
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THE KILLING JOKE
Even though he was partial to Marvel's brand of funtime superheroing, Wright says he was also impacted by the creative renaissance of the mid-'80s — led by DC Comics — that brought a darker, more psychologically sophisticated perspective to superhero comics. In particular, he singles out Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland. Ironically, many of the leading lights of that creative revolution were British scribes (Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman) and artists (Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Simon Bisley) whom Wright was already familiar with via a popular weekly British comics anthology called 2000 AD. ''Everyone in my age group that was into comics was into that comic,'' says Wright.
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THE YOUNG ONES
Being British and very funny, Wright found his defining comedic touchstones in English television: Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74), of course, even though the show was a little before his time, although Wright was more affected by what he calls ''a kids' version of Monty Python'' known as The Goodies (1970-82). ''But for me, the Year Zero event in terms of comedy was The Young Ones,'' says Wright, referring to an edgy British sitcom about a motley mix of college roommates that ran from 1982 to 1984. ''I was 8 or 9. It was on late at night because it was pretty rude. That show was extraordinary — so anarchic. You were nobody in school if you hadn't seen The Young Ones the night before.''
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PAC-MAN AND OLD-SCHOOL VIDEOGAMES
Like the narrative in Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim comics, the storytelling in Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim film owes a debt to videogames, but maybe not the ones you think. For Wright, Pilgrim communes more with the likes of Pac-Man (1980) and Dragon's Lair (1983) than today's hyper-violent first-person fighting games. (For an apt articulation of Pilgrim's joystick influences, just check out the film's videogame tie-in, a heavily pixilated side-scrolling adventure that emulates the artwork of O'Malley's comics.) Wright says he loved videogames so much as a kid that he'd go to arcades even if he didn't have money to feed the machines himself. He'd either watch other kids play them or just watch the introductory demos.
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As he got older, Wright's videogame tastes evolved and became more obsessive. He says he developed an unhealthy relationship to home console videogames like Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Tekken (1995), Tomb Raider (1996), and especially Resident Evil (1996), which directly influenced his zombie survival rom-com Shaun of the Dead. ''I remember spending an entire weekend going blurry-eyed from playing Resident Evil nonstop, and at one point leaving the house and walking around in a paranoid daze, thinking people were going to attack me,'' says Wright, adding that he eventually had to get rid of his videogame consoles because they were interfering with his film work. ''It became this irresistible evil Ouija board that needed to be removed, or else I was never going to finish any scripts.''
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Next to movies, Wright says his second-favorite pop culture passion is music. He says he's the kind of guy ''who needs to go backward before I can go forward.'' The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Queen, and David Bowie were early faves. As for music that's more of his generation, Wright says he loved the Pixies but he discovered them just as they were about to break up. ''There were all these bands like the Pixies that I couldn't quite process in high school but caught up to later,'' says Wright. ''Now, I couldn't tell you what my favorite genres of music are, unless you count 'All Music' as a genre.'' (Note: Pixies frontman Frank Black contributed a key song to Scott Pilgrim, ''I Heard Ramona Sing.'')
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Wright's affection for the original Star Wars trilogy (and his disdain for the Star Wars prequels) is well known among his fans. He credits Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) as ''my first introduction to cinema.'' He says Hollywood's late-'70s/early-'80s output is hardwired into his imagination. ''The movies that my parents took me to see when I was a kid were all of the big genre milestones, whether it be Superman or even Flash Gordon, which still remains very dear to my heart,'' says Wright. ''There were a couple of summers when my parents would work at these arts and craft fairs. They could never afford babysitting, so they would just dump my brother and I at the cinema. So any of those late-'70s/early-'80s movies, I saw bunches of times. Flash Gordon. Popeye. The Black Hole. Raiders of the Lost Ark.''
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AIRPLANE! (1980), BANANAS (1971)
The more movies he saw, the more Wright began to follow the work of particular directors. ''I remember even before I was a teenager, the three directors that meant a lot to me were John Landis (American Werewolf In London), Joe Dante (Gremlins), and John Carpenter (Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China). All of their films, I could see all of the running jokes and stylistic flourishes,'' says Wright. As he got into his teenage years, the term auteur would become defined by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, and Sam Peckinpah. But being ''a huge comedy fan,'' Wright had a particular passion for the Zucker brothers (Airplane!, pictured, and Top Secret!) and Woody Allen. ''Especially the early Woody Allen films: Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper, and everything up through Annie Hall,'' says Wright. ''A couple of journalists have picked up a young Woody Allen vibe from Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim, which pleases both Michael and I to no end. I can't tell you how many times I've watched Bananas.''
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AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
One interesting aspect of Edgar Wright's cinematic maturation was that he couldn't see what we in America would generally dub an ''R-rated movie,'' as the British film ratings didn't allow kids to see such movies even in the company of an adult. Yet in retrospect, Wright says these restrictions actually fueled his movie passion, as he would then wait with great anticipation to see them on television, which in turn made for some indelible movie-watching memories. ''I saw American Werewolf In London for the first time on TV when I was 8 or 9. It blew my head off. I knew I loved it, but I couldn't tell you why straight afterwards. It was like I had just tasted a new flavor of ice cream, but my mind couldn't process it to describe it,'' says Wright. ''We also couldn't afford to have a VCR, so if there was something on TV and it happened to be on at 3 a.m. at night, I would stay up and watch it. I remember watching Halloween at 3 a.m.! Piranha? 4 in the morning!''
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There was one restricted movie that Edgar Wright had to see in theaters, rating be damned: Gremlins. ''In the U.K., Gremlins was released as a 15 [meaning no one under 15 could get in], and I was 9. I was so bummed. I had read the novelization. I had all these Gremlins stickers. I was so excited,'' says Wright. ''And so, very naively, my brother and I went to the cinema manager and asked if we could watch it. I brought the novelization with me and told him, 'I've read the book! I know what happens, so I won't be scared!' Amazingly, the cinema manager let us in! I was hiding down in my seat. I thought at any second, he was going to change his mind and kick us out. It was probably the most exciting film experience I ever had.''