The making of 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World': Edgar Wright and Michael Cera describe how they brought us the year's most hard-to-describe movie 'epic'
The cast of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World were collectively required to master a vast array of new skills for the third film from British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). Those many non-musicians who essay band members in the movie had to learn how to play instruments so that they could convincingly thrash along to songs penned by such real-life acts as Beck and Canadian rock band Broken Social Scene. Meanwhile, those involved in the film’s numerous fight sequences were made to attend an intensive martial arts course that preceded the film’s six month Toronto shoot. “I got kicked in the throat during the training,” recalls Michael Cera. “I expected it to be excruciating, but it didn’t hurt at all, which was really confusing. I was probably so pumped with adrenalin that I just didn’t feel it,” semi-jokes the comic actor, whose pre-Scott Pilgrim resume is notably light on chopsocky action scenes, “I’m just a walking ball of adrenalin waiting to explode.”
One thing the Scott Pilgrim cast don’t seem to have been taught is how to sum up the film they’ve gone to so much effort to appear in, and which opens this Friday. “I tell people it’s a comedy, and I tell them Edgar’s directing” says Cera. “And that kind of draws a picture for them.” And so it does, but only if they’ve seen either of Wright’s previous two, genre-fusing, movies. Jennifer’s Body actor Johnny Miller, who plays a friend of Cera’s onscreen band Sex Bob-omb, is singing from the same, rather uninformative, songbook. “When people ask me to describe it, I just say, ‘Have you seen Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead?’” he explains. “If they say, ‘No,’ I don’t say anything else. There’s no way to describe it.”
With all due respect to Messrs. Cera and Miller we can do a little bit better than that, at least with regard to detailing the movie’s plot. In the film, which is based on a series of graphic novels by Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley, Cera plays the titular Pilgrim, a Toronto indie-rock bassist who dumps his still-at-high-school girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) for a more-age-appropriate Amazon deliverywoman called Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from Live Free or Die Hard). Unfortunately for our hero, Flowers has seven ex-romantic partners (played by Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, and future Captain America, Chris Evans, amongst others), all of whom possess top notch fighting skills and/or superpowers, and all of whom he must vanquish in battle.
In short, while this all might seem a trifle bizarre to those unfamiliar with O’Malley’s cult series, the basic plot of the movie is, in many ways, just another twist on the age-old boy-meets-girl story and is certainly easier to describe than that of, say, a certain recent Christopher Nolan blockbuster. Much harder to sum up is the movie’s unique tone which mixes video game references (Scott is awarded “points” every time he defeats one of Ramona’s “evil exes”), sitcom-style comedy shtick (often involving Scott and his gay roommate Wallace, played by a scene-stealing Kieran Culkin), and a hipster-ish sense of ennui (the film’s superpowers-featuring fights are routinely regarded as events barely worthy of even commenting upon by non-participants). “It’s like magical realism,” says Edgar Wright about the lack of onscreen interest provoked by the movie’s duels. “Magical things happen, and it’s just accepted in the logic of this universe that this is the way it goes. It’s like a musical in a sense. In Grease, nobody ever says at Rydell High, ‘Did you see it yesterday when everybody sang, ‘Summer Nights’ with all the harmonies? Yeah, they were all up in the bleachers! It was amazing!’ That was my feeling with the fight scenes. They’re like musical numbers.”
Of course, by the time John Travolta and pals yodeled from those bleachers, movie audiences had long gotten accustomed to the idea of actors nonsensically bursting into song onscreen. Wright is trying something very new, and very risky, with his film whose budget one source close to the project estimates as being in the region of $60m. That’s not a huge bet by Universal, which is backing the venture, but it is a fair-sized one that is greater than the U.S. gross of either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz (although the latter earned a remarkable $42m in Wright’s native U.K.). Moreover, the film is opening against two movies that could hardly be easier to describe: the adapted-from-a-best-selling-book Eat, Pray, Love and the star-larded old school action-fest The Expendables. Scott Pilgrim may have his hands full battling the world. The big question for Universal, is how Michael Cera and Edgar Wright will fare when they take on Julia Roberts and Sylvester Stallone.
Edgar Wright first came across the universe of Scott Pilgrim when he was given a pre-publication copy of the first volume—the archly-named Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life—while the director was on the press tour for his debut movie, the 2004 zombie romantic-comedy Shaun of the Dead. O’Malley’s writing reminded Wright of Spaced, the phantasmagorical, pop culture reference-suffused sitcom he had made with his Shaun stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. After expressing his interest to Universal, Wright set about penning a first draft of Scott Pilgrim with Michael Bacall, who had previously co-penned the 2001 Joseph Gordon-Levitt drama Manic.
Wright never had any doubt who, in an an ideal world, he wanted to have “versus”-ing the world. “I’d been watching a lot of Arrested Development,” says the director. “I remember saying to Michael Bacall, ‘Oh man, it’s a shame Michael Cera’s not older, he’d be perfect for Scott Pilgrim.’” By the time Wright finished promoting his second film, the cop comedy Hot Fuzz, the Canadian actor was both old enough to play the part, and keen to do so. “I’d read the graphic novels,” says Cera. “When I found out there was a movie, I was really excited Edgar was involved, because I was a big fan of his.”
Wright filled out the rest of his cast with a mixture of young, established, stars such as Schwartzman and Evans, and up-and-comers like Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza, many of whom are now considerably more famous than when Wright cast them. “Some of it is just luck, I guess,” says the director, “but also I feel like, in every part, I got the best person for the job. A lot of these people have been cast in it for a long time. Anna Kendrick did her first audition for it before she shot the first Twilight. And Aubrey Plaza got the part in Scott Pilgrim before she did Funny People or Parks and Recreation, which is crazy. It shows you how long this film has taken to get made.”
Wright, who has directed videos for British acts such as Mint Royale and The Bluetones, always takes great care over the music that is played, or even talked about, during his films. In Shaun of the Dead Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s pair of beer-guzzling layabouts try to stall a pair of zombies by hurling vinyl records at them, but only those albums they don’t mind losing (“Sign o’ the Times?” “Definitely not.” “The Batman soundtrack?” “Throw it.”). For Scott Pilgrim—which in addition to everything else, is a bona fide rock movie—Wright recruited Radiohead and Beck producer Nigel Godrich to write the film’s score, and help put together a dream team of musicians capable of penning suitably believable tunes for the film’s clutch of onscreen bands to perform. “Me and Nigel started meeting bands two years ago,” says Wright. “Our idea was to get a different artist [to write songs for each] fictional band in a film.” The list of musical contributors would ultimately include Broken Social Scene, Metric, Dan the Automator, and Beck. “Beck’s done some amazing stuff,” says Wright of the singer-songwriter, who penned the music for Sex Bob-omb. “Some of it sounds like his writing, and some of it sounds like he’s channeled a scrappy, three-piece garage rock band.”
Since making his mark with Shaun of the Dead, Wright has become friendly with a raft of more experienced directors including Steven Spielberg, whose forthcoming Tintin movie he co-wrote, and Peter Jackson, who briefly appeared in Hot Fuzz as a violent, Simon Pegg-stabbing, Santa Claus. Wright says he “didn’t talk too much” to either of the aforementioned blockbuster auteurs prior to embarking on Scott Pilgrim, easily his most ambitious, expensive, and effects-heavy movie to date. But the director did receive help from some other notable directing names. “I definitely had a couple of opportunities to pick the brains of peers,” he says. “Quentin Tarantino gave me some advice on the shooting of fight scenes. And Guillermo Del Toro recommended [martial arts expert] Brad Allen. It’s funny, I was on the set of Drag Me To Hell for one day. And I said to Sam Raimi, ‘Oh, this next film I’m doing has a lot of special effects, have you got any advice? Maybe we could get lunch when you’ve wrapped.’ And whilst he was setting up a shot, he started going into a mini masterclass about how to shoot special effects. Part of me was taking in the details, and part of me was thinking, ‘If only the 14-year-old me could see this!’ It was kind of amazing.”
Principal photography finally began on Scott Pilgrim early in 2009 and continued for a goodly portion of the year. “There was definitely a point when I wondered if it would ever end,” laughs Cera. “I remember asking one of the assistant directors what day it was, and she told me it was only day 35. I couldn’t believe it. At that point it was the longest I’d ever worked on something, and we hadn’t even reached halfway. But Edgar’s inspiring. When you have someone who’s putting themselves into it that much, it makes you feel like giving them all you’ve got.”
Wright himself says there were moments when he had fears about the scale of what he had taken on, particularly when it came to film the climactic fight sequence, a highly complex sword battle which takes place on a pyramid in a nightclub owned by Jason Schwartzman’s character. “I like to work really fast,” explains the director. “When I start a production it’s like I haven’t had sex for three years. So we were raring along at this amazing pace. And then there was this final set piece on a pyramid. Suddenly, we slowed down to doing ten shots in a day, which is very slow for me. I sat there on top of this pyramid, looking down at these enormous platforms being maneuvered around and I thought, ‘Who’s idea was this?’ And it was mine!”
By the fall of 2009 Scott Pilgrim had theoretically wrapped. Then, in the spring of this year, various cast members were recalled to Toronto to shoot more scenes. At the time, Wright depicted the reshoots as merely a spot of polishing. “[W]e are not even redoing one full scene, nor any action,” he told the website Collider in May, “just some bits and bobs and new jokes and beats that I wrote with Bacall and O’Malley.” In fact, while it is true that the amount of changed screen time is minimal, Wright shot a new conclusion to the film as a result of test audiences having reacted poorly to the movie’s ending. “A lot of people were having a hard time with [the original ending]” says Michael Cera. “Michael Bacall told me that there was one score card that came back and the person was raving about the movie, and just scribbled all over the card: ‘Amazing!’ ‘Amazing!’ ‘Fanastic!’ And then there was a question on the card that said, ‘How would you describe your feelings about the ending?’ And the person just wrote, ‘Lame.’”
“Lame” is hardly the word to describe the film’s reception at Comic-Con last month where the re-jigged version was greeted ecstatically by convention-goers. Of course, Scott Pilgrim is a very Comic-Con-friendly movie and Wright is well aware that his film must reach beyond the demographic of gamers, comics fans, and hardcore movie nuts—substantial though that base may be—to succeed commercially. To that end, an early ad for the movie highlighted the romantic aspect of the project, at least at first. “The first trailer started off looking like it might be another indie rom-com,” admits Wright. “It traded a little bit on what you might expect of Michael—before the insanity comes crashing in. But that’s kind of what the film is like. The first half hour plays a like a romantic comedy, and then explodes.”
Wright believes—or hopes, anyway—that the movie’s main selling point is its undoubted originality. “I think people have reached their limits with reboots and prequels and adaptations of TV shows,” he argues. “I’ve been offered two big prequel or reboot things, and I passed because I’m just not interested. This year it seems like almost 80% of films are that. And the thing is, if you speak to a 20-year-old they say, ‘What is the A-Team?’ There’s only like, Inception, and Scott Pilgrim, and even the Expendables that are ‘new’ films.”
Speaking of the Expendables, Wright says he actually can’t wait for his film to go mano-a-mano with Sly’s actioner. “Both me and Michael are genuinely big fans of the last Rambo,” he says. “And I find the idea of Italian actor Michael Cera going up against Italian actor Sylvester Stallone amusing. But, whatever happens, I know that my film is not going to be like anything else coming out this summer.”
So what is it like? Wright has a better answer to that question than his actors. “At one of the [test screening] focus groups somebody said, ‘It’s like a cross between Superbad, and Kill Bill, and Tron,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘There’s nothing wrong with that!’”
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