The Ansel Elgort-starring crime-thriller is released, June 28
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Bored with movie car chases which feature more green screen manipulation by visual effects artists than real-life white-knuckling on the part of actors? So is director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), who decided to get his cast as close as possible to the on-the-road action while making his new heist movie, the Atlanta-shot Baby Driver (out June 28). “When you’re driving eighty miles an hour and the actors are reacting to what is happening, that is worth its weight in gold,” laughs Wright. “You don’t have to fake any expressions when you’re doing 180 degree turns!”

Baby Driver stars Ansel Elgort as the titular tinnitus-stricken getaway driver, Kevin Spacey as the crime boss who employs him, and Lily James as the waitress with whom Baby falls in love. “Baby is the getaway driver for this group of criminals,” says Elgort. “He works for Doc, Kevin Spacey’s character, doing the getaway-driving for heists. You learn that when he was 7, he was in a really bad car accident, and both his parents died, but he also got tinnitus in his ear. So because of that, he has to listen to music all the time to drown out the noise in his ears.”

Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Eiza González, Kenny Joon, Flea, and Jamie Foxx portray robbers reliant on Baby’s tire-burning skills which are showcased in three major car chases. Each of those sequences is meticulously choreographed to the songs Baby listens to while driving, and which he has to select before commencing the getaway. “It’s more than just editing it to music afterward,” says Wright. “Actors and stuntmen are choreographing the action to that. So, overall, it creates a real spell.”

Jon Hamm
Credit: Wilson Webb/Sony

Wright had the kernel of the idea for Baby Driver more than two decades ago while editing his debut movie, 1995’s micro-budgeted comedy-western A Fistful of Fingers. At the time he was obsessively listening to the Jon Spencer Blue Explosion’s just-released album Orange, and in particular the track “Bellbottoms,” which accompanies the opening sequence in Baby Driver. “I started to imagine this car chase that was set to that song,” he says. “I didn’t have the character yet, but the structure of the car chase and the bank robbery at the start of the movie is extremely similar to what I came up with 22 years ago.” As Wright made his name with the British sitcom Spaced, and then 2004’s horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, he continued to think about his idea for a car-chase thriller, with other favorite tunes like The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” and Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” inspiring more sequences. “When I started writing, I had eight of the set-piece songs nailed down,” he says. “Then, in the writing of the first draft, and very much like Baby himself, I wouldn’t write a scene unless I had the right piece of music.”

Wright found further inspiration in films like Bullitt, the Blues Brothers, and Walter Hill’s The Driver, and by interviewing ex-convicts about their real-life criminal histories. “I thought, if I’m going to make this movie, I have to authenticate it,” he says. “And that was one of the most fun things about writing it, was dreaming up these scenarios and then meeting people who can actually verify some of it, or say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, that reminds me of this,’ and then come up with some other amazing anecdote which then worms its way into the script. There’s a lot of scenes with Jamie and Jon and [what they are] saying, and Bernthal and Flea as well, that are based on real anecdotes.”

Ansel Elgort;Kevin Spacey
Credit: Wilson Webb/Sony

Wright road tested his idea to choreograph onscreen action to music on a couple of other projects. In Shaun of the Dead, the director and cowriter-star Simon Pegg included a sequence where a zombie is beaten with pool cues in time with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” He also directed a music video in which comedian Noel Fielding played a getaway driving grooving out to “Blue Song” by British techno duo Mint Royale. “Seven years ago, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, J.J. Abrams was doing a sort of career talk with me, and he specifically wanted to show the Mint Royale video,” says Wright. “Whilst we were showing it to the audience, J.J. leaned over to me and whispered, ‘You know, I think this would make a great movie.’ And I whispered back, ‘I am way ahead of you!'”

Around five years ago, Wright held a table read for the Baby Driver script with a group of actors which included Hamm. “I had met Edgar and professed my fandom, and he mentioned that he had something percolating,” says the Mad Men actor. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m totally available! [Laughs] Yeah, it was a long long time ago, almost everyone was different in the room. But I knew that it was a cool idea, this idea of a cops-and-robbers movie, set to music, and choreographed. I thought it was a very cool thing if they could get it to work and, knowing Edgar’s incredibly visual vocabulary, and unbelievably meticulous preparation, and imagination, I was like, Well, he’s the perfect guy to do it.”

At the time, Wright was still planning to make the Marvel superhero movie Ant-Man, the screenplay for which he was writing with Attack the Block director, Joe Cornish. But, in May 2014, the director abruptly left the project following a dispute with Marvel over script changes and ultimately zeroed in on Baby Driver as his next project. (Ant-Man would be directed by Peyton Reed, with a script credited to Wright, Cornish, Adam McKay, and the film’s star, Paul Rudd.) “When Ant-Man went the way Ant-Man went, I think this opened up a hole in his schedule,” says Hamm. “He had this [film] pretty far down the line development-wise and everyone thought, like I did, that it was a pretty cool idea.”

Ansel Elgort
Credit: Wilson Webb/Sony

Before the shoot, Wright sought advice from filmmakers with relevant experience, including Rush director Ron Howard and Mad Max franchise overlord George Miller. “People do car chases in different ways,” says Wright. “But Fury Road is one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years, and the way he did it made a lot of sense to me, in terms of plotting out the entire things on storyboards. It really all comes down to planning.” Much of the planning was undertaken by the film’s second unit director Darrin Prescott (John Wick) who was tasked with making sure the beats of the film’s car chases were in lockstep with those of its soundtrack. “We would find the locations and measure them out,” he explains. “Then we’d go down to Atlanta Motor Speedway and actually drive the car and time it out. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. It should be a class in film school—you go out and choreograph something to a song!”

To create the illusion that Elgort was driving at high speed in the film, Wright often utilized the “biscuit,” a low-to-the-ground trailer which transported the getaway cars and the actor and whose real driver was positioned offscreen. (Fun fact: the biscuit gets its name from the first film on which it was used: Seabiscuit.) Wearing a seatbelt was required for actors sitting in the car for reasons which became clear when Elgort, Foxx, Joon, and Flea decided to do a take without them. “It was very different than with the belt,” says Elgort. “We were all like — ‘Waaah!’ — holding on to sh– for dear life.”

Both Elgort and Hamm drove for real in scenes which involved little in the way of potential peril. “There are quite a few shots in there with them actually driving,” says Wright. “I know that Ansel would have liked to have done more driving but obviously, some of the real trick stuff, you’ve got to leave it to the experts.” Those experts included stunt driver Jeremy Fry who, for a scene in which Baby drives at speed through an alley, managed the difficult feat of pulling two consecutive 180 turns to avoid an array of obstacles, including a moving truck. “A different movie would have done that in a parking lot with green screen,” says Prescott. “We found this alley, filled it with a bunch of trucks and dumpsters and Jeremy, at about 70 miles an hour, dances the car around them. There wasn’t a lot of room for error, man.”

Wright also employed the services of an actual choreographer, Ryan Heffington, a two-time Grammy nominee for his work on the Arcade Fire’s “We Exist” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” “He was involved with anything to do with the human body,” says Wright. “The opening car chase scene, when they’re driving, there’s not as much for Ryan to do. His big sequence would be the opening credit sequence, where Baby goes to get the coffees and comes back, and it’s all in one Steadicam shot. But then, you have the other sequences where there’s the choreography, and the gun fights, and the running sequences. Always the most beautiful thing to me is where you can take people of disparate crafts and bring them together as a team. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside when, you know, somebody like Ryan Heffington, who is a fantastic dance choreographer, and Darrin Prescott, who’s kind of like an action wizard, can be working hand-in-hand, and learn a lot off from each other. It’s just an amazing thing. When those guys are suddenly thick-as-thieves because of the shoot, it’s like, Well, my work here is done.”

Ansel Elgort
Credit: Wilson Webb/Sony

The hard work paid off when Baby Driver premiered to a rapturous reception at this year’s SXSW and Sony showed its confidence in the film by bumping up its release from August to June. So, has Wright’s more than 20-year itch to make a music-fueled car chase movie been satisfyingly scratched? “Car chases are as painstaking to make as they are fun to watch,” he says. “But I’d do more. Action and music — it’s all my passions in one movie!”

Watch a trailer for Baby Driver above.

Baby Driver
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