How director Edgar Wright steered Baby Driver to global success
In April 2016, your writer visited the Atlanta set of Baby Driver, writer-director Edgar Wright’s thriller about a tinnitus-afflicted getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who continually blasts music into his ears. Among the principals with whom EW spoke were Wright, Elgort, his costar Jon Hamm, producer Nira Park, choreographer Ryan Heffington, and stunt coordinator-second unit director Darrin Prescott, who that day was helping oversee the filming of a gunfight in a parking lot.
“It’s a challenging film,” said Prescott, whose stunt career dates back to the mid-’90s, when he doubled for Arnold Schwarzenegger on Batman & Robin. “It seems like there’s big stunts every day. The challenge is that we’re trying to time everything to music. So, we’ve taken an already challenging task and just put the icing on the cake with the addition of the music. Each day seems like a challenge, Clark. I’m so tired man! I’m so tired!” When EW pointed out that Prescott looked fine the second unit director smiled. “I do?” he deadpanned. “I’m only 18!”
A year-and-a-half on, Prescott’s toils have proven very much worth the effort. Since its release this summer, Baby Driver has earned $226 million in cinemas around the world, despite reportedly costing just $34 million. That makes the Sony Pictures movie comfortably the most commercially successful film to be directed by Wright, whose previous credits include the so-called Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy (2004’s Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s Hot Fuzz, 2013’s The World’s End), and the 2010 comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Baby Driver was also widely praised by critics, with EW’s Devan Coggan describing the film as a “giddy, adrenaline-filled joyride that’ll leave you gripping the edge of your seat and tapping your feet,” in the course of her “A-” review. Over the past week, Baby Driver was named one of the Top 10 films of the year by National Board of Review, nominated for a Best Compilation Soundtrack Grammy, and hailed as the best film of 2017 by Hairspray and Cry-Baby filmmaker John Waters in his annual list of big screen recommendations.
“What’s funny about that is, you cut together these things called ‘mood reels’ for the studio, to [say] ‘This is the kind of the vibe of the movie,'” says Wright. “The mood reel for Baby Driver was comprised of clips from, like, 60 films, but one of them was a little clip from Cry-Baby. So, it was a weird kismet that John Waters really responded to it. I was thrilled that he put it at No. 1. Also, what he said about it really made me happy. He said something along the lines of, ‘It’s a great popcorn movie, an art movie, a gear-head classic, and it made over $100 million.’ [Laughs] I’m glad he said it was an art film. I’m glad that other directors — or anyone really — can respond to that element of it.” An out-and-out music nut, Wright is similarly thrilled by the Grammy nomination. “It’s incredible,” he says. “I didn’t really think it my wildest dreams. You don’t go into a film like this thinking about these things. So, at this point, it’s all like a glorious bonus.”
Wright first conceived the idea of a thriller whose action, both big and small, would match the rhythms of its soundtrack back in the mid-’90s while editing his debut film, the micro-budgeted comedy-western called A Fistful of Fingers. The main inspiration was “Bellbottoms,” the jagged, just-released track by New York rock band, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which accompanies the opening Baby Driver bank robbery-getaway sequence. “I had made a movie, but I don’t think I would ever have dared say that I was a film director,” Wright told EW earlier this year. “I had made A Fistful of Fingers. I moved to London to edit it and I was trying to figure out what the next step was. I had a duped audio cassette of the Orange album — apologies to Jon Spencer — and I used to sit in my bedroom, listening to this album over and over. I didn’t know what the movie was yet, but I started to imagine this car chase.”
Over the next decade, Wright repeatedly tested out his idea to marry music with onscreen action, most notably on the music video for Mint Royale’s techno track “Blue Song” and then the sequence in Shaun of the Dead when various characters assault a zombie with pool cues in time to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” The latter movie also inaugurated what would prove to be a highly successful partnership between Wright, producer Park, and Working Title Films, the British production company overseen by Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, to which Wright ultimately, and successfully, pitched Baby Driver. “I had the first inkling of the idea in 1995 but I think the first time I actually said it aloud to Nira Park and Eric Fellner, my producers, was 10 years ago,” says Wright. “After Hot Fuzz came out, I was about to sign a two-picture deal with Working Title and they said, ‘What ideas have you got?’ And I said, ‘I really want to do an action car chase movie that is completely powered by music, so it’s almost like an action-musical.’ And Eric was like, ‘I want to see that!’ One of the first people that worked on it with me was Steve Price, who went on to be the composer of the film, but back then he was a music editor. Now, he’s an Oscar-winning composer, for Gravity. But he started helping me break down the tracks. Even back then, 10 years ago, I had 10 of the songs worked out — like, this is the song and this is what’s going to happen. But I said, ‘Can you help me break them down because I don’t read music?’ I think I started writing the script proper in 2010 after Scott Pilgrim and then I had a draft in 2011.”
But Baby Driver was put on the back-burner as Wright first wound up the Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End and then began prepping another long-in-the-works project, his Marvel movie Ant-Man, for which he had written the script with Attack the Block director Joe Cornish and assembled an impressive cast, including Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. Then, in May 2014, it was announced that Wright and Marvel had parted ways due to what the official statement described as “differences in their vision of the film.” If the split was bad news for fans wanting to see a Wright-helmed superhero movie it was excellent news for those interested in seeing a Wright-directed car chase extravaganza. “As you know, I had a disappointment of sorts in having to walk off another movie,” says the filmmaker. “The one thing that was like a bright thing on the horizon was that I already had the Baby Driver script. As soon as I had officially left the Marvel movie, I literally got an email from Working Title saying, ‘Baby Driver next?'”
Among Wright’s initial tasks was finding his ‘Baby.’ “That was the first question,” says the director. “It’s like, ‘You’ve written a part for a 20-year-old, which 20-year-old actor could pull this off?’ And so, around that time, even before we had a deal with a studio, I started casting at Working Title. I just read every young actor out there and Ansel was one of them, Ansel was one of the first people I saw, and I really vibed with him straight away. He’s a fan of music, he plays lots of instruments, he writes music, he sings, he dances. And there were a couple of [other things]. Like, even though Ansel’s 20 years younger than me, there’s this tiny part of the Venn diagram where our tastes intersect. For example, that fact that Ansel knows ‘Easy’ by the Commodores off by heart. There’s an element of an old soul in Ansel and that was something I thought connected with what I had already written.”
Wright cast Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza González, among others, as bank robbers; CJ Jones as Baby’s guardian; Lily James as a waitress for whom our hero falls; and Kevin Spacey as a criminal mastermind who refuses to let him go straight. Meanwhile, the director put together a crack behind-the-camera team which mixed former collaborators like director of photography Bill Pope with Wright-newbies, including stunt coordinator Prescott and choreographer Heffington. “The great thing with this movie is that I got to work with mostly my regular team — my director of photography, my production designer, editors, producers, are all people that I’ve worked with many many times,” says Wright. “And then each project requires something new, and in this case, it was the stunts and also the choreography. So, the movie required a real car expert, and that man was Darrin Prescott. I met him, and gave him the challenge of like, ‘In this movie, on the budget we have, we still have to have three state-of-the-art car scenes, so let’s figure out how we can do something that really stands out from the pack.’ Then the other part of it, which has been enormously fun, is working with Ryan Heffington, the choreographer. This is his first full feature, actually, but I knew him from the Sia videos he had done, most famously ‘Chandelier.’ It’s a dream for me to do a movie where there is a dance choreographer on set every day. Because there are big scenes that are more obviously choreographed, but even in tiny scenes where, like, Ansel is tapping his hands on the table, [there] is a little bit of choreography. On top of that, one of my proudest things about the movie is the disparate parts of the crew getting on like a house on fire. You know, a great crew, as well as a great cast, it is all about working together. I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but there are lots of other movies where the different teams are all working in isolation. I like to do the opposite, where I lay it all out: This the movie! It makes a very ambitious, very strenuous, exhausting production, fun. Because they all get on even though it’s a Herculean effort. This movie was shot in less days than The World’s End, for example, which given the amount of action might sound slightly crazy, but that’s exactly what happened.”
Baby Driver premiered at Austin’s SXSW Festival in March, where it received an ecstatic reception, encouraging Sony to push the film’s U.S. release forward from Aug. 11 to June 28. The movie grossed an impressive $30 million over its first five days of release, and good word of mouth gave the movie box office legs, ultimately leading to a domestic take of $107 million. The film’s success around the world was aided by a lengthy, continent-hopping publicity tour undertaken by Wright and Elgort. “I did 25 cities in 14 countries,” says the director. “It was that rare, nice thing where the tour extended whilst we were out on the road, because the film was a hit in the U.S. and the U.K., and then Sony put in the request, saying, ‘Would you guys come to Mexico? Would you guys come to Asia?’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah! I’m really proud of this movie, I’m going to do everything I can to support it.’ I ended it at the Venice Film Festival, which was both like a dream, being on the jury, but also like a very intense and exhausting way to end everything. Then, I had to go away like a monk for three weeks on my own, and just not see anybody, or not talk to anybody, and read some books.”
In the time since Wright stepped away from the spotlight, the entertainment business, and society at large, has been shaken by a string of sexual misconduct scandals involving public figures. These included the allegation by actor Anthony Rapp in late October that Kevin Spacey made a sexual advance toward him when Rapp was just 14. In the weeks following, many more people have stepped forward to detail how they were abused by the Baby Driver actor. How did Wright react when he learned of these allegations?
“The truth of it is that I only had a professional experience with him and I wasn’t aware of any misconduct during production,” says the director. “I’m as troubled and distressed as I’m sure you are by the accounts that have come out in the last five weeks. All I can really do is offer my support to the victims that have come forward and be aggrieved on their behalf. I want to stress that hundreds of other cast and crew members worked on this movie and they contributed truly great work to this production. I remain very proud of the finished film and I remain very proud of their tireless efforts. I don’t want to appear insensitive in any way, but I really have to celebrate the incredible work of my cast and crew. I would be nothing without them and I don’t want them to be tarnished by the private actions of one person.”
Looking forward, Wright says he has yet to officially sign on to his next directing project but he is likely to be involved in a follow-up to Baby Driver at some point. “Those talks are already in the works,” he reveals. “The deal is being hammered out as we speak. So, hopefully, I’m going to at least write a second one. I’ve definitely got lots of ideas. Whether it’s the next movie, I don’t know. I’m just working that out at the moment, actually. I have a couple of things that I’ve been developing, and also a couple of new ideas that I had, and all the nice things things that I’ve been offered since [the release of Baby Driver]. I would like to get back on the saddle very shortly, because — slightly beyond my control — but there was four years between The World’s End and Baby Driver. I don’t want it to be that long again. I would love to have a film out in the next two years.”