The first few minutes of Baby Driver will go down as one of the most — if not the most — exhilarating film openers of this year. Here, director Edgar Wright breaks down how that instantly legendary chase sequence came to be.
It would be hard to imagine a more perfect opening to writer-director Edgar Wright’s high octane, music-suffused crime thriller Baby Driver than its first six minutes. Soundtracked by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1995 single “Bellbottoms,” the sequence finds Golden Globe nominee Ansel Elgort’s titular getaway driver first grooving in his car to the track as three criminal associates — played by Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza González — rob a nearby bank and then using his wheelman skills to escape the clutches of the law. The result is both a jaw-dropping scene-setter and a thrilling mini-movie in its own right. Maybe that’s what you get when a director spends more than two decades dreaming up and plotting out the start of a film.
“I had made a movie, but I don’t think I would ever have dared say that I was a film director,” says Wright. “I had made [the low-budget comedy Western] 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. It was the idea that sparked the entire movie, to have this almost musical version of a bank robbery and car chase.”
And from there…
Wright went on to write an entire scene inspired by and set to that song.
“You’ve seen a bank robbery and a car chase in thousands of films,” he says. “How could you present it in a different way? And that was the idea of doing it without dialog and totally set to one song. I wrote the scene to the song. I was very specific about it. The Jon Spencer track is five minutes long — okay, this is going to be a five-page scene. Even on the page, I tried to put the beats of the script and the action so it would match the duration of the song. If you ever see the screenplay of the movie, you’ll see that even Jon Spencer’s lyrics are written into the script. [Laughs] It’s very specific about where things are.”
Baby Driver second-unit director Darrin Prescott (John Wick) oversaw the sequence’s many practical stunts, including a moment in which Baby slaloms his red Subaru Impreza through an obstacle-filled alleyway, a piece of trick-driving executed in real life by stuntman Jeremy Fry.
“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.”
In addition to the on-the-road mayhem, Wright also seeded the sequence with character beats, establishing Baby’s personality and hinting at the nature of his relationships with Hamm’s Buddy and Bernthal’s Griff.
“One of the things that I always think is interesting, especially come end of the year with awards season, is films that are lauded for their screenplays are usually ones where there’s a lot of dialog, or there’s great dialog,” says Wright. “But there is also storytelling [where] what’s happening in the scene wordlessly is as important as what people are saying. In some cases, you can do an exercise where you can write the lines in and then do a version of it without them. I didn’t specifically do that, but there are key things in the opening — you know exactly how Jon Bernthal feels about Baby, you know that Jon Hamm feels more fraternalistic, like an older brother, toward him. So, they have different reactions to Baby and you get all that in the opening without any dialog at all. And I think you learn everything about Ansel in terms of how he acts when he’s in the car with the gang — like, he’s looking tough — and then, as soon as they’re gone, he starts dancing around in the car, like he’s a kid. Because he is a kid. That was the whole idea — this is what he’s like with the three tough guys in the car and this is what he’s like on his own. And that, in the first 45 seconds, is the dichotomy of his character.”
Despite the sequence’s long gestation, Wright kept returning to the film’s opening during the shoot, filming new material to make sure it was roadworthy.
“Some of the actors, like Ansel and Jon Hamm, were there for the entire shoot,” says Wright. “Poor Jon Bernthal was the one actor — God bless him — who came back sort of eight times. He’s only in two scenes, but the first scene that he’s in is one of the biggest parts of the movie. [Laughs] I think he was there on the last day when we were still doing bits of the opening sequence. When he wrapped, I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, man, I just want to say thanks for your patience, I know it’s been a lot of hours for you, and a lot of travel, and I promise it’s going to be worth it.’ And Jon Bernthal said this thing to me which was so funny. He goes, ‘Listen, man, if this s–t was easy, every asshole would do it.’ [Laughs] I thought that’s probably something good to go on your tombstone. ‘If this s–t was easy, every asshole would do it!‘”
Watch the opening sequence of Baby Driver above.