Scott Pilgrim vs. the World oral history: Bonus level!!!
They don't make movies like 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World anymore — but then again, they never did. Based on a series of six graphic novels by Canadian writer-artist Bryan Lee O’Malley, this box office bomb-turned-beloved cult classic is — deep breath — a superhero film, martial-arts epic, coming-of-age comedy, rock musical, exercise in magical realism, and love letter to vintage videogames. The story revolves around Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), bassist for fictitious Toronto band Sex Bob-omb, who dumps his high-school student girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) for a Rollerblading Amazon courier named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The problem? Ramona’s most recent partner, Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), has formed the League of Evil Exes with Ramona’s other former beaux, many of whom Scott battles in fantastical fights. Directed by British filmmaker Edgar Wright — who caught the attention of Hollywood with 2004's Simon Pegg- and Nick Frost-starring Shaun of the Dead — the $60 million-plus Universal Studios-backed movie adaptation was shot in Toronto with a cast full of young talent. Chris Evans played one of the Evil Exes, action-movie star Lucas Lee, while another future Marvel Cinematic Universe hero, Brie Larson, portrayed Scott’s former girlfriend, rocker Envy Adams. Other notable cast members included Kieran Culkin, Mae Whitman, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Pill, Satya Bhabha, Johnny Simmons, Nelson Franklin, Mark Webber, and Superman Returns star Brandon Routh. “Imagine doing a gym class all together with [these actors],” says Wright. “It was extraordinary.”
JASON SCHWARTZMAN (GIDEON GRAVES): Sometimes a movie is more than a movie to you and your life.
BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY (WRITER-ARTIST OF THE SCOTT PILGRIM GRAPHIC NOVELS): I was mostly raised in London, Ontario, which is about two hours west of Toronto. I only lived in Toronto for three years of my life, from age 22. Those are the Scott Pilgrim years for me, I guess. I had this desire to make something that felt like the manga and the video games that I loved but was closer to home. I met these guys who were in a band, and I joined the band, and they would always hang out at their house, and all this stuff went into the mix for the book. Even Stacey, [Scott Pilgrim's] sister, my sister’s name is Stacey in real life. I think magical realism was having a bit of a moment in those years. I remember reading A Hundred Years of Solitude around that same time and another big one that year was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That blew me away. I was also really into Bruce Springsteen at the time, and the maxim about the more specific it is the more universal it will somehow become, hit me around that time. I guess I just wanted to set it in the streets around me and see what happened. Much to my surprise it became an international phenomenon.
I had already done some stuff with Oni Press, who was the publisher. I did artwork on a book that someone else wrote then I did my own book Lost at Sea, the first year I lived in Toronto. Then, the following year, I did Scott Pilgrim. The first book was not particularly successful. It was a very slow start. But one of the first readers was Edgar Wright. It's kind of a miracle that he read it.
EDGAR WRIGHT (DIRECTOR AND COWRITER): I was at a preview screening of Shaun of the Dead in Los Angeles in 2004. Focus (Features, the division of Universal Pictures which distributed Shaun of the Dead) had arranged this sneak preview and there were lots of people from the film industry there. It was at Raleigh Studios I remember, which is opposite Paramount. Two of the people that were in the audience were Adam Siegel and Jared LeBoff, who both worked for Marc Platt Productions.
JARED LEBOFF (EXECUTIVE, MARC PLATT PRODUCTIONS): There’s a comic book catalog called Previews, that tells you everything that’s coming out in two-three months from now. It’s mainly for just normal comic book readers to order their books in advance. I saw Scott Pilgrim listed. It said something like, "In order to date the girl of his dreams a young man has to battle and defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends." I called up the agent at UTA who represented Oni Press and told them I liked the concept of it and asked to see it when it was ready.
So, I got the graphic novel, I read it, I showed it to my colleague Adam Siegel and to our boss Marc Platt. Then a couple of things happened. We showed it to Universal and just after we had gotten hold of the graphic novel was the very first Los Angeles screening of Shaun of the Dead. We were really excited to see it and we thought, even before seeing the movie, that Edgar might be a good match for the material. So, we got ourselves invited to the screening and I think we literally brought a Xerox of the first volume. We kind of cornered him at the screening and told him about it.
WRIGHT: They came up to me to say they loved the movie and then they said, very confidently, “We have your next movie.”
LEBOFF: I’m sure we said something like that. He probably remembers better than I do what came out of anybody's mouth. I think for some reason we were embarrassed to give him the envelope that we’d brought and so we sent it over the next day.
WRIGHT: They sent the book through, which was Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. I thought, Well, this is great. One of the reasons that I really warmed to it was that it reminded me a bit of Spaced, this TV show I’d done. I loved the style of Spaced, that magical realism and that feeling of anything can basically happen. Marc Platt Productions was [based at] Universal and Jeff Kirschenbaum (Universal development executive) was really hot on the book.
LEBOFF: Focus, which was part of the Universal family, was releasing Shaun of the Dead, so Universal were really excited about Edgar too.
WRIGHT: But here’s the thing — there was only one book. It was a book that was one of six. There's that thing you get from studios sometimes when you've made a movie like Shaun of the Dead where everybody in Hollywood just wants your new movie, whether that’s impractical or not. It’s like, "Hey, Edgar really likes the book, we’re going to attach him to it, and we’ve got his next movie." And I was like, "Well, maybe we should wait until he's finished the books?" This is the thing that no one in Hollywood wants to hear. That’s weirdly an odd question to ask.
LEBOFF: It was not atypical to acquire a comic book off of only a little bit of the story. Everything was so competitive, so if something was good you’d snap it up. I think we managed to get from Bryan some kind of broad summary of what he intended.
O'MALLEY: I was just 25, and I had just started, and Hollywood comes knocking. I just said, "Oh, of course I know what’s happening [with the rest of the books]." I didn’t know what was happening. But they asked me and I wrote some stuff. That was the first time I had really thought about it in detail. I knew there would be seven evil exes, and I knew that I wanted to have twins, I knew that one of them would be a girl. So, I kind of just filled in some of the details and sent them to these guys.
LEBOFF: We had lined it up where if Edgar indicated his interest then Universal would pick it up for him. We got a call that Edgar had read it and liked it and so we went about making a deal for Universal to option it and for him to direct it.
WRIGHT: So, I got kind of attached to it, I got in touch with Bryan.
O'MALLEY: I heard from him before the second book even came out.
WRIGHT: [I said] "This is not going to be my next movie. Hot Fuzz is." Me and Simon (Pegg) wanted to do another movie. I think it’s one of the best decisions in my career I ever made, making a second film in the U.K., rather than just taking the mystery box and going to Hollywood. It’s one bit of advice I always give to directors is, make your second movie the one that will define you, in a way. Because what happens now is a lot of people make their first kind of indie breakout hit, and then they get sucked up into the franchise machine, and then you never really know what their second movie would look like. I’m not going to name directors but you can figure them out. It’s like, "Ah, I wish I knew what his second movie actually really was."
After Hot Fuzz, come summer 2007, there’s the idea of doing another film with Simon and Nick (Frost). But by this point I’m getting a little bit itchy because I want to do something a bit different. I don’t want to be completely defined by my work with Simon and Nick, much as I love them. There’s no competitiveness between me and Simon but there was that thing, particularly with Shaun of the Dead, where reviewers and people writing articles would just forget to mention that I was one of the cowriters. Sometimes, they’d erroneously say Simon and Nick cowrote it. There was a little piece of me, post-Hot Fuzz, that was, I need to do something on my own, without them, and that’s important. Hot Fuzz had done really well and made a lot of money for Universal. I think it had made its budget back four or five times over just at the cinema, let alone the DVD sales. So, at that point they were very hot on doing something with me again.
MICHAEL MOSES (THEN UNIVERSAL PICTURES CO-PRESIDENT OF MARKETING): Look, I’ll speak for myself and not for the studio. But, for me, to have someone like Edgar come with a project like Scott Pilgrim, and knowing what his vision was going to be, both sonically and visually, it was super-exciting. It’s what gets a marketer very excited — doing something original and bold and, as it turns out I think, ahead of its time.
WRIGHT: I wasn't going to write the script [of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World] straightaway. We hired Michael Bacall. There were three books out at that point and Michael, who is an ex-actor, came in and did this pitch where he basically acted out the entire movie. Even though that wasn’t exactly what we made, it was so impressive. We’d never met before, and we started hanging out, and then I said to him, “Hey, I don’t want to take 50 percent of your fee but how would you feel about writing this together? I think it would just be fun if we did it together." He said, "I totally agree." So, we went back to the studio and said, "Okay, Michael and Edgar are going to write the screenplay now."
In that period, we went to Toronto a couple of times to basically pick Lee O’Malley’s brains and say, "What are you thinking about in the other three books?" He hadn’t really formulated all the ideas yet, but especially for four he had it pretty worked out, and then five and six were a bit more sketchy, but there were some ideas. So, we started writing a screenplay based on that.
O'MALLEY: Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall came to Toronto. We hung out, we had our kind of first preliminary talks about it. About a year later, they had a draft that was pretty rough. The fourth book came out late 2007 and a lot of stuff from the fourth book ended up kind of informing the structure of the film, so I think that is where it started to click.
"We are Sex Bob-omb! One! Two! Three! Four!"
WRIGHT: The music was obviously a huge part of it. There are a lot of bad films about fictional bands where it's not quite right. So, first of all, I asked Nigel Godrich, who’s Radiohead’s producer, and Beck’s producer, and Thom Yorke’s producer, if he wanted to work on it.
NIGEL GODRICH (COMPOSER, EXECUTIVE MUSIC PRODUCER): Edgar and I have known each other for a long time now. It always hurts to counts the years, doesn’t it? We had met through mutual friends. There was one summer where we found ourselves at the same music festivals and parties and whatnot so we got to know each other. We had initially talked a little bit about Shaun of the Dead actually. There was a discussion about possibly working together on the score of that, which never really came together. After that film had wrapped he got back in touch and we have been hanging out on-and-off ever since.
He told me about Scott Pilgrim and he was asking for my advice as to who would be a good person to do all the music. I think he was sort of fishing to be honest, because of course I was like, "What are you talking about? I can do this! I would love to do this!" It was one of those weirdly nebulous roles which oscillated between being a music-maker, music producer, score-writer, someone that could get in touch with all these people that we needed to get in touch with, and all that kind of stuff. I was the ideal man for the job I thought. And he obviously went along with it.
WRIGHT: Usually in films about musicians — even the great ones done by Paul Williams — [one person] will write all the songs. Like, Paul Williams will write all the songs on Phantom of the Paradise. Nigel's idea, which was a really strong one, was, "Why don't we get different artists to do the different songs? So it feels really diverse."
GODRICH: If you look at the books, Bryan Lee O’Malley created this non-existent band. You never hear them, because obviously it’s all written down, but they have songs with lyrics, and they have a line-up, and a style. We were trying to create this band that could be completely crap, you can’t tell. They’re sort of genius, but it’s just on the edge of being terrible. So, obviously making the movie, we had to create this band in order to do anything. I had to think of someone who could write these songs. That was the first thing. I asked Beck.
WRIGHT: We were thinking of different bands for Sex Bob-omb and I was talking about bands like Be Your Own Pet and The Black Lips. Nigel was just like, "Beck could do this thing brilliantly." And lo and behold he said, "Beck, do you want to do these things?"
GODRICH: I thought he would be a good person to write the music because he really understands that world and comes from a sort of garage band-background in a way, even though he’s a solo artist. He was very enthusiastic about the whole thing and wanted to sort of enact the band as well.
WRIGHT: Beck said he wanted the storyboards, and just a brief description of what’s happening in the scene, and then he wanted to be left alone. I remember I went to Beck’s house in Hancock Park. He had a little studio in his garage and we basically decorated his studio with the storyboards, and some of the art from the comics, gave him a list of what the scenes were.
GODRICH: So, he and Brian LeBarton, who he was working with, basically did the tracks, like guitars and drums, and we all got together and knocked out all this stuff very very quickly. He’s just able to write genuinely good songs very fast. It was just the ticket.
WRIGHT: Maybe 48 hours later, Nigel called me and said, "Beck’s got a CD for us. A CD with 32 songs on it!"
GODRICH: He was trying different versions of the same [songs], different styles. There was like a "Sebadoh version," there’s different takes on things. There was quite a lot to choose from.
WRIGHT: Some of the songs are basically exactly what you hear in the movie, no changes, especially the opening number and "Garbage Truck." I think the only thing that he went back and did another version of was the end version of "Ramona," the big string-laden one. Other than that, and aside from re-dubbing the actors' voices on some of them, all of those Sex Bob-omb songs were done in that weekend.
In fact, the opening sequence, the titles, was expanded later. The first cut I’d done of it wasn't so long, it didn’t have the opening titles in quite the same way. It was actually Quentin Tarantino’s suggestion. When he saw the movie, he thought it started too fast. He said, "You should have a title sequence, just let people settle down, and strap in a little bit, because it’s too much, too soon." He was totally right. It just gave it a bit of an overture by having the titles and that music. But it was that thing where it was like, "Oh, well I guess we have the rest of this Beck-jamming." So that track is basically Beck jamming with no overdubs or anything.
GODRICH: Beyond that, there were obviously other bands in the story that were loosely based on real bands, so we had to go and find those people. We went and talked to Broken Social Scene and Metric and got all these people together and got them to record their bits.
WRIGHT: Broken Social Scene did the tracks for Crash and the Boys and Cornelius did the song for the Katayanagi twins. The band that Brie Larson is in, The Clash at Demonhead, are sort of an amalgam. Bryan Lee O’Malley had done an amalgam of two Toronto bands, one was a sort of art-rock band called Pony Da Look, the lead singer of which, Amy Bowles, is somebody that I went to school with in Somerset (in the U.K.), no less. So, it was part her and it was part Metric and Emily Haines (the singer of Metric). So, we went straight to the source [and asked Metric to record the track].
GODRICH: It was basically two years of preparation even before writing the score, which was a normal kind of process, i.e. you’re writing to stuff that you can see. So, there was sort of two phases of it. It took a long time.
WRIGHT: The score itself had all of these amazing musicians, like Nicolas Godin from Air and Danny (Goffey) and Gaz (Coombes) from Supergrass, and Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene, and Kid Koala, and all these different people doing bits for the soundtrack. It was amazing.
ALISON PILL (KIM PINE): Edgar has a really good eye for cool folks.
WRIGHT: Knocked Up had just come out, and [Universal’s then president of production] Donna Langley suggested Seth Rogen be Scott Pilgrim. I love Seth, but I couldn’t get my head around that. Michael Cera was the only person who came to mind. I loved Arrested Development, he’s Canadian, he’s scrawny, he plays guitar, and the idea of Michael as a Romeo is just inherently amusing.
MICHAEL CERA (SCOTT PILGRIM): It was brought to me by Edgar and Marc Platt, who was producing it. Edgar was a fan of Arrested Development. I guess it had a small little following happening in the U.K. early on, which was already nice. Jason (Bateman), Will (Arnett), those guys were a fan of Edgar and Simon’s work and Nick Frost. I guess when Edgar started thinking seriously about this being his next movie he had me in mind even though I was only kind of 19 around that time. I think he figured the timing of when the movie would actually come together would work out with my age. I was lucky. I was the right age, and in the right place, and in his field of vision at the right time, and lucky enough to have this opportunity to work with him.
MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD (RAMONA FLOWERS): When Death Proof came out, I was hanging around with Quentin Tarantino and his circle for a while. Edgar was a part of that.
WRIGHT: I was living in Quentin Tarantino’s guesthouse.
WINSTEAD: He saw Death Proof and had the idea of me for Ramona at that point, which was actually a few years before we made Scott Pilgrim. We were talking about it for two or three years before we ever went into production.
WRIGHT: As you can see with the finished film, I was being quite literal in terms of casting people that look exactly like the drawings [in the graphic novels].
WINSTEAD: I think it had a lot to do with my eyes looking really similar to the drawing. [Laughs]
WRIGHT: That’s very true. She has big eyes!
WINSTEAD: What I liked about Ramona is that she’s not asking for the attention, it just kind of follows her around, whatever she does. She’s the reluctant femme fatale. She's not trying to be this cool or anything, she just sort of attracts this attention, and it’s a little bit exhausting. It was cool to get to play what I guess people would see as this Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but to me that’s not what she was trying to be at all. She was just trying to figure herself out.
WRIGHT: Michael and Mary were cast first. Chris Evans was somebody I went after as well. I thought he was perfect and I was a big fan of his. I liked him in Sunshine and everything I'd seen him in. Even in Fantastic Four, which I think is a bit wonky, Chris is really good in it. Chris's Johnny Storm totally works.
CHRIS EVANS (LUCAS LEE): Dumb luck. It was really one of those things where, for no reason, Edgar Wright called and said he was making this movie and considered me for a role. I went and met with him, and he showed me his lookbook, and I had already been such a big fan, and it was kind of a no-brainer.
WRIGHT: I feel Schwartzman was definitely high on the list.
SCHWARTZMAN: I had seen Shaun of the Dead in the theatre in England when it came out. Edgar was coming to Los Angeles and we were able to connect but it was just to get to know each other. He’s a really big music fan and he’s an enthusiastic person, an enthusiastic seeker of music and movies. He’s passionate about it and we just hit it off at that level just as people. We would write each other: “Have you heard this album?” “Have you seen this movie?”
Then he reached out to me, and we met, and he said, "I’m thinking that I’m going to do this movie, Scott Pilgrim, based on these graphic novels, and there’s a character I would like you to play, and he said "Gideon Graves." I went and bought the books, I read them all, or as many as I could get, that same day. I was so excited as a fan of Edgar’s. This is something that I would go see it the day that it came out. And then he said, "Michael Cera’s playing Scott Pilgrim." To me, Michael Cera is one of the best — I don’t even know what you say. Actor or musician? Talented person? Inspiring human being? — in the world. I was certainly a huge fan. When he said, "Michael Cera," it all came together in my mind as something that was going to be exciting. I mean, What do you say? You say, "Yes!"
WRIGHT: We finished the script before the writers' strike (which began in November 2007). When there’s a writers' strike, every single screenwriter hands in their screenplay the day before the writers' strike, which is exactly what we did. I couldn’t do any more writing because of the strike and so I just started doing casting in New York with Jen Euston and L.A. with Allison Jones. That was just an amazing period because I got to meet the next generation of superstars. The Scott Pilgrim casting tapes — beyond just seeing the auditions of the megastars who are in it, it’s also the people who read for it, everybody from Rooney Mara to Betty Gilpin to Zoe Kazan, tons of people that I really admire and would kill to work with now. I think even Robert Pattinson read for it. People that I had never met before their audition were Aubrey Plaza, Brie Larson, and Alison Pill. I was aware of who Alison Pill was but I’d never met her. Mark Webber. Ellen Wong.
ELLEN WONG (KNIVES CHAU): As an Asian actress, I was never going out for a role like this. This was not the type of role that I would be able to even look at. Part of my audition I had to do a day of training. The called it a "stunt test." It was helpful to have a bit of a martial arts background. I was training in Taekwondo just before that. I went in a bunch of times. It was like a six-month period of coming in and waiting.
WRIGHT: Anna Kendrick, I had seen in Rocket Science at the cinema. I remember saying to the casting director or the producer, "Hey, you should check out Rocket Science, it’s got Anna Kendrick. I don’t know what part, but she needs to be in the movie."
KIERAN CULKIN (WALLACE WELLS): They didn’t send anything on the [script] cover letter. For all I knew, they wanted me to audition for Scott Pilgrim. I had no idea. But I got to the description of Wallace; it said, “Wallace, 26, Scott’s cool gay roommate, arched eyebrow, disloyal.” I went, Yeah, got it. [Laughs]
WRIGHT: We had read a lot of people for Wallace. I was aware of Kieran through Igby Goes Down, other performances that he'd done, but he’s somebody that doesn’t act a lot. He really picks and chooses. But he was really good doing the role. We flew him to L.A. to do a chemistry read with Michael that was great. He’s cast in the movie.
SATYA BHABHA (MATTHEW PATEL): I was living in New York, and acting in theatre, and directing odd pieces of experimental theatre, and doing the odd bigger audition. But it was really early in my career and I hadn’t really been thinking about film or television so much. The weird thing about this audition is that there was barely any information. I wasn’t familiar with the comics, and they didn't release the script, because it was all very hush-hush. At the first audition I really didn't know anything about it. I was presented with these audition materials. I was like, "Wait, I’m sorry, what?" Like, "What’s going on in this scene? And who is this person? And it’s a song and a fight? And, whaaat?"
WRIGHT: Brie Larson’s audition was just ridiculous. It was just amazing. She basically did what she does in the film. I’d seen a long line of people that day who’d been coming into the Universal lot to audition, and some people who were reasonably established. Brie Larson, who was 19 at the time, maybe she was even 18 when she auditioned, she just blew everybody else away.
LEBOFF: Almost from the moment she walked in the room, you just thought, Well, this is her, this is the character. There’s no question about it.
WRIGHT: Jared and I both said afterwards, "We’ve got to cast her, she’s amazing."
MOSES: Edgar had such a talent of discovering early talent who have gone on to such amazing careers. You know, now there’s Captain America and Captain Marvel in the bunch.
WRIGHT: During this period, even though we were getting this ball rolling with cast, and we had done a special effects test in Toronto where we had shot some action with some stuntmen, and we’d done lots of storyboards and animatics, and we kept doing drafts, there was definitely nervousness on Universal’s part. There’s that weird thing that happens sometimes at a studio where they bring you a project, and then you have to sell it back to them. [Laughs] I think that happened more than twice on Scott Pilgrim where they said, "We really want you to do this book," and when you come back with the screenplay and all these materials, they’re like, "So what is this? How would you pitch it?" And I was like, "Uh…Well, it’s the adaptation of the book that you asked me to do."
Usually, when you have studio meetings, you want to mention movies that are hits. Or maybe it’s not a good idea to mention only foreign films. With Scott Pilgrim, the only things that I could think of that were comparative in terms of the style were Amelie and Kung Fu Hustle. You know, both beloved films but not necessarily the two films that you’d mention in a big studio meeting. [Laughs]
There was definitely some nervousness in terms of the fact that it straddled genres. It was a comedy, and it was an action film, and it was a special effects film. One of the reasons that I got Bill Pope to be the [director of photography] was, I was thinking, I have to put Universal at ease a little bit. Getting the cinematographer from The Matrix and Spider-Man 2 is one of those things that you can [do], initially almost as a strategy thing — this will put their minds at ease. So like, "Scott Pilgrim is going to have the cinematographer from The Matrix!" The irony is that then Bill became one of my best friends in the industry and somebody that I’ve now worked with another two times, and will again. I loved working with him so much. But initially I was really trying to quell any uneasiness about the project.
There were lots of people [at Universal] who were very up for it but I think there was nervousness about, "It’s a little quirky and it’s different." That’s the thing. It’s different. The fact that it doesn’t quite fit into one box, there was definitely a concern.
To prepare for the film’s fight scenes, Cera, Winstead, and Schwartzman trained with stunt co-ordinator Brad Allan (Kick-Ass) before joining the rest of the cast for more physical work in Toronto. Meanwhile, the actors who were playing members of Sex Bob-omb — Cera, Pill, and Webber — had to learn how to convincingly perform as a band.
EVANS: It almost felt like a movie in itself, the making of it.
BHABHA: Clearly, the studio was like, "These kids are not going to be able to f---ing do an action shoot, so train them really hard."
WINSTEAD: The training was really intense. I was training for something like six months before shooting. I started training in L.A. on my own. I was training in Wushu, and different kinds of martial arts, and rollerblading, and all these different things.
SCHWARTZMAN: Was I a physical person? Well, I think we’re all physical people. But, no, no, not in this context.
BHABHA: Exactly! “No.” It was actually like, oh, I don’t know how to throw a punch. Basic things that I thought that I knew, I would quickly realize that, Oh, yeah, my body does not know how to do these things.
CERA: No, I was not [a physical person]. Actually, the first training session I had on this movie was in Pasadena with Jason Schwartzman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. I think it was the first time any of us really had to throw a punch in front of a long wall of mirrors and see what we look like. It’s a deeply humiliating experience, trying to throw a punch and make it look like you know what you’re doing, and just seeing how it looks and it’s not how you thought it would look. There’s many layers of humbling that happen along the way.
Brad Allan was the stunt choreographer and the fight choreographer on this movie. He’s just got this air about him. He’s a very stoic and deeply centered and deeply still man who just does these incredible things like holds himself horizontal using a beam. One day, Jason and I were rehearsing our fight sequence and whichever trainer we were working with was filming it. The next day they had a little edited version of our fight. We were thrilled. We were like, “Oh my God, wow, look at us!” Brad looked up at us and said, “You guys are really not there; we have to double our efforts.” We were just like, “Oh my God.”
WINSTEAD: It was pretty unfamiliar. I had done a little bit [of stuntwork] here and there. Like, I got to throw a punch maybe in the Die Hard films. But nothing like choreographed fight sequences. That was a totally new thing.
PILL: In my tiny East Village apartment I had a practice drum set to get the basics going. I had a wonderful drum teacher who’d meet me in a studio in Midtown for drum practice. I just had zero experience. The coordination required is pretty significant. But, yeah, in my tiny apartment with just little drum pads, going, “Okay, and this is 'Garbage Truck.'”
WINSTEAD: They got us together in Toronto before we started shooting. It was all of us in this giant warehouse. One of us would be doing martial arts in the corner, and somebody else would be weight-lifting in another corner, and then Michael and Alison and Mark would be doing band stuff at the same time. It was really fun.
WRIGHT: I just thought, we’ll do as much training with the cast as possible so they can do as much as they can. Obviously there’s a lot of amazing stunt performers in it but still you’ve got to believe that the actors can do some of this stuff.
SCHWARTZMAN: Before we shot anything, we all went to Canada and the entire cast did one week together, or something, where we were warming up together, and throwing balls together, and doing calisthenics. It’s like we were a team. Even Edgar did it. It’s a great way to meet people, because we all just were meeting for the first time, and instead of just standing around feeling self-conscious or something, we were throwing medicine balls at each other and counting on each other to move out of the way of punches. It was really wonderful and I loved it so much. The movie was shot like these little chapters, and so a lot of us did not overlap once the shooting began. I said to Edgar, "This is so great that we’re all here together, because we’re not going to be shooting together." And he said, "Yeah, that’s why we’re doing this, this is for solidarity."
BHABHA: The piece is about these underdogs, these kids who are dealing with these very sort of — for lack of a better word — sort of humble emotional experiences, then suddenly being in this maximalist physical universe. There’s something really fascinating about the way that Bryan wrote it. It was like, yeah, even the nerdy hipsters feel like they’re fighting an epic battle when they’re falling in and out of love. But to actualize that is easily done on pen and paper. When you get the nerdy hipster in the room you realize they can’t run ten feet without falling on the floor and collapsing.
WONG: The training with the whole cast, before we started production, was, to this day, one of the loveliest experiences I've ever had in my entire career. It really was like a summer camp. We had all this time to just work out all day every day together and learn these crazy cool moves that we would just never learn on our own or think to do. It was really fun and it was a really cool team-building exercise. I found that really really bonding for us, to be able to have that experience together.
BHABHA: There would be situations where people would land in town for a table read and then there would be an hour-long training session and suddenly everybody would be dragged into that, just to be like, "Make sure they’re in shape!" But it was a lot of fun,
CERA: That was one of the best parts of the whole experience because it was such a tribal bonding experience for us. It’s rare that a movie has the budget this big where they can afford to have a stable of actors that large on standby months before shooting and get us all together to do this kind of group bonding. It was so much fun. We would wake up super early in the morning, and we would all meet on the soundstage and work with our trainer Max White, who was this guy in Toronto that we all loved — apart from being our trainer and wrangler he was like a spiritual coach to all of us too in the first two months. We would wake up and do all this fitness training, basically just tonal training at first, and then we would get into choreography training in the afternoon, and actually work through some of the fight sequences that they were putting together. And even though we wouldn’t be shooting some of those for months later we would get those baked in to our physicality. It was sort of a dance we would learn over time.
EVANS: That little training period was like an initiation. You do these group exercises and drills with medicine balls, and push-ups and sit-ups. Then we split into our own specialized stuntman sequences.
BHABHA: The first stage was very much just general conditioning, then as we got closer to the scene, being very specific about the choreography and figuring that stuff out with Brad Allen on the fight side and then with Litza Bixler, who was the choreographer who worked with me on the Matthew Patel dance, developing what that would be.
CERA: The stunt guys were so incredibly honed in their physical gestures that they throw their foot at exactly three feet high every time. They’d hit the same invisible mark in space. Were were just practicing a thing where there’s a kick thrown and I block the kick with my hand. I overshot the mark, and I brought my hand too low, and I received the full blow of this kick on my hand. It felt like a train had hit my hand. I can’t even describe the pain. It hurt for about three weeks.
BHABHA: The funny thing about this movie is, they took a bunch of nerdy hipster kids and were like, “And now do action!” Obviously, Chris Evans is an exception, nerdy hipster at heart that he might be.
EVANS: My stuff was more about the skateboarding, my character has to look pretty effortless. I was brand new at it, but determined.
CERA: And then in the afternoons, some of us were also doing this musical training together which was like a band rehearsal. I guess we were actually trying to look like friends, trying to look like we’d known each other for longer than a couple of weeks. But that really happens at double speed when you’re all living in an incubator together in the way we were, and rehearsing every day and goofing around and laughing a lot. The fact that we all enjoyed each other a lot really expedited that process, because we all also wanted to hang out when we were off work. Alison had never played drums and Mark had never played guitar and they just had to learn the basic mechanics of making that look natural. It’s so unnatural at first, especially playing guitar, it’s just so weird. You expect it to be so intuitive and it’s just really not. So, I think that was a little more intensive for them, having never played any instruments before, but I they picked it up by working really hard at it.
WRIGHT: There was a lot of hanging out with the bands that were involved in the film. Emily Haines and Jimmy (Shaw) from Metric and Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene. So, that was really fun.
PILL: They were going through serious tortuous personal training and flight school for all the wire work. We just had band practice. Actually, what was really cool is, I grew up in Toronto and I knew everyone in those bands very well. One of my favorite Canadian bands, Sloane, one of the guys from there was our band leader, music supervisor on set. And that was just a thrill for high-school me.
CERA: We were spending all day together, and we were getting in shape, which makes you feel really good. I was living in the same building as Edgar and Michael Bacall, and we were all hanging out in one of our three apartments every night, a whole gang of us. It was such a happy time.
On Dec. 10, 2008, Kieran Culkin's older sister Dakota died after being hit by a car in Los Angeles.
CULKIN: I don’t want to get too dark, but some s--- happened in my personal life that was, really — I wasn’t handling it well.
WRIGHT: It was so shocking.
CULKIN: I kind of dropped off the face of the map. I basically didn’t answer my phone for a few weeks.
WRIGHT: He's in mourning and we just didn’t want to ask the question: “Do you still want to do it?” I said, "Well, we’ll just wait 'til the last minute. I don’t want to ask the question, I don’t want to put him under any pressure." But then a bit closer — maybe like six weeks out — my line producer Ronaldo Vasconcellos was saying, "We really have to cast Wallace." So, we spoke to Kieran’s manager and I think I had left a message with Kieran as well. The message came back that Kieran is in mourning and doesn’t want to do the movie. I think I spoke to him on the phone or I left him a message saying, “Listen, we all totally understand, everybody totally understands. All I’ll say is, if you change your mind for any reason, let us know. And we’ll all really miss you, because we were all looking forward to working with you."
CULKIN: The part went away.
WRIGHT: So, then, having cast the perfect Wallace, we went through the process of having to find other Wallaces. We flew — I won’t name them, because it wouldn’t be fair — four actors, at least three of them name actors, to Toronto to read with Michael. We read them on the same day and then at the end of the day we picked one of them. We hadn’t gone back to them to [officially] say they got the part.
That night we were having a cast dinner at some Japanese restaurant in Toronto and I happened to be sitting next to Alison Pill.
CULKIN: One day, I was sitting on the couch and I just went, I want to do this movie! I texted Alison Pill, who is a friend of mine, and I was like, "Has the movie started yet? Do you think it’s too late?"
WRIGHT: I think if I hadn’t happened to be sitting next to her, this might not have all worked out. But Alison said, "Yeah, I spoke to Kieran earlier and he sort of regrets not doing the movie." I think I grabbed Alison and said, “He what?” “Yeah, he was thinking maybe he should have done the movie." I was saying, "We haven’t made a call to the agent yet!”
CULKIN: Edgar called me right away.
WRIGHT: I went out in to the street and called Kieran. I said, "Hey, I just spoke to Alison and she said you’re thinking maybe you want to do the movie."
CULKIN: He was like, "Are you serious?" I was like, "Yeah, I do want to do it."
WRIGHT: I said, "Listen, if you want to do it, the part’s yours." He said, "Okay, yeah, I want to do it, I’ll come." He goes, "I should tell you something." He said, "I've been drinking a lot, and I’ve put on 10 pounds, and I’ve dyed my hair green."
CULKIN: He was like, "Can you get on a plane tomorrow morning?" And I said, "Yeah, but I have to warn you, I’m fat now, and I have long green hair."
WRIGHT: I said, "We’ve got trainers up here!" I said, "Get up here, we’ll get it off!"
CULKIN: And he was like, "That’s fine, we’ll get you a trainer, and a haircut, and some hair dye. Don’t worry." [Laughs] It was really surreal, having that moment on my couch of panic, of, what am I feeling? Go do that movie! And within 12 hours I took my fat, green-haired ass on a plane up to Toronto.
WRIGHT: Kieran flew out the next day. I went back to the [actor] and said, "Hey, listen, this has happened." They all knew the situation with Kieran, so they were all totally fine about it. By the next week, Kieran was in the gym class in the morning with us, and he’s lost all the weight, and he cut his hair, and he looked like Wallace. It was kind of extraordinary. And, also, you know, he was having fun. He was getting out of his head.
WINSTEAD: Kieran is so funny and dry and odd but in the best way. He always kind of keeps you on your toes, like you’re not really sure if he’s being sarcastic or not. But I loved him, I absolutely loved him.
CULKIN: I did the training initially just to shed all the extra fatness off me that was from pizza and whiskey. But that was it. I was one of the only cast members that didn’t have to learn any choreography or any instruments. There were people that were doing prep for months.
WRIGHT: I remember Jason Schwartzman had this stalling technique where he would ask a lot of questions. He was always stalling to get more rest time between exercises. So, like a classic Schwartzman thing is like, Max the trainer would be talking about the most pain he’d ever been in, talking about some kind of like martial arts thing he was doing and an injury that he had. He goes, "Yeah, that’s the most pain I’ve ever been in in my life." And then Schwartzman, still trying to catch his breath, would be like, "What was the second most painful thing?"
SCHWARTZMAN: I was stalling for time to catch my breath for sure. But, can I say something? No one seemed to have a problem with it! For sure, they can throw me under the bus now, but do you know what, they were all catching their breath. I was catching my breath, they were saying, under their breath, “Thank you.”
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Principal photography began in Toronto in spring 2009.
CULKIN: Sometimes working on movies can feel a little bit like going away to camp, I’m guessing. I never went away to camp, so I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
WRIGHT: I had a blast making that film, I've got to say.
WONG: I grew up in the suburbs [of Toronto], just outside of the city, and so I felt just like Knives in a way. She was really discovering the cool parts of Toronto. I felt I was on that journey with her. So that felt really cool. Also it was extra special to be at home with my family and my good friends as well. And to be able to have that support there.
BHABHA: [Shooting the fight scene with Michael] was crazy. You know, that was a solid two or three weeks, just to shoot that little scene. Coming out of dance and physical theatre I speak a very physical and physically-detailed language as an actor, so it was very comfortable for me to be told extremely specific things. The shooting of the scene was really fun. We were sort of bouncing between very precise physical stuff and then quite loose, frivolous character-comedy. So, it would alternate in terms of the energy on set, being quite silly and goofy, and then, “Holy s---, I might be about to break your nose.”
WINSTEAD: [Chris Evans] was so much fun. Oh my god. One of the best things about the movie was we got this new life and energy whenever there’d be a new cast member.
EVANS: Edgar spoke about a scene in a Steven Seagal movie [as reference for Lucas Lee]. It was Steven Seagal walking in and kicking the absolute s--- out of every single person inside in a bar and, you know, poorly written quips. It was just such a fun microcosm of what that character’s career could look like.
WRIGHT: It must have been something like Out for Justice. [Laughs] I always feel like Steven Seagal is concentrating so hard on acting, he looks like he’s going to burst a blood vessel.
PILL: Chris Evans taught us to high-five. Generally, nerds aren’t awesome at high-fiving. The elbow is key. If you look at somebody’s elbow while you’re high-fiving, you will make contact every single time. That’s a fact. Not that it’s of any use now.
WRIGHT: I think Michael did really well but it’s quite an enormous ask of him, doing this much action with these other stunt people.
CERA: The most difficult fight? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the fight with Lucas Lee, who was Chris Evans, because it was freezing when we were shooting that fight and we were shooting all through the night. It’s a night sequence, which meant we’d start shooting when the sun went down, and then we would shoot all the way through the night until it’s morning and the sun’s coming up. It took maybe a week or two, which messes with your body clock and then on top of that it was genuinely freezing. The people that weren’t on camera were wearing big winter coats while we were shooting that sequence. I remember that being kind of grueling just because all of that.
I also remember there was this moment where I get hit over the head with a skateboard, which was supposed to explode on impact. They built this skateboard out of balsa wood; I’m wearing a helmet under my hat. But this thing would not break. We did, like, five takes of me just getting hit over the head full force in an effort to make [it] explode. I felt myself getting a concussion. After five takes of that, I said to Edgar, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” They did it with a CG effect in the end.
WINSTEAD: Michael was such a sweetheart. I just remember him being this real sort of gentle soul. I think he easily bonded a lot with Alison and Mark and all the whole Sex Bob-omb crew. When they were all together, it was a real kind of comedic energy. But when it was just me and Michael it was really quiet and sweet and I appreciated him so much, because he really made me feel at ease. I’d been in a lot of stuff but I’d never really been the female lead in a big studio film, so I was pretty nervous a lot of the time, and his energy was so sweet and I appreciated him so much for that.
LEBOFF: The shoot had a kind of college feel. A lot of us were kind of in our twenties and all living in Toronto in close proximity to one another. There was a lot of camaraderie and hanging out and all that stuff, which isn’t actually all that typical on a movie set.
EVANS: There was more camaraderie on that set than most movies I’ve done. It really was just a great group of people, some of whom already knew each other, had existing friendships, a lot of people who I think had similar appetites. It’s a shame. I only worked on the film for three weeks, but it was really one of the most fantastic times I’ve had on a movie.
O'MALLEY: Edgar would put things from the comics [into the film] that even I didn’t realize were from the comics. He just was so in tune with it.
EVANS: Edgar is an incredibly fastidious director.
WINSTEAD: [Working with Edgar] was incredibly specific. Everything was thought out, everything was detailed. There wasn't a lot of "Oh, just explore it." It was, "Turn this way on this word, turn back this way on this word." Even the scenes in terms of dialog had quite a lot of choreography every single moment. It was extremely specific.
PILL: The most specific I’ve ever worked with. Like, line readings and “This is when you shrug your shoulders,” “This is when you smile,” “Hold this for one second more.” The most technical I've ever worked with.
CULKIN: Edgar had the entire movie in his head. It was in his noggin. And it was already edited. Every cut and every music cue and everything. He just needed to go through the process of actually physically making the movie. There were things where it was like, "If you turn your head too quick, that’s wrong, it has to be specifically this way." "No, your chin was up, your chin needs to be down." There was a lot of that, because it was framed exactly in his head. Sometimes that can feel restricting. Like, I work on some things, like the show I’m on now (HBO's Succession), I don’t know what the room’s going to look like, I don’t know whether we’re sitting or standing, sometimes I actually don’t even know what the script is. "F--- it, roll it, let's just do it, and see what happens." And there’s freedom in that. But in a weird way there’s freedom in working with somebody who’s so sure of himself and so confident, I give over all of my trust to him and go, "Alright, if you say so, let’s do it like this, I’m sure you’ll make it work." And I think he did.
EVANS: When you have a director that has such a strong vision like he does, and is so effective at communicating that vision, it creates a real wonderful sense of safety on set. There’s no scarier feeling than being unsure if the director has his hand on the wheel and Edgar, specifically with this movie, there was nothing left to chance. He knew every single shot, every single moment, every single music cue. That just breeds allegiance on set and actually makes your job much more fun, because you can take bigger risks. You’re not worried about how that material will be used or misused.
BHABHA: The fun part was being around all of these other friends, like Mark and Alison and Johnny, and getting to do this ridiculous shit. I mean, poor guys, they were sitting and watching the whole thing from onstage.
PILL: If you recall, [the band] are in the background of every single fight sequence. So, we actually had shot most of our scenes in the first few weeks, and then we were just in the background of giant fight scenes for the rest of the four months we were up there, doing six-day weeks. [Laughs] Everybody else came in for a few weeks and would play all the exes and we were like, Oh, that looks like such fun. [Laughs] We had a weirder job than most on that movie.
SCHWARTZMAN: I was there for maybe two months or something. They were there the whole time. They were a band. [Laughs] They were very patient people.
WRIGHT: It was an amazing period, because it was just after Obama had got in, we had a great crew, we were all living together. It was that rare thing where, you don’t often get to do this, but we were living in the place where it was set. Scott Pilgrim is set in Toronto, and we’re living in Toronto, and then, because it’s a young cast and stuff, we’re doing the same things that the characters are doing.
BHABHA: One of the things that I've always said about Scott Pilgrim is there were no parents around. We all were of a very similar age — young. I was probably the least established, or close to the least established, film and TV actor. So, for me, there was a huge amount of, oh my god, this experience is mental, I can't believe the scale of this. Obviously, Michael, Chris, Jason, had done huge huge movies before that and other people [too]. But despite our varying levels of experience in the industry we were all in a similar stage in our lives, living close, shooting these long days. By virtue of the massive-ness of the project, the schedule would allow for a good amount of downtime for different people at different times. So, it became really wonderful and I made some dear friends in that process that have sustained for life.
CULKIN: I was there for about two-and-a-half-to-three months. I had a lot of days off. I just enjoyed Toronto. I had a lovely time. That was he first three months too. I heard towards the end it got really tough. You know you do a long shoot like that, it’s going to get tense.
WRIGHT: There was a weird thing where there were major changes at the top of Universal. I remember, for the first half of the shoot, we got emails from people all the time saying, "Oh my god, the rushes are amazing, the rushes are amazing, oh my god, this is so exciting." Then there were all these changes of management. There was suddenly radio silence.
We went over schedule by at least 10 days, maybe more. It was a big deal and the studio had to come out and sign off on the overrun.
SCHWARTZMAN: Michael and I had a pretty epic battle that, as I recall, took three weeks to shoot. When people [on other films] say, “Wow, we’re shooting this scene for a long time,” I go, “Yeah, it’s long, but I did one scene that was three weeks.”
WONG: Oh my god, [filming the final fight] was a blast. I mean, to work on this film, period, was a big deal for me and it changed my life. Getting to fly through the air with swords, and work with the choreography that we spent so much time on months before, it just felt so great. It’s crazy because the fight scenes that we did happened many months after we trained, because we shot as much as we could chronologically. So that huge fight scene in the end happened maybe six months after the training. But it was really fun.
SCHWARTZMAN: When we started to work, Edgar said, "You’re going to be like the ultimate baddie." And I said, "Well, okay, so what are you thinking?" He says, "Well, you're really nice." When he said that it was like, okay, I think I get where you’re going. He’s like, "You’re like the new boyfriend that’s like, 'Hey, how are you?' Just so nice that it’s infuriating." I loved it. I've had a similar situation happen to me where there’s a new person and they couldn’t be nicer, at least on the surface, and it’s really frustrating.
WINSTEAD: We were having so much fun but at that point I think we went over schedule by like a month or something, so there was some kind of tension to getting it all done, because it was so elaborate. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work. We were all really really exhausted at the end of every day.
WRIGHT: At one point a stuntman got his teeth knocked out. There’s one shot in the final scene, where Michael had to fight three guys with the flaming sword. Michael was fighting with a half-sword [which] you could digitally extend, so there was no chance of him hitting anybody. He did his bit and then there was a special effects pass where Michael’s stunt double was going to do the same action with a long sword. Michael went off to get a coffee, and on the first take the stunt double accidentally hit one of the other stunt people in the teeth and knocked his front teeth out.
Now, the front teeth then fell on the floor, but on the floor on that set, as you might remember from the movie, are thousands of quarters. We stopped filming obviously, and then myself, and the stunt team, and all the crew are looking around on a stage floor full of quarters to find a tooth, including the guy who got his teeth knocked out.
One of the images I'll never forget is, we’re looking for the teeth on the floor, and then Michael walks back, with a coffee in hand and, deadpan, is like, "Hey, uh, what happened guys?” I remember that vividly. [Laughs] Michael, when he hears what happened, goes up to the stunt double and is like, "Are you okay?" And he goes, "Yeah, I’m fine, man, this happens all the time."
SCHWARTZMAN: Before the movie happened, I was engaged to be married and the only stipulation was, I had to leave the shooting to go fly home to get married and then I would fly back the following Monday.
WRIGHT: We had gone over by at least 10 days and Jason Schwartzman was getting married. He was going to rearrange his honeymoon, so he could finish the film, which was extraordinary.
SCHWARTZMAN: I actually flew home in the middle of that fight scene. So, I started the fight scene unmarried and by the time it’s done, I was married.
WRIGHT: We were finishing the scene and he said to me, "Do you think the audience will be able to tell?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Do you think the audience will be able to tell which shots I was single in and which shots I was married in? Do you think it will ruin continuity?" [Laughs]
SCHWARTZMAN: Edgar was so panicked about [the audience being able to tell]. "They can’t know!" No, I’m just kidding.
WONG: I did [injure Mary Elizabeth]. I’m confirming it! It was just the timing of it. My sword came down and it kind of nicked her maybe on her cheek. It definitely was scary moment. I literally dropped my knives and went, "Oh, my god." I was mortified and just so horrified by what happened. Because we spent so much time practicing over and over and it’s always perfect and it worked out. And then here we are. We had an amazing crew and stunt team that were there and we readjusted and Mary was totally fine. [But] my heart fell from the top of the pyramid to the very bottom when that happened.
WRIGHT: At one point, in the end fight scene, Schwartzman did a stunt and he ripped his pants doing the stunt. [Laughs] That was funny enough, but then he whispered to me, "I ripped my pants." I said, "Oh, that’s Okay, we’ll get you set up again." And he goes, "I’m wearing ladies underwear."
SCHWARTZMAN: It occurred to me that this character would wear the underwear of whatever person he was with. I wore multiple pairs of these red silk panties the whole shoot. During the fight scene, my pants ripped completely, open in the back. I said to Edgar, “I’ve got to go, because I’ve got something quite sexy on.”
WRIGHT: The other thing that Schwartzman did was, there was this bit where he accidentally swallows gum, because he gets hit and he goes, "You made me swallow my gum." Now, Schwartzman decided, for some reason, that he was going to really swallow chewing gum. Like, he wasn't going to fake it, he was going to really do it. I said, "You really don’t have to do this." He goes, "No, I want to, I want to, it would be better." I think he did about 10 takes. Jason swallowed like 10 bits of gum. So, as a wrap present for him, I got him a colonic session. That was my wrap present for him, because I was so concerned that he had 10 bits of gum in his gut.
In the film's original conclusion, Scott Pilgrim defeats all of Ramona's Evil Exes but ultimately gets back together with Knives Chau. Test audiences did not approve.
WRIGHT: We did the first test screening, where you have to give some kind of description and usually you find a combination of two films. With Scott Pilgrim, to get people to come and watch, it said, it’s like a cross between Juno and Mortal Kombat. Which is fairly accurate I guess. [Laughs]
CERA: They screened the movie and everyone kind of felt like they were on this journey of these two characters: Scott and Ramona.
WRIGHT: There’d been some sort of disagreement about the ending generally. It was based on one of the ideas Bryan Lee O’Malley had but not one that he eventually went through when he finished the book. We were trying to do a melancholic ending where Scott didn’t go off with Ramona but he went back to Knives again. It's a bit like The Heartbreak Kid where Scott Pilgrim isn’t happy at the end. It seems like it’s a happy ending but it’s not. Some people though interpreted it as, Oh, he went chasing after the dream girl but the right girl for him was there all along. So some people liked it.
I've got to say that Ellen Wong was so utterly charming as Knives that even when we were shooting that scene it didn’t feel right. Anything that felt even slightly negative towards Knives felt a bit off. I remember I kept showing it to other directors. I showed it to J.J. Abrams and I said, "I’m thinking about changing the ending."
O'MALLEY: The books were not finished. The fifth book had been [published] as the movie started production. I was trying to write the [sixth] book while the movie was shooting and I was very distracted, let’s say. I didn’t know exactly how it would end. But I think once I saw their rough version it kind of felt wrong, because in the end he ended up with Knives. It just felt like a hard reset, like he didn’t learn anything, no one learned anything. It wasn’t satisfying to me.
WRIGHT: I think in total we did five test screenings. And basically, every time the numbers went up. I think the penultimate one that we did we got it up to sort of an 80, which is good. I remember being in the fourth test screening, and when you have to watch the focus group, there was this girl who said, "I love this film, this film is amazing, I love every single frame of it, it’s incredible. I do not like that ending. [Laughs] It’s one of those things where somebody says it like that. It made me think.
I went to Michael Bacall and I said, "I think we should write an ending where he goes off with Ramona." And we brought Bryan Lee O’Malley into it.
O'MALLEY: The three of us worked together over email on the new scenes for the ending. We had to get Knives out of the picture but in a positive way. I think I wrote the line, “I’m too cool for you anyway.”
WRIGHT: That’s Bryan Lee O’Malley’s line.
O'MALLEY: I think that kind of sealed the deal.
WRIGHT: I remember being really nervous about calling Ellen Wong, really nervous about calling Ellen Wong.
WONG: Really? Why was he nervous? What did he say?
WRIGHT: There was some nervousness from me and other people around of like, okay, so we have this ending where our lead character ends up with the Asian-Canadian actress and now he’s going to go off with the other girl. I was dreading making this call because there was no way that it doesn’t sound like, "Hey, you aren’t the romantic lead at the end of the film." But I told Ellen what the new ending was, and she goes, "Yeah, I’m so glad you said that. I was thinking, my character, I don’t think I’d take him back after that." [Laughs]
WONG: We had a long conversation about it. To be honest, I remember being really ecstatic and happy. I think it works so much better for Knives’ trajectory and her own growth and the arc of her character. She’s been fighting for this guy all along and at the end of the day I think this is such a metaphor for life. We think we know what we want, and at the end maybe we don’t really know, and we hopefully end up where we’re meant to me. Even though it might be heartbreaking to think that she doesn’t get Scott in the end after this huge fight for him she actually still wins. It’s this realization of, I learned so much from this fight and I actually realized that maybe I don’t need you. But she needed him for her journey. She needed him for her growth. When we think about all of your break-ups or exes in your past you’re like, okay, it would never work now, you could never be together now, but you needed them in your life to be who you are today.
WRIGHT: I think we shot the new ending in May. We’d [already] had some long lead screenings.
WINSTEAD: I like both endings. I could understand either one, so it’s sort of hard to choose. It’s nice that you’re able to see both. In a way, I like that he ends up with Ramona, not just for myself as my character, but I think it tells a nice story for Scott. At the end of it all, he realizes that he’s not trying to win her, he’s just trying to get to know her from scratch in a totally new way without the ego, without all this bulls---, and go, "Oh, I'm just a person, you’re just a person, can we try this again?" Ramona sort of found her own journey, her own independence through that as well. And Knives was too young for him. [Laughs] And she was too cool for him.
CERA: What do I think about it personally? I have no idea. I don’t know. Maybe he shouldn’t really have ended up with anyone.
Scott Pilgrim premiered at Comic-Con in July 2010 and was released Aug. 13. While reviews were mostly positive, the film earned a disappointing $31 million at the domestic box office.
MICHAEL MOSES (THEN UNIVERSAL PICTURES CO-PRESIDENT OF MARKETING): Premiering that movie at Comic-Con was the perfect intersection of film, filmmaker, and fan.
CULKIN: That’s the only time I’d ever been there. So surreal. It was actually a lot of fun because — it’s sort of weird to say — it felt like we actually had something cool.
BHABHA: Comic-Con was completely mental. With Comic-Con, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Scott Pilgrim was the biggest film since Star Wars.
WINSTEAD: That was a huge experience for me. I had been to Comic-Con before a couple of times, but it was such a bigger version of it when we went for Scott Pilgrim. It just felt like a huge deal. At Comic-Con it felt like it was the biggest film of all time.
PILL: Nobody knew who I was, so I was just walking the floor and checking it out. It was cool.
BHABHA: You felt a massive amount of responsibility. As a performer, you move from project to project, so there’s two or three months, or five or six, or a year, where Scott Pilgrim is a big thing in your world, and a big thing in your life, and then you move on. But fans identify one or two properties or titles or universes that they really connect to, and they’re very loyal, they stay in that universe. It was interesting to think, oh my god, we’re so deep in the Scott Pilgrim universe and then meet the fans and just be like you know this universe, we are your guests, thank you for having us. And Comic-Con was really that. You realize, oh, this thing existed before me, it will exist after me.
O'MALLEY: That was my biggest Comic-Con. It’ll probably always be my biggest Comic Con. They had just opened this new hotel on the Bayfront and the whole wall of the hotel was a Scott Pilgrim poster, so that was pretty impressive. We had a big presentation in Hall H and then marched up the street with 600 or 1,000 people that had special tickets for the screening.
LEBOFF: We did this screening where it was the most rabid group of fans that you could possibly assemble for this movie watching it in the most ideal situation that they could possibly imagine. They just went completely berserk for it in a way that you felt you were at a rock show or something. People were just screaming and going crazy.
O'MALLEY: And then, at the end, in this fabulous, southern California antique theatre, the band Metric came out and played, which shocked everyone. It was wild. That was a huge fascinating moment of my life.
WRIGHT: Quite a lot of the trade reviews were at the Comic-Con screening. I think it actually resulted in some negative reviews. I think some of the reviewers felt like, oh, you’re like preaching to the converted. Certainly one of the trade reviews was negative and it definitely felt like there was a grumpy old man element whereby he didn’t take kindly to having to sit among the Comic-Con people who were all clapping every single line. I wonder if that backfired on us a little bit, whether it would actually have been better to show it in a normal press screening.
MOSES: As a consumer and as a film-lover, I loved [the film]. As a marketer, it certainly didn’t come without its challenges. We started by going to the people who were likeliest to love it. There was a very small cult following for Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics, and definitely for Edgar, and then the cast that he assembled. You put all those pieces together and it has this very loud, very loyal core following. It was interesting, because every time we put something out the response from social would be huge. It would be celebratory and loud. But what we found was, it was a bit of an echo chamber, it was a bit of a hive talking to each other and we weren't going beyond.
WRIGHT: I thought in my head that the film would do well just because so much work had gone into it. It came out at a time when a lot of other comedies were deliberately quite loose and improvisational and Scott Pilgrim was something that was, from the visuals to the music to the script to the performances, deliberately very sharp and designed to within an inch of its life. It was in stark contrast to the more shaggy improv comedies that were out at the time. I thought that was something that would go down well.
The thing is, it was a little difficult to market. One of the policies — which they didn’t actually go through with — was, what if we did a poster and a trailer with no mention of the fights or the special effects? I even saw some versions of that trailer which made it look like it was a Juno 2. There was no mention of Evil Exes or fights or anything otherworldly. We didn’t go down that route and I’m glad we didn’t because things would have probably gone even worse.
CERA: I didn’t really expect it to be a big success. I didn’t expect it not to be a big hit, but you just never know. It always comes down to a weird stew of factors.
WRIGHT: It got good reviews, some raves, and an 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes which is not too shabby at all. We knew all the people who were coming to the Q&As were really loving it and fervent about it. But that didn’t translate initially. It opened at No. 5.
CERA: We got annihilated by Sylvester Stallone. [Laughs] He had this movie The Expendables, which had every box office star you’ve ever heard of, and it crushed us.
BHABHA: I think it was actually Julia Roberts who twisted the knife.
WRIGHT: It opened the same weekend as The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. I remember getting those emails on the Friday. You know how Deadline and Variety have already made the prediction for the weekend on Friday morning? It was the first time I was ever really aware of that. I remember getting an email from Marc Platt kind of asking Universal to put more into the spend and stuff and predicting doom for the weekend. And — naively — I thought, well, it’s only Friday morning, how could they know?
O'MALLEY: It was tough. I mean, obviously, the studio was bullish about it the whole time. “This is going to be a big four quadrant hit!”
BHABHA: You know, buzz and spin and that kind of marketing push, it does not entertain the possibility of something not being huge. So, for me, initially, it was just extremely confusing, because I was led to believe, and the marketing would have led one to believe, that it was a sort of done deal. You feel in the brouhaha around these things that it’s already happened. [Laughs] It was — actually, as tragic as it was in a certain way — it was a really interesting learning moment for me in realizing the power of the audience. We could be on every cover of every magazine in advance of this thing coming out, but it actually does take human bodies in the theater. That is what we’re doing this for. We’re not doing this for the articles or the interviews or the photographs. We’re doing this to get people in.
O'MALLEY: That afternoon into the evening, you start to realize it’s not going to happen. We were going to get together for dinner and drinks in L.A. at this bar near the Arclight Theatre. I remember I saw Michael Cera drive by. He waved at me, and he was right in front of the bar, and then he never came, he never showed up. We all kind of felt that way. Our party just kind of ended prematurely.
CULKIN: I remember, the weekend it came out, I walked out of my building and a dude went, “Holy s---!” As he passed, he goes, “Um…ah” and he tried to say something so he just yelled, “Guess who’s drunk!” And I looked back and I was like, “You guessed right!” He was like, "Yeah, awesome." He just quoted the movie with me. It was cool.
I never really follow the numbers. I heard that it wasn’t such a financial success. I don’t really know that s---. To me, if nobody sees a movie that I’m in, I don’t care, as long as I like the thing.
MOSES: It wasn't a cheap movie and I’m glad that it wasn't a cheap movie because it gets to live longer. You can see the production value in it.
WRIGHT: It’s that thing where it becomes a bit of a punchline. I’ve never liked Seth MacFarlane, because that weekend he tweeted “Scott Pilgrim 0, the World 2.” I was like, f--- you. And then I lay in wait until 8 Million Ways to Die in the West came out, or whatever it was called, and I rubbed my hands with glee. I didn’t tweet anything because I’m not a total monster. [Laughs]
Monday morning Michael Moses sent an email with three words. It was one of the sweetest emails I’ve ever gotten from anybody in the industry. It said, “Years, not days.”
MOSES: It was a labor of love for all of us, from those who made it to those who marketed it, and sometimes those come with heartbreak. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
WRIGHT: After the film didn’t open well, I realized the thing to do is to take responsibility for it but also just believe in the fact that it was a good film and people would find it eventually The worst thing you can do [is] the blame game, after the weekend. "It’s something else’s fault." "It was the day." "It was the poster." "Oh, the studio decided to do this." I never did that. Even though people in interviews were always asking me, “Do you think the marketing was the thing? Or do you think the poster?” The thing is, I realized that it was a film that was difficult to sum up in one sentence. But obviously it was tough at the time.
BHABHA: The whole point of that [marketing] machine is to set something up to be huge and when it turns out not to be, there’s very little forethought about. "Let’s say it doesn't explode on Thursday night, what are the next steps?" Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to make financial sense for people to plan in that way and so they don’t.
MOSES: You always wonder, if you had a chance to redo a campaign, what would you do differently. I don’t know. It’s the right question and I hate that I don’t have an answer for you. It may have just been truly a movie that was ahead of its time. I think you see what’s happened since with the elasticity of the superhero genre, where it allows something of the tonality of Thor: Ragnarok to live within that genre. You see what’s happened with gaming and that population. So, maybe, I would have put it out 10 years later, that’s probably the only thing I could think of. [Laughs] That might have been the right play in this case! Edgar, I just think, had seen the future and made a film that belonged a little bit later. I think if you put out that movie now, it has a much different destiny.
BHABHA: It certainly was a harsh awakening to the realities of Hollywood. In the lead up to the release of a film, nobody is telling you that they love the movie because it’s going to make everyone rich. They’re telling you that they love the movie because of the creative, and because of the aesthetic, and because of the performances, and because of the music, and because of the effects. But, after a movie doesn’t perform on opening weekend, it’s radical how quickly the strength of the performances, and the aesthetic, and the creative, and the music dim in significance. And it does become quite apparent: “Oh, well, we were actually excited about one thing above all of these things, and we never really spoke about that one thing.” That was upsetting.
WRIGHT: We had to fly to London to do the London premiere. By this point, the movie had come out [in the U.S.]. The premiere was in Leicester Square, and nearly all of the cast were there, like Mary, Michael, Jason, Chris, Brie, Kieran.
I was with Anna Kendrick at the time and I remember saying to her, “You know, maybe I should have a little talk with the cast before we go on the red carpet, and just say to them, 'Hey listen, I’m really proud of the movie, I'm really proud of you guys, in it. I know you love the movie. I know it didn’t do that well this weekend, but we made a film that we can be proud of, and let’s go out there and have a great time tonight.'”
We met in a private room at The Soho Hotel for me to give this speech. All of them came down. They were so high on just each other, and the movie, and just having a fun time in London, and having a drink, and all just like giddy. I was looking at them and thinking, Oh, they’re fine. [Laughs] They’re having a whale of a time!
I never gave that speech.
The Second Wind
O’MALLEY: I think the first article that said it was a cult classic came out maybe three months later. [Laughs]
WRIGHT: When the DVD came out, we did a press tour, just carried on promoting it like nothing had happened! [Laughs] Scott Pilgrim basically never left release.
MOSES: The midnight showings on the repertory circuit started pretty quickly afterwards. It wasn't 10 years and then a discovery. It moved quickly that second life cycle, faster than usual.
WRIGHT: The New Beverly (legendary Los Angeles repertory cinema) had it on [at] midnight, and it started playing at other places.
BHABHA: For the following year-plus after the film’s release the cast would get together at the New Beverly and we would intro these screenings. Multiple, multiple times we did this. As I think back on that: how amazing! It really formed a community both within the audience and within us as a cast and a creative team. Would that have happened if the movie had slayed at the box office? I really don’t know. I imagine if the movie had been a huge hit, the New Beverly wouldn’t have felt the imperative to do these screenings, or to give it that support — and that support, it really created a community.
WRIGHT: Tons of sequels and things that might be one of the biggest hits of the year will never get played at a cinema ever again. I don’t want to name any names but there are plenty of movies that are massive that then never trouble the big screen again. With most of the movies we love there’s a tortoise-and-a-hare aspect. The Thing opened at No. 8. Big Trouble in Little China didn’t even crack the top 10. I don’t know why I picked two John Carpenter movies, no disrespect to him.
PILL: It put us all on the radar. We were put on studio radars that we wouldn’t have been without the movie.
WINSTEAD: I just rewatched it with some family. It’s totally one of a kind I think. There’s nothing else quite like it. It’s totally its own unique thing, which I think is why it’s had this staying power, with people discovering it. I think a whole new generation has discovered it now, which is so cool.
WONG: I really think this is the most fun coming-of-age movie you could ever watch.
GODRICH: Generally what I get is, "Oh my god, I didn’t know that you did the music to that. My son loves it. [Laughs] Basically, people’s kids just love that movie.
WRIGHT: I thought I was going to be in director jail after, and I wasn’t. But I knew that I’d have to do something smaller again next. You could do a big movie if you were doing a franchise movie that was more of a done deal. But nobody’s going to give you the money to make another original. So, there are things that I took from Scott Pilgrim, there were things I loved about it, that I brought to The World’s End and Baby Driver, but just in a different way. Baby Driver was significantly cheaper than Scott Pilgrim and went into profit immediately.
LEBOFF: It was really the cast put it together themselves, particularly Alison Pill and Satya Bhabha.
BHABHA: We connected with almost the entire cast and did a real intense job working on the script to try and adapt it and trim it down and get enough of the jokey fun energy in there while also keeping in mind that this is essentially going to be a big long Zoom. The actors were really gung-ho and fantastic.
LEBOFF: I think between Satya and Alison and Edgar, there was a lot of creative conversation of, how do we make this presentation just feel a little more exciting than these typical talking head things?
BHABHA: I reached out to a wonderful editor called Jeff Asher and Jeff and I went back and forth and did a bunch of work making sure that the video was dynamic and exciting. You feel the joy and love that’s present in the cast for each other and for the material and we also get to see us in the present day both enacting and also remembering enacting the movie. And we’ve raised a great amount of money for this really important organization.
WRIGHT: There was a plan for Universal and Dolby cinema to re-release the movie in a 4K version in August. The plan is to still release it at the cinemas when cinemas are back and running.
CERA: I don’t think a sequel is a reality. [Laughs] In my limited understanding of the film industry, when a movie doesn’t really explode at the box office, it’s hard for anybody to get behind a sequel. I mean, if there was any reason for me to work with Edgar, or any of these people again, I would jump at it. But in my heart of hearts I don’t expect that to happen.
O’MALLEY: I would like to revisit the characters [in comic form] and see what they’re up to. I sketched Scott early in the pandemic with a huge beard. I think that would be a funny image.
WRIGHT: There’s some plans — and there’s nothing official yet — but there are some plans to revisit the material in an animation way. We’ve been talking with Bryan and with Jared for a while [about]: What if we did something with the books in anime form? It’s being discussed as we speak.
LEBOFF: Uh, you know, there’s nothing we have to say at the moment publicly. [Laughs]
WINSTEAD: It probably follows me around more so than anything else I’ve done. I mean Huntress and Birds of Prey is starting to gain some traction in terms of what people comment on when I’m out and about. But Scott Pilgrim is still the thing that people seem to remember the most. I love it, I love that people connect me to that character and that world.
EVANS: The Marvel fan base is rabid, but the Scott Pilgrim fandom is just as dedicated and loyal as any fandom I’ve ever seen.
BHABHA: One of the really beautiful things about this film is, so frequently on Instagram, out of the blue, somebody's doing a Matthew Patel cosplay, or somebody's done some sketches or some drawings. That's the thing about great pieces of art is that they continue to connect down the line.
WINSTEAD: There’s something about Scott Pilgrim that’s not like anything else, and a lot of people are looking for that. They feel they’re not like anybody else or they feel their tastes don’t really line up with what is being made right now. You see that movie and you think, Oh God, this speaks to me; this is what I’ve been looking for!
LEBOFF: Anecdotally, I’ve found that a lot of people that are interested in film — the interns that come through our office and things like that — have seen it and really loved it.
GODRICH: It’s like a weird calling card. You get Sam Mendes or Win Butler from Arcade Fire, all these people are like, "Man, props for doing that score, it’s so great!" Which is quite nice.
WRIGHT: Of course I would love to work with that cast again. With Chris or Anna I’ve said, "We’ve got to do something again, we’ve got to find what that thing is, and do something." All of them are just a joy. The other thing is that we’ve all stayed friends. There’s been a group email that’s been going since 2010 where we send each either things to do with the film.
SCHWARTZMAN: The entire cast is on it. To this day, everyone still “replies all” to a lot of emails.
CULKIN: It just feels like there’s these people in this movie that I don’t even really know that well, but I feel really close to them because they were all part of the same thing, and that’s what mentally comes when you do something that I think is kind of special, like this movie.
WINSTEAD: It feels like such a big chunk of my life, you know. I started talking to Edgar so early on, and we all got assembled really early on in the process, and then we were promoting the film together long after we were done. So, it feels like almost three years of my life. It had such an impact on me when I was in my mid-‘20s in terms of my social circle and the development of my tastes and what I was into and what I was inspired by. It was just huge for me to be a part of that and it had such a lasting effect. Every minute that we were all together in Toronto, it stayed with me in one way or another. You know, Ellen Wong is still one of my best friends.
WONG: We’re really good friends. So, screw you Scott! That would be the best alternate ending, would be Ramona and Knives go off and have this amazing friendship affair and Scott is left on the side. [Laughs]
WRIGHT: I’m incredibly proud of the movie. The fact that you’re not doing a 10th-anniversary article about The Expendables says it all.
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