Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: An oral history of Edgar Wright's super-powered cult classic

Lesbian ninjas! Superpowered vegans! Chris Evans and Brie Larson pre-MCU! Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had it all — it just took 10 years for (some of) us to notice.
By Clark Collis
June 24, 2020 at 11:30 AM EDT

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 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 up-and-coming British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), the $60 million-plus Universal Studios-backed movie adaptation was shot in Toronto with a cast full of notable 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 future stars included Kieran Culkin, Mae Whitman, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Pill, and more. “Imagine doing a gym class all together with [these actors],” says Wright. “It was extraordinary.”

Kerry Hayes/Universal

The Casting

Wright considered a huge number of young actors for the film, including several soon-to-be-big stars. “Beyond the cast that’s in [the movie],” says Wright, “are all the people who auditioned for it, from Rooney Mara to Betty Gilpin to Zoe Kazan. Tons of people I would kill to work with now.”

EDGAR WRIGHT (DIRECTOR AND COWRITER): 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 (SCOTT PILGRIM): Edgar was a big fan of Arrested Development.

WRIGHT: 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.

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: Edgar saw Death Proof and [thought of] me for Ramona.

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.

CHRIS EVANS (LUCAS LEE): Edgar called and said he was making this movie. I was such a big fan of his. It was a no-brainer.

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.

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: Brie Larson’s audition was just amazing. I’d seen a long line of people coming into the Universal lot to audition, and some people who were reasonably established. Brie — who was 19 at the time, maybe she was even 18 when she auditioned — blew everybody else away. Jared [LeBoff, Scott Pilgrim executive producer] and I both said afterward, “We’ve got to cast her.”

BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY (WRITER OF THE SCOTT PILGRIM GRAPHIC NOVELS): The cast was mostly somewhat unknown at the time, but all of them have gone on to great things.

Double Negative/Universal

The Fight Training

To prepare for the film’s fight scenes, Cera, Winstead, and Jason Schwartzman trained with stunt choreographer Brad Allan (Kick-Ass) before joining the rest of the cast for more physical work in Toronto.

CERA: 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: 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 Webber, who played Sex Bob-omb guitarist Stephen Stills] would be doing band stuff at the same time. It was really fun.

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.

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 [who wrote the film’s script with Wright], 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.

WRIGHT: Jason Schwartzman had this stalling technique where he would ask a lot of questions to get more rest time between exercises. The trainer would be talking about some martial-arts thing, an injury he had: “Yeah, that’s the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life.” And [Jason], still trying to catch his breath, would be like, “What was the second-most painful thing?”

JASON SCHWARTZMAN (GIDEON GRAVES): They can throw me under the bus now, but they were all catching their breath.

Double Negative/Universal

The Shoot

Principal photography began in Toronto in spring 2009.

CULKIN: Edgar had the entire movie in his head. It was in his noggin. Every cut and every music cue and everything. He just needed to go through the process of physically making the movie.

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.

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.

ALISON PILL (KIM PINE): 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.

CERA: It was freezing when we were shooting that fight with Chris Evans all through the night. There was this moment where I get hit over the head with a skateboard, which was supposed to explode on impact. They build 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.

WRIGHT: 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.”

WRIGHT: In the [ending’s] fight scene, Schwartzman did a stunt and he ripped his pants. That was funny enough. Then he whispered to me, “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.”

Double Negative/Universal

The Reception

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 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.

WINSTEAD: At Comic-Con it felt like it was the biggest film of all time.

WRIGHT: It got good reviews, and all the people who were coming to the Q&A’s were really loving it and fervent about it. But that didn’t translate initially.

CERA: We got annihilated by Sylvester Stallone.

WRIGHT: It opened the same weekend as The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. I remember getting an email from Marc Platt, one of the film’s producers, on the Friday asking Universal to put more into the spend and predicting doom for the weekend. And I thought — naively — I thought, Well, it’s only Friday morning, how could they know? They know. It opened at number five. It’s that thing where it becomes a bit of a punch line. 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] But 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: You always wonder: If you had a chance to redo a campaign, what would you do differently? I hate that I don’t have an answer for you. I think it may have just been truly a movie that was ahead of its time. So, maybe I would have put it out 10 years later!

Double Negative/Universal

The Second Wind

Wright’s movie rapidly acquired the status of a cult classic — and a decade on, it’s possible this Pilgrim might progress even further.

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. The New Beverly [Los Angeles repertory cinema] had it on [at] midnight, and it started playing at other places. With most of the movies we love there’s a tortoise-and-a-hare aspect. The Thing opened at number eight. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

SCHWARTZMAN: There’s still an email chain that started 10 years ago. The entire cast is on it. To this day, everyone still “replies all” to a lot of emails.

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.

Kerry Hayes/Universal