SCOTT PILGRIM'S DREAMSCAPE AND THE GLORIES OF THE WRIGHT STUFF II: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR EDGAR WRIGHT
Edgar Wright could be the most genial man in show business, a quality that certainly comes across in all three of his feature films, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He has also, in the short space of those three films, established himself as one of contemporary pop cinema’s most innovative and intelligent visual stylists. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote that “Wright—now officially three-for-three thanks to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz—is one of the few directors working at the studio level who can tell jokes with shots and construct rebus-like series of images that make arguments or express emotional states. (Scott Pilgrim) is filled with virgin moments—lines, images, and feelings that have no equivalent anywhere else in movies, past or present.”
I complained about the movie when I saw it this past summer (as did Seitz), about its barrage of references (many of which I admit I didn’t connect to) and about the overwhelming disdain I had for the film's main character, which certainly didn’t put me in the mood for the movie’s playful visual design. My mistake, revealed in a screening of the movie over the holidays, was in assuming that the movie itself didn’t recognize the asshole at its center, that because it played in the world of an indecisive, self-centered and immature man-boy that the movie itself was somehow guilty of the same negative qualities (including a careless cruelty to one of its obviously sweet, perhaps a tad obnoxious central characters) displayed by that man-boy. Upon second viewing it became clear that Wright’s empathy for his directionless hero did not preclude the recognition of his many flaws, or that the imaginative dreamscape in which Scott Pilgrim battles his girlfriend’s seven deadly exes, and his own fear of growing up, was full of sounds and images and sequences that were far more inventive, delightful and resonant than I ever gave them credit for. It’s still not a movie that touches me in the way that Shaun or Hot Fuzz do, but then it doesn’t have to be. That it is smart and good is plenty enough to keep me believing that Edgar has the right stuff. I talked with the director late this past week about Scott Pilgrim, Scott Pilgrim, playing an obnoxious junket journalist, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and, of course, all the delights and surprises that are part of his upcoming repertory series The Wright Stuff II playing through January 31 at the New Beverly Cinema. Here’s what he said.
DC: Are you back in Los Angeles working on a new film?
EW: It’s actually quite a busy work period, so I can only call The Wright Stuff II a pleasant distraction (Laughs). I’m writing furiously at the moment and facing a deadline, so it’s actually the only non-work thing I’ll be doing is going to these things. It’s quite a lot of work to put something like this together, and I’m still working on some other guests which hopefully will come together. But this is the way to do a series because the guests enter into the spirit of how I’m doing it. It’s pretty informal at the New Beverly—that’s one of the fun things about it. It’s really about giving everybody a good show and doing our part to keep rep cinema going in L.A., but also I just quite selfishly want to watch the movies.
DC: The New Beverly has become such a center for movie love here in L.A., and everybody seems to love it and get very excited when you come around.
EW: They’re great. They’ve been asking me to do it again for the last two years, since the last one, but there’s never really been a time that’s right. Since Scott Pilgrim the interest has been building about me coming back to do another season, so we decided on January 2011, and then when it comes to it I’m actually quite busy again! And I thought, well, if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.
DC: I first saw Shaun of the Dead several months before it opened here in the U.S., and I had no idea what it was. From the title I guessed maybe a sort of zombie version of Scary Movie, one disposable gag after another. It was such a relief to find that it was deeply hilarious and rooted in real characters. Both Shaun and Hot Fuzz are great movies that work as genre parodies but also as superb examples of the things themselves. How did they come about?
EW: What you said is precisely the intention, to make movies that hopefully can fit into specific genres rather than just “comedy.” We wanted to make comedies that were set in a specific world, but we always hesitated using the word “parody” or “spoof.” And in a weird way, one of the reasons there hasn’t been a third one yet is because it’s suddenly not as much fun anymore when people are trying to second-guess what a third film would be and saying, “What are you gonna spoof next?!” The answer to that, really, is, we don’t think of them as spoofs. They deal with subjects that we’re passionate about, characters that we want to really write about within those worlds. I would hope that there’s a big difference between Shaun of the Dead and… (Hesitates)
DC: Vampires Suck, maybe? Yes, I can confirm there is a difference.
EW (laughs): Thanks!
DC: Were you surprised by the popularity of the movies here in the States?
EW: Yeah. When we made Shaun of the Dead our first and only priority, really, was to make a movie that would a) be good and b) would do well in the U.K. Everything after that was an unexpected bonus. I still think that one of the best things that ever happened to me, one of the experiences I’ll never forget is going around the world with Shaun of the Dead for the first time and showing my work in another country. It was amazing, and it’s still something that doesn’t get old. Or showing Spaced nearly 10 years after the fact when it came out on DVD—it was a thrill to see it with an audience.
DC: In that vein, The Fuzzball Rally (the documentary made during the U.S. promotional tour behind Hot Fuzz) is one of my all-time favorite bonus features. Did that come about because of that experience you had with Shaun?
EW: One of the things that ended up happening after the Shaun of the
Dead tour was that we wished we’d had some kind of a record of it. Also, the guy who directed The Fuzzball Rally was Joe Cornish, who is a friend and collaborator. What’s funny is, in the U.K. that documentary alone caused the rating of Hot Fuzz to be upgraded from, like, a “15” to an “18.” A box set came out just before Christmas of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim and the entire box was rated “18” purely because of the amount of swearing in The Fuzzball Rally.
DC: Well, if The King’s Speech can get an “R” here…
EW: Oh, yeah. I think the thing is, what happens, generally, when me, Simon and Nick talk is that— In the U.S. people don’t use the “C” word in an affectionate way the way we do in the U.K.! (Laughs) So that immediately caused a few problems.
DC: And speaking of promotional materials, the first time I ever put a face to your name was when I saw your performance as the Snotty Junket Journalist in the Superbad piece featuring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. The whole piece was brilliant. Was it fun to do?
EW: It was, although it was absolutely nerve-wracking. I’d met Jonah and Michael before, and in fact had already talked to Michael about Scott Pilgrim, but Judd Apatow I had not met until the day I did that. He called me up with the idea—I don’t know who suggested me doing it— but it was really nerve-wracking. In fact, I was supposed to interview Seth Rogen and Christopher Mintz-Plasse immediately afterwards and I chickened out because I couldn’t— We only did one take of that Superbad thing. The publicists were just outside the door and they said, “You want to do Chris and Seth next?” and I said, “No, I don’t! I wanna go home!” (Laughs) So there was supposed to be a second one, but I was the one who bummed out on it!
DC: Jonah Hill’s reaction unnerved you to that degree?
EW: They cut it together really well, because that’s pretty much exactly what we shot, with no retakes. But there’s a couple of times where I made them crack up and vice versa. Whoever edited it did a good job of making it seem real. And Jonah Hill’s rage is extremely convincing, which is why a lot of people when they see it on YouTube still say, “God, that British reporter is such a douche!” Or some people think that it was Edgar Wright punking Michael and Jonah.
DC: Your first two movies are obviously very British, and you talked about how you originally had your eye only on making a movie that would do well in the U.K. And the movies are about specifically British concerns— where the societal lines are drawn between community and a xenophobic rule of law, or a society so much on autopilot that it takes a while to notice the cashier at the local shop is a zombie. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, isn’t Anglo-centric at all. Did you look at doing that movie as a sort of departure from the personal?
EW: Um, yes and no. Obviously it’s an adaptation from the graphic novels of Brian Lee O’Malley, who created this amazingly detailed world. But it also resonated with me and I felt a connection with some of the characters, particularly Scott Pilgrim himself. In a way it actually reminded me of Spaced, which Brian Lee O’Malley had never seen. But when I read the first book I thought, this is definitely in a similar vein to Spaced, especially the idea of directionless people living their own daydreams. That was the reason I was really excited to do that—I wanted to return to that mix of the mundane and the magical realism. Shaun and Hot Fuzz are both ridiculous, but they’re set in the real world, and Scott Pilgrim is more an extension of Spaced as this unspecified mix of fantasy and reality.
DC: Hearing you say that makes me think about my own reaction to the movie. The first time I saw it I had very little patience for Scott, the character, and that colored my whole reaction to it. But seeing it again over the holidays I began to think of it as Scott’s own self-critical assessment of his own life, where the boundaries between fantasy and reality are invisible and everything can be All About Scott—no one else in the movie seems to care much about anything except Scott and how things affect him. The new way of looking at the movie (for me) helped me deal with the fact that the movie and the character tend to be somewhat cruel, especially toward the character of Knives. So you thought of the movie as Scott’s dreamscape?
EW: Yeah, that’s exactly it, really. One of the things I thought was interesting about the books and the movie is that you’ve got a hero who is moving in a universe with its own rules. We’re watching what happens from his perspective. Brian O’Malley has said about his character, “Scott Pilgrim is the star of the movie inside his own head.” Essentially, the film is that movie. And I think what’s interesting is that the character is sort of deaf to the criticisms around him. There are two people in the film, Young Neil and Knives, who might worship the ground he walks on, but everybody else, including Ramona, gives him shit. And he’s seemingly deaf to it until the attacks, both personal and physical, become such that he can’t ignore them anymore.
The way he treats Knives, there’s nothing funny about it—it’s heartbreaking, especially with Ellen Wong playing that part. But the idea is that it builds up to him being forced to deal with his own shortcomings at the end of the film. The point of the movie is that Scott has demonized Ramona’s exes to the point where he’s fighting them in these huge showdowns, but ironically Scott himself is a hypocrite and he hasn’t dealt with his own baggage. He has as much turmoil in his past love life as she does. The film is less about a boy-meets-girl situation and more about an immature character having to grow up.
DC: If the movie is Scott’s interior world, he’s going to get the girl. But does he get the right girl? Did you consider a version where he ends up with Knives, or do you think it’s more to the point that he could become an evil ex himself?
EW: Well, there is an alternate ending in the original drafts of the script where exactly that happened. Then, as the comics developed, we actually came to believe that the original ending we’d written didn’t work. We intended originally to have an ending where he went off with Knives, Ramona left Toronto, and right at the end Scott’s smile fades slightly, as if to say he’s not sure if he did the right thing, in a sort of Heartbreak Kid/Graduate kind of way. But it didn’t work. And Ellen Wong is so charming in the role that it felt completely heartless, and not in a great, black comedy way. In fact, even the thing with the smile fading-- we didn’t even shoot it because it just felt wrong. We knew even as we were shooting that we hadn’t quite nailed it. Even Brian had a different ending for his books, and then he changed his own ending because he had a change of heart. And as soon as I read the ending of the books I said, okay, this is actually what we need to do. Because Knives actually grows up as much as Scott, and part of her growing up is that she becomes able to let Scott go and give up on her crush.
DC: So Knives’s “I’m too cool for you” comes from Brian Lee O’Malley?
EW: No. Weirdly, that line is not in the book. But we (myself, Michael Bacall and Brian Lee O’Malley) rewrote the ending, and that is Brian’s line. We had something similar, and then he rewrote it and came up with that line, which is genius. I love that line. So on an adaptation level there’s material in the film which Brian wrote which is not in the book. The main thing with the ending, as I see it, is that everybody has to grow up. Knives flowers into a swan that is at once more confident and also quite over Scott Pilgrim, and then Scott basically wants to start again on a different level of awareness with Ramona. The idea of the ending is that it’s a build-up to a second first date—we’ve dealt with all of our baggage now, and I’m hopefully now mature enough to have a relationship without the obsessive worry about the past. And it should be up to the viewer to imagine what they think is going to happen next. Scott and Ramona might not make it past the end credits, or it might be the start of a beautiful relationship.
DC: The movie really expanded in my head when I saw it at home on Blu-ray. My daughter and I saw it on opening night here in America, and the subpar projection where we saw it actually made it look dingy, almost as if there were a scrim in front of the screen, which to some degree affected my response to it. My memory afterward was that it was a strangely dark, literally dim movie.
EW: Oh, that’s too bad.
DC: But the Blu-ray disc revealed to me that the movie was anything but dim, and I was in a sense free to concentrate more on the visual poetry of the movie and what you were up to in that regard rather than allow bad technical presentation to literally color my perception of it and encourage me to impose my negative feelings about Scott and his immaturity on the movie as a whole. And it made me think about how a less visually inventive director might have taken concepts from the book and realized them in a far more perfunctory way than you did. How did you approach the movie visually? It’s a busy movie that feels almost effortless.
EW: We had amazing source material to work from, but the comics are in black and white (laughs), and they have no sound, and the music is such a big part of it. It was a great experience trying to bring to life this inspired artwork and Brian’s whole world, but also figuring out how to make it flesh, how to make it move, how to see it in color, what the bands should sound like. I thought a lot about the comic book adaptations that I liked and some I didn’t care for, and what was interesting is that there’s a huge range of styles employed in different adaptations-- Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is massively different from Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon. I felt that in what is essentially a comedy film, there was a chance to be very imaginative with it, to do something a bit more pop-arty. And yeah, I did think more about some of the more colorful adaptations, like Danger: Diabolik and Flash Gordon, to bring some of that into Scott’s world. The book is pitched somewhere between Ghost World and X-Men, and it was interesting to try and find the middle ground between those two.
DC: Both of the previous movies used the wide-screen frame to great comic and narrative effect. Why did you decide to shoot Scott Pilgrim in 1.85?
EW: Two reasons. One, because generally the panels in the book were more 1.85 than wide screen. But since there was a lot of information on screen such as graphics and titles, we thought it would actually be too much to take in 2.35. It would be more difficult to read text and images. Because of the density of information in Scott Pilgrim I thought that 1.85 was the way to go. And actually, because of that, within the movie we keep changing the aspect ratios. What’s funny is that the bits—I wouldn’t call them “fake” wide-screen, because the bits that are in 2.35 were shot in 2.35, but we added the black bars as a kind of style thing, because a lot of comics use negative space around panels. Also, there’s a thing that happens a lot in video games where the opening sequence in a video game will often have the fake wide-screen bars to make them seem more cinematic. In fact, we shot on spherical 35, anamorphic 35 and VistaVision, and also on the Phantom, which is a digital camera. But even on film we shot three different formats. All of the non-fight sequences are in spherical 35mm, and all of the fight scenes are in anamorphic. Someone at a Q&A asked me, “Why did you shoot it in anamorphic? Why does everything have to have flares these days?” And I said, “Watch it again. Only the fight scenes have flares. We only used anamorphic for the fight scenes.”
DC: Let’s talk a little about what’s coming up for The Wright Stuff II. The stand-by line for the sold-out Edgar Wright triple feature that opens the series on Friday and Saturday ought to be intimidating.
EW: Quentin Tarantino has picked the trailers for those three films, but I won’t know what they are until I show up on Friday and Saturday.
DC: He showed Inglourious Basterds at the New Bev last year and showed almost an hour of trailers before the movie, which meant the film didn’t actually start until about a quarter after 1:00 in the morning.
EW: I’m like him—I can watch trailers until the cows come home.
DC: What’s the double feature you’re most excited about?
EW: All of them! I did The Warriors and The Wanderers in Toronto before, when I was prepping Scott Pilgrim, and that worked brilliantly.
DC: I’m glad to see Philip Kaufman’s movie getting some love because it deserves it. But those movies were also in the marketplace at the same time in this country, part of one of those inexplicable convergences of similar material coming out at the same time that happen occasionally.
EW: Yeah, they’re both set in New York, one is period, one is contemporary 1979, one a cult film, one very underseen. It was great seeing them with a crowd who had seen The Warriors but who mostly had not seen The Wanderers, and The Wanderers played great. It’s a fantastic film.
DC: It’s not as out there stylistically as The Warriors, but it has stylistic flourishes that might take some people by surprise.
EW: I think those flourishes are probably exactly the reason I love it. I was particularly taken with the Ducky Boys, the Irish gang, and that whenever you run into them, there’s suddenly all this mist on the street. I always loved the idea that you could turn a corner in a bad neighborhood and there’s this omnipresent, terrifying gang who can seemingly teleport in a bank of fog into a scene-- I love it!
The other movie I’m excited about showing an audience is The Super Cops on Tuesday. That film we had to bring from London because there doesn’t appear to be a print in the U.S. I saw it on TV in the U.K. when I was very young, and at the same time I was really taken with the Batman TV series. Within the movie Ron Leibman and David Selby play Greenberg and Hantz, real-life cops who were nicknamed Batman and Robin. Ron Leibman’s character even takes to wearing a Batman T-shirt, which the real cop did. It’s not on DVD at all, so it’s very cool to get hold of. I’d seen it again more recently when I was writing Hot Fuzz, and it really stood up. And I hope that the kind of attention it could get from being shown in a situation like this might compel it to get released on DVD. It seems crazy that it’s not available. I was actually really thrilled when I saw The Social Network because David Selby is in it—“Oh, my God, one of the Super Cops is playing the Winklevii’s lawyer!” And Lorenzo Semple, who wrote The Super Cops and also wrote for the Batman TV series, is coming on Tuesday, so that should be fun. I’ve seen him in other interviews where he can be brutally self-deprecating about his own work, so I’m interested to hear what he has to say about The Super Cops, whether he remembers it fondly. I think it’s great.
DC: From what I’ve seen, he’s certainly not one to suffer fools gladly, not that you have to worry about that.
EW (laughs): I’m sort of mildly terrified about interviewing him, but it’ll be fun!
DC: I’m also very excited to see Frenzy on the big screen, and of course Dressed to Kill. That’s an inspired pairing.
EW: I’ve never seen Dressed to Kill on the big screen, and it’s one of my favorite De Palma films. And Frenzy is a really interesting one. Some Hitchcock connoisseurs are kind of down on it because they thought he went over the top. I think it’s fascinating. It’s a pitch-black comedy that I can always return to a lot, and some of the ways he deals with exposition are quite amazing. David Thomson made an interesting point about Frenzy in that even though it’s set in the ‘70s it feels like the London Hitchcock left in the ‘30s. It has a strange mix of contemporary flourishes, but it doesn’t feel like a film made in 1972 London. Even the Covent Garden flower market had closed by the time the film had come out, so it’s the last time you see the place on screen for real. It’s still there, but shops and entertainment instead of a market. That was a film I watched again before making Hot Fuzz because I love its sense of humor, its playfulness. Particularly there’s a shot toward the end of the film when Jon Finch is in court where we’re looking through double doors that are swinging open and shut, and you only hear the court when the doors are open. When they’re closed you can only hear muffled dialogue. Hitchcock’s playing with the language and saying, “You know what’s going on. This isn’t important.” We only hear the bits that are really crucial. For that touch to come in a film that was his second-to-last movie is thrilling—it’s really daring and playful.
DC: And you get that whole subplot of the sergeant sitting down to a series of inedible meals which he clearly finds repulsive.
EW: Yeah, that’s like a little chamber piece that goes through the film! (Laughs) And Frenzy might have pioneered the convention of someone suddenly appearing behind someone’s head—that kind of “Boo!” trick that’s been done so many times. I think Frenzy was one of the first times that was done, where Anna Massey comes walking out of the park, she turns and Barry Foster is right behind her.
DC: Who are some of the special guests you’ll have coming to the New Beverly in the next two weeks?
EW: There are a couple of surprise guests for shows that have already sold out, so I think I’ll leave them as surprises. And some have already been announced. (Just after this interview was completed, Wright called me to let me know that David Selby had been confirmed to join Lorenzo Semple, Jr. for The Super Cops at the New Beverly for the screening on Wednesday, January 18.-- DC) On Sunday, Richard Kelly is introducing Brazil with me because it’s his favorite film. He’s a friend of mine, but I’ve never talked to him about that movie. He once wrote a piece about it for a book, so I invited him to come down and talk about it with me. We also have another special guest talking about Dirty Harry with me on January 18. I promised I wouldn’t say who it was, but people will not be disappointed. (Laughs) Then we have American Graffiti and Animal House on January 20 with John Landis and George Folsey. The other one we just announced that is going to be a lot of fun will be on the 24th-- The Driver with Bruce Dern, Frank Marshall and director Walter Hill. And we have someone coming for True Romance too. You can keep an eye on my blog and, of course, the New Beverly schedule for updated information.
DC: But guest or no guest, these films are still going to be great to see on the big screen. Your enthusiasm for the movies, and these movies, is really infectious.
EW: A lot of these are dream double bills. And the last one, actually, is very special-- Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Miami Blues, both much underrated films. And the reason I put those two together is not just because they’re both kind of comedic noir films, but because they both have actors in them who are legendary. I really want to see Miami Blues again now that Alec Baldwin has had a second life as a comic actor.
DC: And Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is visually splendid.
EW: Oh, it’s a brilliant film, that. And I think Jeff Bridges has a whole young following because of The Big Lebowski who have never seen him in this movie. People who love Lebowski will love Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. And it’s probably fairly clear from the programming what kind of directors I like. I’m definitely a big fan of the stylists—Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, Brian De Palma, Walter Hill. I love directors who are invisible and can tell a great story and effortlessly engage the audience. That’s an amazing gift, and some of the greatest directors of all time have that. Some of the most successful films of all time have that quality, where there’s nothing to distract people from the story. Yet on the flipside, there are directors who I think are like evil puppet masters in the greatest way, manipulating every second of the film. (Laughs) Hitchcock and De Palma have that in common, in the best way possible being master manipulators. I love that.
(The Wright Stuff II series screens through January 31 at the New Beverly Cinema. For details on schedule, showtimes and special guests visit the New Beverly Cinema calendar page, where you can also order advance tickets-- highly recommended-- for each performance.)