At first glance, Baby Driver doesn’t look like it uses genre conventions in the way that Edgar Wright’s other works have. While you can easily see the homages to zombie horror and paranoid sci-fi in Shaun of the Dead and World’s End, the fusion at the heart of Baby Driver‘s DNA is initially more elusive to parse. But once you put sunglasses on and deconstruct it, it’s right there: The new movie is a musical where car chases are the “songs”. And it rocks.
I saw Baby Driver in Austin, Texas a month ago when Edgar Wright was in town to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre chain. The film, which is excellent, centres on Baby, a preternaturally gifted driver who works getaway gigs for master heist planner Doc, played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elisa Gonzalez and all of the other actors’ performances feel like tight little corn kernels of character that pop when the plot gets hot. Baby Driver threads cinema’s decades-long fascination with teenagers through a crime drama that also harbours a ton of humour and poignancy underneath its too-cool skin.
Baby Driver boasts a less-frenetic version of the syncopated synchronicity synesthesia found in Scott Pilgrim. Influences, textures and rhythms from different media and time periods still bleed into each other here, but the blend is smoother and happens with much more self-assurance. The car chases and on-foot pursuit sequences in Baby Driver do the same thing as songs in a musical; they’re show-stopping set pieces that illustrate the shifts in the dramatis personae’s character dynamics. In similar fashion, the actual soundtrack-and-score music does double duty as either exposition or mood-setting, complete with gunfights that happen in sync to the sonic rhythms. It all results in something that engages multiple senses in an intoxicating way.
I had the chance to talk to Wright the day after I saw Baby Driver and the British filmmaker spoke warmly and effusively. Our conversation, edited and condensed below, covered his parting of ways with Marvel over Ant-Man, how Grand Theft Auto games influenced Baby Driver, and his approach to genre elements in his movies.
I wanted to touch on your dalliance with Marvel…
Edgar Wright: There’s not much I can talk about. Things from Ant-Man, and stuff —
I don’t want to talk about specifics. I feel like your go-round with them was part of a trend that’s become standard operating procedure. Marvel and other studios get up-and-comers who show quirk in their work — a flavour that one might call “acquired taste”, “cult favourites” or whatever — and then they dangle the chance to do this big-money project. What do you think are the hazards of that?
Wright: I can only speak to my experience, really. And I think my situation was something where it was a heartbreaking decision to leave, but it was ultimately a binary one. I had been a writer/director on [Ant-Man] for, like, eight years. At that point where I wasn’t the writer any more, I was immediately less emotionally invested in the whole thing. Ironically, I did end up getting a writing credit on the movie but that was after I’d gone.
I have no regrets about not doing it. I regret the time wasted. I actually had dinner with Paul Rudd [recently] in New York, and we’d seen each other before, but this was probably the first time we’d sat down since all of that and I was like, “Well, at least I got my friend cast in that movie.” All of that led to this movie, because when I left, the majority of my crew — I think, all of my crew — left with me. So, then I felt a responsibility to them to get them on another project.
Getting Baby Driver actually going took another year-and-a-bit — maybe something like… almost 18 months. And here’s the other irony about it: I did think in the back of my mind, “Well, if I do this big franchise movie, maybe I’ll have the muscle to make my passion project,” which would be Baby Driver. So the irony is that I didn’t make the movie and I still got to make Baby Driver. I felt extremely fortunate that, through that whole experience, I actually managed to make, (a) an original movie, and (b) an original movie with a studio.
It’s not an existing idea. And not an adaptation of anything other than what’s been in my brain. Obviously, it’s within a genre that is an established genre and my own spin on it. I was at the ArcLight in Hollywood the other day, and they had this big wall of summer posters. And the only two on that wall that were original movies was like, Baby Driver and Dunkirk. People ask me if I’d ever do a franchise movie again, and I’d be a fool to say I’d never do it — but I want to do something where I feel like I can actually have my kind of imprint on it.
That’s my desire as a fan and critic. I want to see superhero movies grow, to have some sort of idiosyncrasy to them.
Wright: I think some of them do. It’s not that that’s entirely going away, but, you know, it’s something where a lot of the franchises are spinning plates for the future. Whereas, when I approach something, I want to think of something that can work as a standalone movie…
Where it’s concerned with its own self, and not with a larger mechanism…
Wright: Sometimes when you see other movies that are starting with a view to being franchise starters — I don’t mean, specifically, like ones that are already going — and there’s going to be three of them, there’s a presumption. You gotta make something that scores with an audience, first.
When they made the first Die Hard, they had no grand designs beyond making one great action movie. Nobody is saying, “and then in the fifth one he goes to Russia…” That didn’t happen back then. You just concentrate on making one great movie. Robocop is something that’s like one great movie with one great ending. And then a lot of times those movies have already peaked with the ending of their first film. Sometimes there are things where it’s like, “I want to see that character again.” Something like Mad Max is a perfect example of a franchise that deepens and becomes more complicated and more ambitious as it goes along. And then very, very rarely, it can come back 30 years later with the same director and a different lead and go even further. That’s rare.
But also the great thing about Mad Max: Fury Road is that is that is a franchise movie which nods to the old ones, but anybody watching it does not have to have seen the previous movies. And I think that’s always, for me, the main concern. Does this work as a movie in its own right? It can have things to lean on, but, sometimes when you see, like, franchise starters where there’s the presumption of, like, “we got to do this one every year”, it’s like, “That’s all good as long as the film is good.” One of my comic book adaptation favourites, the 1980s Flash Gordon, to me, has the best kind of ending where it says “The End…?” And there’s no question mark, it’s “The End!”, exclamation mark. I would watch more of those.
Speaking of adaptation, I wanted to touch on Scott Pilgrim just a little bit. I love that movie because you treat the video game aesthetic as like a magical realism layer.
Wright: The thought with that is that if somebody — and this is very similar to the idea in Spaced — is that, like, if the characters of that age are consuming that much media and had to write the story of their lives, they would start to imagine in that form. Or, someone’s fanciful account of their own life.
I feel like that’s been a through-line for all your work, using genre conventions as both an aesthetic layer and a means to an expressionistic end. Baby Driver feels like you’re doing that in triplicate. The movie feels like a musical, not just a heist movie. The chase sequences are the songs, and the actual songs are the exposition. Can you talk about deconstructing genre elements in your movies, and how it happens here?
Wright: Well, I think that already, in some form, Shaun of the Dead is telling a relationship comedy through a zombie film. So you could kind of take the zombies out of that movie and it would still make sense as a sort of struggle between girlfriend and best friend and family. Scott Pilgrim was obviously based on a book, and Brian sort of had that stuff going on already.
Baby Driver, I think, is less of a Trojan horse. There’s not, like, any sneaky subtext. The central thrust of it is what it is: Music and action colliding together. That’s basically the original genesis of the idea. It’s where, like, myself and the lead character become one and the same in terms of, I’m not that guy, but there are things that he does that I’d do. And so it’s almost like taking your own personal relationship with music and obsessions with music and pushing them to like, the nth degree.
I had the idea for like, 22 years, but the first time I said it aloud to my producers was like, 10 years ago. And I said, “I have this idea for an action movie called Baby Driver“. And they said, “What’s that?” and I said, “A car movie, driven by music.” And that’s basically what it is. It’s the idea of a main character who is trying to control his own life and the soundtrack of his own life, and when that works it’s joyous and when that doesn’t work it’s debilitating to him. That was just a fascinating idea to me.
Another thread in Baby Driver, with the crimes and the music and the heists, is exactly the way you described it. Sometimes the music is speaking the story rather than the dialogue. And sometimes, like, the music is actually drowning the dialogue out and you can’t hear what Kevin Spacey is saying. And that, to me, is — especially in that part where Ansel is liberating Kevin Spacey and listening to David Brubeck at the same time — is an encapsulation of the entire movie.
I haven’t been a huge gamer since Spaced but my brother is one. And so a lot of my gaming experience is through him, going over to his house and playing things sometimes. So, certainly, I’d play things like Driver and Grand Theft Auto.
That first sequence was like, “I’m watching a GTA scene”. The cop cars are right behind him with a helicopter overhead, just like in GTA, and you’re just waiting to see the five-star rating pop up on the top right of the screen…
Wright: And Ansel is of an age where he grew up with that game. Ansel was born in 1994. So he grew up with that game. So here’s my thought with that — without making it too explicit — there’s definitely bits that subvert things from those games. There’s a scene later on where he carjacks a lady at gunpoint. That’s the first time he’s done that in that movie. It gives you pause for a moment because you know he’s a good-hearted kid. It’s like, “Oh, he’s pulling a gun on an old lady and forcing her out of her car!” Then, as he’s driving off, he sees that her purse is on the passenger’s seat and throws it to her before he peels out. Nobody in GTA would do that.
So, I did think it’d be interesting for the Grand Theft Auto generation to see that. The moral compass of the movie is that you start with the dream of being a getaway driver. Now, if you’ve played those games or not, a lot of people have had fantasies about being in a high-speed pursuit. So you show the dream of being a getaway driver, and that’s the opening scene where everything goes like clockwork. Not a scratch on the car — nothing goes wrong. And then with each successive set piece, things get gnarlier and things start to go wrong. And the human consequence and the collateral is more obvious. And the movie ends with, like, how to escape the nightmare of being a criminal. I did a lot of thinking about some of those games — and also a lot of the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster films — specifically, the most obvious example is Angels With Dirty Faces. It has such a great, moral kicker, and that’s part of what movies were at the time.
A lot of those films were polemics against juvenile delinquency, and stuff like that, too.
Wright: Yeah, but also, there’s an element in those movies where they’re having their cake and eating it, too. They’re showing you bad behaviour, but there’s a tough moral lesson at the end. That’s kind of why I want to do this movie, to tackle that responsibility, head on. And actually have — without giving anything away — an ending where the character does the right thing. Which is something you rarely see in crime movies.
Baby Driver is out in theatres July 13 and you should go see it.