Edgar Wright started early; there was no meandering or teenage malaise for the British-born filmmaker. Out of the gate, his directorial ambitions were clear. Enthralled by the Super 8 camera (and then a video 8 recorder), Wright began spinning imaginative yarns throughout the 1980s and ’90s for an audience of few.
Stray BBC TV directing gigs led, in 1999, to Spaced, which starred longtime collaborator (and future “Shaun”) Simon Pegg and lasted two seasons. Since its original run, the show has grown into a cult favorite. Wright’s feature-film work has enjoyed a similar fate. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End—each project has lived and thrived by Wright’s creative voice. And as the movies have evolved in both style and substance, Wright’s fervent fan-base has snowballed.
After four years, he’s returned with Baby Driver, an explosive car-chase film with ample star power (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey) and jaw-dropping action set pieces. Wright’s love for the genre has endured since youth. “I think it’s such a pure piece of cinema,” he says. “The car chase is the natural descendant of something like Buster Keaton’s The General or John Ford’s Stagecoach.”
When we sat down, Wright was candid about his success in Hollywood, his endless ambition and why the word “No” has never deterred him.
It strikes me that you’ve always been an especially ambitious writer and director. When did that start?
The truth of it is, when I was 21, I literally dreamed up the first scene of Baby Driver because I was listening to the Jon Spencer track that opens the movie and I visualized this car chase. It was like synesthesia: For me, the idea is listening to a track and imagining these visuals to go with it. Somebody said to me the other day, which I thought was funny, “So why did it take 22 years to make the movie?” I was like, “Well, for context, I’m 21, I’m living in a little flat in north London with some school friends, I’m broke, and I have no connections to the industry. I’m not really in the position to ring up Tristar Pictures and say, ‘Okay, give me millions of dollars to make this heist movie.’”
“I’m 21 and broke. I deserve this!”
“I have no feature credits yet!”
When you’re in that flat—broke and young—is there a moment where you consider just, you know, doing something else?
At that age you’re not even sure what you’re doing. Also, when you’re broke at 21, you’re still 21 and you can subsist on very little. I also made a movie when I was 20 years old. It was a Western, and I learned a lot of lessons that would inform the rest of my career. A lot of things I did on that movie made me think, “If I get another chance to do another movie I should never do this again.” I think having an experience like that, where I made a movie and it wasn’t Citizen Kane—it’s a humbling experience when it doesn’t quite match up to what’s in your head. It’s probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me at that age. You’re powered along by your own complete naivete.
You’ve come a long way to get to Baby Driver. Do you think this film has the most mass appeal?
Baby Driver is probably the movie out of all of mine where you don’t need to know anything going into it, you don’t need to have seen any of the films that inspired it and you don’t have to have seen any Edgar Wright films to enjoy it. Of all my movies when I’ve done test screenings, it’s actually got some of the biggest scores because there really is something for everyone. Something that Sony was surprised by at the test screenings is how well it plays with females, because that’s not usually the case with action films. With this one it was different.
Why do you think that is?
I think it has a strong romantic undertone to it, and I think Baby’s desire to be with Deborah is a simple thing that everybody can root for. He’s not a career criminal at this point, and I think the movie is actually about a character realizing what he wants to do with his life. It’s almost like the reverse of Goodfellas, because in Goodfellas Henry Hill is the kid aspiring to be a gangster, and in Baby Driver at the start of the movie Ansel Elgort already is a gangster and is aspiring to be a regular joe.
Beyond the craft, you’re a filmmaker who actively tries to get his film out in front of as many people as possible… Why would you not?
I think it’s a matter of scope—and desire—for some filmmakers. You’re particularly active on social media, for example.
The thing with social media is even as much as you do, you’ll still get someone who says, “Hey, when is it out?” even after you’ve said the release date 3 million times. At a certain point with a movie, its success is in the lap of the gods. All you can do is make the best movie you can and do as much promotion as is physically possible. Anything else is beyond you.
You have to be absolutely tenacious and not be discouraged by the word no, because you’ll hear it a million times.
But you do sense a cult of Edgar Wright growing, right?
These are things for other people to comment on, not me. I certainly felt the same way about other filmmakers growing up. You like somebody’s work and it speaks to you and you think, “I will see every movie by that director,” whether it’s Walter Hill or John Landis or Joe Dante or Sam Peckinpah or Alfred Hitchcock. That especially comes with directors who have a voice or a particular visual stamp.
But given the age we’re in, do you think you have a more intimate, call-and-response type relationship with your audience? Peckinpah never had to tweet.
It’s nice to respond to fans. If somebody says something nice about your film and you like it, only one person is seeing that but they feel like, “Oh my god, I feel heard,” and that’s nice. You want people to like your work. I don’t know what else to say about that.
Do you think your career is turning out the way your 21-year-old self in London thought it would?
Given where I started, I’ve already exceeded my ambitions. In a way, Baby Driver is literally like a dream movie for me. Just the sheer fact that this film exists, there’s an element of…not that I’ve done everything I wanted to do, because I have lots of other things I would like to do, but I’m a kid from a comprehensive, which is like the equivalent of a state school, with art-teacher parents and no connections to the industry. To say in any way that I’m frustrated would sound ridiculous, because I’m not.
Do you think not having a family member in the film industry made you more motivated?
It’s the advice I give to people who say, “How do I get into film?” You have to be absolutely tenacious and persistent and not be discouraged by the word no, because you’ll hear it a million times. The truth of the matter is that in this industry you just have to make your own opportunities, because no one is going to hand you that break. You just have to do it yourself. I’m not particularly proud of my first movie. I think it’s fine, given the circumstances. If it had gone a different way, maybe I would have never made Shaun of the Dead. I know that there’d be other people who are maybe not doing so well who’d be like, “Fuck you, man.” I can only genuinely, sincerely say that I’m happy with how things have gone.
My proudest moment—it’s happened a couple times and it happened again the other day—it was the 10th anniversary of Hot Fuzz and I was in the Vista in Los Angeles, doing a 10th-anniversary screening with Jordan Peele moderating. I was watching the movie, and that movie is shot in my hometown. When I was growing up in Somerset, in the West Country, I would be watching Hollywood genre movies and dreaming of being part of the industry. Then to sit in Hollywood at a cinema on the big screen and watch my hometown was the biggest trip. That sort of turnaround of events, I was very proud of that. How could you not be?
Last question: why do you think you weren’t afraid to hear the word no?
You have something in your head. Any kind of idea, you have something in your head and the only way you can execute that idea is to make it happen, whether somebody is going to help you or not. Because Baby Driver is an original screenplay, even though it’s released from a studio it’s on nobody’s release calendar. There might be an X-Men movie with a release date in five year’s time with no director attached and no idea what it is, but it’s coming out. Or there’s a Star Wars film every year. An original movie like Baby Driver exists only because you are enthusiastic about it. Any time a person makes an original movie it’s just persistence of vision, the tenacity to see something through, willing something into existence. Sometimes you have to do that yourself.
Read our review of Baby Driver here.