It’s the same story we’ve heard a hundred times - a hungry, imaginative young child is given a Super 8 camera as a gift, and the rest in potential cinematic history. Similarly, there’s the synchronicity of making a student project and having it appreciated by a struggling media outlet. Thanks to said exposure, you wind up getting noticed by up and coming talent trying to make a name for themselves as well. They choose you to helm their initial attempts at TV, and again, the rest is a kind of revisionist history. It’s not long before you’ve found your niche in a particular format - say, the sitcom - and a kind of creative cult revolves around your efforts. That final bit of appreciation, meshed with your own ongoing desire to expand your sphere of experience, leads you right back to your beloved celluloid. Soon, you’re on the cusp of becoming the filmmaking superstar those early home movie dreams inspired.
For Edgar Wright, the stereotypical steps to directorial respect are all there. The 36 year old has already made a massive name for himself among the web-ccentric members of ‘Net Nation, catering to their geek obsessive look at the world with his in-joke laden ideas. But Wright is not some nu-model member of the media. He’s cut from the same cloth as the members of Monty Python some 50 years before, a British boy capable of great wit and even greater insight. He’s also immersed in the new-old school of UK comedy, one symbolized best by the Young Ones/Bottom dynamic of dangerous slapstick violence and the Alan Partridge realm of self-deprecating irony. With his latest effort, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, hitting theaters this week, one can look back at his brief career to see how he got started, and how all the various facets of his rise helped make him manna for the Playstation - and now mainstream - masses.
Dead Right (1993)
Made when he was 18 and seemingly capable of anything, Wright struck upon the idea of parodying the police procedural, infusing the by the book British cop drama with a healthy dose of American adrenaline. The results, made with friends from college, combined lo-fi filmmaking technique with inspired invention to set the ground rules for the rest of Wright’s career. It was also the motivation for one of his best efforts, the comedy cop epic Hot Fuzz. Available on said film’s massive DVD/Blu-ray release, it’s a rare insight into a fledgling filmmaker and his manic muse.
A Fistful of Fingers (1994)
As the title suggests, it was a spaghetti western spoof. Actually, it was a low budget remake of another school project Wright created with pal Graham Low (who reprised his role as the goofball gunslinger “No-Name”). To call the effort semi-successful would overlook its obvious financial limitations and its lead’s horrible Clint Eastwood impersonation. Still, Wright was able to capture the feel of Leone and the rest of the revisionist makers of these post-modern morality tales. While the references become obvious after a while (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly turns into the Three Stooges), it showed promise - something his future work in TV would flesh out admirably.
Spaced (1999 - 2001)
At its core, Spaced was a slacker sitcom about two disconnected Brits forced to share an apartment under the ruse of being a legal couple. Pretty straightforward. However, such a shoestring format allowed the creative team behind the project - creators/writers/stars Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes and director Wright - to free association on anything that came into their fevered, pop culture soaked brain. Captured with one camera, it would trade on a “cinematic” feel to fully realize its often outrageous aims. The result was a surreal, stream of consciousness experience, thirty weekly minutes made up of whatever the cast considered cool and worthy of riffing on at the time. From Star Wars to comics, indie music to movie homages, much of this sensational series looks like a warm up for Wright’s transition to feature films. He definitely brought the same aesthetic to his movie work, especially when paired up with Pegg and Frost.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
When George Romero invented the modern zombie horror film in the 1960s, few thought it would be so ripe for reinvention so soon. But a glut of direct to video product in the following years confirmed that the cannibal corpse was facing a short shelf life. Enter confirmed horror nuts Pegg, Frost, and Wright. Together, they drafted a love letter to the living dead, paying homage to their fright film icon with a cheeky referential title and real desire to milk the genre for both laughs and legitimate scares. They managed to achieve both brilliantly while staying true to Romero’s maverick ideals. As much a dissection of post-millennial Britain as an all out geek farce, this was the film that announced Wright as a legitimate big screen threat. Oddly enough, his next movie would confirm his amazing artistic potential.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
While initial reports had it labeled as another spoof (though Shaun was really more of a romantic comedy with blood thirsty creatures as the roadblock to eternal bliss), the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz was indeed more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limited what the amazing movie managed to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the trio of Pegg, Frost, and Wright struggled to transcend time and time again. The truth is, this film had much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented trio is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette. And they do so magnificently.
As the greatest horror film Hammer (or perhaps its wannabe competitor, Amicus) never made, Wright’s trailer for this fictional UK fright flick almost derailed the entire Grindhouse experience. While main auteurs Rodriguez and Tarantino were busy misinterpreting the concept of drive-in exploitation, he meticulously recreated the entire history of British terror in two masterful minutes. All the references are there - the Gothic manor, the weird characters, the decidedly ‘70s fashion sense (in and of itself pretty scary), the random unexplained “shocker” plot points. All that’s missing is any sense of smug superiority and you’d have a brilliant Monty Python meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre overview of English terror.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
As the first project approached that didn’t have his direct involvement in either the development or original idea (it’s all Bryan Lee O’Malley’s baby) Wright could have cashed a Hollywood paycheck and made a standard comic book adaptation. Sure, this graphic novel lacks super hero punch, but with its indebtedness to pop culture circa the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, there was lots of room left to fool around with form and function. So Wright went wild, recreating the look and feel of a video game experience as part of another reinterpretation of the RomCom. In the process, he feeds the geek need for product pitched directly at their aesthetic while highlighting a heartfelt touch re: young love and its confusing components. All pizzazz and flash aside, Wright wrings a lot of pathos out of his Pac-Man/Punch-Out paradigm. What we wind up with his eye popping, mind bending, and unbelievably cool.
// Notes from the Road
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