Bang Bang Bang to the Beat: Edgar Wright on His Musical Approach to Action in Baby Driver
Edgar Wright and Ansel Elgort break down their fresh approach to action in the musically driven, pop-culture infused Baby Driver.
Edgar Wright’s films have been defined by their colorful absurdism and audacity, and Baby Driver, his latest genre spectacle, may be his most ambitious effort yet. Ansel Elgort stars as Baby, a gifted getaway driver who rocks out to groovy tunes as he zooms around the streets of Atlanta, keeping a revolving cast of killer crooks out harm’s way as they pull bank heists across the city.
The music constantly blasting in Baby’s ears is his life’s heartbeat; he’s been stricken with severe tinnitus since childhood and spends his days submerged in the music of artists like Queen, Isaac Hayes, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He doesn’t quite fit in with his criminal cohorts (played by the likes of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eliza Gonzalez, and Jon Bernthal), but he has the full confidence and protection of his crime-lord boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey). A pretty waitress (Lily James) gives Baby hope of a sunnier life beyond his current gig, but Doc’s got him on a short leash.
The film’s premise is expectedly silly considering Wright’s track record, but the action, drama, romance, and dialogue are as sophisticated and slick as anything he’s ever produced. What makes Baby Driver extraordinarily unique, however, is how the action -- car chases, gunfights and all -- is specifically choreographed to the songs on the wildly varied, uber-cool soundtrack. To call the movie a musical wouldn’t be a stretch.
In a roundtable conversation in San Francisco last month, we spoke with Wright and Elgort about the film’s unique approach to action and music, and much more.
This role fits you extremely well, Ansel. You’re a big, imposing guy, but you’re also very young and have a baby face, no pun intended. Baby feels out of place in the whole crime world milieu, and that dichotomy is represented perfectly in your physical appearance. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
Ansel: Getting the role meant a lot. I wanted to work with Edgar, and I loved the script so much. Edgar is so particular and deliberate in what he wants. One day, I want to direct, and it’s been such an honor working with him because I got to learn some of his tricks. While he is deliberate, he is also willing to mold his characters around the people he eventually casts. That goes for Jamie [Foxx] and Kevin [Spacey], too. The actors took his characters and made them their own, and Edgar allowed Baby to be really right for me.
Edgar: When I wrote the script, I wasn’t imagining anyone in particular. I didn’t imagine he looked like Ansel, and I certainly didn’t imagine he’d be as tall as Ansel. [laughs] But once you start doing it... I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. The role is written very specifically, but then he starts embodying the role.
Ansel: [Edgar] gave me a lot of opportunities to mold into Baby. We did weeks and weeks of prep. I did stuff with the dialect coach and the sign language coach, the choreographer and the stunt driver. I really got to feel like I was Baby, and while he’s not me, I used to dance, and I do love to make music, so it all worked out.
I’m curious about the editing of the film. You’re syncing up gunshots to the beat of the music in some parts. How easy or difficult was it to put those pieces together in the editing room?
Edgar: The trick is that it’s not put together in the editing room -- it’s done in the choreography. When you watch movie trailers and they cut gunshots together with the beat of the music, that’s done in the edit. But this was done in-shot because the songs themselves are the ones we played on the day, so we cleared all of the music before we started filming, and we rehearsed with all of the music.
When there are those moments -- particularly the gunfights -- when the gunshots are in time with the drums or in time with the guitar, you’re building up to that point where you know that [you’ve got] the sequence. When you’re working with the actors and the stunt people and choreographing the sequence, you know that the drum solo in “Tequila” is only so long, so in fact, we drew it out and planned it out and made a video of it in almost exactly the same timeframe that’s in the film. It’s not something where you’re shooting loads and loads of stuff and seeing how it fits together. It’s like, this shot is “bang-bang, bang-bang”, and this shot is “bang-bang, bang-bang-bang”.
It’s like a little jigsaw you’re putting together. There are bits like the scene where Jon Hamm is firing his assault rifle in time with “Hocus Pocus”, and Jon is actually doing that. The tricky thing with that is, in most cases, with the music, you can play the music during filming. Ansel would have it in his ears, or you can play it [on speakers]. When guns become involved, you can’t hear anything. In that case, the choreographer would have to give people counts, or the stuntman would say, “Your bit is, ‘bang-bang, bang-bang-bang’!” and then the actors [would have to fire their guns in rhythm]. It’s crazy.
In terms of the editing, Paul Machliss, one of my editors, was on set the entire time, editing the scenes together. Sometimes, at the end of the day, he’d say, “Come see what we’ve got so far,” and you’d be able to watch the sequence, which was pretty amazing.
Edgar, you said you’d been planning this movie for years and years. Were there any songs you had in mind at the beginning but then heard in other movies in subsequent years and thought, “I can’t do that now, that song’s been taken!”
Edgar: That does happen but I don’t think there was anything I had to change because it was in something else. I think a Nike campaign used “Hocus Pocus” and I was like, grr! [laughs] Earlier this year, I had a conversation with James Gunn over text, and I said I wanted to know what his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 soundtrack was, to make sure none of the songs were in Baby Driver. We had this very cagey, funny conversation with each other. He said, “Do you use ELO?” I said, “No. Do you use Queen?” He said, “No.” We went through it and said, I don’t think we have any of the same tracks. [laughs]
I think Quentin Tarantino said something like, whoever used the track best, last, owns the track. In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy uses a song that’s in Reservoir Dogs, but a lot of kids know that song from Guardians who haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs. I wasn’t that nervous about any tracks I had in the movie. Like, no one had use “Bellbottoms” in a movie, ever. So it’s like, I’m claiming that one! But the greatest tracks can be used in lots of different ways.
Queen has sort of become a signature for you.
Edgar: I know. I think I’ve used Queen in three different movies and T-Rex in three different movies.
The action sequences are obviously spectacular and so carefully choreographed like you said. But I like the sort of subtly choreographed scenes as well, like when Ansel and Lily are twirling around each other in the laundromat. Was every scene in the movie choreographed with that high level of detail?
Ansel: Yes. Whenever you have music, [there’s choreography]. Even subtle things. We had the choreographer there every day, even on days where he had to do very little. “You’re sitting at the sewing machine, you’re tapping your foot. Maybe you look here, maybe you look there.” He was always there to help us choreograph. And yes, in the laundromat scene, every step was figured out. We went to that location where we shot probably about a week beforehand and did a rehearsal.
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