Bang Bang Bang to the Beat: Edgar Wright on His Musical Approach to Action in Baby Driver

Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver (IMDB)

Edgar Wright and Ansel Elgort break down their fresh approach to action in the musically driven, pop-culture infused Baby Driver.

Baby Driver

US Release: 2017-06-28
UK Release: 2017-06-28
Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2017

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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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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