Director Edgar Wright's Epic 'Pilgrim'-age The British director speaks with Fresh Air's Dave Davies about his new film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the graphic comic series by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Wright also directed the parody romantic zombie film Shaun of the Dead and the British TV sit-com, Spaced.
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Director Edgar Wright's Epic 'Pilgrim'-age

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Director Edgar Wright's Epic 'Pilgrim'-age

Director Edgar Wright's Epic 'Pilgrim'-age

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Our guest, British film director, Edgar Wright, made a splash with his 2004 comedy about a zombie attack called Shaun of the Dead. He followed that with Hot Fuzz, an offbeat buddy cop spoof set in rural England. Wrights new film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is a visually innovative adaptation of a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley. The film mixes live action with onscreen graphics and sound effects that evoke pop culture references ranging from Super Mario Bros to Seinfeld.

The film is set in Toronto, where a 22-year-old slacker and bass player named Scott Pilgrim falls for a girl named Ramona Flowers. But he discovers that to win her heart he must battle her exes. The fight sequences are a mix of video game action and funny dialogue.

Edgar Wright spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

Lets start with a scene from the film. Scott, played by Michael Cera, is talking about his love life with his roommate Wallace, played by Kieran Culkin.

(Soundbite of movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)

Mr. MICHAEL CERA (Actor): (as Scott Pilgrim) Why does everything have to be so complicated?

Mr. KIERAN CULKIN (Actor): (as Wallace Wells) If you want something bad you have to fight for it. Step up your game, Scott. Break out the L word.

Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Lesbian?

Mr. CULKIN: (as Wallace Wells) The other L word.

Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Lesbians?

Mr. CULKIN: (as Wallace Wells) Its love, Scott. I wasnt trying to trick you. Hey buddy, look, if she really is the girl of youre dreams, then you have to let her know. You have to overcome and all obstacles that lie in your path. You can do it. Be with her. Its your destiny. Plus, I need you to move out.

Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) What?

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Edgar Wright, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. EDGAR WRIGHT (Author): Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: This movie is really fun. And let me just describe what we see early in the film. We see Scott Pilgrim, this 22-year-old man whos living in Toronto and plays in a band and has an apartment he shares with a friend. And we look at his apartment, and when the phone rings the letter R-r-i-n-g exclamation point come spinning out of the phone into the air, like in a cartoon. And when we're looking at his apartment, little pop-ups come up explaining, you know, who the lamp belongs to and whether the computer is Scotts or his roommates, things like that. When someone kisses, little pink hearts float into the screen.

Whats going on here? What are you doing there?

Mr. WRIGHT: Its based on a graphic novel which kind of has a lot of those onomatopoeic sound effects in - within the comic book art. And usually when people do comic book adaptations or even adaptations of video games as films, they tend to kind of like jettison all of the visual tropes and iconography that like make sort of comics and games particularly memorable. Like the things that we know about kind of comic books is that there are sound effects and panels and sometimes theres like negative space. And so because its a comedy and because theres a feeling of this young man of 22 has a very overactive imagination, that it felt right to me that youre seeing the kind of a film that's in his brain rather than any semblance of reality.

DAVIES: Right. And its also has a very rich audio mix. Talk about some of the sounds in there that we're maybe not even aware of as we hear them.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, aside from the music, theres a lot of sound effects, I mean, in a similar way to kind of the visual presentation. You are sort of seeing the kind of inner workings of Scott Pilgrims brain in the sense of the pop culture and media and technology that hes grown up with, you know, in his life. And in a way, its a representation of some of the pop culture and technology of the last 30 years. So throughout the film you hear a lot of computer sounds, everything from like PCs to Macs to Nintendo sounds to sounds from old Sega games.

And I put them in there to kind of, you soundtrack something thats happening on screen, so when Scott Pilgrim does something wrong, you hear the Mac error sound. And I wanted to kind of invoke a Pavlovian response in the viewer that they, when they hear the Mac error sound they think theyve done something wrong, or when he does something kind of destructive you hear the Mac trash sound kind of buried in the mix. And its funny, I think for a certain sort of generation, like some of those sounds are just, you know, like air. You know, its just things that we hear everyday. So I like this idea of like using these little audio kind of like buttons to kind of soundtrack the film.

DAVIES: You know, there is a story here, of course, and this character Scott Pilgrim, its drawn from the graphic novel by Bryan Lee OMalley. But theres a point in the film at which, you know, hes in a band and hes dating this, hes in love with this young woman, Ramona Flowers, and then he suddenly discovers he has to battle her exes in order to win her heart. But theres a moment at which the film suddenly takes this leap and he engages in a fight, and he and his, you know, rival are throwing each other through the air, off of buildings, through walls and it really departs it really takes a leap into fantasy. And I'm picturing you describing this to some middle-aged studio executives...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: ...and convincing them its going to work. What does that sound like?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, the irony is is that the book was brought to me like in 2004, by the studio, essentially. So, you know, we had the book, so we had the kind of artwork and they'd seen my previous work and theres a level of like magic realism in my previous work in terms of if theres a thread between the two films that I've done before and the TV series Spaced that I did with Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, you know, theres definitely a feeling of like everymen characters being thrown into a slightly fantastical world. And I think Scott Pilgrim takes it much further. So the tricky thing with the studio was just actually selling what it would look like and how we would pull off those fights.

And it definitely sort of - theres a point in the film where it kind of leaves planet Earth. And to me, that was the most ambitious and risky thing about it, but also the most exciting because it was, people complain so much about most films being generic. And I thought, well, this is something where the level of reality is going to feel really unique and different. And it almost plays one of the reasons one of the ways I described like the fights is that I said it should be an action film thats kind of like a musical, is that the fight should be like production numbers, meaning people break...

Mr. WRIGHT: of the ways I described like the fights is that I said it should be an action film thats kind of like a musical, is that the fight should be like production numbers, meaning people break into fights like they break into song in old MGM musicals. So, I essentially said it was somewhere between the Matrix and Grease.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WRIGHT: That was my pitch.

DAVIES: Right. Unlike West Side Story, where when a fight is over the villain doesnt burst into a shower of coins, like it does in this film, which is one of the terrific effects that you see.

Mr. WRIGHT: I'm sure if Robert Wise had that, like, visual effects in the mid-50s he would have done exactly the same thing.

DAVIES: Now, theres a moment in the film, and I'm not worried about giving too much of this away to the audience because when they see it itll still be amazing to see. But there's a moment in the film where, maybe a third of the way through, and we're approaching the door to his one-room apartment and we hear the little four-note bass line from the Seinfeld series.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah.

DAVIES: And then we go in the apartment and for the next three or four minutes, theres a studio laugh track, and whenever a new character comes in the door theres a little applause, and they're sort of acting like Seinfeld and its just hilarious.

But it occurred to me as watched that that thats the kind of idea that could really work or could be utterly contrived and lame. How do you figure out whats going to work? Do you test it with your friends? Do you just trust your own sensibility?

Mr. WRIGHT: I tend to just kind of go for it. I mean, something like this film is a real high-wire act in terms of its, you know, its definitely got like a go for broke kind of sense of insanity about it. But in a way, in terms of trying to kind of explain kind of whats happening in that scene, again, I thought the, and when we first came up that, because thats something thats not in the books; although, there was a thing in the books in the previous scene where you saw Scott and Ramona kissing on a bus and Bryan Lee OMalley, the artist, had drawn a sign that said, studio audience, and ah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: And I thought that was really funny. And so I thought well then, the next scene, when he comes back to his roommate and hes bragging about the fact that he made out with this girl the previous night, he should walk into the room like Fonzie or like Kramer. And he should be so kind of like full of, you know, he comes back to brag to his roommate and he walks through the door like hes king of the world.

So that was where the idea of taking the sitcom thing a little further to have, you know, and Kramer particularly kind of used to have an entrance where the audience would burst into rapturous applause. And I figured that thats what Scott Pilgrim is thinking inside his own head is that, I'm like, I'm Arthur Fonzarelli right now. I have my own, you know, kind of wave of adulation from the studio audience.

DAVIES: A lot of the amazing visual stuff clearly was added after you shot it on the set, I mean, the actors are doing this. And what I'm wondering is, were the images that we see on the film, were they in your head as you were shooting or were you the kind of artist who starts something and then kind of lets the images, in effect, take you to a place that maybe you hadn't anticipated?

Mr. WRIGHT: No, kind of on the contrary. And this is purely because it was a very ambitious project to put together and shoot, was that we prepared everything. We sort of designed everything with storyboards and, you know, a lot of those graphics were already drawn. And actually, theres only one scene in the film where the actors were having to react to something that wasnt there. For the most part, like, theyre on physical sets and, you know, or locations. And even when there were graphics, we could actually show them what they were going to see because sometimes we can actually compose the shot on film, but on the video monitor actually have the graphic up on screen.

So in that case, and we did a lot of kind of test animation. And say for instance, there's a sword fight where one of the swords is kind of is pixilated, and thats an effect that youre not going until its all finished, but Jason Schwartzman had a sword in his hand and Michael Cera has a sword in his hand, so they're still fighting. And I just tried to do as much to let the actors be able to visualize it even as we're shooting.

So, even down to the thing of, say in the sword fight, we had kind of flashbulbs that I set off every time the two swords connected. So for the actors, even they're essentially doing like a play fight with kind of fake swords, there's this physical thing happening every time that they press their swords together. And so, I tried to take it away from that thing where, you know, you get films that are completely shot on a green screen and people are acting against tennis balls on the end of a stick, and I think 99 percent of the time that results in bad performances.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: So, I tried to kind of give the actors as much to go on so they could know what world they were in so that they could adjust their performance accordingly.

DAVIES: Our guest is film director Edgar Wright. He directed the new film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Well talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, our guest is film director Edgar Wright. His new film is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

I wanted to talk about the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead, which is a zombie film set in suburban England, a world that you knew well. You wrote this with your friend Simon Pegg, whos the lead actor in the film. Where did the idea come from? What was going to be funny about flesh-eating zombies?

Mr. WRIGHT: That film is really like a love-hate letter to London in a way because we both lived in the city and its about a character stuck in a rut, but theres also a feeling and the center joke of the film is it was not entirely clear in London which members of the city were living or dead.

And certainly having lived in London and this goes for any big city, I think - is that you could go through an entire day and not have any human connection with anybody. And Shaun was a character who was just drifting through life and is the last to know that theres been a zombie outbreak. So, it was kind of funny and also sort of like in some ways a comment on society in terms of, you know, that people in cities walk past kind of like the sort of the homeless guy, you know, walk past people who are in distress and kind of walk around with their blinkers on and, you know, dont know that something bad is happening until its too late.

And Shaun is somebody who eventually kind of has his kind of moment as a hero, but hes kind of shaken out of his mid-20s life crisis by the zombie outbreak. So even though its kind of like a pretty crazy comedy, for me and Simon, it was quite personal in a lot of ways.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to listen to one scene from this. This is a moment thats actually quite late in the film where Shaun, our character played by Simon Pegg, is with Liz, whos played by Kate Ashfield, and theyve been fighting off zombies the whole film. They're now surrounded and in a hopeless position. And theyd been dating but Liz had actually broken up with him the day before. He sort of redeemed himself by showing courage and resourcefulness through the fight, but now the game is up, the zombies are closing in. They have a shotgun with two shells left and decide that they're going to finish each other off. And lets listen.

(Soundbite of movie, Shaun of the Dead)

Mr. SIMON PEGG (Actor): (as Shaun) How are we going to do this?

Ms. KATE ASHFIELD (Actor): (as Liz) I dont know. One of us has to go first.

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) Well, maybe one should do the other and then do themselves.

Ms. ASHFIELD: (as Liz) Or, maybe you should do me. Ill only muck it up if I have to do myself.

(Soundbite of mimicked gunshot sounds)

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) Yeah. I dont think I've got it in me to shoot my flat mate, my mom and my girlfriend all in the same evening.

Ms. ASHFIELD: (as Liz) Oh, why should I have taken you back?

Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) You dont want to die single, do you?

DAVIES: And thats from the film Shaun of the Dead, directed by our guest Edgar Wright.

You know, I read that Quentin Tarantino, I think saw it and became a fan and really wanted to help you. Tell me a little bit about that relationship, how you met and what you did together.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, the nicest introduction is kind of, in this business, are through your own work. And he was a big fan of Shaun of the Dead and, you know, I was a huge fan of his. So, yeah, one of the nicest things about making that film was the world getting a little smaller all of a sudden and getting to meet a lot of my heroes and even in some cases collaborating them, because I did one of the trailers for Quentin and Robert Rodriguezs film Grindhouse.

But its something that like, you know, the British film industry isn't that big, so it was nice kind of like coming to Hollywood and meeting a lot of your heroes and being able to kind of pick their brains. And certainly, with Scott Pilgrim, before and after the film I, you know, sought the advice of people that I respected.

DAVIES: Did Quentin Tarantino have you live in his place for a while, while you were polishing the script to...



Mr. WRIGHT: Not as a kept man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: Like, he didnt have me I wasnt a prisoner. Now, I did stay there for a little bit in his guesthouse when I was - after Hot Fuzz. You know, I wanted to write in Los Angeles and he offered that I could stay there and write, which was great actually because I can never write at home. I've never been able to do it in my own apartment and somehow I could write in his apartment, so it was actually, you know, had a definitely a lucky feeling to it because I wrote a whole of stuff when I was staying there.

DAVIES: You can't write at home. Where do you write, an office?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. With Simon, we rent an office and come into work cause I think the thing is you have to arrange to meet somebody if youre writing together. I think if you do it in each other's apartments theres always some kind of errand or some kind of time wasting excuse of like I can't come right now because. But if you say Ill see you at 9:30 tomorrow at the office, theres no getting around that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: The Scott Pilgrim film has been well-received by critics. But a couple have said that its maybe one or two fight scenes too long. And Shaun of the Dead certainly had some has a lot of violence in it, a lot of fun, but violence. And Hot Fuzz ends with a long series of gun battles...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: this country village. It makes me wonder, are you ever going to resolve some things with like a drink and a conversation or a tearful parting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: Its funny. I mean, I think probably as a fan of like genre cinema, I've certainly held my hands out as being guilty of going as far over the top as I possibly can. I basically keep going until the time and the money runs out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: So I think - and its funny, actually doing Scott Pilgrim, its interesting doing test screenings with cold audiences is you have to kind of find that balance of comedy and action. And in some cases, actually, the fights were longer in Scott Pilgrim and we sort of timed them up because I realize as a fan of like Hong Kong cinema, that I can happily sit through a 20 minute fight scene, whereas, not all Western audiences will be able to kind of face that.

But, you know, personally, you know, I like watching that stuff, if I'm being honest.

DAVIES: Okay. Well, Edgar Wright, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Edgar Wright directed the new film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

You'll find links to clips from the film, as well as excerpts of the graphic novel its based on, on our website,

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