WASHINGTON — From “Hot Fuzz” to “Shaun of the Dead,” his flair for stylized violence and slick comedy has defined 21st century cool for a generation of millennial cult followers.
But British writer/director Edgar Wright just keeps getting better, as evidenced by his latest action flick “Baby Driver,” which is one of the most fun and finely-crafted movies of the year.
“On paper, it’s an action heist movie, but the hero is aspiring to have a regular life, so it’s almost the reverse of ‘Goodfellas,'” Wright told WTOP. “In ‘Goodfellas,’ you start with a teen who wants to be a gangster. In this, you start with a gangster who wants to be a Regular Joe.”
The film follows Baby (Ansel Elgort), an agile-beyond-his-years getaway driver for criminal kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), who hires him to squeal wheels for a team of bank robbers: silent-but-deadly Buddy (Jon Hamm), scandalous Darling (Eiza González) and trigger-happy Bats (Jamie Foxx). Can Baby escape his life of crime to elope with waitress Debora (Lily James)?
“I’ve had the idea for like 22 years,” Wright said. “I was listening to the first track, ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and thought, ‘This would make a great car-chase song.’ So, literally from listening to that song, I would visualize that sequence, then I would think about the character who would fit that. Then I came up with the idea: What if he’s a getaway driver who listens to music? It wasn’t until later that I put the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle together when I was reading Oliver Sacks’ book ‘Musicophilia’ about the condition of tinnitus.”
Tinnitus is a hearing condition plaguing Baby since childhood, when a loud car crash killed both of his parents. As a result, he constantly listens to loud music in earbuds to drown out the ringing in his ears, creating various iPod playlists and cassette mixtapes to fit each mood.
“I used to have attacks when I was 7 or 8,” Wright said. “I had to have my ear syringed. It was extremely painful and would keep me up at night. … I never thought of listening to music as a way of drowning out the tinnitus. … In action films, you always have that strong, silent type, but in this movie, you have a reason why he does that. … It just makes you think about your relationship to sound and music, and how much some people need music in their lives.”
Indeed, “Baby Driver” follows in the great tradition of wall-to-wall soundtracks, from George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973) to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Wright mines an eclectic mix of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver,” Martha & The Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” and Steve Miller’s “Threshold,” aka the lead-in to “Jet Airliner.”
“My relationship to music is similar to Baby’s in that I use it to motivate, inspire and galvanize me,” Wright said. “We’re listening to the songs on set. All of the music was clear before we started shooting, so you could rehearse it with the actors, choreographer and stunt guys.”
Not only are the song selections killer, they’re directed and edited in a way that each song beat matches a beat of action, turning over-the-top violence into a stylized bloody ballet.
“It’s very precise,” Wright said. “In the parking lot sequence to [Focus’] ‘Hocus Pocus,’ you know this is a guitar bit, so he’s running; now there’s this accordion breakdown, so he’s breaking into a car; now there’s this other guitar bit, so now he’s driving; now there’s this flute solo so they’re firing [weapons] in time with the music. You basically break it down like a beat sheet.”
You’ll watch in jaw-dropped awe as Jon Hamm fires bullets in perfect time with the guitar riff.
“Most of the time, you can play the music out loud, but when you’ve got a blank-firing gun, it will wipe out the sound of any playback,” Wright said. “You basically had to teach Jon’s beats: ‘You come out and go bang-bang-bang-bang-bang … bang-bang-bang-bang-bang … bang-bang … bang… bang-bang. … In theory, you could cheat and, in editing, tweak the timing, but we did it for real on set. That’s something that really works for the movie: Things are always on beat.”
The mastery is only strained once: the final showdown set to Queen’s “Brighton Rock,” which goes on too long. No matter; such minute flaws are dwarfed by the more poetic moments, such as Ansel entering Debora’s diner to Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up.”
“During the [song] intro, Ansel closes his car door and opens two diner doors timed with the track,” Wright said. “It’s all building in one [continuous] shot. Ansel’s sitting in the car and it’s like: ‘First bass, get out; second bass, open the outer door; third bass, open the inner door.'”
Still, the trickiest long-take comes at the film’s outset. After the rousing pre-credits action sequence, Wright uses a 3 1/2 minute Steadicam shot set to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” as Baby dons his earbuds to fetch a round of coffee for his team of veteran bank robbers.
“It was on the first day of the shoot, so it was the first slate we did,” Wright said. “In 10 hours, we shot 28 takes — and we used Take 21. … In the pre-credits sequence, you’ve [already] seen Ansel be this badass getaway driver, then immediately afterward, just to compound the idea that he’s a young apprentice, you see that it’s also his job to go get the coffees! So I love this idea of seeing your amazing, fearless getaway driver is also the gopher on the coffee run.”
Of course, none of this would work without the right star in Elgort, who slinks down the street and into his apartment, swinging from a chin-up bar in his kitchen. Until now, he’s shined as Shailene Woodley’s screen partner in “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014) and “Divergent” (2014-2017), but “Baby Driver” gives Elgort what “Drive” (2011) gave Ryan Gosling: the driver’s seat.
“The first question you get asked by the studio is: ‘Who’s going to play Baby?'” Wright said. “Ansel was one of the first people who came up, one of the first people I met, and after a couple [times] reading the role with him, I thought, ‘This is the guy!’ He’s very charismatic, he can really hold the camera, and on top of that, he’s got a musical background; he can play instruments, he can dance, he’s done some action. … He actually does a lot of his own stunts.”
While Elgort shows a cooler side than his prior Young Adult fare, Lily James shows a different side from Disney’s “Cinderella” (2015). While the bank robbers mock Baby for his portable recorder, Debora grabs it and plays along, recording flirty bytes while taking his food order.
“Lily James is just the heart of the movie,” Wright said. “Lily is such a great, empathetic, emotional actor that you just completely fall for her. With her and Ansel, having these two young leads, they treat the romantic story very sincerely. You really buy into it because they did [as actors], and I think the way they play those scenes is really affecting and sweet.”
For the rest of the cast, Wright shows fresh sides to famous faces. Is that Frank Underwood in “House of Cards?” Is that Don Draper in “Mad Men?” Is that Ray Charles in “Ray?” Think again.
“The thing that Jamie, Kevin and Jon have in common is they’re all very charming performers,” Wright said. “[It’s] really just setting you up for a false sense of security. They’re all very bad guys and Baby is very much in a nest of vipers. So I like this idea of having these extremely well-known, charismatic performers that you think you might know, then they reveal their true depths of how menacing they can be. It’s a really nice trick to play on the audience.”
Playing with audience expectations has been Wright’s auteur trademark for the past 25 years.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to tell these original twists on established genres,” Wright said. “You dream up these movies and think, ‘I have to make this to get it out of my head.’ … So it’s really just a persistence of vision. … What’s nice is a lot of people have commented that ‘Baby Driver’ is a departure or surprise from me. … The irony is that this idea existed before ‘Shaun of the Dead’ or ‘Spaced,’ so if I get the opportunity, I’d love to keep doing original movies.”
Yes, Wright always keeps us guessing, defying anyone to put him in a genre box.
Forget Baby; nobody puts Edgar in the corner.
This movie is rated on a 4-star scale. Listen below to our full conversation with “Baby Driver” writer/director Edgar Wright:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Edgar Wright (Full Interview)