Long before Edgar Wright was crafting his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, the English writer/director was just a movie nerd pondering a possible picture about a getaway driver whose life–and high-speed chases–move in tune with the songs playing in his head. Decades and several hit films later, Wright has at long last brought this dream project to life, unveiling Baby Driver to an eager audience at SXSW. Hours before the action/musical’s world premiere at the posh Paramount Theater in Austin, Wright sat before a room packed with reporters to share the origin and secrets of his new film.
Baby Driver stars Ansel Elgort as a baby-faced, music-fueled getaway driver, who is at the top of his game, and a tipping point in his life of crime. A romance with a charming waitress (Cinderella‘s Lily James) urges him to go legit. But first he must pull off one last heist with a reckless band of robbers played by the ever-suave Jon Hamm, a sultry Eiza González, a mercurial Jaime Foxx, and mastermind Kevin Spacey.
“I had the germ of this movie rattling around in my head for a long time,” Wright confessed to a rapt audience. The timeline of Baby Driver‘s creation begins 22 years ago, in Wright’s bedroom where he was daydreaming while listening to the John Spencer Explosion track “Bellbottoms,” which scores the first of several jaw-dropping chase scenes in his latest daring spectacle. As Wright recalled:
“I just listened to that song over and over again, and I just thought, ‘That would make a great car chase song.’ I sort of started to visualize the car chase to that song. I didn’t really have what the rest of the idea was. And then I started to think of the idea of a getaway driver that cannot really operate without the right music playing, like a soundtrack.”
Thus, Baby Driver was born. But the idea germinated for years and years, as Wright made his way in Hollywood. It wasn’t until he and his producing partners Nira Park and Eric Fellner began planning for a movie beyond The World’s End that Wright buckled in, and started writing his long-pondered passion project. He soon realized that a film centered on music-driven car chases couldn’t be set in London, where the streets have been purposely structured away from such chaos. So, when he began crafting the script in 2010, Wright set his story in Los Angeles. But as the project geared up for production, Atlanta, Georgia proved a more accessible and inviting location, where the state’s filmmaking infrastructure was more willing to work with Wright’s wild ideas. (More on that below.) So, he visited the bustling metropolis and revised to work with its unique concrete jungle.
In 2011, Wright gave his concept a test run within the music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”. Wright mentally scored the film as he wrote its script, working lyrics into dialogue, and penning action to guitar riffs. At the Q&A following the premiere, González recounted how she was even advised to listen to these tracks as she read the script to get a fuller idea of her director’s daring vision. Table reads began in 2012, and Wright was eager to get Mad Men star Hamm in place as the debonair bank robber called Buddy. “Jon is actually the only person I wrote with in mind,” Wright shared of his casting. “I did a read through in 2012, Jon Hamm was the only person at the table who is still here playing the same part.”
Casting Baby was tougher, because it was crucial that a young, fresh-faced ingendude be selected. Enter The Fault in Our Stars‘ Elgort, who became Wright’s favorite for the role from his first audition. As the filmmaker explained:
“Not just because he is a great actor, and a real charisma, and he’s a big music fan and plays music, but also because he is genuinely young. His presence as a young actor–he was 20 and turned 21 on set–it works into the premise of the movie, as you have this young apprentice to this gang. Within the movie, what it becomes about is he is on the bubble about whether he wants to be involved in this life or not. So at the start of the movie, the character of Baby is someone who is working within a gang, but does not necessarily see himself as part of the gang. So the question of the movie is, ‘can you be involved in crime without being a criminal?’ The answer is no. As you will discover over 130 minutes.”
From there, Wright felt blessed by when Oscar-winners Foxx and Spacey signed on, commenting on their cool and mesmerizing onscreen charisma. “Kevin and Jamie and Jon were there for the entire shoot and really felt like an ensemble,” he marveled.
But the most crucial bit of production was blending practical stunt work with the musicality demanded of the premise. Unlike many big budget productions, Baby Driver‘s car chase scenes were shot on location, with the actors whenever possible. “A lot of contemporary action films the main cast may not be anywhere near the car chase,” Wright elucidated, “The second unit will shoot the chase and they’ll green screen in the actors later. We didn’t do that to the raised eyebrows of some production people: ‘You want to do this for real?’ Because it’s incredibly arduous, because you shoot the main stunts, and then you get the actors in and do it all again with all the continuity cars.” But for Wright, there was no other way:
“I wanted it to feel as real as possible. I think there are real visceral pleasures to watching a somewhat real car chase and that’s what we tried to do–real fast driving and real amazing stunt work happening, and on residential streets as well. The other thing that makes them extra challenging, we did all the car chases in the day. A lot of the time you see them at night because it’s easier, because you can close the roads. But we did these on weekdays in Atlanta instead of weekends on the freeway. So that added a huge organizational challenge on the stunts and location departments. But it just looks more vivid. And also banks are open during the day, they’re not open at night. Sort of a no brainer.”
To give these sequences an added authenticity, Wright tapped real experts so he could appropriately storyboard these stunts:
” I actually interviewed several ex-cons, including some ex-getaway drivers. And part of the plan is to blend in as quickly as you can. In a lot of action films, a lot of guys are driving muscle cars or vintage cars whereas in reality a lot of getaway drivers would actually choose like commuter cars and find a way to blend into freeway traffic as quickly as possible. There’s nods to that kind of technique in the movie, being in a car that can blend in, getting on the off ramp, switching the car, disappearing in a different car or cars rather than being in like a limited edition muscle car in hot pink muscle car. Though we have one of those later as well!”
All the action in the film–even a jaunty coffee run–has the feel of a dance to it, thanks to heralded choreographer Ryan Heffington, whose famously devised the dances of a string of striking Sia music videos. And Wright worked out several ways to allow actors to perform to the diegetic music. “He’s the hottest choreographer right now,” Wright said of Huffington, adding:
“But he worked with the actors and the stunt guys, so it became an amalgam of a great stunt team lead by Darren Prescott working with Ryan and the actors. So you get every sort of different form of action to the music. The practical application of that, if there was no dialogue, you could play the music out loud. If there was dialogue you could wear earwigs where maybe Ansel can hear the song and the camera operator can hear the song and I can hear the song but the others can’t. And then sometimes there were bits like the things in the scene were so loud, like cars and guns, that the actors learned their parts by counts. It’s not something where the footage is edited to the music after the fact, the action is performed to the music (like a dance number).”
As important music is to Baby Driver, Wright chaffed at calling the movie a musical:
“It’s like a character study that becomes an action film. We’ve all seen a million heist films, but I love the idea of seeing it almost entirely from his perspective. There’s not a scene without (Baby) in it. I love the idea that it almost starts as a character study, then morphs into something increasingly intense heist thriller. If Blockbuster still existed, I think it would probably be in the action section or the thriller section. It’s funny in places but it is a crime/action/thriller. But there are elements of my other movies in there. And in fact, almost the entire movie is born out of doing sequences I’ve in my other films and TV work, of doing scenes choreographed to music. I always had so much fun doing those sequences, that I basically came up with this movie to have a way to do that for an entire film, essentially. It is a movie that is heavily sound and music-centric, so the action and the drama is choreographed to the music. But also in a way that it’s not score laid on. The main character is listening to the tracks in the movie, so it is diegetic musical in a way in the terms of he is listening to the sounds we hear. We are essentially seeing it through the main character’s ears.”
Less important that its label is how Baby Driver will make audiences feel. For Wright, that’s the key thing. “I wanted people to feel what it would be like to be a getaway driver and in the middle of a pursuit with the police,” he enthused. “Not everyone fantasizes about robbing a bank, but I think a lot fantasize about being in a high speed chase. The movie is about is how the dream of that quickly becomes the nightmare of that.”
Before the event drew to a close, Wright ran his fingers through his floppy dark locks and relished, “It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” He smiled, “In this day and age, making original films at a studio is a rarity, so I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to make one….So that’s it. That’s the timeline: 22 years ago in my bedroom and then tonight at the Paramount.”