Once Upon a Pair of Wheels

Edgar Wright explains how a playlist powered the writing of one of the most kinetic, narratively rewarding films of his career, his new heist thriller Baby Driver.

©2017 TriStar Pictures
Lily James and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver.
June 30, 2017 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Edgar Wright

Writing great action on the page is a real art that only a handful of people can do really well and make it interesting.

The shiny, fast new movie Baby Driver, from director and first-time solo scripter Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), is embodied in its title character’s nimble, San Remo red Subaru WRX getaway car. It’s old, it’s new, it’s cool, and it’s not what anyone expected.

With all the easy, lazy choices for cars a filmmaker might pick to hype a hyper cool heist flick, Wright shows how it’s done with a whip only someone who knows their business would drive—a hot-rodded, 2006 Subaru Impreza WRX that has car geeks all over the Internet drooling on their laptops. But the car is just one of Wright’s perfect moves.

He also has one of the sickest soundtracks—a 30-song masterpiece mix tape as old as Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle and as new as Danger Mouse & Run the Jewels tailor-made cut Chase Me. Music was the original driver to this script, according to Wright. Each scene was meticulously choreographed around songs down to the minute—dialogue in verses, action in choruses. With all this cool going on, the story might not matter much, but it did to Wright, who toiled in the drafting process to give his characters depth and his arc real dramatic wallop. At narrative center is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a brilliant driver with a “hum in the drum” that has him perpetually in earbuds, allowing him to avoid interaction with the criminals he drives getaway for to repay a debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a crime boss with no tender spots. In a nod to the classics, the neo-Faustian Baby has made a deal even the best getaway artist can’t escape.

Wright spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website about the film’s long journey to production, how he used songs from the very beginning to outline this script, and why he was inspired by Tarantino, Peckinpah, and most of all, Walter Hill.

Step one in discussing this script has to be the music, the soundtrack. I understand that you actually wrote this script to a playlist.

Yeah. The initial premise was to have an action movie that’s driven by the music, and so even before I wrote the words when I was outlining I used some of the big songs. I had songs that I had thought of and figured would be used in the screenplay, in the film but also to actually design the sequences so they fit the songs perfectly. The idea was partly inspired by listening to the first song that’s in the movie and imagining a car chase…

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song?

Yes. So before I even wrote a word, I had eight or nine other songs that eventually would become 30 songs. But I had eight or nine of them plotted out almost as a beat sheet of what was going to happen in the scenes…so that was essentially me outlining, outlining with the songs and what happened in them, and then when I wrote the scenes in between I wouldn’t start writing a scene until I had the right song, basically.

The only thing that’s crazy is that this hasn’t happened before, to my knowledge. It makes sense, a script has beats, pacing—it’s a perfect structural device.

Yeah. And then within the songs themselves, the scenes can have something that’s perfectly in time with the music—so something happens during that part and then in the verse people are talking, then when the chorus kicks in a gunfight breaks out. So even in that regard I had to time the dialogue so that it would seem like it fit in-between. Once I’d done the first draft of the script, I actually did a read-through and I recorded it for my own purposes just to get a sense of whether the timing was right, because then I could actually cut the recording of the first read-through and sort of splice it into the songs to make sure that it was about the right length.

But I’d be incredibly fussy about it in the first draft. If I was writing a scene, say, this diner scene where Baby and Debora meet for the first time, and I want to use this Beach Boys track for it—The track is 2 ½ minutes long. So the scene should be 2 ½ pages long. It was a very strangely mathematical approach to it all. That was just the way of basically beating out the first draft, and all the other things became more organic later, but a lot of the songs never changed and a lot of the initial musical choreography never changed either.

And as fussy as you were, initially, in adhering to this kind of structure, did it in a way—

Let’s change fussy to precise.

Okay, fair enough. The headline will be “Hot Fussy.”

Yeah, “fussy”’s a bad word.

But as precise and exacting as you were in the beginning, did this make breaking the back of the script easier?

No, it was very hard. Somebody asked the other day, “What was the biggest challenge bringing the script to the screen?” and I said, “One of the big challenges was actually putting what was in my head down on the page.” Because I still can visualize it and hear it…As you well know, writing action is really difficult and just keeping the reader engaged is even more difficult, and a lot of people just speed read through stage directions or skip them entirely. So actually I think that writing great action on the page is a real art that only a handful of people can do really well and make it interesting.

Because there were some scenes with zero dialogue and just action, I had to find a way to make it jump off the page so that people understood the premise and that it wasn’t just the car chases, it was the car chase and the music together. So that was tricky and if you read the screenplay, the way action was written out was very precise and kept mentioning what the song was doing. There’s also a thing for writers, so a lot of people—Quentin Tarantino included—say you should never put the song in the script because you’re setting yourself up for a fall if you can’t clear it. However, in this case, I couldn’t really get the premise of the movie across without explaining what the song was. Later, when we delivered it to the actors to get the actors onboard, we actually made this special PDF that had the songs burned into it. So it was a PDF with this button. It was literally the logo of Baby and you would press the button and hear the song, because it was something you very much had to do, almost like a child’s reading book—say, “Okay, play this song and now read this,” because suddenly the action would jump off the page in a different way when you were listening to either the perfect accompaniment or some counter scoring.

You’re British, but you’ve got some deep cuts here, like T. Rex’s “Deborah…

That’s my third time using T. Rex in a movie.

You’re doubling it with the Beck “Debra”. It’s brilliant. On the Simon & Garfunkel title song, was that the source of the title character’s name from the start or did that come later?

It came pretty early. I don’t think it was the first idea. The idea of the initial visual was through listening to “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I imagined this dreamy car chase, and then I thought of the idea of a young getaway driver who has to listen to music to operate at his highest potential. Probably around that time I had the idea that it was called Baby Driver because I always liked that song. It doesn’t make really any reference to the lyrics of that song. When I listened to that song as a kid, when I was six years old, I never quite understood the lyrics…but I like that song a lot, and I was always intrigued by it. I thought it was a fun title because he’s basically the baby face of the group. Yeah, the idea sort of just kept developing over the years. Strangely enough, I had the idea way before the iPod. As a kid I never had a Walkman or anything. So it wasn’t until the iPod came out that I ever used headphones…

You just went straight from a stereo to an iPod?

Yeah, I would listen to the radio at home and audiocassettes and vinyl and then probably not until I left home to go to…I don’t think I got a CD player until I’d moved to London, in fact.

So are you like the Mark Ronson of film?


He’s kind of a vinyl collector, vintage—

Oh, I guess so. I mean, I’m a big fan of his. He’s seen the movie, actually, and he really enjoyed it. He came to the screening recently, so I take that as a compliment.

The script’s key dramatic engine here is Baby being trapped by his debt to Doc, and he drives to pay it off, but he thinks he can remain separate from the crimes he’s driving away from.

Yeah, that’s the premise of the movie, the question, “Can you be in crime without being criminal?” The answer, of course, is no, but at the start of the movie Ansel’s character, who’s very young, is fooling himself. He thinks, I’m in it for the buzz and paying off this debt but I’m not actually involved in the crime; and, of course, that’s not the way it goes, and that’s not the way that the courts will see it. He’s adopted a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to it, part of which is listening to the music and putting the sunglasses on—he’s literally trying to shrink into the background. He does his driving part but doesn’t want to be a party to everything else. The arc of the movie is, when you get to the second heist, the ugly realities of crime in terms of injuring the public or getting into battles with police or members of the public, or carjacking a car and it has a baby in the back—all of the things that are the trickier things that are not really in any of those…

Cool movies…

Cool movies or videogames for that matter. I just wanted to keep reminding you of the ugly realities of the job, and then when you get to the third heist where he’s doing it completely under duress, then your character who has so far tried to remain passive, is now going to have to make some life or death decisions. I just wanted to make it get tougher and tougher for our hero to A, extricate himself or B, just survive. I really had fun writing it. It kept deepening with each draft, putting him in situations where the only way out is [doing] something bad or something he does that he thinks is good ends up having a domino effect that causes something terrible to happen.

I’m sure you know the French film Breathless and the remake—

Oh, yeah. I like both of them, actually. I’m firmly in the pro-Jim McBride camp. I like the original Breathless, but I really like the Richard Gere Breathless, as well. I think it’s great, and I love the ending of the Richard Gere Breathless.

It’s so great and it’s totally different but there’s some reminiscent strain here.

I’ve been friends with him now for, I guess, 13 years and he was always very supportive of me doing the movie and, without going into too much detail, Quentin very much wanted me to make this film instead of a franchise movie. Walter Hill would be the other person that’s the most obvious influence, not just in terms of the movie because, obviously, The Driver is a big influence, but I got to say that Walter, as a screenwriter—his scripts for Alien and The Warriors and The Driver—the way he writes action is amazing, and he was beyond just a inspiration for his work onscreen. As a screenwriter, he’s incredible…I highly recommend, get a copy of The Driver screenplay because it’s beautiful. It’s like reading poetry.

When, where, and how do you write? What is your ritual or routine to get in your place for your writing?

With this one, I did it solo. It was actually a new routine. This was my first solo screenplay. Everything else I’ve written with people. It was tough for me because the main thing was just gearing up to write, and I do a lot of research that eventually becomes procrastination—on this movie it was reading, watching documentaries and interviewing ex-cons, I interviewed a lot of ex-cons and got lots of great stories. You’ve got to go out and get a coffee and read the Los Angeles Times and read all the crime stories and write things down. You’ve got to find the right music to write to. I’d drive around listening to the radio and then eventually get back in the afternoon, Okay, I’ve got to do four pages today. So I kind of had it outlined, and it didn’t come easily or quickly, but once I got into the groove, suddenly, you have one of those amazing days. You’re thinking, I am going to get to the end of the script today.

Watching old movies, old film noirs and gangster movies was really big one too.

God, this sounds like an incredible vacation. But I’m curious, a lot of screenwriters have said this, is that time watching films, reading the crime section, that so-called procrastination really where the writing is happening…?

Things start to seep into your skin, details come to you by osmosis. So there’s things that you specifically write down and there’s other things that just get lost in your brain and you think about it afterwards and you think, oh yeah, I guess John Hamm’s character is sort of an amalgam of those two different people—like a bank robber and a fraudster that I read about from two separate decades; and so I think there’s a lot of stuff that just seeps in and, yeah, I mean, it is a necessary step to do…Here I particularly watched older movies. I didn’t really watch any contemporary heist movies. I was watching the Warner Bros. gangster films and older film noir films and heist movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s, and they’re fantastic. It is reflected a little bit in the dialogue, because it’s so music heavy I wanted the dialogue to feel kind of like beat poetry, quite rhymey and everybody’s names are terms of affection and people are speaking in what sounds like song titles. I just wanted it have that rat-at-at feeling.

© 2017 Writers Guild of America West

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