Pilgrim's Progress: Cult director Edgar Wright guides Michael Cera in genre-bending comic romp
After the one-two punch of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz made him an international superstar in the world of geek cinema, it was only a matter of time until British filmmaker Edgar Wright went Hollywood. But Wright being Wright, he's managed to “sell out” without losing an ounce of his hard-earned cult cred. His first studio feature, the Universal Pictures-backed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, isn't a sequel or a remake—instead, it's a highly stylized adaptation of an independently published comic book with a small but intensely passionate fan base.
"It's a film that isn’t quite like anything else," says the 36-year-old Dorset-born director, speaking on his cell-phone from a car bound for Los Angeles International Airport, where he'll be boarding an evening flight back to London. "In Hollywood, they always encourage you to say a film is like X-meets-Y, so I always came up with some kind of bullshit for those meetings. Things like 'It's Cameron Crowe meets Five Deadly Venoms' or 'It's Ferris Bueller meets Kill Bill.' Actually, I always wanted to say that it's like Kung Fu Hustle meets Phantom of the Paradise, but if I had, people would have been like, 'Wait, what?'"
Studio suits may not have been the right crowd for that kind of pitch, but there's definitely an audience for a movie that promises to fuse Stephen Chow's cartoony gangster flick with Brian De Palma's kooky rock musical. In fact, many of them were probably in attendance at a special Los Angeles Film Festival event held the night before this interview, where Wright showed nine minutes of footage from Scott Pilgrim and then submitted himself to a thorough grilling by fellow geek icon J.J. Abrams. "It was amazing," Wright says of the previous evening's festivities. "I kind of wish the Q&A had gone on longer—even though it was already two-and-a-half hours! I felt like J.J. and I could have geeked out for twice that length.”
Abrams is only the latest member of Hollywood's nerd royalty that Wright has befriended; he's also good pals with fanboy favorites (and personal heroes) Quentin Tarantino and Joe Dante. "Meeting these guys is one of the most amazing things that's happened to me in my life. You could pretty much learn everything about film history by talking with Quentin and Joe for a couple of hours. Between the two of them, you've got two walking cinema encyclopedias, Joe for the ’50s and ’60s and Quentin for the ’70s and ’80s. I always say that the two of them should go on a college tour together—maybe with Martin Scorsese as well."
Wright has absorbed enough from his filmmaker friends—not to mention his own extensive research—to lead a few seminars himself. (In fact, he's hosted special screenings of cult favorites at L.A.'s famed New Beverly Cinema and also curated a film series entitled "The Wright Stuff" at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto while shooting Scott Pilgrim there earlier this year.) His fascination with cult cinema started early; growing up in the pre-Internet era of film fandom, he devoured books and fanzines devoted to genre pictures. One particular favorite was Danny Peary's 1981 tome Cult Movies, which he read repeatedly at his local library. At age 12, he wrote a checklist of the 50 cult movies that Peary endorsed in his book and was disappointed to learn that he had only seen 32. (To this day, he remains a few films shy of completing that list.) Considering this background, it's no wonder that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are bursting with love for the genres that they're riffing on, the zombie picture and the buddy-cop movie, respectively. Indeed, Wright and his frequent collaborator Simon Pegg (who co-wrote and starred in both Shaun and Fuzz) have always been adamant that those films are not spoofs, but rather grand homages to movies that they both genuinely adore.
While Scott Pilgrim references a few cult flicks—Wright specifically mentions De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, The Monkees' head-trip Head and Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert's camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—the director stresses that this particular film "is its own beast." Based on a comic-book series written and illustrated by Toronto-based cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley (five volumes are already in print, with the sixth and final volume scheduled to hit stores on July 20, three weeks before the film's August 13 release date), the story follows the exploits of Scott Pilgrim (played by Michael Cera), an aspiring rock star with a complicated love life. See, he's fallen for a totally rockin' chick, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but soon after they start dating, Scott learns that he's been targeted by her seven evil exes and has to defeat them one by one in no-holds-barred combat if he wants to continue the relationship. The League of Romona's Evil Exes includes movie star and pro skateboarder Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), Goth ninja Roxie Ritcher (Mae Whitman) and, last but not least, the group's shadowy mastermind Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).
Wright was introduced to Scott Pilgrim in 2004, in the midst of Shaun of the Dead's U.S. press tour. After one Shaun screening, producers Jared Leboff and Adam Siegel approached the director and informed him, "We have your next movie," before launching into a description of a crazy new comic they had just read. A copy of Pilgrim's first volume eventually made its way to Wright's office and he responded to it instantly.
"While I was reading it, I was already trying to imagine what it would look like with live actors," he remembers. Small wonder—Scott Pilgrim is a beautifully illustrated book that resembles a Canadian version of Japanese manga. In bringing the comic to the screen, Wright wanted to employ an equally bold visual style, one that would set the film apart from the current trend towards grim and gritty comic-book movies.
"The Dark Knight is trying to be as real as possible and Sin City is stylized but hardboiled," explains Wright. "Aside from stuff like Ghost World and American Splendor, there doesn't seem to be a kind of middle ground where there’s the chance to do something that takes a more bubblegum approach to comics. I wanted to make a colorful film, one where you could start in a naturalistic world and then watch it become really magical and insane. And because it's a comedy, it can have a lot more visual life and use different kinds of media: onscreen graphics, video pixels and different kinds of film stock."
Moviegoers got their first taste of what Wright's version of Scott Pilgrim was going to look like when the movie's much-buzzed-about teaser trailer appeared on the web in March. (It was followed by a longer international version in June.) The minute-and-a-half-long clip showed off some rather extreme stylistic flourishes, most notably glimpses of wild action sequences filled with onscreen onomatopoeia (a la the old "Batman" TV series) and combat moves straight out of a videogame. "My take on the film is that Scott Pilgrim is a daydreamer and the film is the daydream that never ends," says Wright. "It’s his kind of exaggerated version of events."
Reactions to the trailers have generally been positive, but the director knows that for every moviegoer that loves the way the film looks, another two or three might be left completely baffled. "Increasingly with mainstream films, you're expected to maintain some kind of comfort zone so people know what it is," explains Wright, adding that the Universal marketing department has allowed him a good deal of input into the film's ad campaign. "While a lot of people complain about by-the-numbers trailers, when you do something that's different people watching go, 'What the fuck is that?' One of the words they use in marketing is conditioning and if something is new, audiences have to be conditioned to it. And that's what the trailers are trying to do—get people excited about the film and also making them aware about the kind of movie it is."
Scott Pilgrim may look like an overstimulated twenty-something's fantasy, but the director insists that he wanted to keep "one foot in reality" at all times. One way he did that was to avoid the extensive greenscreen work seen in other videogame-influenced films like 300 and Speed Racer. "I wanted to shoot on location and on set as much as possible. The action elements are pretty insane in the way the battles play out, so I wanted to make sure the audience knew they were seeing real sets with real performers and that the actors literally had their feet on the ground."
To prepare his cast for the exhausting shoot ahead, Wright blocked out eight weeks of rehearsal during pre-production. That gave the actors time to learn their elaborate fight choreography, master the music they'd have to perform and, in general, just get to know one another. "It's unusual to spend that amount of time rehearsing, but I think it pays off in the film. You feel like the characters actually hang out together and are friends."
Cera in particular benefited from the extended rehearsal period. "He's an amazing musician, so the rock part wasn't difficult, but the fighting was totally new to him and he was very intent on getting it right," Wright says of his leading man. The director is also quick to defend Cera against the perception that he has a tendency to play the same kind of character in his films. "I feel like that’s sort of an unfair thing to be leveled at any performer. I mean, when I was a kid I watched Woody Allen do the same kind of part from Take the Money and Run to Stardust Memories and I didn't complain. People are allowed to have a comic persona. And to some extent Michael plays both on and against your expectations here. Sometimes he's playing a mode you've already seen him do and other times he reverses it—like when he's having a fight with seven stuntmen."
Once Wright's plane touches down in London, he'll spend the next three weeks putting the finishing touches on Scott Pilgrim, wrapping up just in time to bring a fresh batch of clips to the annual geek mecca known as San Diego's Comic-Con International. (Perhaps he'll also bring some fresh news about the status of his long-in-the-works Ant Man movie starring the pint-sized Marvel Comics hero. Right now, all Wright can volunteer is that it's one of three projects he'll turn his attention to after his commitments to Pilgrim are over.) As excited as the Comic-Con crowd will be to get a longer glimpse of the finished product, the person most eager to see a completed cut of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is Wright himself.
"I was talking with someone the other day and they said, 'I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished' and I was like, 'You know who else can’t wait to see it when it’s finished? Me!' Because I ain’t seen it finished. Making this has almost been like doing an animated film, because with all the visual effects there's a whole new level to the way you complete it. But when people do see it, I hope at the very least that they'll see the hard work, thought and TLC that went into every frame. So many times you go to see a big-budget film and think, this cost $180 million? Where did the money go? It looks like crap! So I don't want anybody to go home from Pilgrim thinking that they didn't get their money's worth. Characters explode into loonies and twonies [Canadian one-dollar and two-dollar coins], so there's literally a lot of money onscreen in some places." Wright pauses for a moment. "You know, that’s the first time I’ve used that joke and I’m sure I’ll use that frequently during the press tour now. You can say you had it first!"