With director Edgar Wright in town this past weekend for the Toronto cast and crew screening of Scott Pilgrim Versus The World I had the chance to sit down for a lengthy talk about his newest creation. He very graciously met me for a very early coffee at his hotel before shipping out later that afternoon and was in fine form. Read on!
TB: So, you've got a few different genres at play with this one ...
EW: I read an interview with Beck in Pitchfork magazine where he said that watching Scott Pilgrim reminded him of watching films in Chinatown, where the genre changes every five minutes and it didn't really matter. It's interesting.
TB: When you were making it did Universal ever throw up any red flags, like "What is this? You have to focus!"
EW: Well, not really. I've got to give them huge, huge credit for letting me make the film I wanted to make. I guess the only time ... During the making of it, not at all, I can't say there were any compromises. There were some things that were tough. Even with the bigger budget - the budget is four times that of Hot Fuzz - but even with that it was hard to get everything on screen. A lot of people did a lot of work above and beyond the call of duty to make it happen.
TB: It's not like there are any moments where nothing's happening.
EW: No. Even the things that look deceptively simple, the graphics and special effects and animation is not easy to pull off. It's hugely labour intensive. The effects have been worked on for the last year. The edit and the effects have been twelve months work. Or more, really. I've been working on it for two years, the process of R&D, because the effects are very bespoke. They're not generic. I'm sure when someone does an X Men ripoff, if someone has worked in an effects company that happened to do some work on The X Men, they can just call up existing concepts and textures and with this everything was designed to the frame and it took a lot of R&D to get that to work and to get a look that we liked. The things with the twins and the pixel swords and even with the Patel fight, we spent a long time perfecting that. We shot a test in 2008, when we were here in the summer of 2008, we shot a test of the Matthew Patel - Scott Pilgrim fight with Chris Mark and Reuben Langdon playing Patel and Scott Pilgrim. Brad Allen and Paul Rapovski and Bill Pope, basically the crew of the film, we spent three days shooting it. We'll put it on the DVD. It's like watching a Hong Kong version of Scott Pilgrim. It's very strange.
Universal was very supportive throughout. The only time you get any question marks thrown at you is during the test screening process. But only after the first couple. We screened it five times and it was interesting watching the results after tweaking and tweaking. After the first screening there were a number of cards asking "How can they fight? You never explain how they fight. How come they've all got super powers?" And so the question is raised, "Do we need to explain how they all fight?" And I was like, "No! That would just kill it. That would kill it stone dead." It kind of plays like a musical in that way, following its own rules. Nobody explains why Gene Kelly is an amazing dancer. It's a level of reality and once you start slipping back from that ... if you had a movie where Scott Pilgrim had to train to fight it's a completely different movie. So those things would come up. And, occasionally with some of the more outré things - like the Bollywood number - there would be questions but not for very long. After a point it was about finding the right balance between the comedy, romance and action. And one thing that was interesting from the test screenings was realizing that you and I and fans of Asian cinema would happily sit through a fight scene that is ten times as long as what the general audience is happy with. And so that was interesting. Some of the fights had to be tightened up. You have to cater to the comedy audience as well as the action audience. It becomes a science of finding a balance. I'm the kind of person that will happily watch a film like this, that mixes three genres. We eventually got to a really high number in the test screenings, which was great, to see that it was playing as a good audience film. With genre benders, going through that process is kind of tough. The negative thing with test screenings is needing to file away the crazy tangents but happily that didn't happen here. People got on board with it. It's the kind of film where you have to submit yourself to it and hopefully within the first few minutes you know what you're in for.
TB: When you were working on the adaptation - it's six volumes being compressed into a little more than an hour and a half with a cast of ten or twelve major characters - did you guys set yourselves any guiding principals when going into it? You'd have had to stick to a core story, obviously, but did you have rules as far as how to maintain a kind of balance with things?
EW: Yeah, it was established pretty early on that that was how we were going to have to do it, to put it into one film. We were pretty lucky to get one film made and going in and suggesting a six part series - or even a three part series - would have gotten us laughed out of the room. And even back then, when I first got involved, that was when the books were first published so it didn't have the following it does now. Bryan was a very good collaborator. He understood what an adaptation meant and he was never the kind of creator who demands that things have to be verbatim, panel for panel, bubble for bubble, what I've done.
So I think what we tried to do, we had three things that we tried to model ourselves on. The Shaw Brothers kung fu films of the 1970s, especially the numerically obsessed ones. Those sort of tournament films, or a Labours of Hercules kind of structure. And there was the sense of it being like a musical and really looking at the similarities between the Hong Kong films and musicals. I think there are a lot of similarities with the early eighties Jackie ones, like Project A, the way the fights are differentiated from each other they feel like musical production numbers.
The main thing we did early on was to compress the story line. We figured the best thing to do was if Bryan's books are like a long term affair, spread over four seasons, then the film is a mad fling. So it was kind of like making the film into a sort of intense crush. In the original draft of the script I had this idea that the four seasons would pass in like ten days, that was in the original draft ...
TB: There are times here when that happens.
EW: No, I know! I was there! But then I figured, not just on a budgetary level, that I'd like to trap Toronto in a snow globe.
TB: And then shot in the summer!
EW: We shot all the way through! And in the film it's set in April, in an April cold snap, and that's exactly what happened last year! It snowed in April!
Bryan's books are brilliant - in a way like manga - in that they're these sprawling teen soap operas. They're not specifically about teens but you know what I mean, it's got that feel to it, like the manga books have of being teen pulp. Or young adult fiction. It's a big part of those books. Those are the parts that usually get taken out when manga is made into film and people just use the action and scifi elements. The process was really concentrating. Some of the subplots had to go, like Lisa Miller and Mr Chau, the Twins don't get a speaking part like they do in the books. More came to light once we had an internal structure. We almost tried to pace it like a video game adaptation of the books, if that makes sense, with the exes as the ends of the different chambers or levels with it really being about Scott Pilgrim's arc in the relationship and what happens when he doesn't really want to play any more and whether he's going to be man enough to take on a responsibility like Ramona. And, of course, like the books it makes a lot of the irony of the hero having to fight his girlfriend's baggage while being completely hypocritical about his own baggage and the chaos that he has caused. This is the stuff that comes back to haunt him.
We had a plot structure back in 2005 that we had run past Bryan. Michael Bacall and I had come to Toronto a number of times to see Bryan. The first book was published, the second book was nearly finished, and he had a rough script for the third book. Four, five and six were more sort of hashed out, long hand outlines. A lot of things in the film came from those outlines, things that ended up not being used in the books. Some lines are from a sort of director's cut of Bryan's books, things where we said, "Oh, I know that's not in the books but it's still cool, can we use that?" And after we'd written the first draft, in 2006 just before Hot Fuzz, there ended up being a couple of lines from the script that ended up being used in volumes four and five. Bryan politely sent us an email saying "Is it okay if I use this line for the Roxie fight?" "Of course! What's ours is yours! We could never have written that line without you!" I was very pleased that we made one bubble in book four, the line "You had a sexy phase" Exclamation mark, question mark.
It was interesting. It was a very organic experience. By the time we got to shoot five books had been published, number six was half written, and I think Bryan wanted to have his own full stop to the series before the film came out. It was important for him to finish his book before we finished the film so we hadn't gotten past him, you know what I mean? And it ended up working well because then he came back to do a polish of the script with me and Michael Bacall. And what's really strange -and what makes it sort of super incestuous - is that there are a couple lines in the film that Bryan wrote but are not in the books, in any form, at all. That meant a lot to me because that to me was the ultimate sign that Bryan was cool and understood that the two things could diverge.
Just on a practical level, over a two hour film by the time you get to the Twins battle you can't have another fist fight. We have to keep the fights different each time. Not that the fights are the same in each book but ... The bass battle in book three was a great climactic moment between Scott and Todd Ingram, so we kept that, and then the idea of the Twins having a sonic battle with Sex Bob-omb, that was an idea to keep Sex Bob-omb together in the story for longer, as an ensemble, so that as Scott Pilgrim is jumping through these hoops with the Evil Exes and navigating this brave new relationship, Sex Bob-omb are also going up in the ranks of the Battle of the Bands. So that was where the idea came from. Certainly in the last third of the film there are lots of changes from the books but we just had to make sure that it was always in the spirit of the books, with the same tone and true to the characters. Even in the way that the Knives subplot, or the way that her arc plays out, that was based on her bit where she fights Ramona in the library in volume two. That was so strong that it couldn't be in the middle of the film. It had to build up to that point. That was a way of taking some of these strands from different books and making them clash like a French farce, in a different way so that they have a different outcome.
It's similar to the way that the video game has all manner of different endings. The film becomes another sort of bizarro alternate reality. It's like a choose your own adventure sort of book - what happens if Scott goes this way? It's nice that they're all arriving at the same time. The response from fans so far has been really positive, people like that. And I know for a fact that Bryan really appreciates and encourages those sorts of diversions. When he sits and watches them he mostly laughs at the bits that are not from the books, the things that are new to him. I asked him about that and he said "Well, I've already laughed at all my jokes."
TB: Was there anything from the books that was particularly different to lose? I know when you came scouting you checked out the reference library and some other locations that didn't make it in.
EW: We did look at the reference library as a location but there was no way of getting that into the script in the same way that it was in the books because it's a skirmish in the books that goes unresolved. It's a great scene but in the film it was too early for Knives to become a badass at that point. We had to save it. But we did definitely look at the reference library. Also, even if we had done that scene, it would have been impossible to shoot for two weeks in the reference library. All the other fights took about two weeks each, at least. Maybe the Patel fight took even longer. That would have been impossible. Other ones I think, there are some fights and sequences in the book that just work better on the page than they would have on film. I think the Honest Ed's scene just looks cooler on the page.
TB: That's one that the locals were hoping for. It's such an iconic, gaudy, ugly building ...
EW: It would have just been impossible. I think the way Bryan stylized that artwork there just would have been no way to make that look cool on screen. That's one for the books. We never even considered doing that one. It would have been a nightmare to film and try to pull off. There is, of course, lots of material that I really like but I think once we knew what we were trying to make and what we needed ... you know. Even with what's in there, at the test screenings you would get some pressure to cut things out and when you're trying to make something for a general audience the argument that "That scene's in the book, the fans will like it!" kind of falls on deaf ears. You have to pick where you fight and say "I really think we should keep this scene in, it's ripped straight from the books and it's really important to me." And all of those things stayed in but that's the process that you go through after it's been shot. Knowing about all that and knowing all the scenes that I clung on to, I don't really miss anything, no. It would be like Sophie's Choice.
TB: Let's talk a little bit about the approach to casting. Michael's a star but he's not a star-star to anchor something of this scale on. And the guys that you have that have anchored big movies - people like Brandon Routh - they're cast wildly against type. Did you have any indication that Brandon and Chris Evans could do something like this? They've never done anything like it before.
EW: They had in a little way. They're both people that I first thought of. Chris Evans always stood out in the films he was in, he had excellent timing. And you're aware of that even in something like Fantastic Four, that Chris Evans has charm and snap and style. So I was interested in meeting him. For Brandon, the only comedy I'd seen him in was a little part in Zack And Miri Make A Porno and I rang Kevin Smith up to ask how Brandon was and Kevin sang his praises. When I first started developing it I got calls from a lot of agencies in Hollywood suggesting every comedy actor under the sun for the Exes. And some of them were pretty good, people who I've worked with or am a fan of. But it wasn't a route I ever wanted to go down. It was too obvious, to have comedians as all the Exes. Which isn't to say that Chris and Brandon aren't funny, because they are. My feeling was that, particularly with Todd Ingram and Lucas Lee, you had to have actors who looked like they would completely disintegrate Michael with one punch. And that makes it more interesting as a battle of wits as well as brawn. I rang them both very early on and it worked out great, I can't sing their praises enough. I think they're amazing in it.
Also with casting, it's much more interesting to mix things up a little and have people in an ensemble that you wouldn't really expect. Like how people didn't expect Timothy Dalton to be in Hot Fuzz and it becomes the defining performance of that film. It's interesting casting a film because it's a very long process and it was almost about making little classes. It was definitely ... I had Scott and his immediate friends, that particular class and kind of actor, and then with the Exes there was a chance to go in different ways with actors that you wouldn't expect to see in the same film with each other. I had very specific ideas about the Exes. I knew that Matthew Patel should be an unknown because I wanted people to have the same response that the characters do - who the hell is this guy - as he burst through the ceiling. So Satya Bhabha is making his screen debut as Matthew Patel. Mae Whitman is a comedy actress but is probably the scariest of the Exes, she's terrifying! And then Jason, in a way, is kind of playing that Wizard of Oz character, the guy behind the curtain. There are things in the book where he's the ultimate kind of hipster but there's still the feeling of him being slighted so after Chris and Brandon you're like, "That guy? He's the end boss?" And that sort of thing, there's precedent for that as well in kung fu, of the final boss being somebody who doesn't seem like he could destroy you. And I just love the idea of Michael and Jason having caused similar ripples when they first started, ten years apart. Jason in Rushmore at the age of eighteen as a young comic actor, you can't forget the response you had the first time you saw him in that performance, just "Who IS this guy?" And that's how it felt when you first saw Michael Cera being funny in Arrested Development or Superbad or wherever you first saw him. So the idea of pitting the two of them against each other ten years removed ... Rushmore is Michael Cera's favourite film so the idea of his nemesis also being sort of his hero I thought was really good.
TB: Talking to people around here, the general consensus is that this is going to be a big cult thing. Particularly here in Toronto because Toronto is so on screen.
TB: Yeah, the city is on screen all the time but never as Toronto. Even Toronto film makers don't let Toronto be Toronto any more. Cronenberg hasn't done it in ages and Egoyan does it in movies that nobody wants to see. It's very, very unusual and it really seems like you went out of your way to embrace that to a very large degree, even with the bands that you were working with. Sticking Don McKellar in as the director of the movie that Lucas is in ... nobody outside of here is going to get that but for us it's really funny.
EW: I just saw Don last night, actually, and I'm not sure when I'll see him next so I gave him a great big hug and told him "You were so helpful with me." Because when I first came here I hardly knew anyone. He introduced me to Broken Social Scene and Metric and all manner of crew members and stuff and that was incredibly helpful, to have him as my first point of contact in Toronto.
You know, it was about being true to the books and it was a gift to have source material that detailed. It's fun as a foreign film maker to come to another city, one that I had been to maybe four times before I started working with Bryan on the script, it was such detailed material and if anything it made me - as a completist, or an obsessive - I would flip through the frames and think "We have to clear that t-shirt". We had to have the CBC shirt, we had to have the different brands. There was never any pressure to do it anywhere else. Nobody ever said "This has to be set in the States" and I think maybe it's because there is some culture clash comedy in the film with most of the Exes being American coming to Canada to destroy Scott. Ramona is an 'exotic' girl from America. One of my favourite lines in it is when Scott tells his friends Ramona is from America and he says "Ah-MARE-i-caaaa" like she's from Venus. There was one point during pre-production where the question was asked - and this is how it was phrased - "Would you be oppoed to shooting in New York, with New York doubling for Toronto?" And my answer was "I would be opposed to that. I think it would be a disaster." And it sort of went away.
TB: That would be the weirdest thing in the world. Everybody doubles Toronto for New York.
EW: Yeah. I think there was a point during prep - we were in prep for this film for at least two years - where the tax break situation was fluctuating and some cities were becoming cheaper than others. It's one of the fallacies of Hollywood: If you move to Hollywood to make movies you'll probably spend most of your time working in Vancouver, Shreveport, Montreal, Albuquerque ... the tax break places. I'm kind of bummed that I'm not going to be able to see it with a public Toronto audience on Friday. I think what will be funny, I'm sure there will be some unsuspecting audience members coming in Toronto who don't realize that it's set in Toronto, who maybe don't know the books, and I'd love to see their faces once they realize where they are.
TB: Have you settled on what's next yet? Is it going to be Ant Man?
EW: Not really. I don't really know. This has been so all-consuming for two years. I know what the writing commitments I had before I started full time on this and those commitments are the same, so I'm working on those. I'll be writing another draft of Ant Man and then, hopefully, before the end of the year starting to write with Simon [Pegg] again. It's tricky in a way. Coming out of a project you feel differently about everything and it's a big fallacy to think that a director is in control of what is next. Sometimes it's just about what breaks right. I didn't know for sure that Scott Pilgrim was going to be the next film after Hot Fuzz. I had a couple of balls in the air and it just seemed like this one fell into place first. There really isn't a grand plan. I just have to start writing and see what comes next.
TB: Was it important for you and Simon and Nick to show that you could do something away from each other?
EW: I guess it was important to me. I'm not sure about Simon and Nick because they're actors as well as writers so for every one film I get to do, they do four. Simon, certainly, between Hot Fuzz and now, has been in a whole bunch of things. I think there's that thing where we have a good idea for a third film but I felt as well, after Hot Fuzz, that in terms of expectations for a third film it felt like being on someone else's schedule for a third film. It was expected that we'd do another film all together and I wanted to be sure that we make the film when we want to or need to, rather than when we ought to. I feel like the further we get away from the last film that, hopefully, it becomes more personal to us. And I think the idea that we have could be really good.