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In retrospect, it seems appropriate that I spoke to Edgar Wright for this interview via telephone as he rushed from one place to another, dropped the call at one point, and was generally pressed for time during the entire conversation. Mind you, that isn't a complaint at all; rather, it's an indication of how hard-working, committed and most of all energetic Wright is. That he would devote whatever spare minutes he had to field a few questions from yours truly about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, his terrific new film, is a testament to his generosity, and that he would provide such interesting, insightful, and thought-provoking answers is one to his febrile intelligence and the completeness of his filmmaking vision.
Scott Pilgrim is of course an adaptation of the Bryan Lee O'Malley graphic novel series of the same name, and it seems tailor-made for Wright's leapfrog, pop-culture-saturated sensibilities. The film version is full of references to video games, movies, TV shows, even technological benchmarks, although all combined into one exhilarating pastiche that manages to celebrate and send-up its influences all at the same time, and more than that generate a sincere and substantive connection to its characters. In addition to talking about that foundation of media and technology that fueled his creativity, Wright discussed the characters and feelings beneath all of that visual flourish, and examined the film's ability to work both as a timely chronicle of contemporary relationships, and a reflection of the filmmaker's own evolving maturity.
Cinematical: The thing I think works so great about the movie is that it's about more than just him fighting these exes for Ramona's hand. How tough was it to figure out that emotional throughline and then work it into the story?
Edgar Wright: Obviously on kind of a one-line high-concept pitch, you have to boil it down to "man fights seven evil exes of a new girl." But what to me it's really about is, and it's a love story, but it's more about this kind of young love and the mistakes you make and sort of the blind optimism of young love. Like, he meets his dream girl and sort of announces that she's the one for him, without really knowing anything about her. And I think plenty of people have been in that situation and they've been the kind of character that Scott Pilgrim is, who slightly blindly kind of stumbles from relationship to relationship and is driven purely by an emotion that he can't quite describe or handle at the time.
What I think is interesting about the film is that it's almost like a satire on those films where somebody chases the mirage of the dream girl and finds out that the reality is not all that it's cracked up to be. And Ramona is the first person actually to vocalize that; she at several points kind of warns him off, saying "I'm not what you think I am." But I also liked the idea that Scott Pilgrim is, I don't think he's a bad person, but he's definitely a hypocrite and definitely thoughtless, and what the film is essentially about is him realizing that he can't be so solipsistic - he can't be so selfish as to kind of just plow through in his own little kind of adventure and not really come to terms with the fact that he's broken other hearts or cause other heartache.
The truth is that the irony that comes through in the story is that he has caused as much chaos as she has, and even further irony is that Ramona has unwittingly caused chaos. Ramona isn't a bad person, it's just that the people around her kind of can't handle the rejection, but Scott Pilgrim has broken Knives' heart, it's kind of hinted at that he did the same thing with Kim, and it's even a bit of a grey area exactly what happened with him and Envy. So Scott Pilgrim has cast himself in his head as the hero of his own movie, and that is the film that you're watching, and then he gets his karmic comeuppance at the end of the film. And then he has a chance to actually do it right.
Cinematical: How difficult was it to make sure that Scott remained sympathetic even when he was doing things that were hurtful, even if he was unaware at the time?
Wright: I think that's what the film is kind of about, and I think it's a credit actually to Michael Cera that he's such a kind of likeable performer that you actually go with him even if he does things that are highly dubious. But I think the thing even with him breaking up with Knives is that everybody has been through that situation and everybody has either been on the receiving end or been dumped, or they had to dump somebody, and basically there's no good way of doing it (laughs)! In Scott Pilgrim's case, I think that's essentially what the character is; he isn't a sympathetic hero sometimes, but I think he's definitely relatable - and I think the idea was to kind of show young love, warts and all.
I also love the idea that even if your hero is going through his labors of Hercules, there's a point kind of midway through that he's just over it and doesn't want to play any more and he's bitten off more than he can chew. And around the time he gets to Todd Ingram and the Roxy scene, he's kind of opting out and basically not facing up to being an adult about it. And that's what essentially it's about – Scott Pilgrim is like a perpetual adolescent and his kind of selfish and thoughtless acts come from that, from him being immature. He's 22, but sometimes he happens to be a 12-year-old, and it's really about him having to kind of man up at the end of it and take some responsibility for his actions. So I think that's what's interesting about it, because it does have grey areas and it isn't completely black and white for any of the characters. I think that's what's interesting about the source material, and for the performers to make it interesting, because Scott Pilgrim, Ramona Flowers and Knives Chau all have their flaws because they're trying to figure out their lives at very young ages.
Cinematical: Because of its video game lexicon and its sort of generational specificity, were you concerned at all that it might limit the connection some audience members have with the material?
Wright: When you're making the film, you never really think about those things. I mean, you try and approach it from the truth that you find in the material and how you connect with the characters. That's how you make the film. I read the books and I sympathized or empathized with some of the situations. But also, in terms of people's responses, it's funny that it's come up in press a lot, people are talking about, "are you concerned that people over 30 won't enjoy the film?" I'm thinking, A, I'm 36, and B, if everybody under the age of 30 went to see the film, we would have made something that grosses three times the amount of Avatar. It's a weird sort of accusation to get thrown at you, because do people say to [the makers of] Marmaduke, "were you worried about what the over 10s would think?" (laughs) It's a strange thing to get asked, because I think, well, we were just trying to make a film, and in a way, you end up deferring to the cast because the cast [members] are all in their 20s, and some of them are even 19, and there was very little that I had to explain to them. So I took that as an indication I didn't have to explain to them what the film was about, or most of them connected to the material because the characters they were playing absolutely resonated with them and experiences they had.
So I don't know – it's certainly not something I set out in a cynical way to make a film for a particular generation. If anything, between myself, Bryan O'Malley and Michael Cera, even that spans 16 years, so I just thought we tried to make something that meant something to us. I can only make a film with myself as the eventual audience member; the three films that I've made in the last ten years, I tried to approach it as something I would like to see as a film fan and an audience member. Particularly with Scott Pilgrim and some of the visual elements, I tried to put myself in the mind of the films I saw when I was a preteen and a teenager that blew my mind – and I loved dearly without really understanding why. I can remember the first time I saw Ferris Bueller's Day Off and just feeling that I was so overjoyed leaving the cinema, even if I didn't really understand it at the time particularly, or was younger than the characters on screen. I felt kind of like I was part of the movie that was playing on screen.
Cinematical: I had a conversation with a friend who mentioned that there is a sound effect that comes from Sonic the Hedgehog, which I actually didn't know or recognize. How much are people supposed to be identifying the specific little sounds and details like that, and how much is meant to be just a part of the overall pastiche?
Wright: I think it's not the central part of that joke, but the Sonic the Hedgehog noise is, and I feel like those things are kind of to create almost a pavlov's dog response for people in the audience who have grown up with those sounds. I think it's more that I wanted to create - those sounds and audio references and motifs are not supposed to stop the film dead. If people don't recognize them, it's not what the scene is about or even the joke is about. It's more that what I kind of figured is that with some of that music, and even like Mac and PC and Blackberry noises, is that they're the kinds of sounds of the last 15 years. So it's sort of like a pavlovian response to like a Mac error sound is that you know you've done something wrong (laughs). Because I think if you actually put a microphone in somebody's apartment that uses a lot of technology, there would just be a number of sounds that we take for granted that are just part of our lives – vibrating cell phones, Mac errors, the sound of trash.
Basically, Scott Pilgrim is like living his life through the pop culture he's consumed over the last 30 years, so there's like this endless jumble of resonant sounds. So to the character and to me, it's like the Sonic the Hedgehog noise is basically just like 1993's lightbulb sound, do you know what I mean? Ding! That's it – there's nothing and not extra jokes written in that, and it's sounds that you recognize and have grown up with over the last 20 years. I love that it has that sort of pavlovian response; I mean, some of them are very kind of buried in the mix, but it makes me laugh because we went through all of the Windows and Mac sounds of the last 15 years, and just when somebody wakes up it has the sort of startup sound, so that it just happens to be in the background. But a lot of them are diegetic as well, and I've done that in Spaced as well; I always find that interesting, trying to soundtrack things rather than raid the Hanna-Barbera sound effects. You sound diegetic from the technology we use.
Cinematical: It's interesting that your two previous movies featured characters that were older, but whose sort of perpetual adolescence was basically validated at the end of the movie. Even though it uses the lexicon of youth culture, this is more about growing up – but did you think about this maybe being ironically your most mature movie to date?
Wright: I thought it was interesting in terms of – that's what I liked about the books, that there was a bittersweet element all of the way through. And I think even as we were writing the script, because the script was sometimes done in tandem with the books, I think there was an original ending of [Book Six] that was a lot more kind of downbeat in a way, which it eventually matured into something different. The script and the book sort of developed hand in hand, and we eventually wrote the same ending in different directions. But the film still ends on a question mark, so it's ostensibly a happy ending, but I really like a film like The Graduate, because even though it's a happy ending, there's still this sense of uncertainty about this couple is so young, and they did something kind of crazy and they took a big leap into the unknown.
I think what's nice about Bryan's book and what we really tried to get across in the film is both the kind of utter, unthinking joy of first love or deep crushes, but also the kind of hard reality of them and stuff. But the thing is, when I was at that age, and when I was even younger and in my teens, any new relationship would only be sort of dealt with in absolutes. Every girl I met was like, "this is the one! This is the girl, oh my God, we're going to get married!" When you're 17 and you meet a girl, and then you break up with them or they break up with you, you're like, "this is the worst thing that's ever happened! This is the end of the world!" And I think with Scott Pilgrim you're seeing that within his headset, he's had several loves of his life at the age of 22. He's that kind of person who, when you start to grow up and get some life experience and you actually sort of deal with relationships in a slightly more adult way where there's a little bit of give and take to every relationship, especially when you get older.
Everybody has exes, and you're dealing with each other's past in any new relationship, but Scott Pilgrim isn't at that point yet. So no matter how much somebody seems like the kind of absolute, ideal woman, she has a past. But it's not so much that she has a past that's difficult to deal with, it's that Scott Pilgrim isn't mature enough to deal with it.