Edgar Wright and Michael Cera instantly apologize for beginning the interview with their mouths full, as the pair take a rare free moment to grab some breakfast. The two have been going non-stop since their film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, took Comic Con by storm last month. Best known for the comedies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright traded the U.K. for Toronto to take on the adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s award-winning Scott Pilgrim series.
Time Out Chicago: This movie is such a departure for you, in a lot of ways: It’s not in the U.K., new writing partner, new stars. What was that experience like for you?
Edgar Wright: It was great. It happened very organically in the sense that I started working on it after Shaun of the Dead. So, I was actually working on the script with Michael Bacall, whilst also writing Hot Fuzz at the same time...I’ve done a lot of TV and worked with Simon [Pegg] and Nick [Frost] for over ten years, so it was really nice to kind of do something different and, sort of challenge yourself.
TOC: What about the graphic novels really interested you in the project?
EW: I read the first volume when it was published in 2004, very soon after it was published, and the rights had already been bought for a film before it even hit the bookstores. So, weirdly, I did read it knowing that they were thinking about doing a film and they wanted me to do it. But, that aside, I kind of forgot about that as I was reading the book because I just kind of enjoyed it as a graphic novel in its own right. I just thought the central premise of a young man literally fighting for love was so strong. So, that was what really attracted me. And also, because it was a comic-book adaptation but it wasn’t a superhero film, it wasn’t generic sci-fi, it was something that felt very fresh. And it also, weirdly, reminded me a little of Spaced, the TV show I did with Simon [Pegg] and Jessica [Stevenson]. I liked the idea of returning to the wild magical realist fantasies of people who are bored and unemployed.
TOC: Did you have concerns about approaching an adaptation versus doing an original project? Was there any difference in the way you approached it?
EW: In some ways it was easier, just because the material was so great and so rich and so detailed. Certainly, in terms of the production, it gave us an amazing jumping-off point to not just have all this beautiful artwork and this fully realized world of characters, but the fact that it was all based on real people and real locations. So, very early on, in 2005, I went to Toronto to meet Bryan Lee O’Malley and just hung out in all the places that it’s set, which was amazing. So, actually to be able to write the script having been in that park and been in that coffee shop and been in that music venue was just priceless, really. In terms of the actual adaptation, we basically we had to make a decision quite early on, as soon as we knew that it was going to cover the entire story. There’s six volumes, but there’s only one film. Once we knew that that was going to be the case, then it was really about fashioning a structure that would work for a movie. And Bryan is a really good collaborator, in terms that he’s not, he wasn’t so precious about the material that he expected a verbatim, panel-for-panel, bubble-for-bubble kind of adaptation. He understood that it had to become like a movie. And in some ways, as the process went on, I think he started to almost encourage the diversions. I think the books are great and they’re, like, canon and, in fact, our film could become almost like a bizarro version, almost like the video-game adaptation of the books. You know what I mean? Over the course of, like, five years, it started to become a very organic and even incestuous adaptation because we wrote one draft, me and Michael Bacall, in 2006, just before I started filming Hot Fuzz. It was very much a kitchen-sink draft. I think at that point there were three books written and then outlines for the other three books and lots of sketches and ideas. And some of the more outlandish things that are in the film come from original thoughts and rambling notes that Bryan had come up with that he didn’t end up using, but we would say, “We could use that if you don’t.” So, there’s little things like the chip in the head and the idea of the twins being electro-artists were actually in original notes and they didn’t make it to the books. And then, on the flip side of that, there were also a couple of lines that are from our 2006 script that crop up in volumes four and five. Only, like, one or two lines, I’m not gonna try and take any credit away from Bryan. He was always very polite to e-mail and say, “Can I use that line from the Roxy scene?” So, it was cool. I’ll tell you the one line from book four that’s ours is, “You had a sexy phase?” Which there’s a particular good panel for, so I was very proud when I saw that. And then, even later, when it came to shooting, Bryan would be in Toronto a lot. At some point, he had to extricate himself from the film to finish the last book. We would get him doing everything from…there’s lots of his drawings within the film and artwork on the flip charts. We basically used his handwriting wherever we could. What, for me, made it a really great collaboration was there were moments where he sort of worked as an unofficial script doctor on our script, and there are a couple of lines that are in the finished film that are not in the books that are his lines. For me, that kind of says it all, that this worked out to be a collaboration that has some authenticity to it in that the creator wrote new lines for his characters. I think that was really good. I think even as we diverged from the books, I hope, at least, that the main thing we did was keep the spirit and the tone and the sensibility and stayed true to the characters. Bryan was a good guide for that, in terms of the characters doing wildly different actions from the books is that it was still true to what Knives would do or what Ramona would do in that situation.
TOC: Are there any similarities between doing an adaptation and doing the parodies/homages that you’ve done in your previous works?
EW: I guess. One of the first things me and Michael Bacall did, and this was, weirdly, a lot of our writing on this film, some of it was stalling for time so there would be more books. One of the first things we did is we went through dialogue from old teen and rites-of-passage films to find dialogue that had some kind of rhyming language with action movies. There is a lot of dialogue, whether it’s in Cameron Crowe or John Hughes or American Graffiti or Gregory’s Girl, there’s always some kind of dialogue that could just as easily be in an action film or a fight movie. So, we tried to find all of those lines and find that vernacular. Even just the word “league” in “League of Evil Exes,” but then you’ve got romantic comedies called She’s Out of My League: words that recur throughout that could either mean fighting tournaments or a dating game. That was really interesting. Structurally, we watched a lot of coming-of-age films and then, actually, a lot of, like the classic Shaw brothers films of the ’70s, especially any of the tournament ones. A lot of those ones are numerically obsessed; they always have a structure where, once you know what the number is, you know that the train has left the station. So, you know in 36th Chamber of the Shaolin that once he starts training chamber one, you are going to get to chamber 36 by the end of the film. There’s this internal momentum to Five Deadly Venoms or 36th Chamber of the Shaolin. And there’s another film, as well, that is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorites, Five Fingers of Death, a classic martial arts saga. We tried to make it in a similar way. It’s one of those great films where even as your lead character defeats opponents, it’s a hollow triumph because he’s done it for the wrong reasons. So, there’s great scenes in that where he destroys an opponent and his master says, “You did it with anger.” I love the idea of actually, through the six fights in our film, it’s only really in the final fight that Scott Pilgrim is actually doing it for the right reasons. It’s not right to just fight because you’re being humiliated. It’s not right to fight out of jealous anger; it’s only right to fight for what you believe in.
Michael Cera: You have to learn and then fight.
TOC: The film is, visually, very faithful in many ways to the graphic novel. Was it difficult to reconcile that with also putting your own personal stamp on it?
EW: Not really, because I really loved the artwork. What I appreciated in the artwork was the idea of stylizing the everyday and the mundane, and I like that myself. I felt like myself and Bryan’s sensibilities are very similar. I think Bryan was surprised at how closely we stuck to the artwork in places. Also, his style of artwork is not anatomically correct. Like, Frank Miller’s artwork—or most Marvel or DC artwork—is a lot more anatomically correct, but Bryan’s artwork is extremely stylized. So, I kind of take great pleasure in people watching the live action film and saying, “It looks just like the book!” It doesn’t really look like the book, but I appreciate what you’re saying. Sometimes it’s about composition, but it’s more about getting the spirit across. What we would do is make locations and sets more simple than they would be in everyday life. Like, the apartment in Spaced is a lot more cluttered, but Wallace and Scott’s apartment is stripped out of any dressing. I would say to the art director, “If he didn’t draw it, because he sketched his artwork pretty simple, we shouldn’t have it.”
TOC: Michael, how daunting was it for you to step into a role that so many people were attached to because of the books?
MC: It was a little bit, but Edgar made me feel good about it. Rehearsing was really helpful for me to help get to a point where I really felt okay about going and shooting. Before that I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Reading the script, I’d be like, “How am I going to do this?” I didn’t know we were going to have so much time to rehearse. We had so much time in pre-production to go over every scene. We went through the whole script multiple times with all the other actors. It was really nice for me to be able to see what they were doing and to figure out what I was doing. Through that time I felt better about it.
EW: What did you think when you first read the action scenes in the script?
MC: I mean, they were like: “He throws an elbow into a guy’s face.” You just describe moments. But I remember you saying to me that that was just to convey that action is happening here and you’re not describing specifically what they’re going to be because we were going to go choreograph something that was going to be its own thing. But, I mean, I didn’t know what to imagine. I didn’t know how to visualize what the sequences were going to look like. I just figured it would be exciting.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opens Friday.