Edgar Wright thinks car heist movies with self-driving cars would be “boring.” Ansel Elgort thinks they could be “dope.”
While the two may not agree on the future of car tech, they do agree that filming their new movie, “Baby Driver,” was the ride of their lives.
For British director Wright, best-known for “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” the American crime drama-musical-car chase movie is the first he’s shot in the US. Inspired by a 2002 music video he directed that features a getaway driver who times his heists to songs, “Baby Driver” features scenes timed to an eclectic soundtrack that Wright started compiling two decades ago.
“If you’ve ever put your entire music library on shuffle — the entire thing, not in genres — you get these completely random sorts of collisions of classical music going into Motown or into punk,” Wright said during a promo tour for the film, which opens June 28. “We’re sort of trying to recreate the experience of that.”
Elgort, known for his turns in “The Fault in Our Stars” and the Divergent series, is the youthful protagonist who listens to music from iPods he’s stolen to drown out his tinnitus. He’s backed by an all-star cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Lily James.
Wright and Elgort talked about why a bright red Subaru WRX is a star of the film, the technique for drifting (don’t try this at home) and why they were OK calling out Barbra Streisand. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Edgar, you first used the idea for the film in a music video you directed 2002 — MInt Royale’s Blue Song.” Why did you want to make it into a movie — and why wait so long to make it?
Wright: 22 years ago, when I first heard the first track that’s in “Baby Driver” is when I had the idea for it. Why did it take 22 years to make a movie? Well, I couldn’t say “Hollywood, I’m 21 years old. I’ve never directed a major feature film, but I want you to give me millions to make a car chase movie.”
I made this music video 15 years ago now — 2002, where I used the idea [of] a getaway driver timing the heists to music. But then I was really annoyed at myself that I’d used it on this music video because I thought, “I’ve squandered the idea.” But that video, which starred Noel Fielding of [the British TV comedy show] “The Mighty Boosh,” kept cropping back up again because he became more famous after the video. It actually ended up being a help to getting the movie made.
Music is a huge part of this movie. You have at least 30 songs on the playlist. What were you thinking when you chose this playlist?
Wright: If you’ve ever put your entire music library on shuffle — the entire thing, not in genres — you get these completely random sorts of collisions of classical music going into Motown or into punk. We’re sort of trying to recreate the experience of that –I like a lot of different kinds of music.
One of the things in the film that you see: It’s established that Ansel’s character has been stealing cars since he was a teenager. You see in his apartment that he has every single audio device because my thought was, “well if he’s been stealing cars since he was a teenager, he’s probably got lots of other people’s iPods.” It’s the idea that it’s literally other people’s record collections, so it so explains why the music choices are really diverse. I think the most recent track is San Francisco artists, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and that is like from 2002 or something.
Ansel, we owe you for having “Easy” by the Commodores in the movie, which wasn’t in the original script. Can you tell us the story behind the song?
Elgort: We were doing an audition and Edgar had sent me the playlist of songs that were in the movie. He wanted me to get familiar with them and we sort of would dance around to them — there is a lot of dance in the movie and movement and choreography. And we were trying out choreography…I didn’t know the songs that well and I think it was maybe our second session and Edgar finally said, “Hey, do you know any songs really well by heart, like every guitar lick, every drum fill and every lyric?”
And I thought, “Oh man, I’ve got to choose something that he’s going to like. It can’t be like some modern track or some dance track. It’s gotta be something that’s gonna fit with this theme.” And I remembered when I was a kid my godmother filled my iPod with thousands and thousands of songs. And one of my favorites she put on there was “Easy” by the Commodores.
And I remembered that I know that song very well. It still is my karaoke song actually. Edgar liked that idea and he said “OK, let’s try this: You’re gonna do ‘Easy’ by the Commodores and you can’t help but lip sync. You can’t help but play a little air guitar here and there — but there’s a dead body over there and you’re gonna have to dispose of it. So, go!”
He filmed that and I heard his famous Edgar laugh, and I knew that something was going well. And eventually, when Kevin Spacey was signing onto the film, he told me, “I saw that sizzle reel of you, sort of, lip syncing to ‘Easy.'”
It’s now a big song in the movie.
There’s some dialogue about Ansel’s character suffering from tinnitus. You call out Barbra Streisand. Why?
Wright: When I was writing the script, I was reading Oliver Sacks’ book “Musicophilia,” which is amazing. It has a lot about tinnitus in there. I was reading about Barbra Streisand and it said this thing which was basically in the script. It said, “Barbra listens to music a lot of the time to drown out the tinnitus.” And I thought, wow. So I wrote that into the script.
One of the characters in the film [played by] Eiiza Gonzalez says, “You know who has tinnitus? Barbra Streisand.” And Jamie Foxx, as the character Bats, goes, “Do I look like I know a f—— thing about Barbra f—— Streisand?” [laughs]
Now, the irony is Jamie Foxx is friends with Barbra Streisand. And I remember on the set he was doing that line, and I said, “Jamie do you think Barbra will be OK with you saying that line?” And then Jamie Foxx, I kid you not, said, “Do you know Barbra?”
And I was like, “Uh, no.”
And he just said, “Barbra’s gangsta.” [laughs]
So it’s just funny to me that the one person in the film who says I don’t know a f—— thing about Barbra Streisand happens to be close friends with her.
Let’s talk about cars and car chases. Ansel — you said you have the red Subaru WRX you drove in the movie, but not the Dodge Challenger. Why that car?
Elgort: I would have taken the [Dodge Challenger] Hellcat if they had offered it to me [laughs]. For sure, I think I asked — I’ll take one of every car — but they gave me the Subaru, which is an amazing car. It’s a lot of fun.
This is the millennial question: Did you own a car before that one?
Elgort: No, I didn’t, but I could drive. I drove some of my parents’ cars.
You took stunt-driving lessons for the movie? How good a driver are you?
Elgort: I think I’m pretty good. I learned how to drive in New York City so you have to be really aggressive. So I’m pretty good at driving and then after all the stunt classes, I now have the bug andand everything. At my family house in Long Island, there are tire marks outside of my driveway from when I put on the e-brake and pull a 90 into the driveway. [laughs]
How long did it take you to learn that — and can you tell us how you do it?
Elgort: Basically, you pull the e-brake so you’re getting rear wheel lockup. And that’s when you can slide the car around. So usually you’re at like 30 miles an hour. And then it’s just a little input with the wheel. If you yank the wheel, your car’s going to spin out of control. But the whole point is it’s a little bit out of control. So you can push the car to 90 degrees by just a little soft input, and then a counter-steer, and then you can steer out of it.
You decided to make this musical-caper-car chase-American crime drama in Atlanta (after giving up on California) because you can’t actually have a car-chase scene in London. Why’s that?
Wright: Why are there more bank robberies in California? California is the state with the most bank robberies, and there are lots of bank robberies in Atlanta as well. It’s because banks are right near freeway exits.You just get straight onto the [Interstate] 5 and then disappear. In London, there is no freeway in the middle of town. So, to rob a bank and drive off in London you’d have to be very foolish because there’s no way to get out of London fast.
But you didn’t set it in California. You moved it to Atlanta, land of music and muscle cars.
Wright: Atlanta initially was a practical thing. Los Angeles or even San Francisco is prohibitively expensive to shoot in these days. It would be great if the tax breaks change. I’d love to make a movie in San Francisco. What ends up happening is you get movies that are set in San Francisco but they’re shot elsewhere like Vancouver or Atlanta.
When Atlanta came up, I thought, I don’t wanna shoot in Atlanta unless I can set it Atlanta. I had already been there a bunch of times, but then I spent time just focusing on what might actually be in the movie. And to my pleasant surprise, I realized this is actually the perfect place to do it. Putting it Los Angeles [means] you’re directly comparing yourself to “Heat,” “Point Break,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Driver,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” Nobody had done a car chase in Atlanta since the ’70s. So that was great..
How complicated was it to shoot the choreography for the car chases and time it to the music?
Wright: It’s a lot of hard work to make something look effortless. Because we had the songs worked out before, we could prep everything down to the millisecond. You would know how long these car chases were going to be: This song is five minutes long, this song is two and a half minutes long. So you kind of cut your cloth to fit your sequences. We did every amount of prep that you could do. It’s like storyboards, rehearsals on video, rehearsals with the cast, stunt driving rehearsals and stuff.
You wanna get to the point when you’re just shooting and there’s no discussion about how are we gonna do this, or what are we doing, or what the tone is. I’d like to do as much prep as possible, so that when you’re actually on set, you are just shooting for 12-hours straight, which is basically what we do.
How will self-driving cars change car chase movies? Would you do one?
Wright: I think that would be boring. [laughs]
Elgort: I don’t know. What was that movie I saw yesterday? The Tom Cruise-Spielberg movie “Minority Report.” The car stuff in that is awesome, where he’s jumping around the cars and those are all auto cars. I think it’s going to be dope.
Wright: But it’s only exciting if the human takes over the self-driving car. I mean, he’s jumping from car to car. There is also a self-driving car scene in the new “Fast and the Furious” where the self-driving cars are the baddies.
Elgort: I can’t wait for self-driving cars. I can’t wait to get in an Uber and not have to deal with some human being. It’s going to be the greatest.
What did you think of when you first read the part of Baby, who’s part of a crime gang but isn’t really a criminal?
Wright: He thinks he’s not a criminal.
Elgort: When I first read it, I definitely felt like he was a great character and different than me in a good, challenging way. He drives because he loves to drive and has been driving ever since he was a kid. You learn early on in the film that he lost his parents at a young age in a car accident, and that’s also what gave him his tinnitus. So ever since then, he’s become obsessed with driving and obsessed with music. It was like a game for him to drive the wrong way on a highway with his brake lights disconnected and with no lights — to bait cops into chases and never get caught. I think with the robberies, it’s also kind of a game to him, but you learn that he’s not in it because he wants to be. He’s in it because he has to be.
He enjoys it when everything is good and no one is getting hurt. But as soon as people start getting hurt he definitely does not enjoy it.
Edgar, you’ve said you talked to ex-cons to help you plot out this movie.
Wright: It was something where — as an English middle class guy — to make an American crime film, I wanted to authenticate it. So I spent quite a lot of time talking to ex-cons and some FBI guys, but mostly ex-cons, people who have done their time.
It’s just so fascinating because in that job, there’s process and learning the tricks of the trade and also the fallbacks of it. I talked to them very generally about the profession and then also very specifically about things. So you sit down with an ex-bank robber and say “Would you ever listen to music on the way to a job?” And this one guy said, “No, not on the way to the job.” He said this thing that went straight into the screenplay. He said, “I don’t listen to music on the way to a job because I’ve got enough demons up here [pointing to his head] making music.” And I was like, “Oh boy, write that one down.”
He did admit later, “Sometimes I play music when I knew that I had gotten away.” And I say, “What would you play?” And he said, “Oh, like ‘Smooth Criminal’ by Michael Jackson.” Amazing. Interviewing those guys you get so many great stories. I already had the structure of the script. But it was so fascinating to talk to these guys. And then one of them became the technical consultant on the movie, a guy who lives in the [San Francisco] Bay Area actually, Joey Loya, who is now a writer. And he’s in the film playing a security guard in one of the bank heists. He was an amazing person to have around.
There are tricks to stealing the right car for a heist. Can you tell us about that?
Wright: The main thing is to steal cars that aren’t conspicuous. The truth is, most of these things have to be dumped. For most bank robberies, you need two cars — one to do the job in and one to disappear in — and both get dumped.
They’re stealing them usually on the day of the heist from a long-stay parking structure and then getting rid of them. So when you see action movies and people are driving the most amazing vintage Mustang or some muscle car that costs a quarter of a million dollars and it’s lime green, that’s not really what they would do in a real bank heist. With the exception of the Hellcat, which comes in at the end because that’s actually one that they steal, we tried to use commuter cars or cars that blend in on the freeway.
Like the Subaru?
Wright: Like a sedan. I mean, it’s like a secret rally car, but it’s still a sedan. And in the movie, there’s a scene where he gets lost amongst a bunch of other red sedans. There are three different makes, but they all kinda look identical in a wide shot.
You’ve described yourself as a geek working in film. What does being a geek mean to you?
Wright: I would just say I’ve never lost being a fan. I still pay to see movies. I’m not somebody who’s tried to remove myself from the reason I got into movies in the first place. It’s just being like a filmgoer. I try to approach everything from a point of passion in terms of what movie would I want to see. You’re not gonna make a movie or spend three years of your life doing something if it’s not something that you, yourself. would go and watch. So I just have to approach the process being a film fan first.
Ansel, you’ve done a couple of music videos. How much tech do you use to create them?
Elgort: These days you can make things yourself so easily, whether it be music videos or music. I think we shot on an Alexa, but it’s not that hard to edit something. You just do it on a computer and color it on a computer. It’s amazing what you can do. I think we did my music video for like $20,000, which is really low for a music video.
Ansel — aside from the “Easy” scene, what was your favorite scene?
Elgort: I loved the first scene right after the first chase in the movie. There is one long shot that’s a Steadicam shot that’s over three minutes long. [Baby] leaves the building, walks down the street, walks down another street, walks in a coffee shop, leaves the coffee shop with the coffees. And it’s all one choreographed-to-music scene, sort of like a modern-day version of the “Saturday Night Fever” scene where [John Travolta’s] walking down the street. It was so cool to be able to do a scene like that. We rehearsed it for a while. That was the first day of filming, actually. And I will always remember that. That was amazing.
What’s the next challenge that each of you want to undertake? Edgar, would you consider directing a Star Wars movie?
Wright: I guess so, yeah. Yeah. I have something crazy but I can’t tell you.
Oh no, you can tell us.
Wright: No, I really can’t [laughs]. You’ll see at Christmas.
What about you, Ansel? What’s next?
Elgort: I don’t know. I’ve been really spoiled working with [Edgar] and working with a cast like this. So I don’t know what I’m doing next. I want to work with really great directors and amazing cast members. I’m also currently putting out one single of my music every month. So that’s keeping me busy and happy while I wait for the next right thing on the acting side of my career.
How much of a techie are you both?
Elgort: I would say I’m a little techie. In high school, I downloaded Ableton [music production software] and started making electronic music … with all the virtual synthesizers, plug-ins and all that stuff. I know a lot about tech music stuff.
Edgar, you’re an Apple guy I assume given you have 32,000 tracks in your iTunes library.
Wright: What’s funny is I still use the iPod. I met somebody from Apple the other day, and I told him I still use the iPod Classic. And he goes, “But do you have Apple music on your phone?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “But you still use the iPod?” I just prefer the iPod. I do like having a hard drive of stuff. I know streaming is sometimes very convenient. But when it’s not convenient, it’s so irritating.
In the last year, when I was editing “Baby Driver,” staying in an apartment in London, I got my vinyl player out. During the editing of the movie, I probably bought 100 vinyl albums. I just started buying albums, and most were albums I already owned. Even though it’s right there on my phone, I wanted to listen to [David Bowie’s] “Hunky Dory” on vinyl. So I went backwards.
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