“All I want is to head west on 20 in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have—just me, my music, and the road.” It’s a key line in Baby Driver uttered by Deborah, an unassuming waitress (played by Lily James) stuck working at diner at a pit-stop in Atlanta. In the most fundamental way, it’s also the lynchpin of director, writer, and producer Edgar Wright’s entire career.
On paper, Wright’s latest project Baby Driver is this: an original film about a young getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) forced into one last doomed job before he can get a taste of freedom. After a car accident left him scarred as a kid, Baby can’t focus without classic tunes scoring his every move. Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Spacey round out a star-studded gang of baddies who hitch a ride with the musical rain man.
As anyone who’s seen Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, and Shaun of the Dead can attest, it’s a true Edgar Wright movie, marked by car chases that play like ballet, roaring classic hits that direct mood like a conductor in an orchestra, and sing-songy dialogue that tickles the senses like tap shoes on a wooden floor. His style is unmistakable, not to mention his trademark.
However, it’s what’s carried in that one line—the openness to being fascinated, the boundless curiosity, and, most importantly, the freedom to make your own choices and take the wheel of your own life—that seems to truly sum up the 43-year-old British director. As it’s been publicly known, getting one’s power back has been a recurring theme in Wright’s life for the past few years.
Along the highway, heading west to Baby Driver, Wright took a detour. In 2006, he had signed on to write and direct the next big Marvel movie, Ant-Man. After fervently putting the film together for six years, he wowed Comic Con audiences with test footage in 2012. In 2014, it was announced that Wright was leaving the film over “creative differences,” severing ties with his eight-year-long passion project.
The news was devastating for him and his fans alike. Not to mention, it was inescapable, with countless trade headlines covering the blow.
Director Edgar Wright, left, with lead Ansel Elgort, right.
However, it proved to be a warped blessing in disguise, as Wright admitted this in a previous interview: “The good thing that came out of it is, I got to kind of move on to [Baby Driver], which was a script that I had already written.”
Already written is an understatement. Wright’s basically been working on the film half his life, as he came up with a vision for Baby Driver when he was just 21 years old. “I was listening a lot to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion track that opens the movie, and I thought, ‘Well this is just like a car chase,’” Wright recalls at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons where he’s promoting the project, 22 years in the making. “The song gave me this idea to map out a character who’s obsessed with the music and it building up to feeling like a pop opera.”
“Making an original movie is just about tenacity, persistence of vision, and just willing something into being.”
During the film’s inception, he was just getting his foot in the door of the entertainment industry, doing odd production jobs in London with far more experienced and well-connected people. In retrospect, it seemed to have subconsciously manifested the film’s titular hero, Baby. “During that period, I was always the youngest person on set and sometimes the cause of constant speculation in terms of like, Who’s this kid? Who does he know? Whose son is he? I had no ties,” Wright remembers. “When I told that story, somebody pointed out: Does that inspire the movie in terms of you being the youngest person in an organization?”
Left to right: Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), Baby (Ansel Elgort) and Bats (Jamie Foxx) in TriStar Pictures’ Baby Driver.
It wasn’t until 10 years ago, after Wright went Hollywood with a couple mainstream films and TV shows on his IMDB, that he revisited the idea. This time, as research, he packed his bags, plugged his iPod into a Prius, and actually went on his own solo pilgrimage across through the U.S. heartland—headed west from New York to Los Angeles.
“I learned a lot from process of driving across the country and listening to music and going to diners like the ones in the movie, every day in every state, and seeing that same idea of this American dream of the ‘50s of the convertibles and Route 66 and the idea of heading west to somewhere better,” Wright says. “It was eye-opening to see that it’s still something that’s a dream of 60 years ago, which is still very much in the consciousness.”
Observing life, collecting stories in tangible ways, and translating it on screen like visual poetry seem to be Wright’s favorite activities. For Hot Fuzz, he interviewed countless ex-police officers. For Baby Driver, he also took meetings with endless con-artists and felons.
“I just get inspired by daily life. Something I read in the paper. Something I see on the internet. A true life story,” Wright muses, recalling his process. “Like Jon Hamm’s character Buddy is an amalgam of two different newspaper stories of fraudsters. Sometimes things are just by osmosis. Write it down—that could be interesting later.”
Baby (Ansel Elgort) and Debora (Lily James) in Baby Driver.
Constructing a mosaic of peculiar ideas is Wright’s MO, and one you can’t really apply to the homogenized superhero studio process.
“Usually if you’re being uncompromising, something is telling you that this doesn’t feel quite right. If you’re making something like a superhero movie, it has a release date on the calendar before the writer or director,” says Wright. “Really, making an original movie is just about tenacity, persistence of vision, and just willing something into being. Only you can make it happen, and that can be, as is the case with this movie, years of force of will to make it happen.”
Thus, Baby Driver is undoubtedly the manifestation of Wright’s dream of the ‘west.’ Here, he can name his characters Baby, Darling, and Buddy because the delicious terms of endearment bring a sweetness to the ear. Here, he can score every single scene of the movie with a different song, and put out a two-disc independent soundtrack with Danger Mouse for fans to relive the magic. Here, he can get Killer Mike and Big Boi to cameo, just because they’re the homies.
Listening to the director talk about the film—and watching his delightful ideas play out on screen—it becomes clear that Baby Driver is Wright truly behind the wheel, at his best on the open road, with no backseat drivers telling him where to turn.
Baby Driver arrives in theaters June 28, 2017.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures unless stated otherwise.