A heist movie filled with car chases and powered by a soundtrack that’s integral to nearly every scene, writer/director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is brimming with kinetic energy. Starring Ansel Elgort as the music-obsessed title character, he works as a getaway driver for local crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) to pay off a long-standing debt, and featuring a rogues’ gallery of rent-a-crooks played by the likes of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal. With all the high-octane, pedal-to-the-floor action, by the the time the credits roll, you’ll be looking for your seatbelt.
But Baby Driver isn’t the kind of movie that just happened. Wright spent more than two decades piecing it together bit by bit, trying out ideas where he could, and making sure his vision would be realized. We got the chance to talk to the acclaimed filmmaker about how the film slowly came to fruition, and the unconventional production process he developed to make sure the film and its soundtrack were in lockstep every scene.
When asked which came first: the movie or the soundtrack, Wright replies simply that “they sort of arrived together.”
“22 years ago I was listening to the [Jon Spencer Blues Explosion] album Orange a lot, before I was even really a director. I was like, 21, [living] in a flat in North London, completely broke. I had made my first no-budget movie [A Fistful of Fingers], but I didn’t know how it was gonna do and I didn’t really know what was next, but I always had a strong reaction to music.”
The more Wright listened to the trio’s album, the more the opening of Baby Driver started to take shape. “I don’t have synesthesia or anything, but definitely when I’m listening to music I start kind of visualizing images. And listening to ‘Bell Bottoms’ I just start to see this car chase. And I didn’t even know that it was a film or what the story was or what it was about, but it basically is pretty much the opening of the movie that you see.”
Once he had the opening scene played out in his head time and again, the film slowly started to take shape. “Through that in terms of listening to other music and having other ideas, it started to formulate. That moment of that visualization predates Spaced [and] Shaun of the Dead. It goes way back. So it’s like there’s a point with some films where it felt like a dream movie because it combines my passions. And it’s a dream movie because getting to make movies in the first place is like, you feel so lucky to be doing it. It’s something that combines all of my passions of action and music together.
“But it’s also I literally sort of dreamt it,” he added. “So there’s certain point where there’s movies where you think ‘I have to make this movie just to get it out of my head.'”
But there was still a long road before Baby Driver would come to be. In the intervening years, he “road-tested this idea” when he was asked to direct the video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.”
“I didn’t intend to use that idea in that video. I literally was supposed to hand in an idea the next morning, and couldn’t come up with anything else. [I] thought ‘Oh, maybe I’ll use that Baby Driver idea.’ Then I was mad at myself. I thought I had squandered the idea in this music video, even though the music video had gone down well.”
With the first incarnation of his idea realized, Wright decided to spend a lengthy amount of time on the road, which he lovingly referred to as his “Kerouac time.”
“Ten years ago I drove across the states from New York to L.A., and from L.A. to Vancouver. I felt like I couldn’t really make this movie as a sort of middle class Englishman until I’d actually done my time on America’s freeways. I literally did listen to music the entire time. Drove on my own, listened to music for, like, seven hours a day while I was driving across the States. It was magical.”
Once he’d put some miles on his odometer while immersing himself in music, he was ready to start getting serious about making Baby Driver. “After Hot Fuzz, I first mentioned the idea to my producers, Big Talk and Working Title. I had signed this two picture deal with them, one of which was The World’s End, and the second one was [Baby Driver]. And I didn’t know what the story was, but what I pitched them was a car movie driven by music.”
While writing the first draft, Wright started “talking to ex-cons, talking to ex-getaway drivers, talking to musicians and talking to DJs.” He focused his research to be both “about music and about crime, and those few moments where they intersect.”
“So then, between [Hot Fuzz] and Scott Pilgrim, I was always working on this script, [and] I finished the script before The World’s End.”
Around this time, the Mint Royale video started making the rounds again, in part because the clip’s star, Noel Fielding, had gained some fame in the interim. “Suddenly, it would pop on Reddit or something, people saying ‘Have you seen this video with Noel Fielding directed by Edgar Wright?’ And so, strangely enough, back when I’d done it, I felt like I’d squandered the idea. And then it actually became a benefit.”
While still collecting his ideas for Baby Driver, Wright realized that he’d “post-dated the idea.”
“Even though that video was more comedic than the film, it was still something where you’re trying to get the tone of the film across. It’s always good to have that short in your back pocket.”
By the time production began, Wright said the process from that point on was a straight shot. “It wasn’t until this summer, by the time the film comes out, it will have been three solid years of making it.”
“Now,” Wright added cautiously, “that doesn’t mean it was easy to get it going, but it was definitely the point where I felt [like] this is my next movie, and I’ll put everything into making it happen.”
In order to make sure Wright’s vision was properly executed, he had to devise an all-new approach to filming, one that guaranteed that each scene would sync up perfectly to the song he’d chosen to accompany it. This meant filming a scene, then editing it on set to make sure it was working before the day wrapped.
“We really planned ahead, so the script had all of the songs written into it. Sometimes the songs are written into the stage directions. Then, before we started filming, we had storyboarded the entire thing. And that was something to kind of work out the running time and also to design these sequences. So you’d cut the storyboards to the music.”
Given the meticulous attention to detail in pre-production, Wright explains what, exactly, made it different from other movies. “Unlike some other action scenes, a lot of action scenes, they’ll just have vague ideas for hero moments, but then they’ll just shoot the shit out of it. This is much more precise in terms of, this song is five minutes long, so this scene is not going any longer than that. This song is two minutes long, so this scene isn’t going any longer than that.”
“By the time we started shooting, we had storyboards, animatics, and when the actors came into it, we would rehearse with them, both with a stunt team and choreographers. So, at no point are the actors going to be on set with something that they haven’t already done in the rehearsal room. At no point in the movie are we getting on set and ‘finding it.’ We worked it out.”
While the process was exhausting, Wright says that “it’s the only real way to get through a schedule like this. Because it’s an intense, ambitious schedule.”
Despite their precision planning, some moments came about while filming. “There are happy accidents that come out of that. Once we’re shooting, none of the actors [are] listening to the music, [but] they know all the counts. There’s a bit where they switch cars. They pull up, get out of one car, get into another car, and pull off, all in time with the music. And that’s something where you might not be able to play the music. You just have to do the counts.”
“So the choreographer’s doing the counts, because the start of the section that relies on when Ansel stops the car. So if Ansel stops, everybody opens their doors, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, boom, drive off.”
“If you watch that sequence,” says Wright, “it’s a more complicated shot than it appears to be because Ansel pulls up, everyone opens their doors at the same time, they all switch places, Eiza González gets into the driver’s seat, then they close their doors, and then she pulls off in time with the music. Then, editing on set so you can slot what you’ve shot into what you thought and see if the timing’s working.”
Of course, there’s that old saying about ‘best laid plans,’ which happened to find its way into the production. “There was one sequence where [director of photography] Bill Pope had watched the animatic that we’d done for the second car chase, the one set to The Damned. And he said, ‘What you’ve drawn is too long for the song, what you’ve cut together is going too fast, and you’re going to want to see some of these stunts a bit longer.’ He was totally right.”
Even with things not going as planned, Wright and his team would use these moments to their advantage. “What happens is: we play all of the song out, and all of the action out, and then where they have to ditch their car and then carjack another one. Ansel gets into the new one, gets his iPod out, plugs it into the new stereo, and rewinds the song to the start of the last verse.”
“I just felt like ‘Do I want a second song? Not really.’ I can’t have no song, because that goes against his whole MO. So then I had the idea of just rewinding it. That’s something that was not in the script, but it’s one of those little character-defining moments. Because that’s what the character would do. When he gets back on track, he’s in the new car, now he’s back in control again, ‘But let me just back up the music to where I was.'”