Talking ‘Baby Driver’ and the Art of Visual Comedy with Edgar Wright

hamm-wrightFew mainstream filmmakers treat the full range of cinema as their playground quite like Edgar Wright does. With each film he releases, the British director (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) —known for his innovative yet playful visual language — pushes the boundaries of what we’ve come to accept about the limitations of genre and visual storytelling. There is no such thing as a finite amount of ways to manipulate the marriage of image and sound when Edgar Wright is in the director’s chair.

His latest effort is no different. Baby Driver is an adrenalized heist thriller-meets-musical comedy about a quiet getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who at all times has a groovy playlist pulsating through his headphones to drown out the “hum in the drum” he suffers from after a childhood car accident left his ears ringing. After he gets in too deep with a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) he finds himself in a race against time to save himself and the girl of his dreams (Lily James) and evade the group of loveable psychopaths hot on his trail (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eliza Gonzalez).

And did I mention that every electrifying action sequence is on beat to the soundtrack? That’s right: each gunshot, car crash, and camera cue is synchronized to the music, an awe-inspiring technical achievement that creates an immersive, exhilarating movie-going experience (Think of Simon Pegg beating that pub-crawling zombie with a pool stick in Shaun of the Dead on beat to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” fleshed out for an entire film of insane car chase set pieces).

I sat down with Wright to discuss Baby Driver, the art of visual comedy, and the reward of discovering In Living Color late in life.

The Cornetto Trilogy was a trio of perfect proper comedies, but Baby Driver contains some of your best visual gags to date. Do you even consider Baby Driver an action comedy?

I hope this doesn’t get our interview kicked off of Splitsider but I wouldn’t actually call Baby Driver an action-comedy. I think it’s more of an action-thriller that is funny throughout. There’s certainly big laughs all the way through. Hot Fuzz is an outright comedy as is The World’s End, but I view Baby Driver as an action-thriller that happens to contain comedic elements. One of the things that separates Baby Driver from those films is that the comedic bits are sort of lulling you into a false sense of security. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s watched any film noirs or heist movies, this dawning realization to our young hero that he is in nest of vipers and that there is no such thing as a good bad guy. There’s something inherently funny in that premise. They’re all bad apples. Some might get a chance to redeem themselves but no matter how charming Baby’s colleagues are, they’re still just charming psychos.

It’s funny because one review I read of Baby Driver that was mostly positive said the first 18 minutes of the film is some of the best action-comedy filmmaking ever but then it starts to get much darker. Which surprised me because I never thought of this as a comedy. Maybe I need to reevaluate. [laughs]

The casting is brilliant too because these are actors who can seamlessly switch from threatening to funny to dramatic in a completely authentic way.

I like crime movies that have a sharp twist in the tale. And in Baby Driver you have Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, and Jon Hamm — performers who can do both comedy and drama brilliantly. Kevin and Jamie have won Oscars for their dramatic work and Jon has won Emmys for his. And all three of them are just naturally great comedians. Jamie started as a standup, so it’s easier to tap into that sense of timing and rhythm and get them to lull you into finding their menacing behavior almost likeable. So the comedic tone of this film wasn’t entirely by design, but the casting of those three really helps the rhythm of the movie. The dialogue has the patter of a comedy, which sort of seduces you into these morally sticky situations of the film.

You tend to populate your films primarily with comedic actors, but Jamie Foxx was the only true comedian in Baby Driver. Were you always a fan of his standup?

It’s funny because I grew up in the UK and never got to see In Living Color because they never played it there. I also wasn’t aware of The Jamie Foxx Show either until later in life. So the first time I really saw Jamie was in Any Given Sunday. I was talking to Jamie about this other day — how much I missed out because In Living Color never aired in the UK. So my first experience with Jamie as a performer was as a dramatic one. It wasn’t until later that I caught up on his comedic background. Recently I was watching that In Living Color sketch with him and Jim Carrey in a Dating Game scenario and it’s the funniest thing ever. Jamie was only like 21 or 22 there! But that’s what makes him so great — to come from this standup background to then be the lead in Collateral or Django Unchained and show such intense chops at drama. Basically I came to Jamie the opposite way Americans did.

I love the idea of him still being extremely funny in Baby Driver but always with this sense of threat. He’s sort of looking to fuck with people and get under their skin. It’s that thing where there’s always that one guy in the crew trying to find weak spots in the other members and sort of needle them. I love that aspect of his character.

Do you typically write with a specific genre in mind?

When I was writing this script my intention was to write a badass heist movie and I think the idiosyncratic elements naturally crept in. When you think about it, it could play as a workplace movie. You could double bill Baby Driver with Nancy Meyers’s The Intern or Devil Wears Prada because at its heart Ansel is really working for an evil boss. [laughs] And much like workplace comedy, you’re getting to see the film through the eyes of the young apprentice. Baby’s character fools himself into thinking that he isn’t a criminal because he’s mythologized what he’s doing and compartmentalizing any sort of guilt about the fact he’s involved in crime.

But the structure of the movie is the three successive heist jobs, so it becomes impossible for him to ignore the consequences of his behavior. The idea is that you start with this fantasy of the getaway driver. The opening chase feels like Grand Theft Auto came to life. But from the second heist onwards you get into more problems as things start to go haywire. By the third heist, Baby can’t be passive anymore and has to make life or death decisions. But the workplace elements were certainly intentional. Also Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake books and movies like The Driver and Reservoir Dogs and Heat where you get a sense of being a bank robber as a job and an industry.  

You really experiment with framing, camera work and editing to tell visual jokes even if the events unfolding on screen aren’t comedic in tone. Can you talk about your approach to visual humor?

There’s a science to visual comedy and the timing of things. It’s no coincidence that in comedy films or in horror films people use the term “gag.” Growing up watching all kinds of genre films, you become very aware that a perfectly timed visual gag isn’t a million miles away from a shock. A visual joke is about timing and composition. It’s interesting to me when comedy and horror filmmakers will talk in the same regard about how to craft a visual joke or visual shock, because it’s always about subverting an expectation. The element of surprise, composition, timing, and sound — all of the elements are the same for the best kind of “boo!” shock in a movie and the best visual joke in a movie. Then you have some directors — and this is where the Venn Diagram really becomes specific to me — like John Landis. One of the most influential movies for me growing up was An American Werewolf in London. Here you have a comedy director tackling horror and acing both of them. To me that is the movie that really blew my head off because Landis created some of the best shocks ever using what could be the same structure as a comedy.

Is that balance of tone something you’re always mindful of?

If you think about Baby Driver as a movie that isn’t a proper comedy but makes you laugh, even if uneasily, you could think of the Coen Brothers stuff. They’re great at doing broader comedies like Raising Arizona or Big Lebowski, but there are bits in No Country for Old Men where things are so incredibly tense, yet a line of dialogue will get a laugh because it’s like a release. Same thing with Pulp Fiction when they accidentally shoot Marvin’s head off. When I saw that in the cinema people were laughing for two minutes straight. It plays as the funniest thing ever because there’s a slapstick element to it. Baby Driver attempts to straddle those tense moments and moments of comedic relief.

You employ the art of the callback — both visually and through dialogue — better than most standups. Is there one in particular you’re most proud of in Baby Driver?

There’s one bit that totally brings the house down. I don’t want to spoil it, but I was really pleased with it and it comes from a callback from Kevin Spacey’s character. The setup for that joke subtly appears within the first 20 minutes and the payoff to the joke is in the last 20 minutes. You should never play down to an audience. It’s a reward for them as viewers.

Also, subverting the emotional expectation of a scene can elicit big laughs. There’s a scene where Ansel is forced to play back his goofy mixtapes to the gang. That moment is subverting the thriller cliché where if someone is taping or recording something then they must be a narc or a snitch. So the idea was, why would this kid be taping these meetings? And his excuse was so outlandish yet true, and when he’s forced to play the evidence it gets a huge laugh. It’s funny because no one in the scene is doing anything goofy, they’re playing it completely straight, but the expressions on Spacey, Foxx, and Hamm’s faces are deadly serious. The humor is in their confusion. Laughter is a release from that tension.

Photo by Wilson Webb.

Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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