Starting with the television series Spaced and carrying through the feature films Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright has consistently told stories of young people who see the world through the filter of pop culture. So it’s little wonder he ended up directing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s cult-favorite Scott Pilgrim comic-book series. Michael Cera plays Pilgrim, a struggling Toronto musician and videogame obsessive charged with defeating the “seven evil exes” of his new girlfriend Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). With his first project in more than a decade without longtime collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Wright throws himself into the task with total abandon, abandoning any pretense of realism and spinning the film into scenes inspired by games, sitcoms, and pop songs. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Wright about capturing the feel of Toronto, teen hormonal craziness, whether videogames are art, and how Mario has become our generation’s Mickey Mouse.
The A.V. Club: What aspects of Toronto were important for you to capture in the film?
Edgar Wright: In the same way that if I hadn’t had access to Bryan Lee O’Malley and he hadn’t been really helpful and part of it all the way through, I wouldn’t have done the film. In the same way, if we hadn’t have shot in Toronto, I think I would’ve been completely at sea. If for any reason we hadn’t shot in Toronto for tax-break reasons, it would’ve been a huge mistake. I can’t tell you what a gift it was to be able to read the book, then go meet with the writer and sit in some of the locations he drew. In the first volume, there’s a scene of Scott and Ramona walking in the park on their first date and Bryan took photographs of all the locations, so a lot of the artwork in the books, the places that they’re in, are from his own photographic reference. Because that was only from 2003, he still had all the photographs, so we had this amazing resource. There’s obvious landmarks like Honest Ed’s or Lee’s Palace, but in this case, very specific suburban houses or specific parks, which in theory you could shoot in any park and make it right for the scene, but to be in the right places felt quite magical, really. Then cut to another two years later, and to be standing there with the actors. There’s a spirit in the books that I tried to bring across in the film of making Toronto seem like a fairy-tale land. Even at its most everyday and mundane, I wanted to romanticize it and make it look slightly magical. It was just amazing to be in the real places.
AVC: It kind of goes back to Spaced, too, where you have these pop-culture fantasies and magical things breaking out of an everyday setting.
EW: When I read the first volume, it reminded me of a little bit of Spaced. It was one of the first things apart from liking the book that attracted me to the material. I like this idea of magical realism springing from people’s pop-culture diet. Characters in their early 20s who have left high school but haven’t found what the next actual calling in life is. They’re not necessarily working in jobs yet, or they don’t have a lot of life experience, or they haven’t even necessarily traveled, so pretty much their entire existence is governed by this media and technology. In Spaced, the two characters are both writers and artists, but their lack of creativity was contrasted by their fertile imaginations, and I think Scott Pilgrim goes even further, that he’s actually living the live of a young solipsist. I tried to make it seem—and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s books do this as well—like an unreliable narrator. In film, I like this idea that he’s the hero of the movie inside his own head. A life of gaming brought him up to be somebody—he’s not selfish, but he’s definitely kind of thoughtless. He’s the hero of his own story, and he’s quite single-minded. In the film, he doesn’t think about the feelings of the characters around him, or the consequences of some of his actions. He sort of views Ramona like she’s a shiny object in a game. I like the fact that the movie is about, to some extent, him getting his comic comeuppance.
AVC: The books are written in a very specific language, drawing on manga and videogames. How did you find the film equivalent of that?
EW: It’s definitely an interesting challenge, but it’s also what attracted me to it. It’s not really a tone you see in much Western cinema. I was given the book the week it was published. It wasn’t like it had a big fan base. People have asked me, “Were you a fan of the books before?” I read it when everybody else read it. What was interesting is that it was given to me by the studio, so I was in the very odd position of this being something that Universal sent to me, essentially saying, “Do you want to make this film?” Given how bananas the source material was in places, I really saw it as an opportunity that could not be passed up. Bringing it to the screen, that’s what really attracted me: “How can I find this balance of comedy and romance and these insane action sequences and musical sequences and still keep it relatable?”
Having done Spaced definitely helped, because I really liked that lack of rules to the sort of techniques you can use. I liked the idea of framing it within Scott Pilgrim’s head. This character would love points to appear when he did something good, and would love for doorbells to actually go “ding-dong.” This is how Scott Pilgrim would choose to live his life. I saw the book as being the Nintendo era of Billy Liar. That kind of gives you a great jumping-off point for the film, because you can break the rules a lot more.
Some people have asked me, “Is there ever a point where you thought ‘Is this going too far?’” And I thought, “What’s the straight version of Scott Pilgrim?” You certainly couldn’t shoot that book in a naturalistic fashion. I guess a lot of comic-book adaptations strive for realism. Christopher Nolan is making Batman seem very real and very serious. I love the Adam West TV show as much as I love some of the more serious comic-book adaptations, but it became kind of a dirty word for 20 years, because it had somehow made a mockery of comic books. Reading Bryan’s stuff, because it was a comedy rather than a more serious comic book, there was a chance to embrace the bubblegum-pop-art nature of it and play the film within the head of this character.
AVC: Billy Liar is an interesting point of comparison. There, it’s really clear what’s fantasy and what’s real, but here, there’s no dividing line. Were you worried about losing the audience?
EW: I don’t know. It’s difficult, and it’s funny, only having watched the film in the last three weeks, finished. I’ve seen it a bunch of times with audiences, because we test-screened it five times, which is four times more than I had with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Even through that process, which is fascinating and exciting and terrifying at the same time, it never got to a point where the vision was compromised. Maybe at the first test screening, there were a bunch of people who had written on their cards, “How can they all fight? Where did the super powers come from?” Then somehow at the other screenings, those kinds of notes drifted away, and nobody was really asking that anymore. I don’t really have an answer as to how far is too far, because I simply picked up the ball and ran with it and only now am I thinking, “Okay, well, that’s the film I made, that is getting released into theaters.” It’s funny, sometimes you don’t have time to analyze it beyond “This is a movie I’d like to see. This is the product of lots of work over the last five years.” I don’t really know how to answer that. Definitely we’d get notes from the studio about “Do we have to explain how they fight?”, and my feeling was always “No, you would kill it stone dead if you had to explain how Scott Pilgrim can fight.”
AVC: You’re in the Scott Pilgrim universe now, and these are the rules.
EW: Yeah, I feel like it’s the same in the books. What I like about the character is that even though he’s got his flaws, there’s something about his complete blind, naïve optimism about life. Even sometimes in the film, when he’s getting punched in the face. The fact that he’s getting punched in the face by a famous guy, he’s sort of strangely happy about it, although the point of that story is that the novelty wears off for Scott Pilgrim, and he doesn’t want to play anymore by the time it gets to the third fight. I really wanted to make a film you could get lost in. The first half-hour of the film is like these little Russian-doll sequences, waking dreams where Scott Pilgrim has met this girl and has got blinkers on for the rest of the universe as soon as he meets Ramona. I like it being not entirely clear whether he wakes up. The trickiest thing in the adaptation as far as answering questions about rules and reality—which Bryan didn’t have to worry about so much in the book, because they’re six volumes, and you can to a certain extent start again after book one—but the trickiest balancing act is how people react after the first fight, and how does the rest of the world react after Matthew Patel explodes into coins?
That’s where the idea of making allusions to musicals came in, and playing the fights like production numbers in a MGM musical, where Gene Kelly does a big dance number, and then you’re right back into the story, and nobody comments on the amazing virtuoso tap number they’ve just seen. That was the idea about making the fight scenes dream-like and big production numbers, and also through the ensemble and peanut gallery, show that everybody else had their own preoccupations that stopped them from doing what any real person would do during these fights: “What the fuck was that? He just had this fight, and was flying through the air!” But we do the joke that Scott Pilgrim is more distracted by the fact that he doesn’t have enough coins for the bus, Stephen Stills is more concerned that Sex Bob-omb won by default. Ramona Flowers wants to get out of there because she’s mortified. Stacey Pilgrim is distracted by the fact that Wallace is kissing her boyfriend. Knives is passed out with excitement, and is excited about Sex Bob-omb winning. So it’s definitely a tricky balancing act of just keeping the ball in the air. It wasn’t easy, and it was definitely an ambitious thing to try and pull off, so I hope I did that. [Laughs.]
AVC: You bring in some genres that comics can’t really address, specifically the sitcom and Seinfeld homage. Why that homage for this story?
EW: It snowballed out of one little bit in volume one. There’s a scene where they kiss at the end of volume one, and Bryan had drawn an arrow and written “Studio Audience,” and the studio audience was going “Aww,” and I thought that was great. I thought, “That’s exactly how he sees it.” Again in terms of him being the hero of his own movie, he has his own laugh track in his head. He hears what he thinks people would be thinking. That happens at the end of that scene, and I thought that because he’s going back to Wallace to brag about making out with Ramona the night before, he bursts into the house like Kramer or Fonzi, complete with his own rapturous applause. So again, I think it works as a funny joke because Michael Cera is in super-goofy post-makeout mode, but it’s really the idea of Scott Pilgrim having his own studio audience in his head.
AVC: You worked with O’Malley when he was still finishing the series. What was that process like?
EW: It was really good. It was actually sort of a little vague at first. There’s always pressure from the studio when there’s a hot new idea, to go out there and do it regardless of whether it’s finished yet. When I first got involved, I really loved the first book, but I was a little skeptical about how exactly this would work. I think the first book had been published, and the second book was nearly finished. I was skeptical and I stalled slightly for time, and through a number of blessings in disguise, we managed to develop it over five years. Part of it was, I started working with Michael Bacall on an adaptation, and our first thing was to go to Toronto and pick Bryan’s brain to amass as much as we could. We did a first draft that was like a placeholder, what I would call a kitchen-sink draft where you just throw everything in. It’s literally a placeholder to say to the studio, “Hey, we want to make this. We haven’t forgotten about this. I’m going off to do Hot Fuzz, and I’ll be back in two years, but don’t forget I’m excited about doing this film.” That’s what we did in 2005. That draft was based on two of the books that had been published, book three had been half-written, and then the other books, Bryan had hashed out some kind of story arc.
Really, the film derived from that, but then as the book developed over subsequent drafts, we would put more material back in. It was a good organic process, because it became clear very early on that the two things would be different beasts. Bryan was a great collaborator in that respect, because I think he actually wanted the two things to differ. The book is always going to be canon, and that’s Bryan’s saga, and I feel like the film is a mad fling version of his long-term relationship. It did get weirdly incestuous along the way, because there are lines in books four and five which Bryan very politely asked if he could use from our screenplay. That was great, and even further than that, there are scenes in the film which are different from the book, but refer to Bryan’s notes, which were just some original spitballing he had which he didn’t end up using. But we asked if we could use the idea, thinking that it would work for the film even though it didn’t pan out for the books. Even beyond that, right before shooting, Bryan did some polishing with Michael and me, and there are a couple of lines in the film that are Bryan’s, that get a great response from fans, even though they’re not from the books. That was the main thing, just by involving him all the way through—even as the plot diverges and the pace and momentum are different from the books, we were able to make it true to the characters and make sure the humor was in the spirit of the books.
AVC: Speaking of pace, it seems like with each film, you’re ramping up the pace as far as actual plotting goes. How hard is it to hold onto the emotional component when you’re doing that?
EW: I try, at least—even when there’s a story going through, even within the fights, I try to give a feeling of Scott Pilgrim’s emotions governing how the fights play out. Even to the point where in the midsection, it takes on a darker feel, because at the end of the third fight, he doesn’t want to play anymore. We tried to mirror his relationships through the fight. Even when there isn’t dialogue—I guess not many action films actually stop for people to have an emotional tête-à-tête in the middle of the fight. What we tried to do was make the six fights mirror how he feels about the relationship. In the first fight, he defeats Matt Patel easily, because he’s in the first flush of puppy dog love, but by the fourth fight, he’s got massive insecurities, because he’s not mature enough to deal with a girlfriend with a past. In the sixth fight, I wanted it to be that Scott Pilgrim is fighting for exactly the wrong reasons. It’s become less about her and more about this guy talking to her.
I wanted to show the huge highs and crushing lows of what it’s like to be in love at that age and sometimes not even understanding your own body and feelings. I feel like Scott Pilgrim is 22, but sometimes he acts like he’s 12. To me, sometimes it’s about the rush of hormones, and you don’t understand why you feel the way you do. It’s definitely a tricky balancing act doing those things, and that’s what you get the most out of test screenings, trying to find that balance, because you’re aware that if you’re making something that’s supposed to be a romantic comedy and an action film, those fans are not necessarily in the same theater at the same time.
AVC: Were there any kind of videogame references you had to make sure to get into this movie, just as a fan?
EW: I see the videogame things as flourishes. Sometimes the videogame sounds and music are almost to induce nostalgia, or this Pavlovian response among people who know what those sounds are. [Laughs.] Just having a Mac error sound when the character does something wrong. I like it being the sounds that have defined a generation, the sounds you know so well, but don’t even recognize happening. They become the workings of your brain. To me, replacing a light-bulb-type sound with a Sonic The Hedgehog “bing!” is more in keeping with this film and its generation than taking it off a Looney Tunes CD of sound effects. I like putting those videogame references in as audio motifs, because they’re sounds that are so familiar to you that you barely recognize them actually happening. You have to make the film for people who know the books and games inside out, but also general audiences as well, so I think they’re seen as little flourishes. Even a tiny sound-effect thing from Flash Gordon is meant to speak to that one person in the theater who has a connection to that, but it’s not meant to stop the scene cold.
AVC: Did you have any guidelines as to when a reference was too specific?
EW: I think the key is not making the scene stop for the reference. Most of them are audio references or the names of bands, and it doesn’t really matter if you know what they are or not. In some cases, the references in the books meant nothing to me—I read them as metaphors in their own rights. I didn’t make any immediate connection between the door that appears in the film and Mario—I just read it more like this door representing a leap into the unknown, and Scott Pilgrim flying blindly into a mysterious void. It’s funny, sometimes with Spaced, people would try and read too much into something I’d done, with the references meaning something more than they do. One journalist said, “What was that shoelaces shot all about? Everybody was laughing at the shoelaces, what’s that a reference to?” And I said, “I don’t know, it’s just funny. Everything’s fast, and then it just stops for him to tie his shoelaces.” There’s really nothing more to that one.
AVC: There’s an ongoing argument about whether videogames can be art. Where does this film fit into that argument?
EW: I think it both eulogizes them and shows the downsides of them. I think Scott Pilgrim’s thoughtlessness and selfishness could come from playing way too many games and being lost in a world where you are the hero, the bit players are not important, they’re just items along the way, and you’re achieving experience points without necessarily having the experience yourself. On the flipside, it’s interesting that Nintendo has become a design classic, and Mario has almost become the Mickey Mouse of our generation. I know it’s become an ongoing thing about whether videogames are art, and I think there’s plenty of examples of things that use the form in a fascinating way. Things that are more surreal or artistic, like Katamari Damacy or Vib-Ribbon. I think where the criticism of videogames come from is where videogames are just Xeroxes of films, and when you get a film adaptation of that game, you’ve just Xeroxed something twice. I think that’s where a lot of the criticism comes from—there are ultra-violent games that are already based on a million films. But there’s definitely beauty and art and design in games. I don’t think anybody could deny that.