How music birthed ‘Baby Driver’: An interview with Edgar Wright and Ansel Elgort

Ansel Elgort;Lily James
Sony Pictures Entertainment/Courtesy

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A one-two crunch of power chords heralds the first frames of Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver.” The riff is from “Bellbottoms,” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and its electrifying beat immediately establishes the film as one in which music and action are inseparably intertwined. Baby (Ansel Elgort) — prodigious getaway driver and walking encyclopedia of music — taps the steering wheel in perfect syncopation with the song before switching to an impassionedly convincing air violin.

What follows is a film that can only be described as an action-musical. “When I first pitched the idea to (producer) Eric Fellner, I said it was like a car movie driven by music,” explained director Edgar Wright.

In fact, entire scenes in the film were born out of music. Unlike a normal film, in which soundtracks and scores are generally sourced after filming, Wright designed the scenes of “Baby Driver” around a pre-selected soundtrack, taking the step to secure the rights for his desired music ahead of time.

“We cut all the storyboards to (“Bellbottoms”) — it’s both helpful and more challenging for the stunt team,” Wright said of the film’s opening chase sequence. “You have to be really clever about it. You have to think ‘Oh we don’t have enough street to last for this part of the song.’ ”

After the opening chase, Baby walks to a coffee shop, but has little bursts of dance along the way. Set to the tune of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” it is the most musical-esque scene in the film, and features extras who wouldn’t be out of place on the set of “La La Land.”

Thankfully, Elgort has had plenty of experience dancing his way through scenes. “This (scene) was one continuous three minute thing, which reminded me of musical theater, because that’s how I started,” he said. The sense of ease that Elgort brings to the scene imbues Baby with a nonchalant coolness which — along with his ever-present sunglasses and iPod — defines the character.

Wright himself prepared for the scene as as one would for a musical, playing “Harlem Shuffle” while practicing Baby’s routes, filming on an iPhone. “We would try and walk to when (Elgort) would get to a certain point in the song. ” Wright said. “You know the crew is either going to go ‘Oh this is going to be really good’ or ‘These guys are fucking crazy.’ ” Wright’s rigorous preparation allowed that scene to be perfectly choreographed to the music, down to details like tapping the keys of an ATM in sync with the song’s percussion.

Even before “Baby Driver,” though, Wright’s films have always used music in the brilliant, dynamic style of the directors he names as influences, including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Who can forget “Shaun of the Dead’s” iconic scene of zombie clobbering in time to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” or how the off-kilter beat of The Doors’ cover of “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” represents various states of inebriation in “The World’s End?”

Those music-filled scenes were only a fraction of their respective films’ runtimes — in “Baby Driver,” Wright positions music as a constant presence. The music in this film informs nearly every scene — Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” is the basis for the sweetest meet-cute in recent memory, and the Commodores’ “Easy” became a key plot point after Elgort suggested it in his audition.

In this way “Baby Driver” feels like a progression for Wright. This film is a clear, monumental step forward for him, demonstrating a perfection of the style and tone that were showcased in the “Cornetto” trilogy and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Wright was already an auteur director, but his newest work emphasizes that status.

Although “Baby Driver” shows how Wright has moved forward as a filmmaker, it also takes him back to his earliest roots. “This is an idea I’ve had longer than any of the other (films),” he said. “It was building up to something like this. I don’t think I could have made this movie 10 years ago.”

Just as it does in the film, “Bellbottoms” kicked off Wright’s creative process for “Baby Driver.” As his initial idea percolated over 22 years, songs were added and the story began fleshing itself out. The music tracked the film’s growth, just as it tracks Baby’s arc in the story.

In this sense, the film celebrates how we listen to music. A medley of artists narrate our personal growth as individuals, and “Baby Driver” — in its production and narrative — is a joyous and infectious testament to the sentiment that though our tastes inevitably change, some songs refuse to leave us alone.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].