Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Writer-director Edgar Wright has amassed quite an enviable critical and commercial cult following throughout the years. From his incomparable work on the British TV show SPACED, to the “Cornetto Trilogy” (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, THE WORLD’S END), to SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, to his indelible GRINDHOUSE fake movie trailer “Don’t,” his vision captured the hearts of cinephiles worldwide. His latest film, BABY DRIVER, a supped-up gearhead heist movie with heavy music influences, will make our hearts go pitter-pat faster once more.
The insanely brilliant action-crime feature tells the story of music-lover/ tinnitus-sufferer Baby (Ansel Elgort) – an ace getaway driver under the thumb of wealthy crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). He gets criminals – like Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) ad Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) – to the finish line with the greatest of ease. However, things get complicated after he meets his lady love, Debora (Lily James), and wants out of the biz permanently.
Back in 2002, the auteur laid the groundwork to build up to a feature version of the concepts developed in Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” music video. Wright, at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, stated,
The best thing about doing music videos which has helped movies is that you try things out. Especially in this day and age, music video budgets have gone way, way down. It’s not something you necessarily do to make money. You do it to experiment. Some of the music videos I did fifteen years ago were things I was trying out techniques for SHAUN OF THE DEAD. There’s a video I did back in 2002 that was sort of a dry run for BABY DRIVER. Working with a choreographer, stuff like that. It is a form that I like. I wish I could do more of them to be honest.
The fact that Baby suffers from a painful case of tinnitus and is forced to drown it out with music wasn’t something that was in Wright’s head early on.
I didn’t have the idea originally, but I had the idea early on that this is about a getaway driver who has to listen to the right music to be able to operate at his fullest. I read that Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia, which has all sorts of interesting stories about the way the brain reacts to music and people’s hearing. I used to have tinnitus when I was like seven or eight. I had to have my ears syringed. It was very painful. And I read stories about people – Barbra Streisand was one of the ones – and it said about using music to drown it out. It was like ‘Oh! This is exactly what it should be.’
His biggest challenge bringing this story to life was the simple act of trying to communicate his vision on the page.
It’s an interesting skill to have to make an action film exciting on the page. It’s a whole other part of the process that has no bearing on the end result, but you’ve got to try to sell this tone to the studio and actors. One of the reasons we got the cast on board is because they all responded to the script and they all understood what kind of movie it was, trying to explain the action and the music together. If anything it was harder that way around. I remember saying to a producer, ‘I can see it. I wish I could just start making it tomorrow, but I have to write it all down first and that’s the biggest grind.’
Another aspect that presented its own certain set of challenges dealt with the film’s vehicular mayhem. Wright credits this as being the most difficult thing to have done.
Shooting car chases are never easy – especially during the day on major freeways. That is the biggest undertaking of the whole endeavor.
Staging these became somewhat of a thing too. Wright joked with me,
…headache? [laughs loudly] I don’t think I slept throughout the entire production. It was very intense. It was just a herculean effort doing those car chases. It’s not just the stunts. It’s not just the camerawork. It’s the location aspect to it. The location department worked miracles. Atlanta is a busy city and we’re using their major freeway to do a car chase. It was insane.
Prior to landing the gig as the extraordinary getaway driver, Elgort had not been familiar with how to do car stunts.
I did a bunch of driving courses with Jeremy Fry, our stunt driver. We wanted for me to feel very comfortable behind the wheel whether or not I was actually driving. If I did get to drive, that I could do some of the stunts, which I did only a few of them. When I wasn’t actually driving and I was just yanking the wheel, I would be moving the wheel in the way that I was supposed to be moving the wheel doing those kinds of movements. I was glad I got to do all that prep. I felt like I was at Summer Camp. I had to do an accent. I had to do sign language and parkour and driving training and all the choreography.
James, who suffers from vertigo, told me that the most challenging day involved her looking off a parking garage deck to the street below.
That car park was really high. I had to have a rope attached to me because I had to get right to the edge to look down. I get bad vertigo so I felt compelled to leap off into the burning car. That was scary.
Elgort mentioned that the foot chase was his hardest day, not because of the stunts themselves, but because of his poor decisions prior to shooting them.
For whatever reason, when we were shooting night shoots, I’d go and play street ball on concrete, every day before filming. I got the worst shin splints ever. I didn’t want to tell Edgar. The stunts weren’t ever really the problem – it was I had these crazy shin splints when I was trying to do them. I was able to roll out, when I wasn’t filming, with a dough roller. When it would start seizing up again, I would just dough roll it out. He thought I got them from doing the stunts themselves. He’s not a big athlete.
Each of the car chases showcased is tangibly different from the other with the help of the different vehicles used in the heists, but also thanks to the characters driving the narrative forward at the same time – a genuine feat in the genre. Wright elucidated to me,
Usually a lot of set pieces are, ‘Oh it’s been fifteen minutes. Gotta have a car chase, I guess.’ And in this, the thing is, using those action scenes to show character. So you see the first chase and that’s like Swiss accuracy and everything goes like clockwork. The second chase things start to go wrong immediately and you see it in Ansel having to make choices. Nothing is easy. There’s a member of the public shooting at them. They carjack a car and there’s a baby in the back. Somebody’s screwed up and they’re in trouble with the rest of the gang. It was very deliberate. Really what you’re doing is showing Ansel’s character to the point where he can’t be passive anymore. He has to make some strong decisions and by the time he gets to the third heist, Ansel does a couple of things that have an enormous impact on the rest of the movie.
I always thought in those video games, like Grand Theft Auto and the driver sort of games, it would be interesting to put somebody of that generation into the much more morally sticky situation. It’s not as easy as playing a video game. There’s no way of being involved in crime without getting blood on your hands in some way. I’m glad you picked up on that. They are driving the narrative forward, but their real intention is showing his character and through showing his decisions.
As far as the costumes go, Wright took a page from his own playbook and color-coated each character. He and costume designer Courtney Hoffman worked together to get the correct, unforgettable and iconic looks for each of these character’s traits to reflect. He told me,
The characters wear a particular color and stick with that color. It’s just a way of tracking them throughout the movie. It’s also because we decided to shoot Atlanta, even though it’s extremely leafy, like in 80-90% of the movie to stay away from all of the forests and trees and make it all concrete grey – and just shoot all the concrete locations. It isn’t until the very end where you start to see leafy Georgia. Because of that, because it’s all grey, the colors really pop. That was really intentional. Baby’s wearing black and gray because he’s in this gray area. He’s got this white tee shirt, but if you notice, the tee-shirt gets grayer as it goes along. He gets into stickier waters. Jamie’s in red, Jon’s in blue, Eiza’s in pink and purple, Kevin’s in brown and green. We worked pretty hard on that.
This kind of color-coating, helped Hamm slip into the mindset of his character, knowing the psychology behind the costume choices.
It takes a village. Courtney is fantastic. It’s a collaboration in a very real sense. Courtney and Edgar came up with having this palette that was very primary colors. The first time you see Jamie, he’s red. Whatever that does, that hits your brain in a way where you go, ‘That’s dangerous.’ That King of Hearts sweater. That’s a red flag. Buddy is all in blue – that’s a different message. Darling is all in pink – very pastel. And Baby and Debora are black and white. You have these vivid colors operating against these neutral tones and that’s an example of how the costume design can affect the narrative.
That’s when you know everyone is getting a chance to do their job. Bill Pope’s cinematography is phenomenal. Our set designers have this beautiful…they all got the memo, which was let’s make these picture breathe.
There’s few chances that you get to do movies like this where you see that collaboration. Of course, a lot of movies do it – some are more subtle than others. As an actor, from our point of view being on set, there’s a lot of things you’re so focused on work that you over see sometimes. This movie doesn’t allow you to do that. This is a movie where the whole team has to be synchronized. When it comes to performance, you can’t work without the right people around you. It becomes teamwork.
It speaks to how brilliant Edgar is. There’s this psychology behind it. The black and white Ansel are always in, there’s like an old-school feel/ love to them. We’re like the color that comes into their life. Those sorts of things, those little details, not everyone does it. Edgar makes it – he puts that extra time in every little detail.
Edgar wrote a fascinating duality to the relationship dynamics of these characters, where Buddy and Darling represent crazy love and Baby and Debora are the more innocent embodiment of love. Gonzalez said,
It’s very specific – they are day and night. Buddy and Darling is that tumultuous relationship, this co-dependence, this darkness. Then you have the pure love, the innocence, the beginning excitement. They both have this ride or die love. You can put them both together at the same time.
It’s not a mistake that all the relationships are “B’s” and “D’s”; Buddy and Darling. Baby and Debora. Bats and Doc – I don’t know. And BD – BABY DRIVER. That’s on purpose too. Edgar is that detail oriented. He makes those themes work somehow.
Surprisingly, music clearances didn’t seem to present much of an issue considering this film is equally music-driven.
People are pretty much on board with previous stuff I had done. I didn’t actually get too involved in it. We had a pretty amazing clearance person. I finished the script in 2011 and then even when we were going to make this three years ago, the songs were sort of the same – maybe like five songs changed. Even with Beck. I don’t think Beck was too aware I was using “Debra” until I mentioned it to him. I wrote a nice letter to Paul Simon at one point because obviously we’re naming the film after one of his songs. The only thing that’s troublesome with clearances is when there are dance tracks where they haven’t cleared the samples and by putting them in a movie, you’re leaving the artist wide open to get sued themselves.
Hamm was blown away by Wright’s unique approach to the film’s musical choices.
Music was baked in, literally. Edgar wrote these scenes to these songs. It’s apocryphal at this point. We had either earwigs in, or, if there was no dialogue, there was playback. We’re conscious of all of that. I’ve never heard of this before.
Elgort really enjoyed BABY DRIVER’s intense, precise choreography. He stated,
We were rehearsing for weeks before, leading up. The shoot was ambitious so we had to know what we were doing. It reminded me of musical theater, which is how I started all this. I did a musical before I ever did a straight play or movie. I loved that first long shot [the opening credits]. That was our first day of shooting and we did 28 takes. It also wasn’t about being perfect – we just felt it was a good one. It’s cool when it’s not overly edited. There were a lot of moving pieces, which is a great theater opening. It sets the stage in a great way.
This is not a movie we made. We came in and just did what we could. This is really Edgar’s work. This man is sitting there with Ryan Heffington, our choreographer, and he’s like, ‘Three-four, I want this beat and this song.’ He just made a great move to choose people who are great at whatever they do in each department and they helped us through it. We just try to bring it as much as possible to the day.
Perhaps what sets BABY DRIVER apart from our current landscape of heist films, is that it shows characters dealing with the very real consequences of their actions. Wright said,
I think there’s a lot of crime films at the moment that are, not irresponsible, but that are just capers and there are no consequences for any of the characters. I always like the old Warner Brothers gangster films – like ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, where there’s a strong moral comeuppance for people. That people have to make some strong moral decisions at the end. I really like those movies.
BABY DRIVER opens on June 28.