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Photo: Edgar Wright/Rogue Pictures
Of the many filmmakers working today, the ones I probably admire the most are those who are “One of Us”. I’m talking about writers and directors who are unabashed in their love of nerdy/geeky pop culture—of other movies, music, comic books, and video games—and try to incorporate said passion into their films. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, and Steven Spielberg come to mind. But for me especially it’s writer-director Edgar Wright.
I don’t know if he’s a major household name here in the States, but he definitely is in his native England. And for my money, he’s one of the best filmmakers working today in delivering incredibly stylish and genre-defying works. He’s great in the same way Tarantino is great: in drawing from and paying homage to other works but doing so in a way that still results in something that feels like their own. With that said, let’s take a look at the rise and career of Edgar Wright.
A Love of Cinema – Edgar Wright’s Early Days and Works
Like a lot of writers and directors, Wright was inspired by the original ‘Star Wars’, having watched it in theaters at the age of three. And he’s stated that he’s spent much of his career trying to recapture the feeling of that eye-opening night by making the kinds of movies he’d want to see. He’s also cited Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead II’ and the Coen Brothers’ ‘Raising Arizona’ as films that made him want to be a director. Similarly, he got his start making short amateur films with his friends, most of which were comedic homages of popular movies; one of them—‘Dead Right’, a pastiche of Hollywood cop thrillers—would serve as a foundation for his later film ‘Hot Fuzz’.
In 1995 he made his feature directing debut with a low-budget Western spoof, ‘A Fistful of Fingers’. While he’s dismissed the final product as slight in the years since it also had its admirers and helped get his foot in the door. Three years later in 1998, he scored his first major work when actor/writers Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (née Hynes) hired him as director of their show ‘Spaced’. On paper, it sounds like a traditional sitcom: the misadventures of two twenty-something Londoners (Pegg and Stevenson) who pose as a couple in order to rent a cheap flat. But what set the show apart was how Pegg, Stevenson, and Wright used that premise as a jumping-off point for pop culture references and homages, from other TV shows and movies to comic books and video games, as well as bringing a stylish directorial flair with film camera work—think of it as ‘Community’ before there was ‘Community’.
The ‘Three Flavours Cornetto’ Trilogy
Wright followed up ‘Spaced’ with his second feature film, 2004’s ‘Shaun of the Dead’ which he co-wrote with Pegg. This horror-comedy, which follows two slackers (Pegg and Frost) as they try to keep their friends and loved ones safe during a zombie apocalypse, was marketed as “A romantic comedy. With Zombies”, and it’s actually kind of accurate. It really works as both a parody of zombie movies, as well as a romantic comedy—with Pegg’s Shaun trying to shape up and be a better man for his ex-girlfriend (Kate Ashfield)—that happens to take place in a zombie apocalypse; it’s equal parts scary, funny and even heartbreaking. It’s a blast.
Wright and Pegg followed that up with 2007’s ‘Hot Fuzz’, easily one of the best action comedies I’ve ever seen. The movie follows a London super cop (Pegg) who finds himself reassigned to a sleepy town and partnered with a local officer and action movie buff (Frost), only to wind up investigating a series of bizarre brutal murders written off as “accidents”. What makes this movie so great is how it starts off poking fun at the numerous action/cop movie tropes, only to play them straight in the end while still spoofing them. It’s brilliant, with fun performances by all involved.
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Six years later in 2013 came ‘The World’s End’, which marked Wright and Pegg’s third collaboration. The film starts off as a bittersweet comedy about an immature alcoholic (Pegg) reuniting his estranged friends (including Frost) to complete a pub crawl. But then the plot takes a turn as they discover their hometown is in the midst of an alien invasion a la ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. The film is equally effective as both a tense sci-fi thriller and a tragicomic deconstruction of the Man-child character as we see how pathetic Pegg’s character can be in his immaturity and desperation to relive his glory days.
What started as a brief gag in ‘Shaun’ involving a Cornetto cone would eventually give these films its de facto title: the ‘Three Flavours Cornetto’ trilogy, as the ice cream would appear in the other films. Together the three films form what’s basically a thematic trilogy, bound by what they share: running gags (one involving jumping a fence), the blending of different genres (same way an ice cream can mix different flavors), and how all three movies are essentially comedic stories of personal growth. And another strength of these movies is how they get the balance of genres just right—when they’re funny, they’re really funny, but when they’re supposed to be exciting or tense they’re genuinely that as well.
Beyond Britain—Wright Crosses Over Into Hollywood
As such it’s no surprise that Wright would make the jump into high-profile work across the pond. Sandwiched between ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘World’s End’, Wright contributed a fake trailer titled ‘Don’t’ (mocking horror trailer clichés) as part of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Grindhouse’ project.
And in 2010 Wright made his first non-British film with ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’. Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the film follows a Toronto slacker (Michael Cera) who finds himself in a video-game themed journey to battle his new girlfriend’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil exes. Similar to his other works, the film draws heavily from pop culture: in this case video games, manga/anime, and the indie rock scene. While it disappointed financially, it went on to become a cult classic (with praise from Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Jason Reitman) and is a visually stunning and inventive romantic/action-comedy.
Wright followed that up with co-writing Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ in 2011, based on the classic comic book series. And he was even tapped to write and direct the first ‘Ant-Man’ movie as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wright left the project due to creative differences but enough of his script was used that he got screenplay, story, and executive producer credit.
2017 saw the release of Wright’s first American-set film and his biggest hit so far: ‘Baby Driver’. The film—about a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) trying to leave the crime world behind when he falls in love with an innocent waitress (Lily James)—offers a wild take on the heist/crime thriller through its use of music. Specifically as per one of the first things on the script, “Every scene in this movie is driven by music”; and the movie makes good on that promise, with action that happens in exact rhythm to the music that’s playing in each scene. It’s quite cool, brilliantly directed, and boasts a fantastic cast including Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Eiza Gonzalez (the biggest thing dampening the film now is the unfortunate presence of Kevin Spacey).
And on a side note, Wright may have played a role in introducing the world to John Boyega. He executive produced the critically-acclaimed 2011 British sci-fi horror comedy ‘Attack the Block’ (written and directed by Wright’s friend and collaborator Joe Cornish) which served as Boyega’s film debut, in a lead role opposite Jodie Whittaker…who herself went on to become the Thirteenth Doctor in ‘Doctor Who’. Funny how things work out.
Conclusion – What’s Next
After repeated delays due to the pandemic, Wright’s next film is set to come out later this year: ‘Last Night in Soho’, which he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The plot is still shrouded in mystery, but what we do know is that it’s a psychological horror-thriller that centers on a fashionista (Thomasin McKenzie) who somehow makes a connection with a 1960s starlet (Anya Taylor-Joy), and that there might be a time travel element to it. It’s shaping up to be something quite different from Wright, and I can’t wait for it. Other projects he has in the works are two book adaptations: ‘Set My Heart to Five’ (about an android discovering emotions through movies), and suspense thriller ‘The Chain’ (about a mother ensnared in a sinister criminal plot while trying to rescue her daughter).
In the meantime, Wright continues to advocate for the continued survival of the movie theater experience, having recently teamed up with Empire Magazine for a special issue celebrating great moments in cinema-going from readers and major Hollywood talents. As he wrote, “When this is all over, I can’t wait to get back in there and support my favorite cinemas in any way I can, even if it means watching way too many commercials, sitting through trailers that I’ve already seen several thousand times, and watching a franchise film that could easily lose 15 to 20 minutes”.
Spoken like a man who truly loves both movies and the moviegoing experience. Regardless of what comes next, it is sure to be filled with the same energy and passion that Wright has brought to all his works so far.
By Mario Yuwono
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