Scott Pilgrim vs. The World wasn’t exactly a world-beater at the box office this weekend — though, gee whiz, remember when a $10.5 million opening was, like, phenomenal? — but never mind: Director Edgar Wright’s flashy, funny, phantasmagorical graphic novel adaptation has more than enough built-in-geek appeal, genre-twisting spectacle and pop-culture-pollination to ensure its long life as a cult-fave destined for midnight screenings and home-video viewings.
Based on the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, it’s the story of a basically lovable but immaturely selfish Toronto slacker (played by the perpetually puppy-doggish Michael Cera) who’s recovering from a breakup with a beautiful rocker (Brie Larson) who “kicked his heart in the ass” — and casually hanging with a high school senior (Ellen Wong) who takes their budding relationship way too seriously — when he encounters Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mysterious lovely from the United States whom he suspects has quite literally stepped out his dreams.
Unfortunately, in order to hook up with Ramona, Scott will have to fight and defeat each of her Seven Evil Exes, former flames who range in ferocity from a vainglorious pro skateboarder (Chris Evans) to a super-powerful vegan telekinetic (Brandon Routh). And he must do so in one-on-one (or, in one case, one-on-two) slugfests that resemble the ever-escalating grudge matches in a ‘80s video game.
Wright, the cheeky Brit filmmaker justly famed for the straight-faced, seriocomic genre tweaking of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, visited Houston (along with Scott Pilgrim co-star Brandon Routh) to promote his hard-to-categorize, harder-to-resist live-action comic-book action-adventure kung-fu fantasy. Here’s some of what he had to say.
CultureMap: It’s funny to see — in a movie so heavily influenced by comic books — that two of the Evil Exes are played by Brandon Routh, the star of Superman Returns, and Chris Evans, who was The Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, and will star in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Edgar Wright: Well, Brandon and Chris are great comic actors. But there’s definitely an element where you had to have people who would be a physical threat to Michael. I think if I would have cast more established comedy actors, or people whom you primarily know for their roles in comedies, it wouldn’t have been as interesting — or threatening.
You see a scene where Michael Cera and Chris Evans are about to fight — you sort of assume that Michael Cera is going to die after the first punch. You need to have that sense of threat.
CM:. Is it true you actually had to do a three-day test shoot, simply to illustrate your plan to mix up indie rock, romantic comedy, martial arts action, magna-style visuals, and video game iconography?
EW: That’s right. I’ve been working on this on and off for about five years, and solidly for two years. And we had the script and all of the books and some of the casting in place — but there was always the question of what the movie was going to look like. People reading the script — even after they saw the storyboards — they just couldn’t see it. So we suggested to Universal that they let us shoot a test shoot.
And we shot part of the first fight — the Matthew Patel versus Scott Pilgrim fight — with two stunt men. We’ll probably put that on the DVD, because it’s funny to watch. Because the stunt man who plays Scott Pilgrim looks a lot more like Brandon Routh than Michael Cera. But it’s very similar to the finished scene. And it really helped, because we worked on the special effects for, like, three months just for that test scene, to be able to present it to Universal.
CM. How much pressure did you feel while stepping up from small-budget features like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead to the big-budget extravaganza of Scott Pilgrim?
EW: This is, yeah, the biggest budget I’ve ever worked with. But I always feel like I have to take full responsibility for getting the max out of the budget, and making sure all of the money is on screen. Or try to make sure it looks like it cost twice as much as it did. In a case like this, with the amount of talent on both sides of the camera, when you come to work for a 12-hour shooting day, you’ve got to come to work prepped, and know exactly what you’re doing.
And you’d be amazed by how many directors don’t know what they’re doing, and try to wing it. Or spend much of their time in their trailer, trying to bang extras. Not mentioning any names, of course.
I have to say, Universal was very supportive. They looked at the dailies all during the filming, and I think they were kind of thrilled by what they were getting. But, like I say, I did feel a sense of responsibility. You always do. Like, Shaun of the Dead cost six million dollars — which is kind of like nothing in Hollywood terms. But you feel exactly the same pressure doing something like that. It’s no different, because it’s still a lot of money.
Basically, this cost the equivalent of four Hot Fuzzes. And I’d love to think it looks like it cost the equivalent of eight Hot Fuzzes.
CM: Were you the one who decided to impose on the storyline the structure of a progression up different levels of a video game?
EW: That’s true. In the books — because there’s one fight per book, they’re kind of structured in a different way. And the books are great, because they have a lot of that Japanese manga feel. But they’re also sort of like sprawling teen soap operas. They’re as much about the relationships as they are about the action. We wanted to get that balance right in the movie, too.
But I think the movie took on more of the structure of those ‘70s martial arts films where you have a tournament, or a certain number of foes you have to defeat. Sort of like seven levels of ascension toward becoming a man.
And like in the book, Scott has this sort of extended family of friends and mentors and family members. I think they all work as kind of a Greek chorus. It’s like they try to guide him through life. For the first two-thirds, people are trying to advise him — and he winds up ignoring them. And then toward the end, he has to sort of make up his own mind about what he needs to do.
CM: It seems to me that, at some point during the writing and pre-production, you had to decide: You’d either stop the movie every few minutes to provide exposition or explain the pop-culture references and video game allusions, or just move forward and trust the audience to understand. You chose the latter. Wasn’t that a bit risky?
EW: I think it’s a case where you simply have to submit to the film, and let it kind of cast its spell. One of the problems with most genre films is having to explain how everybody got their super powers, or why they’re where they are, or whatever. And it really becomes highly tedious cinema. I can think of films this summer — I can think of one film in particular — which spend so much time explaining the rules of their world that you wind up thinking, “Oh, for fuck’s sake – just end!”
You don’t even care anymore after a while.
With this, basically, you’re watching Scott Pilgrim’s daydream. And the film is all about taking you on a ride in his imagination. In terms of references and stuff, I think those things are kind of like just dressing on top. A thing should never have to stop dead for a reference to be explained. Because it really shouldn’t and doesn’t matter if there’s a little sound that you hear that you either recognize or not. It’s not really important. They’re like little Easter eggs for you to find.
And if out of 300 people in the cinema, only one spots it as a sound effect from Flash Gordon — that’s absolutely fine. That’s kind of what it’s designed for — to make that one person laugh. But at the same time, it hasn’t stopped the scene dead, because most people haven’t even noticed it.
CM: This is one of the first major U.S. films in recent memory to be shot in Toronto because the story actually takes place in Toronto.
EW: Well, the original books are set in Toronto. So we do have to make reference to it. I mean, actually, on one side, we don’t make a big deal that it’s in Canada. But there are a few specific cultural jokes — usually at the expense of Scott Pilgrim. The characters from the United States are usually seen as more exotic and cooler and stuff, and make the Canadians feel insecure. But, yeah, this is Toronto. So it may be one of the first American films shot there where you didn’t have to digitally erase the CN Tower from every exterior shot.
CM: True enough. It’s funny to see so many films that are supposed to be set in New York or Chicago or Unnamed American City, but have scenes that feature distinctive Toronto landmarks like the CN Tower — or the spectacularly gaudy Honest Ed’s store on Bloor Street, which has been in everything from The Long Kiss Goodnight to TV commercials for Cadillac.
EW: It’s funny you mention that. Because, yeah, Honest Ed’s is this block-long discount store with, like, a million light bulbs on the sign in front. So it’s very, very recognizable. But then you see these American films shot where Toronto is doubling for the United States — and someone drives past Honest Ed’s. It’s like when I saw The Long Kiss Goodnight on cable again recently.
It was a scene where they were walking past Honest Ed’s, and I thought: “Aha! I know where this is!”