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‘Baby Driver’: How Edgar Wright Is Saving the Action Film

The "Hot Fuzz" director's visceral approach to staging his new car chase movie recalls a style of action filmmaking that Hollywood abandoned long ago.

Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) is chased by the cops in TriStar Pictures' BABY DRIVER.

“Baby Driver”

Wilson Webb

The first day of shooting car chase scenes on the “Baby Driver” set, stunt coordinator and second unit director Darrin Prescott asked Edgar Wright if he wanted to sit in while they filmed their first high speed chase.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Action Movies of the 21st Century, From ‘The Dark Knight’ to ‘Baby Driver’

“Oh my god, you’re never prepared for what it feels like to go that fast around the corner and it was incredible,” said Wright in an interview with IndieWire. “That’s the thing — in terms of sitting there as a director, this is what I want the viewers to feel like when they are watching it.” That commitment has yielded one of the best-directed pieces of action filmmaking in years, but pulling it off was no easy feat.

Visceral Pleasures

For Wright, the idea of shooting his heist film about a young getaway driver using visual effects never entered the equation.

Car chase from TriStar Pictures' BABY DRIVER.

“Baby Driver”

Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

“If you are making a car chase movie and you didn’t get to film any car chase stuff, what’s the point?” he asked. “If my only bit is sitting on a green screen shooting people reacting and steering wildly, what am I doing?”

That’s the type of tough guy quote one might expect from one of Hollywood’s overly masculine directors, a tradition that stretches back to Howard Hawks and continues all the way through Michael Bay — not the short, self-effacing film geek behind the pithy genre comedies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But that’s the state of Hollywood in 2017: It has taken a British comedic director to remind the American commercial film industry of what they use to do so well.

Wright likes to joke in interviews that he’s spent the last 12 years convincing director Walter Hill that his 1978 car chase film “The Driver” is a masterpiece – which has included doing a Q&A and screening with Hill at his pal Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly theater and giving the veteran director a cameo in “Baby Driver.” Hill’s talent is a striking contrast to the way franchise-addicted, CGI-obsessed studios have lost touch with visually-orientated action directors (Wright has also curated the 22-film “Heist Society” retrospective starting at BAM on Friday). It’s a topic Wright can’t discuss enough.

“Action sort of tends to get bigger and bigger to sort of like fulfill this need to top the last thing, but I think there’s sort of real visceral pleasures to watching a somewhat realistic car chase,” said Wright during an event last March at SXSW, where “Baby Driver” premiered.

Wright tried his hand at the VFX-driven franchise game with Marvel’s “Ant Man” before departing over creative difference. It’s not something he speaks about in great detail (although he did tell Variety’s Kris Tapley that he wanted to make a Marvel film, but he didn’t believe the studio wanted to make an Edgar Wright film). But Wright doesn’t really need to say too much about his intentions, because “Baby Driver” – an original, unapologetically fun summer action film – acts as a manifesto on what it takes to realize the potential and forgotten pleasure of the action genre.

READ MORE: Edgar Wright Has Never Seen ‘Ant-Man’ and Probably Never Will

Prescott (“Black Panther,” “John Wick,” “Deadpool,” “True Detective”), who has become a go-to second unit director and stunt coordinator for directors still looking to take an old school practical approach to visceral action, instantly recognized Wright as a kindred spirit in their first meeting.

“What Edgar understands is if characters are in peril, the action should make you feel more for them and you are more vested in the film,” said Prescott, “versus a movie where they just run into a bunch of people in cars and kill a bunch of people.”

Ansel Elgort and director Edgar Wright in "Doc's loft" on the set of TriStar Pictures' BABY DRIVER.

Ansel Elgort and director Edgar Wright on the set of “Baby Driver”

Wilson Webb

Action, Meet Song

To immerse the audience in the driver’s seat with Baby (Ansel Elgort), Wright didn’t just want viewers to see the action from the character’s point of view, but to hear it as well. Built into the film’s premise is that Baby – who suffers from tinnitus (painful ringing in the ears), like Wright did as a child – can only perform his virtuoso driving when listening to a carefully preselected song on his iPod.

READ MORE: ‘Baby Driver’ Soundtrack: Here’s the Tracklist for Edgar Wright’s Car-Chase Drama

“If you look at Hong Kong cinema, Jackie Chan and John Woo, they both point to Gene Kelly and MGM musicals as one of the biggest influences,” said Wright. “I took that premise that Hong Kong movies are musicals that have about five big numbers, it’s five action set pieces, a song for each. Then I would [write each action scene] to the songs.” It was a great idea in theory — but required a complicated strategy to come to life.

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