Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” is several movies at once: a stylish appreciation for life in the big city and a repudiation of its dark history, a cautionary coming-of-age tale, and an unsettling ghost story. Those layers reflect the director’s own evolving relationship to material, and its capacity to use slick, absorbing genre tropes to dig deep on London’s history of sexual assault in show business.
They also reflect years of effort on the part of the filmmaker to tackle a subject far riskier than the male slackers who populate his cinematic universe in everything from “Shaun of the Dead” to “Baby Driver.” With the new movie finally opening after its pandemic delays last year, it puts the 47-year-old Wright at another turning point in his career. “I’m sort of not ready to let the movie go,” he said in an interview at the end of a long press tour for “Last Night in Soho” this week. “There are so many things about it that are so personal and emotional.”
The movie follows fashion student Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), who finds herself haunted by the plight of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a 1960s-era singer whose aspirations are derailed by abusive men who claim they can open doors for her only to shut them. Sandie’s tragic story enlightens Ellie to the stories of countless women in show business whose big dreams met a harsh reality, an experience that mirrors Wright’s own wakeup call several years ago.
“The bleak truth of it is that those stories were out there but they hadn’t been heard firsthand,” Wright said. “At worst they were malicious gossip in the way that a lot of stories about show biz aren’t the victims themselves telling their side of the story. I think the sadder thing is obviously some of those stories from the 60s will never be heard because some of those people are no longer with us.”
In Wright’s case, the seeds for “Soho” were first planted over a decade ago, when someone gifted him the book “Hammer Glamour: Classic Images From the Archive of Hammer Films.” The book showcased lavish images of the horror studio’s central women, from Ingrid Pitt to Raquel Welch, along with biographical details. “I was really struck by the fact that a quarter of the bios ended in tragedy and careers cut short,” Wright said. “It was completely dissonant from this glossy kind of coffee table book.”
That realization gelled with Wright’s own complicated relationship to the lively central London neighborhood better known for the birth of mod fashion than the sexism surrounding it, and many of the would-be talents whose lives were destroyed by an unseemly industry. He first started conceptualizing the movie while shooting “The World’s End,” a movie that dealt with toxic masculinity through a different lens. In the meantime, Wright decided to develop a foundation for “Last Night in Soho” that would flesh out the real-world circumstances that inspired its premise. He turned to Lucy Pardee, a researcher and casting director, to compile stories from women who lived and worked in Soho during the era in question. “There were a lot of subjects in the film that I didn’t want to enter into lightly,” he said.
Coming out of “World’s End,” he found himself with more than enough material to flesh out the way that Sandie — whose experiences are witnessed by Ellie each night in her dreams — endures the hardships of an industry stacked against her. Nevertheless, Wright insisted that the harshest experiences in the movie weren’t inspired by one person in particular. “The sad truth of it is that the story is a myriad,” he said. “Back then, there was this feeling that this was how it worked, especially on the lowest rungs of the showbiz ladder.”
Wright had just finished “World’s End” when he served on the jury for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, which happened to be the breakout year for Anja Taylor-Joy, thanks to her performance in Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” Initially, he envisioned her for the part of Ellie, the modern-day character. In addition to doling out a best director prize for Eggers, Wright connected with the 17-year-old discovery and shared the concept for the movie with her a few weeks later in Los Angeles, just in time for a series of complications to throw the project off-track. First, Wright was hired to direct Marvel’s “Ant-Man,” only to leave the project over creative differences in early 2014. Then he rebounded with “Baby Driver,” which ultimately grossed $226.9 million. Meanwhile, Taylor-Joy’s stardom grew, with starring roles in “Split” and “Thoroughbreds” establishing her range.
“I felt like the boy who cried wolf, because every time I ran into her I’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll send you that screenplay as soon as I’ve done it,'” Wright said. “In that time I felt like she had already gone beyond this kind of part.” But the “Soho” script continued to evolve, and Wright eventually joined forces with “1917” screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns to finish it. The pair met up in Soho, where Wilson-Cairns used to work as a barmaid at the Toucan Pub, which features prominently in the movie. Like Ellie, Wilson-Cairns lived adjacent to a strip club, Sunset Strip, and constantly witnessed the misogyny that lived alongside the pizzazz of the neighborhood. Her own experiences merged with the countless others that Pardee had gathered for Wright earlier, as well as stories that Wright’s own mother shared about lecherous men from the time.
“I had this enormous ton of research that was completely harrowing, disturbing, and revealing — all your worst fears confirmed,” Wright said. “It was definitely helpful in terms of validating the story and grounding it. But it was also something that made me less scared of doing the project.”
Which is not to say that the premise left him at ease. “For a horror film, there has to be something about it that’s disturbing to you,” he said. “If it doesn’t hit close to home then you probably aren’t doing it right.”
Despite its winding timeline, “Last Night in Soho” has a certain consistency with “Baby Driver” in that both movies required a choreographer for their elaborate dance scenes (as well as some of the phantasmagorical visions of the past). Wright marveled at the recent resurgence of musicals and said he wouldn’t rule out directing one himself. “If somebody came to me with a musical that I thought I could do I would grab it with both hands,” he said. He recently got an early look at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s “Tick Tick Boom,” after recommending “Baby Driver” choreographer Ryan Heffington for the gig. “I think it’s very impressive,” Wright said. “The shooting and editing of it has an ‘All That Jazz’ feel, which I really liked, where you’re cutting between two time periods. I thought that was fascinating.”
Wright has grown superstitious about discussing his own upcoming projects after the “Ant Man” experience, where he did several interviews about the movie before he abandoned it. “The interviews I did for a movie I never made haunt me more than the fact that I didn’t do the movie,” he said, and laughed. There are some hints of his next moves, however, including reports about a new version of “The Running Man” and a potential “Baby Driver” sequel. “I do have a bunch of scripts that are written or in a good place,” he said. “One of the things with the pandemic is that it really sort of changed everything in terms of life priorities.” Though he wouldn’t rule out another bid for a franchise, his post-“Ant Man” experiences with “Baby Driver” and “Soho” made him wary of the current fascination with IP. “It’s always been baffling to me that studios don’t bet more on original movies,” he said. “So many of the things that get recycled were original scripts once. ‘Halloween’ was an original script, so was ‘Alien,’ so was ‘Star Wars.'” He doubled back to credit Sony for green lighting “Baby Driver” and Universal for supporting “Last Night in Soho” over the years. “I’ve had the opportunity to make original movies with them,” he said. “I do not take it for granted.”
Wright added that he doesn’t view his career in the precise terms of his colleague Quentin Tarantino, who has often said that his tenth feature will be his last. “I don’t have any grand plan like Quentin does,” Wright said. “Not to sound morbid, but you make every film like it might be your last, because you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.”
He’s hoping to wait a beat before jumping into production. “I know people are making things right now in film and TV and it’s very challenging in terms of getting the money onscreen,” he said. Nevertheless, he was thrilled that “Last Night in Soho” managed to secure a theatrical release, adding that he was advocating for the success of other new releases going the same route. “Here’s the funny thing,” he said. “If I had any schadenfreude of various franchises I once cared about, that’s gone away, because as far as I’m concerned any movie that keeps cinemas in business helps. Some movies that came out this year I really don’t care for, but I’m happy they’ve done well because I want cinemas to keep going.”
“Last Night in Soho” opens theatrically on October 29, 2021.