Friday, 21 July 2017

Talking Baby Driver with director Edgar Wright and star Ansel Elgort


Talking Baby Driver with director Edgar Wright and star Ansel Elgort



In among the sound and fury of the blockbuster film season, Baby Driver’s being singled out for its originality.

However, outside of the plaudits Edgar Wright’s take has had on the heist genre, there’s one part of the film that deserves to have the greatest noise made about it.
Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs The World director Edgar Wright's latest film, Baby Driver, has already rated highly with both critics and audiences alike.
Baby Driver with director Edgar Wright and star Ansel Elgort
Baby Driver with director Edgar Wright and star Ansel Elgort

The Bonnie and Clyde style story about Ansel Elgort's getaway driver Baby who's got one last job to do before paying back his debt to a local kingpin (played by Kevin Spacey) is the culmination of an idea Edgar Wright had some 22 years ago.

In the film music is key to proceedings, and practically every scene is punctuated with the lyrical execution of a track, shifting the chapters of the story into gear.

The opening bank heist and subsequent chase sequence, which can loosely branded as Grand Theft Auto for the musically-inclined millennial generation, is remarkable for its execution and its visual interpretation of sound.

Elgort's driver has tinnitus and constantly lives in his head in a world of music to keep the noise in his head in check and the painful reminders of the past buried.

With the trademark Apple white ear-buds strapped in from an omni-present iPod (just one of the few retro touches Wright has littered his script with), the audience's first exposure to Baby is as he sits in a getaway car's driver's seat, with the sounds of Bellbottoms by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion synchronised to the action on screen. Much like any kid obsessed with music, Baby lip-synchs and drums on the wheel of the car, waiting for his cohorts to arrive before setting the escape plan in motion.

It's a bravura setting out of the stall by Wright, and goes some way to bringing to life an idea he had over two decades ago, and, much like Baby's tinnitus, couldn't get out of his head.
Baby Driver with director Edgar Wright and star Ansel Elgort

Sitting down with Wright and Elgort on a gruelling cross-continental press tour in Auckland's Langham Hotel, the day after they'd sold out Wellington's Embassy Theatre and done a Q&A with Sir Peter Jackson, a jet-lagged Wright reveals there was just something about Baby Driver that kept nagging him.

However, it was a call that came from studio heads after being forced out of the Ant-Man film that made him realise the two decades old passion project could become a reality.

"Yeah the irony is when I was working on the movie that I didn't do, which will remain nameless," he says laughing, "I did think in the back of my mind, I thought 'Oh, if this movie does well, maybe I'll get a chance to make Baby Driver', cos I'd already written it at that point, and then when I was back - it was the first email I got from Working Title, which just simply said 'Baby Driver next?'
It was from Eric, one of my producers, and it said "Subject heading: So" then the main part of the email simply said: 'Baby Driver next?' and I was like Yeah, if we do get Baby Driver off the ground, this would be a dream outcome for this whole saga."

For the youthful Elgort, who had already witnessed the trappings of fame and worldwide success thanks to the 2014 Young Adult movie "The Fault in our Stars" with Shailene Woodley, the idea of working with Wright was a no-brainer.

"The character was great, and the director was great. I think about its story, character and film-maker for me  (when looking at roles) - that's really it. I don't care about budget or anything else when I'm looking at a film. Those three things were there with this."

It helped that Elgort was also a fan of Wright's previous work and his style of humour.

"Hot Fuzz is my favourite. I knew that when I sort of read the script and what he had done with Hot Fuzz stylistically and what could be possible with Baby Driver, I just thought, 'Wow this could be really cool'."

But if Baby Driver's already been a critical and audience success due to its stylistic edges and its use of actual car chases rather than the CGI excesses of the Vin Diesel Fast And Furious franchise, the high stakes thriller deserves to be lauded for doing something that Hollywood's largely shied away from in big blockbuster season - the normalising of a deaf person on the screen.


Baby Driver star Baby (Ansel Elgort) and on screen father Joe (CJ Jones)
While 2014's art house film Plemya, aka The Tribe, the tale of teenagers at a boarding school, dared to push the boat out, it was largely unseen by audiences.

Populated solely by actors who communicated in Ukranian sign language with no subtitles on any prints, and which screened only at the New Zealand International Film Festival, it's something which has largely rarely been covered on the big screen - and certainly rarely seen by a wider audience flocking to the cinema for a Friday night experience.

But it's something which Baby Driver squarely intends to change - and it's this achievement which both Wright and Elgort are perhaps proudest of.

In the film, Baby's African-American foster father Joe is deaf.

Baby spends his time communicating with him via American Sign Language (which is subtitled on the screen and which uses its own graphics to come to life for the audience) as well as placing Joe's hands on speakers so he can appreciate the music that Baby's always drowning in.

In many ways, this is the truest and purest relationship in the film.

It's not that Baby's desire to be with Lily James' waitress Debora isn't the emotional pull of the flick, but the earnestness and the sincerity of what transpires between Baby and Joe is ultimately more than tangible in the few scenes they share.

Veteran American actor CJ Jones, who plays Joseph, lost his hearing when he was seven, after falling ill to spinal meningitis. With his parents both deaf, Jones was already adept at American Sign Language (ASL), something which Elgort had to learn and considered as he prepared for the role, in many ways, to be a foreign language.

"But I wanted to be clean and sharp and do the language justice, so for that reason I learned with a dialect coach, not a sign language coach. Then CJ would give me suggestions and I would look to him as this guy really knows what he's doing."

For director Wright, the addition of Jones really made directing the film special, even if casting the role thanks to his own specific brief made things a bit harder. His notes stipulated Joe was "African-American, 85, deaf".

Wright saw Jones' audition first, and for him, while it wasn't specific to the brief he'd set down due to an age difference, everyone else after didn't feel like they were the right fit or fudging it was the right way to go.

"So the others (we saw) were like actors pretending to be deaf, and we'd already auditioned CJ Jones. And when I auditioned other actors who were pretending to be deaf, it immediately felt wrong to me and I had to see CJ again right away. I called and said 'I need to see CJ Jones again because I want to give him the part'; it was a no-brainer to me, watching other actors pretending to be deaf was just strange."

With Wright clearly getting emotional when recounting time on set and the directing process, it's obvious that CJ's presence had a profound effect on the English director as filming went on.

"And I remember it was very emotional for all of us and then working with him on set was incredible.
Me and Ansel both found it a really life-changing experience because working with CJ made me want to be a better director.
Because you realise when you're talking to someone who's reading your lips, 40% of what comes out is utter rubbish and nonsense and when you're aware of this, it forces you to be more succinct, more direct and more articulate and it was a beautiful experience shooting those scenes."

Wright's voice begins to crack at this point; and it's clear that it's more than just jet-lag.

"I know me and Ansel both get a bit misty-eyed when we watch them back because there was just something very pure about it, but hopefully what people have said about it is that it feels quite unforced.  I don't know what to say other than it was just something we had to treat the process of casting and the ASL with the respect it deserves. I'm proud to have worked with CJ and he did a screening on the Sony lot with the deaf community and that was another incredible experience and you realise how much it means for deaf people to see an actor like that on the screen."
Baby Driver in cinemas now
Baby Driver in cinemas now

For an original film in a market place cluttered by sequels or franchise films, Baby Driver's already been a commercial success, with many seeing it more than once at the movies.

Wright himself has been swamped with fan-art, home-made posters and drawings on his Twitter feed by those inspired by the film dubbed "Grand Theft Amadeus" online because of its mix of music and fast cars.

While Wright's latest meshes music and action, it's dangerously close to his take on a musical, a genre which he's happy to toy with and could potentially explore in future films.

"Would I do a straight musical? Yes. If there was the right thing. There are a lot of musicals I love and adore, and if there was the right thing, then yes, but I don't know what that is."

Wright remains coy on the prospect of what a sequel could offer (studio bosses are already said to be in early talks to return to Baby's speedy ways after the flick raced up the charts and netted a whole wad of cash), but he's definitely ruled out a prequel idea for the film, dismissing it as a potentially creative dead-end.

"The problem is this - you know the fate of the characters, whereas one of the things that works about Baby Driver and one thing that many people have commented on is that it's unpredictable. You don't know what and how it's going to pan out - especially with a starry cast , it's like you don't know what will become of those characters. And when things do happen, people are shocked. That's great as it's exciting; it's how it should be."

Elgort shares his director's enthusiasm for a sequel - "I would love to come back and do another. Where he goes you'd have to ask Edgar! I think a sequel would be another adventure and now Baby's finally grown up, it's cool to see. Now it's time for him to continue to be a man and take care of business."

But the last word goes to Wright - often hailed for his creative vision (his Scott Pilgrim vs The World remains an underrated entrant in his back catalogue), he's arguably had the last laugh after the Marvel deal didn't quite work out.

Citing fans who appreciate his every work, and the fact it's an original film that developed from the kernel of a nagging passion project, Wright's just glad he's allowed the space to do what he wants - and that it's actually good for the movies if it's appreciated by the average cinema-goer, already bloated from a diet of franchises and sequels.

"I don't know what to say other than just a heartfelt 'Thank You' - it's something that's come from my head and it's an original screenplay. When people are like drawing characters you come up with or quoting lines back to you, or fan posters and amazing artwork, it's just extraordinary, I don't really know what to say. It's good for the film business too, I go and watch franchise movies and there's plenty of those out there this year that I've liked. However, there's too many of them. Just having an original film out there competing against these franchises, makes me feel there's some hope left in the film business."


This piece first appeared on newsroom.co.nz and is reprinted with permission.

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