Edgar Wright on returning to direction

When Edgar Wright has an idea for a new film, it consumes him until he is finally able to make it. As he put it recently, “There’s a certain point where the movie chooses you; it haunts you.”

Wright said that is when he felt compelled to “exercise it in a cardio way, and exorcise it in a William Friedkin way.”

It is fitting then that his latest movie Last Night in Soho is a ghost story. This thriller tells the story of Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman in the present day who is obsessed with the music and style of 1960s London, and who travels there to study fashion. Once there, she finds her dreams are filled with the escapades of another woman, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who went to London in the ’60s, seeking romance and stardom. But as Eloise tries to discover what happened to Sandie, the dreams turn nightmarish, revealing the sordid underside of the city in an era she once imagined as glamorous and uncovering decades-old crimes with ethereal victims who are still demanding justice.

This is a pivotal moment for Wright, 47, a British writer and director who has put his idiosyncratic stamp on an array of action comedies. Last Night in Soho follows his 2017 car chase thriller Baby Driver, the biggest commercial hit of his career, and will be his second movie released this year after rock documentary The Sparks Brothers. Wright’s newest film finds him steering away from comedic terrain, and into a realm that is murkier and more horrific. Rather than focus on characters played by longtime friends such as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, he used female leads for the first time.

As with Wright’s zombie apocalypse comedy Shaun of the Dead and the video game romance Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Last Night in Soho offers a pastiche of genres and a generous helping of nostalgia. This time, however, the director’s goal is not necessarily to romanticise the past but to remind us that when we do, we may be papering over toxic attitudes and unacknowledged misdeeds that continue to poison the present day.

We all indulge in personal time travel reveries and regard them as harmless, something Wright readily admits to. “It’s something I physically cannot do; in my lifetime, not even Elon Musk will create a machine that will take me back in time,” he said with a laugh in a video interview from Los Angeles.

But if we reflected more carefully on these fantasies, and what they mean, Wright said more soberly, we would realise the traps we were setting for ourselves. “You cannot change what’s happened,” he said. “You can only deal with it in the future.”

London is the metropolis that has most fascinated Wright, who has lived and worked there for some 27 years. Before arriving to pursue a career as a writer and director, he grew up in Somerset, to the southwest, listening raptly to his parents’ stories of coming of age in the ’60s.

As Wright recalled, “My dad would say, ‘Oh, we saw Jimi Hendrix live.’ And my mom would say, ‘We didn’t see Jimi Hendrix; we saw Pink Floyd.’ And I would say, ‘Oh, my God, what were Pink Floyd like?’ And my mom would go, ‘They were awful.’”

By 2012, before he shot his sci-fi pub crawl comedy The World’s End, Wright was already contemplating a film that would explore the darker side of London, and juxtapose the modern era and the period preserved in sensationalistic 1960s films such as John Schlesinger’s Darling, which starred Julie Christie, and Edmond T Gréville’s Beat Girl, with Gillian Hills. Typically, the moral of these films, Wright said, was, “Beware, young lady that comes to the big city: You will be chewed up and spat out. Then the city becomes the villain.”
He researched Soho’s history of organised crime and unsolved murders, and he studied up on theories of the supernatural. (“I would say I’m ghost-curious,” Wright said. “I haven’t seen one, but I’d really like to.”)

Wright also met a crucial collaborator, his co-screenwriter, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Penny Dreadful), through director Sam Mendes, a mutual friend. On the night of the Brexit vote in 2016, Wilson-Cairns said, she and Wright were in Soho “drowning our sorrows” while she told him about the many dingy neighbourhood dives where she had worked as a bartender.

Wright, in turn, told her the story of Last Night in Soho, and Wilson-Cairns was hooked by it. “It brought home this idea of how dangerous nostalgia really is,” she said. When she thinks of 1960s London, Wilson-Cairns said, she hazily associates it with “great hair, rising hemlines, cool boots.” But Wright’s story reminded her of “the fact that it was really difficult to be a woman at that time,” Wilson-Cairns said. “It remains that way, but especially back then to be voiceless and preyed upon, that’s a very real fear of many women, including myself.”

Wright spent another year promoting Baby Driver, his first film since he withdrew as director of the Marvel adventure Ant-Man, and he was understandably anxious about the reception that awaited it. “I’d walked off a franchise film and basically put all my chips on Baby Driver, and it’s an original movie,” he said. “Obviously, every film’s important, but gambling everything on an original movie adds extra pressure.”

Baby Driver made more than $226 million worldwide. That, he said, gave him the confidence to stave off what he described as “pressure from some of the other people involved to jump straight into a sequel to that.” “The idea of doing the same thing twice in succession was just not interesting,” Wright said. Instead, he went on to direct The Sparks Brothers. He also rang up Wilson-Cairns, rented an office in London, and wrote the screenplay for Last Night in Soho with her in about six weeks.

Some of Wilson-Cairns’ contributions to the script include the awful, obscene pickup lines lecherous men hurl at Eloise. “Everything that was said to her was said to me,” Wilson-Cairns said. “I would rather have not experienced that, or much worse, frankly, but it was nice to at least put it on screen.”

She steered Wright away from his original idea of depicting Sandie’s 1960s sequences as musical numbers that would otherwise have had no dialogue. Wilson-Cairns said she pushed to give Sandie dramatic scenes with dialogue “so that you can experience her excitement and passion, her drive and her ambition,” and Wright agreed.

Taylor-Joy, star of The Queen’s Gambit, had been on Wright’s radar since her breakout performance in The Witch, the Robert Eggers horror film that debuted at Sundance in 2015, when Wright was on one of the festival’s juries. Although the director had planned to cast her as the demure Eloise, Taylor-Joy said in an email that as more of her film and TV performances were released, he switched her to the part of the more outgoing Sandie. “He thought it might stretch me more to play Sandie, and I was very excited by that prospect,” she said.

Taylor-Joy learned her song-and-dance choreography for Last Night in Soho at the same time she was filming the lead role in the Jane Austen adaptation of Emma. Performing the routines where Sandie is leered at by a mostly male crowd of clubgoers “was difficult at times,” Taylor-Joy said, but she added that Wright and his crew had succeeded in “creating an environment where I felt safe to have those feelings, and could then be reminded that I was safe and supported.”

McKenzie, the New Zealand-born star of Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit, said she found it easy to identify with Eloise as a relatively inexperienced player in an indifferent and sometimes brutal system. “We were exactly the same age at the time that I was filming it,” McKenzie said. “We’ve been on similar journeys, although mine wasn’t quite as psychologically terrifying as Ellie’s was, luckily. I wasn’t being chased by shadow men.” She paused, then added, “Well, you could say there were a couple of modern-day shadow men in there.”

Wright was particularly proud of casting several celebrated veterans of 1960s British cinema, including Rita Tushingham as Eloise’s grandmother, Terence Stamp as a persistently sinister patron at the bar where Eloise works, and Diana Rigg as Eloise’s protective landlady.

Rigg died in September 2020, shortly after finishing some dialogue rerecording for Last Night in Soho, and Wright visibly teared up when he spoke about her. He remembered a day when he brought her to a set that replicated the West End nightclub Café de Paris, and Rigg remarked that she had seen Shirley Bassey perform there in the 1950s. (Commenting on his own anecdote, Wright said with astonishment, “How could you put all of that amazingness into one sentence?”)

But then Rigg continued to reflect on the nightclub. As Wright recalled, “She goes, ‘I remember walking down those stairs. I remember all these rheumy-eyed men looking me up and down, feeling like a piece of meat.’” Wright said that the impact of Rigg’s remarks did not strike him immediately, but he felt it more profoundly as he drove home from the set. “I was like, I guess Diana just summed up the entire movie,” he said.

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