Sampling may be the definitive art of the 21st century. Physical and digital media give us constant, immediate access to works of art, and fosters the ability to focus on even the smallest ear- or eye-catching moment. Producer Dan the Automator didn't just love the drum and horn break in ‘Kashmere’ by the Kashmere Stage Band — he focused on it, looped it, and made ‘Holy Calamity,’ a song which shares more than DNA with the original track, but also exists as its own thing.
Baby Driver writer/director Edgar Wright uses 'Holy Calamity' as one of dozens of pop music cues in his high-speed heist film, which is impeccably crafted like a premium supercar. The song, and the idea of sampling, also informs the whole creative undercurrent of the film.
Wright, who made films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, has made a career of folding focused inspiration from his biggest influences — horror and action films, dance and hip-hop music, the tropes of '70s and '80s Hollywood – into original stories that clearly connect to the past, but which are stuffed with so much original character and energy that they inspire filmmakers into the future. “Some of it is homage, and some is just osmosis,” Wright told us. “Once you start to put things together you end up with something that’s totally new.”
Baby Driver's tank is full of a specific fuel: inspiration from a whole lineage of films such as Walter Hill’s The Driver. Both films are points on a line that connects many other filmmakers.
“A movie like The Driver,” Wright mentions, “is itself inspired by This Gun For Hire, which also inspired [French gangster film] Le Samourai. I asked Walter Hill if The Driver was inspired by Le Samourai, and he said no, it was inspired by This Gun For Hire, just like Le Samourai. I felt bad that I was accusing Walter of ripping off [Le Samourai director] Jean Pierre Melville, when he said [he and Melville] both ripped off This Gun For Hire.”
And with all that in mind, Wright points out, “The Driver inspires Reservoir Dogs, Drive, and my movie, all of which are completely different movies.” All these films are an artistic continuum – or a road, which Wright barrels down like a Mad Max stuntman.
Or, as the director says, "art inspires other art — so in that sense the analogy with sampling is appropriate. I don’t see hip hop or dance using samples as being daylight robbery. It’s that you’re inspired and you create a new piece of art from an existing piece of art."
Art certainly inspired Baby Driver, which existed as a song list long before it was a script.
Edgar Wright officially began work on the film in 2007, and didn’t have a script until four years later. The songs, and their sequence, was in place much earlier. “As far back as 2008,” Wright says, “I had these mixes of those songs with sound effects dubbed in which I did with the DJ Osymyso.” Wright explained the action paired with the songs, “so I’ve had these mixes of 'Brighton Rock' with cars on it, and 'Focus' with gunshots, and 'Bellbottoms' with the full chase and helicopters and everything, since 2008. It wasn’t until two years later that I started writing it down.”
The process of not only writing character and dialogue to go with the playlist, but describing the beat-by-beat action, was far more difficult. “The writing process was not more challenging than the shoot," Wright admits, "but challenging in that I knew what the story was, and what the action and visuals should be.” Yet capturing the details on the page – every crash and bullet hit and physical gag – “was the toughest bit.”
“In screenplays there’s an unbalanced and maybe unfair concentration on the dialogue, and not the idea of storytelling through action. That was why it took such a long time to write. I was trying to get across what you’re seeing, but also what you’re hearing.”
Wright had to be rigorous at the script stage because on shoot days the action demanded a very specific flow, even a sort of meter and rhyme.
Take the foot chase set to ‘Focus,’ by Hocus Pocus. It “stops and starts,” Wright points out, relishing the idea of the scene construction, “because the song does. He’s running, then he hides behind a tree. Then there’s the yodeling in the song and he’s running again. That all helps motivate going into the mall, having to change, the timing and pauses. Then there’s an accordion breakdown so he’s breaking into a car, and while that solo is happening he’s trying to get the car started.”
The film’s introductory car chase and jaunty opening titles are high-key examples of Wright’s marriage of music and motion in Baby Driver, but the climactic battle between Baby and Jon Hamm’s rogue robber Buddy, set to Queen’s ’Brighton Rock,’ is a showstopping expression of the film’s A/V ambitions. Wright calls it “the complete antithesis of how it usually works, where it’s like ‘we shot this kickass action scene, let’s slap Led Zeppelin on top and see what happens.’” As with the example of 'Focus,' the progression of sounds in the song informed the action, song and scene fusing into one new whole.
Some of Wright’s song choices were such quick blasts of music that they didn’t leave room for much structure, however. That was the case with the film’s second heist sequence, set to ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by The Damned, which clocks in under three minutes.
Wright recalls that “Bill Pope, my cinematographer, watched the animated of that scene and said I didn’t have enough song. He said the way I’d edited the action was quicker than it would happen in actuality, and some of those stunts are going to play longer, or we’re going to want to see them longer.” The director went forward as planned, and then… “he was totally right. We shot all the stuff and it didn’t quite fit the song.”
So the production had a good concept, but “something that didn’t quite work.” Instead of using a different song Wright’s solution was elegant: shoot a bit, on he last day of production, where Baby rewinds the track.
“As far as Baby’s concerned in terms of his plan of action,” the director elaborates, “he had the perfect song, but then it screwed up because they started arguing about the masks, then they got rammed. His plan’s gone awry, and he’s got to rewind. It felt true to the character. He wants to literally get back on track.”
Some of Wright’s ideas couldn’t be worked into the final film. “One thing in the script I never shot because we couldn’t clear the track was a thing where Baby is listening to a song with a long vocal preamble, lip-syncing all the audio stuff at the start.” The track is ‘Intro’ by The Herbalist, off the Very Mercenary LP. That’s all sampled and decontextualized movie trailer dialogue, the perfect sort of intro for Baby.
That doesn't have to be a downside, however. “Maybe I can get it for the second one,” Wright suggests hopefully.