Edgar Wright’s cross-country journey to ‘Baby Driver’

Gary Thompson
Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia — When Edgar Wright, the British director of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” came to look for America, he did it the American way, in a car — driving from New York to Los Angeles, the last few hundred miles on Route 66.

He also made his own sound track — choosing artists from the places he’d be driving through. His first stop: Philadelphia, with a selection of Gamble and Huff soul classics, though in truth he spent a lot of time visiting his friend Peter Jackson on the set of “The Lovely Bones.”

“From there, I went down through Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway, then North Carolina and then Nashville and Memphis, which where both incredible. I actually developed a taste for folk and country I didn’t previously have. I emerged a full-fledged fan of the Flying Burrito Brothers.”

The trip reflected Wright’s boundless love of music, and his generation’s ear-bud habit of “playlisting” everything they do — curating tunes to match a cross-country trip or just a trip to the Laundromat.

“People are essentially their own radio station. They’re sound-tracking their lives, making playlists for going to work, working out, being on the trains. You are controlling your mood, or at the very least complementing your mood,” he said. “You want your life to be as awesome as the music you are playing. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s the magic moment when life is in sync with the music you are listening to.”

Wright makes that magic the essence of his new movie, “Baby Driver,” an action-comedy about a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who’s the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of wheelmen — he can’t drive a block unless a bass and guitar are in it with him.

It’s played for laughs in the movie — a carload of stickup men (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm) wait, astounded, as Baby (that’s the character’s name) cues up a song, cops closing in.

Once he starts driving, though, the symphony of action and movement begin. Wright does more than match a song he likes to the scene — a technique sometimes referred to as a needle drop.

“ ‘Needle drop’ refers to those times when something’s not working in the editing room and the movie needs a song to kind of pep it up. The thing about ‘Baby Driver’ is that the songs are written into the script, they are properly baked in, and the action is all choreographed to the music,” he said. There are 30 cuts, and, yes, the list includes Simon and Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver.”

I mention to Wright that this has always seemed a bit unfair to me — the way movies can hijack and replace the imagery of a song. The better the movie, the more intense the association becomes. Case in point: “Goodfellas.” I can’t listen to Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” without seeing poor, frozen Carbone hanging in that meat locker.

Wright is unmoved.

“Quentin Tarantino has a quote: ‘The person who owns the song is whoever used it last and best.’ But I do think songs can get overused. I’ve heard Creedence’s “Run Through the Jungle” in two separate movies this year,” he said. On the other hand, the band’s “Bad Moon Rising” in “American Werewolf in London” was “one of the all-time best uses of music in film.”

Wright’s name has been floated as a possible director for one of the Star Wars sequels. I told him there’s no way George Lucas or even Disney would allow anyone to drop pop music into a Star Wars movie.

“Oh, I don’t know, I think there are some Queen songs that would work wonderfully. It’s not going to happen, though, so it’s not an issue.”

One more thing, Edgar. What kind of awesome American road machine did you take on your playlisted cross-country tour of America?

“I’m embarrassed. It’s such a soccer mom car. A Ford Escape. At least the name was right.”