How to Make Movies Like Edgar Wright
A 14-year-old who made his first movie on a super-8 turned to an award-winning filmmaker; that’s Edgar Wright for you. An eclectic British filmmaker, there's nothing he can’t do: he’s the genius behind commercial hits such as Baby Driver to cult-favourites like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and his inventive style of filmmaking is exemplary in the world of cinema. While it can be difficult to have an individualistic voice in the saturated entertainment industry, Edgar Wright's rebellious streak of making each film distinctly different from the other is inspiring for both students and lovers of cinema.
From a kinetic editing style to perfect synchronisation of visuals and sounds — in this blog, we look at some of Edgar Wright’s idiosyncratic trademarks and some tips behind how he has effectively pushed our understanding and experience of films.
Find Your Voice: Auteur Theory
A skittishly fancy term, auteur theory is central to our understanding of Edgar Wright’s distinct filmmaking style. Going all the way back to the French New Wave (an artistic movement in late 1950s where conventional filmmaking styles were rejected and instead, experimentation was encouraged) led to a generation of filmmakers who imprinted their own individual artistic vision onto their films. Be it recognisable visual queues or recurring themes, auteur theory is essentially looking at a filmmaker's work and recognising his/her idiosyncratic ‘trademarks’.
Let’s test this theory. Look at the frame shown below, can you guess which filmmaker it is?
Chances are you got it right: it’s Wes Anderson. The distinct Wes Anderson style is an example of auteur theory; his visual style is so prevalent that you can recognise his works just from a random frame.
In a similar vein, Edgar Wright’s distinct filmmaking choices make him our generation's finest auteur, let’s see how.
The Rhythm of Action: Experimental Sound Design
We cannot break down Wright’s filmmaking style without beginning with his distinct sound design — whether it’s the soundtracks, the diegetic (sounds that have a source in the movie), non-diegetic sounds (sounds with a source outside the movie) or simply the beats lingering in the background, Wright experiments with sounds with utmost precision and curiosity.
The finest example is Baby Driver — the 2017 musical-action-thriller which followed the story of ‘Baby’ (Ansel Elgort) a getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus and copes with it through music. In Baby Driver, the purpose of sound design works both literally and figuratively. Termed as a “movie mixtape,” by a film critic, music in the movie becomes an important part of its story.
How Wright went about making the film is fascinating:
I wouldn’t start writing a scene until I had the right song.
The opening scene of the movie is a perfect example to preface how action and music are unionised perfectly:
Structurally, the precision went as far as ensuring the pages of the script of the scene matched the length of the track. Wright had already chosen a 2 ½ minutes long Beach Boys’ song for the scene where Baby meets Deborah at the diner. He admits to this strange mathematical approach where the scene had to be 2 ½ pages long too and so it was! Therefore, unlike other filmmakers Wright doesn’t lazily use music as extraneous fluff to the plot but rather, uses it to drive the plot further. His long time collaborator and sound designer, Julian Slater further elaborates,
From the very beginning, Edgar wanted this movie to be a complete symphony of music and sound design working together as a single entity.
In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Wright divulges further about the importance of music in his films and his formative years as a filmmaker, you can read it here.
Another way Wright experiments with sound is by visualising them through words, as observed in Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The movie Scott Pilgrim was adapted from the graphic novels by Byran Lee O’Malley and Wright kept the essence of a comic/graphic novel intact, by combining the two mediums of print and cinema. We’ve all seen words like “Kapow!” or “Bang!” in comic books which sound the actions taking place, similarly, Wright uses this onomatopoeia (words that imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes) in a different, albeit new medium of film.
In the movie, actions such as punches, kicks or just the doorbell ringing, can be seen being visually spelt out. Once again, Wright takes the generic action sequences and presents them in a completely new format; one which is much more visually retentive and overall fun to watch.
Chuckles at Every Cut: Humour in Editing
The typical ‘Brit humour’ is ever-present in all of Wright’s works. But the tongue-in-cheek comedic style is not just a result of his cultural upbringing but largely also credited to his editing style. Quick cuts, match-cuts, fast paced action montages, creative transitions, and zooms are all ways Edgar Wright uses editing as a tool to incite humour and communicate a lot more through a lot less.
I like the idea of building up to a true action montage. In Hot Fuzz, the idea was to subvert that by taking the most boring police work like paper work by making it super stylized. - Edgar Wright
In all of his films the most striking element in terms of editing are the creative ways in which transitions take place.
Swish pans? Check.
Theatrical blackouts? Also check.
A brief minute long sequence with graphic match cut, dialogue match cut, sound bridge and metaphorical match cut packed in? Check, check, check and…check.
In this early montage sequence in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wright seamlessly manages to pack in all the kinds of match cuts without being overbearing at any point.
The purpose of match cuts as transitions and in Wright’s high-kinetic pace create a momentum in the film’s narrative that holds the audience’s attention in every frame. One of the reasons this style of editing works is because it is done for comedic purposes and to evoke a chuckle. The subtle “parody” or ironic feel to these stylised sequences is intentional and Wright is known to subtly poke fun at the otherwise serious genres of drama or action.
Every Frame a Painting did an amazing video covering Wright’s distinctive comedic visual style, check it out here:
Same Same But Different: Subverting Genres & Tropes
It is difficult to box Edgar Wright’s movies into any specific genres. Even a typical action movie such as Shaun of The Dead — a film about two friends trying to save their loved ones from a zombie apocalypse, was marketed as, “A romantic comedy. With Zombies.”
Similarly, a classic sci-fi movie like The World’s End where five friends on a pub crawl encounter other-worldly creatures, doesn’t take itself too seriously to be categorized under the same genre as you would with more true sci-fi movies like the Martian or Blade Runner.
Except Baby Driver, most of Wright’s movies are rooted in a degree of parody — a form of imitation of the style of genre or an artist with intended exaggeration for comedic purposes. More outright examples of parody would be films like Borat or Vampire Sucks (a parody of the Twilight series) but Wright prefers to call his movies homages to those genres rather than spoofs.
I want to do something new within the genres I loved. - Edgar Wright
Like almost all of us, Wright was once a starry eyed fanboy too, and he parlays his love for films like Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead II’ and the Coen Brothers’ ‘Raising Arizona’ as his inspirations into becoming a filmmaker.
Wright loved 80s cop-thrillers and found ways to pay comedic homage to that genre in his early short films like ‘Dead Right’ and his later, more mature works such as Hot Fuzz. His unique ability to turn generic, overused tropes of action, zombies or buddy cops into hilarious, yet cinematic alterations are what makes his movies memorable and him, the most talented fanboy of our generation.
Just like any of his films, in true Edgar Wright fashion here are some quick takeaways we can learn from his filmmaking career:
Find your own individualistic voice, no matter how unique or experimental it is.
Create what is personal. In an interview he said,
"In Shaun of The Dead, aside from the zombies, is actually very personal about relationships, both with girlfriends and family members...Even with Hot Fuzz…That was set in my hometown, the town I grew up in...So there’s always that sort of thing ‐ they’re both, in a weird way, quite personal projects."
Be meticulous. In all of his films, Wright admits to storyboarding every single scene and every single frame. Clarity of where the story is headed and how it’s going to end is central to good screenwriting.
Film school is not key to becoming a successful filmmaker. Although Wright was an arts student, he applied to film school twice and got rejected both times! Contrary to popular belief, many successful filmmakers including Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and Paul Anderson are all self-taught filmmakers too.
Start early and don’t take yourself too seriously. Wright made his first official short film at the age of 20 and in one interview said,
"Sometimes when I meet people who want to be directors I notice that they’ve put too much pressure on themselves to do something amazing the first time. They put so much weight on their first short, or their first feature that it really holds them back."
So...how do you make films like Edgar Wright?
Edgar Wright’s filmmaking armour includes: Experimental yet meticulous sound design, unique editing style, genre-defying films and probably much more that we can discover on each rewatch of his movies. A true cinephile himself, his works are testament of how bending or breaking the conventions of cinema can still produce some of the most surprisingly enjoyable works. So it’s fair to say, in order to make films like Edgar Wright, you ought to make films like you.