Edgar Wright on Shooting ‘Sparks’ and Making 1960s Britpop Scary in ‘Last Night in Soho’

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No one in the film world had a Year in Music quite like Edgar Wright. Almost right on the heels of “The Sparks Brothers,” his documentary tribute to a duo celebrating its 50th anniversary of eccentric rock heroism, came “Last Night in Soho,” a bloody supernatural thriller that nearly doubled as a movie musical, thanks to a soundtrack jam-packed with mostly female-fronted British pop hits of the mid-1960s.

Wright, who’d earlier proved himself as no slouch in the soundtrack department with heavily music-based films like “Baby Driver,” joined Variety‘s Music for Screens conference for a keynote conversation in which he spoke in considerable detail about the philosophies of how he treated music in these two strikingly different projects. Watch our chat, above, or read a lightly edited version of our conversation, bellow.

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VARIETY: First, let’s just talk about what culminated for you this year before we get to the individual projects. You had two films this year, one a music documentary and the other a very music-heavy film. For you as a music fan, you have to be feeling like you’re living your best life, being able to do those kinds of projects back to back.

WRIGHT: Yeah, there’s dream-come-true elements to it in different ways. The music in “Last Night in Soho” is stuff that I feel very passionately about, and it’s always a thrill to work with a song that you really love and in some cases do something interesting with it. I think probably because of previous projects, and also a great music clearance person in Kirsten Lane, some publishers trust us in terms of what we’re able to do things with the songs themselves, and that was with some classic ‘60s pop hits. And then in the case of the “Sparks Brothers” documentary, I’ve been a Sparks fan for a long time and I just felt it was my duty to bring that story to the screen. I felt aggrieved as a Sparks fan that nobody had done a documentary about them before. So getting to tell the whole story of that — and as you know, their first album was 50 years ago this year — it was just like a dream job, trying to unpack all of that.

Going first into “Last Night in Soho,” I was imagining what some of the sparks — no pun intended — might’ve been for that film. With “Baby Driver,” you’d talked about how, as a college student, you would sit around and listen to this Jon Spencer song and imagine a car chase set to it, and then think, “How can I build a film around this?” Was anything like that when you were first thinking about in “Last Night in Soho”?

Yeah, I guess in three different ways with that movie, music was a kind of jumping-off point. There’s a dance number in the first dream sequence, and it’s set to the Graham Bond Organization’s cover of “Wade in the Water,” a live track from like an album made in 1964 called “Live at Klooks Kleek.” I used to listen to that song and I would just start to imagine the the visuals in my head. I said this about “Baby Driver,” and it’s true with some of the sequences in this, where you get this movie version of synesthesia, where you imagine what it’s going to be, just based on the music.

But then on top of that, I had had the idea for the film for a long time, like a decade… And one of the things that kept me going … as the reminder to keep developing it, was to amass this playlist of the music that I wanted to be in the film. So I would be constantly cherry-picking these British mid-‘60s tracks I wanted to use that were all of a similar sort of tone and feel. I make a playlist for the film, as a way of reminding myself, like post-it notes on the fridge: “Must make ‘Last Night in Soho’!” At a certain point, the long version of the playlist was 300 songs long, and then I got it down to 50 or something like that.

But to go even further back, to maybe one of the seeds of the idea at all, was my obsession with the decade. I was born in 1974, so there’s something curious about having nostalgia for a decade that you weren’t in. This idea that maybe you’ve missed out on the cooler decade before you were born is something that later I started to worry about, whether it was actually a problem. Was me obsessing about the ‘60s a retreat from modern life? And that’s what the film becomes about, the idea that retreating into the past seems like a failure to deal with the present day. But how the obsession started was my parents’ record collection. They didn’t have that many records, and I don’t remember when I was growing up ever hearing them play those records anymore. But they had a record box of ‘60s albums, and they seemed to stop buying albums when my older brother was born, so there were lots of ‘60s albums in one box and no ‘70s albums at all. So maybe from the age of 5 or 6, when I learned how to use the record player, I would just play these albums. Left alone in the house, listening to the White Album on repeat as a 5-year-old, you start to conjure up ideas of: What is this all about? (They had) most of the the Beatles albums of that period, and other stuff like Motown and Otis Redding, and one Rolling Stones album — only the first one and none of the others, which I used to find quite curious.

What was the end result of your wondering whether your ‘60s fascination was healthy? No one wants to be totally into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake or think that everything used to be better. But there are golden ages, like the golden age of British pop you you explore with the soundtrack to this movie. Did you end up taking an anti-nostalgia stance or did you feel like, “Hey, this fashion and this music are so cool. We can still celebrate it”?

The basic premise of the movie is not sort of anti-nostalgia in terms of being like, “Everything’s terrible now, and guess what? Everything was terrible back then as well.” It’s more a note of caution about the danger of romanticizing the past. It’s wrong to romanticize it to choose to forget the bad times. There is a very loaded comment in the film when Eloise, the young lead of the movie, is waxing lyrical about the ‘60s to somebody who was actually there, and says “Everything was better back then.” And Diana Rigg says, “The music was better, yes…” That’s as far as she’ll go. It’s more just an acknowledgement that, if you were a time traveler going back, as our character does in a way, you can’t have the good without the bad…

But it was a real gift, soundtracking it with that period, because I wanted to focus on a certain period of ‘60s music, the mid-‘60s — like ’64-5-6 — and not have so much the psychedelic later ‘60s stuff, because I felt like that had been so well covered. I thought there was something about that moment just before the Summer of Love.

Of course the film sort of announces its Britishness from the very title forward. But the soundtrack is so British, so Anglophile. How conscious you were of getting acts that have this very sort of specific British appeal? People like Cilla Black, if you grew up in England, you would probably assume she was a superstar everywhere, but she really wasn’t here in the States.

I guess Dusty Springfield carried across to the States, right, and obviously Petula Clark? What’s funny in the U.K. is that not only was Cilla Black a big deal as a singer in the ‘60s, but she actually became more famous with a different generation in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a game show host.. When I was growing up, she was the host of “Blind Date,” which was the U.K. version of “The Dating Game,” so a lot of people who were younger in the U.K. think of Cilla Black as being the host of “Blind Date” and not the Beatles’ friend and the coat-check girl at the Cavern Club.

The other irony about having the British chicks like Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black on the soundtrack is that I realized, looking through the soundtrack, that the majority of the songs are written by Bacharach and David. [Laughs.] At that time, when there was like a great song, it would be a rush to who could have a hit with the cover first. So I guess quite a few of the songs on the soundtrack, Dionne Warrick had hits with first, but in the U.K., Cilla Black beat her to the punch… It’s interesting to me actually that quite a few people who’ve seen the film respond to songs that they only know the covers of, but not the originals. The Sandie Shaw song “Always Something There to Remind Me” was redone in the ‘80s, and the song “Eloise” by Barry Ryan was covered by the Damned to the ‘80s as well. The song by Arlene Taylor, “There’s a Ghost in My House,” I first heard when the Manchester industrial indie band the Fall covered it. .. So I like doing that. where you put the original song back in. Somebody even said to me the other day that they thought we’d actually created the original James Ray version of “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You.” They said, “Oh, they did a ‘60s version of the George Harrison song.” [Laughs.]

There are a lot of tonal shifts in “Soho,” and the music has a lot to do with that. Because you’re doing the pre-psychedelic era, there’s a light, buoyant spirit to a lot of the music from the mid-‘60s. But the places the film goes to are not light and buoyant. Did you ever worry, like, can we have all these fun, spiffy songs and still maintain this mood that gets pretty grim at times?

In a way, underscoring was the fun of it. And in some cases, with a lot of the female singer songs that are in the movie, I always felt that a lot of them have the tinge of heartbreak and they feel like tear-stained stuff. The Cilla Black songs Sandie Shaw songs have elements of a bittersweet edge to them, which I thought was really key. Even like the Cilla Black song “You’re My World,” which is a remake of an Italian hit, has these strings at the start which sound like a Bernard Herrmann score. … When that song starts and you have those sharp strings, it sounds like it could go into like a Bernard Herrmann score, and then that it turns into this lush ballad. So I used those things quite deliberately. And then there are other songs which are kind of dance-y, but when coupled with a sinister scene. can become quite sinister. I think the way we use the Walker Brothers cover of “Land of a Thousand Dances” is something that starts kind of fun and starts to turn dark.

In a scene where things start to take the dark turn in the movie, Anya Taylor-Joy is one of many burlesque dancers doing a routine to Sandy Shaw’s “Puppet on a String.” In the scene, Anya Taylor-Joy’s character is clearly doing this routine somewhat under duress, and is not happy about it and has a very painted-on smile. The reason I used that particular song is because Sandie Shaw, who was a very successful singer at that point, was doing the Eurovision song contest that year… And Sandie Shaw’s manager picked out five songs, one of which was “Puppet on a String,” which she hated; she thought the lyrics were sexist and misogynistic drivel, and didn’t want to do it and was sort of forced to do it. Lo and behold hat song got picked by the public to represent Britain, and then it won the Eurovision song contest. It was one of the biggest European hits by any female singer in the ‘60s – a song that she actively hated! And so in, in designing that scene, it has to be “Puppet on a String” –we have to use that song in that context of Sandie Shaw singing it somewhat under duress, and Anya Taylor-Joy dancing to it under duress. A lot of thought went into the exact deployment of where those things go.

The opening scene, with the Peter and Gordon hit, almost plays like it’s the start of a romantic-comedy movie musical. It’s kind of a red herring at the beginning of the movie. Was that fun for you, to start a thriller with a stylized scene in the heroine’s bedroom where she’s having this wonderful moment to this wonderful song?

Yeah, absolutely. And also the choice of that song — “A World Without Love” is something where, again, it’s sort of bright and breezy, but has a bit of a melancholic tinge to the lyrics. Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon saw the movie a couple of weeks ago and emailed me, because I know his daughter …. Having seen the movie not only opening with his song, but also you see the album cover and you see his face on it, he was really thrilled with the movie. And as somebody who was around in the ‘60s Soho scene, his kind words about how what a good job he thought we’d done with the period stuff meant a lot to me.

But actually even in that scene itself, in terms of the bait-and-switch of, “Well, what is this movie? Is this going to be a fun romp or a horror movie?”… The very first image that you see is Eloise silhouetted in a doorway in what seems to be a beautiful ball gown, and then when she switches the lights on, you realize she’s just in her grandmother’s house in the country. In a way, that helps set up straight away that what the whole film is going to be about is the difference between perception and reality. It’s definitely designed to fool you twice, in a way — with what she is projecting in terms of the glamor of this moment, and the harsher reality of it.

Anya Taylor-Joy sings “Downtown” in the film, and then there’s several versions of her singing alternate versions of that that you guys have put out. It’s not that necessarily that someone cast in that role has to be a world-class singer, because her career is unsuccessful in the movie, so we don’t necessarily have to believe that she’s a superstar. But she has to be a credible singer. Was that something that came up in casting, like, “Can you actually do this?”

It’s funny, because when I saw Anya at the premiere, she reminded me that I didn’t know that she could sing. Or maybe I’d asked her and she’d sort of said, “Yeah.” But I didn’t know how great she could sing when we wrote that scene. Actually the scene was a late addition to the script. … It was Krysty Wilson-Cairns’, my co-writer’s, suggestion to have an audition scene so we can actually see how talented she is. And as soon as the idea came up of her doing an audition after hours and singing kind of a cappella, again, we had this list of songs that was like, “Oh, she should sing ‘Downtown.’” But I didn’t know how well Anya could sing until she came in and did a session with Steve Price, our composer, and spent the afternoon with him and a pianist to kind of work out how to sing the song. I remember Steve calling me saying, “Her voice is amazing.” It was a great kind of surprise in a way. Then we recorded those extra versions because when the trailer came out in May, which used her acapella version of “Downtown,” we had that track but the track in the movie itself was only 90 seconds long. We didn’t record the entire song. As soon as the trailer came out, people were saying, “Are you going to release Anya’s version of ‘Downtown’?” So I said to Steve, “Why don’t we record the rest of it?” And I texted Anya saying, “Hey, I know this sounds crazy, because you recorded this a year ago, but do you want to record the rest of it, and then we release it as a single?”

To shift gears from Anya to Ron and Russell Mael: People are still talking about “The Sparks Brothers,” partly because it just premiered on Netflix, many months after the theatrical release. and suddenly there’s a wider world getting into it and discovering Sparks as well as your movie. How did you find that balance between doing evangelizing to an audience who may have never heard of Sparks, and then the initial core that came out to see it in theaters because they’ve been obsessed with this band for 30, 40, 50 years/ How do you balance the needs of serving the cult and serving the newbie?

Even in terms of getting the film financed, in talking to MRC, who financed the movie, the people there that weren’t Sparks fans were going on my enthusiasm for the idea. So I knew that it was important that it was an introduction as much as it was a celebration. And that’s something I feel about a lot of music docs, even ones that I like: that sometimes they assume prior knowledge of the band. And that’s great if you’re into the band, but sometimes you want to discover a band, like, “I don’t know much about (them): Let’s watch the documentary.” I knew that I wanted to not only make it fun for existing fans, but play to an audience that have never heard of them before.

As you made the doc, did you think about what moviemakers do and don’t have in common with artists like Sparks? Because clearly Sparks can be inspirational to probably artists of all stripes as an act that’s survived and thrived and sometimes not thrived, but always kept this independent vision. But if Sparks had a flop album along the way, they can go on to the next one. The economic pressure might be higher in filmmaking, where it’s hard for be idiosyncratic or have a cult audience and continue to work like you have.

I definitely think there are like filmmakers that I admire who have a persistence of vision and wait for an audience to sort of catch up with them. But you’re right — you want to have a level of success where somebody will finance the next movie. With Sparks, I think at a certain point they divorced from doing albums with labels and managed to find a way of working where they didn’t have to rely on a label to actually make the album. Thereby I think it was probably quite a freeing process, because I think from “Little Beethoven” onwards, they found a way to do the albums completely their way and then find somebody to release it.

What’s interesting in the movie that there’s this B-plot with them trying to make films, first with Jacques Tati, which falls apart, then with Tim Burton in the ‘80s at a point where Burton was at the absolute zenith of his fame and hot streak. And then finally, they do get one off the ground with Leos Carax (“Annette”). And in a weird way, somebody like Leos Carax is probably quite a similar fit to Sparks in terms of somebody who’s very idiosyncratic and not somebody… I say this in the best way… With Sparks, I think one of the ways that they operate is that they don’t often seem like they’re chasing trends. They’re doing what they want to do, and if it happens to hit some zeitgeist, then great. I always wonder with Sparks, if you went to them in the mid-‘70s and said, “Would you like to have stadium rock-band success right now? Or would you like, in 50 years, to have people talking about the entire body of work, and be like two films out in one year?” I would like to think they’d choose the latter. Because it is a thing with some bands that get really, really big that they either flame out or become kind of a tribute band to themselves. You know, I love the Rolling Stones — they’re amazing — but it seems like they’re always just on their own greatest hits tour since 1981. Nothing wrong with that! But with Sparks, in a weird way, the lack of huge mainstream success kept them hungry and lean and able to experiment in a way that bigger bands can’t really do.

Clearly, you’re a student of rock documentaries. You’ve watched a lot of them as a fan, as well as maybe thinking about how you wanted to do one. You made some very individual choices. You didn’t focus a lot on personal life, and stylistically you made it fun and watchable for somebody who might not want to sit down for a typical documentary. Did you have a key thought or two about what the recent spate of rock or pop docs have gotten right and wrong?

Well, with Sparks, because of that thing of it being an introduction, I thought, let’s talk about them through the work. Because they’re not people who really want to talk about their private lives. They are in the belief that what’s on stage and what’s on record is more interesting than what’s going on in their lives. And so if they are kind of like a bit cagey about their personal lives, I respect that. There are a lot of rock docs that have that hook of “the music you know, the man you don’t.” And that’s interesting, but sometimes you want more about the music. And I’m not going to mention any documentaries by name, but it’s like, “Tell me about both!” Because in 50 years’ time, people won’t know these songs. What I really like is documentaries that contextualize the band within the time and their influences. … It’s 20 years ago now, but I remember really loving Julian Temple’s “The Filth and the Fury” about the Sex Pistols. It’s obviously a very short career, but it gave you a really good idea of how they were born — not just the people, but what was happening in the culture and in politics to spawned that band. …

Sometimes there are artists where, because people assume that you already know all the hits, they concentrate on the inter-personal stuff. And I wonder sometimes if there is some bands where that then becomes the legacy more than the music. When I think about a band like Oasis, my first thought isn’t about the songs. It’s more about the brothers hating each other’s guts. The Police have amazing songs, but I more think about the acrimony within the band, having seen more than one documentary about that, than I do about their killer catalog.

What’s interesting, actually, just having watched “Get Back,” is that it manages to do both. Because you see the black-box recorder of a band struggling to keep it together, but you also literally see them working out the songs. That to me is perfect, because I know exactly what’s going on now in terms of the dynamics and how difficult it is — you’ve got internal and external pressures — but you also get to see people actually writing and see these songs coming together in front of your eyes. … There are documentaries that I watch where I already like the band and already know their songs, and so I still enjoy it. But I do think: what if an 18-year-old was watching this, and he/she/they had never heard this hit single? Wouldn’t you want to give them a bit of context of what the single was? Let them hear it for a little bit before the talking heads start again! I think, well, if these films are great, these films are going to be around when the artists are long gone, and don’t you want to give (future generations) the best context for who they were?

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