Whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker or a movie buff with a Letterboxd profile, Edgar Wright wants to show you the ropes of filmmaking.
Similar to Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron, Wright is part of a staggering list of acclaimed filmmakers who didn’t go to film school, opting to teach themselves through the act of moviemaking itself. Film school certainly has its advantages, such as being able to form a network of future collaborators, but for many people, it’s impractical and cost-prohibitive. Well now, thanks to BBC Maestro, Wright is passing on what he’s learned from writing and directing eight feature films, including Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End).
Wright’s four-hour course consists of 27 video lessons and covers everything from pitching and screenwriting to storyboarding and editing.
“For people who are interested in filmmaking but haven’t taken the full dive into it, the course talks about every aspect of it in layman’s terms,” Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Even though I’m a film director, there’s a big element that I learned myself, and I’m just trying to impart what I’ve learned on the job, to other people.”
Over the years, Wright has also become a part of a fraternity of filmmakers that help better each other’s films during the testing stage of post-production. His influence can even be felt in 2022’s biggest hit, Top Gun: Maverick. At the request of co-screenwriter/producer Christopher McQuarrie, Wright tapped into his knack for selecting memorable needle drops, recommending Foghat’s “Slow Ride” for the first-act bar sequence.
“My dream text to get was Chris McQuarrie saying, ‘Hey, we need a new song for the bar scene in Top Gun: Maverick. What can you think of that’s like …?’ And it was like, “Oh, give me 45 minutes!” I think I still have that playlist on Spotify; it was ‘Maverick Bar,’” Wright says.
Wright’s most recent film, Last Night in Soho, also received a valuable note from one of the most celebrated filmmakers working today.
“On Last Night in Soho, I showed George Miller something, and he had such a tiny, tiny note that was so great,” Wright recalls. “It was also great to say in a VFX session, ‘And one other thing, Dr. George Miller suggested that if we tighten up this gap, it would be more successful.’ And nobody can say no to an action note from George Miller.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Wright also looks back at his entire filmography and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Well, nobody told me I was interviewing Paul Rudd today.
(Laughs.) I still have the Post-it note. (Wright holds it up to the camera.)
So you’re paying it forward by sharing your accumulated knowledge. What led you to do this course for BBC Maestro?
Well, BBC Maestro asked me, and I’m always asked, usually during some Q&A, “How do you get into filmmaking?” And it’s not a short answer. You can come out with a pithy short answer to that, which is usually like, “Get up and do it. Nothing’s stopping you. You’ve got an iPhone, you can make films.” But the great thing about actually doing this is answering that question at length and answering other questions that I’ve never answered myself. So I had to think about how I approach my work. What’s also interesting about filmmaking is that no two directors do it exactly the same. So within the course, I talk about how I make films, but I also mention that this isn’t the way that everybody does it. There are other ways to do it, and I talk about that as well. So I hope it’s pretty comprehensive for people and hopefully inspiring.
In putting this course together, you were able to see your process from a different angle. So did you realize anything about the way you work that wasn’t apparent to you previously?
It was more just being able to vocalize the things that I do instinctively. That was the thing that was difficult. I had answers for every question in terms of the way I do things, but I’d never really answered them [vocally] before. So becoming a teacher and having to communicate that was interesting. My parents were both art teachers, and so it was a nice full circle to do some teaching myself.
It’s quite a feat considering you were self-taught.
As I say in the course, I didn’t really go to film school. I went to art college and I did a foundation course, but I never went on to a film and TV degree course. And so there is a huge element of it for me that’s self-taught. When I was a teenager with a Super 8 cam and then a video camera that I won in a competition, I watched films that I liked and just tried to copy what they’d done without really knowing exactly how they’d done it. It was an estimation of the visuals on screen. I didn’t really know what a Steadicam was or what it looked like, but you try and figure things out yourself.
So for people who are interested in filmmaking but haven’t taken the full dive into it, the course talks about every aspect of it in layman’s terms. Even though I’m a film director, there’s a big element that I learned myself, and I’m just trying to impart what I’ve learned on the job, to other people.
We could devote this entire interview to the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), but if you had to sum up those experiences, was writing the part of the process you refined the most, alongside Simon Pegg?
Yeah, I talk about this a lot in the course, but my first film that I made when I was 20 years old, A Fistful of Fingers, was powered along by a lot of energy but also just total naivety. I didn’t really ever think that it wouldn’t happen in that way. When you are young, you don’t necessarily think about any of the downfalls of anything that you might do. And then doing Shaun of the Dead nearly a decade later, it was something where me and Simon got really serious about craft, and you’re right, a big part of that was writing. A big part of that was how to write a proper screenplay, and so we read all the screenplay books. We also analyzed films.
Besides the videos you can watch [on BBC Maestro], there’s also practical courses that you can do in your own time, and one of them is literally what me and Simon used to do before Shaun of the Dead. Watch one of your favorite films and break it down into an act structure. Literally, take it apart like a model car and figure out how it works. So we’d sit around and watch our favorite films, and then we looked at them in a more analytical way to figure out why they worked the way they worked. So that was a really fascinating process. Even if you don’t have the actual tools to shoot a movie, you can still learn about film directing in really simple ways, such as watching films with the sound turned off.
It’s interesting to learn about visual storytelling by watching a film with the sound turned off and seeing how much of it you can follow just by composition, camera placement, lighting, mood. I remember being on a plane and watching Gravity over somebody’s shoulder. (Laughs.) I had seen the film before, but it’s astonishing. A great movie and great visual storytelling can work in any format, even without the sound, even when it’s not your [airplane seat] screen that you’re watching it on. But it’s fascinating to break apart things that you might have already seen a hundred times, in order to see and hear them in a whole new way.
I’m sure Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had many lessons, but given the cult status it’s acquired post-release, it seems like it reaffirmed that box office is not the be-all and end-all. Is the long game what you actually took away from it?
I didn’t know that at the time. I’ve said this to other filmmakers since who’ve maybe had a similar initial reaction to a film like Scott Pilgrim did is that the three-day weekend is not the end of the story for any movie. People shouldn’t buy into that idea. Rating films by their box office is like the football fan equivalent to films. (Laughs.) Most of my favorite films that are considered classics today were not considered hits in their time. You can point to hundreds of classic movies, whether it’s Citizen Kane or Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski. So how a film does in its first three days is never the end of the story, and the further we get away from that discourse about box office numbers being the totality of a movie, the better.
Does Baby Driver remind you to make a playlist that syncs with your script whenever possible?
With that particular film, yes. The character is literally listening to the soundtrack, but I find that I like writing to music a lot. It usually becomes quite specific, too. If I’m writing a script, I’ll try and find the right mood to write with, but you have to get quite particular about it. You don’t want to listen to new songs because you might be distracted by lyrics or something. You don’t really want to listen to songs with a lot of lyrics, full stop, unless you’ve heard that song a million times and it can just be in the background. But generally, it’s like finding the right tone of something or listening to soundtracks.
When me and Simon were writing Shaun of the Dead, this was before the days of Spotify and everything being on your laptop. We made a compilation on a CD-R of John Carpenter scores and Goblin, and we just played that on a loop to be in the zone. Lots of different people have inspirational exercises to get in the right mood to write, and sometimes, that goes as far as when you’re making the movie. If you’re doing a horror movie and you have a scene without dialogue, it can sometimes be a great idea to play some music on set. That’s the Sergio Leone-Ennio Morricone method of playing the score whilst the actors are actually on set. Obviously, if you have dialogue, that becomes a different thing, but I’ve done that a number of times, even separately from Baby Driver. You’re playing a bit of music to get to conjure a moon on set.
For Last Night in Soho, it seems like the main takeaways are that the tried-and-true tricks never die, such as Texas switches and double sets, but also pinpoint choreography and coordination, whether it’s the night club scenes or the taxi sequence involving three different taxis.
I’m glad you know about that taxi thing. That’s one of the most impressive bits of shooting in that film that nobody ever talks about. We were shooting the two actors [in different taxis] at the same time so that the background would be exactly right, but they could also have a live conversation. We were actually driving in Central London, which was impressive and ambitious, but also saved a lot of money on green screen effects. With that movie, generally, doing as much stuff as possible in camera made it a little bit more ambitious, but it’s where the magic of moviemaking feels most pure. You are creating something in the frame that anybody standing on set can see, and that’s a really beautiful thing. It builds up a real camaraderie on set.
When we were shooting that dancing scene with all of the Texas switches, every member of the crew would be crowded around the monitors afterwards because you could see what the shot was going to be. When films are in some kind of green screen limbo where everybody on set is saying, “Ah, VFX have got it. Don’t worry about that. They’ll do it,” I feel like people may become disengaged with the process. Ewan McGregor, when talking about making the Star Wars prequels, was always incredibly candid about the fact that it was boring, like talking to a tennis ball. And that’s not to say that you can’t do amazing things with VFX, but if it’s done in combination with practical techniques, you’re always going to have more fun making it. It’ll have verisimilitude. It won’t be right for every single movie, of course, but the more that you can do for real, the more exciting it is to make.
So I’ve heard many stories over the years that involve a filmmaker showing you an early cut of their film just to get your two cents. For example, you told [writer-director] Chris McQuarrie and [editor] Eddie Hamilton that Mission: Impossible — Fallout was 15 minutes too long, and they took it to heart.
(Laughs.) They hated me for that!
With Top Gun: Maverick, you also suggested Foghat’s “Slow Ride” for the bar sequence. So what can you say about being in this position where world-class filmmakers want your input during their refinement and testing stage?
I didn’t have any [other] notes on Top Gun: Maverick. I first watched that in 2020. Chris McQuarrie and Tom Cruise showed it to me, and it was pretty much the film that got released, minus the Lady Gaga song. And in terms of the Foghat thing, they needed a song. My dream text to get was Chris McQuarrie saying, “Hey, we need a new song for the bar scene in Top Gun: Maverick. What can you think of that’s like …?” And it was like, “Oh, give me 45 minutes!” I think I still have that playlist on Spotify; it was “Maverick Bar.” So that stuff is just fun to me.
But yeah, it’s immensely flattering if people want to show you something, and I do the same with my films. You usually invite people that are going to tell you exactly what they think. That can sometimes be tougher to hear, but you want to hear it from people you really respect. And sometimes, people have really great solutions. On Last Night in Soho, I showed George Miller something, and he had such a tiny, tiny note that was so great. It was also great to say in a VFX session, “And one other thing, Dr. George Miller suggested that if we tighten up this gap, it would be more successful.” And nobody can say no to an action note from George Miller. (Laughs.)
I love movies or series about the making of movies, but especially real movies. Mank was about the writing of Citizen Kane. The Offer was a series about the making of The Godfather. Affleck is also developing a film about the story behind the production of Chinatown. So I’m curious if there’s a narrative feature you’d like to see about a particular movie’s behind-the-scenes story, but I must take George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road off the board because it’s too easy and too perfect of an answer.
I wish there was a full documentary or maybe a narrative feature about the making of the first Evil Dead. That would be fascinating. From what I gather, having done a Q&A with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, one of the things that happened on that film is that as the shoot stretched on, the original cast pretty much left. (Laughs.) And one of the reasons that the zombies have very severe face makeup in the second half is because some of them are not the same actors as before. There was a point in a Tennessee cabin where they were like, “I’ve been out in the woods for six weeks. I need to get back to my job.” I think the finale of the movie is actually just Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell together in Sam Raimi’s basement.
So I like hearing about those kinds of movies where people are way outside of Hollywood and they’re trying to bridge that gap between being amateur and professional. And obviously, in the case of that film, it’s one of the most remarkable horror debuts of all time. But it just seemed stuck together with tape. (Laughs.)
Lastly, people are going to immediately sign up for your BBC Maestro course based on your name and body of work. What past filmmaker would prompt you to sign up for BBC Maestro in an instant?
Alfred Hitchcock. If Hitchcock was going to do the BBC Maestro from beyond the grave, I mean, that would be impressive itself. (Laughs.) But I would be first to sign up for that.
Edgar Wright’s BBC Maestro Course is now available at BBCMaestro.com. This interview was edited for length and clarity.