Edgar Wright: The Diegetic Soundtrack of My Life

The British writer and director on his formative musical experiences and the magical marriage of music and movies

Many directors have stylistic trademarks that mark out their movies. Think of Edgar Wright’s films and TV shows, and you’ll instantly recall not only his willingness to poke fun at established movie tropes, but also the way he uses music to shape or enhance the action.

That premise is at the heart of his acclaimed 2017 thriller, Baby Driver. The film’s lead character, Baby, is a music-obsessed getaway driver whose life is soundtracked by a constant stream of songs. Wright wrote and directed the film as a kind of “movie mixtape,” with the featured music becoming an integral part of the way the characters interact.

Since first rising to prominence via the late ’90s sitcom Spaced – a cult series he worked on with regular collaborators Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Jessica Hynes – Wright has written and directed a string of hit movies notable for their use of both pop music and soundtrack-style instrumental music. These include the so-called Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (2004’s zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead, 2007’s small-town crime caper Hot Fuzz and 2013 sci-fi comedy The World’s End) and 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Fittingly, Wright has also directed a number of music videos, most famously a 2014 promo clip for Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk’s “Gust of Wind.”

In this excerpt from Wright’s recent Fireside Chat with Red Bull Radio host Frosty the British director talks through his formative musical experiences, explaining how they helped shape his films.

Drew Gurian

Was there a moment that you first had an epiphany regarding this magic union of sound and picture?

I think there were a number of movies that married music and film together and were therefore really influential to me. I think about this mostly in terms of movies that use existing source music. A good example would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is an interesting one because Stanley Kubrick had commissioned a score from Alex North, but then he jettisoned that. Instead he just used the temporary music, which were these classical music tracks they’d been using [as placeholders] during the edit.

I probably saw that film when I was very young and in some cases, I link the music solely with the movie. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” on its own outside the context of 2001. I mean, I think of that as a piece of music linked to that film, making it a great example of a composition that will forever be associated with the movie.

Richard Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra

In terms of the use of pop music in films, the first formative example of something that really blew me away would be An American Werewolf in London. That is one of my favorite movies of all time. One of its many incredible elements is the way that John Landis uses pop songs in a horror movie, very often by counter-scoring. Also, all of the songs are on theme. All of the songs have “moon” in the title, which is not only a superbly simple idea, but also brilliantly effective.

Several moments hit home, such as his use of “Blue Moon” by Bobby Vinton. That cover opens it, and the version that closes the movie by the Marcels is one of my favorite end credit songs of all time. People often ask, “What’s the greatest end credits?” My answer is always An American Werewolf in London, because when the film cuts to black and the Marcels doo-wop cover of “Blue Moon” kicks in, it’s just heaven.

Bobby Vinton – Blue Moon

Another movie that was really sort of very influential in terms of the use of the music was George Lucas’s American Graffiti, because the idea of a diegetic soundtrack really influenced my latest film, Baby Driver.

What is a diegetic soundtrack?

Diegetic means that the music is happening within the scene, so what you are hearing, the characters are hearing, too. In the case of Baby Driver, sometimes it’s only the lead character listening to it, because he’s got headphones on, but essentially, the song is playing as source in the scene. A lot of movies that use contemporary music will have it as score, so it’s laid on top of the film, but it’s not actually happening within the scene.

All of the songs in American Graffiti are diegetic until the end credits when the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long” kicks in. But prior to that, throughout the film, the soundtrack is all period rock & roll songs. You hear them on the radio in the background, in the diner, at the prom, even in the cars. I think at the time that was a bold move. Now it feels normal because most TV shows slap on some music all the time, but at the time it was a bold experiment to just use the sounds of the time and have no dedicated score. It had a big impact on me.

When I was a teenager, I was inspired by the use of music in Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese always uses amazing music, but I think Goodfellas is a peak of him marrying music and visuals together. There are so many great sequences in that one: the sequence with the dead bodies where he uses “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos and also the use of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.” Another sequence I particularly like is the whole helicopter section, which I think has two songs in it: George Harrison’s “What Is Life?” and more famously “Jump Into The Fire” by Harry Nilsson. When that kicks in, it’s just phenomenal.

George Harrison – What Is Life?

That to me is just a brilliant choice of song. I’m almost certain that Scorsese picks songs from his own record collection, almost always the Rolling Stones. Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” is such a great, unusual choice for that movie. Again, it’s one of those songs that when you hear it, you think of Goodfellas. I think that’s a great testament to how the song is used in the film.

The other director who uses music brilliantly is Quentin Tarantino. Obviously the first movie of his I saw and was therefore most impactful was Reservoir Dogs. Like the rest of his movies, that soundtrack was great. I think the reason I always think of that one first is because it has themed songs, which is similar to American Graffiti. The action takes place over a long weekend and the local radio station is having a “super sounds of the ’70s” weekend. That means there’s a reason for songs from that period to be used.

In his other films, Tarantino seems to have overall themes based around genres, but in Reservoir Dogs, it’s very specific. It’s like, “This is what they’re listening to during the time period of the movie.” The film itself is sort of recalling these tough guy films from the ’70s and the idea that the characters are harking back to that. That’s their choice of music, because that’s when they grew up. It’s a brilliant choice and it works so beautifully.

Were you using music in your first film experiences and experiments, such as the short action thriller spoof Dead Right?

I wouldn’t call Dead Right a proper film. It was shot on video when I was 18, before I started doing films properly. We would just use anything. How I started was by making “goofies” or amateur films of my school friends, which were all comedies up until around the period of Dead Right.

I think Dead Right was the first one where I actually got some people to do some music for me, because the prior ones I’d done, like the Western and superhero spoofs, I’d put on things by John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Queen, Lalo Schifrin and Goblin after I’d edited the pictures. A couple of times I got into a position where TV shows in the UK would want to show them late at night, but that was a problem because you’ve got all this unlicensed music.

I think for Dead Right, the Dirty Harry spoof I did – a very, very silly film and not part of my official IMDB list – I actually used some library music and got a friend of mine to do some rock songs for it. By that point I was aware that it would not be a good idea to put John Williams on my film. I think that’s something that a lot of people learn. In fact, when I give advice to young filmmakers, one thing I say is, “Don’t temp your movie with music that you cannot afford.”

If you do a short film or amateur first feature and you temp it with John Williams or Ennio Morricone, be aware that you may never get that great effect ever again and you’ll be disappointed. In fact, when I did Shaun of the Dead, the entire rough cut featured pieces by John Carpenter and Goblin, because we were pretty confident that we could get a score in that vein. Somewhere there’s a copy of Shaun of the Dead with the score from The Thing, which ironically is Ennio Morricone aping John Carpenter.

John Carpenter – Halloween (Main Theme)

It was a smart thing to do in terms of using something spare, but also because the John Carpenter scores are cheap. The reason he started scoring movies was because he couldn’t afford a composer. So he thinks, “Oh, I could do this myself.” He got the synthesizer out and knocked out a classic soundtrack like Halloween. When I started, on almost any short film I used to slap on bits from the Star Wars score, particularly “Ben’s Death” and “TIE Fighter Attack.” That’s the best cue.

Why is that such a great cue?

Because it’s the TIE fight attack and it gets extremely exciting. It’s one of those cues. There’s another one that’s often used, from James Horner’s score to Aliens. I think it’s called “Bishop’s Countdown.” In every single trailer post-1986 through to the middle of the ’90s, it seemed like you’d always hear that cue. It’s incredible. Sometimes, there are cues that you hear on soundtrack albums and if you’re doing an amateur short, you think, “Oh, I know what to put on this.”

James Horner – Bishop’s Countdown

I did a superhero spoof when I was about 17 called Carbolic Soap. I remember on the end credits I used something from the score to Dario Argento’s Phenomena, because it had a particularly epic end cue. I think that was by Goblin or at least one of the members, such as Claudio Simonetti. I definitely remember all these things fondly.

The irony with Shaun of the Dead is that when Dan Mudford and Pete Woodhead from the Sons of Silence did the score, they used the temporary tracks as inspiration. It’s always a testament to the quality of somebody’s score when you can’t remember how it worked with the other stuff you’d originally used.

Goblin – Jennifer (End Titles)

Did you use Sons of Silence in Spaced?

I did. Sons of Silence were a late ’90s band that came in the wake of big beat, like Fatboy Slim, Bentley Rhythm Ace and those kinds of acts. They were also influenced by lounge-core. The Sons of Silence had a song out around the time I was editing space called “Bobby Dazzler.” When I was editing Spaced, I was essentially the music supervisor as well. There was originally no music written into the scripts, but there were certain songs that had a vibe. Simon [Pegg] had mentioned a Fatboy Slim track called “The Weekend Starts Here.” When I heard it I thought, “Oh, that’s definitely the right vibe for the show.”

There were some other tracks by bands that I liked, such as Cornelius and Pizzicato Five, which I couldn’t clear for Spaced. Because of that I had to go looking for other things. There used to be a Virgin Megastore around the corner from our edit suite, and during the editing of Spaced I must have bought about 200 CDs. I think I found most of the soundtrack of Spaced through that, as well as going to things I knew already like Sons of Silence.

One of the great things about being a music aficionado who makes movies is that you can use songs to say thank you to the artists who have inspired you.

After we used “Bobby Dazzler” in the show, I met one of the guys from the band socially. He said, “We’ve got a whole second album that’s unreleased. If you want to use any of it, please do.” So in the second season of Spaced, we used lots of that album. One of the tracks, and it’s on the Shaun of the Dead soundtrack album as well, is called “Fizzy Legs.” It’s a very silly title for quite a dark song, but it was a song that I felt had the right vibe for Shaun of the Dead. I think its sort of neo-John Carpenter. You know, it’s dance and it’s electronica, but it’s got sort of a sinister edge.

Dan Mudford & Pete Woodhead – Fizzy Legs

With the soundtrack to Spaced, I think the music used often matches the characters. Did the tracks chosen actually influence the character development?

I think in a certain sense we were imposing our own musical tastes on the show, but then it felt like the kind of thing those guys would be listening to. It was the late ’90s and early noughties and many of the tracks came from albums that were out and cool, such as Mr. Scruff’s Keep It Unreal and Let’s Get Killed by David Holmes. All of those things I would be listening to a lot, so it just seemed like a no-brainer [to include tracks from those].

There were lots of bands that I discovered by digging through the racks in Virgin Megastore, like Fantastic Plastic Machine. I heard “S’il Vous Plait” on a compilation. When I heard that, it was like, “Oh, this is Spaced happy music.” It was great, because I was going on an adventure that you think the characters may have also done. It felt like what those characters might have been listening to.

Fantastic Plastic Machine – S’il Vous Plait

The other band I discovered through that was Lemon Jelly. We used a lot of their tracks in the second season. I remember reading a review of their EP collection, which was called Lemonjelly.ky, in something like The Guardian. It sounded like Spaced music from the review, so I went and bought the album. Later, Lemon Jelly also contributed a little bit to Shaun of the Dead as well. I can’t remember whether it was in the film, but there was a track on the soundtrack album.

It was in the film. The track is called “The Staunton Lick.”

Yeah. That song is fantastic. That’s one of the songs that I think of when I think of Spaced. I played it to Simon and then he also fell in love with it. When we made that show, we were in our mid-20s and our lives were not too dissimilar to Spaced. People always ask us about doing a third series and one of the reasons that it would be very difficult is because our lives are so different to what those characters may have become. It would seem like a fallacy to try and get back in the heads of those guys.

When you were growing up, what was the kind of sounds which were circling around your youth? Were you an early music aficionado or was it something that came later through your interest in filmmaking?

It was definitely before I got into filmmaking. I remember some of my earliest memories are of music on the TV. The single came out before I was born, but I can vividly remember Mud playing “Tiger Feet” on Top of the Pops, possibly a Christmas special. I just remember watching Top of the Pops every Thursday. I’d hear lots of disco and things like “You’re The One That I Want” by John Travolta and Oliva Newton-John. Fact: Marshall High, the school from Grease, is right around the corner from where we’re recording this interview. Weirdly, Harold Budd went there.

Sometimes my parents would buy me and my brother 7" singles. The first one I ever had was a disco record – “Strut Your Funky Stuff” by Frantique. It’s actually pretty good and definitely very danceable. I’m very fond of it, because it was literally the first 7" I ever had. Another early seven was “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees. Later my brother sat on that and broke it, so I don’t have that any more. A little later I began to buy music myself. I used to get 50p pocket money, so if I saved up for a couple of weeks I could go and buy a single.

Frantique – Strut Your Funky Stuff

Did you listen to John Peel on Radio 1?

I did later when I was a teenager, because his show was on at 10 PM, so it wasn’t really something I was aware of until I was older. Most of the music I discovered was through watching Top of the Pops and listening to Radio 1. I’m not going to pretend that I was cool enough to be into the Smiths and Prince in 1984, but I did buy silly 7" singles and stuff.

I think what started me off on the road to being a music geek was having a record player in our house. It was a weird player that I’m assuming they didn’t make too many of, because the speed settings were 78, 45, 33 and 16. I have no idea whether they even made albums that rotated at 16 [revolutions per minute] but as you might imagine, me and my brother used to try playing things at that speed. These were normally film scores. We definitely had Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and E.T. It would be, “Play ‘Ben’s Death’ at 78. Now play it at 16.” Or, “Play these 45s at 78.” It was very silly.

My parents had a record box and quite a small collection of albums. As both of my parents worked, there were times when we were left alone in the house, so I pretty much got to know all of those records inside out. They had one Rolling Stones album – the first one that is actually now worth quite a lot of money. They gifted me that along with the rest of their records when they got rid of their record player.

They had seven albums by the Beatles, but not all of them. They definitely had Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, Abbey Road and Let It Be, but not Revolver. Later I found this quite curious, because Revolver is often voted the best album of all time. I asked my parents, “Why did you not buy that, because you have the rest of the albums from Rubber Soul onwards?” They said they’d never got ’round to buying it, so I told them people say it’s the best one. This might be heresy to say, but having heard Revolver, it’s not even in my top three Beatles albums. I guess this is because the others are so ingrained on my brain.

I’m interested in the idea of certain music being ingrained in your memory. Is that sense of “music memory” and nostalgic spark something that makes its way into the films you’re working on?

Yeah. I’ve never used the Beatles for obvious reasons, although I’d love to. “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” from Rubber Soul would have been a perfect song to include in Baby Driver. I suppose we could have looked for a cover version of that, but you still have to pay the publishing royalties. I would say that Baby Driver is sort of a distillation of the nostalgic feelings I have for music.

Another album in my parents’ record box was Bridge Over Troubled Water. It was the only Simon & Garfunkel album they had. All of those songs mean a lot to me now. When I was a ten year old listening to “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” I had no idea who he was, but I loved the song and the lyrics.

Simon & Garfunkel – So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

When I first listened to the White Album around that age I would often think, “What is this all about?” I loved it, but I didn’t understand what it was about and some of it was scary to me. I was really scared of “Revolution 9” and the ending of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on Abbey Road. I used to find the latter hypnotic but terrifying.

You mentioned that you and your brother used to manipulate sound by playing records at the wrong speed. When it came to making films, did you ever think about bending the format in the same kind of way?

I don’t think, consciously, when I was making films, that I would be thinking about messing around with the form in the way that I did in playing with the record speeds. However, in Baby Driver there is a moment where “Hocus Pocus” by Focus is playing at the wrong speed. It was one I thought about a lot, because so many people use slow motion and slap a pop song over the top. In Baby Driver, the songs are supposed to be playing in real time, as if Baby is listening to them in real time.

There was a moment where I felt slow motion would be useful, after a major character dies. So I thought, “What if we slowed down this drum break?” If we slowed the music down by half, then the picture had to be slowed down by the same speed. So we did exactly that. It wasn’t until way later, after we’d finished the mix, that our music person said, “If we slow it down, we have to clear that with Focus.” So we went and cleared it with Focus. That was cool.

Focus – Hocus Pocus

Your parents record box seems to be something that got you going. Did you get more heavily into buying music as a teenager?

Definitely. I would do Saturday jobs or whatever and then buy music with my wages. I started to do this thing where instead of buying contemporary music, I’d listen to that on the radio and use my money to start raiding the discographies of artists who were a little before my time. I went through a phase of listening to everything by David Bowie, everything by Queen, everything by Roxy Music, and so on. My brother would be in the bedroom next to mine, so I would hear AC/DC and Aerosmith through the wall.

Probably the only contemporary artists I used to actually keep up with at that time were Prince and R.E.M. There’s a lot of bands from that time that I got into just as they were breaking up, such as the Pixies. There was another TV show on in the late ’80s that was important: The Chart Show. That was an hour long and every few weeks they would run down the Indie Top 10 or 20 as well as the pop charts. Through that I was introduced to songs such as “Monkey Gone To Heaven” by Pixies, or later “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes.

Pixies – Monkey Gone To Heaven

As a teenager, seeing something like “Monkey Gone To Heaven” on TV was important. It was crazy – it felt like the track was playing with my mind. Seeing the Smiths performing “Girlfriend In A Coma” on a mainstream show like Top of the Pops was amazing to see. Even so, I was still into a lot of older acts at that time and so I only started catching up with new music as I reached my late teens.

Baby, the lead character in Baby Driver, has stashes of iPods. When that kind of digital technology arrived a few years ago, did it push you to dig around in lots of different genres?

I think so, yes. Before the iPod came in, I used to buy tons of cassettes. Then when I had enough money to get a CD player, I would re-buy all these things on CD, so I could have double versions of everything. I think around that time, I tried to buy a diverse range of music.

I was living in London by that point. I arrived at the height of Britpop. It was the summer that Parklife came out, so British indie music was on a real sort of upswing. It was as big as it has ever been and I’m not sure it has ever been as big since. I wasn’t into all of the Britpop bands, though. I wasn’t crazy about Oasis, but I used to love Pulp, Suede and Supergrass as well as Blur.

At that time, was music a social thing for you? Was it just a solo exploration, or were you sharing songs and albums with friends, going to gigs and so on?

It was around that time that I first started going to gigs. I saw Suede when I was at art college and then saw Supergrass and Blur when I moved to London. I started seeing a lot of artists after that, particularly at a theater that no longer exists called the Astoria. Around that time music became more of a social thing because I was going to indie clubs. There was this little pub called the Laurel Tree that did a club called Blow Up, which is still going now. You’d hear modern music from the ’60s, mod-revival music from the ’70s and ’80s, Britpop stuff and the occasional TV theme. That was mind-blowing to me, because I grew up in a small town in the countryside where there were no hip clubs at all.

How about things like raves? Were you going to those kinds of clubs and parties?

I was never that big a raver, to be honest, but I did go to clubs a couple of times. My friends were all ravers, though, taking ecstasy and stuff. I wasn’t really into that so much. I didn’t really like the music, though I do remember when I was in art college they used to play the Prodigy every week. I was quite taken with “Out Of Space” in particular. That’s a great record.

The rest of it wasn’t really my thing, so some of that rave stuff passed me by a little bit. I have more fondness for them now, because they make me feel nostalgic. In fact, in The World’s End, we used a lot of those songs, things like “Summers Magic” and MC Tunes and 808 State’s “The Only Rhyme That Bites.”

Mark Summer – Summers Magic (Original Mix)

Those weren’t songs I necessarily loved at the time, but I think of them with extreme fondness now. There was a whole series of novelty rave songs, like “Sesame’s Treet” by Smart E’s, which was a hi-NRG rave version of the Sesame Street theme song. It was well up in the Top 10 at one point – I think it ended up at #2 or something like that.

That was all pre-Britpop, though, around the time of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. I remember hearing “Loaded” on the radio, with the sample from The Wild Angels, though I had no idea where the sample was from at the time. When I first heard it I did not know what to make of it all. Now, of course, I love it and we used it in The World’s End.

Has being a filmmaker propelled you to continue to dig? For example, have you looked into library music and thought, “I could place these nuggets somewhere to turn people on to it?”

Keith Mansfield – Pleasure Seekers

Oh, yeah. In Spaced and Shaun of the Dead we did actually use some library music in places. I found all these when I was working in TV, before doing Spaced. I’d find all these amazing KPM albums full of songs that you can clear for nothing. I use a lot of those KPM albums. I particularly like the amazing things by Keith Mansfield.

The opening music you hear in Shaun of the Dead is from Dawn of the Dead, but it’s not Goblin. That soundtrack is made up of Goblin’s score and a bunch of library tracks. When we discovered that [library music company] De Wolfe had all these Dawn of the Dead tracks, we sourced one of them and used it in the movie. It was quite difficult initially to figure out exactly what it was.

Simon Park – Figment (from Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead)

It’s interesting, I think, that when you start getting into doing a soundtrack for a show or film, it quickly starts becoming like a mixtape. You then start thinking of it in that way, following all those unwritten rules of mixtapes – not repeating too many artists and having a diverse range of music, for example. With Baby Driver, I went as far as making the soundtrack before I’d finished the script, working out what songs would go with what scenes and it what order they’d appear.

After we finished the first draft of the script in 2011, I did a read-through of it in 2012 in Los Angeles. I got a bunch of actors to come in, only one of whom, Jon Hamm, is in the finished movie. Because I had recorded the script reading, myself and the editor took all of the songs [we wanted to use] and laid out all of the dialogue against the songs. It was basically a movie-length mix. It was like listening to a radio play. This is four years before I started filming. I tried to think of it in terms of, “This is the length of a double album. Let’s think in terms of the overall flow.”

I even emailed some DJ friends of mine, like Kid Koala and Fred Deakin from Lemon Jelly, and asked whether there was a science to the perfect DJ set. They all came up with interesting answers. Fred gave me a couple of hour-long mixes he’d done and talked in terms of building tempo, using a down song and then bringing the mix back up. Then he said something that I thought was funny, about having a “cigarette song” at the end. It was a phrase I’d never heard before, but it’s basically a comedown song at the end of the set.

What’s the “cigarette song” in _Baby Driver?

I guess it’s Sky Ferreira’s cover of “Easy.” It’s like, “It’s all over… Or is it?” Baby Driver was the culmination of something I’ve been working on for a long time in terms of making the music motivate the movie rather than the other way around. There’ve been scenes in my films that have done that, like the scene in Shaun of the Dead with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

When I started work on Baby Driver, I wanted to do a whole film like that scene, where music is playing in every single scene, but also when we’re shooting it, so the actors can hear it. I think that starts to create a spell and a tone, which kind of carries through the entire movie. I think the fact that the actors could hear the music is really key to the energy of the movie and the way it turned out. I really loved doing that and I’d love to do it more. There are other ideas I have for doing other sorts of movies that are themed around a particular kind of music.

One of the great things about being a music aficionado who also makes movies is that you can use songs to almost say thank you to the artists who have inspired you. In some cases, if you use one of their songs, it gains a second life or recognition from people who had never heard it before. That’s a beautiful thing and I’ve had several instances of that.

By Frosty on November 15, 2017

On a different note