'Baby Driver': How Edgar Wright Staged the Crime Movie's Musical Action Scenes

Director breaks down five key musical sequences, from a "Bellbottoms" car-chase scene to that "Harlem Shuffle" credits sequence

Ansel Elgort stars in director Edgar Wright's 'Baby Driver.' Credit: Wilson Webb

Edgar Wright was, by his own account, "21 years old, living in North London, broke and on the dole – that's British for 'welfare'" in 1995 when he was struck by what he can only compare to a near-religious vision. The filmmaker was in the process of editing his first movie, a low-budget Spaghetti western homage, but the future director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz had nothing lined up and no sense of what he really wanted to do with his life. And then he put on "Bellbottoms," the first track of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's album Orange, and as he sat there listening, Wright saw it: a completely fleshed-out, fully loaded, car chase-filled action scene unfurling in his mind's eye, perfectly synced to the dingy hipster-skronk of the trio's ode to Seventies jeans. Think Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, if the fig-leafed figure was a scruffy film geek drunk on genre flicks and the divine digit he touched granted drive-in–ready hallucinations of Dodge Challengers burning rubber.

So it's no coincidence that, 22 years, several mileage-may-vary Hollywood detours and one well-respected career later, "Bellbottoms" is the very first thing you hear in Baby Driver, Wright's singular take on Seventies existential-cool crime movies and post-iPod music obsessiveness. A young man in shades (Ansel Elgort) pulls up to a curb across from a bank. His passengers, including Jon Hamm and a tatted-up Jon Bernthal, calmly get out, grab guns and enter the establishment. The kid – let's call him Baby – beats the steering wheel as Russell Simins' chaotic drum part plays in his earbuds. Then his cohorts jump in the ride, Baby hits the gas and a high-speed pursuit through downtown Atlanta, expertly timed to the song's faux-Elvis yelp and garage-rock guitar freakout. That opening sequence, Wright recalls as he sits in a midtown New York conference room, leaning forward excitedly, is remarkably close to the out-of-the-blue thing he saw decades ago. It is, however, almost assuredly unlike anything you've ever seen.

Already being hailed as one of the year's best movies, Baby Driver continues the 43-year-old director's superfan aesthetic of reconstituting tidbits from his formative filmgoing days – you can spot nods to Heat, Point Break, Sharkey's Machine, Steve McQueen star vehicles and a host of one-last-job heist thrillers. But chops-wise, this tale of a boy, his best girl (Downton Abbey's Lily James), a good set of wheels and some great curated playlists is a quantum leap forward, in which sound and vision meld together into seamless, truly jaw-dropping set pieces. Some of the getaways and shoot-outs are scored and edited to deep cuts; others take well-known ditties and use them as the cinematic equivalent to adrenaline-rush click tracks. The end result, however, is the 21st century's first killer crime-movie musical – a mix tape of gunfire, giddy hardboiled dialogue ("Shop! Let's talk it!"), a gajillion song clearances and genius-level action choreography.

A few days before Baby Driver skids into theaters, Wright sat down and walked us a through a few of the choices he made, why certain songs made the cut and how he and his team constructed the elaborate music-video–style chase scenes one funky breakdown and guitar solo at a time. As told to David Fear. We've tried to avoid spoilers, but proceed with caution.

"Bellbottoms," Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (1995)
I mean, that song was never not going to be in the movie. It all starts there, with that weird moment of synesthesia – it wasn't even "Oh, I know this will be the opening of a movie." It was just something that appeared to me when I heard the song. But over the years, I had this sequence, and I knew it was the germ of something but I didn't know what.

Then I thought: What if the getaway driver is listening to that track? Suddenly, it was the starting point for some sort of diegetic action-musical … taking what I love about the movies of Tarantino and John Landis and Scorsese and putting it into one full movie. Or American Graffitti, which is really the first diegetic musical. It's one of the first movies I can think of where the pop soundtrack really isn't a score – it's all coming from whatever people are listening to onscreen.

"So I'm trying to figure out what I have here, and then two things happen: The iPod comes out, and suddenly, you have this step up from the Walkman because, with this new piece of technology, you could playlist your every waking moment. That's when I thought, Ok, so what if the character were actually soundtracking his life? Then I came across the book Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, and it unlocked this painful memory of having tinnitis as a kld. When I was seven or eight, I'd get these bad attacks of it at night, really painful; I'd have to get my ears syringed all the time. But that book talks about how people use music to drown out the ringing in their ears, and I thought, that's it. That's what Baby has. I think I've cracked it. I figured out the "Bellbottoms" sequence pretty quickly after that.

"The Harlem Shuffle," Bob & Earl (1966)
I've worked with choreographers before, all the way back in the Spaced days … and that scene in Shaun where we play Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" was the first time I'd used a choreographer and a stunt person together. I always had an idea of doing something along those lines for the whole movie.

So choreographer Ryan Heffington was on the set the whole time, and some of the things he did were incredibly subtle, little moves here and there in a scene. And then some of the stuff he did, like that sequence set to "Harlem Shuffle" were a big deal. That number was the very first day of the shoot. It was a great way to get everyone on the same page immediately.

With Ryan, we sat down and listened to the song several times all the way through, finding places to mark for this and that. Before he had even come on, there was this British DJ named Mark Nicholson, a.k.a. Osymyso … I'd had several particular songs earmarked in the script. So I asked him, can you help me do a sound effects remix of "Harlem Shuffle"? We had the song and literally mixed in bits of audio: people recorded off the street, car horns, dogs barking, babies crying. Then Ryan and I would walk around the location and go, "Ok, here we want a beeping ATM and maybe here we want a radio … and this is where he walks into the coffee shop." We could plan it out with the remixed track. There's a point where Baby is ordering coffee and the guy behind the counter asks him, What will you have? And Ansel would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah" – synced up with the song! – then go, "I'll have four coffees, please." [Laughs]


The next step was to take Ryan, our cinematographer and our assistant director and play "Harlem Shuffle" on my iPhone and map everything out: Ok, so where is there a door where we can step out and get to a coffee shop by the time we'd hit the first verse? Then we'd walk at a reasonable pace – an Ansel Elgort pace, if you will – to get to where the cafe would be and time it. It was crazy, this group of people going "What if we go here, or what if we go here, or … wait, this is a pizza place, could we turn this in to a coffee shop?" Then Ryan would rehearse it in a dance studio, we'd do two rehearsals with the actors on the location and then Ok, let's shoot it.

In terms of the song, and this is true of several songs in the movie, I wanted to use songs that have been heavily sampled so that the audience keeps getting wrong-footed. I mean, lots of people know "The Harlem Shuffle," of course, but there's a generation that hears that opening bit and thinks, "Oh, it's 'Jump Around' by House of Pain!" There's another song I used from a band called the Detroit Emeralds, "Baby Let Me Take You," that most people know thanks to it being a key sample in De La Soul's "Say No Go." And then I used this [cues up a song on his phone], which most folks would think is the beginning of Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode" – only it's David McCallum and David Axelrod's "The Edge," which is where that sample comes from. That's the same David McCallum from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., by the way. He's Ilya Kuryakin – and he's funky!

"Neat Neat Neat," The Damned (1977)
It's one of my favorite Damned songs … in fact, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers [who has a bit part] says that when he saw that we were using that song on the soundtrack, he was immediately all in. That robbery sequence was always written like that, and it's the one where people point out how well-edited the movie is. I don't want to take away anything from my amazing editors, who should be given awards for how they cut this movie together with the music. But it should be pointed out that the actors are listening to the music while they're on the set, so it's a combination of booth editing and choreography. It's being put together with the music in mind on every level. It's not like the Suicide Squad trailer, where it's "Hey, we shot all this stuff, now we'll edit snippets together to the tune of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody!'" We constantly piped the music over the sets so people could act to the song.

There's a funny thing with that Damned song in that it gave me the single best happy accident on the movie. I'd written the scene to the song, drawn storyboards for the shots and then edited the storyboards to the song. It was all mapped out. Then I showed the animatic [in which storyboards are cut together in sequence] to my cinematographer Bill Pope, and he said, "You're going to run out of song. You've edited it faster than cars actually move, Edgar – you're going to want to spend more time with the action and the song is going to be over before you are." Of course he was right! The song is only two and half minutes long!

So on the last day of the shoot, I added a shot where they get out of the car, have to grab another car – and Baby resets the song back! It's a great example of me trying to get out of a hole and dug myself in … and suddenly, you understand the character better! Baby had this whole getaway timed out to the song, and the getaway gets screwed up, so naturally he's going to plug his iPod into the new car and set it back to the last verse and chorus, where they left off.

There was a documentary on the Damned that came out last year, called Don't You Wish We Were Dead. I'd just finished making Baby Driver when I saw it, and there's a part where Dave Vanian is having a bitter rant, saying "No one remembers the Damned! Whenever there's a punk doc, it's always the Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks … why aren't we on more movie soundtracks? Why isn't the Damned's music showing up in films?" And I almost stood up in the theater and yelled at the screen, "Argh, wait it out, Dave! I promise I'm going to make your year!!!"

"Tequila," Button Down Brass (1996)
Astute ears will realize that the version of Tequila we have in there is not the original Champs version everyone knows … it's a cover by the Button Down Brass. I heard it on this 1996 compilation, and in the slow-cooking process of writing this movie over many, many years, I'd been earmarking these tracks that I hoped would never show up in another movie. This particular cover has these dueling drum solos right in the middle, and I remember the first time I heard it, I thought: How amazing would it be to do a gunfight scene to that?

That was one of the more carefully mapped out sequences in the film. Unlike the Damned song, we could make this one incredibly precise – it was another remix we did where we added sound effects in. Keep in mind, too, that normally we'd play the song over speakers during a scene, or in people's earbuds … but gunfire drowns all of that out. So Ryan and the stunt guys essentially had to teach people their gun parts. One would turn to Jamie [Foxx] or Jon Hamm and go, "Okay, so you go Ta-TA-TA!" And then your bit is, Ah-TAT-TAT-TAT" [mimes shooting machine gun] It was like putting together percussion tracks. There were days of us going "Ok, five, six, seven, eight…now start going bang, bang, bang-bang!" [Laughs]

One day, I saw Jamie rehearsing a bit, and I asked him, so you know what you're going to do here, right? And he goes, "Yeah, this guy goes ba-ba-ba, and I go ba-ba, and then…" Then he just mimes taking a puff off a cigarette. I said, Nice, do that in the scene. "What, with a real cigarette?" No, just pretend! It's in the movie: He shoots a guy in the head, then goes [mimes dragging on a cig]. This is why you hire Jamie Foxx to be in your movie.

"Hocus Pocus," Focus (1970)
I found out about Focus from this music show that ran in England for ages called The Old Grey Whistle Test – they did a performance of that song on there that blew my mind. I'm not a big prog rock fan, but I do love fast prog – the sheer musicianship you need to play that kind of stuff that fast is impressive. I think this was a Top 10 hit in the U.S. … which is pretty unusual for an instrumental track that features yodeling.

The studio wanted to cut it. I had to use my own money to pay for two extra days of shooting so we could get it – and it's my favorite bit in the film. I always thought it'd be great if you made a car chase movie, and then have one of the most explosive scenes in the movie be a foot chase.

People have asked how I picked the tracks for Baby Driver, and this is a good example. If you had a dance track or a rock track that had a similar tempo all the way through, it's actually not that helpful. Whereas the reason that something like "Hocus Pocus" ends up becoming a key track in the film is because you can hear that, Ok, this is part of a running scene – it's like your best cardio track ever. But it also has these stop-start intervals in it, so you can let a scene dictate itself according to the track: Ok, here are the fast guitars, he's running. Wait, there's yodeling breakdown here, so this is where he's hiding behind a tree, catching his breath. Wait a second, we're gearing up for another guitar part – so here's where he starts running again, and in the next breakdown, he's hiding in a mall. Hold on, there's an accordion breakdown – so now he's breaking into a car. You're able to take a 1970 song like that and write a complete action sequence in 2017.