Edgar Wright
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer

Edgar Wright: “It becomes a bit like alchemy”

Short Profile

Name: Edgar Howard Wright
DOB: 18 April 1974
Place of birth: Poole, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Edgar Wright's new film Last Night in Soho is in theaters now.

Mr. Wright, would you describe yourself as a cinephile?

Of course I'm a movie fan. Where I grew up in the countryside was very quiet, and there was not really a lot to do. My parents didn't have a VCR, they sort of refused to buy one. But there was a cinema around the corner from our house, and that was good. You could go as a child and only pay, like, a pound! So there was several summers where I'd watch the same movie — I don’t know how many times I saw Back to the Future the summer it came out. At least five!

Apparently you’d also spend a lot of time in the video store as a kid, making up stories to go along with the movie covers and posters.

Yeah! I mean, I kind of feel bad for people growing up today because there is like 10 times more distractions. When I was growing up, it was pre-computer, pre-TV in my room, no Internet. I read more, I listened to more music… But yeah, I would go to the video store and read the synopsis on the back and try and imagine what Brian De Palma’s Body Double would actually be like. I mean, the irony there is that you couldn't even dream of how wild it actually is from the back cover. Sometimes I'd see posters for films and as a 10 year old and think, “Oh my God, that film looks amazing. What is that?” And then never see the movie. As you get older, you realize it's probably better to never see the movie.

“I knew that I wanted to do something in movies... And my parents were very encouraging towards me and my brother to follow our creative ambitions.”

It’s almost like it could never live up to the story you’d made up in your head.

I remember there was a poster from a movie called Zone Troopers, and the poster was an alien pointing like the army recruitment ad, you know? “Your universe needs you!” I'd see this poster in the video shop all the time but I never saw the film. Years and years later I met Rachel Bilson, the actress, and she mentioned in conversation that her dad was a screenwriter and director, Danny Bilson. I said to her, “What films has he directed?” And she says, “Oh,  you'd never have heard of it, it was a sci-fi film called Zone Troopers.” (Laughs) I was like, “Oh my God! I have never seen it. But it was a major point of obsession for me as a kid.” I’m sure she was baffled, like, why does this man know everything about it without having seen the movie?

When did that fascination of films transition into actually wanting to make films yourself?

It was when I was 14. I knew that I wanted to do something in movies, but obviously I live in in the country in the West of England, so it's not something that I thought was an achievable goal. I didn’t know anyone from the film industry, I had no “in” whatsoever. But my parents were very encouraging towards me and my brother to sort of just follow our creative ambitions. Like, if you went to a careers officer at school and said I want to be a film director, they’d say, “Yeah, okay, sure…” But my mum and dad would never say, “No, you can't.” They bought me and my brother a Super Eight camera when I was 14 and we started sort of messing about with that. And around the same time, there was a documentary on TV in Britain called The Incredibly Strange Film Show

Hosted by Jonathan Ross, right?

Yeah, he would interview different directors every week, like Jackie Chan, George Romero, John Waters, Russ Meyer, all these kind of legends. It was revolutionary stuff for a lot of people. One of the episodes was about Sam Raimi and detailed the fact that he made Evil Dead when he was 18, and before that, he had just been making Super Eight shorts with his friends at school. When I saw that, I was just like, “That's it.” So that was really the moment. I had no idea of any connections in the business, I had no money or anything to start with. But now there was this sort of goal, which was to try and do that.

Horror films like Evil Dead were also a big part of your childhood film obsession?

Yeah, I mean, I think the thing is within the genre, there are so many different kind of tones and semitones, especially when you start crossing genres, it becomes a bit like alchemy. It's difficult to get right — and then no two movies are quite the same. Shaun of the Dead isn't quite like American Werewolf in London, which isn't quite like Evil Dead 2, they all have slightly different sensibilities. Within the horror genre itself, you know, some people would say that Ingmar Bergman's Persona is a horror film, all the way through to Eight Legged Freaks. That’s what I think is amazing about this genre, or any film genre! It's so expansive, you can tell any story within it.

Plus it’s fun to get scared, isn’t it?

Well, the fantastical stuff, the sort of supernatural stuff… I believe it, you know? I'm very open to the idea of ghosts, and I grew up with a mother who still to this day, sees ghosts and feels presences. And I believe her! I'm not skeptical in that at all… If anything, I was totally envious that she may have seen something, and I haven't! But the thing about making a horror film or even just a psychological thriller, is you have to find a subject that scares you or is disturbing to you. So with Last Night in Soho, it was more the tragic aspects that interested me, the thing about lives cut short or people who died too young. Lives derailed. I find those things unspeakably sad. There’s also moments of sleep paralysis, and that’s something that certainly scares me. Any kind of invasion into your safest place is a terrible thing!

Recently you talked about how Last Night in Soho was influenced by the cult horror films Don’t Look Now and Repulsion...

I kind of regret talking about that because I actually don't think the film actually bears any resemblance to Don’t Look Now! It's just a film that I admired, I like the tone of it. Repulsion is about a woman who is is having like a mental collapse, so there is there's similarities but the way it plays out is very different. It’s an amazingly influential film, but it’s also just one of my favorite movies, bar none! So, talking about references like that can really backfire if the film that you actually make is become something wholly different, then people judge the film on whether they think it was close to the film that you said it was in the first place…

“You don't want anybody to feel like they have to do homework before a movie. These references should be more like further reading than required reading.”

And in the end, a great film is still a great film, whether or not you get the references.

Exactly, you shouldn't have to understand any other movie before you watch a movie. You don't want anybody to feel like they have to do homework before a movie. These references should be more like further reading than required reading. What's better is for younger fans, you can say, “Oh, if you like that, maybe you should check out this…” I enjoy doing that, especially with younger film fans who maybe haven't seen some of the movies that inspired me growing up. I'm happy to point them in that direction.

Is that the kind of homework you’re doing when creating a film? Do you watch movies to get inspired?

In the case of Soho, I did watch a lot of British dramas from the time, things that were important in terms of a grounding in the social life or getting to know the cultural landscape. If it’s helpful for the cast and crew, I can recommend things to listen or read or watch, but again, it’s not required. I’m not dictating anybody, it’s just extra-curricular stuff.

Do you think it’s possible to be a good filmmaker who doesn’t watch many films at all?

Absolutely! I think it's one of those things, it’s like art; you can do it however you want to do it. I'm sure Ken Loach doesn't watch many, if he even does watch other movies. I find myself inspired by film as an art form, but that doesn't mean that your entry level to being a director is that you have to have seen all of the BFI Top 100! I'd only seen 75 percent of them until recently, and I’ve only seen them all now because there was a global pandemic. (Laughs) I happen to like watching movies, I like diverse stuff from all over the world, any sort of decade. But I definitely think you can do whatever you want to do in the field.