6 Filmmaking Tips From Edgar Wright

By  · Published on August 21st, 2013

For most of us, our perfect Sunday includes a quiet read of the paper, a piping cup of our favorite tea leaf or coffee bean-based beverage and a hundredth screening of one of Edgar Wright’s movies.

With Shaun of the Dead and everything beyond, he’s been able to blend intimate character arcs (right down to the music) with genre tropes in a way that pretty much no one else has managed. He’s lovingly subverted genres while delivering us new fence-hopping heroes and a honed sense of comedy.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man famous for his work on Going Live!.

Success Knows No Age

“Well look; Quentin Tarantino didn’t make a film until he was 32. So there you go. You can either be Sam Raimi and make Evil Dead at 18, or you can be Tarantino and make it at 32. And I’m sure there are plenty of people who made their first film even later than that.

When I was working with Quentin Tarantino on Grindhouse we went for dinner and he said, ‘Tell me about your first movie.’ So I spent about an hour telling him about Fistful of Fingers, which I made when I was 20. At the end of it he said to me, ‘Oh, I’m so jealous. I wish I’d made a film when I was 20.’ So I said, ‘I would give anything to have made Reservoir Dogs. I think you came off better.’ He made the classic debut of all time.”

It’s hard to keep a level head when Justin Bieber got famous as an embryo, and it’s even difficult when artists we admire ‐ like pop sensation and style icon Edgar Wright ‐ earn success at an early age. It’s pretty fantastic to see Wright acknowledge the strength of that myth and then pay it exactly the amount of mind that it deserves.

It’s okay if you passed your 19th birthday without being a critically and popularly acclaimed filmmaker.

As an addendum from the same interview:

“I think the thing is to just shoot as much as you can. Don’t worry so much. When you’re not making things in public you can just do whatever you want. Sometimes when I meet people who want to be directors I notice that they’ve put too much pressure on themselves to do something amazing first time. They put so much weight on their first short, or their first feature that it really holds them back.”

Only Be Too Clever By Half

“You more get into a thing writing a film where you think ‐ in fact it’s different from doing the show ‐ where you kind of think, ‘Is our character witty enough on the spot to say it?’ And one of the things that was different between doing the show and doing this is we wanted to make it kind of realistic, so people don’t come out with smartass lines. So a lot of the comedy comes from the naturalism of it and their reactions. Sometimes you think of a really cool line or a funny joke, but you actually take it out because you think you wouldn’t be able to say that. You wouldn’t think of it, you wouldn’t be that sharp. It was more about keeping it real.”

Simon Pegg echoes that, saying they didn’t want Shaun to have a pocketful of one-liners like Ash. He’s a hero with almost no sense of heroism, so it wouldn’t have made sense for him to turn into Rambo just because the world was going to pot in front of him. He’s got a simple enough plan and a hell of a time trying to enact it which gives birth to all the humor they need.

Know Which Lines Need to be Good on Which Takes

Love this.

Make What You Really, Really, Really Know

“There has to be that element [of emotion]. Otherwise… People talk about Hot Fuzz and Shaun as if they’re Zucker brothers films, or Mel Brooks films. But the reality to us, at least, whether people get it or not, is that once we’re within those genres, our films do come from a personal place. Shaun Of The Dead, aside from the zombies, is actually very personal about relationships, both with girlfriends and family members. There’s a lot of stuff there that’s really close to home for me and Simon. Even with Hot Fuzz… That was set in my home town, the town I grew up in. And those elements, even the crazy sort of batty conspiracy, are things I kind of grew up around. [Laughs.]

So there’s always that sort of thing ‐ they’re both, in a weird way, quite personal projects. And Spaced very much so. Because in Spaced, we were projecting what was happening to us at the time onto the screen. Where we were living and what we were thinking and what we aspired to be. And I think that’s one of the reasons that whole remake business is so hurtful to us. Because it didn’t seem like it was such an easy, high-concept thing where you could take the plots and the characters, and hey, remake a show. What’s special about Spaced is… I don’t want to say the heart, cause that’s not got it exactly. It’s the emotional element. The writers of the show are the stars, so there’s a real personality to them; Tim and Daisy are real extensions of Simon and Jessica. There’s experience behind every single joke, or it comes from some kind of real place. I don’t want to sound too ‐ I’m starting to sound like James Lipton all of a sudden. [Laughs.]”

Recognize How You’re Earning The Moment

“When we had a Shaun of the Dead test screening, the first really big reactions in it were in the garden scene right as the first death. It got a really good reaction. Somebody involved in it said, ‘Get to that first garden scene. Cut down the first half hour and get to that first garden scene. That’s where the laughs are.’ I said, ‘But haven’t we earned the laughs?’ Isn’t that the point? You’ve lulled people into a false sense of security, or you’ve taken time to get to know the characters.

I think that’s what works in [Attack the Block] in the ensemble. Because your average slasher movie is just going to kill somebody every 15 minutes, and you don’t really give a shit about them apart from maybe whoever the last woman standing is ‐ no last man standing. So I think that’s the thing. I think you’ve got to get to know the characters, and then you’re more shocked when they’re gone because you invested in them.”

That’s the kind of advice that borders on wisdom, so it’s admittedly difficult to apply in the moment. After all, it means exhibiting the brand of judiciousness about your own work that’s arduous even for seasoned pros ‐ or viewing your own creation as an outsider might in an attempt to understand why something is affecting people the way it does. Is it because of the scene itself, or because of something you said half an hour ago? If you cut your fifth scene, will the fiftieth land as hard?

Slow burn movies tend to get the knee jerk reverse of this most often, but can you imagine cropping anything as airtight Shaun of the Dead just so we could see the record-throwing fight sooner?

It’s a process, and there may be people in your production world that don’t understand that you can’t throw eggs into a bowl and call it cake. You’ve got to have the other ingredients before it tastes right. Knowing which ones is the tough part.

Be Mathematical

What Have We Learned

Maybe this all comes down to “know thyself” with an added pinch of “trust yourself.” Obviously Wright’s projects are personal (even when he doesn’t write them), but it takes transforming the personal into the universal to build something excellent. Or, at the very least, transforming it into something that people outside your friend group can appreciate.

Next: 6 Filmmaking Tips from Christopher Nolan

Speaking of which, a tip that’s repeated often in this column also applies to Wright’s methods: find a great group of people to work with and stay loyal. In many, many interviews he’s attributed his success to Pegg, Frost and the other people around him. More than humility, that’s the kind of tip that will never get old.

Ice cream also has something to do with making great art, but I haven’t quite figured out what.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.