Edgar Wright on “Last Night in Soho” and the Nostalgia Trap
When Edgar Wright has an idea for a new movie, it consumes him until he’s finally able to do it. As he said recently, “There is a certain point where the movie chooses you – it haunts you.”
Wright said that was when he felt compelled to “exercise it cardio and exorcise it William Friedkin style.”
It is therefore normal that his latest film, “Last Night in Soho”, is a ghost story. This thriller, due October 29, tells the story of Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman of today who is obsessed with the music and style of 1960s London, and who goes there to study fashion.
Once there, she discovers that her dreams are filled with the escapades of another woman, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who traveled to London in the 1960s in search of romance and fame.
But as Eloise tries to find out what happened to Sandie, the dreams turn nightmarish, revealing the sordid undersides of the city at a time she once imagined glamorous and revealing decades-old crimes with ethereal victims who always ask for justice.
It’s a pivotal moment for Wright, 47, the British writer and director who has put his idiosyncratic imprint on an array of action comedies. “Last Night in Soho” follows on from his 2017 car chase thriller “Baby Driver”, the biggest commercial success of his career, and will be his second film released this year after the rock documentary “The Sparks Brothers”.
Wright’s latest film finds him moving away from comedic terrain and into a murkier, more horrific realm. Rather than focusing on the characters played by his longtime friends like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, he used female lead roles for the first time.
As with Wright’s zombie apocalypse comedy “Shaun of the Dead” and video game romance “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, “Last Night in Soho” offers a genre pastiche and a generous dose of nostalgia.
This time around, however, the director’s goal isn’t necessarily to romanticize the past, but to remind us that when we do, we can cover up toxic attitudes and unrecognized misdeeds that continue to plague the present.
We all indulge in personal time travel musings and view them as harmless, which Wright readily admits. “It’s something I can’t do physically – in my lifetime even Elon Musk won’t create a machine that takes me back in time,” he laughed in a video interview in Los Angeles.
But if we thought more carefully about these fantasies and what they mean, Wright said more soberly, we would realize the traps we’ve set for ourselves. “You cannot change what happened,” he said. “You can only face it in the future.”
London is the metropolis that most fascinated Wright, who lived and worked there for 27 years. Before arriving to pursue a career as a writer and director, he grew up in Somerset in the southwest, eagerly listening to his parents’ stories about coming of age in the 1960s.
As Wright recalled, “My dad was like, ‘Oh, we saw Jimi Hendrix live.’ And my mom was like, ‘We haven’t seen Jimi Hendrix, we have seen Pink Floyd.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, what were Pink Floyd like?’ And my mother would go, ‘They were awful. ‘”
But her mother’s memories of her stays in London around this time, Wright said, were darker and more elliptical.
“My mother had a story that was literally, ‘I went to Soho once with my friend and we were harassed by a man and kicked out,” he said. “And that’s the end of the story.”
In 2012, before filming his sci-fi comedy ‘The World’s End’, Wright was already envisioning a film that would explore the darker side of London and juxtapose the modern era and the period preserved in sensationalist films of the 1960s like John Schlesinger “Darling”, which starred Julie Christie, and “Beat Girl” by Edmond T. Gréville with Gillian Hills.
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Typically, the moral of these films, Wright said, was “Watch out, young lady who comes to the big city – you’ll be chewed up and spat.” Then the city becomes the bad guy.
He has researched the history of organized crime and unsolved Soho murders and has studied theories of the supernatural. (“I’d say I’m curious about ghosts,” Wright said. “I haven’t seen any, but I would really like to see it.”
Wright also met a crucial collaborator, his co-writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”, “Penny Dreadful”), through director Sam Mendes, a mutual friend.
On the night of the Brexit vote in 2016, Wilson-Cairns said she and Wright were in Soho “drowning our sorrows” as she told him about the many dives in the dismal neighborhood where she had worked as a bartender.
Wright, in turn, told him the story of “Last Night in Soho” and Wilson-Cairns was hooked. “It made it clear how dangerous nostalgia is,” she said. When she thinks of 1960s London, Wilson-Cairns said, she loosely associates it with “great hair, rolled up hems, cool boots.”
But Wright’s story reminded her “of how difficult it was to be a woman in those days,” Wilson-Cairns said. “It stays that way, but especially at the time, being speechless and being the prey was a very real fear of many women, including myself.”
Wright spent another year promoting “Baby Driver,” his first film since stepping down from directing the Marvel “Ant-Man” adventure, and he was understandably worried about the reception he received. was waiting.
“I walked out of a franchise movie and put all my tokens on ‘Baby Driver’, and it’s an original movie,” he said. “Obviously every movie is important, but relying everything on an original movie adds extra pressure. “
The fact that “Baby Driver” has won over $ 226 million worldwide. This, he said, gave him the confidence to avoid what he described as “pressure from some of the other people involved to jump right into a sequel to this.”
“The idea of doing the same thing twice in a row just wasn’t that interesting,” Wright said.
Instead, he went on to direct “The Sparks Brothers”. He also called Wilson-Cairns, rented an office in London, and wrote the screenplay for “Last Night in Soho” with her in about six weeks.
Some of Wilson-Cairns’ contributions to the script include the gruesome and obscene pickup lines lustful men throw at Eloise. “Everything that was told to him was told to me,” Wilson-Cairns said. “I would have preferred not to experience this, or much worse, frankly, but it was good to at least put it on screen.”
She took Wright away from her original idea of portraying Sandie’s 1960s footage as musical numbers that otherwise wouldn’t have had any dialogue. Wilson-Cairns said she pushed for giving Sandie dramatic scenes with dialogue “so you can experience her excitement and her passion, her motivation and her ambition,” and Wright agreed.
Taylor-Joy, star of “The Queen’s Gambit”, has been on Wright’s radar since his outstanding performance in Robert Eggers’ horror film “The Witch,” which debuted at Sundance in 2015, when Wright was a member. of one of the juries of the festival.
Although the director planned to pick her as the wise Eloise, Taylor-Joy said in an email that as her film and TV performances were released, he did. had transferred to the role of Sandie, more outgoing. “He thought it might stretch me more to play Sandie and I was very excited about the prospect,” she explained.
Taylor-Joy learned her song and dance choreography for “Last Night in Soho” at the same time as she was starring in the Jane Austen adaptation “Emma”. Performing the routines where Sandie is eyed by a predominantly male crowd of clubbers “was sometimes difficult,” Taylor-Joy said, but added that Wright and her team had succeeded in “creating an environment where I felt safe to have those feelings. and then could remember that I was safe and supported.
McKenzie, the New Zealand-born star of “Leave No Trace” and “Jojo Rabbit”, said she found it easy to identify with Eloise as a relatively inexperienced player in an indifferent and at times brutal system.
“We were exactly the same age when I was filming it,” McKenzie said. “We’ve been on similar trips, although mine wasn’t as psychologically terrifying as Ellie’s, thankfully. I was not chased by men in the shadows. She paused, then added, “Well, you could tell there were some modern day shadow men in there.”
Wright was especially proud to have chosen several famous veterans of British cinema of the 1960s, including Rita Tushingham as Eloise’s grandmother, Terence Stamp as the persistent and sinister boss at the bar where Eloise works and Diana Rigg as as protective owner of Eloise.
Rigg passed away in September 2020, shortly after completing a dialogue re-recording for “Last Night in Soho,” and Wright visibly cried when he mentioned her.
He remembered one day he’d taken her to a setting that mimicked the nightclub at the West End Café in Paris, and Rigg remarked that she had seen Shirley Bassey perform there in the 1950s.
(Commenting on his own anecdote, Wright said in amazement: “How could you put all this wonder in one sentence?”)
But then Rigg kept thinking about the nightclub. As Wright recalled, “She said,” I remember coming down those stairs. I remember all those hunting eyed men looking me up and down, feeling like a piece of meat.
Wright said the impact of Rigg’s remarks didn’t strike him immediately, but he felt it more deeply as he walked home from the shoot. “I was like, I guess Diana just summed up the whole movie,” he said.