With all these ingredients, and under the helm of a visionary filmmaker, Baby Driver is sure to leave a lasting impression on anyone who takes a seat on this wild ride.
With its mixture of mph and music, the newest explosion of genre-crossing excitement from writer-director Edgar Wright, Baby Driver is an action thriller unlike any other.
Full of reversals, rewinds, fast forwards and heart-stopping skips, and inspired by the types of crime-and-chase movies that have thrilled moviegoers since Steve McQueen in a revved-up Mustang changed car pursuits forever, Baby Driver is a game-changing, lane-changing, hard-charging blast only Wright could have dreamed up.
Baby (Ansel Elgort), an innocent-looking getaway driver who gets hardened criminals from point A to point B, with daredevil flair and a personal soundtrack running through his head. That’s because he’s got his escape route plotted to the beat of specific tunes that go from his well-curated iPod straight to his ears, and which translate into expertly timed hairpin turns, gear shifts and evasive maneuvers that leave his passengers on the ride of their lives.
Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a kingpin on a lucky streak of brash daytime bank heists, thanks in part to his faith in Baby’s auto acumen. Doc’s go-to professionals include former Wall Street type turned outlaw Buddy (Jon Hamm), Buddy’s young, lawless and scandalous partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the impulsive, gun-slinging Bats (Jamie Foxx), whose suspicions about Baby – from his attitude to his aptitude – begin to create a dangerous rift in an until-then smooth-running operation.
Baby’s outward appearance – the sunglasses, the aloofness, the ever-present earbuds — may suggest a kid in over his head, but his catch-me-if-you-can skills are second to none. And yet the encroaching demand for his talents, and what he’s doing with them, begin to weigh on his sense of right and wrong, especially when he falls for a sweet, kind-eyed diner waitress named Debora (Lily James), and a doomed job threatens his chance at love and happiness away from his perilous profession.
Who Is Baby Driver?
Cool but a little naive. Young but with an old soul. goofy at times, but all business when it counts. Thrillingly good at his given task, but not always aware of the consequences of what he does. That’s Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, a character Edgar Wright created as a way for moviegoers to live vicariously through a criminal, but also experience the very real fallout of that world.
“The movie is structured so it opens with the dream of being a getaway driver, and very quickly turns into the nightmare of being a criminal,” says Wright. “The opening chase is sort of positioned as a clockwork act of precision. Everything goes right. Then very quickly, with subsequent situations, things start to go wrong, and very visceral consequences start to bear down. The storm clouds have been gathering during the movie. At some point, Baby’s luck is gonna run out.”
The Baby we meet at the beginning of the movie – hidden behind sunglasses, dialed in to his iPod playlist, then a hellion at the wheel – is like the greatest gang apprentice ever. “This kid’s a hotshot, but he’s also on the fringes of the gang,” says Wright. “He literally sits as far away from them as he can, because he really doesn’t want to be part of the group. He thinks, wrongly, that he can be a getaway driver but not be a criminal Like, ‘I’m just the courier. I don’t have anything to do with the bad stuff.’ The action scenes are kind of like Baby’s day job, and I think a lot of people that work in a job sometimes shield themselves in a different persona. Then when they’re home, they’re a different person.”
When Wright was dreaming up the role, he envisioned a riff on the strong silent type personified by Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, but with the tension that it might all be a front. “You meet him, and he’s a badass in his profession, and then immediately afterwards you start to meet the real kid. It’s an interesting dichotomy, that he’s really good at a job that he should not be doing.”
The music that drives the Baby Driver is, to Wright, indicative of his twofold persona. Blasting his favorite tunes while he does his job looks cool, but it masks a defect tied to a tragedy. “He has this hearing defect, tinnitus, a whine in his ear caused by being in a car crash when he was young,” says Wright. “It has the effect of him not wanting to talk too much, because people with hearing defects can feel more self-conscious talking. But the other aspect of that is to listen to music, to drown out the whine. It becomes a security blanket, and then a full-blown obsession. He literally has to soundtrack his entire life because he can’t really do things without the right music playing.”
Baby is encouraged by his elderly deaf foster father (CJ Jones) to get out of his life of crime. Meeting the friendly, beautiful waitress Debora (Lily James) further articulates for him how misdirected his life is, and how much better it could be. But Baby has to make that leap, and cut ties with his profession. What will it cost?
“I just like the idea of a character having to choose between what he does very well, and what he ultimately wants to be,” says Wright.
Strap In, Turn On, Hit Play
Edgar Wright was himself a Baby Driver-ish 21 years old when he was listening to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and thinking, “This would make a great car chase.”
Years later, Wright made his chase, and the movie around it, what he now calls “a labor of love and a dream project. Two of my great passions brought together in one movie. I always wanted to do an action movie that was powered by music.” With producers Nira Park, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan on board, everyone was excited to take the cleverly crafted themes behind Wright’s action thriller and fuse them into one uniquely choreographed cinematic experience.
“There might be music, and there might be choreography, but this is not your everyday musical,” laughs Wright about his upended, re-imagined heist movie. “At the same time, we had to maintain the right sense of tone that is both intense and suspenseful, but most importantly fun and exciting.”
Says director of photography Bill Pope, Wright’s longtime collaborator, “It’s a postmodern musical. So there’s not singing and dancing in the street, but the world acts to music.”
Known for his innovative films, Wright revels in challenges that lead to one-of-a-kind visions on screen. Continues Pope, “Edgar’s movies are always challenging. His movies are complex, especially this one in particular, where you don’t just have a bank robbery scene with gunfire and squibs and cops showing up on time and cars crashing. You have rain. You have lightning. And the kicker, it’s all set to music, so the windshield wipers act to tempo. People die to tempo. The gunfire is on the beat, and it’s all usually in one shot. And it’s daring to have all of that choreographed.”
Choreographer Ryan Heffington describes the first day of shooting, which involved one of the largest pieces. “It was a street scene, where Baby would travel three blocks within the city in one take. We had to choreograph pedestrians. We had to choreograph café workers, children, dogs walking. It’s like this great play on reality, where it looks like a realistic scene, but everything happens to be in time and in rhythm.”
Says producer Nira Park, “The film is not just set to music because Edgar loves music. It’s a way of inviting audiences inside the mind of the main character, and to see the world through his eyes or ears. In coping with his traumatic past, Baby drowns out the world around him by always listening to music through stolen iPods.”
Continues Park, “It’s an action thriller executed in a way that’s never been done before – there are car chases, intense action sequences, shootouts, all to the beat of over 30 songs that Edgar put together before finalizing the script.”
Four years prior to the start of principal photography, Wright sat down with editor Paul Machliss and accumulated a playlist of over 30 songs that would inspire the script. “It’s something that’s very much a part of my previous films, and I thought of this idea of how to take that a stage further by having a character who listens to music the entire time.”
Ansel Elgort, who plays Baby, recalls how singular the project was from very early on. “Initially the script was given out on an iPad that had little ‘Baby Driver’ emojis that you could click, and the music would play as you read the script. The music drove the script, which is very much how this movie works. When you read it, you could feel the rhythm of the scenes already.”
Says Jon Hamm, who co-stars as heist man Buddy, “The musical element to it, which is very interesting, allows Edgar to really play with his incredibly developed skill set.”
The film’s second unit director and stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott says, “Edgar is such a visionary and his style is so unique, this project is a true testament to his creativity. I’ve said since the beginning that it would be a great film school exercise to take a mainstream song and choreograph anything to it, like a fight scene or a car chase. It’s not easy what we’re doing here. There’s a lot of nuance in this. I think you can watch this film a dozen times, and each time you’ll pick out something new, or some intricacy that’s innate in an Edgar Wright film.”
Wright even cared enough about the heists to meet with a technical consultant named Joe Loya, who in the early 90s was convicted for bank robbery and served a seven-year term. Loya wrote a book called The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber, which inspired Wright to meet Loya. “Loya helped solidify the authenticity of each heist,” says Park. “With all the added elements, Edgar wanted to make sure the heists felt very real and believable.”
Casting Baby Driver
Edgar Wright had been thinking about how to cast Baby Driver for years before it went into production. Though he initially imagined Baby as short – “because I’m short,” he adds, laughing – he says meeting Ansel Elgort made him realize nobody else could play the title role.
“The thing that really charmed me about him was the fact that he’s very musical, and he can play lots of instruments,” says Wright. “One of my favorite scenes with Ansel, he has his headphones in and he’s listening to Dave Brubeck, and starts playing piano on the table. There was something so beguiling and hypnotic about watching a 21-year-old actor play along to some jazz from the ‘50s. Ansel is fascinating in that regard.”
Elgort explains that it was his and Edgar’s mutual love for music that connected them upon their first meeting in LA. “Edgar and I met in Los Angeles and we had lunch, and all we talked about was music,” says the actor. “At the time I didn’t even know what this film was about, but we both shared a love for music.”
Says Wright, “Ansel is actually obsessed with music, which the lead character in the movie is. His life is completely governed by music and living to the rhythm of the music he’s listening to, and Ansel has a dance background. And also he’s a great actor and a nice guy.”
Elgort was excited to take on the role of Baby, explaining, “I loved how eclectic the role was. He’s the getaway driver so I had to learn to drive, he has a deaf foster dad who he signs with, so I had to learn to sign, and his life moves through music so there’s the dance and choreography challenges too.”
Turn It Up
For a movie whose pump is primed by music, and specifically music chosen by its lead character, it’s not surprising that Wright had songs picked out before he’d ever written a word of Baby Driver. Tunes like “Bellbottoms” from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned, “Brighton Rock” by Queen and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus gave Wright the inspiration to dream up highly choreographed sequences. “The form of those songs starts to shape the scene,” says Wright. “’Bellbottoms’ has a long two-minute build before the rock really kicks in, so that’s perfect for a getaway driver waiting outside a bank. Then at the two-minute mark, the chase starts.”
But it’s not just car action that’s choreographed to music: Baby gets his own flat-footed, coffee-errand “number” on the streets of Atlanta, to the sounds of “Harlem Shuffle,” and even gun battles find themselves in synch with certain tracks. “The very first germ of the idea was how could I do an action movie that’s completely driven by music?” says Wright. “The music is the motivating factor.”
To that end, finding the right choreographer was as crucial as any other job on the film, and that meant hiring Ryan Heffington. Best known as the choreographer behind the music videos for Sia’s “Chandelier” and Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”, Heffington gladly embraced the challenge to join Wright’s team for the first time to choreograph talent and crew in his feature film debut. Heffington’s partner in the process was assistant choreographer, Ryan Spencer, who has been involved in the arts since the age of 3, becoming an independent at 15 years old performing and choreographing talent nationally and internationally.
“Edgar is very specific about what he wants and he knows every single detail about the film but he puts his trust in the team he’s assembled and he really let me go to work which makes him a great collaborator and an amazing director,” says Heffington.
“I think the story mostly determined what we were doing. And Edgar had a lot of say in what he wanted in terms of movement and timing and the mood of it all. I did get to come up with a lot of original, ideas and movements. I think that along with Edgar’s direction it’s something that’s going to be really rich for the film.”
Elgort, like his six fellow heist co-stars, had some experience with music and choreography, something producers contemplated when casting the seasoned actors. “In casting these heist men we knew it would be necessary to have talent with experience in rhythm and who could pick up the choreography that was so vital to making this movie work,” explains Park.
“The actors all worked very hard to choreograph their scenes, but hopefully it’ll come off looking easy. I think that’s my job to help make it look natural and pedestrian,” adds Heffington.
Wright calls Heffington “an amazing genius,” who helped the actors think in counts, like dancers do. “Say for example people are shooting guns in time with the music, he would get them to memorize this part of the rhythm. Ryan would go up to Jon Hamm and say, ‘This next bit is you going da, da, da, da, da, da.’ Then you get that in your head. Then it cuts together with the song. It really works.”
Explains Heffington, “We started with rehearsals with Ansel back in LA about six months prior to filming to get an idea of what Ansel’s movement style was and his natural character without adding too much of Baby in it so we could determine where we could take this character.”
At the age of nine, Elgort’s mother took him to try out for The School of American Ballet, where he began his official dance training. He later attended the Professional Performing Arts School, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School and Stagedoor Manor summer camp, further establishing himself as a dancer and stage performer. When he is not filming, Elgort lends his talents to producing electronic dance music under the name “Ansolo.”
Elgort says, “I started with regular dialogue auditions before Edgar asked me to start dancing since Baby is always moving to the beat, whether it be in his own mind or dancing in front of a mirror like no one’s watching.”
Behind The Wheel
With high-gear, precision driving essential to the heart-pounding fun of Baby Driver, the right action choreography, the right cars and the right stunt team had to be in place. Wright and three different storyboard artists began the process by drawing the car chase sequences, then turning them into animatics that provided a rough animation of how they would play out. “Those animatics are pretty close to the finished movie,” says Wright. “The next stage is working with a cinematographer, a stunt team, and a physical effects team. Which parts need a stunt driver? Which parts can be the actors? What rigs do we use?”
What Wright didn’t want to do is “hose the scene down,” meaning shoot with multiple cameras, grab millions of feet of film, then figure it out in the editing room. “The animatics became a great roadmap, because you knew how many shots you needed for a sequence,” says Wright. “It’s getting the maximum bang for your buck.”