Last Night In Soho – A dark-tinged, neon-drenched, original thriller

It was more than a decade ago when writer-director Edgar Wright found his inspirational idea for the psychological thriller Last Night In Soho. He quickly put the broad outlines of the story in order. But he didn’t rush this one to the screen.

“Edgar first told me he was keen to develop the idea in February 2012,” says Nira Park, Wright’s long-time producer and confidant.

“We were trying to get The World’s End off the ground at the time and were really busy. I didn’t think he would have time to think about another project but he couldn’t stop thinking about the idea and really wanted to get the ball rolling. He was in LA and I was in London. He came over for a week of meetings on The World’s End and we managed to squeeze in a pitch with Film4, who felt like they were a good fit for the project. At that stage, the pitch was for a lower budget version of what it eventually became. Film4 were immediately interested and they agreed to fund the research with Lucy Pardee, which Edgar worked on alongside prep for The Worlds End.”

Wright recruited Lucy Pardee, more recently a BAFTA winner for her work on Rocks, to help him dive deep into researching various elements of the story. Pardee interviewed people from all walks of life who lived and worked in Soho in the ‘60s.

“The vast bible she assembled included research into the sex industry – past and present – in Central London, as well as police who patrolled the area and – in the present-day – fashion students like our heroine, Eloise. Pardee also researched nightmares and sleep paralysis, paranormal and ghost encounters, lucid dreaming and other elements that would eventually inform the plot.”

As Wright digested this wealth of first-hand accounts, along with his own keen interest in ‘60s movies and music, the story details took shape. But The World’s End and Baby Driver dropped into place first, and it was only after the latter that Wright became sure that Last Night In Soho would be next.

“After finishing the Baby Driver there was pressure to do a sequel to it immediately, but I knew in my head that I had to do something else first,” says Wright. “For my own sanity, I couldn’t quite face doing a second huge car chase movie straightaway. And when you have the opportunity to make an original movie with new challenges, you take it.”

Nira Park was again his first port of call. “When we first pitched it, it was very low budget,” says Park, “but once we started talking about it again the idea had developed quite a bit and it was definitely a bigger proposition, bigger budget. Edgar and I started talking to our long term collaborators Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan at Working Title about how to make the film a reality. And then together we took it to Focus.”

Writer-director Edgar Wright

While Wright was drawn to the idea of making a ‘60s thriller, a mystery full of the horror elements and show-stopping style of that time, he also wanted to tell that story through a contemporary lens. He didn’t want to simply glamourise the past, or draw a veil over the grotesque reality of the seamy, sexist ‘60s. By putting a modern protagonist into the ‘60s story, he could bring a wariness to the milieu and perhaps avoid the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

“There’s a duality in that sense,” Wright explains. “Like Eloise’s character, there’s a love for the best of the decade. It’s a fascinating period: the way culture changes from 1960 to 1969 is extraordinary, probably the biggest leap in any decade. But there’s also a fear of what’s going on under the surface. If you spend too much time romanticising the past, you can miss the danger that’s in front of you.”

It was during this time, with a fully-developed story but as-yet-unwritten script, and a title inspired by the Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich song, that Wright met up with his friend, screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and asked if he could talk her through the idea.

The pair spent an evening walking around Soho haunts as he narrated his concept for the film and visited some of the area’s most famous and more obscure watering holes.

“We went to the Toucan [pub] where Krysty was a barmaid for several years as she was writing her breakthrough screenplay Aether,” says Wright. “She lived on Dean Street, so in that way when you’re someone who works and lives in Soho, you become friends with the bouncers and strippers. You know them as real people. She was steeped in all these amazing stories.”

Wilson-Cairns remembers it well. “I moved to London when I was 22, a young girl with a dream of the big city,” she laughs. “I came from a small place, quite sheltered, so I very much understood that journey. When I first met Edgar – Sam Mendes introduced us and said we would get on – I think I had just given up my bar work and we talked about the bits of Soho you don’t see, all these dingy after-hours places. So we went on a little research night out. I wasn’t involved in the project at this point, I was just a friend showing him my old stomping ground. But I thought the story was fantastic.”

Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith with director Edgar Wright during the filming of Last Night in Soho.

It was over a year later when Wilson-Cairns got Wright’s call asking her to co-write the script with him. She was about to head into pre-production in 1917 with Mendes, the film that would soon land her an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. But in the six weeks before she left, she and Wright rented an office, put the story on index cards around the wall, and crafted the first draft of the script, refining and perfecting it over the following months.

“The story had been fermenting in my head for so long,” says Wright. “It just needed this missing element. There are things that Krysty adds to it that make the movie, things that I would have never thought of writing on my own.”

By his account, she was particularly keen on fleshing out the 1960s scenes, ensuring that the audience would fall in love with Sandie. “We spent a lot of time, the two of us, just working out who is Sandie and who is Eloise,” says Wilson-Cairns. “You want Sandie to be compelling, so it was building that character and building her world. The audience go in with Eloise, a young woman, and I thought, ‘Who was I obsessed with when I was younger?’ Usually, it was characters on TV; powerful women. It’s not like a male obsession, not just about how they look; it’s definitely about intelligence and how they see the world. So, Sandie’s dialogue was crucial to that.”

As with Wright himself, Wilson-Cairns was also keen to avoid the “fallen woman” tropes of ‘60s cinema. “I think there’s almost a puritanical message in those films, and we’re not at all trapped in that, thank God. We were never interested in chastising ‘fallen’ women; the idea that women even ‘fall’ is ridiculous to me. We were trying to make something that feels real, that felt like it could have happened, that had resonance in our lifetime. Just to make something thrilling and thought-provoking was our intention.”

Last Night in Soho is a love letter to that specific part of London, and to a bygone age when the Rolling Stones and Princess Margaret were hanging around,” says screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns. “It’s a love letter to the past, but a warning as well not to look back with too much nostalgia, or gloss over the seedy underbelly.”

It is, in other words, a story full of contradictions – and that’s just the way Wright wanted it.

“I love London and I love the Sixties,” he says. “But with the city, it’s a love-hate relationship. It can be brutal and beautiful in equal measure. It’s ever-shifting too, with gentrification and new architecture slowly changing the landscape. With all this in mind, it’s easy to romanticize previous decades; even ones you were not alive for. Maybe you would be forgiven for thinking that time travelling back to the Swingin’ Sixties would be amazing. But then there’s a nagging doubt. Would it, though? Particularly from a female perspective. Sometimes you’re talking to somebody who was there in the 60s, where they would talk very effusively about it, stories of the wild times. But you always feel that there’s that little hint of what they won’t say. Sometimes, if you ask, they’ll say that it was a tough time as well. So the point of the movie is to ask what’s behind the rose-tinted spectacles, and how quickly that part reveals itself.”

That dual identity inspired Last Night In Soho. Some combination of Soho’s dark streets, the echoes of the “Swinging London” of the 1960s, a long-time affection for the music of the period and an obsession with the darker-tinged films of that same decade came together to give Wright an idea; a story about an idealist who follows their dreams to Soho and finds something much darker waiting there.

Wright quickly realised that his protagonist would be a young woman, a girl coming up to London for the first time. “I didn’t have any other version of it,” he explains. “Part of the inspiration was that I wanted to make a film with a female lead. But also, I was conscious that many of these ‘60s films, mostly written by men, were cautionary tales about girls coming to London. At the time, they probably felt quite ground-breaking. But now some seem sensationalist and moralistic like they’re slapping down the idea of liberation and girls being able to make it on their own.”

Wright wanted to offer some kind of corrective to that and to challenge that cliché. So to accentuate this, the exploitation and vice of the era became the backdrop for his story. The film was always going to be set in Soho, home to a unique mix of respectable business and vice with a beguiling and sometimes fearsome atmosphere. “The Sixties casts a long shadow over London, but particularly over Soho,” says Wright. “Soho has always had the higher echelons of glamour and showbiz, but it’s also this den of iniquity. It’s steeped in music and film history, but also criminal history. I’ve had more night-time walks through Soho than I can possibly count, and you get thinking about what this or that building used to be. You feel the echoes of the past, and not that far away.”

Past and present mix and meld together until the crimes of the past begin to haunt our present-day heroine. But first, Wright had to decide how to navigate those intertwined worlds.

The film was, luckily, deep into post-production when Covid hit. And, even more, luckily, production was able to schedule a few days of pick-up shots when the pandemic lockdowns lifted last summer. That extra time was a frustration but did offer compensations; little tweaks and ideas came up, and there was extra time to lavish on the visual effects. “We had an extended post,” says Nira Park, “and we were really lucky that we were able to keep the cutting room going. Because of the shorthand that Edgar has with [editor] Paul Machliss, in a way working remotely didn’t affect them. We essentially got additional post-time, and particularly in terms of the visual effects that made a huge difference, because they were able to explore creative ideas that they might not have been able to in the time we originally had.”

EDGAR WRIGHT (Director, Producer, Co-screenwriter)

Growing up in the UK, Edgar Wright began crafting his distinct visual style at a young age directing super 8 films starring his school friends. At 20, he directed the no-budget western A Fistful of Fingers which had a limited theatrical release. This led to a foray into television where he directed a handful of comedy shows including both seasons of the award-winning cult classic Spaced. It was here that Wright began his iconic collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as well as his producing partner, Nira Park, with who he has worked on everything he has directed since.

Spaced served as a launching pad for the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead which became a sleeper box office hit. This was followed by Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. These films became known as the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, of which all were co-written by Wright and Pegg. In between Fuzz and World’s End, Wright co-wrote and directed the acclaimed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Wright has also collaborated with many acclaimed filmmakers: he co-wrote The Adventures of Tintin for director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson and directed the faux trailer for Don’t, which played between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse. As an executive producer, Wright championed Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers.

Wright’s 2017 film, Baby Driver, grossed over $220 million worldwide at the box office and went on to receive three Academy Award nominations as well as two BAFTA nominations, winning Best Editing.

In 2018, Wright and Park set up Complete Fiction Pictures with long-time collaborators Joe Cornish and Rachael Prior.

His first documentary, The Sparks Brothers, covering the entire 50-year legacy of Ron and Russell Mael of California pop band Sparks, premiered at Sundance in January 2021 and was released in cinemas in summer 2021.

Wright’s latest film, Last Night in Soho, will premiere at the 2021 Venice Film Festival as well as the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in cinemas worldwide on October 29th.

Wright was a member of the Dramatic Jury at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, a juror for the Main Competition at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, and a judge for the 2011 and 2014 Independent Spirit Awards. In his spare time he has presented films for the TCM Film Festival as well as programmed film series for the New Beverly Cinema in LA, the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, and at the BFI Southbank, Prince Charles Cinema, and Picturehouse Central in London.

KRYSTY WILSON-CAIRNS (co-screenwriter)

Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a standout, as one of only two women nominated for an Oscar in the writing categories during the 2019/2020 Awards Season and for her charm, humour, intelligence and incredible talent.

Her most recent film 1917 for Amblin and Universal, which she co-wrote with the film’s director Sam Mendes, earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Writers Guild of America Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film was also nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Motion Picture and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama.  

She recently wrapped production on the Netflix feature thriller The Good Nurse based on the book by Charles Graeber, starring Eddie Redmayne, Jessica Chastain, Nnamdi Asomugha, Noah Emmerich and Kim Dickens. Wilson-Cairns wrote the screenplay, which tells the true story of the pursuit and capture of Charles Cullen, one of the most prolific serial killers in history who is suspected of murdering up to 400 patients during his 16-year career as a nurse. 

Her slate of projects in various stages of development includes two as of yet untitled projects with Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment, Aether for Genre Pictures and Apple TV and the original UK-set series Prophets, which Sam Mendes and Neal Street will produce.

Wilson-Cairns was born in Glasgow. She attended the Royal Scottish Conservatoire where she earned her undergraduate degree in Filmmaking, and the National Film and Television School where she earned her MFA in Screenwriting. Shortly after graduating from the NFTS she sold her first film script, Aether, to FilmNation and joined John Logan for the third and final season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.