Thursday, 24 November 2011

LSF 2: In Conversation with Edgar Wright

Edgar Wright was the second session I went to. I kinda felt bad for the other speakers in this slot because Edgar was a late addition to the festival line up and judging by the fire risk size of the audience, a lot of people had clearly also made a late switch.

Edgar Wright made his first film, A Fistful of Fingers, when he was around – staggeringly – the age of 20. But by his candid admission, the film was powered along by its own naivety and if anyone had stopped to think about it, it probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s not the greatest film of all time and didn’t turn out the way he planned or it was in his head. He doesn’t like to badmouth it, because a lot of good people that he still knows and works with worked on that film. But he realised he was trying to run before he could walk and was more obsessed by the idea of making a film before he was 20, then getting the film right.

It’s 78 mins long and they had to actually pad it out to make it that long. Which was another thing that he learned. Make sure the script is right first. The edit room is the final draft, but you can save yourself a whole lot of trouble by getting it on the page and the script right first. The film actually got a small release and came out the same weekend as Golden Eye. That’s what you are competing against. It doesn’t matter how much less it cost to make. It’s now in the cinema and that’s the competition. And that’s worth keeping in mind.

Edgar got his first break through meeting Matt Lucas and David Walliams, which led to a TV directing job. And that was more like going to college. It was a second chance to learn his craft. He was only directing at this stage, having had his confidence knocked and taken a back seat from writing. Some early advice he got had come back to haunt him – don’t make a spoof as your first film. And you’re too young to be a comedy writer. Go out and live your life a bit first. By the time Shaun of the Dead came along, he and Simon Pegg thought they had. Zombies aside, it’s essentially kind of autobiographical, about wasters living in North London.

Edgar didn’t hesitate to say that professional relationships have been key to his success. Meeting someone like Simon, even before they did Spaced together, Edgar knew he wanted to do a film with Simon in the lead.

His writing process changes from project to project. Watching movies and documentaries can be useful – but sometimes it’s procrastination. However one of the great things about Hot Fuzz was the research with the police. Ride alongs, tours of regional stations, etc. There’s always something brilliant you’ll get out of research. Even for a comedy. There are bits in that movie that are so silly or little lines here and there, but they are the result of something someone said. With Shaun of the Dead there wasn’t much research to do because they were living those lives. But they’d never been police officers so thought they should.

When Edgar moved onto Scott Pilgrim, the tone attracted him and reminded him of Spaced. They never did a third series of that but he still felt he had an itch to scratch and liked that world of magical realism.

Edgar and Joe Cornish actually wrote on Tintin in 2008 – which shows how long animation takes. It was a different experience because he was just being paid as a writer. Not only were you working for Spielberg and Peter Jackson, but you have the books to live up to and be faithful to. Spielberg is like an icon – but he creates a great environment, which makes you feel free to suggest things, even certain shots, etc.

Then came the questions:

How many drafts does Edgar usually do?

For Fistful – clearly not enough. For Shaun, it was quite a long process probably through something like 10 drafts. It was with Film4 and then that collapsed and they had to go round to everyone, getting no after no, until Working Title. But it was a scary time because he’d been devoted to that and it’s like putting everything on black and if it doesn’t land, you’re broke and wasted three years. He turned down a really good proposal to direct a TV series because he was concentrating on getting that movie off the ground and when the producer heard this, she said if I had a pound for every time a director said that… And it was like wow, that’s how it is. That’s how hard it is.

What is it you think that Working Title responded to that the others didn’t?

Maybe they’d seen Spaced. But it’s difficult to get the tone across in comedy on the page. A lot of people who read the Shaun script, which is pretty much exactly what you see on screen, if you didn’t know what the style was going to be like, and thought it might be quite broad, Carry On style, they just didn’t get it. Some actors passed on it who they were really banking on because they just didn’t get it. On the other hand. Bill Nighy, who hadn’t seen any of their stuff, got it straight away and he was in.

What kind of development process do you go through when you start writing a script?

Different with Tintin and Scott Pilgrim, and even (the upcoming) Ad Man because comics exist. But him and Simon map out beat sheet in 3 act structure, flip chart, page per scene, keep writing on a flip chart until nothing left to write and you have to start on the script page one. Some of it never makes it into the film, just a chart about a character, what do they like, back story things, etc. It’s just good to get it all out there. Write it all out in a room together. But Edgar does go back to those screenwriting books, especially if he’s blocked. There’s a point where you’ve got to put those books away and just write. Read them once and put them away. This past summer he wrote something on his own for the first time in ages and that was tough because there was no one to bounce off. So he would find a couple of people who were sounding boards.

Before Shaun, he and Simon watched films they liked and tried to match them up to traditional structure and books – and it was interesting. Because some do and you can learn from that, but then again a lot don’t. But it’s an interesting exercise to take your favourite films and break them down.

You Exec Produced Attack the Block, how much involvement did you have with that?

Edgar met Joe ten years ago and similar to when he met Simon, wanted to do something together. Joe had never written a screenplay but they worked on stuff together and then he went off to write Attack.

What value do you think it would have to go into the world and say I’m a writer-producer, (not writer-director) and seek talent to put the big picture together?

Edgar has never been in that position but it could help. It might give you more control and power. The easiest way to get your script to the screen the way you see it, is to direct it yourself. That’s not to say it can’t work the other way around. But if you’re just a writer on your own, especially in Hollywood, you can get screwed over. That could be by a director, or an actor, who just decides to improvise around the dialogue. And you’d be surprised how often that happens. So the more power you have, it’s going to help. But if you’re really precious about something, do it yourself. That’s what Tarantino did. He was always very protective over his scripts and there were ones he was happy with and ones he wasn’t as happy with. And now he’s not ever written or is ever likely to write for anyone else.

What mistakes have you made?

Edgar said he didn’t really think Fistful through. He was really passionate about making a film but wasn’t serious enough about it. Everyone worked really hard but when he got a second chance with Shaun, he was determined not to mess it up and to make sure he got on screen what he had in his head.

What advice would you offer to screenwriters starting out today, or have writers block and just not getting where they need to get?

Edgar has had writers block and then you’ve got to treat the writing as something you love and not a chore. Go out and watch a movie and don’t feel guilty about it. Read other stuff, try and get inspired, even if it’s got nothing to do with what you’re working on. Do research and find something that sparks something off. Get feedback, which could do the same thing. In terms of starting out, probably two ways to do it. Either have a very strong, personal voice, or really zero in on what you want to sell. In LA it’s completely different. A lot of people over there it’s about writing the script but then also selling the script. You almost have to be a great salesman. So sometimes it’s a question of what kind of writer you want to be. Do you want to be recognised through your voice and be distinct that way, or do you want to be known as a writer who can turn their hand at lots of different things and genres. (Like Billy Wilder – so not a bad thing – it’s not being a sell out.)

And perseverance. A lot of people seem to be waiting for a hand out to get something made – but it never comes. You’ve got to go out and make it happen.

A cool session. And appropriately enough, next up, we're in conversation with Joe Cornish.

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