I recently had the good fortune to interview Edgar Wright, the result of which appeared in this interview for my day job at CNET UK. I chatted to Edgar about Ant-Man, 3D and The Random Adventures of Brandon Generator, his recent project with Microsoft. Not my best interview — I admit to being a bit starstruck, I’m a huge fan of everything he’s done — but here’s the full transcript:
Hi Edgar, how are you doing?
I’m good thanks, how are you doing?
I’m very well thanks. So it seems that you’re pretty busy at the moment?
Yeah, it’s starting to gear up, yeah.
Are you in the US at the moment or over here?
I am in London — I’m speaking from London’s North London.
Are you in the US most of the time?
I sort of go back and forth. Depending on the work, y’know.
To start off, tell us about Brandon Generator.
I was approached by Microsoft because they wanted to do a crowdsourced animation / comic to show off the capabilities of HTML5. I was brought on as a creative brain because they wanted someone to write it and create the characters.
I was intrigued because I’d never written a comic before even though I’d been a big fan growing up — and I knew Tommy Lee Edwards was already doing it and I was aware of his artwork from the book he did with Jonathan Ross [prohibition-era gangster/vampire/alien mash-up Turf].
I very quickly had an idea, and the idea was based on my experiences of the Internet on two counts: the character of Brandon is a writer who is very prone to procrastination — less writer’s block than actual procrastination, I think he likes to call it writer’s block because it sounds more romantic, but the truth is he’s too busy wasting time on the Internet.
And the other aspect that I thought would be interesting was collaboration, having done a couple of things on the Internet where I’ve worked with fans. I did something last year where I got people to edit stuff for a mashup for a Scott Pilgrim remix. Loads of people did it, and there’s so many talented people out there, so I thought this is a nice way to work with people, writers, artists, actors and get them to contribute to something where I’ve created the characters but I’m not so precious about it that I can’t take on board lots of suggestions from other people.
And that’s the fun bit of writing the second and the third episode: finding as many ways to bring in people’s contributions is really fun.
Are you always open to suggestions and collaborations with things you’ve written?
No. (Laughs) Usually quite the opposite! So this is something new and exciting.
Did you have a structure in mind from the start?
Sort of — but I’ve left myself pretty open to see where it goes. And in fact the third episode, the entire start of it, I sort of had an idea of where I wanted to get to and obviously there were things that had been set up, but what was interesting was that people — (phone beeps) let me just turn this off — most of the people writing prose kind of took the ball and ran with it in terms of things that had already been set up in the story. So that was nice, it wasn’t like people were just writing random prose, a lot of people either tried to write in Brandon’s voice or tried to continue the story.
So that was really helpful. I had a number of ideas, and in some cases what people had written completely tied in with what I was thinking of doing, or in other cases they led me down some interesting avenues. It was really good fun to do something like that. And I’ve tried to find as many different ways to include people’s contributions.
It’s very abstract, almost dreamlike – in fact it is about Brandon’s dream. Is that a different process to writing a linear narrative?
I think so, although within the four episodes there’s still a three-act structure, in a weird way. You still have set-up, and conflict, and resolution. But the fun of it is that the prose and the artwork is incorporated into the story.
Once I started writing the second one and I thought it would just be funny to have Brandon, voiced by Julian Barratt, commentate on the submission themselves because he doesn’t remember writing them. So he also kind of has the opportunity to say “well that’s rubbish”. (laughs) so that was funny. And there’s more of that in the third one.
I’ll give you an example, in the second episode I didn’t think of the idea of him taking the pages with him, until I’d read all of the prose and I thought, oh there’s so much good stuff here so I can have him just take the stuff out with him and have it get blown into the air, so maybe it can come back again because there’s too much good stuff
Speaking of people writing in prose, as a screenwriter it seems like you don’t get to play with language in that kind of way, but it seems like you’re having fun from some of the gags.
I am! One of the things about doing this project, actually, I have to take my hat off to Microsoft and 3 Monkeys for letting me do it but I’ve had real fun and I feel quite uninhibited in terms of what I’m writing and it’s fun to write in a different voice.
Because films take so long to make it’s nice to do something where I write it and as soon as it’s done Tommy Lee Edwards starts animating it immediately! So the turnaround is pretty fast. I think the third one is due to be done in a couple of weeks and I only wrote the third one a few weeks ago. I’m very impressed with what you can actually do.
Speaking of comics, you’re known as being a big fan, and I was quite surprised when I thought about it that you hadn’t done one before. Have you been approached to write a comic before — or had an idea for a comic?
Yes, one time, me and Simon wrote a thing for 2000AD, for Shaun of the Dead, we wrote this kind of spin-off issue. I’d almost completely forgotten about it until someone reminded me and I was like ‘oh yeah I did do that, didn’t I?’ I guess I have, it’s something I would consider again because it’s been fun doing this.
Do you ever have ideas where you think ‘that’s a film’ or ‘that’s a comic’ or ‘that’s a multimedia installation in HTML5′?
No, I guess I’ve usually thought in terms of film and TV so far. One of the nice things about doing this has been like a sort of a writing experience because usually writing is like a means to an end, in terms of ‘I’m writing this so I can make the film of it’, y’know, writing a screenplay. So I don’t write for fun as much as I’d like to, and I don’t write for myself as much as I’d like to, so this has been nice.
Even in your previous work you seem to be interested in blurring the lines between media — Scott Pilgrim had video game influences, and the music video you did was like a printed comic. Why do you think that is?
Which music video?
The Bastardo music video.
Oh yeah, yeah. I guess Spaced and Scott Pilgrim both had a similar theme, although they played out in different ways: Spaced is about twentysomethings who could only communicate in terms of the media they consumed, and Scott Pilgrim is different in that he’s a daydreamer who’s living that life of his imagination, he’s living his life as if it’s a videogame, he’s stuck in this fantasist world.
This is a little different again — Brandon has disappeared into his own subconscious — but yeah, they’re all of a similar theme. I like that idea of surrealism and magical realism and elements like that and I guess my default setting is to imagine weird things happening in everyday life.
Brandon Generator is about a writer who struggles with procrastination – is that something you struggle with and how do you deal with procrastination, especially with the Internet?
I did write a script last year on my own, it was the first thing I’d written in a long time solo and it eventually turned out very well but it was quite a struggle to get there. I think procrastination is the worst because if you’ve got a deadline looming or if you’re struggling with something you just find — I know not everybody does this but a lot of people do — you just find every excuse to do something vaguely productive so you feel like you’ve not wasted an entire day so I did go through a period of that.
But also the other thing that was actually in the first episode that’s true is I would try and inspire myself by using iTunes in a weird way, like sort of playing everything in order of length. Or going randomly on Google or going through the papers and circling odd names that conjured up something.
I get very distracted in terms of one word or one thought that will lead me off onto a tangential… kind of… leap into some other story. I find it quite hard actually to read fiction because I immediately start conjuring up the images and it makes it actually quite hard to concentrate in a way because my brain starts ticking over in a different way, so it’s a little bit about that really. One thing I did use genuinely is an app called Freedom, have you ever heard of that?
I haven’t no, what’s it do?
It basically turns off your Internet! (laughs) It’s an application, basically you tell it how many hours you want to go off the Internet or off social media.
Oh, I have heard of that…
I’ve used that a couple of times. You can override it but it’s a bit of a rigmarole to override it. But when I’ve been thinking ‘right I’ve got to get some writing done today, I’m gonna turn Freedom on and I’m gonna shut off the Internet for 6 hours’. I’ve done that a bunch of times.
Judging by some of the quotes in Brandon Generator you seem to have a slightly ambivalent relationship with technology: “the laptop is a white void”…
I definitely believe that — I find a blank document more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper, for real. I think also it depends how dark your room is and how bright your screen is. (laughs) If you’re working in the dark with a bright screen I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.
Do you have to have your workspace set up just so in order to be able to get started?
I do! I do. I very easily clutter my desk and then kind of stop writing and go ‘I’m gonna clear up my desk’. (laughs)
I’m like that, I feel like I have to have enough elbow room to type, I don’t know why.
I think its pretty standard. You’re sort of looking for ways… writing is sometimes enjoyable but mostly it’s quite arduous! You’re always looking for excuses not to create.
When you are writing do you do it in a linear way, or do you hop about the scenes — y’know, do the fun bits first and then have to go back and slog through the exposition, or whatever?
I’m usually pretty linear, I’ve done some things where I don’t write the action out on the first pass — you write the script and then you write ‘car case here’ or something like that, and then you come back and flesh that out. I try to get to the end and then flesh out the action on the second pass.
But usually you try and outline a lot so you know where you’re going. I’ve never written anything where I haven’t known what the next scene’s going to be.
So you do the dialogue and then go back and reward yourself with a car chase?
I don’t think it’s a reward, it’s kinda tough writing action! Writing action’s weird, it’s great shooting action and it’s OK shooting storyboards, but especially if you’re a director as well you’re trying to communicate to yourself so if you’re writing a fight scene, a fist fight or a car chase, it’s actually not a lot of fun at all.
I don’t find it fun anyway. I’d rather do it than write it.
You say you give it to Tommy lee Edwards and it comes back and it’s his vision. Is that easier in the writing process to know that someone’s going to deal with that rather than having a huge team that’s got to be talked through it?
Well no, we communicate on it, I send him the script that’s similar to how comic book writers do it, I write underneath each frame what I’d like to see. He’s incredibly visual and imaginative so he’ll be able to get from what I’ve written — which is usually pretty spare — what I’m after. He’s great at nailing the visuals of what you’re trying to do. I don’t need to say a lot for him to get it.
But then he does boards and I comment on that and say ‘this is great’ or ‘you need an extra shot in here’ or ‘I’d like to see Bandon in this shot standing here’, etc etc. Then he does an animatic and I give more notes, and then he animates the thing. It’s kind of a team effort — he has a couple of people animating for him, they’re all working their socks off as we speak (laughs)
But you’re constantly directing it because then you have to — I direct Julian, and also the sound editor, and David Homes as well. And the interesting thing about it is that we’re all in different places all the time so it’s done almost completely via the Internet. I’ve been in LA or London, David’s in LA, Julian’s in London, Tommy Lee Edwards is in Carolina, so none of us are in the same room. So that makes it pretty challenging but ultimately it’s pretty amazing how… to be able to do these things long distance, it’s pretty incredible.
Is there any particular technology that’s helping you do that, has it been all Skype calls and stuff?
I know Skype I guess… I don’t know if you’ve heard of email? That’s been pretty handy.
That might be quite big, I can see that taking off. Hows this fitting in with the stuff you’re working on right now, because you’re attached to a couple of films at the moment aren’t you?
I dunno, you just have to juggle everything I guess.
I’m quite interested in the day-to-day process of developing a film and what it actually involves — so for example you’ve been working on Ant-Man for a while, but where are you up to with that? What’s the day-to-day side of that? Because that’s kind of behind-the-scenes thing that people don’t really see. I think people understand filming but not the bit before that.
Well I think that what people don’t really understand in terms of movies, when film sites do hourly news, is people don’t really understand how many years it can take for a film to come together. Even Shaun of the Dead took four years to reach the screen.
The development process is something that has so many elements to it and that doesn’t mean that you’re writing every day. In fact me and Joe Cornish wrote a script last year and we haven’t done any work on it since because they’re happy with it, we’re happy with it, we’re dealing with other elements of it now so I might be doing another film first, y’know.
It’s funny where its that thing in news stories where people say ‘Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright have been writing this film for yeeears” (laughs) and it’s true and not true, we’ve done like three drafts of the script and we’ve got to a place where we’re happy with it and so is everyone else and now it’s a question of when is that slot to make it, do you know what I mean?
Right. You’re not just typing really slowly.
People assume if something’s been in development for years there must be some kind of problem or something that we’re desperately trying to fix, and that’s not necessarily the case because you work on different things at different times. If I went off and wrote something I would be fully doing that and the other one would be on the back burner for a little while.
With Ant-Man, there’s a lot going on with Marvel, have you been in contact with the other Marvel film guys like Joss Whedon and Jon Favreau? Do you have any contact with them? Is there a house style or anything you have to think about?
Not really… I know them all… I’ve spoken to them… I don’t know how to answer that one.
Fair enough. I was looking at your IMDB profile earlier and i saw that you directed the Titanic spoof in French and Saunders, is that right?
Yes that’s right I was twenty… um… 24 years old.
Excellent, so are you going to back and make that 3D, I think that’s the thing to do with Titanic….
(laughs) I don’t think so. (laughs again)
What are your thoughts on 3D?
I don’t know… sometimes it’s great, sometimes it seems … I don’t necessarily know that it adds that much most of the time. Sometimes it can be really good, and I think when films are designed with it in mind that can be pretty special. Usually that’s films with animation, or some sort of animation element. I’ve seen too many ones lately where it’s been fine, but I could have happily watched a 2D version of the same film and not felt any differently about the movie.
Were there any that stood out for you?
I’m not gonna say. (laughs) I know too many people that worked on them! All I can say is that I would have enjoyed it exactly the same but with about £3 less on the ticket price.
I sometimes actively seek out the 2D versions, if there’s a flat version of something I might go and see that instead. But when it works it’s… I thought Hugo was great, Avatar was great in 3D, Coraline was great in 3D, some of the animation stuff… I’m biased but I thought Tintin looked great in 3D. The other one… sometimes with live action ones I don’t feel I’m getting anything extra out of it
Have you been tempted to do something in 3D?
Only if it was the right thing for the story. If there was something within the story where it really worked, and I thought ‘well, this is a reason to do 3D’. That’s the thing why Avatar started the ball rolling because in Avatar you had a character inside another body, it was the perfect premise for 3D, you know, that you’re having an out-of-body experience with this character so it actually lends itself towards this effect.
I’d be quite interested to see a non-sci-fi, genre or horror film in 3D. I’d be interested to see a period film in 3D, like The Great Gatsby, have you seen the trailer that just came out? Because it’s all about the locations and the settings.
Hugo was that, wasn’t it.
Yeah exactly — something that’s not spaceships blowing up would be interesting to see. What about motion capture, like Tintin, is that something you’d explore doing?
I don’t know, it depends on what the movie is. I thought it worked for that, and it was fascinating to see that process. It was really fascinating to see that process come together, and it comes into a lot of live action films — what Peter Jackson did on The Hobbit and King Kong and Lord of the Rings have a big element of motion capture so it’s incredible technology. I think Andy Serkis’ Kong is an amazing usage of that technology.
Do you see films moving towards that use of motion capture and greenscreen rather than settings and locations? Something like Hot Fuzz for example where the village is such an important part of the story, could something like that be done on a greenscreen?
No, I don’t think locations are ever going to go away. I think what you can do with greenscreen in terms of creating other worlds and other styles — Sin City and 300 are two good examples of that — but I don’t think it’ll ever take away the idea of making a film in a location.
It seems like it’s been a while since we’ve seen anything from you on the big screen, when are we going to see ‘Directed by Edgar Wright’ up there on the big screen?
That’s a very good question. (laughs) I don’t make these dates y’know, I’m not in control of the schedule.
Fair enough. So what’s the best part of making a film, is it the writing, is it the filming, is it the editing? What’s you favourite part?
It’s all a great process. I think maybe I like getting into the edit suite, because you’re done and you can really start to shape it and stuff. I like every aspect of it. But I guess editing is always exciting because it’s coming together and you’re on the home straight and everything
You seem to stay very attached to the films you’ve worked on afterwards, with Q&As and the extras on the DVDs and that kind of thing. Is that all part of the filmmaking process for you? Because some people just want to move onto the next thing.
I think, y’know… maybe in the future I’d like to do less of that and try and kind of make more movies. But it’s also a thing that it’s up to you get the word out and if you’re proud of the movie then you’re the best salesman for it.
That seems to come back to the relationship with the Internet and getting people involved and talking to other people . Do you enjoy engaging with fans?
I do actually, I do. I like writing facetious replies at two in the morning. I do it very randomly as well, so some people get very annoyed that I don’t reply to them. I tend to choose whatever takes my fancy at odd hours of the day and night. But I do like keeping in contact with people, that’s a nice thing about the Internet. I think when I’m working I have to just switch off completely.
We find with commenters we can get some extreme reactions in both a positive and negative direction — do you ever find it’s a double-edged sword to engage with people in that way?
I think the main thing is, I try not to say anything negative on Twitter at all. I try not to badmouth anything because the thing is even if you’ve done a movie or done a TV show there’s people that worked on it… it’s not the done thing. I’m always surprised when people in film or TV or media slag on other films cos I think, ‘you know the world is really small and you know you’re in a glass house…’ so I find that a bit strange when people do that and I try not to .
Occasionally I’ll write something, like, hissy, but never… like, if I don’t like a film I just won’t mention it on Twitter at all because I just think there’s nothing to be gained from being critical. And also there’s so much snarkiness on the Internet anyway it’s actually nice to inject some optimism every now and again.
Has there been anyone on Twitter you admire or anyone famous who’s got in touch with you through the Internet?
Hmmm…. yes, but none of them come to mind at the minute, but I’m sure that’s the case. There’s definitely people I’ve met through Twitter who I hadn’t already met. I do like it. It’s definitely a nice way if you’re promoting a movie or especially if you’re doing a tour or you’ve got a public show to let people know and it’s a great means of communicating with people.
And presumably a great way of letting people know what you’re up to so they don’t think you’re just typing really slowly.
I guess so — but then people are frustrated because you mention something and they say ‘why isn’t it out tomorrow?!’ So I don’t think people understand that things take years to make.
Do you get asked the same questions over and over again?
I guess so, yeah. But I think that’s true of anybody.
I think I’ve probably just done it there actually. So what’s next after Brandon Generator?
I’m working on some stuff at the moment which I’m just figuring out, but I haven’t got anything concrete to tell you right now
Any clue on how Brandon Generator‘s going to wind up, how it’s going to end?
I have an idea. I’m going to leave it on another cliffhanger in episode 3 and then I’m absolutely happy for everyone’s thoughts on how it should wrap up. It’s going to end on quite a big cliffhanger so there’s going to be lots of opportunity for people to contribute.
Do you think it’s going to be the ending you had in mind when you first set out on it?
Yeaaah sort of …. I guess what’s fun about this is the journey is everything and that’s been down to the public really. There are lots of elements in the second episode that wouldn’t be in there if it wasn’t for people’s contributions but that’s nice that’s the whole point of the exercise.
Generally do you prefer collaborating or do you prefer to work on your own?
I like writing — especially if its comedy and stuff — it’s much more fun if it’s with somebody. I’ve written with three different people — four actually, over the years — and it’s always more fun to write with somebody, especially with comedy. Maybe not if you’re doing drama or thrillers or something like that, but comedy it’s always good to have another person.
How does that actually work — you’ve got the laptop being all intimidating, is it one person typing?
Usually, yeah. Either you have one laptop with one person typing and the other person pacing around, and you take it in turns, or sometimes you know what the outline is and one writes one scene and one writes the other and you rewrite each others and just keep discussing them.
I’ve done both. I sort of like the thing of, me and Simon tend to do the thing of one person is typing and the other is either dictating or we’re both talking about it and we hook it up to a big TV so we can both see it.
Sort of like doing a presentation?
No… otherwise you feel like you’re playing battleships if one person’s on a laptop and the other one’s peering over the other side, so if you hook it up to a desktop or a monitor then the other person can see what’s going on and it’s easier for you to take it in turns writing.
I think we’ll have to wrap it up there. Thanks for talking to us and good luck with the rest of Brandon Generator.
Thanks, take it easy.