Edgar Wright's 'Baby Driver' is an action-musical thrill ride at South By Southwest

Every year at the South By Southwest Film Festival, there is a screening driven by an excitement and anticipation, a palpable, ratcheting feeling in the air as the audience makes its way into the Paramount Theater. And every year it seems that energy couldn’t go any higher and then the next year it does.

As a playlist of music selected by the filmmaker, including Prince’s “Baby, I’m A Star” and other tracks with the word “baby” in the title, pumped through the theater, Saturday night’s world premiere of Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” took it up another notch.

The film, which might be described by the singular genre descriptor of a high-energy crime caper gangster picture romance musical car movie, played straight through the roof. Starring Ansel Elgort as a young heist driver known as Baby, he is trying to get out of the criminal life when he is hired for one more job. The cast also includes Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez and Lily James. Among many cameos are filmmaker Walter Hill, musicians Paul Williams, Killer Mike, Big Boi and Jon Spencer and the the unusual duo of the ATL Twins. (The movie opens Aug. 11.)

In introducing the film, Wright noted that he first thought about the movie 22 years ago when he began to visualize a car chase while listening to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song “Bellbottoms.” (That song is indeed used in the very first heist/chase scene in the movie.) Wright said he first described the idea for the movie to his producers Nira Park and Eric Fellner as “a car film driven by music.”

Wright concluded his introduction by saying, “If the very nascent germ of the idea was 22 years ago, that is as old as the star, Ansel Elgort. He literally is the baby of this movie.”

After the movie, Wright came back onstage and brought out Gonzalez, Hamm and Elgort for an extended Q&A moderated by Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

“It’s sort of like the old Warner Brothers gangster films in that it’s a cautionary tale,” Wright noted. “The first chase that you see is the dream, that’s the sort of dream chase. People who have had fantasies of being in a high-speed pursuit, that’s sort of how you hope it would go.

“And with each successive action scene the stakes get higher and the consequences more obvious to Ansel’s character and the human collateral,” he added. “And then it’s about him escaping from his job. I wanted it to be a film where the intensity keeps going up as it keeps going on.”

The movie is packed with music, as Wright noted how the songs were written into the script and that all the music was cleared before the movie started shooting. It says something about the audience at SXSW that people applauded the effort of those music clearances.

Wright noted that he worked with choreographer Ryan Heffington, whose work includes Sia’s “Chandelier” video and the recent Kenzo ad directed by Spike Jonze, so that the action had a rhythmic, at times dance-like quality, with actors firing their weapons in time to the songs.

Hamm talked about working in such a specific way. “Edgar writes and makes these things so incredibly cinematic, there’s not a lot of other work to do. It’s a pretty fully realized thing,” Hamm said. “It’s a testament to his talent that it’s come out this well.”

Wright said there are no computer effects used in the driving stunts. “It’s all real. It was all real driving, a lot of other big studio movies might shoot the action completely separately and then do the actors green screen later. And I didn’t want to do that, which immediately made the entire thing much more complicated,” Wright said, noting that movie car chases “are as arduous to make as they are fun to watch. Every single one of those shots in the car chases is a big set-up.”

A final question had to do with actually setting the film in Atlanta. Wright noted that it was originally written for Los Angeles but that wasn’t feasible for the production and that he took a tour of cities offering tax breaks for movie productions, looking at Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans and Atlanta. Once the production settled on Atlanta, he worked on revising the script to fit the city.

While location scouting he would emphasize that he wanted the film to feel like it took place in an urban, concrete environment, not one of leaves and trees that can be a part of Atlanta. To best describe it to people, he referenced two Burt Reynolds movies.

“I said, it has to be more ‘Sharky’s Machine’ and less ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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