Edgar Wright: how Martin Scorsese helped me through lockdown | Edgar Wright
In March of 2020, at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown, Edgar Wright was in post-production on his new movie, Last Night in Soho. With a cast that includes Anya Taylor-Joy, Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp and Rita Tushingham, it’s a ghostly tale of young 60s-obsessed fashion student Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) who travels from Redruth to London where she finds herself drawn back into the capital’s swinging past – with all its dark and sometimes horrifying secrets.
Finding himself on an enforced film-making hiatus, Wright decided not to waste his time, but to attempt instead to fill “the yawning gaps in my film knowledge” by working his way through a list of essential international cinema that Martin Scorsese had prepared in 2007. A few months later, Wright wrote to Scorsese, thanking the maestro for turning his attention toward such life-changing gems as Sansho the Bailiff, Rocco & His Brothers and Umberto D, and describing the “profound experience” of discovering or revisiting these classics.
At the end of the email, Wright mentioned in passing: “I’ve always been curious as to what some of your favourite British films were growing up.” In response, Scorsese sent Wright a voicemail duly listing 50 influential British films – a list that Wright forwarded to his friend Quentin Tarantino, prompting the two film-makers to form an unofficial “quarantine movie club” that allowed them to “disappear down a movie rabbit hole” as the world was put on hold.
As Wright says, “Watching the list was like completing a jigsaw puzzle; lesser known films from directors that I was aware of, darker off-beat films from famous studios and most rewardingly, films that might have fallen through the cracks if directors like Martin Scorsese didn’t recommend them. He’s seeing these films objectively and perhaps without some of the snobby baggage that we sometimes attach to films and film-makers from our home country. The very reason I asked him to recommend me some British films was to see what outliers he might stump for. ‘Best of’ lists can very quickly become aggregates and when the same lists get recycled, you realise a whole section of film history is being left behind”.
Now, with the postponed UK release of Last Night in Soho finally imminent, I met Wright in the heart of Soho for a coffee-fuelled early morning chat about the movie ghosts of London. Observer readers will already know that I’m a fan of Wright’s films; I’ve given five-star raves to recent works like the high-speed romance Baby Driver and the musical documentary The Sparks Brothers in these pages. But our paths first crossed when Shaun of the Dead became a comedy-horror hit back in 2004, kick-starting the so-called “Cornetto” trilogy that included Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Over the years, Edgar and I have met many times, with our conversations usually descending into heated discussions about everything from the finest zombie flicks to our favourite film soundtracks. Here’s our Soho chat, followed by Edgar’s exclusive pick for Observer readers of his 10 favourite titles from Scorsese’s list.
Mark Kermode One of the things I loved about Last Night in Soho was the way it captures the idea of two worlds co-existing in the same location. When I first started working in film journalism in London in the late 80s, I remember coming down on the train from Manchester and walking up Wardour Street, and everywhere you looked, every building, you saw nothing but film. You had Rank, Warners, Hammer House, Fox and the BBFC on Soho Square. Of course it’s all changed since then, and now when I walk around Soho I have two versions of it going on simultaneously in my head. Which is, of course, exactly what happens in your movie.
Edgar Wright For me, I’m sort of living in three versions of it at once. There’s the Soho I remember from the 90s when I first moved to London; the Soho as it is now; and also my projection of the Soho that I think I would want to time travel to, having grown up obsessed with 60s culture. I was born in 1974, and like a lot of people I have that “grass-is-greener” idea about the previous decade: wouldn’t it be great if I could go back to Soho in the 60s, and be at those gigs, or go to that club…
MK It’s the same with me, although we’re from different decades. I was born in 1963 and so I was always obsessed with the 50s. Nostalgia is always about the thing that you just missed.
EW It’s why I’m not interested in 80s nostalgia now – because I was there. What’s interesting about Soho for me is that it’s constantly being modernised, even since we shot the movie. But once you look up, the past is still there. The ground floors change but the rest of the buildings don’t. So that building you just mentioned still has the name “Hammer House” written in the stone on the wall. Every time I used to walk down St Anne’s Court, before they put that plaque up, I’d be telling everyone: “This is Trident Studios where they recorded Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and Queen I and II and Hey Jude.” Or: “This back door used to be Gossips, and then before that it was the Mandrake.”
My obsession with the 60s really started with my parents’ record collection, because they had a slim box of albums that began in 1964 with the first Rolling Stones LP, and then seemed to stop dead in 1970. I listened to those albums over and over again as a child, and I imagined the world they came from. So it was really interesting to show the movie to my mum and dad, because I’d remember them having arguments in which my dad would say, “Oh, we saw Jimi Hendrix live”, and my mum would go: “We didn’t see Jimi Hendrix, we saw Pink Floyd.” I’d be amazed and ask: “So what were Pink Floyd like?” And she’d go: “Oh they were awful!” End of conversation.
MK A few years ago – you may remember this – I was taking a group of film students on a walking tour of Soho. My wife, Linda, teaches film at Exeter University, and she’d roped me in to do this. So I was showing them the sights, saying: “This is 20th Century Fox, this is Mr Young’s Screening Rooms (which it hasn’t been called for years), this is the BBFC … and here is world famous film director Edgar Wright!” You just happened to be walking up Dean Street, but it was perfect – as if I’d set the whole thing up!
EW Ha! And yet the odd thing is that Soho really isn’t actually like that most of the time. In fact, when I first went to the States I met so many more of my favourite directors than I’d ever done in the UK. I think I’d seen Mike Leigh in the street once here – and that’s it. But as an aside to that, my co-writer on Last Night in Soho, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, told me that she saw this guy walking through Soho wearing a Last Night in Soho rucksack. She ran up to him to ask where he’d got the rucksack. And it was Terence Stamp!
MK I still find it impossible to walk through Newman Passage (which features in your film) without thinking of the opening of Peeping Tom. For me, Michael Powell’s film is indelibly stamped on that location. Is it the same for you?
EW It’s impossible for me not to think about it. At the start of Last Night in Soho, when Eloise hides from the cab driver in the newsagent’s, that’s the same newsagent that Carl Boehm goes into in Peeping Tom – although I doubt the guys inside know about it. But I’m one of those people that a website like ReelStreets was made for. Every time I watch a British film, I go straight into ReelStreets and see what’s left. One of the things that I wanted to do with Last Night in Soho was to shoot the locations for real, and I think that if we hadn’t been able to do that I probably wouldn’t have made the movie. There’s nothing that’s in Soho in the film that isn’t actually in Soho. Even with the 60s scenes – it’s amazing what you can pull off within the frame, when just outside the frame the modern world is right there. There’s a scene where Matt Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy come out of the Rialto club, and they’re standing in an empty Greek Street. I remember watching that back and thinking: ‘Wow, even though that’s the real Greek Street dressed as the 60s, you could be looking at a set from Expresso Bongo or something.” And literally just out of shot there were people getting thrown out of clubs and having fights with bouncers.
MK I think that’s what makes movie locations interesting – particularly movies that have a cult following. You mentioned seeing Mike Leigh in the street – there’s a Mike Leigh season happening at the BFI, so I did a walking tour of the locations of Nuts in May. I took a tape recorder and went to Lulworth Cove and Corfe Castle, and even though the world has moved on since then, it was weirdly magical – as if the movie was still playing out there right now. And to this day, film-lovers still make the pilgrimage to that cliffhead in Dumfries and Galloway, where the stumps of the legs from The Wicker Man stood for some time. Even though there’s a caravan park right next to it, that spot will forever be The Wicker Man. It’s as if the film has imprinted itself on to the landscape.
EW That idea of imprinting is really interesting. My mum is very supernaturally switched on, like Eloise in the movie. In fact, I took some inspiration from her. She’s the kind of person who feels presences in rooms – you know, in any old building she feels the presences of previous inhabitants. When I was growing up in Somerset, part of the house that we lived in was from the 1600s. And my mum had seen the ghosts of two separate inhabitants in our house, and she talked to me and my brother about it in a very matter of fact fashion. As a horror film fan, I was actually envious that my mum had seen a ghost and I hadn’t. But you know, there are two theories about ghosts. One of them is the more traditional approach in which souls are left on earth with unfinished business, so they cannot go to heaven or hell. And then there’s what I think of as The Stone Tape theory, where a psychic residue is left behind by an event. I love that idea. And it’s not just bad things. In Last Night in Soho, there’s a scene where Pauline McLynn, who plays the manager of the Toucan pub, says: “If this place is haunted, it’s haunted by the good times.”
MK This all touches on something that I think is at the heart of all your films. Your movies are like love letters to cinema. With Baby Driver, you and I talked about all the car movies that had influenced you, from The French Connection to The Blues Brothers; Shaun of the Dead was a homage to the films of George Romero; Hot Fuzz is filled with references to Tony Scott and 80s action cinema. Your films are all haunted by the ghosts of other films. And it’s interesting that cinema itself started as a way of conjuring ghosts – of creating phantasmagoria in circus side-shows. In fact, when the earliest movies were exhibited, audiences were both fascinated and appalled by the idea that they could capture the moving image of a person that would persist even after they died. So the medium of cinema itself has always been tied up with ghosts. And maybe the reason Last Night in Soho feels like the culmination of everything you’ve done is that being in love with cinema is really being in love with ghosts.
EW There’s some truth in that. And it’s also about dreams – particularly the way that a dream can turn into a nightmare. I remember reading a book called Hammer Glamour. It was a coffee table book with all the Hammer actresses, and all their publicity shots. I was leafing through it and I was really struck by the fact that in maybe a quarter of the biographies, these lives had ended in some terrible tragedy. With Soho, I can’t walk around the streets without thinking about that sort of thing. And in the movie, the true nightmare for me is that Eloise gets the dream come true – to go back to the Soho of the 60s. But then the nightmare is that she’s not a time traveller like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. She can’t do anything that will change the future; disaster cannot be averted, no matter how much she wants to stop it. And this relates again to nostalgia – if I have a recurring fantasy about going back to the 60s, I do have to stop and think; Why am I doing this? Is it a failure to deal with the present day?
MK Well, as someone who is obsessed with nostalgia, I’d have to say: “Yes – that’s exactly what it is.” But I’m also thinking now about one my own favourite British movies; Lionel Jeffries’s The Amazing Mr Blunden. It’s based on a beautiful 1969 novel by Antonia Barber, and it’s a ghost story in which the past and present are involved in some strange form of conversation, which is the ultimate fantasy. Mark Gatiss [who has a voice cameo in Last Night in Soho] just directed a new version of it. And obviously there’s a thematic link between Mr Blunden and Philippa Pearce’s much-filmed book Tom’s Midnight Garden – which is another text that I think looms large over your movie.
EW You know what, I’ve never read the book, but I remember the BBC adaptation really well. I saw it as a kid. And it’s really funny that you should bring this up, because when Christopher Nolan saw the trailer for Last Night in Soho, I spoke to him on the phone and he said: “Wow, it looks like a cross between Peeping Tom and Tom’s Midnight Garden.” Only two people have ever made that connection; he was the first person, you were the second. But when he said it, all I could think was: “Chris, I can’t believe you’ve missed the thing that’s staring you right in the face – Peeping Tom’s Midnight Garden!
Edgar Wright on his top 10 from Martin Scorsese’s list of British film gems
Anthony Asquith, 1928
When people were making silent movies, it was as if they knew no limit in terms of scope or ambition. It’s staggering. Underground is a love story set on London’s tube network. Watching it now, you think, “There’s just so much location work on this movie!” Cinema itself was in its infancy and yet they’re shooting on the London underground. And at the same time, silent movies all around the world were creating shots that would then be ripped off for ever. With Last Night in Soho I tried to break the mould, do things that you shouldn’t be doing, but in the days of silent cinema people justdidn’t know what they couldn’t do.
Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942
Cavalcanti’s work on Dead of Night and They Made Me a Fugitive had really struck me, but strangely I hadn’t seen Went the Day Well? before I made Hot Fuzz, despite the fact that it’s a rural semi-action film (about an English village taken over by German paratroopers) in which Thora Hird wields a machine gun. It’s really dark. On paper, some older British movies may sound sort of twee and cosy, yet they’re anything but. That was the real revelation for me, especially with Ealing films like this, or Nowhere to Go, It Always Rains on Sunday, and Pink String and Sealing Wax. This is the darker side of Ealing. Most of the studio stuff in Last Night in Soho was shot at Ealing. Thinking about all the films that were shot there was a bit overwhelming.
Thorold Dickinson, 1949
The only film I’d seen by Thorold Dickinson before this was his version of Gaslight. Then I saw Queen of Spades and I was knocked out by it. It’s an adaptation of a Pushkin story about a Russian soldier who becomes obsessed with a card game and an elderly countess who strikes a deal with the devil to win at it. In terms of execution it’s up there with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. It is so beautifully made. I was really taken aback by that. It made me feel humble that I didn’t know more about him. I wasn’t even aware of Welwyn Studios, and I made a film in Welwyn Garden. How did I not know about this?
Terence Fisher, 1952
Until I saw Scorsese’s list I did not know Terence Fisher’s work before The Curse of Frankenstein. Stolen Face really stood out for me – the story of a plastic surgeon who reconstructs a patient’s face in the image of the woman he loves, it felt like the missing link between Eyes Without a Face and The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar must be a fan of Stolen Face. I’m not a film historian, but I think there’s a younger generation that probably have no knowledge of these British noir films.
Basil Dearden, 1959
Basil Dearden is one of those directors, like Bryan Forbes, whose somewhat stuffy reputation really is not matched by their films. Dearden had made some extremely cutting-edge films for their time, like Victim and The Blue Lamp. Sapphire is a really strong film, about an investigation into the death of a mixed-race woman, which was tackling issues [of racism] few other British films were doing at that time. Like Peeping Tom, it features real locations in west London, shot in Eastmancolor with that kind of extreme expressionistic lighting which makes things more colourful than they would have appeared to the naked eye. Sapphire and Peeping Tom are both very dark movies, and yet the choice of colour makes them so seductive.
John Gilling, 1960
This is the best film about Burke and Hare, the Scottish murderers who sold bodies of their victims for anatomical research, and though I’d seen films like The Body Snatcher, The Doctor and the Devils, and John Landis’s Burke & Hare, I hadn’t seen The Flesh and the Fiends before I got Scorsese’s list. It’s really strong because it’s played pretty much as a drama. Donald Pleasence is so scary, as is Peter Cushing. It’s also one of Billie Whitelaw’s early screen roles, and I’d directed her final film role in Hot Fuzz. She’s so heartbreaking in this, and I felt rather bereft that I had never asked her about it.
Jack Clayton, 1961
Based on The Turn of the Screw, his is one of those films in which the moments you remember – the scariest ones – are actually on screen very briefly. Like the mid-shot of the ghost in the reeds by the edge of the lake. That shot lasts only a few seconds, yet it’s burned into your synapses. Jack Clayton didn’t want to shoot it in CinemaScope but Fox insisted, so [cinematographer] Freddie Francis made these kind of chiaroscuro shots in which the corners of the frame are filled with darkness. What’s so striking about The Innocents is how quietly scary it is; how powerfully transgressive it is without ever saying it out loud.
Jonathan Miller, 1968
This – an adaptation of an MR James ghost story set on the East Anglian coast – is one I’d missed but had heard so much about. Then when it was on the Scorsese list, I already had the BFI Ghost Stories box set so I watched it straight away. There are TV films where certain images stay with people for ever, and if I’d seen that image of the sheet, or whatever it is, blowing on the beach as a child it would have haunted me. It feels like a cursed image – and again it’s only on screen very briefly. It almost feels like you’re watching a visual poem.
Peter Newbrook, 1972
I leapt with joy to see this on the list because The Asphyx was one of those movies that for years I thought only my brother and I had ever seen! I’d seen it late at night on ITV and felt like I had imagined the movie. It has a particularly amazing premise where scientists realise that they can capture the soul leaving a dead body. So they start to capture souls from the gallows, and then they have the souls of murderers caught in this kind of pre-Ghostbusters trap. I absolutely love it. It’s steam punk before steam punk; this idea of Victorian science-fiction. In the pre-internet age. It was one of those movies that you’d thought you had imagined after eating too much cheese. You saw it in your dreams.
This horror about paranormal investigators spending the week in a haunted mansion is one I’d seen before and I was pleased to see it on the list because John Hough is a very underrated director. He has a really interesting in-your-face style, whether it’s here or on something like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Legend of Hell House essentially takes the opposite approach to The Innocents. The Innocents is quiet and restrained whereas The Legend of Hell House is like getting hit round the head with a brick.