Having worked with Edgar Wright on several films before his groundbreaking Baby Driver, editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos were well-acquainted with the director’s love of true cinematic experiences, as well as his audacity and desire to use every tool at his disposal to tell his stories.
While Wright has pushed his own limits and those of his collaborators on each subsequent film, Baby Driver presented perhaps the grandest challenge to date in the form of a heist film choreographed, beat-for-beat, to music. But with the assistance of his editors, Wright’s film became a well-oiled machine, improbably seamless and stunning in its execution. A jigsaw puzzle of a production with many moving parts, Baby Driver involved bespoke sound playback systems on set, on-set choreographers, and a high degree of precision, meaning that the story of the production is as compelling and unique as the film itself.
Speaking with Deadline, the Baby Driver editors outline every step and innovation involved in crafting an audio-visual experience unlike any before.
How did you come to be a part of Baby Driver?
Paul Machliss: It had actually been a long-running thing for me. I’d spent the best part of five years working with Edgar on prep work for the film before we even shot a frame. Sometime around November 2011, we’d put together a playlist of music and sequenced it. We then embellished that with a table read that Edgar had done in Los Angeles in 2012, and combined the dialogue from the table read with the music and sound effects. We ended up with almost a 100-minute radio play that Edgar used to play to executives and things, so they could literally hear the whole film, how it would more or less sound and feel.
The concept was that as you read the script and you realized what was going to be required, you knew you were in for—if you’ll pardon the pun—quite a ride. Even in an editorial sense, because Edgar has always done stuff musically, kinetically linking music and pictures on his projects, but never to this kind of extent.
So even though we had known about it on-and-off for a number of years, once it actually started, it still didn’t really prepare you. Once you actually got out there and began working on it, you realized how ambitious it actually was.
Jonathan Amos: I’ve worked with Paul and Edgar for quite a few years, so it was something I was always aware of, and it was always kind of a dream to get involved with this project. At one point, it looked like it’d just be one editor, but thankfully, they managed to get both of us on board.
Edgar’s quite a unique director—I don’t think many other directors think about cinema in such a complicated or planned way.
Given the extreme logistical complexity of this project, were either of you on set during production?
Machliss: I was in Atlanta from January through May. I came on board for about a month before the shoot and assisted with the final round of animatics, which Edgar had spent a number of months the previous year working on with quite a good editor in Los Angeles, Evan Schiff.
It was just myself out there for the shoot. This whole thing of being on set every day was a unique approach that we built in bits and pieces since the Scott Pilgrim re-shoots. For Baby Driver, I needed to be sure that music and dialogue and action and all the little things that he wanted to set in motion all, more or less, fell into place.
Sound couldn’t have been more fundamental to this project. What was the process of working with sound in the edit?
Amos: First of all, the script itself was an incredible thing to read. Initially, it came with a CD, and then in the next version of the script, it was actually on an iPad application—the music of the film was embedded into specific lines where it was supposed to be played, and within the words, certain key moments in the song would be indicated. So when you were reading the script, it was already an audio-visual experience. I’ve never read anything quite like it before, and I dare say I never will again.
Edgar always works in a very detailed way with sound, and sound is always a key part to the way that he sees images in film relating to each other.
Machliss: A lot of where the action was going to sync in with the music, Edgar had decided months, even years, before, and of course, we used a very talented choreographer, Ryan Heffington, on set, which was interesting. You think of a choreographer and you think, “Right, dance routines,” but in actual fact, Ryan was also helping out with the way people walk into a room, or at what speed they put down a coffee cup, or pick up this, or press that. It all fell into a kind of rhythmic theme.
The challenge was to not make it look a 100-minute music video, where everything is completely sunk up. It’s a feature film—it’s not a musical—but the whole thing is guided by music. Even in dialogue scenes, we always had the music running in the background. The actors had the music in earwigs, and there was always a propulsion on the set for actors to be at certain marks at certain points.
Although, once again, you don’t want to make it look robotic. The trick is to make it feel natural, which is where editing on set helps. You could actually shunt shots around so they would fall to the beat. You, as an editor, could then try and work into the rhythm of the track that was playing.
It seems like you must have called on various kinds of audio playback depending on the needs of the scene.
Machliss: Oh absolutely. Very early on, with the first dialogue scene in Bo’s Diner, Edgar said, “I’d love to have the music running in my headphones all the time. I’d love for the actors to hear the music in their earpieces, but I’d love to be able to take the music in and out of their earpieces so it doesn’t interfere with their performances.”
We very quickly had to scramble this system with all of these sub-mixes going on, so we could do a mix for Edgar, a mix for the actors, and a mix for myself, which could strip out the music and just have the dialogue, because I had the music running on a couple tracks on the Avid system, and I needed that clean.
But once we got into the routine, there were scenes where we actually played it back [through on-set speakers]. For the “Tequila” fight, we had it blaring out of this huge venue we were in, and it was great because it always helped generate an atmosphere. You always felt the heartbeat of the music during filming. We just had to invent these slightly bespoke setups to allow us to achieve that.
The film’s chase sequences involved a great number of moving parts. How did you go about piecing those together?
Amos: You can choreograph a lot to the music beforehand. A lot of the stunts and things like that would actually be tested for whether they would fit into a certain time frame of the music, and if they didn’t fit, they would go off and re-shoot them, and redesign the stunts so it did fit into that piece of action.
There were certain bits which were very tightly choreographed, but you don’t really take into consideration, when you’re doing pre-vis and animatics, what the characters are doing, and the characters are inherent parts of these action stories, as well.
Particularly with the “Bellbottoms” scene, that scene is all about how the other characters are seeing Baby’s driving. This young kid literally is blowing their minds, and it’s when you start building in all those extra elements that suddenly, there’s a surplus of material. You’d have to try and find a way to cram all of these little details in and not lose sight of the characters, the action, the pursuers. It’s a really tight, complicated jigsaw to put together. It looks so syncopated and seamless. In actual fact, I don’t know how many cuts are in “Bellbottoms,” but it was so tightly frame edited.
What is the process on an Edgar Wright film of finessing performances through the cut?
Machliss: Edgar and I spent a long time working together on those kinds of moments. You do an assemble edit and look for the best things in order to make the scene work, and flag up any kinds of issues, but it’s the kind of thing where you try all options, basically.
What is great is that even though the dialogue scenes are storyboarded and there are certain shots that Edgar wants to hit at certain points, he’s very much open to the idea of you and him working to get the best comedy out of the scene, the best drama out of the scene. If that means taking days and days to go over a 40-second scene, that’s what it entails because you do want to try all kinds of permutations.
It’s a slow process, but I think when you watch it back, you’re not aware of that. That’s the beauty of it—the scenes just have a natural feeling of fluidity, which belies the amount of painstaking work they take.
Which were the toughest scenes to crack in Baby Driver?
Machliss: The big one was the “Brighton Rock” scene at the end—the big car chase to the multistory car park. You look at it and it was a combination of, “It’s great, but maybe it could be better if it was a little bit shorter.” It’s easy to say that and less easy to actually do that.
After a couple of pre-vis screenings, we also thought the audience needed one more big “Yes!” moment, that feeling that evil has been avenged. So when we went back to do some pick-ups, we thought we would just embellish the very end of that sequence.
Edgar actually orchestrated a fantastic ending, which immediately raised the end of that moment up a good couple of notches, and I would say that was the bit we tinkered with the longest. Because of course, at the end of the day, you are still trying to make a sequence which is sunk to music. It’s got to be grounded rhythmically. In an ordinary film, you would’ve cut four or five shots out. Well, you can do that, but then the whole thing falls out of sync. It drifts. So how do you combine shifting the music, shifting the pictures, but still keeping the integral premise of the film of things being synchronized to music?