Edgar Wright: What makes the perfect car chase?

Cult director Edgar Wright speeds through his favourite car chase movies and reveals how they influenced his souped-up action thriller Baby Driver.

Lou Thomas
Updated:

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright has a formidable reputation for mashing up film genres in restlessly entertaining fashion. His micro-budget feature debut, A Fistful of Fingers (1995), slammed comedy and the western together, while the deservedly adored cult-classic-in-the-making Shaun of the Dead (2004) hilariously shunted a zombie apocalypse into a north London romcom. Hot Fuzz (2007) sprinkled folk horror on a buddy cop action film, and the writer-director’s underrated graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) felt like a videogame adaptation colliding with a US mumblecore indie – albeit with style to burn and better jokes.

In making action heist movie Baby Driver, Wright has also arguably reinvented the musical. The film follows prodigiously talented young getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) as he ferries criminals, including Bats (a deliciously evil Jamie Foxx) and Buddy (a typically suave Jon Hamm), from score to safety for slick gangster Doc (Kevin Spacey). All to pay off a long-standing debt.

Baby listens to a constant soundtrack in his headphones to drown out the tinnitus he’s had since a childhood accident, and viewers get to hear it all, from Martha and the Vandellas to Boards of Canada. Wright himself had tinnitus as a child, and he’s as musically passionate as his surrogate. He says: “I am someone who is very motivated by music, uses music in every part of their life and sometimes gets very obsessive over music.”

Watch the Baby Driver trailer

The film features 35 fine tracks, with Wright’s favourite childhood band Queen again at the fore (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was memorably used during a snooker-cue pummelling in Shaun of the Dead, while Queen are also briefly heard in Scott Pilgrim). ‘Bellbottoms’, by his adult faves The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, accompanies the film’s start – one of the year’s most exciting opening scenes.

Heists, thumping soundtracks and fast cars have been staples of action cinema since there have been ill-gotten gains worth getting away with. On a stifling Sunday evening in the middle of a rare British heatwave, Wright catches his breath to tell us what makes a great car chase movie.

The stakes

“The stakes need to be very clear and very vivid. That’s why The French Connection (1971) is always brought up as one of the greatest ones. Popeye Doyle commandeers a car because the other guy’s on a train, so it’s out of necessity. Then you’ve got a great car chase where it’s car versus train. It’s not like they’re just tooling around in their cars and then a car chase starts.

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

“That’s kind of how Bullitt (1968) starts. Frank Bullitt is being tailed, and then he decides to lose them. It is an iconic sequence. A lot of the best car chases look well shot, spatially correct, with geographically clear action.

The Blues Brothers (1980) would be another example, because they have to get to the court offices before a particular time, and they’ve got the money – their winnings from the concert – so things are linked together. It’s quite schematic in that movie.”

The vehicle

“There are a lot of films where you remember the car as much as you remember the lead actor. Vanishing Point (1971) would be an obvious one, where you remember the white Challenger. In The Blues Brothers it’s such a great idea that they’ve got a second-hand police car and they’re chased by all the police at the end.

Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point (1971)

“In Baby Driver I tried to do a thing that most bank robbers would do themselves: use more nondescript cars. Most bank robbers are not going to use vintage muscle cars or very expensive sports cars, because they’re going to switch and ditch them.

“What I don’t care for much, which you get a lot in contemporary car chase movies, is where the baddies and the goodies are driving the same thing. In one movie – I won’t mention any names – the goodies and the baddies both drive around in black Audis and you can’t really tell who’s who.

Death Proof (2007)

Death Proof (2007)

“In Death Proof (2007), the Quentin Tarantino film, that’s very striking because the hero’s in a white Challenger, the baddie in a black Charger and it’s immediately clear and iconic. I don’t like it in contemporary movies where you can’t really track the action as much, because the cars might be top of the range, but they might not be that memorable to look at.”

The driver

Ryan O’Neal in The Driver (1978) is the classic strong, silent type – a movie archetype that goes further back past Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (1967) or Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942), the professional who doesn’t talk much but has a code. On the flipside, Frank Bullitt is a cop, Popeye Doyle is a cop.

The Driver (1978)

The Driver (1978)

“There are other getaway drivers that pop up in my head. I always like Ron Leibman in The Hot Rock (1972), because he’s a real livewire and a crazy person. Gary Busey in Straight Time (1978) is a memorable getaway driver: he panics and leaves them at the site of the crime, which is a great sequence. Then he pays for that later.”

LT: There don’t seem to be many women drivers in chase films.

“I remember Elmore Leonard telling a story about Mr. Majestyk (1974) during a Q&A at the BFI. In that film, Charles Bronson stands on the back of a pickup truck and his girlfriend is driving. Apparently Charles Bronson said at the time: ‘I would never do that’. And they said: ‘You’d never stand on the back of a pickup truck?’ He replied: ‘No, I would never let a woman drive.’ That’s obviously extremely sexist. Hopefully things have become more progressive.

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver (2017)

“If they did a sequel to Baby Driver I’d like to expand the drivers in it. I’m sure Furiosa drives at some point in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). That’s an incredible character. At the end of the first chase scene in Baby Driver they switch drivers, which is something that real bank robbers actually do. That’s a way of avoiding police detection. They have an ID on a male driver and another car goes past and it’s a woman driver, and they said: ‘Oh it can’t be them.’

“In South Central LA there was this wave of crimes by a group called the Bay Bandits who used to go in and steam banks in the mid-1990s. A lot of the time they would use women drivers to avoid suspicion.”

The music

“There was a bit of dialogue in one of the drafts for Baby Driver that didn’t make it into the film, where they were talking about playing the chase music from Bullitt and somebody then pointed out there is no chase music in Bullitt, just the sound of the engines and the squealing – that’s all the music you need. First there’s a Lalo Schifrin cue called ‘Shifting Gears’: it builds up, and the chase kicks off.

Watch the classic car chase in Bullitt (1968)

“I always think about Quincy Jones’s score in The Italian Job (1969). ‘It’s Caper Time’ is an incredible cue. In Vanishing Point, another influence on Baby Driver, there’s a psychedelic rock track playing during the car chases, and in The Blues Brothers the whole of the end chase is set to ‘Sweet Home Chicago’.”

The location

“A lot of great car chases make great use of their city. Obviously Bullitt and the hills of San Francisco are etched in your memory forever, like The French Connection with the elevated train in New York, like The Blues Brothers right in the middle of Chicago on Lower Wacker Drive.

The Blues Brothers (1980)

The Blues Brothers (1980)

“Baby Driver was originally written for Los Angeles; then for production reasons we moved to Atlanta, but it turned out to be really good because there hadn’t really been a Georgia car chase movie since Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

“Nobody had really used downtown Atlanta for a chase, so I think we’re the first film to shoot a car chase on the I-85 (the main interstate in Atlanta), which was probably the most complicated thing we did in the whole movie.

“I know some people who live in Atlanta and have seen the movie and they’re very happy with how we used the city. If you can, you should try to make iconic use of your location.”

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