Edgar Wright on Ghosts, Musicals, and Last Night in Soho

Exclusive: Edgar Wright looks back on his career and how being “the country mouse” has finally led to his first chilling horror movie, Last Night in Soho.

Edgar Wright and Anya Taylor-Joy on Last Night in Soho
Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

Edgar Wright is trying to cure himself. That’s how the writer-director describes his latest movie Last Night in Soho: a cure for the nostalgia that’s followed him all his life, and which still causes him to daydream against his better judgment about 1960s London as if it were a golden age.

“I have this recurring time travel fantasy about the idea of going back,” Wright says with the air of a confession. “But I think it’s always that thing, this nagging fear that it’s probably a really bad idea.”

It’s a surprising admission for a filmmaker who has spent his career often looking to the past in order to find something new and clever to say about our present. After all, Wright’s breakthrough was directing the game-changing British sitcom Spaced, which featured so many references and nods to the movies he loved that the show’s DVD introduced the “Homage-o-Meter” bonus feature. And his early cinematic achievements in the Cornetto Trilogy—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End—are nothing if not love letters to the genres that inspired him and co-writer Simon Pegg.

That sense of always being aware of the history of things weighs on Wright, even as he appears happy and relaxed when we meet on an August afternoon. He’s at the tail-end of the UK rollout for his new music documentary The Sparks Brothers, and the filmmaker is relieved to just be out of his flat and in a London hotel room (in the Soho district, of course). Sitting 90 seconds from his home down the street, the director is taken back to both better and stranger days in this neighborhood, including when he decided to set his first psychological horror movie there.

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In Last Night in Soho, audiences follow Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman who has come to London with starry eyes for what the big city was like back in the day. Unfortunately, her reveries take a more insidious turn once she actually travels to the tumultuous ’60s decade, shadowing a mysterious lounge singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) toward dark places.

Looking back now, Wright is swept up in the excitement he found in shutting down whole streets and redressing them like their seedier glory days while Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith zip by in mod attire. He’s also haunted by the evenings when he found the courage to return there during lockdown, becoming affected by the sudden silence of the district and memories of friends who were recently lost, including ’60s luminary Dame Diana Rigg. (In fact, a week after our interview, longtime collaborator and Scott Pilgrim stunt coordinator Brad Allan would also pass away.)

“It was completely and utterly deserted, which added an extra poignancy to it,” Wright says. “And there’s another separate part of it that’s bittersweet and elegiac in a way. Soho is rapidly changing. Some of those buildings with ghosts in them, they’re just going forever, which is very sad.” Clearly such spirits walk beside Wright, be it in his wistful comedies or serious ghost stories. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity, about those shades.

In Last Night in Soho, a character says, “This is London. Someone’s died in every room and on every street corner.” Is that something you think about when you’re walking around town?

Oh, my God! I mean that character says it because I believe it. This specifically is to say there are buildings in London that are hundreds of years old, of which most of Soho is like. That’s the thing that inspired the movie, really. I’ve been in London for 25 years. I’ve spent most of that time working in Soho. I’ve probably spent more time in Soho than I have in some couches in flats that I’ve been in. Because I’ve written there, I’ve edited movies there. Nearly all of the movies I’ve done, even the American and Canadian ones, have been edited in Soho. I’ve just spent an enormous amount of time there. It’s also an entertainment district, so there’s restaurants and bars, and cinemas. 

But it’s also that thing where, even now, it is on the border of a darker side of the underworld, which is still there in contemporary Soho in plain sight. And then going back, when I first moved to London, that side of life was a lot more prevalent, and then if you go back to the ‘60s, even more so. It’s not necessarily always a great place to be, and I guess that’s the point of the movie: that there is a danger of romanticizing the past, and obviously the ‘60s is a decade to get totally obsessed with, and I certainly am in terms of having grown up with my parents’ record collection, which was predominantly ‘60s records.

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You can’t help but think when you go to London, “Oh my God, the swinging ‘60s and Soho, and film and fashion and music!” But of course there was a darker side to the place. And I guess that’s what the movie ultimately is: a cautionary tale for time travelers. Like, if you could go back, should you?

Diana Rigg has a wonderful role in this. What was it like working with her and also having her as a resource on a project like this?

I was just really lucky to get to work with her and get to know her, and I guess call her a friend. Because after we’d filmed and before the lockdown, I saw her a number of times or called her on the phone. I mean all through the early lockdown, I would be calling Rita Tushingham [who also appears in the movie] and Diana Rigg and just chatting, and talking about old movies.

In terms of a resource, that would be true of Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, and Diana Rigg. All people who have got an incredible body of work, and obviously all three of them started essentially in the ‘60s. I mean Rita Tushingham, who plays Thomasin’s grandmother, was 18 when she shot Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey. She was the same age as Thomasin McKenzie was shooting Last Night in Soho. So the idea of her playing the grandmother—I couldn’t think of anybody better to play this part. Also Thomasin, before shooting, I think she’d already met Rita once and then she watched A Taste of Honey and she said, “Ah that film is so great but now I’m starstruck by Rita!”

So as a resource, it is really interesting, because obviously they have amazing stories to tell. But there’s another thing that I think is a microcosm of the movie itself. There are ways that I’m like Eloise. There are moments in the film where Eloise, in a puppyish sort of way, is talking very excitedly about the decade to somebody who was there. And I’ve done that to people, whether it be actors or people in a film, where you’re going, “Oh wow, the ‘60s must have been so cool, right?” And I feel like the answer from them is always, Yes… dot, dot, dot. There’s always a dot, dot, dot, because yes, great things happened but also terrible things happened, as well. 

These older actors are the living memory of that era, but you also have Anya and Thomasin channeling it for a new generation. Why was it important for you to enter this era through a female gaze?

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There’s that one element where all of my movies have featured young males, and you have to challenge yourself in your career and write slightly outside of what you know. Just writing what you know all the time is not very progressive or challenging, ultimately… Also there are a lot of movies of that time that are not horror movies or psychological thrillers, but dramas of the ‘60s, and they’re cautionary tales about girls coming to London. I think what a lot of those movies were was the old guard slapping the young generation on the wrist, as if to say, “How dare you come to London and make it big?” There are a lot of moralistic films made around that time. There are some very good ones and there are a lot of ones that are of a genre that seem like they’re wagging their finger, and I always found those films quite fascinating. 

So that part of the story of Soho is to show us a different version of one of those films told in parallel decades. That you see Thomasin coming to London in the modern day, and you see Anya coming to London trying to make it big in the ‘60s.

Do you think about how Eloise’s London is different from the London Shaun moves through in Shaun of the Dead?

Well, not that there’s much that you could join the dots between the two, but Shaun is in his late 20s, living in the suburbs, and at the point when you meet Shaun in the movie, he’s clearly been around there for a long time. So he’s quite comfortable, nigh complacent, in where he lives. I think the thing is, coming to London for the first time, like any big city, is a very lonely experience. I mean, where are you?

New York. And I’m not from New York originally.

So I’m sure moving to New York is very similar to coming to London. When you first get there, it’s really forbidding. It was the same for me. I’m from the country. I’m from where Hot Fuzz is shot in Somerset, and when I came to London [in the mid-’90s], it’s that thing where we even used the term in the movie, it’s like country mouse. One of the mean girls at fashion college calls Thomasin country mouse, and I remember reading that book, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, when I was a kid. And I remember when I was going to London, I was like, “Ah, I’m the Country Mouse.” [Laughs]  Because I do not belong here, or even if you don’t belong, it’s like with any big city, you have to find your own way in and you have to let the city open up to you.

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Some people never have that experience. I’m sure you have friends as well that come to the city and never get in sync with it and leave. When you find your place in the city, sometimes it’s really hard won. So I’m not Eloise, and I’ve never been an 18 year old fashion student, but I certainly had a very similar experience to her coming to London and feeling totally out of place, totally outpaced by everybody. And Krysty [Wilson-Cairns], who co-wrote the screenplay with me, is from Scotland and she came to London. It’s a very powerful thing when you come to the big city and you’re not from here.

Do you think that this experience you had when you first came to London is why you have made so many stories like Spaced or Scott Pilgrim, or even Shaun, where young people feel aimless in the world?

I guess so. You’ll never not be the kid from the country. It’s a powerful thing, and it’s something that—I don’t know. That’s a good question.

Yet, unlike many of those characters, you knew what you wanted to do since you were 14.

Yeah, and whatever the quality level of my first film, A Fistful of Fingers… I realized after the fact I’m really glad that I made it in Somerset and then came to London. Because then I always had this weird calling card in terms of, even if it was a slightly kitschy thing, it’s like, “Hey, this kid, he made a Western in Somerset!” Now it may not have been a great film. It got a good review in Variety. Empire gave it one star. So opinion on it is mixed. But the thing is that because I did it in my hometown and then came to London, I had sort of done something outside of London.

I think if I had come to London without having made anything and tried to make it in the film business, now you’re one of tens of thousands of people who want to be a film director… That can be really tough. I think it’s always a thing that I’ve given advice to younger filmmakers: If you can make a film on your own patch first, it can be more powerful.

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You’ve mentioned on social media being enamored as a child with posters for movies like Alien and Friday the 13th, and your parents would say “no,” leaving them to your imagination. Do you feel like that forbidden nature influenced your tastes?

Yes, absolutely. There’s something where you start to imagine what those films might be like. And sometimes they live up to your imagination and sometimes what’s in your imagination is more powerful. That particularly became the case with the VHS mania, when there were video libraries everywhere. My parents didn’t have a VCR. They sort of refused to buy a VCR. So I didn’t actually have one in the house until I was in my late teens when I could pay for it myself. 

Prior to that though, I remember very distinctly when I was maybe 10 years old going into a video store that was around the corner from my house. And I’d usually go in the afternoon when it was empty, and just look at the covers and the back covers of 18-rated videos. I’d be looking at the cover of Brian de Palma’s Body Double, and just trying to imagine what the film was like from the poster image and the little stills on the back, and maybe what the synopsis said.

Then occasionally there are movies from that period where I’ve never seen the movie, and I realize it would be better not to see the movie, because I’m not sure it could ever live up to the cover art. Like I remember specifically being quite obsessed, aged 10, with a film called Zone Troopers, which is, I discover now, directed by Rachel Bilson’s dad, Danny Bilson! But I just remember seeing that poster, and it’s got an alien pointing, saying, “Your universe needs you!” and “Zone Troopers.” I never saw the movie and it’s probably not a good time to start now, but as a 10 year old, I’m thinking, “Woah, what is that movie?!”

What did your parents think of your genre interests, particularly as they continued into your adult professional life?

They knew that my brother and I were both very interested in genre movies, and I think we had kind of tried to convince them on a number of levels [that genre is great]. I mean, long before I knew that I wanted to be a director, I definitely knew I wanted to do something in film, and there was definitely, like with a lot of kids, an early obsession with makeup. There are films where those things are more acceptable as a kid, where Star Wars has the cantina sequence or Raiders of the Lost Ark has the whole ending with Nazis melting. And then other things are more illicit. My Mum and Dad are well aware that me and my brother would really like to see Alien, really like to see The Thing, really like to see American Werewolf in London, but can’t.

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Then I think it was when I was 10 years old that An American Werewolf in London was shown on network TV for the first time. I managed to convince my parents to let me stay up and watch it, and they acquiesced, and they let me and my brother watch it until midway through that dream sequence with the Nazi monsters. When they slit David Naughton’s throat, my Mum was like, “Okay, that’s it. Bed.” So I didn’t see the rest of the film for another three years after that! I had terrible nightmares because I never saw the story resolve. I really did, I’m not kidding around! I really had terrible nightmares because I never saw the resolution of the story.

I don’t think the resolution would’ve prevented the nightmares.

That’s true! [Laughs]

You’ve been described in the press as the ultimate film nerd fanboy. Do you like that title?

I mean, it depends how it’s used. If it’s used as an insult then, sure, I’d rather not. But in terms of, am I a fan of cinema? Of course. Like you could use the word enthusiast. It doesn’t really annoy me. I guess it only sort of is a thing where people assume that means I only like a certain type of movie, which is not true. I like all types of movies. And certainly in recent years, I’ve gravitated away from what people might think is more like the comic book nerd kind of movie, just because a lot of it tires me out to be honest. I mean, weirdly enough, I just saw James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad this weekend and I thought, “Oh, that’s the first comic book movie in quite a long time that I actually enjoyed.”

But there’s a certain type of movie that I feel like I’ve grown out of for the most part, and certainly in terms of the things that I watch. I try and watch a bit of everything. In fact in the pandemic, for the start of it, for like the first five months where nobody was going to work or couldn’t do anything, I decided to make a dent into my long list of films that I’d never seen, which had an enormous breadth to it in terms of the types of movies I was watching. And it was an amazing experience to sort of get through some of these films on the list of things that I had never seen.

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I read your list of everything you watched in lockdown, and saw a movie on there which I thought about while watching Last Night in Soho: Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Was that intentional?

Yeah, I’m a big fan of Bob Fosse full-stop, and actually just before the pandemic, they had a musical season at the BFI in London, and they had a triple bill of Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and All That Jazz, and I think I hadn’t seen any of them on the big screen actually. So I took my choreographer from [Last Night in Soho], Jenn White, and I said, “What are you doing on Sunday?” She said, “Why?” I said, “Let’s watch the three Bob Fosse films in a row!”

I love Sweet Charity, as well, and there’s a poster of Sweet Charity in Eloise’s bedroom at the start of [Soho]. And not just the Sweet Charity movie poster with Shirley MacLaine but also a photo of Judi Dench playing the character on the West End production of Sweet Charity.

In Baby Driver, you wrote into the script the songs you planned to shoot and edit the scenes to. Is that something you continued then with Eloise’s love of ‘60s music here?

Last Night in Soho was similar to Baby Driver in the sense that I had specific songs worked out for specific scenes. And in a lot of cases in the way that I write, especially with Baby Driver and Last Night in Soho, the song in some ways inspires the scene. Maybe not in terms of what’s happening in it story wise, but the rhythm of it or even the length of it. 

So there’s one song in the movie in the first dream sequence, the Graham Bond Organisation version of “Wade in the Water,” and sometimes it’s like this movie, which I’ve had in my head for 10 years. Sometimes I’ve had those songs connected with the movie for that long. If they come up again, like maybe you’re working on something else and you hear that song and you’re like, “Ah, I’ve got to make Last Night in Soho!” So I know what this scene is. 

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Because the film is set in the ‘60s, I zeroed in on a particular period and a particular type of song. The majority of them were by female singers. And a lot of them I feel have, even if they’re pop-y, they kind of have a melancholic edge to them in the lyrics. That’s something that always, I find, very striking about some of those songs by Cilla Black or Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw.

But I love making films that become music-centric. Both with Baby Driver and Last Night in Soho, working with a choreographer on a day-to-day basis—on both films, we had a choreographer there every day because it was not just the dance sequences. It’s kind of everything involved in movement and how that relates to the music that might be in the scene. It was a great experience. Some director friends of mine have said outright, “When are you just going to make a musical?”

That’s my next question.

Alfonso Cuarón said it to me after he watched Last Night in Soho! He really liked the movie and he said, “But honestly, when are you just going to make a musical?” [Laughs]

Has it been in the back of your head? You flirted with it in Scott Pilgrim, and the first reference I caught in Spaced is to The King and I.

I can’t claim credit for The King and I reference in Spaced. That was definitely a Jessica Hynes reference. But yeah, listen, if I found the right subject matter or something that I felt could be a really great movie that I could make, then yeah, for sure. It would be amazing. They’re always a genre that I absolutely adore, right back to some of the early sound musicals, especially all of the Busby Berkeley films of the early ‘30s. I just find them mind-boggling.

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I mean the thing about those movies made in the early ‘30s at Warner Bros. is that it would be difficult to better them now. Like that’s what’s crazy. Also nobody would make them with that many dancers now. The studio would be like, “Um, do you really need 60 dancers? Can you, like, CGI them?” So that to me is what’s amazing about that. Like good luck trying to top that now.

What is harder to block for the camera: a fight scene or a musical number?

Well, they’re very close. I’d say they’re equally difficult, because they both require the same thing. A fight scene requires not just the choreography itself, but it requires strategy in that, where do you put the camera to best showcase this action? So that’s where in Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, and working with [cinematographer] Bill Pope and [stunt coordinator] Brad Allan was incredible, because Brad Allan is an amazing stunt coordinator… and then Bill Pope has obviously shot incredible action films, including The Matrix

So another thing with action is it’s not just the choreography; it’s also where is the best place to put the camera? That’s what’s great about all of the Hong Kong cinema, the golden period of Hong Kong action. It’s just looking at it in terms of camera placement. Here for this, here for that. It’s sort of the opposite of the Western style of filmmaking, which is when I think you can get a more bog standard take on action, because they’ve just hosed it down with coverage. Whereas all of the Asian influence in action is to be very specific about this piece works for this camera, and now this piece works for this camera. 

So there was an element of that in Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End, and then with Soho, with some of the dance sequences, it was more in some cases building these extended shots. There are some very complicated one-take dance sequences. One thing I’d say about it without giving too much of the game away, I think people would be shocked at how much of Soho is in-camera. Things that you might think, “Ah, that must be motion control. Oh, that must be like a green screen.” No. A lot of it is actually in-camera, and maybe eventually with the Blu-ray we can pull back the curtain and reveal some of the trickery.

Since you already mentioned the ‘30s, did you do the Harpo Marx trick with the mirror scene between Anya and Thomasin, as seen in the trailer?

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There’s an extra bit of complexity to the start of that shot, which maybe I won’t reveal. But let me put it this way: It’s all in-camera, including the part at the start of the scene where there is really a mirror there. And then the later part of the shot—you have to sort of watch the shot to figure out exactly how it’s done, but it’s like good old fashioned magic, optical illusion stuff. 

But yes, when Anya and Thomasin are facing each other in the mirror, they are in the take together and they are essentially doing choreography to mirror each other. Even if you watch the shots in the trailer where they’re twirling their hair and tapping, when they tap their fingers, it looks like there’s glass there, but they’re just going like that. But it’s not just the choreography and the actors, it’s also about the camera operator needs to be in the right place at the right time. And we had an amazing camera operator, Chris Bain. So whenever we were doing one of those sequences, we would rehearse with him.

For instance, there’s the scene on the dance floor where Matt [Smith] is dancing with Anya and sometimes Thomasin, and sometimes back to Anya, and that’s all one shot. And that is all about, we rehearsed it in a town hall with dancers and we recorded it on Steadicam, and then on a Saturday, I think it was literally the day after Anya had wrapped Emma., like with no break, she had to come straight onto the set to rehearse this dance number with the camera. And director friends of mine would watch that shot and say, ‘Is that motion control?’ No, it’s just a Steadicam shot.

You mention filmmaker friends, but do you have long conversations with filmmakers who you’ve heavily homaged? Has Michael Bay ever come up to you and been like, “We’re going to talk about Hot Fuzz?”

I’m not sure that Michael Bay has ever seen Hot Fuzz. I once met him at a birthday and I introduced myself to him, and I think this was just after Hot Fuzz came out. So I introduced myself and said, “Oh, I don’t know if you know, I’m Edgar Wright, I made the film Hot Fuzz.” And he went, “That’s the film with the guy from Mission: Impossible III?” I said, “Yeah.” And that was the end of the conversation. So I have a feeling he’s never seen it. [Laughs]

And George Romero?

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Well, George was probably the first director who was a big hero of mine that I got to meet, or talk to before meeting. Specifically because when we made Shaun of the Dead, we wanted to reach out to George to watch it, because we felt that it was such a valentine to him that we’d feel bad if he didn’t like it. It was obviously a nerve-racking thing to do because what if we show it to him and he fucking hated it? Me and Simon would be devastated.

But we reached out to him through Universal, and he watched the film when he was on holiday in Florida in 2004, and he called us that night. I always remember that moment. It was before the days of group Zoom calls. He called Simon first and then he called me, and I remember I was standing when I got the call, and talking to George Romero about Shaun of the Dead and hearing this voice that I knew from documentaries and DVD commentaries. 

Now George Romero knew who we were and liked our film, and liked it enough to give it a poster quote. He was really the first director who I really admired that I met. But I also remember that as the moment that the world started getting smaller.

Last Night in Soho opens in theaters on Oct. 29.