Scott Pilgrim's Musical Little Life
Published Jul 25, 2010Scott Pilgrim will knock you on your ass. His superpower? Being awesome. Thanks to Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part graphic novel series, the 23-year-old slacker musician has become the unlikely literary hero for a new generation ― a jobless bass player in a band called Sex Bob-omb who transforms into a lover and a fighter when he falls for ninja delivery girl Ramona Flowers and learns he'll have to defeat her seven evil exes.
This month he embarks on the coveted, if rocky, path set out before him by the likes of Batman and Spider-Man when director Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World hits the big screen on August 13. A live action adaptation of all six books, filmed and set in Toronto, the movie features Brampton-born Michael Cera, the young prince of awkward comedy, in the title role, Jason Schwartzman as a big bad evil ex, and a host of high profile Canadian bands in the background.
Scott Pilgrim's ascent to the top of the pop culture pyramid is the culmination of six years of slow-building buzz. The series is perhaps the first to successfully meld all aspects of geek culture, from videogames to comic books to music, in a humorous and heartfelt way. The story also flirts with a slightly alternative reality: a Toronto with subspace travel, where defeated exes dissolve into coins the hero can collect. Think of it as the precursor to the popularity of The Big Bang Theory and a further indication of the importance of San Diego's Comic-Con: geeks have inherited the earth, they are the harbingers of cool.
What really attracted me is that the books are amazing and the central premise is really interesting," director Wright says. "It was a chance to make a comedy that was really magical and fantastical. It has a great sense of metaphor and there's this fantastic chance to be really visually interesting with it."
If the British filmmaker (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) is successful, he will have accomplished more than just making a hit out of his biggest film to date. Wright will be presenting a new blueprint for the Hollywood blockbuster: make it all about the music. "I'd done comedy and action before, but I hadn't really had a chance to do a film that indulges my passion in music as well," Wright says.
The writer-director got his wish when he was recruited to adapt Scott Pilgrim. Both the film and the books are in essence a love story set to music; the universe of O'Malley's creation was ultimately inspired by just one song: Plumtree's "Scott Pilgrim." And like all the best love stories, this one started with a mixtape.
"I made this mixtape called Scott Songs before I even started writing [the books], so I had this mood board I would go back to all the time," O'Malley says. Scott Songs became the sonic foundation for the architecture ― thematic, visual, and narrative ― of Scott Pilgrim's "precious little life." It included everything from '70s AM gold to '90s Canadian indie rock, including Plumtree, the relatively obscure and long defunct, all-girl Halifax band. (See sidebar.)
Plumtree's songs are way more complicated than they seem," O'Malley says. "They seem like harmless pop songs, but there are complicated guitar parts and the lyrics have a lot more shading. Obviously I listened to them in high school and that was a big influence on the way I view the world and the way I write."
The band also featured prominently on the first mixtape O'Malley gave Wright, and their shared penchant for playlists helped forge their initial bond. "Scott Pilgrim's" lyrics ("I've liked you for a thousand years") are a faint blueprint for the series, which follow Scott and Ramona's tumultuous relationship and the ongoing fight against her evil exes.
As their collaborative relationship deepened, Wright and O'Malley bonded further over music. According to O'Malley, songs from those initial compilations were played on set during filming, and several became the bones of the film's soundtrack, itself the last word in Scott Pilgrim mixtapes. An energetic explosion of indie rock, snarling garage punk, and Britpop, the album features a diverse group of award-winning musicians, from Beck to Broken Social Scene.
Wright wanted to stay true to O'Malley's books by filming in Toronto, though as of press time we can't confirm which local haunts made it into the movie. We can confirm that it was Canadian filmmakers and music aficionados Bruce McDonald and Don McKellar who pointed Wright towards Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning of BSS to help authenticate the film's Toronto vibe.
"Someone arranged for Edgar and I to go have dinner and we kind of went on this blind date," laughs Drew. The "date" went well, and BSS ended up working on the film's score with music supervisor Nigel Godrich (famed Radiohead producer), as well as writing the music and performing as rival punk band Crash and the Boys with actor Erik Knudsen.
"In the book there's this joke that Crash and the Boys do songs that are 0.4 seconds long and stuff," O'Malley laughs. "Kevin and Brendan, they really embraced that. Like, really ridiculous, songs that are only one note. Their longest song is, like, 50 seconds... It sounds kind of like the shitty bands I used to play in, but way better obviously."
Grammy-winner Beck wrote the music for Pilgrim's fictional band Sex Bob-omb, as well as writing and performing an original song. "When I first heard Beck was doing it, I was like, wow, that's really weird," O'Malley admits. "I was a fan of his Mutations, and his singles, like the crazy over-the-top stuff, but I didn't know the breadth of his work."
Wright was convinced that Beck was the right choice, particularly when he revealed that his inspiration for Sex Bob-omb's songs came from the first book where O'Malley had scrawled 'The Archies' across a drum riser. He ended up turning the songs around in just 72 hours.
"I think it goes back to some of his earlier, more punky garage stuff," Wright says. "The Sex Bob-omb songs are very much in that raw and rough sounding garage-bubble gum mode."
The actors portraying Sex Bob-omb also needed to know how to play, so Wright hired Sloan's Chris Murphy to run his own school of rock on set, working tightly with Cera, Alison Pill, and Mark Webber. "Michael can play guitar and he's a multi-instrumentalist, but Mark and Alison both had to learn their instruments," Wright explains. "The Canadians in the cast ― well, like, Alison was extremely dumbstruck that Chris Murphy was going to be her teacher."
According to Wright, music became such a huge part of the process that everyone kept rocking behind the scenes, thanks in part to the numerous actors who happen to lead double lives as musicians.
"Michael's a really good guitarist, and you can see he really goes for it," Wright says. "There are two scenes in the film where he's playing live and he sings the Beck 'Ramona' song himself live on guitar, and he sings the whole thing in one shot. He was completely on top of it. There was a lot of music on set. Even people not playing [in the movie], like Jason Schwartzman ― there were all these guitars around, either prop guitars or people just bringing them in, so there was a lot of music in between takes."
Schwartzman, a long time fan of Wright's work and a musician himself (The O.C. theme song "California" is by his former band Phantom Planet), plays Gideon Graves, the leader of Ramona's evil exes. He bonded with the director the same way O'Malley did: through mixtapes and play lists.
"We met in Los Angeles, and we found a lot of the same things funny and liked a lot of the same music and it just seemed like, you know, we could be friends," Schwartzman says. "My dream was to work with Edgar one day and we became friends after having that meeting, emailing each other movies to see and records to listen to and it was an exciting friendship. One day he called me and we had a Scott Pilgrim discussion. He described the movie, gave me all of the books, and he gave me the script. It was very unusual. That's not usually how ― or at least for me ― that seems like how a lot of the big stars get a movie, you know what I mean? I'm used to auditioning ― and failing ― a lot."
The sixth and final book, which came out July 20, is the first one to prominently feature Schwartzman's character. It hadn't even been written when filming began, though O'Malley provided an outline to help finalize the script. Schwartzman says he relied on music to help him flesh out the character. It's a practice he's come by honestly after a long working relationship with filmmaker Wes Anderson.
"When I first met Wes, right after I got the part in Rushmore, he gave me a cassette tape of the soundtrack to Rushmore," Schwartzman says. "We would shoot the movie with the songs actually playing on set, and I think that just kind of spoiled me or conditioned me to make music so much a part of what I do. One thing that I find really helps ― well, it's a really dumb thing, but, like you hear about Robert DeNiro gaining all this weight or Christian Bale losing all this weight ― I like to make iPod play lists for my characters. So it's not as in-depth, but I make these play lists and then I listen to that music exclusively." (For the record, Gideon's play list includes Pulp, Stereolab and Blur.)
And, also just growing up in the '80s and then the '90s, and watching really cheesy TV shows and the girl walks away so queue the song," Schwartzman laughs. "When I was in high school and a girl would leave me, I would queue the song in my own head. I've always done everything to music."
Exactly like something Scott Pilgrim might say.