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Interview: Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos on Cutting Music to Baby Driver


Baby Driver is a heist movie unlike any other. Director Edgar Wright brings his unique style and technique to the genre with a kick-ass playlist to the film’s world as Baby (Ansel Elgort) plays a getaway driver like no other. He’s not just any getaway driver, he drives too  a killer soundtrack that features BellBottoms, Let’s Go Away For Awhile by The Beach Boys, Easy by The Commodores, Brighton Rock by Queen and 26 other songs built into the film’s narrative. The action on screen is cut tight to the tracks we hear. Editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos talked recently about how they cut and synched their editing. From music clearance rights to on-road editing, Machliss and Amos break down the process  and workflow of how Baby Driver came together.

Talk about collaborating with Edgar and how the relationship has evolved.

Paul: Jon and I have worked with Edgar for a number of years. I guess I go back probably the further doing his TV show, Spaced with him. I came back for Scott Pilgrim which is when Jon and I did that together. Didn’t you do Hot Fuzz, Jon?

Jon: I assembled quite a lot on Hot Fuzz and that’s how I got to meet him. I did that with Chris Dickens and when Chris stepped aside, it was mine and Paul’s joy and pleasure and good fortune of getting the call to work on Scott Pilgrim.

I think our relationship was where we shared reels and scenes, and I think Edgar saw that we had different talents and started to channeling us into editing specific sequences that he thought would be appropriate to our talents and that’s evolved into how we worked on Baby Driver.

Paul is Edgar’s core editor and I’m the kind of person that comes in and does the action editing and Paul is the man steering the ship and I’m adding important contributions. Paul is there from the word go to the very end and I check out slightly earlier.

Paul: I didn’t pay Jon to say that.

Jon: We all enjoy each other’s company.

When you have a movie like this where it’s action and it relies on music so heavily. What did he say to you and how do you start?

Paul: In terms of what he says to us, it’s more a question of what doesn’t he say to us. He’s the one who is 100% responsible. He chose the music. He wrote the script and it gestated over the part of ten years. The concept and idea is totally his. If you’ve worked with him, you know what to expect and you can sort of see little takes in this kind of thing.

Go back to Shaun of the Dead when they’re bashing the zombies to a Queen track. It lasted 90 seconds on film, and it was a theory and concept that he expanded for the best part of 100 minutes for this. These are ideas that you know Edgar will take and push to another level, and that’s certainly what he did with this, the marriage of dialogue, action, and music. I don’t think we’ve ever encountered a film which demanded the approach to it in order for it to be as successful as it appears to have been. People buy into the concept as well. Edgar lays the groundwork for all of that, and we have to make it work. It’s years of planning, pre-vis, concept work, and we all come in nearer the shooting time.

Having said that, I’ve been helping him on and off for five years helping him assemble music, incorporate a table read of the script to the music and the sound effects so he had 100-minute radio play. When it came to filming it and editing it, we had a very good idea about what we wanted to achieve. We never turned up on set and wondered how are we going to make this.

What are the challenges when the music plays such a huge part of it, when you’re talking The Commodores and Queen?

Paul: You had to clear them all. There was a lot of time and money. We had a wonderful clearance lady, Kirsten Lane who helped all these tracks clear. We had cleared them all before we even started shooting because imagine shooting and realizing you couldn’t use the track. These songs were decided by Edgar, we worked out whether we could get them or not. Not all of them were Edgar’s first choices, some were not available, but the main point was that it was all sorted out before we shot anything because you just can not take those things to chance. It’s too expensive of an approach.

You’re dealing with a lot of the editing as far as choreography to music. Talk about that?

Jon: The key thing about the film is that it is inherently thought through that makes our job simple in a way. So, when we got the script, it had the music embedded in it so you listen to the script and listen to the music. There were anchor points in there too where certain things had to happen by this point in a song.

When you turn it into a reality and you film it with the actions, these things are not robotic and there’s a human quality to it and they never quite behave how you want them to. So, trying to fit all that story into the very specific sections of a song that you had to tell the story within. Trying to not to make things confusing and enjoyable to watch. You see things cut to music and sometimes it feels like a pop promo. You wanted it to have a level of syncopation and that’s where the amazing choreography came in and all that extra detail made it extraordinary. It’s a fine work of art.

Did you ever have a situation where you had to get from point A to point B and the song didn’t happen?

Jon: It happened often. It happened with BellBottoms. As with any planning you do, inevitably, once you put the characters in and you flesh out their story, you realize you want to spend more time in the car with the people and seeing Baby through their eyes, but then again you had to show what they were experiencing and you couldn’t cut the action. It was about trying to find ways of condensing those micro stories into the structure of the songs.

Somethings did fall onto the cutting room floor, but we tried to fit in as much as we could. There weren’t many instances where we had to extend songs. There were some instances where we had to extend something by looping it a little bit. Generally, the hard and fast rule was that we would not tamper with the music and the music was sacred in this film.

Edgar has his trademark and techniques. How do you develop your technique to meet that vision together?

Paul: Edgar definitely has his trademark style, but then you’re talking about the relationship between a director and editor. He has very definite ideas, but he also has an open mind. There are always things you can suggest. You can have other ideas, the great thing about Edgar is that he is open to trying things. We are definitely out there to achieve his ends, but that doesn’t mean there is a hard and fast rule as to how it’s done.

As you’re assembling things, you’re trying out things and showing him, he can say, “I hadn’t thought of doing it like that, maybe we can try that for a bit.” Of course, when working with him, you know what he likes. When you work with a director for that many years, you only lay out what you’re expecting to see, he’s also expecting you to bring your thoughts and your ideas to the party and you work that out over the years. THat’s one of the joys of working with Edgar, he’s so receptive. It’s a great collaborative spirit.

Talk about on-set editing and being there as they’re filming. What is that term?

Paul: I think on-set editing? Maybe. It was a very nice mix of post-production. Both were informing the other at the same time. You were crew and out there on the front line. You were part of that moment. Edgar would often consult as to whether that take worked. It’s great and fortunate to be in a position where you can help even influence and guide even to a small degree what’s being shot. You sit in rooms over the years and wish maybe a shot was longer, so it was wonderful to be there to just to know that we could problem solve as director, DP, and editor knowing there wouldn’t be problems when you’re editing six months down the track. It was for that reason that Edgar said I want you out there all the time because it had to work in the way described. You couldn’t leave the set, get to your room and hope for the best. You needed to know that what you set out to do, worked. I didn’t get to fine cut a lot. I was dropping shots as they were shooting them. You’re not there finessing, you’re there proving a concept. We weren’t going to come out of this with a scene that fails and that was the idea for making that method work.

Was there a favorite moment to edit?

Jon: Bell Bottoms. It’s such an extraordinary sequence. I never get tired of watching it. I still get that charge watching it now. It’s an incredible start to a movie.

Paul: The diner sequence after the tequila track. The post-mortem chat was my favorite scene because of the combination of the acting, the dialogue and even the music chosen in the background. Also the tension, it was riveting. That was my favorite moment.