Last fall, while in London for the premiere of Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman got an advance peek at Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He screened only 30 minutes of a very rough cut, but what he witnessed was enough to give him a movie boner. “(Scott Pilgrim) does what everyone our age has been dreaming about,” he tweeted later. “(It) achieves the first all encompassing film of the joystick generation.”
If you qualify as “our age” (which I’m going to ballpark as somewhere between old-enough-to-go-on-the-Internet-unsupervised and geriatric), Reitman’s endorsement probably fills you with a confusing mix of emotions. On the one hand, it sounds exactly as awesome as all the teasers and trailers and pre-release praise have led us to believe. But on the other hand, the joystick generation? Is that a thing now? It makes Scott Pilgrim sound like Douglas Coupland-style navel-gazing, the kind of generation-defining pseudo-art that’s so overhyped and overanalyzed that it sucks all the fun out of the movie-going experience.
Here’s a quick overview for anybody not already up to speed: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on a six-part comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, is the story of a 23-year-old bass guitar player named Scott (played by Michael Cera) who falls for an Amazon delivery girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and for reasons that either make no sense or complete sense (depending on your understanding of “bosses“), has to defeat her seven evil exes in mortal combat. It’s a love story for anybody who thinks maturity is just another way of saying “LEVEL UP!” and every accomplishment means collecting coins or experience points. O’Malley’s comic was a remarkable thing (and surely still is, though reading it for the first time won’t be quite the same experience after this weekend). It felt personal and universal all at once, even if you’ve never been the bassist for a shitty noise band, or experienced the adrenaline rush of getting “+500 EXP” after being hired as a part-time dishwasher, or met a girlfriend’s ex-lesbian lover who attacks you “with almost ninja-like stealth and speed.” The movie, shockingly, lives up to the hype, and might even go beyond your expectations. Is it the quintessential film of the joystick generation? Could be. But why ruin a good thing by trying to explain why?
Although most of my research prior to interviewing Wright involved reading articles and blogs on Scott Pilgrim that included excruciating sentences like “Taking the tropes of videogames and using them to both illustrate and propel a non-videogame narrative,” I somehow managed to have a conversation with him without being a pretentious asshat. Or maybe I did, I don’t know. You be the judge.
Eric Spitznagel: Let’s start with your personal gaming history. Tell me about your most memorable and victorious high score.
Edgar Wright: Oh my god. (Laughs.) I don’t think I remember any of them. Those numbers are lost somewhere in my subconscious.
Well, did you at least have a favorite game growing up?
I had so many. I grew up in the U.K., so I played all the same arcade games that you guys did in the States. Like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and Pitfall and the incredibly difficult Dragon’s Lair.
Dragon’s Lair? Was that the one with the Disney animation?
That’s it. And it was impossible! We had a Dragon’s Lair arcade machine on the Scott Pilgrim set at one point. I said to Bill Pope (Scott Pilgrim’s director of photography), “This is the hardest video game of all time. I bet you can’t get through the first round.” He’s pretty good at video games, and even he couldn’t do it.
You didn’t have anything in the U.K. like the Commodore 64, right?
No, we had the British versions, the ZK81 and the ZX Spectrum. I was in my pre-teens when the Spectrum came out, and that became my entire existence, just waiting for Spectrum games to load. When I went to college, I discovered the Sega console, and Sonic the Hedgehog became very dear to me. In fact, a few of the sound effects from the Sonic game turn up in Scott Pilgrim.
A lot of people have emotional attachments to those old video game sounds, especially the music.
Oh yeah, of course. The music in those classic Nintendo and Sega games, it’s like they were designed for nostalgia.
It’s been years since I played the game, but I could probably hum the entire theme to Super Mario Bros from memory.
I wouldn’t be surprised. For somebody like Michael Cera, I think the music in Super Mario Bros. 3 is like a lullaby to him. It’s one of his earliest musical memories, and he has a visceral reaction to it. I think it’s that way for anybody who grew playing video games. For me, above anything else about a game, it’s the music that stays with me the most.
Didn’t you get a chance to meet Shigeru Miyamoto, the guy who created games like Zelda, Mario, and Donkey Kong?
I didn’t meet him in person. But he’s seen Scott Pilgrim. We had to get a track from Zelda cleared. There’s a piece of music from Zelda in the film, and we wanted to make it a lush, dreamy orchestral arrangement. The people at Nintendo were very helpful. Miyamoto screened the film in Japan and gave us his blessing.
But you didn’t get to watch it with him?
Sadly, no. Maybe I should have flown out there.
Hell yeah. If only to confirm that he’s real. I always imagined Miyamoto as some sort of pixilated wizard.
Actually, I think that could be true. He might be a wizard. That could be the only way to explain it. There’s just something about those early classic games. The technology has gotten better and they’ve been making newer versions of the games, but people still prefer the old ones. I guess there’s something about Miyamoto’s design that’s very comforting to people.
It’s Pavlovian, man. I see that little Italian dude in the red cap and my thumbs start twitching.
That’s very true. And it’s interesting, even if you haven’t played for 20 years, you can pick it up again very quickly. On the Virgin Atlantic flights, there’s a console on every seat where you can play video games, all the classic stuff like Mario and Tetris.
Sir Branson is an old-school gamer?
I guess so. I was taking a flight and started playing some of these games, and it was amazing to me how easily it all came flooding back. I knew exactly where to jump and what to do. And some of these games I haven’t touched in years.
What are you playing these days?
I actually lapsed out of gaming maybe ten years ago and I’m starting to get back into it because of Scott Pilgrim. I went through a stage with the PlayStation in the late 90s, which was pretty much like being addicted to heroin.
What was your video game smack?
Resident Evil 2 and Tomb Raider II and III.
That’s some good shit.
I lost a couple months of my life to those games. I was just obsessed. I played them endlessly.
How’d you finally get the monkey off your back?
I had to get the console out of the house. That’s the only way. Those games can mess with your head.
Sometimes I confuse video game memories with actual memories. I’ll say something like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to the desert before.” But have I really, or am I just thinking about the time I did the Shifting Sand Land level in Super Mario 64?
Oh, absolutely. I used to stay up all night playing Resident Evil 2, and it wouldn’t stop until the sun came up. Then I’d walk outside at dawn’s first light, looking at the empty streets of London, and it was like life imitating art. It felt like I’d stepped into an actual zombie apocalypse.
Didn’t that inspire … ?
There’s something about Scott Pilgrim that reminds me of most Mario games.
I think so, yeah. They’re very similar.
You got a working class hero and a princess and a bunch of burly jerks trying to keep them apart.
That’s something I always found fascinating about Donkey Kong. At the end of every level, you get the princess but then Kong takes her away again. I like the idea that the princess is for the most part unreachable. There really is no ending. (Laughs.) You never get the girl.
So Donkey Kong was essentially teaching us about the futility of love?
Yeah. And I like that futility. I like the aspect of Scott Pilgrim, within the books and the film, that Ramona (Scott Pilgrim’s girlfriend) may be a mirage. She’s a dream girl, literally a dream girl in the sense that she might not actually exist.
If that’s true, what’s the point of Scott fighting all of her evil exes? Is it just an existential rat maze?
I think, if nothing else, the experience helps him become more mature. He’s really cocky and confident with Ramona at first, but as he starts to meet more of the exes, it sets off a number of insecurities, to the point where he isn’t really sure if he wants to fight for her anymore. He’s done jumping through hoops for her. And the irony is, Ramona herself doesn’t want any of this. She isn’t egging him on to fight her exes. She would love the whole carnival to stop.
Do you think video games teach us anything useful? If you’ve spent a summer playing Call of Duty 4, are you more or less prepared for the challenges of the world?
Well, the easy way to answer that is to throw people who’ve played a lot of Call of Duty 4 into a real battle and see how they get on.
So … they’re fucked?
Probably. (Laughs.) But it might not be that bad. There are studies that suggest people who play games are better drivers. It definitely helps with your hand-eye coordination, and your ability to absorb a lot of information at one time.
What about in terms of social interaction? Will too much gaming screw with your ability to have adult relationships and live in the real world?
I don’t know. I think there’s definitely something about Scott Pilgrim that’s a little cautionary. He’s not necessarily a bad person, but he is thoughtless and he doesn’t often think about the feelings of the people around him. You could say that maybe being an adolescent who spent much of his youth gaming has created this slightly selfish bubble of self-importance. He’s very much a daydreamer. I think the film represents how Scott Pilgrim would like his life to be portrayed.
So he’s a slacker Walter Mitty?
Exactly, yeah. I feel like the film is the movie playing inside Scott Pilgrim’s head. Maybe that comes from playing video games, I don’t know.
If you were in Scott Pilgrim’s shoes, could you defend yourself against an army of evil exes?
I think so, yeah. Before the shoot, we did eight weeks of training with the cast. It was like two hours every morning, starting at eight o’clock, of pretty intensive fight training and sword fighting. To show my solidarity with the actors, I did the training too. We had these sword fighting tournaments, and even the actors who didn’t fight in the movie would be out there with a sword.
And now you’ve got some mad ninja skills?
Well, I did. As soon as we stopped the training and went right into filming, my gym work ethic went out the window. I basically gained 30 pounds and forgot everything I learned. After having been in prime physical shape, it all went to shit.
But it must be like muscle memory, right? If you had to defend yourself with a sword, wouldn’t it all come rushing back to you?
I don’t know. I hope I don’t have to find out. I think Michael Cera is worried that people will get the wrong idea by this movie, and start thinking he can handle himself in a fight. He doesn’t want strangers trying to start bar fights with him.
I feel like I should ask you about the Ant Man movie.
Sure, why not?
You’ve been working on the comic book adaptation for a while. Is it ever actually going to happen?
I hope so, yeah. I’ve written a script, and once Scott Pilgrim is done I’m going to work on a second draft. It’s something I’ve been passionate about for awhile.
Yeah, but … Ant Man? Seriously? Isn’t he like Aqua Man with lower self-esteem?
Not at all! I had a copy of the Tales to Astonish comic from the early 60s, which has his origin story. And I’ve been a fan ever since. I think it’s a really interesting high-concept idea.
Let me make sure I have this right. This guy shrinks to the size of an ant, and he has an army of ants at his disposal?
Is that really the most effective way to fight crime?
Ah, well … you’ll just have to wait and see.
You’re an amazing director, Edgar, but I don’t know how this is going to work. I mean… Ant Man? The guy who becomes an ant? Isn’t that like trying to stop a mob boss with a box full of kittens?
I know there’s a big stigma attached to it, mostly because every movie about shrinking has been about people in peril. I think it’d be great to do a shrinking film about a bad-ass secret agent.
Okay, I see what you mean. I was thinking along the lines of Honey I Shrunk The Kids.
Even something like The Incredible Shrinking Man, which is a fantastic film, is about a guy in trouble. But this is going to be nothing like that. It’s essentially a high-tech spy heist film with somebody with a very particular power.
The awesome power … of an ant!
Trust me, it’ll be much cooler than you think.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com