LAist Interview: The Writers of Scott Pilgrim
Photo courtesy of Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World shares its title with the second book in the six-book series of graphic novels on which the film is based. I drove straight to a Los Angeles screening of the film from Comic-Con, having never read a page of the comic that inspired the film, and not quite knowing what to expect. It was awesome. You don’t have to be familiar with the books to enjoy the movie, but if you enjoy the movie you’re going to want to read all the books. I did, and managed to finish Book Six just in time to make it to a second screening of the film last night, which rocked just as much as the first time around.
I wasn’t the only one that was back for seconds. In fact, only one journalist I talked to last night was seeing Scott Pilgrim for the first time. A number of us had been at the same press junket, which was the largest I’ve ever been to. We were divided up into roundtable groups on a soundstage at Universal and visited by different members of the cast and crew. “Oh, you were in the good room,” a fellow writer said to me last night. I hadn’t really considered it, but yes, yes I was. I was joined by Todd Gilchrist of hollywoodnews.com, Chud.com’s Devin Faraci and James Dawson from wastedtalents.com, along with a number of foreign press reporters, and these guys really got the talent talking. To kick things off, here is our interview with Scott Pilgrim comic book creator, writer and artist Bryan Lee O'Malley and Michael Bacall, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Edgar Wright.
To get an idea of just how true to the original comic these guys kept the movie, check out this video where someone has substituted images from the movie with pages from the books over the audio track of the trailer. Amazing!
LAist: So, how badly did he (referring to Bacall) mess up your comic?
Bryan: (joking) I think it was Edgar Wright who messed up my comic, since he's not in the room. No, the movie, it's really obscenely faithful to the comic book, I think. More so than I would have been. I actually had this conversation with one of our producers the other day. If I'd written my own adaptation, I would have cut half the characters out and changed the plot completely. So, I'm glad someone else did it.
LAist: Michael, how careful did you have to be in adapting this to make sure there was a connective tissue beneath all of the plot, because that's what makes it work. You could just have a bunch of underbosses, and the payoff is getting the girl, but it's not really just about that.
Michael: We worked really hard to have an emotional component to every fight, and to have it represent a kind of a different phase of their relationship. We used the books...Bryan's ability to do that in the books, and to really have every major fight be connected to something going on between Scott and either Ramona's ex or with Envy his ex, it's what makes the books way better than just a fight story. So, even though we had to compress the amount of time that the story takes place in, we still worked really hard to have an emotional component to all the fights.
LAist: And how difficult, Michael, how much did you sort of seed the actual script with all the pop cultural details, to have like the Seinfeld music? Are those things that were just constructed in the editing, or shooting?
Michael: A lot of it was constructed in storyboard phase, and in post-production. But a lot of it was in the script as well. That was one of the most enjoyable parts about working with Edgar, having the opportunity to be imaginative in that way. Especially given that even before we started writing, he made it clear that he wanted to utilize the visual things that Bryan does in the book with text graphic, on screen or in panels, in the case of the book, and sound effects, verbal sound effects, and much, much more. So we tried to write in as much of that as we could in the early phase to give readers, studio actors, an idea of what the world would be like. But of course, Edgar is a mad scientist, and when it comes to storyboarding, and in particular post-production, the layering just gets deeper and deeper and deeper.
Bryan: He just has the whole thing in his head...
Bryan: ...to a degree that none of us could imagine.
LAist: Michael, how do you actually approach the actual act of adaptation? Do you have copies of the books that are all marked up and cut out?
Michael: We had several copies of the book and we'd ask the producers to bind a few copies, because it felt a little bit sacrilegious to mark up the books themselves. We did that too, though. Yeah, we would circle things, mark things down. We would write our own kind of hit list from each volume of stuff that we just had to try to have in a movie and figure out the best ways to squeeze it in. And at one point we wrote a flowchart on a giant dry-erase board that was just unintelligible, but we finished it (laughing). So, we just did everything we could to really try and have a full grasp of Bryan's books. And he was gracious enough to always look at our works in progress, to comment, and sometimes to write dialog for us that wasn't in the books. And we were lucky enough that even before he would publish a new volume, he would send us the script version, and the kind of galleys.
Bryan: There was aspects of the film that were from rough drafts of the book that I never put in, because I got lazy or I just completely changed my mind. The whole battle of the bands thing actually came from the books, I think.
Bryan: I think it was like a weird symbiosis. But originally Volume Five was going to revolve around a scene much more similar to the film scene, but it changed in process.
LAist: There are some comic books that seem these days to be written as if they're the presentation piece to later make a movie...
Bryan: I hate those comic books. We speak on the record. I want those people to burn.
LAist: When you were doing yours, did you have any idea, any concept that this could become a movie?
Bryan: I had no idea. Actually, when my publisher put a contract in front of me to sign it over, I was like, "What is this?" And I just kind of signed it, and I still didn't really know...which in retrospect is probably not a good idea...but fortunately it worked out. But no, I mean, I really love comics, and that's my main love in life, is just doing comics; drawing, writing and telling stories in that form. And yeah, I mean, in the past 10 years there's been a lot of people kind of coming into comics either from TV writing or failed screenwriting careers, and they'll just come in and kind of do a comic book and try to sell it back that way. And I don't respect that.
Michael: I think a publisher asked me to do that, is that weird?
LAist: Bryan, notwithstanding your feelings about your ownership of this, how do you feel about the separation between a film and the actual source material? Do you feel like they're absolutely, or in most cases, a completely separate entity? Or is there, like, that sort of "Oh, they fucked this thing up," when it's not yours?
Bryan: It's weird, you know, it's been an evolving relationship for me, because there's what I feel and there's what the readers feel. These days, with Comic-Con and all this stuff, it's like the screenwriter, the filmmaker has to kind of please those guys first, the ones who are the biggest fans of the book. And so, to some degree, you have to be kind of slavishly...you have to look exactly like the comic book these days, and it's whatever you can get away with within that framework, I think. For me, I always expected it to be completely different, and I would respect that. Yeah, I mean, I would have changed everything, like I said.
Michael: Would you have done it with puppets?
Bryan: I wouldn't have done it with puppets. But I would have done everything pretty differently. I think I would have just really chopped it down. But these guys were really devoted to the idea of including as much as possible from the books.
LAist: This is sort of for each of you: As opposed to those mercenary bastards who are just trying to get a movie deal with their comics, which comic would each of you like to see become a movie?
Michael: The Preacher, which I think is in development already. That's one of my favorites of all time.
Bryan: One of my favorites right now is a book called King City, by my friend Brandon Graham.
Michael: Oh, that's great, man!
Bryan: It's this amazing kind of futuristic world, and it would be amazing to see it brought to life.
LAist: There's a really interesting response to the movie in advance, among certain people, which is that it's a "hipster" movie. And I read that response and I don't get it. I'm just curious what you guys think...?
Bryan: I still don't know what a hipster is.
Michael: I think Bryan said sometime during, right before we started shooting, that "hipster" was now his least-favorite word. And then he wanted it banned from the movie.
Bryan: I've heard it so many times, over course of the... I think we say "hipster" once in the movie and it's for the demon hipster chicks.
Michael: Yes. And we killed them.
Bryan: They do explode. Maybe that's my fault. I think "hipster" is just a catchall word for American snarky people who just want to dismiss something as being too cool and too superficial. But everyone has their own definition of where something starts being for hipsters, and you know, it's nerds calling other nerds hipsters. So whatever. I don't believe in that, either. I'm getting really belligerent in this interview.
LAist: Bryan, what was the thing that you wanted to be sure they got in the movie, and Michael, what was the thing that you definitely knew you needed to get in, and the thing that you knew that, no matter how ambitious Edgar got, you were not going to be able to work in?
Bryan: I wanted...I guess when I realized that they were going to actually do an adaptation of the books, and not just take the concept and run with it, I just wanted to try and get the feeling of that relationship, which is the foundation of the story. And I think they do a pretty good job. It's adapted. It's turned from a longer-term thing into a whirlwind affair, basically. But it still has the same feeling, in the strength of both characters, the male character and the female character.
Michael: It probably sounds a little superficial, but in the very early stages, right after Book Two came out, and lot of the conversation between Edgar and I was, "How do we get Knives and Ramona fighting," in the best way. But like where does that go? It's in a different place in the film.
Bryan: Which I think is great, by the way.
Michael: Oh, that's good. I'm glad to hear that.
Bryan: I think it's better to have it at the end.
Michael: So, that was really important, because the dialog was amazing, and just the feel of the two of them fighting over Scott was something that we felt like we had to have in there. One of the things that didn't make it, that would have been really fun, was the first fight in Book Three, between Todd and Scott. It takes place in a giant discount store in Toronto called Honest Ed's, which looks like Las Vegas on the outside and Hell on the inside. Bryan destroys it in Book Three, and that would have been pretty amazing. It didn't really fit in the story.
Bryan: I wouldn't have wanted to put the film crew through that nightmare, going inside that store.
Michael: But we did get a little piece of it, for sharp-eyed viewers, in the background of one of the scenes. You can see the giant blinking Honest Ed's sign.
LAist: There are two different versions of the ending of this movie. Can you talk about how you guys came to the version that's closer to the ending of Bryan's book?
Michael: We had Bryan's book. I should probably let Edgar speak to that more, but it's something we'd always considered. Bryan initially, I think, was not going to go in the direction he went with the ending of the books.
Bryan: No, I mean, the book evolved, the movie evolved, so...
Michael: So, yeah, as his story evolved, our story kind of evolved, often just afterwards.
Bryan: Well, I mean, I know they were going back to reshoot other things to make the whole thing stronger. There are new scenes kind of interspersed throughout the film, and at the last minute Edgar decided to shoot an alternate ending. (To Michael) Did you just get coffee in your eye?
Michael: (who, yes, somehow has managed to squirt coffee from the cup he is holding into his eye) That was so awesome! I couldn't do that again if I tried! This eye is very hyper right now.
LAist: This movie, its lexicon is sort of firmly in 1990’s videogames. And comic books themselves are sort of predominantly a youthful medium to begin with. Do you see this movie as sort of deliberately emblematic of the generation of people who are in it and who will obviously gravitate to it, or do you really see this as sort of a more universal...
Michael: I see this as multi-generational. I think people have played videogames and had an emotional connection to videogames for decades now. I think we hit upon a lot of them, from the old stand-ups to a Nintendo DS. That's a great thing about the books, that Bryan utilizes that whole spectrum of videogame history, and I think everybody has some kind of emotional connection to a game. Not everyone, but from several generations to this point. So, we want to kind of have all the aspects of that for everyone. It definitely encompasses my childhood, with the Mario references.
Bryan: He was in a commercial for Sega Genesis.
Michael: I was in a commercial for a Nintendo Gameboy and for Sega Genesis. In the Gameboy commercial, my head was squashed by Space Invaders and I still have the latex head that they used to composite while I was getting squashed. And in the Sega commercial, it was for Sonic Spinball, and my eyes were spinning in different directions. And at the end of the commercial, I scream, "Sega!" The peak of my career.
Bryan: I went on YouTube, when we were first starting to talk, and it was like, "Oh my God, I remember that commercial so well." So I was like, “Oh, I’m in good hands.” But that's the thing about the books and the movie: We're not just saying, "Oh, Super Mario 2, wasn't that great?" We're actually using that kind of as the fabric of life, which is what it's been for us.
Michael: Yeah, it's the videogame mythology.
Bryan: Except we're literalizing it.
LAist: How do you guys make sure, then, that that stuff does not overwhelm people's connection to the characters and story? Because I feel like there will be older audiences who won't understand punching people and they turn into coins, or whatever.
Michael: I think Edgar has the best take on that, which is what he said to me very early on. He said this should be like a musical, where when the emotion gets to be too much for words, people break out into song. And in Scott Pilgrim, when the emotion gets to be too much for words, they break out into fights. And I think everyone can kind of understand that format and that style, because it's crazy to have someone punch someone and have them turn into coins, but it's also crazy for 50 people to break into a choreographed dance number in a traditional musical. So hopefully we've done a good enough job with the emotional underpinning of the story that the dramatic through line allows people to understand that these fantasy sequences are just expressions of...
Bryan: I'm just hoping that the older viewers will, as they're watching it, will just start screaming and explode into coins.
LAist: I was just wondering about the musical battles and how they came in.
Bryan: In the books, there's music here and there. I'm a musician in my spare time, and when we started doing the film... in comics, I don't have to show the music, you don't hear the music, and I just show you the music. I tell you what it sounds like and you kind of get the idea in your head. And I think in the film, you guys were originally going for something similar, but then it turned to more when you actually got real musicians involved.
Michael: Yeah, initially we were trying to figure out clever ways to get around hearing and seeing the music, because it's generally pretty awful in any movie having to do with rock and roll when you have to listen to the music. It's not very good. And then Edgar, of course, assembled some really amazing artists to write music and contribute music for the film. But early on, in terms of constructing the idea for battle of the bands, there were two things that were highly influential. We watched Kung Fu Hustle several times and there's a sequence where two of the baddies are playing a stringed instrument, and that instrument has weapons that are kind of being "physicalized," shooting out of there. That was an influence. And we also watched "Dig," which is one of the best music documentaries ever made, about a feud between Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. The battle of the bands kind of arose from that, in part.
LAist: Edgar Wright has this incredible, crazy energy and I don't even know where it begins to come from. What's it like working with him?
Bryan: It comes from espresso.
LAist: What's it like sitting in a room with him and writing?
Michael: It's good. It ups your game. That's why I try to work with people smarter than me, which isn't hard. With Edgar, I was such a huge fan of his work, and sort of heard rumors that he was a workaholic. And that appeals to me, because I approach things in a similar fashion. Very early on, I think we got along on that level of just kind of being maniacs and wanting to put in long hours...
Bryan: I think I heard that.
Michael: A lot got done via e-mail, in the wee hours of the morning. But it was also a good lesson, just in terms of what it takes to put together something that has a vision, that's complete. It takes hard work. In postproduction, for example, I watched them put in seven-day weeks, consecutive weeks in a row, 16-hour days, and that's insane. I really enjoyed it. And I don't think there was any point that I was bummed out that we were working too hard, because it's very contagious. I think anyone on a shoot would tell you it's a blast to be around that kind of energy, and it's inspiring.
LAist: Bryan, seeing the casting of the movie, it must have been strange seeing your characters come to life. Which one do you think totally nailed it, and which was the most surprising?
Bryan: There's more than one that were completely perfect. Kieran Culkin comes to mind first, because he surprised all of us. I don't think anyone knew he was even reading for the part and he just walked in and blew everyone away. He owned the role immediately. Aubrey Plaza, it's like I based the character on her, it wasn't the other way around! Hanging out with her is just really surreal. And then all of the evil exes, I can't imagine anyone else playing those parts. Like Brandon Routh. I didn't think we were going to get Brandon Routh, you know, that was Edgar's first idea. And Edgar gets anything he wants. He's got a powerful personality.
LAist: How about Michael Cera?
Bryan: Oh, Michael Cera. Well, the thing about Michael Cera is that we started planning the movie when he was, I think, 15 years old. So we never thought that we could do it with him, but then, you know, we watered him and fed him and he grew up into a fine young man.
LAist: Did you feel like you had a lot of latitude, or were able to give the actors a lot of latitude, to improvise? Because it seems like, logistically, the completeness of the vision, not to mention being faithful to the source material, would sort of eliminate a lot of the openness to improvisation or changing lines or stuff like that.
Michael: Yeah, this was a situation where improvisation could be helpful in the earlier stages of rehearsal, perhaps. But for the most part on the set, because Edgar had such a specific vision, and because he's kind of shot the movie in his head -- in the editing, the beats and the timing of the gags that have to be so tight -- there's not a lot of room for that. But that said, we have so many actors who are masterful improvisers, and there were definitely a few things in rehearsals that made it into the movie that are funny stuff.
Bryan: A gag reel on the DVD. I know (Jason) Schwartzman did a ton of alternate lines that were so funny.
Michael: Schwartzman showed up and lifted everyone's spirits during the late stages of a long shoot. He is a genius, and he came in like a very loud stand-up comedian and sent everyone to the floor several times, just being himself.
LAist: The first draft of the script leaked on the Internet, and you're still involved in other projects that have a lot of fan interest. Does the ability that anyone with an e-mail these days can get hold of your script, does that impact the way you're approaching things? Is that something you're thinking about, is it a huge problem for you as a writer?
Michael: Yeah, I write in invisible ink now. I chisel onto blank stone. Yeah, that's scary. That was a really unfortunate moment. The script that leaked was a work in progress version, it was not a completed draft, and it had a fake cover page on it. It was a really bizarre situation. Fortunately, everything still worked out. But that is the kind of thing that can kill a project, and it's actually happened to me twice now. I won't even mention the other project. But it's a real bummer, and you just have to be aware of it and try to be secure and have good passwords and don't get "Sarah Palined."
Article by Courtney Quinn