While staying in Los Angeles in the summer of 2018 as he wrote a new draft of the Focus Features time-twisting psychological thriller (which lands in U.S. cinemas Oct. 29), the British director noticed that Tarantino was shooting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just two blocks away.
What Wright found remarkable wasn’t so much how Tarantino managed to transform Hollywood Boulevard into the 1960s, but that he did so “without anybody really realizing,” Wright tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was like, ‘Oh, you can kind of make a movie in plain sight’ — and in that movie you’ve got Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. But the public seem to be reasonably unaware of what’s happening.”
After seeing what Tarantino was achieving, Wright called his production designer Marcus Rowland (a longtime collaborator on all of his work dating back to cult early ’90s Brit TV comedy Spaced) and supervising location manager Camilla Stephenson (whose lengthy list of credits includes Bohemian Rhapsody, Les Miserables and The King’s Speech). “I was like, ‘Hey, it’s possible,’” he says.
Flipping between present day and the 1960s, Last Night in Soho follows Thomasin McKenzie’s fashion student Eloise, who moves to central London only to soon find herself spending her evenings transported back to the swinging ’60s and into the body of a club singer named Sandy, played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
Traditionally, any period film with scenes from that era would shoot in East London or, more commonly, in the northern English cities of Liverpool and Manchester (which often stand in for period New York). Or, as Wright admits, “if you’re a really big movie, you just make your own stage set.”
But he was intent on shooting his film in the actual central London neighborhood of Soho — where the entirety of the film’s story is set (and where he’s spent much of his career) — and Tarantino’s efforts on Hollywood Boulevard gave him just the inspiration he needed.
However, as anyone who has visited both will attest to, Soho is not, by some considerable margin, Hollywood Boulevard.
A messy jumble of tight-knit roads wedged haphazardly between London’s theater district and its busiest shopping high street, the iconic area — dating back to the 16th century and considered something of a historic bohemian hub — is littered with pubs, clubs, restaurants, boutiques, massage parlors and sex shops. Various creative businesses — including the scruffy offices of several Oscar-winning production companies — lurk behind nondescript doors and up dusty staircases. It’s also an area battling relentless gentrification, which is another matter altogether.
While the British capital could never truly claim to be a city that never sleeps, it’s Soho that undoubtedly comes the closest, generally teeming with life, noise, wild behavior and some of London’s most colorful characters most hours of the day. McKenzie recalls her first night in town going for a meal in Soho with her dad and passing by a man outside a nightclub who had been tackled to the ground by two security guards. “He was screaming as if he was possessed — like a modern day Satan,” she says.
There’s good reason why very few films, period or not, have ever shot there (another of the factor’s behind Wright’s determination to do so).
“We went into that movie knowing how difficult it was going to be,” he says. “I don’t want to say the fun of the challenge… maybe fun in inverted commas.”
And so, in the summer of 2019, a year after seeing Tarantino shooting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, production on this challenge kicked off.
On the logistics side, Wright’s location team had already been working closely with the local Westminster authorities long in advance to secure certain roads during very specific windows (and almost always late at night — Wright says the only time the area is truly quiet is “between 3 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.”). For normal closures, three months notice was often needed, while four to five months was necessary for closures at the bustling, theater-lined Haymarket. Occasionally, two of these windows would collide, resulting in “high pressure” moments where two major shots had to be completed back-to-back on neighboring roads with as few interruptions as possible.
Interruptions are, however, something that Soho does rather well. Among them: drunk friends out on the town.
Late one Friday night, with production having shut down Dean Street (one of Soho’s more buzzy roads), Matt Smith, who plays Sandy’s smooth but shady boyfriend in the 1960s, looked up to see a group of people he knew fall out of the Groucho Club (considered the original creative members club before the first Soho House opened its doors on Greek Street just a few blocks away).
“And they were like, ‘Alright mate! Are you coming out for a beer?’” he says. “I’m like, ‘A beer? I’m dressed in ’60s clothes and there’s a camera over there — I’m shooting a scene, mate!’”
As a New Zealander living in London for the first time during the production (she came over with her mother, father and one of her sisters during principal photography), McKenzie says she didn’t have the same experience as Smith. But she remembers the Groucho moment well, noting that it wasn’t the only time.
“We had a green room in a pub, and every time he walked outside, he’d see a mate or a fan,” she says. (Wright notes that, having played both Doctor Who and Prince Philip, Smith may as well be a “former prime minister” wandering the streets).
Such unplanned encounters weren’t solely reserved for the cast. Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who co-wrote Last Night in Soho’s script with Wright, used to work in the neighborhood’s noted Toucan Pub, a key location in the film (she now has an office a couple of streets away). For some scenes, she actually went back behind the bar as an extra (apparently you can see her arm in one shot).
“But between takes, I’d go outside and my old regulars would walk by and they’d be like, ‘Oh, are you back?,” she says, adding that even when she escaped to the video village set-up over the road in the small Soho Square park (first laid in the 1680s) she’d have people wandering over to take advantage of the new seats. “I’d have to say, sorry, this isn’t an art installation.”
At the time, Wilson-Cairns was pulling double duty on 1917, working with director Sam Mendes in the WWI trenches at Shepperton Studios by day before heading into central London for night shoots with Wright. “It was a very weird few months,” she says, adding that the first few hours after setting up around 10 p.m. would be “absolute pandemonium” and mostly spent trying to “repel hordes of merrymakers.”
On one particular evening, among those merrymakers was Wilson-Cairn’s own mother, who was on a night out and “just passing through, a few Proseccos down.” She says she escorted her away from the set before someone tried to give her “any more Prosecco.”
But there were many other complications to deal with that came from the choice of shooting location.
In arguably the film’s most visually impressive moment, McKenzie crosses a busy Haymarket dressed up in full 1965 fanfare (a picture of Sean Connery beams from a marquee billboard for 007 title Thunderball). Despite the intense complications of the shot, given the street’s near-constant use, the production had very limited options when it came to plotting it out in advance, let alone rehearsing.
So one day at 5.30 a.m., Wright, his assistant directors and locations team in tow, went out to walk through the shot. “It was the only time you wouldn’t get run over,” says the director. And then for McKenzie to rehearse this scene — impossible on the street itself — she was taken to an airstrip where a rough outline had been marked out on the tarmac in chalk. “They had brought in a bunch of cars, and made a temporary Cafe De Paris [another of the film’s key locations],” she says.
For this same shot, the production team had rented an iconic red 1960s London bus, which was driving around so they could get it on camera. But, according to the assistant director’s careful calculations, the road’s one-way system meant that they only could squeeze in about two takes per hour. “And we had four hours, so he told me, ‘I think we’ll get eight takes,’” says Wright. “I was like, ‘OK, the pressure is on!’”
Adding to the complications, despite the abundance of period cars, extras and a street kitted out like the mid ’60s, the production still had to leave one of the road’s lanes open for very modern-day fire engines, ambulances and buses, which couldn’t be rerouted.
“I remember turning up that night and, at that point, having just wrapped 1917, I was quite au fait with long takes, but still thought this would be a really hard one,” recalls Wilson-Cairns. “On 1917 we never had to deal with buses and ambulances and a live lane of traffic!”
For McKenzie, that particular scene exemplified a regular mirroring of plot and production, with both bringing period and contemporary London together in spectacular, chaotic fashion.
“It was kind of crazy to have a storyline in which the 1960s and modern world collides, and then have real life, where we’ve got all the 1960s sets, backgrounds and actors dressed up in period gear with makeup and hair, and have those on screen, and then on the edge of the shot, have random passersby trying to see what was going on and traffic beeping their horns,” she says. “It was big task to tackle.”
But they got the shot, and Wright — who credits his team for pulling off this extraordinary feat — likens the accomplishment to what he saw Tarantino do on Hollywood Boulevard, essentially the “miraculous element of getting it without fully having the street to ourselves.”
There was one time, however, when they did have the street, and the entire neighborhood to themselves. In July 2020, four months into the U.K.’s first COVID-19 lockdown and with production of Last Night in Soho having paused (it would be among the very first to start up again later that summer in Pinewood), Wright, who lives only a few minutes away, together with a very small camera crew, headed out one night.
“It was utterly deserted and a genuinely spooky experience — everybody had moved out,” he says. “So we shot lots and lots of empty London, because I thought, ‘I don’t know whether it will ever be like this again.’ It was an extremely surreal experience to be standing in Piccadilly Circus without any cars on the road.”
With Soho having returned to its, almost, rowdy best and the merrymakers back out in force, it might be a while before Wright, or any other filmmaker, chooses to take up the seemingly insane challenge of shooting another major movie there. But there are absolutely no regrets about the decision from the Last Night in Soho team.
“You can have the greatest location manager in the world, but I don’t think anyone could have found the soul of Soho outside of Soho, so I think it was important to do that,” says Wilson-Cairns, adding that “she really felt Soho” when she would cycle in each evening to go to work. “Working on those night shoots, where you’d wrap and head home at dawn, it felt very surreal, like you were on a night out. Just to make it clear, I wasn’t drunk.”