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One of the most hotly anticipated films to see its release schedule repeatedly ripped to shreds due to the pandemic, Focus Features’ psychological horror Last Night in Soho is finally making its bow in Venice, nearly a full year after it originally was due to come out. It’s the end of an emotional journey for director Edgar Wright, who first began dreaming up the idea — a time-twisting tale about a young fashion student (played by Thomasin McKenzie) who is transported back to the 1960s and into the body of a singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) — more than a decade ago as an homage to London’s legendary central neighborhood. A messy grid of streets still awash in bars, sex shops and a decent chunk of the British film industry, Soho is currently in a desperate battle to save its creative soul as it fights off relentless gentrification, demolitions and development. It’s also somewhere Wright has spent more than a quarter of a century working on his movies.
Adding further poignancy, Last Night in Soho was one of the very first productions to start up again in the U.K. when the lockdown lifted in August 2020 (something Wright says added a “great weight of responsibility” on his shoulders), while it also marks the final film appearances of Brit acting icons Diana Rigg and Margaret Nolan, who both died last year.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s world premiere in Venice, the British filmmaker — behind some of the most visually dazzling films in recent memory, from Shaun of the Dead to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver and this summer’s lauded rock-doc The Sparks Brothers — discusses shooting a film in one of the busiest parts of London (mostly in the dead of night, while the city slept), spotting Taylor-Joy while on the Sundance jury and why he felt it was important to turn down major studio offers in order to make his original movie.
How does it feel to be finally getting to share Last Night in Soho with the world?
It’s actually very emotional to finally show people this thing we’ve been living with for a long time. Elements of the production are now just intertwined with the film in my head in an emotional way. Both Diana Rigg and Margaret Nolan passed away since we shot the movie. And even on a different level, with Soho itself kind of changing, it makes the film maybe even more poignant than it already was. So with all that in mind, I’m just excited for people to see it because it’s something that’s been quite an emotional journey in a lot of ways.
Were you able to use the lockdown to spend more time on the film?
I’d be cautious to say that the pandemic brought anything good, but one thing that happened was that we went on a break from editing the movie. It’s rare to have a bit of distance and come back with solutions. So there was that odd thing where I hadn’t seen [editor] Paul [Machliss] in the edit for six months, and I’d come back and be like, “Hey, I was watching this Robert Bresson film, and he edited this bit like this.” So you’d come up with solutions to things you didn’t have before. And the additional filming we did last August was again quite emotional because we were one of the very first films to come back. I think it was just us and Jurassic World: Dominion, and we were both shooting in Pinewood. Everybody there on the crew had obviously not been working for six months, so it was a really powerful feeling, and I can’t really describe it. Also, there was this great weight of responsibility because you felt that everyone was looking to your production to see if it was going to work. I think my main terror was that Focus would go the opposite way and say, “We don’t know when we’re going to be back, so let’s just wrap up what you’ve already got.” And to their credit, they did not do that.
And they also didn’t offload the film onto a streamer.
I think everybody who had been working on a movie wanted for it to be seen on the big screen, and when we pushed it from April to October, it was for exactly that reason. Also, it’s actually more of a movie that’s designed to be seen when the nights are getting longer — it feels like an autumn/fall movie. It’s funny because when the second push was announced, I got all these messages from people saying, “Oh, you must be gutted,” and I was like, “Gutted? I was the one who suggested it!”
Where did the idea for Last Night in Soho come from? When it was announced, you said something about never having made a film about central London before.
Yeah, I think the last 25 to 26 years that I’ve been in London, I’ve probably spent more time in Soho than I have on any couch. In the film industry, you work here, you write here; all of my movies, even the ones I made in North America, I edited in Soho, and they’ve been mixed and graded in Soho. So you’re then also aware that central London isn’t used that much as a film location. Sometimes big-budget films shoot in Trafalgar Square, but Soho isn’t often featured, mainly because it’s quite a tough location to work in. It’s always busy. It’s only between 3 a.m. and 7.30 a.m. where it’s actually quiet, and I know that specifically now because I’ve done it. So I wrote the film with that in mind. Not only is it something that’s very close to home, but it’s also quite ambitious to do in terms of making a film that’s so much on location. We went into the movie knowing how difficult that was going to be.
So you managed to shoot it all actually in Soho itself?
Yeah, all the location work is in central London. Little bits of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury, but all the Soho stuff we shot in Soho. And in two different time periods, so we’re shooting contemporary Soho and ’60s Soho. I say this, and I’m not being cocky, but in terms of what my production team, production designer Marcus Rowland, the location team and the AD team managed to pull off to shoot in real central London, transformed back into the ’60s in some key shots, is really extraordinary. I only say that — and I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet — because there were several days when I was shooting those scenes when I’d come to work and see how many people were on the streets and think, I wonder if we can pull it off today, we might finally have been beaten on this film. That happened a couple of times, but we always got the shot, and it was sort of amazing when that happened.
Did you manage to film any during lockdown when the streets were empty?
There is actually a thing in the end credits of the film, and this is not a spoiler. I live close to Soho myself — about five minutes away or so — and had been there during lockdown when it was utterly deserted, and it was a genuinely spooky experience because everybody had moved out. There was nobody there. So I said to [producers] Eric Fellner and Nira Park, we have to get this on film. So in July, before everything reopened, we went out one night with a very small camera crew and shot lots of empty London because I thought, I don’t know whether this will ever be like this again. It was an extremely surreal experience to be standing in Piccadilly Circus without any cars on the road. So in the end credits, you’ll see some shots that were filmed in genuine lockdown Soho.
I recall speaking to your co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who said she took you on a tour of some of Soho’s shadier haunts.
I actually had the idea for the film a long time ago — I realized I made a playlist for the movie in 2007. It’s something that I’ve been talking about a lot with friends. But I didn’t start writing until later. When I was editing Baby Driver, Sam Mendes introduced me to Krysty, and she happened to mention that she had worked as a barmaid at [renowned Soho drinking hole] The Toucan. So I told her about this idea. And then we had a separate night, and as Krysty tells it, although I can’t remember, it was the night of Brexit, and we had a Soho crawl and went to different after-hours places that she knew. Then it was about a year later, after Baby Driver, and I was about to start writing, and it had been nagging at me the whole time that it would be better to write it with someone, and I knew that person had to be Krysty. I called her from Los Angeles, and she said she’d love to but that she was starting this thing with Sam in six weeks, so could we do it soon? So we started immediately, before she went off to write 1917. It was very fortuitous.
Your two leads, Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, aren’t just great but, like Wilson-Cairns, have seen their careers go skyward since they were cast. Where did you first see them?
I was on the Sundance jury in 2015 and saw The Witch, and, like everyone else, that was the first time I saw Anya. And I met her in L.A. shortly afterward, and I wasn’t planning to but I ended up pitching her the entire story. I actually had her in mind for Eloise, the part that Thomasin plays, but over the years of talking to her, her star was starting to rise, and you’d seen what she was capable of, and we were also expanding Sandy’s part. Luckily, when she read the script, she said she loved it and wanted to play Sandy. With Thomasin, I’d seen her in Leave No Trace, which was incredible. It’s such a naturalistic performance. So I met her and just felt that this is obviously the person to do it. Also — and this is something that works very well for the movie — she is exactly the age of the character.
After the huge success of Baby Driver, did offers come in for big blockbusters and franchise movies? Were you tempted?
Yes, there were. There were things like that. I’m not going to say it’ll always be like this, but when you have the opportunity to make an original film with a studio, with Universal in this case, it’s like, take it. Because these are the films that are under threat. Franchise films aren’t going anywhere, and I wouldn’t be so dumb to say that I’d never do a franchise, but right now it’s like, do I want to go off and do one of those things or do I want to do this original script that I have? So to me, it was something I had to do, and it was important to do. I won’t say what they were, but there were films I had to turn down because I was doing this. I just feel that it’s important to try and make original movies while you have the opportunity to do so.
How is Baby Driver 2 coming on?
I’ve got a lot of films in development, including that, and one of the things that the pandemic did was kind of throw all the chess pieces off the board. So I really haven’t figured out what I’m doing next because it’s more about what order to make things in and where the world’s going to be. For example, I wouldn’t want to be making something like that in a way where the pandemic is compromising production.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 1 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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