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The Brothers Koch: Rich, Political And Playing To Win
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You might not know their names, but brothers Charles and David Koch have
quietly given more than $100 million to right-wing causes, underwriting
a huge network of foundations, think-tanks and political groups.
Jane Mayer reports on the Koch brothers in the current edition of The
New Yorker, in an article titled "Covert Operations: The Billionaire
Brothers Who are Waging a War Against Obama."
She says the Koch brothers have become the primary underwriters of hard-
line libertarian politics in America, and their views dovetail with
their corporate interests. Charles, who is 74, and David, who is 70, own
virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate whose annual revenues
are estimated to be $100 billion.
The Kochs operate oil refineries in several states and control some
4,000 miles of pipelines. Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels,
Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet and Lycra and is
ranked by Forbes as the second-largest private company in the country,
Just to clarify, Koch is spelled K-O-C-H.
Jane Mayer is a staff writer for the New Yorker. She writes about
politics and the war on terror.
Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, you say that by giving money
to fund political groups like Tea Party protestors, they've helped turn
their private agenda into a mass movement. So before we get to who
they've given money to, what do you consider to be the Koch brothers'
Ms. JANE MAYER (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Well, they are long-time,
very hard-line libertarians. So their private agenda is really the
eradication of the federal government in almost all of its forms, other
than the parts of it that protect personal rights.
They have been working to fight the federal government really since the
1970s. And their father was doing it before they were. So they're trying
to get rid of federal regulations, particularly on energy companies like
their own. They particularly have been at war with environmental
regulations, and they have a history of serious and even criminal
pollution problems. And they're very anti-tax in almost every form.
GROSS: Now, you describe the Koch brothers as waging a war against
President Obama. What are some of the things that they've funded in
opposition to the Obama administration?
Ms. MAYER: Well, they have funded various kinds of front groups and
organizations that have come at Obama from many directions at once,
which is kind of what got me interested in the story because if you kind
of pick up the rocks and take a look at what's under them, so often you
find roots, financial roots that go back to the Koch brothers.
And I'm talking about, and particularly, opposition to Obama's health
care policy, opposition to Obama's environmental policies, energy
policies, tax policies, the stimulus program. You name it, they are
against it. And you can pretty much find money coming through their
family foundations to â I counted just recently 34 different
organizations that have been involved in policy and politics, mostly in
opposition to Obama.
GROSS: Now, you give an example in your New Yorker article of a July 4th
summit, a Tea Party summit that was funded by Americans for Prosperity
in Texas. It was called Texas Defending the American Dream. You say an
ad cast the event as a populist uprising against vested corporate power.
And it said: Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned
out by lobbyists and special interests, but you can do something about
And there was no mention anywhere of the special interest, huge
corporate power that was helping to fund this Tea Party summit. Why does
Americans for Prosperity not mention anywheres that you could find that,
you know, David Koch, who is a billionaire and owns all these corporate
interests, is behind it, even though they're saying it's an anti-
Ms. MAYER: Well, it is an irony. And the thing is that youâd really have
to ask them why they want to obscure their hand in this. And I did try
to ask them.
But one of their characteristics is that they are really press shy and
underground, particularly when it comes to describing their political
activities. So they wouldn't answer any questions about it.
GROSS: What other aspects of the Tea Party movement have the Koch
Ms. MAYER: It's interesting. They were involved almost from the start of
the Tea Party movement, and they put up websites that helped organize
rallies. They helped pay for buses that got people to the rallies.
They've provided various kinds of sort of political infrastructure that
has made the movement possible, kind of fanned the insurrection in
But the other thing that's interesting to me is that they've tried to
channel the very legitimate and genuine anger that's out there in the
country about economic problems and push it in towards their own agenda.
It's not that they were the very creators of this anger. It's more that
they've tried to take the anger and model it. And I've got a quote in
the story from someone named Bruce Bartlett, who is a Republican and
conservative historian and economist who actually worked for one of the
And he explains that for years, they've been trying to turn their
politics of kind of libertarianism into a mass movement. And the Tea
Party is what provided the sort of the troops out on the street for them
to do that.
GROSS: So how does the Tea Party meet the Koch brothers' agenda?
Ms. MAYER: Well, it provides bodies on the street. It provides
ideological, you know, voice to an agenda that they've got. Basically,
if you take the example of the Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity,
because I went down to Austin to see it, what they are doing is training
angry people in issues that they care about.
They are trying to get people to fight regulations, fight energy reform,
fight environmental reform. And they also provide education about who
those angry people should target in the way of candidates and
politicians and how they should do it.
They even provide scripts. They've got - they've handed out talking
points for the Tea Party.
GROSS: Do you think that most of the people who see themselves as
members of the Tea Party don't know about the corporate money behind it,
don't know, for instance, that the Koch brothers are supporting a lot of
the Tea Party activities?
Ms. MAYER: You know, I just don't know...
GROSS: By supporting, I mean funding, yeah.
Ms. MAYER: It's hard to tell. I mean, when I was down in the Austin
convention talking to Tea Party people, there were a lot of people who
had conspiracy theories about money flowing into American politics.
But, you know, ironically, none of those - the people that I
interviewed, seemed to be focused on the Koch brothers. They were kind
of obsessed with the possible role played by George Soros in particular.
So I didn't find anyone who seemed focused on the Kochs' role.
GROSS: You actually talked to one of Soros' spokespeople and asked them
for their take on this because, you know, Soros is seen as, like, the
great funder of liberal causes. And you quote his spokesperson as saying
that Soros' funding is transparent. He doesn't secretly, you know,
covertly fund things, and also, none of his contributions are in the
service of his own economic interests.
Ms. MAYER: That was Michael Vachon who said that. And I can see out
there on the Internet blogs that this is â it had become kind of a war
between red America and blue America about which billionaire, you know,
creates more trouble in American politics.
And, you know, in some ways, I sort of think of it as choose your
poison. The point is not to say that, you know, not to defend George
Soros. It's to question, really, the role of these huge fortunes in
flooding money into American politics.
And I actually wrote a very tough piece about George Soros for the New
Yorker magazine also. So it's not that we're championing one over the
But I can tell you one thing, which is when I did write about George
Soros and the fortune - questioning the amount of money he was putting
into politics, there was a big difference between writing about Soros
and writing about the Koch brothers.
George Soros spent days talking to me and let me watch his operation
pretty closely. And he puts out a lot of information about where his
money is going.
By contrast, the Koch family refused to answer even the most fundamental
question about their activities. They are, as I quote somebody saying
who worked for them, they are not just under the radar, they are
underground. And you cannot get this information out of them. So they
prefer to be a much more closeted political force.
GROSS: Thus your article is headlined "Covert Operations." Any idea why
they're so covert?
Ms. MAYER: Well, I think that, you know, again, I'm going on the
interviews that I did with people who worked with them to get some
insight. And one of them told me something I thought was interesting,
which was that they prize their privacy â and remember again, this is a
privately owned company â partly because they want to avoid the scrutiny
of possible congressional investigations into their activities.
They don't want controversy to be associated with the brands they sell.
It might get in the way of their business. And so they don't want people
to think when they're picking up Brawny paper towels that, hey, this
money is going into attacking Obama because, you know, they don't want
that kind of controversy.
They'd rather hide behind groups that do their work for them. I have a
quote from someone who says they use rednecks to do their dirty work for
them. And that was someone who worked for them who said that.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. Her article about the Koch brothers is in
the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. Her article in the current edition of The
New Yorker is about two billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch,
who own virtually all of the conglomerate Koch Industries and have
quietly helped finance right-wing causes.
So getting back to the seemingly grassroots groups that the Koch
brothers have funded and gotten off the ground, these groups are
sometimes called Astroturf because it's fake grassroots, how did that
become part of their strategy?
Ms. MAYER: Well, it goes way back. And in fact, I think one of the
things that really caught my interest about them was that their story is
such a big piece of American political history. They've been working at
this project really since before 1980, when David Koch became vice
president for the Libertarian presidential ticket.
It was a miserable failure in 1980. They got one percent of the vote.
And at that point, David Koch and his brother Charles Koch decided that
if they wanted to have an impact on American politics, they were going
to have to do something other than run for office.
It was clear that their ideas did not do well in the marketplace of the
ballot box. And so, at that point, they kind of put their heads together
with some other fellow travelers and decided that they were going to
fund a complete infrastructure of organizations that were aimed at
manufacturing political public opinion that mirrored their own.
And so they set about doing this, and they've been doing it ever since,
just absolutely pouring money into creating public opinion in all ways
that you can do that, which is they've funded think-tanks, they've
funded publications, they fund academics. They give scholarships to
students who will hold similar views as theirs. They fund a tremendous
array of organizations. And they've actually, you know, founded a number
of them themselves.
GROSS: They founded the Cato Institute, the first libertarian think-
Ms. MAYER: Absolutely, the Cato Institute has become, you know, a very
powerful player in the area of shaping political opinion in the country.
I mean, it's quoted all the time as a kind of a nonpartisan and
impartial libertarian think-tank. But it was founded by the Koch
fortune, and it has been funded by it ever since.
GROSS: Other think-tanks that they've had a lot to do with in terms of
Ms. MAYER: One of the more important, kind of less well-known but very
important ones is called the Mercatus Center, which is at George Mason
University in Northern Virginia. And it is a think-tank that is very
targeted in its approach, basically aimed at gutting all kinds of
federal regulations, particularly environmental regulations.
And it's been instrumental in attacking the EPA, for instance, which
again, is something that dovetails really nicely with Koch Industries'
interests because they're constantly at war with the EPA over their
GROSS: You said that the Koch brothers created these think-tanks to
manufacture public opinion. What do you mean by manufacture public
Ms. MAYER: That reflects, again, reporting I've done. One of the people
that I interviewed was a â is a environmental lawyer who tangled with
this Mercatus Center a lot. And the way that that lawyer put it was that
the center was set up almost to kind of launder economics.
Businesses come and industry comes, it donates money to the Mercatus
Center. The Mercatus Center then has pedigreed scholars who write
papers, and the papers almost always come out promoting whatever the
point of view is of the industry.
So it's kind of a way of taking industry money and turning it into what
looks like impartial academic support but is actually funded by the
GROSS: Now, you say that at some point, the Koch brothers realized that
think-tanks weren't enough to effect the changes that they wanted, and
they needed a mechanism to deliver the message to the public and rally
the public around their causes.
And at that point, in 1984, they created Citizens for a Sound Economy,
which became very vocal during the Clinton administration. So what was
Citizens for a Sound Economy?
Ms. MAYER: Well, Citizens for a Sound Economy was a prototype, really,
for the current organization they have, the Americans for Prosperity.
And what you were reading was actually, this is a quote from Matt Kibbe,
who was involved at the time and is a Republican political operative.
He's now very involved in the Tea Party movement.
He was explaining the roots of this kind of activism. It's corporate-
sponsored activism. These organizations usually have the names of
citizens this or citizens that, such as, you know, Citizens for a Sound
Economy. But in fact, they're underwritten by corporate interests.
And so that was â what that organization did was it, again, was
particularly involved in energy policy. It opposed a tax that Clinton
was proposing at the time on BTU. And it actually succeeded in killing
The proposed tax went down to defeat after Citizens for Sound Economy,
much like the current Tea Party movement, started organizing rallies in
the streets and loud protests in front of Congress and pouring money in
to oppose politicians who supported this new tax on energy.
GROSS: Although the Koch brothers are libertarians, and they think
government should be stripped to its most minimal role, you say they've
been great beneficiaries of government money. Their companies have
gotten about $100 million in government contracts since 2000.
Ms. MAYER: That's right. They've got a â you know, so there's a certain
amount of hypocrisy in this libertarian notion, and in fact, there have
been some more kind of purist libertarian thinkers who have attacked the
Kochs for exactly this, for kind of disguising their corporate self-
interest as a kind of a lofty libertarian philosophy.
They were also, I think, tremendous beneficiaries during the Bush years
of the 2005 energy bill, which was a tremendous giveaway of subsidies
and tax breaks to various energy companies.
GROSS: President Obama has mentioned Americans for Prosperity, a group
that David Koch co-founded, at least once. And you quote that, and this
was after the Citizens United ruling, which struck down laws prohibiting
direct corporate spending on campaigns, on political campaigns.
President Obama warned that this had made it easier for big companies to
hide behind, quote, âgroups with harmless-sounding names like Americans
for Prosperity. They don't have to say who exactly Americans for
Prosperity are. You don't know if it's a foreign-controlled corporation
or a big oil company,â unquote.
As we speak, the Americans for Prosperity website has a headline:
President Obama insults Americans for Prosperity's 1.2 million
activists. Has President Obama talked about Americans for Prosperity and
its major corporate funding outside of this and the paradox behind, you
know, big corporate powers funding seemingly grassroots movements?
Ms. MAYER: Well, I think he also gave a radio address where he mentioned
them. So I think maybe he's mentioned them now twice. And I managed for
the story to get an interview with David Axelrod, his senior advisor,
who I â expressed a certain amount of frustration, which is I think
maybe why the White House is beginning to sort of pipe up on this
subject a little bit.
I mean, their feeling is that a lot of the media has taken the sort of
Tea Party rebellion at face value, as just kind of an outpouring
naturally into the streets and without looking far enough into the
corporate interests underlying some of it.
And so what David Axelrod told me was, you know, what they don't tell
you is that it's a, you know, a grassroots uprising that's funded by a
couple oil billionaires. And they are hoping, it seems, that people will
pay more attention to the huge and powerful interests that are really
underlying a lot of the opposition to Obama.
GROSS: Now, I want to mention that the Koch brothers also support a lot
of arts and medical institutions. They've done great philanthropic work
with the American Ballet Theater, Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural
History, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. So I think it's important that
we mention that.
Ms. MAYER: Yeah, David Koch is really one of the primary philanthropists
in New York City at this point. He gave $100 million to renovate the
State Theater in Lincoln Center, and he's on the board of the most
prestigious cultural organizations in the city, including the
Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.
And so it's interesting. I mean, and particularly as a writer for the
New Yorker, it was interesting for me to sort of connect the dots
between that philanthropic role that he plays and this really sort of
brass-knuckles political role. It's almost as if there are kind of two
David Kochs, and it's interesting to kind of put the pieces together.
GROSS: Did you find a connection?
Ms. MAYER: Well, at a certain point in his life, I think it was around
1991, he had a near-death experience, where he nearly died in a plane
crash, and then he was also coincidentally diagnosed with prostate
cancer. And he began to re-examine his life to some extent. And it was
at that point he started to give away really spectacular amounts of
money, particularly to cancer research and particularly to prostate
You know, I think that David Koch has, you know, you don't want to take
that away from him. But at the same time, I have to say one of the
things that really shocked me in doing the reporting on this family was
that at the same time that David Koch has been, you know, sort of
portraying himself as such a champion of the fight against cancer and
actually has given a tremendous amount of money to that fight, his
company produces a chemical, formaldehyde, in many, many, many products,
and they produce it in huge quantities, which the U.S. government has
been trying to regulate as a known carcinogen in human beings.
And the Koch Industries, through its Georgia-Pacific subsidiary,
produces tons of formaldehyde and puts it into tons of products,
particularly things like plywood and laminates.
And the company has been fighting the regulation of formaldehyde, trying
to hold off the EPA from keeping it from flowing freely into the
marketplace. And, you know, I just don't know how they can reconcile
these two roles.
GROSS: Jane Mayer will be back in the second half of the show. Her
article about the Koch brothers is in the current edition of the New
Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross, back with Jane Mayer.
We're talking about her article in the current edition of The New Yorker
titled, "Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging War
Against Obama.â Itâs about Charles and David Koch, who have quietly
underwritten a huge network of right wing foundations, think tanks and
political groups. The brothers own virtually all of Koch Industries, a
conglomerate which owns oil refineries, as well as Brawny paper towels,
Dixie cups, Stainmaster carpet and Lycra.
The Koch brothers have an interesting family political history. Their
father was an oil man in the 1930s. He spent a lot of time in the Soviet
Union. You say his company trained Bolshevik engineers and helped
Stalinâs regime set up 15 modern oil refineries but, eventually, Stalin
brutally purged several of Kochâs Soviet colleagues and then he became
fiercely anti-communist, became an original member of the John Birch
Do you think that his, like, fervent anti-communist beliefs had any
effect on his sonâs beliefs?
Ms. MAYER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and theyâve talked about it
themselves. At the dinner table they were told over and over again that
strong centralized government were evil. And some ways - and I've
interviewed an old family friend of theirs who basically suggests that
they transferred their fatherâs paranoia about communism to paranoia
about the federal government in the United States and all regulations.
And, I mean there was a consistent thread even within the Birch Society
there, too, which was that the Birch Society was founded mostly by
largely businessmen who were opposed to labor unions and, you know,
minimum wage laws, and specifically opposed to Franklin Rooseveltâs New
Deal and a larger federal government. So thereâs kind of a consistent
line that moves from the father, whose name is Fred Koch, to these sons.
And, I mean I just donât think you could make some of the details up,
Who would ever think that behind one of Americaâs most spectacular
private fortunes is a father who made his first millions working for
Joseph Stalin setting up the Soviet oil refineries?
GROSS: So the Koch brothers were brought up by a father who was
fervently anti-communist. They grew up with anti-government, anti-big-
state beliefs. How much of their work now in funding libertarian causes
and anti-regulation, how much of that do you think is just like personal
political philosophy and how much of it is like, this will help my
corporation make profits?
Ms. MAYER: Well, I think there is no separation between the two in their
thinking. They believe that prosperity will result for themselves and
others, I guess, if you get rid of all kinds of state regulations and
just allow the marketplace to bloom, as they would put it. They see both
things as being united, really.
One of the things that I found fascinating was that they're not just
your sort of ordinary Republican captains of industry; they are really
self-described radicals. And Charles Koch specifically calls himself a
radical and says he has a radical agenda when he talked to Brian Doherty
in this book âRadicals for Capitalism.â Their vision is really pretty
GROSS: An example of whatâs far out about it?
Ms. MAYER: Well, you can see their thinking I think pretty clearly in
the platform of the 1980 libertarian ticket, which was when David Koch
was the vice presidential candidate. And it called for eliminating
Social Security, eliminating income taxes, eliminating corporate taxes,
eliminating pretty much every federal agency other than those that
enforce kind of basic rights, particularly property rights.
So their vision is - itâs extreme, you know, from pretty much any
direction. Itâs interesting, but itâs not a mainstream kind of widely-
held view, as evidenced by how it did during that campaign, where
literally, they ran against Ronald Regan from the right and they got one
percent of the vote.
GROSS: So Jane, when you look over the years since the Koch brothers
have started funding think tanks and groups that are meant to look like
grassroots groups, what impact do you think theyâve actually had on
Ms. MAYER: Well, I think that you have to credit them with having been
relatively successful in disrupting the Obama presidency, which is
really what they were hoping to do. I mean, and theyâve talked pretty
openly about it. They organized even before Obama was elected, and
Charles Koch talked about how what he saw on the horizon was the
greatest threat to freedom and prosperity since the 1930s. And as Obama
was being inaugurated, they were organizing groups to attack the
And I think theyâve finally reached a kind of a point in 2010 where
theyâve got actual people out on the streets who are fighting for their
agenda. And so I think theyâve, you know, after many, many years of
funding all these different networks that they're having a certain
GROSS: So if the Tea Party movement is in part or maybe even largely the
creation of corporate interests like the Koch brothers and their group,
Americans for Prosperity, and like the group Freedom Works, which have
provide a lot of money for the Tea Party movement, what does that make
the people in the movement? Are you saying that they're naÃ¯ve in being
used by corporate interests in an apparently anti-corporate campaign?
Ms. MAYER: You know, I guess I'm just not willing to paint them with
such a broad brush. This piece is about the Kochs. Itâs not about all
the people who are in the Tea Party movement. And I'm the kind of
reporter thatâs got to get out there and interview people to know whatâs
going on. And I haven't spent enough time talking to people in the Tea
Party movement to really understand more. And so, I certainly wouldnât
want to have just sort of dismissed them as some sort of, you know, mass
wave of naivete.
I'm sure itâs complicated. The Tea Party movement seems to be made of
many different kinds of people with many different points of view. Itâs
sort of an amorphous movement anyway. What I'm saying is that in this
piece, itâs clear that there are huge corporate interests who are trying
to channel the angry people that are the foot soldiers of the Tea Party
movement and move them in a direction that is good for their own
GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you as always for talking with us. Really
Ms. MAYER: Thanks, Terry. Itâs always great to be with you.
GROSS: Jane Mayerâs article about the Koch brothers is in the current
edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to it on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a link to a Koch Industries
website, which responds to what it describes as negative attention its
attracted from some people who donât support economic freedom.
Today, Americans for Prosperity, co-founded by David Koch, began its
âDefending the American Dreamâ summit in Washington. The rally ends
Saturday morning, after which they will provide transportation to Glenn
Beckâs âRestoring Honorâ rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
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Director Edgar Wright's Epic 'Pilgrim'-age
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our guest, British film director, Edgar Wright, made a splash with his
2004 comedy about a zombie attack called âShaun of the Dead.â He
followed that with âHot Fuzz,â an offbeat buddy cop spoof set in rural
England. Wrightâs new film, âScott Pilgrim vs. the World,â is a visually
innovative adaptation of a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee
O'Malley. The film mixes live action with onscreen graphics and sound
effects that evoke pop culture references ranging from Super Mario Bros
The film is set in Toronto, where a 22-year-old slacker and bass player
named Scott Pilgrim falls for a girl named Ramona Flowers. But he
discovers that to win her heart he must battle her exes. The fight
sequences are a mix of video game action and funny dialogue.
Edgar Wright spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Letâs start with a scene from the film. Scott, played by Michael Cera,
is talking about his love life with his roommate Wallace, played by
(Soundbite of movie, âScott Pilgrim vs. the Worldâ)
Mr. MICHAEL CERA (Actor): (as Scott Pilgrim) Why does everything have to
be so complicated?
Mr. KIERAN CULKIN (Actor): (as Wallace Wells) If you want something bad
you have to fight for it. Step up your game, Scott. Break out the L
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Lesbian?
Mr. CULKIN: (as Wallace Wells) The other L word.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) Lesbians?
Mr. CULKIN: (as Wallace Wells) Itâs love, Scott. I wasnât trying to
trick you. Hey buddy, look, if she really is the girl of youâre dreams,
then you have to let her know. You have to overcome and all obstacles
that lie in your path. You can do it. Be with her. Itâs your destiny.
Plus, I need you to move out.
Mr. CERA: (as Scott Pilgrim) What?
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Edgar Wright, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. EDGAR WRIGHT (Author): Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: This movie is really fun. And let me just describe what we see
early in the film. We see Scott Pilgrim, this 22-year-old man whoâs
living in Toronto and plays in a band and has an apartment he shares
with a friend. And we look at his apartment, and when the phone rings
the letter R-r-i-n-g exclamation point come spinning out of the phone
into the air, like in a cartoon. And when we're looking at his
apartment, little pop-ups come up explaining, you know, who the lamp
belongs to and whether the computer is Scottâs or his roommateâs, things
like that. When someone kisses, little pink hearts float into the
Whatâs going on here? What are you doing there?
Mr. WRIGHT: Itâs based on a graphic novel which kind of has a lot of
those onomatopoeic sound effects in - within the comic book art. And
usually when people do comic book adaptations or even adaptations of
video games as films, they tend to kind of like jettison all of the
visual tropes and iconography that like make sort of comics and games
particularly memorable. Like the things that we know about kind of comic
books is that there are sound effects and panels and sometimes thereâs
like negative space. And so because itâs a comedy and because thereâs a
feeling of this young man of 22 has a very overactive imagination, that
it felt right to me that youâre seeing the kind of a film that's in his
brain rather than any semblance of reality.
DAVIES: Right. And itâs also has a very rich audio mix. Talk about some
of the sounds in there that we're maybe not even aware of as we hear
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, aside from the music, thereâs a lot of sound effects,
I mean, in a similar way to kind of the visual presentation. You are
sort of seeing the kind of inner workings of Scott Pilgrimâs brain in
the sense of the pop culture and media and technology that heâs grown up
with, you know, in his life. And in a way, itâs a representation of some
of the pop culture and technology of the last 30 years. So throughout
the film you hear a lot of computer sounds, everything from like PCâs to
Macs to Nintendo sounds to sounds from old Sega games.
And I put them in there to kind of, you soundtrack something thatâs
happening on screen, so when Scott Pilgrim does something wrong, you
hear the Mac error sound. And I wanted to kind of invoke a Pavlovian
response in the viewer that they, when they hear the Mac error sound
they think theyâve done something wrong, or when he does something kind
of destructive you hear the Mac trash sound kind of buried in the mix.
And itâs funny, I think for a certain sort of generation, like some of
those sounds are just, you know, like air. You know, itâs just things
that we hear everyday. So I like this idea of like using these little
audio kind of like buttons to kind of soundtrack the film.
DAVIES: You know, there is a story here, of course, and this character
Scott Pilgrim, itâs drawn from the graphic novel by Bryan Lee OâMalley.
But thereâs a point in the film at which, you know, heâs in a band and
heâs dating this, heâs in love with this young woman, Ramona Flowers,
and then he suddenly discovers he has to battle her exes in order to win
her heart. But thereâs a moment at which the film suddenly takes this
leap and he engages in a fight, and he and his, you know, rival are
throwing each other through the air, off of buildings, through walls and
it really departs â it really takes a leap into fantasy. And I'm
picturing you describing this to some middle-aged studio executives...
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: ...and convincing them itâs going to work. What does that sound
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, the irony is is that the book was brought to me like
in 2004, by the studio, essentially. So, you know, we had the book, so
we had the kind of artwork and they'd seen my previous work and thereâs
a level of like magic realism in my previous work in terms of if thereâs
a thread between the two films that I've done before and the TV series
âSpacedâ that I did with Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, you know,
thereâs definitely a feeling of like everymen characters being thrown
into a slightly fantastical world. And I think âScott Pilgrimâ takes it
much further. So the tricky thing with the studio was just actually
selling what it would look like and how we would pull off those fights.
And it definitely sort of - thereâs a point in the film where it kind of
leaves planet Earth. And to me, that was the most ambitious and risky
thing about it, but also the most exciting because it was, people
complain so much about most films being generic. And I thought, well,
this is something where the level of reality is going to feel really
unique and different. And it almost plays â one of the reasons â one of
the ways I described like the fights is that I said it should be an
action film thatâs kind of like a musical, is that the fight should be
like production numbers, meaning people break...
Mr. WRIGHT: ...one of the ways I described like the fights is that I
said it should be an action film thatâs kind of like a musical, is that
the fight should be like production numbers, meaning people break into
fights like they break into song in old MGM musicals. So, I essentially
said it was somewhere between the âMatrixâ and âGrease.â
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: That was my pitch.
DAVIES: Right. Unlike âWest Side Story,â where when a fight is over the
villain doesnât burst into a shower of coins, like it does in this film,
which is one of the terrific effects that you see.
Mr. WRIGHT: I'm sure if Robert Wise had that, like, visual effects in
the mid-â50s he would have done exactly the same thing.
DAVIES: Now, thereâs a moment in the film, and I'm not worried about
giving too much of this away to the audience because when they see it
itâll still be amazing to see. But there's a moment in the film where,
maybe a third of the way through, and we're approaching the door to his
one-room apartment and we hear the little four-note bass line from the
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah.
DAVIES: And then we go in the apartment and for the next three or four
minutes, thereâs a studio laugh track, and whenever a new character
comes in the door thereâs a little applause, and they're sort of acting
like Seinfeld and itâs just hilarious.
But it occurred to me as watched that that thatâs the kind of idea that
could really work or could be utterly contrived and lame. How do you
figure out whatâs going to work? Do you test it with your friends? Do
you just trust your own sensibility?
Mr. WRIGHT: I tend to just kind of go for it. I mean, something like
this film is a real high-wire act in terms of itâs, you know, itâs
definitely got like a go for broke kind of sense of insanity about it.
But in a way, in terms of trying to kind of explain kind of whatâs
happening in that scene, again, I thought the, and when we first came up
that, because thatâs something thatâs not in the books; although, there
was a thing in the books in the previous scene where you saw Scott and
Ramona kissing on a bus and Bryan Lee OâMalley, the artist, had drawn a
sign that said, studio audience, and ah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: And I thought that was really funny. And so I thought well
then, the next scene, when he comes back to his roommate and heâs
bragging about the fact that he made out with this girl the previous
night, he should walk into the room like Fonzie or like Kramer. And he
should be so kind of like full of, you know, he comes back to brag to
his roommate and he walks through the door like heâs king of the world.
So that was where the idea of taking the sitcom thing a little further
to have, you know, and Kramer particularly kind of used to have an
entrance where the audience would burst into rapturous applause. And I
figured that thatâs what Scott Pilgrim is thinking inside his own head
is that, I'm like, I'm Arthur Fonzarelli right now. I have my own, you
know, kind of wave of adulation from the studio audience.
DAVIES: A lot of the amazing visual stuff clearly was added after you
shot it on the set, I mean, the actors are doing this. And what I'm
wondering is, were the images that we see on the film, were they in your
head as you were shooting or were you the kind of artist who starts
something and then kind of letâs the images, in effect, take you to a
place that maybe you hadn't anticipated?
Mr. WRIGHT: No, kind of on the contrary. And this is purely because it
was a very ambitious project to put together and shoot, was that we
prepared everything. We sort of designed everything with storyboards
and, you know, a lot of those graphics were already drawn. And actually,
thereâs only one scene in the film where the actors were having to react
to something that wasnât there. For the most part, like, theyâre on
physical sets and, you know, or locations. And even when there were
graphics, we could actually show them what they were going to see
because sometimes we can actually compose the shot on film, but on the
video monitor actually have the graphic up on screen.
So in that case, and we did a lot of kind of test animation. And say for
instance, there's a sword fight where one of the swords is kind of is
pixilated, and thatâs an effect that youâre not going until itâs all
finished, but Jason Schwartzman had a sword in his hand and Michael Cera
has a sword in his hand, so they're still fighting. And I just tried to
do as much to let the actors be able to visualize it even as we're
So, even down to the thing of, say in the sword fight, we had kind of
flashbulbs that I set off every time the two swords connected. So for
the actors, even they're essentially doing like a play fight with kind
of fake swords, there's this physical thing happening every time that
they press their swords together. And so, I tried to take it away from
that thing where, you know, you get films that are completely shot on a
green screen and people are acting against tennis balls on the end of a
stick, and I think 99 percent of the time that results in bad
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: So, I tried to kind of give the actors as much to go on so
they could know what world they were in so that they could adjust their
DAVIES: Our guest is film director Edgar Wright. He directed the new
film âScott Pilgrim vs. the World.â
Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is film director Edgar
Wright. His new film is âScott Pilgrim vs. the World.â
I wanted to talk about the 2004 film âShaun of the Dead,â which is a
zombie film set in suburban England, a world that you knew well. You
wrote this with your friend Simon Pegg, whoâs the lead actor in the
film. Where did the idea come from? What was going to be funny about
Mr. WRIGHT: That film is really like a love-hate letter to London in a
way because we both lived in the city and itâs about a character stuck
in a rut, but thereâs also a feeling â and the center joke of the film
is it was not entirely clear in London which members of the city were
living or dead.
And certainly having lived in London â and this goes for any big city, I
think - is that you could go through an entire day and not have any
human connection with anybody. And Shaun was a character who was just
drifting through life and is the last to know that thereâs been a zombie
outbreak. So, it was kind of funny and also sort of like in some ways a
comment on society in terms of, you know, that people in cities walk
past kind of like the sort of the homeless guy, you know, walk past
people who are in distress and kind of walk around with their blinkers
on and, you know, donât know that something bad is happening until itâs
And Shaun is somebody who eventually kind of has his kind of moment as a
hero, but heâs kind of shaken out of his mid-20s life crisis by the
zombie outbreak. So even though itâs kind of like a pretty crazy comedy,
for me and Simon, it was quite personal in a lot of ways.
DAVIES: Well, I wanted to listen to one scene from this. This is a
moment â thatâs actually quite late in the film where Shaun, our
character played by Simon Pegg, is with Liz, whoâs played by Kate
Ashfield, and theyâve been fighting off zombies the whole film. They're
now surrounded and in a hopeless position. And theyâd been dating but
Liz had actually broken up with him the day before. He sort of redeemed
himself by showing courage and resourcefulness through the fight, but
now the game is up, the zombies are closing in. They have a shotgun with
two shells left and decide that they're going to finish each other off.
And letâs listen.
(Soundbite of movie, âShaun of the Deadâ)
Mr. SIMON PEGG (Actor): (as Shaun) How are we going to do this?
Ms. KATE ASHFIELD (Actor): (as Liz) I donât know. One of us has to go
Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) Well, maybe one should do the other and then do
Ms. ASHFIELD: (as Liz) Or, maybe you should do me. Iâll only muck it up
if I have to do myself.
(Soundbite of mimicked gunshot sounds)
Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) Yeah. I donât think I've got it in me to shoot my
flat mate, my mom and my girlfriend all in the same evening.
Ms. ASHFIELD: (as Liz) Oh, why should I have taken you back?
Mr. PEGG: (as Shaun) You donât want to die single, do you?
DAVIES: And thatâs from the film âShaun of the Dead,â directed by our
guest Edgar Wright.
You know, I read that Quentin Tarantino, I think saw it and became a fan
and really wanted to help you. Tell me a little bit about that
relationship, how you met and what you did together.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, the nicest introduction is kind of, in this
business, are through your own work. And he was a big fan of âShaun of
the Deadâ and, you know, I was a huge fan of his. So, yeah, one of the
nicest things about making that film was the world getting a little
smaller all of a sudden and getting to meet a lot of my heroes and even
in some cases collaborating them, because I did one of the trailers for
Quentin and Robert Rodriguezâs film âGrindhouse.â
But itâs something that like, you know, the British film industry isn't
that big, so it was nice kind of like coming to Hollywood and meeting a
lot of your heroes and being able to kind of pick their brains. And
certainly, with âScott Pilgrim,â before and after the film I, you know,
sought the advice of people that I respected.
DAVIES: Did Quentin Tarantino have you live in his place for a while,
while you were polishing the script to...
Mr. WRIGHT: No.
Mr. WRIGHT: Not as a kept man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: Like, he didnât have me â I wasnât a prisoner. Now, I did
stay there for a little bit in his guesthouse when I was - after âHot
Fuzz.â You know, I wanted to write in Los Angeles and he offered that I
could stay there and write, which was great actually because I can never
write at home. I've never been able to do it in my own apartment and
somehow I could write in his apartment, so it was actually, you know,
had a definitely a lucky feeling to it because I wrote a whole of stuff
when I was staying there.
DAVIES: You can't write at home. Where do you write, an office?
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. With Simon, we rent an office and come into work
âcause I think the thing is you have to arrange to meet somebody if
youâre writing together. I think if you do it in each other's apartments
thereâs always some kind of errand or some kind of time wasting excuse
of like I can't come right now because. But if you say Iâll see you at
9:30 tomorrow at the office, thereâs no getting around that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: The âScott Pilgrimâ film has been well-received by critics. But
a couple have said that itâs maybe one or two fight scenes too long. And
âShaun of the Deadâ certainly had some â has a lot of violence in it, a
lot of fun, but violence. And âHot Fuzzâ ends with a long series of gun
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: ...in this country village. It makes me wonder, are you ever
going to resolve some things with like a drink and a conversation or a
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: Itâs funny. I mean, I think probably as a fan of like genre
cinema, I've certainly held my hands out as being guilty of going as far
over the top as I possibly can. I basically keep going until the time
and the money runs out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: So I think - and itâs funny, actually doing âScott Pilgrim,â
itâs interesting doing test screenings with cold audiences is you have
to kind of find that balance of comedy and action. And in some cases,
actually, the fights were longer in âScott Pilgrimâ and we sort of timed
them up because I realize as a fan of like Hong Kong cinema, that I can
happily sit through a 20 minute fight scene, whereas, not all Western
audiences will be able to kind of face that.
But, you know, personally, you know, I like watching that stuff, if I'm
DAVIES: Okay. Well, Edgar Wright, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Edgar Wright directed the new film âScott Pilgrim vs. the World.â
He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
You'll find links to clips from the film, as well as excerpts of the
graphic novel itâs based on, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.