Skip to main content

Edgar Wright tells a different kind of ghost story in 'Last Night in Soho'

His latest film, Last Night in Soho, is set in the present day and tells the story of a young woman named Eloise who is transported in her dreams into the swinging '60s of London, where she lives out the life of another woman.


Other segments from the episode on November 1, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 1, 2021: Interview with Edgar Wright; Review of the film 'The Souvenir Pt. 2'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Filmmaker Edgar Wright has two movies that came out this year. The first is a documentary called "The Sparks Brothers" about the rock band Sparks, led by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. He directed and co-wrote the new movie "Last Night In Soho," which was just released. It's a mix of thriller and ghost story. FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger spoke with Edgar Wright and can tell us more.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: "Last Night In Soho" is about a present-day young woman named Eloise - she goes by Ellie - who grew up in small-town England, in love with the '60s scene of London. She gets accepted into the London College of Fashion and moves there, full of big-city dreams. However, she doesn't get along with her roommate and is at odds with the dormitory's party scene. So she finds a room for rent and Soho in a home owned by Ms. Collins, played by Diana Rigg. It was Rigg's last role before she died. Ellie is played by Thomasin McKenzie.


THOMASIN MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) Ms. Collins?

DIANA RIGG: (As Ms. Collins) Yes?

MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) It's Ellie. We spoke on the phone.

RIGG: (As Ms. Collins) Oh, yes - room is on the top floor - have a few rules. Don't take smokers.

MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) I don't smoke.

RIGG: (As Ms. Collins) No male visitors after 8 o'clock.

MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) Not a problem.

RIGG: (As Ms. Collins) And no using the laundry room at night. It rattles right through to mine.

MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) I don't do laundry.

RIGG: (As Ms. Collins) Aye?

MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) I mean, I don't do nighttime laundry. I do do laundry. I'm very clean.

RIGG: (As Ms. Collins) Good. It's a bit old-fashioned for some. But I won't do nothing to it. If you don't like it, you can find somewhere else.

MCKENZIE: (As Ellie) It's perfect. I love it.

BRIGER: Ellie has some sort of sixth sense and is sensitive to ghosts. As she falls asleep in her new bedroom, she dreams of a former occupant, a young woman named Sandie, living at the height of the swinging '60s and pursuing her dreams of becoming a singer. Sandie is played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Ellie's dreams outshine her waking hours, and she goes to bed every night excited to live out Sandie's life. However, the dreams turned to nightmares that begin to haunt Ellie even when she's awake. Edgar Wright co-wrote "Last Night In Soho" with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Along with his new documentary "The Sparks Brothers," Wright's other films include "Baby Driver," "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," "The World's End," "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead."

Edgar Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

EDGAR WRIGHT: Thanks for having me again.

BRIGER: I read that you wanted to make this movie for a long time. What was the original inspiration?

WRIGHT: A lot of things have been percolating in my head with this one. And I guess the sort of - the two things kind of really inspired it - one was, not dissimilar to Eloise in the movie, I had an obsession with the '60s that started with my parents' record collection. They didn't have a big record collection. They had one box of records that was just '60s albums. And I guess it kind of occurred to me later that they stopped buying albums when my older brother was (laughter) born. So there were no '70s albums. And because I always spent a lot of time - my parents, like, worked two jobs a lot of the time - so I was frequently left alone with - you know, in the days before the internet and even having a portable TV in my room, I would just listen to those records a lot and sort of almost, like, just disappear into that decade through the music.

And I think in that strange way where you - you know, the film is sort of about having nostalgia for a decade that you never lived in. And I certainly had that - 'cause I was born in 1974. And I always found it strange, you know, that I was obsessed with the '60s and maybe with that nagging feeling that I just missed out (laughter). So that would be one inspiration. And then the other big part of it is London itself and moving to London when I was 20. And in the 27 years that I've lived in London, I've spent more time in Soho than any couch in any apartment that (laughter) I've ever lived in.

BRIGER: How did you envision the '60s through that record collection?

WRIGHT: Well, I guess, there's just the feeling of the scene. I mean, there was - obviously there was a point in the mid-'60s where, like, London was, like, leading the world in culture - in music and fashion and art and film and photography. And, you know, obviously if you just kind of like disappear into kind of like a heady swirl of Beatles and Stones and Pink Floyd, it's kind of just sort of tempting to just kind of, like, think of that decade as being, you know, the most exciting time, which of course, it was in some ways. But sort of what the movie is about is that, like, you can't have the good without the bad.

BRIGER: For people who live in the states and might not know Soho, what's that neighborhood like today, and what was it like in the '60s?

WRIGHT: So Soho is a square mile in the middle of central London. It's right in between, like, the West End, which is our theater district, and on the other side is Oxford Street, which is the main shopping thoroughfare. And Soho is, like, sort of a bit of a lure unto itself because for hundreds of years, it's been a place where, you know, like, artists and, I guess, like, the sort of the underworld kind of, like, mingle. And it's been, like, the sort of the center of show business. And, indeed, it is the center of the film and TV industry. And it's, like, a major nightlife area and probably the only part of London that is genuinely 24/7. But there is a darker side to Soho. I mean, certainly, you know, like, historically, it's been kind of seen as a den of iniquity in terms of, like, the criminal underworld and the sex industry. And I guess in the time that I've been there, it's been - all of that's sort of been gentrified out, but not quite.

And more recently, in the last five years since I edited "Baby Driver," I've started living very close - like, literally, you know, 90 seconds walk away from Soho. But, you know, it was really important to me to shoot it in the area. And I think if at an early stage producers or my location manager had said, Edgar, this is impossible; we can't shoot in the real Soho; we have to fake it somewhere else, I probably wouldn't have made the movie. I could get invested in a project if I can ground in reality. Especially in a movie like this, that is very fantastical - you know, a supernatural tale that sort of turns into sort of full-on psychological horror - having a grounding in the real location is so important to me.

BRIGER: So "Last Night In Soho" is about a innocent going to the big city to live her dreams and the trouble she gets into. That could have been a movie full of cliches. How did you try to avoid them?

WRIGHT: Well, in a way, one of the inspirations for the movie was that genre of films from the '60s - because I watched a lot of those films. And there are some very good ones. And there are a lot of other, like, more sort of B-movie ones that are very sort of sensationalistic and moralistic - that genre of, like, girl comes to London to be a star and has the audacity to want to make it big and will be roundly punished for her efforts.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Right.

WRIGHT: And at that point, it's almost like the city becomes the villain. It's like London is there to spit - you know, to chew you up and spit you out. And I watched many of those films. And I thought it was interesting because the majority of them are written by men and directed by men. And you start to get this sense that those films were the old guard slapping the wrist of the younger generation. So it was like a rebuke to the progressive movement. And I thought that was really interesting. And so part of the conception of the movie was, like, how to subvert that by showing the story of a modern girl coming to London and having the experience of a '60s starlet coming to London.

BRIGER: So the '60s of your movie hasn't really been touched by the counterculture. It's very dominated by white men in flannel suits who are happy to prey on the ambitions of young women. We're far from the women's movement here. And I think people don't always remember that a lot of the '60s probably felt a lot like the '50s and the '40s.

WRIGHT: Well, I think that's true. And I think in terms of, I think, in reality, like, the sort of - the swinging '60s didn't sort of permeate out through to the mainstream immediately, like - and not just the rest of the country but even in suburban London. And I think that was something that I wanted to capture on screen because a lot of films that maybe do period stuff will kind of be in this almost, like, "Austin Powers" version of London (laughter) where everything is kind of, like, sort of cool and groovy and everybody's hanging out on Carnaby Street, you know, in mini dresses.

But there is the other side of it where, like - I mean, there's a scene in the movie that I find very - like, sort of one of my favorite images in the movie, even if it's a disturbing one, is Eloise at one point wakes up in a club, and she's the only woman sitting in this kind of sea of gray, middle-aged men. And I was always taken with, when you look at archive from the time, that even men in their 20s looked like they were in their 40s (laughter) 'cause everybody's, like, chain-smoking, and everybody's wearing suit.

BRIGER: Wearing suits and...

WRIGHT: And it's very formal. And that is something that, I think, the - I guess the more sort of, like, outre fashions and stuff didn't start to permeate out until the late '60s or even the '70s, you know? So I thought that was something that I wanted to capture on screen. And that was - you know, when you actually look at movies from the time, that's something that's kind of - was very sort of striking to me, that it was different when you look at the actual movies from the time, they're necessarily people recreating that period on screen sometimes.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with filmmaker Edgar Wright. His newest film, "Last Night In Soho," has just been released. He's also known for the films "The World's End," "Hot Fuzz," "Shaun Of The Dead" and "Baby Driver." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking with filmmaker Edgar Wright. Some of his movies you may know are "Shaun Of The Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "Baby Driver." His newest is called "Last Night In Soho."

You spent a lot of time thinking about the music that you're going to use in your films. And for this one, I felt like there was a focus on a particular kind of '60s song, one performed by people like Cilla Black and Petula Clark. And even in one scene, your character Sandie says she's going to be the next Cilla Black. What do those songs and those singers mean to you?

WRIGHT: Well, there is - yeah, the female singers of the mid-'60s, it was obviously an incredible time for performers like Cilla Black, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw. But I was always really taken with those songs in terms of how, like, emotional they are and sort of stained with tears, even the up-tempo ones. Like, I mean, maybe it's just me, but I can find the melancholy in Petula Clark's "Downtown," which obviously, we kind of take advantage of in the movie by getting Anya to kind of sing a sort of more bittersweet version of it. But it's - I always had found that those songs sounded so operatic, and it really seemed to kind of just help me find the tone of the movie.

BRIGER: And I think that those songs that - they often have a lush arrangement. They're expressing this melodramatic version of love, not very realistic. They are probably mostly produced by record companies. So we're not talking about garage bands here, or - and we're definitely not in the psychedelic movement. It feels like a very sort of company-driven version of music. Do you think that's fair?

WRIGHT: I mean, the interesting thing, just talking about ghosts in this movie, like - I mean, we recorded the score for the movie in Studio 1 at Abbey Road, where Cilla Black and George Martin actually recorded "You're My World." So there was a moment where we actually did our own version of "You're My World" in exactly the same studio where Cilla Black and George Martin had once did it, which was obviously...

BRIGER: Oh, that is eerie (laughter).

WRIGHT: ...Felt like a religious experience in some ways.

BRIGER: Why don't we hear a little bit of "You're My World" by Cilla Black?


CILLA BLACK: (Singing) You're my world. You're every breath I take. You're my world. You're every move I make. Other eyes see the stars up in the skies, but for me they shine within your eyes. As the trees reach for the sun above, so my arms reach out to you for love. With your hand resting in mine, I feel a power so divine. You're my world. You are my night and day. You're my world. You're every prayer I pray. If our love ceases to be, then it's the end of my world for me.

BRIGER: So that's the song "You're My World" by Cilla Black, which plays a role in my guest Edgar Wright's new movie "Last Night In Soho." So, Edgar, I had not heard that song before, but I was initially struck how it has a similarity to Bernard Herrmann's theme from "Psycho," those violins at the beginning. It's really kind of creepy.

WRIGHT: I mean, it's something that I had heard that - you know, as a child. And then in starting to conceive of this movie and amassing the soundtrack for it, whenever that song would come up, you know, the intro immediately grabbed my attention, and I felt like - that this is the perfect song for this film because it's, like, a lush, epic, emotional ballad, but it does have this strangely disconcerting opening that, yes, sounds very much like the theme from "Vertigo" or "Psycho."

BRIGER: You know, the movie I have been kind of describing as a ghost story. And I'm just wondering what your feelings are about ghosts.

WRIGHT: I mean, A, I think that's very accurate because it's not just ghosts in a supernatural sense. It's also, like, the ghosts of the past, even just in a cultural sense, you know? Like, the thing about Soho is that the - kind of the shadow of the '60s looms very large over the whole area still to this day.

I've never seen a ghost, but I do believe in them. Or at least I believe in - if not in the - kind of the traditional sense of ghosts being souls left on Earth in torment, I do believe, as put forward in the film as well, the idea of, like, some kind of psychic residue left behind by an event. And I think most people - if you found out that a murder had happened in a room, I think a lot of people would be very attuned to what that might mean. I think about that a lot because in a way, the whole movie is, like, inspired by the idea of, what have these walls seen?

But on top of that, my mother is, I would say, very supernaturally switched on in terms of - like, my mum is the sort of person who feels presences in old buildings and has seen ghosts. And I, growing up, never kind of questioned that. Because she had this - and one of her many stories - and, in fact, since she's seen the movie, they've all kind of come tumbling out again. I think my mum watched it and thought it was, like, a documentary because I think she saw herself in Eloise in a big way. And even in my family house, where I lived from the ages of seven to 20, my mum had seen or felt the presence of two separate ghosts of two previous inhabitants. A standard story from my mum would be - maybe at the dinner table, my mum would say, oh, I saw the ghost of a hanged man in the living room this morning.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

WRIGHT: And I told him to piss off, and he disappeared. So that's good. And me and my brother would say, yes, OK, right, you know? But it's - the thing is I totally believe my mum. And I'm very - if I haven't seen a ghost myself, I'm very, like, ghost curious. But on the flipside, even as a sort of teenager, I would probably - knew enough not to go and share that with my friends in the playground the next day...

BRIGER: Sure. Sure.

WRIGHT: ...Or - you know, because I would know what they would think about that.

BRIGER: You have some actors in this movie who were actually big stars in the '60s, including Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg. And sadly, this turned out to be Rigg's last performance before she died. Can you talk about what it was like working with her?

WRIGHT: In thinking about it, it's like - it's obviously tinged with sadness because she's not here to kind of, like, celebrate the finished film with us. But I can only be happy of the time I got to spend with her - not just working with her, but we became friends afterwards. And in fact, quite a long time after we finished shooting, well into the first lockdown, we'd be talking on the phone. I think I spoke to Diana Rigg sometimes as often as my own mother (laughter). Like, so one of my joys of, like, the early part of the lockdown was talking to Diana Rigg once a week about what old movie she'd be watching on TV.

And in fact, my final memory of her - I saw her, like, two weeks before she passed away. She really wanted to complete her work on the movie. And I don't mean filming. She just had some ADR to do. ADR is where you loop, like, some dialogue. And, like, her daughter said that she's such a pro and was obsessed about never missing a performance. I mean, this was a big part of her work on Broadway and the West End, is I never miss a performance.

So she had this thing, even as she was, like, getting ill and knew that her, you know, kind of time on Earth was limited. She actually got in touch with me to say, I need to do my ADR right now. And it was important to her to finish the job, which I thought was extraordinary because obviously, if something had happened, we would have said, listen. We can make do. But she said, no, I want to finish my work.

So I did actually work with her at her house - or rather, at her daughter's house. But even that experience was, like, something that makes me smile because even the last time I saw her - and clearly she was, you know, getting ill and frail. And she was so funny and sort of fierce and fabulous that I even just walked down the garden path after spending, like, 90 minutes with her, you know, doing the work, but also still gossiping and also, very crucially, I should say, having a Campari and soda, at her suggestion.


WRIGHT: So I'll have that memory forever. In fact, the last time I saw Dame Diana Rigg, she was making me laugh so much, and I got to have a Campari and soda with her. And I just - so it's that thing where somebody - sometimes, when somebody passes away, either the last memory is really sad or that you didn't get to say goodbye. And not only did I, like, have a great kind of, like, time with her the last time I saw her, but I also spoke to her on the phone, you know, like, after that. And she - you know, she did sort of say, you know, like, bye-bye and stuff.

So it's, like, terribly emotional for me. And I, you know - obviously, we dedicate the movie to her, and I'm so proud of her in the movie. But you can choose to be sad about something like that, or you can just thank your lucky stars that you got a chance to work with her and know her at all. And that's what I choose to do.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, our guest is filmmaker Edgar Wright. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BLACK: (Singing) Anyone who ever loved could look at me and know that I love you. Anyone who ever dreamed could look at me and know I dream of you.

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, a producer for the show. Let's get back to my interview with filmmaker Edgar Wright. Some of his earlier films include "Shaun Of The Dead" and "Baby Driver." This year, he released two movies. The first is "The Sparks Brothers," a documentary about the rock band Sparks, led by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael. And the second one that just came out is "Last Night In Soho," a thriller and ghost story set in London in the present day and in the swinging '60s. It stars Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith.

Reading about your life, I noticed there were some parallels between you and your main character, Eloise. You grew up in a small town. It's actually a town that you used in "Hot Fuzz" to depict the quaintest, sleepiest town in all of England. So...

WRIGHT: But with dark secrets.

BRIGER: Yes. Of course - but on the surface, really quaint and sleepy. So what was it like growing up there?

WRIGHT: Well, I think it's that thing that when you are, like, growing up, especially as a teenager, you do not appreciate the place that you live in for what it is. Obviously now, as an adult, I love the idea of it. And I think maybe, oh, wouldn't it be nice to move back there in a way? But at the time, you know, when you feel like you're away from, like, where it's happening - and not just London. Even, like, the nearest - the nearest big city to me was Bristol. And even Bristol, which was, like - maybe, like, 40 minutes' drive away or 90 minutes on a bus, that felt like a big deal, to go to Bristol and, like, go to a place that had, like, you know, independent record shops or, like, a comic book store or, like, cinemas that were showing, like, independent movies.

I remember as soon as I got a car when I was 17, I just sort of expanded my cinema watching. It was - like, the first thing I did was drive to Bristol to sort of go to the local arthouse and sort of pretend to be an adult and, like, pretend like I actually enjoyed black coffee and carrot cake. And...

BRIGER: Did you have a beret on? Or...

WRIGHT: Not a beret. But I remember going to a screening of "Barton Fink" and thinking that everybody in the audience looked like Barton Fink.


WRIGHT: But it was that thing. I was trying to fit in, I think, and trying to look like a cineaste. And thinking, like - I mean, I've now grown a taste for black coffee. But at the time, I think I was faking it.

BRIGER: Well, you grew up in the era of video rental stores. Were there movies that you would just rent over and over again?

WRIGHT: Well, funnily enough, I did grow up in that era. However, my parents, like, did not have a VCR. And my mom and dad were, like, sort of, kind of strapped for cash a lot of the time. They were sort of - they were art teachers. And then they dropped out of teaching to be artists. And that was tough because I saw them kind of, like, struggle with their various small businesses and just trying to make a living as artists. And so we never had a lot of cash growing up and stuff. And so one of the things is like, we can't afford a VCR. So all of the films that I wanted to see (laughter) were higher ratings than I was allowed to, whether it was, like, "American Werewolf In London" or "Carrie" or even "Alien" or "The Thing."

So sometimes those movies might - there's two things I remember very vividly was - one was that I would sometimes watch them round at my older brother's friends' houses, who did have VCRs, and usually during the day when their parents were at work, sitting kind of in a living room in the middle of the day watching "Nightmare On Elm Street" or "Carrie."

The other thing I remember very vividly was going to video stores and just standing in the video stores and reading the backs of the VHSes and the synopsis and trying to imagine what the film was like. And so I remember very vividly, maybe as a sort of 12-year-old, like, looking at - I don't know - the VHS cover for Brian De Palma's "Body Double" and trying to imagine what that film would actually be like (laughter).

BRIGER: I don't think you could do that with that movie.

WRIGHT: No, I know - particularly with that one. The good thing with that one is that the content of the movie exceeds your wildest imagination.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yes, it does. Definitely. Was there a point when you were young where, rather than just watching a movie for just the entertainment and the plot, like, you thought to yourself, gee, I wonder how they did that shot?

WRIGHT: Yeah. I would definitely - I think sort of early on, I - when I started to realize that, you know, films were made by filmmakers, I think the first time I was aware of that - maybe even as a 7-year-old - is when "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" came out because even in the promotion, it was like, from the producer of "Star Wars" and from the director of, like, "Close Encounters." So it's like, oh, OK. I see. These are, like, sort of people that have made other things that I like are making a new film.

And then from that point on, I was always very interested in filmmaking. But I didn't necessarily think about directing. I maybe - myself and my brother was sort of obsessed with, you know, creature makeup or, like, you know, model-making or some special effects element. But the - kind of the light bulb moment was a documentary on British TV when I was about 14 years old. The chat show host, Jonathan Ross, had this show called "The Incredibly Strange Film Show," which, on network TV, had hour-long shows on John Waters, another week, Russ Meyer, another week, Jackie Chan, another week, George Romero. This is mind-expanding stuff as a 14-year-old.

But the thing that kind of really was the light bulb moment was he did an hour on Sam Raimi. And specifically, within the Sam Raimi story was the story that the director of "Evil Dead" had started making that film at the age of 18 and prior to that was making goofy shorts with his friends on Super 8 at school. And around that time, my parents had actually - knowing that me and my brother were interested in films and animation and effects - had bought us a second-hand Super 8 camera, one of those presents, by the way, that, like, spans - you know the kind of, like, this is your birthday present and your Christmas present? But it also went for me and my brother. So it was like one present between four events.

BRIGER: I'm sure. Yeah.


WRIGHT: So I - we had this Super 8 camera. I saw that documentary. And then that was the light bulb moment. It was like, that's what I'm going to do. And it was like - from that moment on, it was like, I want to be a director, you know? And then that started almost immediately with, like, making goofy kind of, like, comedy shorts with my friends, like, in breaks at school or after school or on, like, sort of during holidays.

BRIGER: Well, let's move forward just a little bit. Your big break was directing the TV show "Spaced," which included the actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. And you went on to make three very successful films with them, "Shaun Of The Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End." How did you know that you had a good thing working with them?

WRIGHT: I think it was something with working with Simon, you know, as an actor, I guess there's a thing where he could do something that I couldn't. Prior to that, when I'd been making films with my school friends, most of them didn't really want to be actors. They were just kind of acting in my shorts because I asked them to.

BRIGER: Right.

WRIGHT: And then meeting somebody like Simon, who was, like, not just a great comic actor but a great actor full stop - I think as soon as I met him, I was like, we should make a film together. I think even before "Spaced," I was thinking about that. And so I think also because our sensibilities were similar. And we liked the same movies. And I think in a weird way, the reason we wrote "Shaun Of The Dead" was not necessarily because we thought, let's go off and write a film to make together. It was more like we wanted to make a film. And we'd been reading, like, other scripts that would be sent to us separately and - I mean, it might sound cocky, but with a feeling like, I think we could do better than this. So I think we wrote the first screenplay together, "Shaun Of The Dead," out of necessity rather than anything else.

And also, you know, we were working in TV, but, like, British film - much more of a gamble. There's absolutely no guarantee that, like, you're going to get the movie made. So sort of taking time off from doing a TV show that was actually on the air to kind of gamble on the movie that may or may not be made might - I noticed some of our colleagues and friends seemed, like, reckless and maybe foolish, you know?

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're talking with filmmaker Edgar Wright. His newest film, "Last Night In Soho," has just been released. He's also known for the films "The World's End," "Hot Fuzz," "Shaun Of The Dead" and "Baby Driver." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with filmmaker Edgar Wright. Some of his movies you may know are "Shaun Of The Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "Baby Driver." This year, he released two movies - "Last Night In Soho," which just came out, and his first documentary, "The Sparks Brothers," about the rock band Sparks.

So, you know, "Last Night In Soho" is actually your second movie this year. The first movie, "The Sparks Brothers," is actually your first documentary, and it's about this band Sparks that are led by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. And I'll admit I did not know them before your documentary. I'm glad that I know them now. But could you just tell us a little bit about Sparks and why you wanted to make a movie about them?

WRIGHT: So Sparks were a band that were initially like a riddle to me. I saw them on TV when I was 5 years old. And then in a pre-internet age, you had to let music come to you (laughter), like, rather than go searching for it yourself. You could only rely on what was on the radio, the TV, or it might be talked about in a music magazine or a book. And so sometimes with a band like Sparks, you could lose the kind of - the trail of breadcrumbs for, like, five, 10 years at a time (laughter). And suddenly, they'd be back in your life again - oh, wow, Sparks. This is the same band that I saw on TV when I was 5?

So there was a big element to me, before the internet and before kind of people could have an entire discography at their fingertips or read everything about somebody on Wikipedia, that Sparks were just kind of, like, a mystery that had to be solved. And then in recent decades, I just - they obviously have just kept making music and now in their sixth decade. The thing that I found confounding and extraordinary is I thought that their more recent stuff was just as good, if not more ambitious than their kind of heyday - in inverted commas. They hate to think about the idea of a golden period. So that was the reason to make the movie. And partly, as a Sparks fan, I was aggrieved on their behalf that nobody had made a documentary about them.

BRIGER: Well, it's amazing that, as you said, they've been doing this for six decades, many times on the edge of fame, but, you know, not willing to compromise the music or sell out to reach that larger audience. Is that inspiring to you?

WRIGHT: Well, I think, you know, obviously, the kind of the win-win is if you can make something on your own terms and have it be a success.


WRIGHT: And, you know, I certainly feel like with my last movie, "Baby Driver," I felt just incredibly grateful that, you know, I made an original movie that was a screenplay that I'd written, and it was my biggest hit. So that's, like, the ultimate in a way, is that you're kind of doing something for yourself and people like it. I mean, I - that said, I mean - and also, Ron and Russell have had pockets of big success in their time...


WRIGHT: ...Just not always in the same country at the same time.

BRIGER: Right - the same decade.


WRIGHT: So that's something - but I think I really admire their, like, work rate and also their just dogged pursuit of sort of perfection. It's like, I feel like the thing that's kept them going is that they've never been - felt superior to the idea of the perfect four-minute song in the way that some bands, like, start to all maybe, like, sneer at their own legacy in a way, that, like, the old stuff was silly. Sparks has sort of just kept pushing forward on this endless quest to make the perfect Sparks song, and that's what keeps them going. And of course, the irony is they've made, like, hundreds of perfect Sparks songs along the way (laughter).

BRIGER: So you have these brothers, Ron and Russell. And Russell is the lead singer, and he's the, like, conventionally cute one, and he sings in this high falsetto. And then there's Ron, who, like, plays piano, I think does most of the writing, including the lyrics, and Ron was really an enigma to me in the movie. Like, I don't know a lot of Sparks material, but from the movie, I sort of gleaned the idea that there's a lot of longing in his songs, and they're often about lonely people wishing to be understood better. And so I sort of think that maybe those are Ron's own feelings. But I can't square that with the persona that he presents in his music. He, like - he seems like he wants to come across as weird as possible. Like, he's got this Hitler mustache on stage.

WRIGHT: (Laughter) He would say the Charlie Chaplin mustache.

BRIGER: Fair enough (laughter). But, you know, you can't...

WRIGHT: Why let Hitler have all the fun? I mean, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin did it first.

BRIGER: How about Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler mustache? But nonetheless, he's sort of sitting as rigid as possible on stage. He's wearing, like, square clothes. Whenever the camera comes to him, he makes these weird faces, like he screws up his mouth or he scowls. He does this crazy version of the Charleston with this malevolent grin. So like...

WRIGHT: (Laughter).

BRIGER: I just - so the persona seems to be, like, trying to keep as much distance from himself and his audience, but all this music seems to have all this longing in it.

WRIGHT: I mean, I think that's the appeal of Sparks in a nutshell in a way is that there's that question mark. You have these brothers, you know - and Russell, who is, like, you know, the more conventionally handsome, shall we say, of the two - although Ron has his own following. Let's not kind of...

BRIGER: Well, they were both, like, catalog models; weren't they? I mean, they're both attractive...

WRIGHT: That is an urban myth that they put out themselves.

BRIGER: (Laughter) OK, OK, fair enough.

WRIGHT: In the '70s, they used to put out fake facts in their fan magazines because...

BRIGER: I fell for one.

WRIGHT: Well, this is what's really funny. In the attempt to be more enigmatic and not reveal too much - and I think part of that is because they like the idea of being mysterious because I think they - and I think it's very smart - is that it's better to sort of be enigmatic than people know too much about your personal lives. And I think maybe part of that is because they're actually relatively quite normal guys.

So there's an element of, like - their way of being rock stars is just to - like, to leave a question mark hanging. Like, they don't talk about their personal lives too much or even their sexuality because they don't really feel that they need to or that it's that important. And I think they would rather have fans project onto them than tell everybody everything. And I think in an age now where, like, social media has kind of made so many rock stars so more boring because we know (laughter) too much about them.

And I think there are some people who probably long for the days of Sparks or David Bowie, where people are a bit more mysterious, you know? And I think that they've kept that up. And it was the one thing that they said - which I was happy to respect - they said the only thing they didn't want to talk about in the documentary was their personal lives, particularly current ones. And I was like, I totally understand. And I think that's fair. To me, it's like, I don't need - the kind of questions that arise for the music are more entertaining than maybe the answers.

BRIGER: Well, you know, our time is up. But before I say goodbye, do you want to pick a Sparks song that we could end with?

WRIGHT: Oh, yes. I mean, it's funny because obviously there's hundreds of songs. And it's that strange thing where it would be very difficult to say, if all the Sparks songs were on fire, (laughter) which one...

BRIGER: (Laughter) What should you save?

WRIGHT: ...Would you save? But I do think that "The Number One Song In Heaven" from 1979 - maybe 'cause it's one of the first Sparks songs I ever heard. But I think it's also both, like, a joyous and profound and yet satirical song - that it's, like, called "Number One Song In Heaven," and it's about the experience of hearing what's No. 1 when you go to heaven. I've always loved it 'cause it's a song that starts with the line, if you should die before you awake, if you should die whilst crossing the street, the song that you hear - I guarantee it's No. 1 all over heaven (laughter). So, I mean, I think it's, like, one of the greatest songs of all time.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Well, Edgar Wright, it's been a pleasure. Congratulations on both of your movies. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

WRIGHT: Thanks for having me again. It's always a pleasure.

GROSS: Edgar Wright spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Wright directed and co-wrote the new film "Last Night In Soho" and directed the recent documentary "The Sparks Brothers" about the rock band Sparks.


SPARKS: (Singing) It's No. 1 all over heaven. It's No. 1 all over heaven. It's No. 1 all over heaven, the No. 1 song all over heaven. In case you die before you awake, in case you die while crossing the street, the song that you'll hear - I guarantee it's No. 1 all over heaven. It's No. 1 all over heaven. It's No. 1 all over heaven, the No. 1 song all over heaven, the one that's the rage up here in the clouds.

GROSS: After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Souvenir: Part II." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue