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

Edgar Wright (center) works with actor Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith on the set of <em>Last Night in Soho.  </em>
Greg Williams
Focus Features
Edgar Wright (center) works with actor Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith on the set of Last Night in Soho.

Filmmaker Edgar Wright has never seen a ghost, but he does believe in them — or at least in the ghostly pull of the past.

"I believe in — if not in the kind of the traditional sense of ghosts being souls left on Earth in torment — I do believe [in] ... the idea of some kind of psychic residue left behind by an event," he says.

Wright's credits include Baby Driver, Shaun of the Dead and the documentaryThe Sparks Brothers. 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.

Throughout the film, the shadow of the past looms large. Wright, who was born in 1974, says he grew up obsessed with the London scene that predated him — and haunted by the nagging feeling that he had missed out.

"There was a point in the mid-'60s where London was leading the world in culture, in music and fashion and art and film and photography," he says. "The film is sort of about having nostalgia for a decade that you never lived in."

But in the movie, nostalgia is tinted with menace as Eloise's dreams become nightmares that haunt her waking hours. "It's tempting to just kind of think of [the '60s] as being the most exciting time," Wright says. "But sort of what the movie is about — is that you can't have the good without the bad."

Interview highlights

On the inspiration for the movie

I had an obsession with the '60s that started with my parents' record collection because I remember that they had a 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 born, so there were no '70s albums. ... My parents worked two jobs. A lot of the times I was frequently left alone, 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 just disappear into that decade through the music.

On filming in Soho in London and how critical it was to the creation of this film

Soho is a square mile in the middle of central London. It's right in between 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 sort of a bit of a lore unto itself because for hundreds of years, it's been a place where artists and, I guess, the underworld kind of mingle. And it's been the center of show business, and indeed it is the center of the film and TV industry. And it's a major nightlife area and probably the only part of London that is genuinely 24/7. But there is a darker side to Soho.

Historically, it's been kind of seen as a den of iniquity in terms of the criminal underworld and the sex industry, and I guess in the time that I've been there, all of that's sort of been gentrified out, but not quite. So it's still sort of a place where the darker side is right there and sort of in kind of plain sight. And I always found that very compelling, that these two worlds kind of sort of coexist.

On avoiding the clichés of the innocent goes to the big city to follow her dreams

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 were some very good ones, and there are a lot of other 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!" And at that point, it's almost like the city becomes the villain. It's like London is there 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. I thought that was really interesting. So part of the conception of the movie was like, how to subvert that by sharing the story of a modern girl coming to London and having the experience of a '60s starlet coming to London.

On how music helps shape the tone of the movie

The female singers of the mid-'60s, it was obviously an incredible time for performers like Cilla Black, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw. I was always really taken with those songs in terms of how emotional they are and sort of stained with tears. Even the up-tempo ones. Maybe it's just me, but I can find the melancholy in Petula Clark's "Downtown." ... I always found that those songs sounded so operatic, and it really seemed to help me find the tone of the movie.

On working with British actor Diana Rigg, looping her dialogue, up until Rigg's death (Last Night in Soho was her last film)

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

Sometimes when somebody passes away, either the last memory is really sad or you didn't get to say goodbye. And not only did I have a great time with her the last time I saw her, but I also spoke to her on the phone after that and she did sort of say, like, "bye bye" and stuff. So it's terribly emotional for me, and 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.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger