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'Pilgrim' director, cast dish on making their comic film

Matthew Odam
From left, 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's' Anna Kendrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Director Edgar Wright, Brandon Routh, Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman take time out from an interview to pose poolside at Austin's Four Seasons.

With his films "Shaun of the Dead" (2004) and "Hot Fuzz" (2007), writer-director Edgar Wright proved himself adept at dusting off genre films, revitalizing them with a humor that nimbly lent itself to homage more than parody.

In his latest film, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," Wright gives the big-screen treatment to the graphic novels of Bryan O'Malley. The titular character, played by Michael Cera, sets out to win the heart of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an enigmatic and conflicted recent arrival in Toronto from New York City. In order for the unlikely hero to earn the hand of his beloved, Pilgrim must battle a league of Flowers' evil exes.

With graphic devices taken directly from comic books and '80s video games, Wright creates a world that toggles between the fantastic and the realistic, working with an ensemble cast of some of Hollywood's brightest young talent.

We sat down recently with Wright, along with stars Cera, Winstead, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman and Brandon Routh, to discuss the filmmaking process, unattainable love and Steely Dan.

American-Statesman: I really think this is a movie first and a comic-book movie second. How do you balance and prioritize those ideas?

Edgar Wright: You're given the opportunity to make a major studio film, so you gotta kind of wear two hats. One is that I've got to be true to being a fan of the material and represent what Bryan's done. But then, on the flip side, you're constantly kind of reminded by the studio that it has to be a film for general audiences, as well. You've just got to strike that balance, and I hope we did that. It's funny when people in some interviews have said, 'Do you feel like it's niche in the sense that nobody over 30 is going to enjoy the film?' And I kind of think, 'If everybody under 30 went and saw the film, that would make us trillionaires.' It seems like, as niches go, the under 30 is a huge demographic.

Michael, even though it's a comic movie, there are a lot of subtleties in the acting. How do you approach the roles as actors in terms of being grounded in realism versus playing big characters.

Michael Cera: This movie has a big range of tones. So some scenes you have to be really big and cartoony and completely over the top, and in other scenes, it becomes a little more realistic.

Did you work with Edgar a lot on that?

Cera: Yeah, we rehearsed the whole movie quite a bit for a few weeks before we started shooting, and that was really helpful for me to figure out how big to go on things and when to bring it down.

Anna, the writing for your character is very smart and realistic. Did you worry at all about sounding too clever with the dialogue?

Anna Kendrick: I watch the movie and I feel like my character is more based in reality than any other character. So, in a way, I was sort of really envious of some of the other performances that people got to play with. It's absolutely perfect casting, because I never would have done Roxy the way Mae (Whitman) does it; I never would have done Envy the way Brie (Larson) does it. I was just so impressed coming in and seeing how far people took things and how much fun they were having. So, by comparison, I really felt like I wasn't on dangerous ground.

It seems like it would be fun to be part of an ensemble cast like this one a long shoot, but I would imagine it would be taxing, as well.

Brandon Routh: It was tedious at times, because even if you gave a great performance, that's only one-third of the shot. The others thirds are, did the camera move and the lighting effect that might be going off behind you that they had to time, because a lot of the effects were done in-camera and not added in post or CGI. So, there were some scenes that were longer than others.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead: It's the most fun movie I've ever been a part of. But the actual process of shooting it was just extremely hard work. Of course, Edgar was the hardest worker of everybody, but I think we all kind of had to take on that mentality of just trying to do whatever it takes to get it done and get it done well. It was tons and tons of set-ups and long hours and lots of repetitive actions, but it was all worth it.

Jason, I assume you came late to the filming. Was it weird at all to enter this long shoot and this group of people who had already been working together for almost six months?

Cera: It's like passing the ball to Michael Jordan at the buzzer.

Jason Schwartzman: No, that's not what it was like. That's Michael Jordan (pointing to Cera) and that's Phil Jackson (pointing to Wright.) I'm Horace Grant. But, yes, coming in at the end to such a long shoot, I was particularly insecure about it because Edgar showed me a bunch of stuff they'd already shot and it was so great. I was happy for him that he'd gotten great performances, but I was personally worried for myself in terms of hoping I could live up to the great performances I had seen already.

It is such a delicate movie, and he'd had the whole thing in his head. And what if I come in and throw off the balance? And that's why I kind of liken it to me being a studio session musician, and they bring in someone they need to play like a French horn part. You're reading the sheet music. Just because it's on paper doesn't mean everyone's going to play it the same. There are many ways to play the same piece of music, like there is with acting. So you can't come in and say, 'I'll just do it how I want it.' This is the guy who produced the whole song and wrote all the music.

This is Donald Fagen.

Schwartzman: Exactly, I'm with Steely Dan here, and I can't just come in as Jeff Porcaro and do my own drum solo.

Wright: That's my next film, "Steely Dan vs. the World."

Cera: And I'm the original drummer, Chevy Chase.

Schwartzman: So it was definitely a situation of "Tell me how you want me to play this music, so I don't throw off the delicate balance that you've kind of been building for the last six months." So, in terms of tone \u2026 that's what takes are for. And that's why every time you go out you talk to Edgar right before you go out \u2026 he's directing you.

So, Jason, did you feel like you were looking to him for approval more than you have with other directors?

Schwartzman: I'm naturally a collaborative person. I love collaboration. Like even this morning with room service, I asked, "What should I get?" So I like to collaborate with all directors and all people, and ask what they're looking for, because ultimately it is their movie. So I want to help them make their movie.

Michael, you play a self-absorbed yet likable character. Did you recognize that dynamic in your character?

Cera: I didn't realize that he was so selfish and self-absorbed until I saw the whole thing cut together. Yeah, watching it, it kind of resonated more with me how mean he was to Knives (his girlfriend) and kind of totally in his own head and unaware of everyone around him.

What are the greatest lengths to which any of you guys have gone to procure a woman's heart?

Wright: I've written poems before. Long-form, handwritten poems, is pretty far gone, I think.

Schwartzman: I was a drummer in a band, and in the movie "That Thing You Do," Liv Tyler wants to be with Johnathon Schaech, but Tom — the drummer — really wants her and finally she sees it. So, I took this girl to see the movie because this particular girl was into the lead singer of my band (Phantom Planet, where Schwartzman was the drummer). It was like my story playing out. I took her to see it just so she would get a hint, and right at the scene where the character decides she wants to be with the drummer, my date gets up and goes to the bathroom.