When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”
Whatever the motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
A director with more puckish wit, verve, and ingenuity than Edgar Wright has yet to make it big. He has drawn deeply from the sight-gag, gore, gratuitous violence, operatic action scenes, mischief, and wordplay of the filmmakers who preceded him to fashion films that are wacky and heartfelt, outrageous and calculated.
On his home website he occasionally writes about films that he loves, a film series he curates in Los Angeles, and sources of inspiration for particular projects he has written and directed. For the purposes of this list, the focus is on the sense and sensibility that inform his directorial decisions in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and the film adaptation of the comic book series Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
1. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
Heartfelt Genre Bending
Two American backpackers find themselves out on the moors after a creepy encounter with the locals at a pub. They fail to heed all warnings and are attacked by what is later revealed to be a werewolf. One dies and the other is barely saved. He wakes up in a London hospital. The police report is specious. The locals who saved him lied about the werewolf. He has bizarre dreams and gruesome visions. Undead werewolf victims tell him to commit suicide before he becomes a werewolf too.
Edgar Wright praises John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London for being laugh out loud funny, genuinely scary, and having a lot of heart. The last descriptor—to make an audience really care about the characters—is a rare gift in horror where so much of the enjoyment is seeing the characters tormented, and in comedy where the basic formula is tragedy + ironic distance = funny. This is the unifying trait of all of Edgar Wright’s own films. The characters are completely realized before the genre features go into effect.
In his BFI introduction to the movie, Edgar Wright theorizes that while many straight genre films will inevitably be alike, cross-genre films can’t help but be unique. What they steal from their genres and how they steal it points to who made them and what about the straight genres touched them. His own breakout feature film, Shaun of the Dead, was sold as a “rom zom com”. The troubled relationship between apathetic Shaun and his girlfriend Liz is saved by their efforts to survive a zombie apocalypse.
This genre-mashing continues in Hot Fuzz, which takes an action film and buddy-cop dynamic that are typically urban and puts it in a setting typical of the slower style of English mystery stories. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a teen coming-of-age story in the epic style of a video game. The World’s End is a nostalgic movie of friends reconvening over drinks that turns darkly sci-fi in the second act.
The genre bending isn’t the main point though. It’s the heartfelt investment in the characters and the cheeky, pop culture awareness that Landis put into An American Werewolf in London that influenced Edgar Wright to bend and blend his genres with that unique combination of care and cunning.
2. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976)
Satisfaction in Every Reel
In Rome, the wife of US diplomat Robert Thorn has a miscarriage that ends the couple’s hope of having a child. While his wife is unconscious, Thorn adopts a newborn of uncertain parentage. They name him Damien. In England, the child grows and horrible events send Thorn in search of his son’s true origin, revealing a conspiracy of Satanists to inaugurate the end times as foretold in the Book of Revelations. For Damien’s true father is the devil and he the Antichrist.
This film’s influence goes back to Wright’s childhood and established an expectation that when you watch a movie it is satisfying. This sounds like a facile statement but there are a lot of unsatisfying yet highly praised movies. The Omen set the standard with modern horror pacing. In pre-digital terms, at the end of every reel of film there is a big set-piece that justifies the anticipation that was built over the reel’s length.
It is the generous schlock of The Omen that prefigures Wright’s own commitment to building every scene from brisk set-up to satisfying conclusion. The payoff is sometimes shocking, like The Omen, but it can also be thrilling or funny.
3. Delicatessen (Jean Pierre Jeunet, 1991)
Clowns and Satire
Jean Pierre Jeunet made his first feature film in the spirit of early French cinema. The story of a former clown who falls in love with a butcher’s daughter but must overcome the butcher before they can be together is a story structure right out of the commedia dell ‘arte of the 1700s. The twist is in the setting: a near-collapsed future society where food is currency and people won’t look too closely at its origin. Cannibalism is the unspoken horror in this little apartment block where the butcher is king and the underground resistance lives on lentils and literally underground.
Louison is the hero and what would be called a “low functioning clown” because he’s not talkative or particularly skilled. He has the child-like innocence of a silent-era comedy hero like Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton. Like those masters of cinema comedy, director Jean Pierre Jeunet exploits the gap between what the clown knows and what the audience knows for comedy and story tension.
The opening sequence shows us the fate of Clapet the butcher’s workers when the unnamed predecessor to the clown Louison fails to escape becoming the next big meal. Louison takes the job unawares that he is living on borrowed time. Dramatic irony inflects the growing romance.
Edgar Wright gives his clowns similar gravitas but they are higher functioning clowns. Shaun is introduced in a morning stupor, zombie-like but also clownishly inarticulate. It’s when he’s fully awake that we see his capacity for cunning despite a general lack of information.
The main character in Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel, is a super-cop but he is also a clown because he is not equal to what the circumstances call for when living in a rural English village. Scott Pilgrim, like Shaun, is a twenty-something lost in the gap between adolescence and adulthood, but he is also a capable fighter and passable bassist. Gary King, the leader of the group of friends in The World’s End, is charismatic and manic. He talks fast, schemes fast, and he fights like his life depends on it, which is does.
This is all to say that at the center of any Edgar Wright film is a clown in trouble. The clown struggles to bridge the gap between what he knows of his circumstances and what the audience knows of them.
A dystopia movie without a satiric core is a poorly conceived movie indeed. What makes Shaun of the Dead and Delicatessen into brilliant dystopic movies is how seamless the satire fits into the mechanics of the plot. In Shaun of the Dead, people have become so inured to the media’s hysterics that even a zombie insurrection can get lost amid the noise of modernity. Shaun and his friends are just trying to make it from one day to the next, fighting their little personal vendettas and going about their personal routines until the zombies are in their own homes, are their own friends.
Delicatessen’s satiric core is aimed at the cult of the kitchen, the obsessive gourmanderie that makes French society too serious and gluttonous. Crucially, there are touches of the Vichy France hypocrisy that still linger in French consciousness, making the story of a whole apartment block collaborating to maintain a semblance of normalcy amid general societal collapse into biting satire.
4. Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)
When hip, assertive Lola gets a phone call from her boyfriend Manni, she has only 20 minutes to raise the 100,000 DM Manni owes to a mobster and preclude Manny’s decision to commit robbery. She goes to ask her banker father for the cash in three separate “runs” through the possible outcomes. The unfolding of her minor decisions and brief interactions with other people along the way splits the possible outcomes with widely divergent results for all the characters.
Like a DJ’s understanding of Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Return, the movie restarts like an infectious chorus, tweaked here and there for new highs and lows. Playing with determinism, free will, chaos theory, and the gray area in between, Run Lola Run gives youthful energy to the question of what is and what is not within reach of individual will.
German cinema, like German philosophy, is not famous for its light touch. Perhaps Run Lola Run would have been a success in any language, but the language of speed, montage, digression, animated sequences, and a driving soundtrack brought it to wider audiences. The philosophical element has a lighter touch in the Cornetto Trilogy, but Edgar Wright has an Englishman’s sense of humor about serious subject matter and a pop culture junkie’s appreciation of how compressed time can say more with less.
5. Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
It is 1969 and the party known as the Sixies is coming to an ugly end. Two unemployed actors living in East End London’s squalor decide to have a rest in the countryside courtesy of a rich gay uncle who has been misled of the non-relative actor’s orientation. The trip is a farce as the actors realize that their manly grit is no match for the rain, the mud, the animals or the farmers.
The devious, alcoholic, and arrogant Withnail is the prime instigator, while Marwood who narrates their struggle is the sad sack getting pushed beyond his limits. It is a comedy of errors with classic English antipathies between town and country, hippies and straight folk, aristos and commoners.
One major complaint in English cinema in comparison to the United States is that of scale. Where England is small, orderly, and cynical, the USA is vast, chaotic, and vitalist. The personalities and antics that make Hunter S. Thompson a celebrated journalist in the USA is impossible to recreate in England. So when Bruce Robinson set about making a lost weekend movie based on his life in answer to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book), the result was necessarily mixed.
The gonzo style does not really translate across the pond. Instead of the outrageous array of drugs, the 2 actors drink an inadvisable amount of wine and smoke a little cannabis. Instead of a major burn of not one but two Las Vegas hotel and casinos, there is a run-down country cottage. Instead of a demonic Samoan lawyer making most of the trouble, Withnail is a picture of the rakish son of nobility with feelings of entitlement to the best that the London stage has to offer, specifically the part of Hamlet.
This disparity between the two transatlantic Anglophonic cultures is the driving conceit in Hot Fuzz. Except Edgar Wright used Bad Boys II and the Hollywood-dominated action-thriller cop movies instead of using Hunter Thompson and his gonzo style as the focus of the rivalry. What he kept from Withnail & I is the town vs. country dynamic as London Metropolitan Constable extraordinaire Nicholas Angel is sent to the village of Sandford where there are no crimes but a whole lot of “accidents”.