It’s 8 August 2019, and Total Film is clubbing. Never mind that it’s only 5pm on a blinding hot summer’s day; inside the Inferno nightclub in Clapham, London, it’s day 56 of a 70-day shoot on Edgar Wright’s sixth feature, Last Night In Soho, and a Halloween party is in full swing. Orange lanterns hang from the ceiling. Paper flames ripple upwards from the floor. Black balloons shimmy in swirling dry ice.
“HERE WE GO! ENJOY YOURSELVES, LADIES AND GENTS!” booms first AD Richard Graysmark through a microphone, and 307 teenage extras dance to ‘Happy House’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees as the drums kick in and strobe lights pulse. Their leaping and writhing on the dancefloor is lent a jerky, stop-motion quality by the staccato lighting, and their costumes glare impressively, with 230 of the 307 outfits designed by the extras themselves. Wright will later judge a competition for cash prizes, and his work will be cut out given the craftsmanship of the horns, skeletons and pumpkin-orange fright wigs on display.
Dressed rather more plainly and standing out from the crowd is 19-year old New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie of Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit and Old fame. She is playing shy Eloise, newly arrived in London from Cornwall to pursue her dream of becoming a fashionista. McKenzie wanders into the middle of the melee in a simple black dress, her kohl eyes peering from a whitened face. Behind her snakes the camera of Chung Chung-hoon, the genius DoP who lensed Andy Muschietti’s blockbuster adaptation of Stephen King’s It and Park Chan-wook classics Oldboy, Thirst and The Handmaiden. It’s hard not to think of the famous shot that circles Carrie White and Tommy Ross on the dancefloor in Brian De Palma’s Carrie as the camera twirls around McKenzie. Red lighting soaks the set like blood from a bucket.
Eloise is dancing, arms above her head, and then she stops, stock still. Her shoulders heave and her breath hitches. Her eyes widen in terror. What she sees, dotted among the dancers, are the Shadowmen, grey-faced figures without eyes. They have been haunting Eloise’s dreams for a while now, but here they seem to have entered the waking world, closing in on her.
Tonight’s shoot will go through to 3am. At 7.30 pm, snacks come out, with a couple of extras dressed as a vampire and Frankenstein’s frizzy-haired bride nibbling on pitta bread and hummus, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. The Shadowmen, designed by Edgar’s brother Oscar Wright (Wonder Woman, Solo: A Star Wars Story), drink-through thin straws. They can’t eat as the only access to their mouths is a pinhole.
Graysmark takes to the mic again, getting everyone ready and pumping them up. And… action! Drums, strobes, McKenzie freezing in terror. Who are these Shadowmen and why do they lurk at the periphery of her vision? What are the other nightmares in her (damaged?) brain? And can Wright, the filmmaker behind Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Baby Driver, change gears to truly unnerve viewers with a psychological horror movie?
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
Wright has been sitting on the idea of Last Night In Soho for almost a decade, letting it quietly percolate as he made The World’s End and Baby Driver (to say nothing of the film he almost made in between, Ant-Man). Then untitled (see boxout, right), the movie in his head offered him the chance to embrace his love of horror, most notably psychological, emotional genre films like Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, and, equally importantly, British dramas of the 1960s.
“They’re always interesting as a time capsule,” Wright says on Zoom in July 2021, a full 23 months after Total Film was on set. The unusually long delay between the film’s shoot and release has been caused, of course, by the pandemic. “And there’s a particular subgenre of these cautionary-tale movies, usually written by men, which are about women coming to the big city, and wanting to be a star, and being roundly punished for the temerity of wanting to succeed.”
Wright’s addition to the subgenre would trace dual storylines, one set in the present day, as Cornish lass Eloise arrives in London to study fashion, and one in the 1960s, as wannabe singer Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy) meets man about-town Jack (Matt Smith), who promises to open doors for her. Just how these plots intertwine is best seen for yourself, with Wright desiring that viewers experience the journey as Eloise does… one shock, thrill, gasp, wince and scream at a time.
Aware that Last Night In Soho was to be his first film centred on female protagonists, Wright co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful, 1917), who also, as a young, aspiring screenwriter, worked in The Toucan pub, a key location in the movie. (It should also be pointed out that the majority of the team who Wright developed the film with, from producers Nira Park and Rachael Prior to researcher Lucy Pardee, are female.) But the story is also a personal one, echoing elements of his own journey.
“On paper, it would seem like, ‘What have I got in common with an 18-year old girl from Cornwall?’” starts Wright. “But in a strange way, her experience of going to London is not dissimilar to mine. That thing of feeling like the country mouse… It’s a very humbling experience. I love the city now, but it took me, like, a year to love it when I moved here. When you first come, it can be an incredibly unfriendly city.” He shrugs. “And there are other elements that are personal – I have this recurring time-travel fantasy of going back to decades that I never lived in myself.”
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