A Geek’s Guide To Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is simultaneously an adventure / romance / comedy / whatever that’s easy to get into and a universe densely-packed with geek references to games, movies, music and more. Delve beneath the surface of author Bryan Lee O’Malley and director Edgar Wright’s brightly-coloured world with our all-singing, all-sword-fighting guide to some of the most prominent geek references in Scott Pilgrim…

It should be no surprise to those of you who've ever cracked the spine of one of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Pilgrim comic books or watched just a frame of the trailer that both worlds are strongly influenced by video games – more specifically, titles such as Double Dragon and Super Mario Brothers. Even the names of some of the bands featured can trace their origins back to O’Malley’s early gaming days. “The first Nintendo game I ever got was Clash At Demonhead,” he said in an About.com interview – hence the name of one visiting band. And Scott Pilgrim’s own group, Sex Bob-omb, is named for a Mario villain. The eight-bit classics have such power over the Pilgrim world that the computer game based on the movie is rendered in true scrolling arcade style, a nostalgic blast of digital entertainment sure to turn any ‘80s/’90s arcade veteran into a wistful button-puncher, and make The Kids Today wonder what the fuss was about.

Wright has cited John Hughes as one of the biggest influences for how he approached Scott’s world (at least the parts where the cast isn’t fighting each other in a frenzy of martial arts, anyway). He’s pointed to The Breakfast Club as informing the characters' dynamic and showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to star Michael Cera the night before the cameras first cranked. The movie became Pilgrim’s good luck charm, with a bittersweet element emerging when Hughes died shortly after they started work. As Mary Elizabeth Winstead put it, “Edgar wanted us to have that kind of chemistry that was natural and real and grounded, so that when you put these characters in this crazy fantastical world, you would still care about them and it would still feel real and relatable... and it worked.”

O’Malley’s earliest influences were both from the manga genre itself and a how-to book on the artwork behind it. “One of the things that inspired this was the book Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, by Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma. I was just getting started as a cartoonist and I read the chapter about shonen manga in that book and thought, 'Wow, this is great,’” O’Malley told About.com. While some relatively well-known titles like Ranma ½ and Sailor Moon would help to steer the tone of the story, there were also slightly less mainstream titles such as Harold Sakuishi’s Beck, pictured, (nothing to do with the man who would eventually become Sex Bob-omb’s music provider), a story about a struggling rock band, and Ai Yazawa’s Nana, a shojo manga (marketed more towards women) chronicling a young woman’s struggles with life and love.

Oh, Canadaaaaaa! Given O’Malley’s Canuck upbringing, it was logical that Canadian bands would leach into his consciousness to help drive the development of Scott Pilgrim. Take the hero’s name, for instance: it’s derived straight from a song by Halifax indie popsters Plumtree. So when Edgar Wright was putting together his ideas for the soundtrack of the movie and picking collaborators to help create the sound, he turned to the likes of Toronto types Metric and Broken Social Scene to make sweet music for it, with Sloan guitar/drum guru Chris Murphy running a band camp for the actors. For Sex Bob-omb’s actual tunes, Los Angeles-born Beck was asked to craft some grungy garage music. Incidentally, you can read Wright talking about the soundtrack in the Pilgrim issue of Empire. Out now. Ahem.

Wright has been talking up his cinematic influences, including Hughes, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, but Scott Pilgrim also represents the next evolutionary step in his filmmaking craft. And a lot of what makes Pilgrim so frenetic-yet-watchable can be attributed to the director’s past experience and how his appreciation for the comics merged with his own work. “When I read the first book, it reminded me a little bit of the Spaced,” he said during a recent Q&A. “Spaced was a show where there were lots of dream sequences and flashbacks. But this film, and the books, felt like the dream sequence that never ends.” According to Wright, there really is a reading of the film where you can imagine most of the plot taking place in Scott’s head. Explains a lot.

To shoot the most complicated combat he’d ever put on film, Wright turned to a top-notch team: regular Jackie Chan collaborators Brad Allen and Peng Zhang. “The thing that’s funny about Brad Allen and his team is that you’ll put together a sequence in storyboards that is pretty damn complicated and ambitious, and they’ll just raise your game in terms of amping it up another notch,” says Wright, who encouraged his cast to do as much as they could themselves, after extensive training. “It wasn't very hard because Edgar is so articulate, not only with his mouth, but also with visual references” recalled Jason Schwartzman. “He had clips of things animated already or stuff that the stunts guys did that he's added the effects to so you really can see exactly what you're going to do.”

It might not seem that Gene Kelly or John Travolta have a lot in common with Scott Pilgrim, aside, of course, from the odd romantic drama and the fact that Travolta uses giant fire-bladed swords when he negotiates for a film role.* But musicals were a massive part of how co-writer/director Wright conceived his vision for getting Scott Pilgrim on screen. “The way to do this was play it as a musical,” he told the LA Times. “Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson start singing in Grease, but at the end of the scene, nobody says, ‘You guys have a whole routine. That was amazing.’ It’s just accepted.” Plus, in a story where bands battle for supremacy, the music becomes more like a weapon, from which literal conflict can spring.

*Not true.


Generation X-Wing and every generation since have grown up viewing classic heroic myths through George Lucas’ beardy filter. Pilgrim’s progress is one part video game and definitely one part heroic quest. He doesn’t exactly have the driving ambitions that led to Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side (way too much work for Scott); he’s more like future sprog Luke, finding his mettle tested in increasingly tough fights. Oh, and while we’ll offer a mild spoiler warning to anyone who has skipped the books and wishes to remain chaste for the movie’s final act, the Big Boss clash features flaming swords that Schwartzman, in particular, enjoyed channeling his inner Jedi Knight to prep for: “What Star Wars-loving boy doesn’t practice for that fight?”

“Because it was like a comedy, not gritty like Sin City or realistic like The Dark Knight, I just really wanted to embrace the pop art nature of the comics,” Wright told Collider. “The look nods a lot more to the Adam West Batman, Danger: Diabolik and Flash Gordon. There’s a sense of fun in those.” Kick-Ass’ Big Daddy won’t be the only big movie reference to West and his tight-wearing superhero legacy this year then. Pilgrim’s world is chock-full of visual cues ripped straight from the pages of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s book, but given an OTT spin thanks to some visual effects additions. And they get to mix with video game royalty: the K.O. in several of the fight scenes is straight from Street Fighter. Talk about yer genre crossover goodness…

O’Malley had already set the comic books in some of the Toronto neighbourhoods he’d bus in to visit as a teenager, so it may not be long before you see fans travelling to Toronto to see spots such as Honest Ed’s discount store, Casa Loma and Sneaky Dee’s Tex-Mex joint. But Wright has cemented the tourist trade by using the city itself, long used to stand in for cities such as New York and Boston, to play itself – for once. “The irony is that at one point during pre-production, it was suggested that we might shoot in New York with it doubling for Toronto,” Wright recalled on radio show The Treatment. “We have a moment where, during the Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) fight, the New York backdrop for his film is ripped and you see the CN Tower behind the Empire State Building, our nod to the thing that usually gets digitally painted out in most films!”