This month marks the 15th anniversary of Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s three-plus hour theatrical experience comprising of two full-length feature films (Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof), fake ads, and, a gruesome, retro trailer for a horror film that doesn’t exist – Edgar Wright’s Don’t.
A scuzzy, bloody compilation of horror shots featuring a veritable smorgasbord of British acting talent and incredible prosthetics, Don’t is Wright’s choppy editing style, comedic take on genre and witty writing (even in a fairly scant voiceover) condensed into one brilliant 77-second package. For our October 2021 issue celebrating Wright’s upon the release of Last Night In Soho, we did a deep dive into the making of the iconic trailer, which you can read now below.
A demonic, murderous bride. A mad, murderous cannibal. A manacled, probably murderous man-baby. And half of the British film industry having the time of their lives. It’s hard to think of another piece of cinema that is so unabashedly affectionate for 1970s horror films while also being so damn funny. Certainly in 93 seconds. Edgar Wright’s Don’t is a mini-miracle.
Wright was in Los Angeles in 2005 when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both Shaun Of The Dead fans, told him about their planned Grindhouse double-bill, inviting him to make one of the fake trailers for the intermission. The idea came to him quickly. In the 1970s, when US film distributor American International Pictures would buy the rights to European horrors, they’d promote them with trailers that offered no semblance of plot, removing all dialogue to disguise the fact that a film might not be in the English language, and gave them grabby titles. Jorge Grau’s zombie epic No Profanar El Sueño De Los Muertos (Do Not Speak Ill Of The Dead), for instance, became Don’t Open The Window. “What’s funny about that,” says Wright, “is that it’s not like there’s a big window scene in the movie. So, I thought it would be funny to make an American trailer for a Euro horror film, and just strip it right down to Don’t.” The mini-opus was on.
In early 2007, with Wright editing Hot Fuzz, he brought many of the same crew together for_Don’t_. He wanted to “throw in the kitchen sink of everything that’s ever been in a horror film. And I had this idea for every set-up to have a different actor.” Stuart Conran, who did the incredible prosthetics for it, sums it up with a rundown of his work. “I did the make-up on Michael Smiley, making him pretty unrecognisable as a mad axeman,” he says. “I did the letters carved into Rafe Spall’s chest. I did the head split open. Hands bleeding milk. Matthew Macfadyen pulls his eyes out. Peter Serafinowicz, a scar up his chest as though he’s been experimented on. And a trio of cannibalistic crazies. It was a lot to build in a fairly short space of time.”
With the cast, “It was about finding types of people that I knew would be really up for it,” says Wright. “I knew Mark Gatiss would be up for it.” Gatiss laughs hearing this. “Absolutely correct,” he grins. “It just made me so excited.” Wright wanted him to play a take on Roddy McDowall’s look from 1973 British horror The Legend Of Hell House. It was in Gatiss’ wheelhouse. “There’s just something in that Legend Of Hell House, madhouse, fag end of the British film industry area that’s so attractive,” he says.
“Edgar was jumping up and down with glee. He was like a directing goblin. He was having such a good time.” – Jason Isaacs
Nick Frost, meanwhile, would play a man-baby in a basement, surrounded by baby dolls. Frost named him Little Arthur. “Edgar wanted me to wear a nappy, and these big glasses,” says Frost. “And to appear as if I’d smeared human shit all over myself. I knew Little Arthur. I just wanted him to be a really shortsighted, shit-eating baby. You don’t want to get too close because he’s tremendously powerful. He’s like an adult chimpanzee. And he has a taste for human babies.”
Jason Isaacs was brought on — he’d been offered a role in Hot Fuzz and was devastated that he couldn’t do it. “So when I got a phone call from Edgar saying, ‘Do you want to do this?’, I went, ‘Yes!’ Not thinking it would be only eight seconds. But I was absolutely thrilled to be asked; I would have gone just to make the coffee.” The singer Katie Melua is in it because, says Wright, “in a lot of films of that period there’d be a pop star or a children’s TV presenter that you were surprised to see in something like that. You wouldn’t expect to see Katie Melua in a horror film. She was totally up for getting kind of drenched in blood.”
It was a two-and-a-half-day shoot, the myriad set-ups making for a revolving door of actors. “The great thing about it was that these actors would cycle in and cycle out,” says Wright. Some quicker than others. Simon Pegg, unrecognisable as a hirsute cannibal, spent three hours in make-up for a single shot of film. “I’m proud to be Edgar’s Bruce Campbell,” he says.
The locations — two separate mansions — hardly needed dressing, says production designer Marcus Rowland: “We took the best bits of what was there and ran with it.” That wasn’t quite the case with Little Arthur’s basement, which Rowland needed to fill with baby dolls, its walls decorated with human excrement. “Yeah, that’s quite disturbing, isn’t it?” he laughs. Frost got a kick out of playing the lunatic. “Honestly, it’s probably one of the things that I’m most proud of,” says the actor. “I loved him as a character, I think he had legs. Not the ones he was eating. I think there’s somewhere for him to go.”
Everybody was in hog heaven. “It was so thrilling to be dressing up and playing at it, even for a day,” beams Gatiss. “I hung around as much as I could, because it was a party,” says Isaacs. “Edgar was jumping up and down with glee. He was like a directing goblin. He was having such a good time.” He was. Says Wright, “It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever shot.”
Wright edited Don’t himself, and for added authenticity inserted “weird splices — it’s got slightly jumpy editing as if frames have been cut out. And then we took it into the car park and kicked it around so it was really dirty. It’s got pops all over it.” For the voiceover he brought out the big guns: Will Arnett. “I remember trying to catch my breath on it,” says Arnett, “because of all the: ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t.’ There were so many, we did it in real time and I had to take so many breaths, I ended up getting the hiccups. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s new…’” Wright cracked up at how Arnett delivered the final, speedy, “Don’t. Rated R” at the end. “Good. My goal the whole time was to make him laugh,” says Arnett. “I wanted it to be good but also absurd. It was fun, to the point that it gave me hiccups.”
“On set I remember Edgar saying, ‘Why don’t we make this film, why are we just doing this?’” laughs Mark Gatiss. “But there’s something very beautiful about the brevity of it.”
Having worked with him on Hot Fuzz, Wright hired David Arnold to score it and referenced the Italian band Goblin, responsible for many Dario Argento soundtracks. Arnold knew the milieu, creating “a prog rock, self-important sub-Bach organ fugue thing with guitars and drums. Utterly pretentious. In those days those trailers were never scored: they just used to get a piece of music and slop it on. There’s something so low-rent about the way those things were put together. Like a bad DJ at a gothic nightclub.” And just as Wright had kicked the film around a car park, Arnold treated the music with similar disrespect. “I degraded the final stereo master where it feels like the tape is ever so slightly speeding up and slowing down, like a slightly dodgy reel,” he says. “The sound of mechanical failure. As well as spiritual failure.”
Given all of this attention to detail, Wright was understandably taken aback when, attending Grindhouse’s Los Angeles premiere with Tarantino, Rodriguez and many of the Don’t cast, he discovered as Don’t screened that Rodriguez had removed some frames himself to push the point home. Pegg’s single shot had been reduced to a barely visible couple of frames. “Simon turns to me and says, ‘You cut out my shot — what the hell, man?’” remembers Wright. “And I said, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ It was only then I realised that Robert had edited it.” Pegg wasn’t happy. “I was a bit pissed off, to be honest, with Mr Rodriguez,” he admits. Amends were made… ish. “He sent my daughter a Spy Kids box set so he’s off the hook,” laughs Pegg. Wright asked Rodriguez to promise to restore it all for the DVD release.
But more horror befell Don’t: in the US, Grindhouse tanked, leading it to be released in the UK as two separate features, with Don’t nowhere to be seen. “I was really bummed out that Don’t didn’t make it to UK cinemas,” says Wright (it has only been screened on rare occasions). “But maybe it’s like a lot of horror films at the time that grow in legend because of their unavailability. Maybe Don’t has become exactly the film that it was destined to be.” On Blu-ray and YouTube, it lives on.
And then there was the talk of it becoming a full feature. “On set I remember Edgar saying, ‘Why don’t we make this film, why are we just doing this?’” laughs Gatiss. “But there’s something very beautiful about the brevity of it.” Frost has his own ideas. Namely, a Little Arthur spin-off. “I love the fact that someone has to get his glasses,” he says. “At some point he has to go to Specsavers, and they have to take him there. That’s the film I’d like to see.”
Neither, alas, are likely. So if you’re waiting for Wright to expand it into a full-length feature, maybe just… don’t.