Michael Cera Gets a Life
Based on the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley and directed (and co-written) by Edgar Wright ( Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is an auditory and visual collage of indie rock music, kick-ass fights, videogames, animation, and dream sequences, with a flaming sword thrown in for good measure. It follows the misadventures of would-be rock god Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who falls for an Amazon delivery girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). In order to win her heart, Scott must defeat in battle Ramona’s seven evil exes, each of whom seems to have abilities well outside the limits of the normal human condition.
Still with me?
That the slacker heroes of Scott Pilgrim bear more than a passing resemblance to the British cult television series Spaced—which Wright co-created with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson)—is purely coincidental, said Wright. Both follow disaffected twentysomethings with an affinity for comic books, videogames, intoxicants, and arrested development.
“What was nice about this was thinking, oh, this is a chance to go back to Spaced in the sense that you start in a very mundane and relatable place and then it flowers into something magical and fantastical,” said Wright, talking to The Daily Beast amid the chaos of San Diego Comic-Con. “What I feel very fortunate about is that for my first U.S. studio film, it’s pretty fucking mental… It’s like of like Season 3 of Spaced on crack.”
For fans of Wright’s previous work, Spaced is the holy grail of television, a series which ran for two seasons beginning in 1999 on U.K.’s Channel 4 and blended emotionally resonant characters together with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scooby-Doo, and zombie references.
Not that Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley knew about Spaced or its co-creator when Wright came calling in 2004, after the publication of the first Scott Pilgrim volume.
“Honestly, I had never heard of him,” said O’Malley, adjusting his sunglasses in the San Diego sun. “When they said, ‘Edgar Wright would like to direct a Scott Pilgrim film,’ I was just like, ‘Who the fuck is Edgar Wright?’ Then I went and illegally downloaded Spaced immediately… and was sent Shaun of the Dead and loved it. I said sure, let’s do it, and that was that.”
The movie arrives on the heels of the release of the sixth and final Scott Pilgrim volume as well as a new videogame. The film and the final volumes of the graphic novels were developed almost simultaneously, which O’Malley calls “a symbiotic relationship.”
“When I watched the movie, it was the first time I understood what a dick he could be,” Cera said.
But the question remained about what actor would be able to bring Scott Pilgrim the character to life on screen.
“The thing about Scott Pilgrim is, I think, not so much that he’s awesome, but it’s more that he thinks he’s awesome,” said Wright. “He has an inflated opinion of himself at the start of the film, which quickly gets pricked. It’s really about him being an unconventional hero and an unconventional romantic lead.”
• Scott Pilgrim Moves from Graphic Novel to Big ScreenMichael Cera—best known for his nervous but likeable characters such as George Michael Bluth on Fox’s Arrested Development and in such films as Paper Heart and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist—was selected to step into Scott Pilgrim’s grungy hoodie (dirtier, perhaps, than Cera’s previous hoodies).
“He’s a guy who’s still very immature and a bit of an idiot,” said Cera. “He’s in a weird part of his life where he’s not an adult but he’s too old to be dating kids and hanging on to his youth. He doesn’t seem like a hero, either. When I watched the movie, it was the first time I understood what a dick he could be. He can be really selfish and inconsiderate and heartless at times.”
It’s a genius move that plays against the stereotype of Cera’s usual role as a nice guy who ends up being an emotional doormat. Plus, he looks like O’Malley’s sketches of Scott, to boot.
“I don’t think there are many other actors that could pull off the fragility and silliness and the action,” said Wright. “It’s more fun watching him be a badass than somebody you’ve already seen be extremely confident on screen.”
That Cera would be forced to contend with a rogue’s gallery of evil exes—including several who have played superheroes in feature films—is meant to be more than a little ironic. The film contains a Who’s Who of Young Hollywood among the supporting cast—from Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, and Jason Schwartzman as romantic rivals—to Aubrey Plaza, Mae Whitman, Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin, and more.
“He had to be dwarfed by Brandon and Chris and that’s the reason I went with that kind of casting for the exes,” said Wright. “I wanted to have people who were imposing either physically or, with Jason, on a status level… One day when we were doing the end fight, Michael said, ‘Oh, this is kind of like George Michael versus [ Rushmore’s] Max Fischer,’ and I said, ‘I never said it out loud but I was thinking it.’”
Scott Pilgrim’s creator agrees. “I think he’s been unfairly typecast, both by movie viewers and by creative people,” said O’Malley of Cera. “He’s got so much energy. People worried about him being able to portray this kind of clueless, energetic, kind of innocent asshole. He does it. It’s perfection.”
As for the film’s elaborate fights, Wright maintains that they’re actually similar to what you might find in a musical: where characters might burst into songs or dance when they can’t express emotion, here they burst into, well, death matches with pyrotechnics and backflips.
“In a musical,” said Wright, “Gene Kelly starts talking about how he feels about somebody and then he’ll starts singing and dancing, doing some amazing musical number, and then at the end of the number they’ll start talking again and nobody ever says, ‘Holy shit, Gene, that was amazing!’”
Still, both versions of Scott Pilgrim tackle some universal themes facing everyone standing on the precipice between adolescence and adulthood.
“It evolved into this thing about growing up, leaving things behind, and facing the future, and the movie does that too, in its own way,” said O’Malley. “Edgar was really passionate about making something that’s very different. It’s a comedy, it’s action, it’s music, and it’s colorful, even though the books are black and white… This is about a very specific age group and a very specific time in your life.”
Cera agrees. “That’s what Edgar does so well. He takes a genre movie but fills it with heart… and you never see it coming. He sneaks it up on you.”
For Wright and O’Malley, the release of the film—and the triumphant fanfare it received at Comic-Con last month—marks the end of a six-year journey. While Wright has become an in-demand director, known for genre-busting films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, O’Malley has left behind his cramped Toronto apartment for Los Angeles. He’s mulling his next move.
“This whole thing has been way bigger than I ever expected,” said O’Malley, a day after a top-secret screening with the film’s cast, media types, and some lucky fans. “I think I was 25 [when I met Edgar] and completely poor and living in a crappy apartment, living the Scott Pilgrim life. It took five years… but, gradually, I’ve been able to stop living that Scott Pilgrim life. Now I’m kind of a grownup.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.