The night before last in Soho, just round the corner from Haymarket and Café de Paris which feature prominently in the film, director Edgar Wright attended a Q&A following a screening of Last Night in Soho. It is the first such event I have been able to attend in over two years, so I’m glad to be able to share it with you.
Last Night in Soho originated from an idea voiced in the film by Eloise’s landlady when asked whether anyone has died in a room: “This is London. Someone has died in every room in every building and on every street corner in the city.” Wright doesn’t seem entirely convinced by the existence of ghosts, but he is drawn to the idea of psychic residue imbuing the walls of most of this city in which millions of souls have lived and died.
The plot for Last Night in Soho has existed for around a decade, during which time a researcher has been collecting stories from Soho residents. These tales of coercive manipulation of the young and naïve were “harrowing reading”, and what Wright found particularly depressing was how similar the experiences were. The world may have moved on, but these issues remain far from fixed, as highlighted in the past few years by the #MeToo movement and the litany of allegations against Kevin Spacey in the London arts scene.
When he talks about filmmaking, Wright unassumingly reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of film history that is Tarantino-esque in the ability to draw from from the work of past directors. Mark Kermode has described his movies as “haunted by the ghosts of other films” which seems particularly fitting for Last Night in Soho, its views of London pulled not just from history but from our collective cinematic memory of the era. Wright also mentions his love of the Reelstreets website, an Internet rabbit-hole with a searchable collection of locations that appeared in films alongside how they look now.
Filming on location in the centre of London requires immense preparation, with three months’ notice needed to close most Soho streets, and even longer for the incredible shot that transports Haymarket back to the 1960s. “London can’t be tamed,” Wright comments, “you have to flood the shot with your own stuff”. That included not just period cars but wholesale recreation of 1960s storefront and venue facades. The resulting moment as Eloise first steps into the 1960s, combined with a surge of vibrant colour from the film’s initially desaturated palette and a soundscape that suddenly expands into Dolby Atmos surround, is intoxicating.
Wright has worked with the same editor, Paul Machliss, since Spaced. With Baby Driver he had Machliss on set during filming because of how precisely timed the cuts needed to be in order to match the music. He has continued that approach in Last Night in Soho and explains that he didn’t want anyone but Machliss to see the rough cuts during shooting. The biggest new name in the crew is Chung-hoon Chung, who has been Park Chan-Wook’s cinematographer since Oldboy (Wright complains about now having to refer to it as “the first Oldboy“, in reference to the ignominious Hollywood remake). This provided a South Korean eye on London, which in turn helps to sell Eloise’s view of the city as a newcomer.
During the course of filming, Wright spent a lot of time with Diana Rigg and he continued to visit her up until her death last year. You can hear the emotion in his voice as he describes how grateful he is to have known her, and she seems to feature in his favourite anecdotes. He shares her prepared response to brush off questions about her past that she didn’t want to answer, “Oh, I don’t remember the 60s, darling. I was too busy shooting The Avengers!”
Café de Paris is meticulously recreated as a set on a soundstage because of the complex camerawork required for those scenes. It was strange to walk past the venue later that evening, frozen in time since its closure during the pandemic, yet brought magically to life on film. It was when Wright took Rigg to visit the set that her guard slipped, recalling a memory:
“I remember walking down those stairs with a lot of rheumy-eyed men looking me up and down like a piece of meat.”Diana Rigg
This perhaps best encapsulates the danger of which Wright warns in even his own nostalgia. “The further you get away from it, you can choose to romanticise it, just remembering the music and fashion.” He explains that he used to imagine himself as a “cultural time traveler” taking in gigs and experiences from the past. But you can’t be selective about the past in that way, and in that sense he sees Last Night in Soho as “a cautionary tale to time travellers”.
It will be of little surprise that the director of the musically meticulous Baby Driver had most of the 1960s soundtrack selected long before filming. He knew that he wanted it to reflect the women of the time, performers like Cilla Black (who is portrayed in the film), describing their songs as “streaked with tears”.
However, one late addition is arguably the film’s best. When Anya Taylor-Johnson was cast, Wright didn’t know she could sing. On discovering this, an audition scene at the Rialto was added. He knew immediately that “Downtown” would be the perfect song for Sandie, with Taylor-Johnson’s a capella delivery pure and fragile. It also gifted us with a fully orchestrated downtempo version of Downtown that perhaps captures the film’s tone better than any narrative trailer could. Now that you’ve read this, it is well worth five minutes of your time.