With $35 million in less than a week, Baby Driver is a bonafide summer box office hit, a rare feat these days for an original movie not attached to any other film, TV, or video game franchise. A big-name cast — including Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Kevin Spacey — was helpful, but the real draw for audiences was the vision of director Edgar Wright. The movie, about a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) indebted to a criminal boss (Spacey), set slick car action to carefully curated music, and in an age of endless CGI, Wright’s decision to stage the stunts in a busy city helped the movie stand out.
The film’s opening sequence was particularly thrilling, and just as hard to pull off as it looks. Baby (Elgort, and yes, Baby is really his name) is behind the wheel of a souped-up red Subaru WRX, watching and waiting for a trio of bank-robbers pull off a simple heist. But of course, the “easy” job goes awry, which puts half of the police in Atlanta on their asses; the fuzz chase them through the downtown, beneath underpasses and over highways, desperately trying to keep up with Baby’s endless improvisation behind the wheel. And again, all this happened in real life.
“You go through about 20 city blocks, then the freeway, and then back into the city again,” Wright told Inverse in a recent interview. “It’s a Herculean task to clear all those locations.”
But getting permission to film downtown was only the beginning of the location process. Shooting in the middle of a mid-sized city requires cooperating with the businesses, workers, and commuters who have bigger concerns than a director’s devotion to automotive authenticity.
“The stuff in the city was an enormous task, too. It’s like having a traveling circus because we haven’t got Michael Bay money to shut down entire freeways or city centers,” Wright said, laughing — the film cost a reported $35 million to make, far less than the $200 million that Bay has to work with on most movies.
“With the city center stuff, you’d be doing it two or three blocks at a time,” he added. “So that whole first sequence you’re basically moving through the passage of the chase and the police are opening and closing things as you go around.”
They couldn’t exactly rehearse those stunts downtown — there was barely enough time to film them for the movie — and so second unit director and stunt ace Darrin Prescott did his best to choreograph and practice them at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it wasn’t just a matter of timing and competing with the demands of a local economy. Real stunts in a real downtown meant a real risk of real accidents and real consequences.
“There’s a shot in the trailer, we call it a ‘180 in and 180 out,’ where Baby comes down an alley and [drifts around] trucks, and we did it in a practical location,” Prescott told Inverse. “The Georgia State Bar building was on one side, and another building was on the other side. It’s nerve-wracking, because if the stunt driver loses it and stacks it into the building, we have major issues. A different movie would make it on green screen and add the buildings in later.”
The city shots were only half the challenge. The sequence also took the crew to the biggest highway in the area, for more high-octane stunts in a very narrow time frame.
“The first chase is on the I-85, which is the main freeway in Atlanta, and you cannot shut down the I-85,” Wright said. “That’s impossible, but what you can do is have a police motorcade, which is miles wide.”
There are about 200,000 drivers per day in the Atlanta section of the I-85, which made for tricky coordination. “We were given a Sunday that didn’t have any ball games, and they said, ‘we’ve got 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then that’s it’ — 2 p.m. was a hard kick-off,’” Wright recalled.
And when they did get the I-85, they certainly didn’t get the whole thing. Instead, Wright and Prescott were allotted just a few miles at a time.
“We had police cars on all lanes of the freeway, 50 stunts cars, actors and the camera cars, all in the middle of what is called The Bubble,” Wright continued. “This big flotilla of cars is going down the freeway at 70 miles an hour shooting, and sometimes the actors are in the car as well, and it’s insane.”
Prescott further explained the narrowness of their window to accomplish the chase on location, and just how much was at stake for more than just the production.
““The stunt driver for Baby is waiting way up ahead on another exit, and as we come into view, he’s got to come down and slide into traffic. And then we had to choreograph the entire traffic pattern in one move, because once we traveled the extra three miles, we all had to exit off the freeway,” Prescott recalls. “You’d see as we’d get toward the end of our chase the wave of public traffic just gaining on us like a tidal wave. If we had crashed a bunch of cars on that freeway, it would have been a massive mess.”
Luckily, they pulled off the high-risk maneuvers with aplomb, setting the stage for Wright’s biggest hit yet.
Baby Driver is now in theaters nationwide.