Scott Pilgrim vs. Dark Horizons: Volume One

What the hell is a “Scott Pilgrim” and why should I care?

With just under a month to go before the film’s release, that’s the question some are still asking themselves. The wave of comic book adaptations is now well into its second tier, the major household names have been mined beyond exhaustion, so studios have been digging into the more obscure.

You know the ones, the cult titles strong in their own right but not widely known outside the comic community. These are uncharted waters, a place where the right filmmaker with the right material can come upon something groundbreaking, or at the very least entertaining. The wrong combination though and we all become trapped in a whirlpool of suck like “Jonah Hex”.

It’s a tough time to tackle this genre. Despite generally good reviews, the recent disappointing box-office on the likes of “Kick Ass” and “The Losers” demonstrated that audience interest is hard to come by unless your name starts with an animal and ends with ‘man’. “Scott Pilgrim” itself doesn’t exactly scream a wide appeal factor either. By its very nature, the comic and the film are a love letter to a generation of men in their 30’s and 40’s now, a nostalgic throwback to not just the 1980’s but specifically the Canadian city of Toronto at that time.

Having only glimpsed some of the comic in recent months, the three words that best describe it are ‘utterly batshit insane’, a kind of Powerpuff Girls-meets-manga aesthetic mixed in with high school angst and an over the top sense that makes Roger Moore’s most outlandish James Bond films seem as dour and serious as “Schindler’s List” by comparison. It’s a big ball of kinetic energy inked on page – barely consistent, tonally all over the place and downright mad. Who the hell has the big brass balls to take that kind of material on?

Those shiny testicles came attached to a well-coifed thirty-something chap from Dorset by the name of Edgar Wright. Having started out on television, Wright shot to stardom in the geek world with 2004’s zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” which became a significant critical and commercial success in not just the UK but various international territories. Three years later his cop/action hero/murder mystery satire “Hot Fuzz” went on to similar heights, and now he’s back behind the camera here.

In August last year a large contingent of online writers, including yours truly, were invited up to the Toronto set of the movie to check out the production. The visit proved as thorough as a colonoscopy. Practically every cast member was interviewed, as were Wright and the co-writer. We glimpsed one set, but as the big finale of the movie was being shot we really didn’t get to see much filmed beyond a rather shy Michael Cera swinging a stick that would get some visual effects touch-ups in post-production. It was a bit of a letdown from the Brandon Routh/Chris Evans topless wrestling scene I had been picturing in my head.

At the time I felt something of the odd one out on that visit because I was completely unfamiliar with the property whereas most of the others had been fans for sometime. It’s not a bad perspective to have though. Fans of any property can be too close to the material to really stand back and look at it from an outsider’s perspective. Yet as set visits go there wasn’t really anything visually for us to latch onto or get excited over – with filming wrapping shortly and most of the sets either disassembled or being kept secret, this visit was more one of promise than punch. Some impressive artwork stood in the production offices to give us an idea of what was coming, but even then I couldn’t really get a clear handle on where it all was going.

Yet something was different about this visit, something from the people we talked to that I haven’t felt in the air of a set visit in a long time – genuine enthusiasm. Having visited in the realm of about three dozen films sets over the past decade on productions of all sorts of sizes, one gets to the point of seeing right through some of the archetypes – the smiling actress who can lie better than a lawyer, the publicist who’d rather be anywhere else, the rich producer who thinks he’s the biggest swinging dick in the room, or the director with delusions of grandeur about the sanctity and strength of the material he’s working with.

None of that was present here. Conscious of the fact that little was on offer for us to see, everyone involved went out of their way to express love not just for Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic but the translation to film. There was talk of keeping the film as loyal to the comic as possible, but it was bringing the pages to life and making these characters into fully-fledged creations which got everyone genuinely keen to talk about their work. Despite nearly ten interviews in a row stuck in a small room around a cramped desk, the actual conversations were all captivating – and these were people coming off an exhaustive shooting schedule.

The time came in late May when the embargo lifted on our actual set reports and the first ones went up from some of my colleagues. The comments and feedback I saw on them didn’t give me hope that said articles had the full impact both the film and their reports deserved. The fans were ecstatic of course, but there were also a few curious readers unfamiliar with the property who didn’t seem to grasp what the film was about. Mind you, this was around the time of the very first and mostly bewildering trailer which rocked the socks off the fanbase but again prompted a few remarks of confusion outside comic circles.

That confusion gnawed at me. There’s always trolls and dismissers to be found about any film, but there were also quite a few people who generally wanted some insight beyond footage of 8-bit graphics in real-time environments and Michael Cera cracking jokes about lesbians. It was enough that I decided to do something I’ve never done with a set report before – I scrapped it. A 1,500 word piece wiped off my computer just like that. You wouldn’t be out of line to say that five minutes after I had done it, my face bore a closer resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow accepting an Oscar than the glum, pudgy, only mildly insane Australian webmaster that usually stares back at me from a mirror.

Why this drastic course of action? Because it was a puff piece like most set visit reports you read online and which I myself have been guilty of writing quite a few times in the past. The odd quote here and there, a bit of travelogue and pleasantries with background information on the property, and ultimately very little in the way of explaining what the film is about and the adaptation/filmmaking process.

Some of the others on that visit had done short pieces, others more exhaustive and detailed reports buoyed a lot by their experience and knowledge of the comic itself. Pretty much all of it was solid work which I’m sure the studio was more than happy with. Yet for this I felt a standard report from me just wasn’t good enough, let alone one that would’ve been lost amidst a dozen other articles of a similar (and frankly better) nature. Here was a film deserving of more than a few hours quick write-up about what hair colour each character is or what obscure bit of cinema inspired the filmmakers in their approach to shooting major violence with a PG-13 rating.

In recent weeks, new trailers and featurettes have thankfully given us all a better idea of the film and given me in particular far more understanding of the context of what we saw and heard on the visit. Had some of the other set visit reports been published now, tying into the film’s massive launch at Comic Con, I think the enthusiastic response from that now dwindling contingent of unswayed fanboys would have been greater.

So I held back until I felt the time was right and here we are with me making my argument. Taking this approach was not a choice I made lightly. Choosing to delay and spend more time coming up with this and the subsequent interview articles I’m posting this week has likely cost me my chance to attend both an early screening of the film and/or attendance at events/parties for it either at Comic Con or during my current short stay in Los Angeles.

While neither of them has been in contact about it, two people in particular whose professional courtesy and friendship I highly value have no doubt been disappointed by my not publishing an initial report along with the others. One is a truly gorgeous woman both inside and out who got me onto the visit in the first place. The other is one of the hardest working, friendliest men I know and whom I’ve shared drinks with by Sydney harbour and had a hot morning coffee and chat with in downtown Toronto the day after the visit.

To both of them I must apologise, but I felt I had to do what I feel is best for the film and for the readers. This editorial piece is certainly the most unconventional first part to a set report that I’ve ever penned, but “Scott Pilgrim” is an unconventional film and one I hope has all the qualities that many of you have been clamouring for all Summer – originality, wit, energy and excitement. My approach may not fit into Universal’s publicity plans, but I hope this piece will get more people keen on seeing this potentially stellar piece of work and in the end isn’t that the goal?

For those who have to have their details, I’ll be publishing two extended interview articles this week delving into background about the comic, incorporating key comments from the stars and filmmakers made during our visit, and spice it all up with some audio/visual elements worth looking at before you enter the world of Scott Pilgrim.

Set visit reports are cut and dry with shit films often getting pieces as detailed as the odd gem we get to cover, it’s not something that’s fair to either you or the film itself. These occasional sparklers deserve something more. This is the closest I can come to a rallying cry because despite my years of writing, even I find some of my primitive prose hard to read while my tone is mostly akin to some washed up bastard love child of Oscar Wilde and Jacqueline Susann.

Yet unlike others in this field, I rarely editorialise. I stay out of debates or ’causes’ because I consider my objectivity to be amongst my most valuable traits and I avoid championing or debasing something because the larger critical mass of thinking deems so, a gestalt mindset that seems to be devolving these days thanks to cronyism and hypocrisy. When I pen something like this I hope all the dismissive cynics out there grasp the concept that it comes from a sincere and genuine belief. As a devout atheist, it’s hard to say these words lightly but I have faith in “Scott Pilgrim”. Here’s hoping in a few weeks time he won’t let either you or me down.