In Edgar Wright’s new film, Last Night in Soho, Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Jojo Rabbit and Old‘s Thomasin McKenzie) is a young fashion student who comes to London, only to be swept into a thrilling and then terrifying adventure, as she begins to find herself transported into the London of the 1960s when she sleeps – as she follows along with Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer who meets a man (Matt Smith) who claims he can make her dreams come true.
As Eloise sees more and more of Sandie’s life, she learns just how ominous and disturbing things got for the girl – and discovers that her own obsession with all things ’60s, and belief that it was the time she’d most like to live in, have masked a darkness that was a part of that era as well. Soon, the unsettling things Eloise is seeing in the past begin to appear to her in the present in increasingly horrifying ways and she must try and figure out what exactly happened to Sandie and how she can finally set things right.
I spoke to Wright and McKenzie about taking a look at the dangerous side of nostalgia — even as Wright admits he’s plenty nostalgic himself — along with how the Last Night in Soho team pulled off some notably impressive filmmaking tricks when it came to Eloise and Sandie’s mirrored coexistence, in a film that again showcases the dynamic and compelling visual manner in which Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver) tells a story.
Be Careful What You Yearn For
Last Night in Soho’s heroine, Eloise, has a massive adoration for London in the 1960s and when she first finds herself transported back there, it’s everything she has always wanted. But soon, through Sandie’s story, she discovers a far more sinister side to the era she’s built up in her head. Edgar Wright himself has spoken of his own huge love for that same era, yet has made a film in which his main character learns a dark lesson about having blinders on to the full picture. So I asked Wright if he was essentially making a warning… to himself?
Replied Wright, “I think so! I think maybe sometimes making a film is like lying on the psychiatrist’s couch. You’re sort of trying to cure yourself of something. It was something I would think about a lot. I was born in the ’70s but I would think about the ’60s as a time that I missed out on. After starting an obsession with ’60s music through my parents’ record collection, that continued into the TV and the film and the art and the fashion of the time.”
Wright noted that, like Eloise, his perspective was somewhat altered after making a big move to the city, explaining, “Especially when moving to London, it’s impossible to kind of ignore the dark side of things. And even when I first moved to London in the mid-90s, Soho was a lot more edgy than it is today and the high and the low coexisted. It’s the heart of the film and TV industry, but the sex industry and the criminal underworld, they’re right on top of each other. Today, it’s been mostly gentrified, but the ghosts are still there. And the energy of that place changes after midnight. There’s an element of it, where I would think about that a lot and I would think about the dark side.”
Thomasin McKenzie remarked that thinking of a past era as one that must have been better than the present is very common, pondering that one day, “So many people in the future might be looking back at this time, the time we’re in now,” in the same manner. Though she added, with a laugh, maybe they wouldn’t want to come back to 2021 specifically.
Said McKenzie, of the discoveries Eloise makes, “No matter what time period you’re in, there’s always gonna some kind of struggle or there’s always gonna be a dark side. So there’s no real point at looking to the past or into the future and hoping for something that isn’t real. it’s just about being in the present and trying to be able to appreciate what is actually around you.”
Said Wright, of his own perspective, “I think, in terms of nostalgia, I’d find myself daydreaming about going back to the ’60s so much that I started to think, what is my problem? Is this nostalgia a failure to deal with the present day? Am I in retreat by daydreaming so much?” He added, with a grin, “So I guess, with all that in mind, the film becomes a cautionary tale for time travelers!”
DANCE THIS MESS AROUND
There are several standout moments in Last Night in Soho depicting what it’s like for Eloise to observe Sandie in the past as her literal mirror image — seen by the audience, but not the other characters — but sometimes she also experiences these things for herself in a more firsthand manner. Nowhere is that more apparent than in a dynamic scene in which Sandie and Jack (Matt Smith) share a dance, even as we see Sandie and Eloise continually taking each other’s place as Jack’s dance partner.
To pull off something like that, Wright said, “Obviously, it’s all about rehearsal. The biggest saving that you can make on a movie, which people frequently don’t, is rehearsing things. When we actually came to shoot that [dance sequence], we knew what we were doing, because we’d rehearsed it first in a sort of town hall, with dancers and the camera operator, and then we’d rehearsed it on the set. You have three performers — Matt Smith, Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Mackenzie — you have an amazing choreographer, obviously, Jennifer White, but then it’s almost like the fourth dancer is the camera operator himself, because he has to be at exactly the right place at the right time.”
“It took a lot of preparation for sure,” McKenzie recalled. “We spent a lot of time in dance rehearsals. And I’m not a natural dancer, so Jenny White had a lot of work to do when it came to me, but it was really cool. I’m rehearsing with Anya and Matt, and Anya is a beautiful dancer and Matt is also a really great dancer, and it was really fun to kind of loosen up a little bit… Just to be able to dance and be joyful when so much of the film is about running away and screaming.”
Wright explained there was little in the way of editing trickery occurring in that sequence – McKenzie and Taylor-Joy really were swapping in and out in each other’s place alongside Smith, within split seconds, off-camera.
Said Wright, “Some people think there’s a lot of edits in that shot, but it’s an unbroken take. There’s one little bit where there’s an effects pass for a few seconds, but then the whole end part of the shot is basically watching five Texas Switches [Editor’s Note: a term for swapping performers, usually stuntmen for a lead actor, within a single shot] in a row. And the great thing about that is it’s something where you’re suspending disbelief by showing things in these unbroken shots. It’s basically a way of not breaking the spell of the movie, in the same way that Eloise is in a dream and believes that what she’s seeing is actually happening.”
Eloise and Sandie’s Story
The opening scenes of Last Night in Soho do an incredibly effective job of putting you in Eloise’s shoes – first by showing her joy at moving to London but then depicting how quickly she is faced with huge obstacles to outright dangers, from the dismissive, hurtful way she’s treated by some of her classmates, to the lecherous and potentially harmful men she encounters.
All of this helps reinforce why her idealized thoughts about 1960s London would become even more appealing and McKenzie said, of setting things up in this manner, “The main thing for me was just taking Ellie’s story very seriously and taking Sandie’s story very seriously, because it’s not complete fiction. They ring true to a lot of experiences that women have had in the past… It was [about] taking Ellie seriously when nobody else did.”
McKenzie said that Wright helped her in hone her character in many ways, explaining, “He was really generous with sharing so many resources with me; sharing so many films and books and music that he had drawn inspiration from. He did a really amazing job at introducing me into that world, and sharing with me how passionate he also was about this time, and about film from the 60s. So I felt like we were kind of in it together. We were a team wanting to create something really amazing together.”
As Wright put it, Eloise has previously “Been confident in her own realm back at home in her bedroom. Then, in the big city, her confidence is immediately knocked. And she sort of goes into retreat and again just wants to go back to dreaming about the ’60s.”
Eloise is immediately drawn to Sandie, who Wright notes, “Has sort of got this kind of innate star quality and confidence, which Eloise starts to copy and starts dressing like her and changes her hair to look like. There’s something where I guess it’s almost like a transference in the way that Eloise wants to be Sandie.”
Sandie doesn’t literally see or speak to Eloise, which means even though McKenzie was acting in many scenes with Taylor-Joy, it was in an unusual manner. As McKenzie put it, “It was just about a lot of observation. I felt like a bit of a creep some of the time because I would just be standing there staring at Matt and Anya as they had conversations. But it was quite nice to take a backseat as well and to not have to give a big performance but just be present and curious about what is going on around me.”
Last Night in Soho opens in theaters Friday, October 29.