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Thomasin McKenzie looks back on her time making Last Night in Soho as "unlike anything" she's ever done, mainly because she had to be so "precise." Her trip to the Café de Paris was her boot camp.
As fashion student Eloise, the New Zealand-born actress, 21, mysteriously travels back in time to London's Soho of the 1960s through her dreams, where she becomes psychically entwined with Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer in a flowy pink dress. Her first time seeing Sandie comes as she enters the famed West End nightclub, which leads to a dance between Sandie and a man named Jack (Matt Smith). And since Eloise goes wherever Sandie goes, the young girl is along for the ride.
"The movie really moves to the rhythm of the songs that are playing in the background, and those songs tell your own story and become your own character," McKenzie tells EW. "There was music playing in the background, and sometimes if it wasn't music it would be metronome beats. You'd hear the tick and you'd have to be exactly on that beat. The continuity on this film was unlike anything I'd ever done before."
"I just liked the idea of being governed by something else," says director Edgar Wright. "It's an interesting thing because the scenes become as long as the songs. That first dream sequence, [singer] Cilla Black is going to take you from A to B. This is the length of the song. It can't go any longer."
Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features Anya Taylor-Joy and Matt Smith in 'Last Night in Soho'
Music has long been a part of Wright's filmmaking process. Shaun of the Dead's zombie-fighting sequence to the sound of Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" was one of the earlier instances where a song became an integral part of an entire scene. But the origins of Last Night in Soho, more so than any of his previous films, lay within a particular playlist — some of which Wright released online ahead of the film's theatrical bow this Friday.
"I've been amassing 60 songs or so that I liked since 2007," Wright says. "So I guess at some point the songs became like post-it notes to remind me to write the movie."
You might say the Last Night in Soho concept started long before that. Wright sees the film, in part, as "your perception of a decade versus the reality." His own obsession with the '60s dates back to his time as a kid delving through his parents' record collection. "When my older brother was born, at some point my parents stopped buying records. So I was left with one decade to think about, and I would listen to [the records] obsessively," he recalls. "And then their stories about the '60s were incredibly vague, so that made me want to know more and more."
Taylor-Joy instantly bonded with Wright over their shared love of the English rock band the Kinks after the filmmaker saw her performance in 2015's The Witch and laid out his plans for what would become Last Night in Soho. Much like Wright with his records, the 25-year-old star says, "The first music that I fell in love with was the music of the '60s. My playlists for both Sandie and Beth [from The Queen's Gambit] was the playlists of my teenage years. It was all the music that I listened to when I was growing up."
Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features Edgar Wright working with Anya Taylor-Joy on the set of 'Last Night in Soho'
Wright initially had Taylor-Joy in mind to play the part of Eloise, but by the time screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns decided to join Wright as a co-scribe, the part of Sandie began to expand. "We can't ignore that Anya is blossoming like an amazing firework on the red carpet. She looks amazing in everything," he remarks. "She has this timeless quality."
Wilson-Cairns proved to be the missing ingredient. Sam Mendes, the director on 1917, which she wrote, connected her with Wright. The two spoke over dinner across the street from her old London flat, one that looked directly into a strip club. It was Wilson-Cairns' personal experience of moving to Soho with big dreams and bartending in grimy watering holes that shaped the journey of Eloise in the film. And that playlist Wright had curated became her roadmap.
"It was a playlist and a story," Wilson-Cairns remembers of their meeting. "And it was very much like, 'This is in this sequence. This is going to happen, and this is the music, and this is how long it should be.' It dictates the pacing and the tone in a way that lets you into the director's process unlike anything else."
What they created is a musically charged film that veers toward "a lucid dream," Wright says. "And movement choreography is a big part of that."
Everett Collection Thomasin McKenzie as Eloise in 'Last Night in Soho'
Choreographer Jennifer White, a former burlesque dancer, worked with the stars to sync their movements to the film's soundtrack — similar to what Wright did with Baby Driver, but to a lesser degree. McKenzie admits she struggled with the Café de Paris dance sequence, which involved her and Taylor-Joy trading spots to dance with Smith, creating the effect that Eloise is inhabiting Sandie's body in the dream.
"I'm not a natural dancer," the actress says. "So another part of my preparation was doing dance lessons in Wellington. I did some dancing called five rhythms, I believe, where there are five different styles of energies of dancing. Yeah, there was a lot of dance prep involved."
At times it felt to Wright that he bit off a little too much to chew. He recalls a time when he assembled the crew at 5:30 a.m. to shoot a crosswalk scene while he blasted Black's music from an iPhone. ("The reason you're there at 5:30 in the morning is it's the only time you can walk across the street without getting run over.") Another moment came while editing Last Night in Soho with editor Paul Machliss: synchronizing the street lights with the soundtrack.
"Going 'Blue, white, red, blue, white, red' in time with the songs… At a certain point I found myself standing in the corner talking to myself. 'Whose idea was this? It was my idea. Idiot. Don't do this ever again!' I'm having this grumbling commentary," Wright says, laughing. "But when the end result comes together, you forget that enormous stress."
It's as Taylor-Joy sings in her gloomy cover of a Petula Clark number: Things really are great when you're downtown in Wright's Soho.