How Last Night in Soho recreated Swinging 60s London

“It became a war of attrition to keep the modern world in check, the only way was to push them all out with tons of periodic extras and cars.”
Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

The dizzying dream sequence materializes in less than half an hour in the author-director Edgar Wright’s psychological thriller Last night in Soho. The film’s heroine Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie from Leave no trace and Jojo rabbit fame) is a girl in a small town who has moved to central London to attend fashion college. As she falls asleep one night in her apartment, she is suddenly transported from the present to the busy streets of another edition of her new city: more specifically, London’s notoriously louche Soho district around the swinging 60s. Inside a club, she captures her reflection in the mirror to discover that she is no longer Eloise – she has transformed into Sandie, a Brigitte Bardot type (portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy), whose mere presence (and a Pepto Bismol -pink chiffon dress) brings the club’s festivities to a standstill. Soon Sandie / Eloise is spun across the dance floor by the wolf-like music manager Jack (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith) in a bravely seen piece of swooping camera work, costumes, production design and tag-team choreography.

It turns out that Eloise, a kind of amateur clairvoyant since her mother’s death as a result of suicide, has an inexplicable connection to Sandie, who, as it also turns out, lived in the same bed apartment. And as a consequence of this property-induced, decade-long fusion of thoughts, the aspiring fashion designer must be a silent witness while the aspiring singer suffers from one crushing indignation after another. Until the turmoil in Sandie’s life – embodied by an army of mentally retarded predators – comes to haunt Eloise, even when she’s not sleeping.

The seventh non-documentary feature of Wright hit theaters on October 29 after being delayed twice by distributor Focus Features due to pandemic concerns. But to hear the British filmmaker tell it, Last night in Soho‘s journey to the screen begins in 2007, its script progresses in bouts and starts, even while Wright was working on other films – End of the world, Baby driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. World. Like several of his earlier efforts, a carefully composed playlist of pop songs helped shape the story of what Wright originally envisioned as a “central London, female-led psychological thriller.” He hired a professional researcher to prepare a dossier on 60s culture, crime, and Soho history for further realism. Wright first met and discussed the casting of Taylor-Joy (originally in the role of Eloise, not Sandie) after serving on the jury at the Sundance Film Festival 2015, where she broke through in the arthouse horror hit The witch. It was only before Wright was introduced to his eventual co-author Krysty Wilson-Cairns (which received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for the war epic 1917), however Soho gained ground as a project.

He sees his film in the context of “a subgenre of dramas in which a girl comes to London and has the courage to try her hand at show business – and she will be punished for the audacity of wanting to be a star. It made me “Think of the idea of ​​a twin story. What if you made the modern version of this movie and a character is able to watch the ’60s version of the movie at the same time?”

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

For the uninitiated, the film’s namesake encompasses just half a square kilometer of London’s most urban quadrant, densely packed with bars, clubs, theaters and cinemas. (As Wright points out, it is also the spiritual epicenter of the British film industry.) In the 20th century, Soho was synonymous with sin: the place of private drinking places and brothels where strange shit could happen to unsuspecting people.

To find out the area’s delicate truth, Wright hired Lucy Pardee, an associate producer on the British sci-fi sensation Attack the block and casting director for films such as American honey and Stone, to compile a “bible” of research material that eventually grew to be four feet tall. She interviewed locals who lived and worked in Soho in the swinging 60s, revealing piles of documentary information about the sex industry and police work in central London from around that time. (Pardee’s research bled into broader topics such as sleep paralysis, ghost encounters, nightmares, and paranormal behavior.) Wright posted “beats” of information on a whiteboard in his production office in a way he and Wilson-Cairns remember as “very serial killer.”

“It looked like John Does’ apartment from Se7en“, says the director.

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

As my colleague Nate Jones has pointed out, Last night in Soho works effectively as a “soundtrack movie”, ie. a “movie that feels like a 90-minute mixtape, the cinematic equivalent of someone putting a pair of headphones on your head and saying, ‘You need to listen to this.’ includes Soho: Kinks’ “Starstruck” (rejected by a modern character as “granny shit”); “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Alfie”, performed by Cilla Black (a fictionalized version of who appears in one scene); a cover of “Wade in the Water” by the Graham Bond Organization; and Peter and Gordon’s longing “A World Without Love” from 1964. At one point in the film, Taylor-Joy takes the stage to perform an a cappella rendition of “Downtown” by Petula Clark.

But long before screenwriting, the songs were an integral part of Wright’s process. “The songs have become synesthesia for the film, where certain songs would trigger being able to see the scene in my head,” Wright says. “Some songs were almost like Post-it notes on the fridge saying, ‘Make this movie.’ You would hear the song, and you would say, ‘I have to make this Soho thing.'”

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

The director had the film’s basic plot points drawn up in 2016 when he mentioned the project to his Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes. Mendes, in turn, introduced Wright to Wilson-Cairns, who had worked in a Soho bar for five years while writing his debut script. Eat. During dinner in the neighborhood, the Glasgow-born author recalls that Wright discussed his idea for a movie about “the danger of romanticizing the good old days” that would take place in a “naughty or darker, different part of Soho.” “I thought, ‘Oh, I know that bit.’ It’s my part of Soho, “she says.” We actually had dinner opposite the strip club I used to stay above. Then we went out for a drink and I took him to this basement bar which is a members bar. We went down there and there are definitely a few criminals in there too. A proper Soho haunt. ” Nine months later, he called to ask her to write the film with him.

The Toucan, the bar where Wilson-Cairns actually worked, is referred to as Eloise’s part-time workplace – the backdrop for several nervous outbursts between McKenzie’s character and a mysteriously intense barfly (played by Terence Stamp), which she presumably was responsible for Sandies regrets decades earlier. Wright drew particular attention to his co-author’s experiences of sexism in the neighborhood. “I said to Krysty, ‘What’s the worst, most horrible pickup line you’ve ever heard?’ And then it goes straight into the script, “he says. (For the record, it’s:” Sorry, my cock is just dead. Do you mind if I bury it in your ass? “)

But both Wright and Wilson-Cairns are clear on the point: Wright’s decision to bring her into the story “was less about the fact that I was a woman and more about the fact that I had experienced Soho,” Wilson-Cairns says . “Edgar is an amazing, empathetic writer and is not bound by the idea that men somehow could not write women. We collaborated.”

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features / B) 2021 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Many of Last night in Soho‘s most visually dazzling sequences were recorded inside an almost scale replica of London’s exclusive Café de Paris. The Gilded Nightclub is the place where Eloise first meets Sandie, where the two act as dance partners with Matt Smiths Jack in what must be one of the cinema’s most elaborate do-si-dos, and where Wright (in collaboration with film photographer Chung-hoon Chung)) used what he calls “old-school magic-trick stuff” to film the actresses as each other’s mirror image.

“It took a lot of practice,” says the instructor. “A team effort. It’s not just production design. The camera operator has to be in the right place at the right time. The switching points are not motion control. It’s Thomasin and Anya running around on the other side of the camera. What’s being shot is there really. The sequences with the mirror things are not green screen. There are tricks like double set, mirrors that would slide back into the camera. There is more happening in the camera than you would think. ” (Wright declined to elaborate on what went into filming the sequences, adding that in six months, viewers will be able to watch behind-the-scenes videos.)

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh / Focus Features

Wright grew up admiring lesser-known films from the 60s and 70s with prominent locations in central London: Seance on a wet afternoon, Deep end. But the practical aspects of filming his cinematic love letter to Soho in Soho turned out to be a lot more of a challenge than he could have expected. Location managers began an extensive scouting process in December 2018, and after securing the necessary permits from the city and the agreement from local merchants, production began in the summer of 2019. For three weeks of night shots, production designer Marcus Rowland was driving trucks in a fleet of shiny 60s cars and sharing of background artists dressed in sharp period costumes. Crews totally transformed Soho’s narrow streets with historically accurate decoration – a huge poster for the James Bond movie Thunderball took over the real tent for the Odeon Luxe Haymarket Cinema – and then removed it in a matter of hours.

“There’s a certain part where you can not really control it,” Wright says. “There’s a shot where Thomasin first enters the ’60s and goes over Haymarket. We had period cars and periodic extras. You can’t stop tourists in central London in the summer. You mostly rely on people’s better nature to play ball. and not go through and destroy the shot. It became a war of attrition to keep the modern world at bay, the only way was to push them all out with tons of period extras and cars. But even by taking that shot, the Westminster Council said: ‘ Yes, you can shoot this between 10:30 and 2:30, but you have to keep a track free of modern buses, fire trucks and ambulances. ‘

McKenzie called Last night in Soho the most complicated footage of her career. “It was the most intense introduction to London anyone could have,” said the 21-year-old actress. “Filming on the streets of Soho with drunk people going in and out of the filming and refusing to get out of the way so we could get our pictures before the sun came up – hurried to hit the sunrise.”

Wright prefers not to dwell on the difficult things, but jokes that certain aspects of the production – such as trying to coordinate the line delivery of co-star Diana Rigg around the progression of neon lights flashing through a built-in window – gave him PTSD: “You are in a complicated scene, grumbling in a corner. You say, ‘Whose idea was it to do this?’ ‘Uh. That was your idea, Edgar. Why did you do that to yourself? ‘”

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