Scott Pilgrim and Shaun of the Dead Director Edgar Wright

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Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Edgar Wright, at the Hollywood premiere of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Director Edgar Wright is a cinematic DJ, a mix master of film genres — and filmmaking conventions — who loves to sample the familiar on his way to molding mashups unlike anything you've ever witnessed. Anyone who has seen Shaun of the Dead is all too familiar with the way he took a buddy comedy and lumped on a blood-curdling zombie apocalypse. In Hot Fuzz, a small-town traffic cop becomes a machine-gun-toting action star. And with the new Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the story of a frail and insecure young man, Wright has concocted his most hypnotic mix tape yet, sampling everything from The Breakfast Club to Mortal Kombat to Ferris Bueller's Day Off to, of course, the Bryan Lee O'Malley comic series upon which the movie is based. Wright spoke with TIME about movies, video games and all things teen angst.

I've read that you see Scott Pilgrim's story as a dream scene that never ends. That's interesting, in terms of all the otherworldly highs and lows he goes through.
Yeah, well, I know I was like that when I was a teenager: it was all about the extremes. When I had a girlfriend, it was the love of my life, and when I broke up with her, it was the worst thing that had ever happened. I would never think, I'm only 19 — how could this be the worst thing that has ever happened? because back then, everything was a defining moment. So when I would break up with someone, my security blanket was to watch Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. It would just conquer me.

But for me, that's what this film is: you've got a lead character who's 22, who acts with the maturity of a 12-year-old, and this is partly because of perpetual adolescence and a lack of life experience. But you could even read it as a commentary on gaming, where Scott is so wrapped up in his first-person adventures and his artificial sense of confidence that maybe he doesn't necessarily think about the other people around him. He's got this solipsistic existence: he's the hero of the movie in his own head, and he pursues Ramona Flowers like she's a shiny object and he declares his love without really knowing anything about her. When the going gets tough and she has this baggage to deal with of these evil exes, he's forced to look at himself and ask, Are you going to man up and deal with all this and have a real relationship, or are you going to run away from any sort of emotional skirmishes?

What was your first experience with the comic series?
I was in Los Angeles screening Shaun of the Dead when I was handed the book and told, Here's your next film. And I read it differently than most readers because I always had thoughts in my mind about whether this could be a film, and what struck me was the combination of genres. This is a comedy, a musical, an action thriller, a romance, and that appealed to me. Also, before I did Shaun of the Dead, I did this TV show Spaced, and that was similar to Scott Pilgrim plot-wise in this feeling that the lives of the characters were being governed by the pop culture they consumed. But Spaced also had flashbacks and sequences of magical realism, and with the Scott Pilgrim books I thought, Here's a chance to make an entire film in that realm — an entire film as a fanciful daydream. I thought the writing was just great, and it let your imagination run riot.

Were you ever worried about taking all that magical realism and pushing it too far over the edge?
No, not really. I just tried to cram in as much as the budget would allow. I tried to approach it as if I were a moviegoer and to recapture the films ... that blew my mind as a 12-year-old. I remember seeing Gremlins and having my mind blown and seeing Ferris Bueller's Day Off at 13, and it was this hugely aspirational experience. I've heard someone say that Scott Pilgrim is almost like the Nintendo generation's Billy Liar. But I do like this sort of young naiveté about Scott Pilgrim ... You haven't yet been worn down by the complexities of life, and when we see the rock bands play, it's a 14-year-old's version of a rock band, in which lightning bolts shoot out of the guitars, because that's what rock is like for a teenager. I tried to recapture a sense of all those youthful doodles; that's why we drew on the frame. So you'll see ... an action sequence and the camera is moving forward, but then we drew on top of that action, so you have all these doodles on top of the crash zoom. I wanted this to look as if Scott Pilgrim had gone out and made an action film himself, and went a little overboard.

Michael Cera's performance as Scott Pilgrim is quite endearing — there are scenes in which he's almost spoofing himself, or playing a heightened version of his shy little hipster, and then these other moments when he acts as if he were the world's greatest hero. How did you work on that balance?
We wondered if people would question whether Michael was right for the role. But it comes down to how you read Scott Pilgrim. Is he cool, or does he merely believe himself to be cool? And we were definitely in the latter group.

[The] lead character is the hero of the movie in his head. And he has, at times, this catatonic insecurity. In some scenes, Scott Pilgrim is Ferris Bueller, but then seconds later he is Cameron. I drew a graph on the back of one of our scripts with Matthew Broderick on one side and Alan Ruck on the other. In the middle we had an arrow and called it the "Ferris Wheel." So sometimes Michael would ask, "What extreme am I supposed to be in this scene? Where are we on the Ferris Wheel?" And I'd say, "We're a quarter past Ruck."