The following interview contains spoilers for Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.
Change is a constant in life. There’s that old adage about how we can’t change the past – that looking back to the past, even in a nostalgic way, is detrimental to our future growth. However, in the world of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, Bryan Lee O’Malley needed to shake things up from the outset. That Shelf sat down with O’Malley shortly before the Netflix premiere of Takes Off to discuss how this change was not only necessary, but challenged him to tell a story that became more honest for himself.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It has been nearly 20 years since Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life was first published. As you look back between that, Edgar Wright’s film, the Ubisoft video game, and now this Netflix series, even being here in Toronto must feel like some sort of weird homecoming.
Yeah. You know, I turned 23 a month after moving to Toronto, and part of what inspired Scott Pilgrim was just being 23 in Toronto and living the life that I was living. The city has changed so much…now I’m in a high-rise building talking to you [laughs] and it’s a very different life.
Two decades on, why do you feel that the story of Scott Pilgrim still resonates to this day with older and newer audiences?
I don’t know. I think when I was starting to write it [when I was] around 23-24, I just felt like no one really wrote about being that age and I felt terrible being that age [laughs]. It was a really rough time. The only reference to being 23 I remembered was that line in that blink-182 song [“What’s My Age Again”], “no one likes you when you’re 23,” and it was true, so I was like, “Let’s write about that.” I also had this Plumtree song that I was obsessed with called “Scott Pilgrim.” I was like, “Who’s Scott Pilgrim? Let’s just invent a guy,” and then he ended up being this…kind of a terrible guy who’s still a hero and still funny. I make fun of him but I still love him. Then there’s something about the specificity of Toronto that I think resonates with people. Being in a band and all that stuff, it’s aspirational if you’re a teen reading it. But I don’t know why Brazilians love it. I don’t know why it resonates around the world. I have no idea.
You’ve spoken about how the Scott Pilgrim books explore that “gray area” of relationships, and how it’s an essential aspect to the core of the story. Can you speak about collaborating with [co-showrunner] BenDavid Grabinski and how you two wanted to approach that theme differently with Scott Pilgrim Takes Off?
Netflix and Edgar were interested in doing a series and they brought Science SARU to me. Now, I love Science SARU, I love anime, and I wanted to do something, but I really was not interested in doing the same exact thing as the book, which seemed to be the expectation because I’m the author. One night, I was having dinner with BenDavid – we weren’t working together on anything – I was just like, “What am I going to do with this?” And he blurted out “What if we do the thing that happens at the end of Episode 1.” I was instantly interested in a way that I hadn’t been. I didn’t know what to do with Scott Pilgrim, so what if we just take him off the board for a little bit and play with everyone else? One of my regrets about the books is that I wish I could have done a little bit more with the Exes, I wish I could had seen more sides of some of these characters and had been a little bit less locked into Scott’s viewpoint. I was writing it as a young person and I was writing it trying to figure out my own viewpoint. Now that I’m older, I have more of a God’s-eye view on these characters, I guess.
That’s specifically why I felt so excited watching this series and particularly how it revisits and develops new relationships between characters we would have never expected to interact with each other. Ramona is rightfully given a major focus in this series, as well, to explore her relationships. Can you talk more about how you approached writing from Ramona’s perspective and developing any of the team-ups we see this time around?
The idea of giving the cast more to do was big for me because – I’ve said this in a couple interviews – when we were doing the movie, I sat down with Jason Schwartzman at his request and he wanted to ask about Gideon. I had very little knowledge about Gideon. I hadn’t written the book yet that he was in. He was a very abstract villain to me and that doesn’t give an actor anything to work with. I really wanted to find empathy and to find out who are these guys, and one girl [Roxie]? What makes them tick? Why are they so angry in the first place? By taking Scott out for a little bit, you have to find alternate conflict resolutions. That becomes Ramona actually having to talk to them, even if sometimes the talking involves fighting. It becomes more about communication and reconciliation, which was really appealing to me.
The events of the first episode completely changed the trajectory for how the Exes interact within the world of Scott Pilgrim. What about these dynamics, between Gideon’s shenanigans with the other Exes, or Matthew Patel becoming the big baddie we all wanted him to be, was appealing to explore now that there were almost no rules in this version of the story?
I mean, it’s a process of trying to turn everything on his head and trying to test the boundaries of Scott Pilgrim. If I f**k up the whole thing, is it still Scott Pilgrim? And I think the answer is yes. I love flipping Gideon and Matthew’s positions. I gave Gideon some of my own backstory because I’m from North Bay, Ontario. That stuff was really fun, and I just felt really free to explore that stuff, especially co-writing with BenDavid. He was just a great sounding board for this stuff. I knew if something was going too far – if it was too esoteric, too Canadian – he kept me on the rails.
Having all these different artistic collaborations over the years, whether it’s Edgar involving you with the process in making the film, you trusting BenDavid in writing and developing this series, or involving yourself with Science SARU, what was your experience revisiting the text as a showrunner and entrusting that everyone involved would see your vision through?
Trust and collaboration is a big part of it. That’s what it was with the movie and the game to begin with. You hand it off and hope for the best. In the case of the movie and the game, they were both very faithful to the books in a way that I wouldn’t have necessarily even done myself. As you can see, when I do my own show, it’s less faithful to the books, but the collaboration with Science SARU was the biggest part of it. They’re geniuses. I was so curious to see what they would do with it. It could have been anything. Working with BenDavid, he’s just a really thoughtful guy. He’s a really good writer and we’re really good friends, so it was easy to tell each other when we didn’t like stuff or when we wanted to develop stuff more. I just hand it off to the team at Science SARU and see what they do with it. Every time, they would make it better than I expected and it’d be more dedicated to the books than I expected. They kept bringing back imagery from the books even in different stories and settings. It still feels so much like the books, the tone of the world that I established. It feels like the characters, and we still get to do new stuff with it.
While watching these episodes, I was constantly looking out for Toronto easter eggs to see what iconography would make the cut on screen this time around. Working with Science SARU, what locations were you surprised that they chose to reference or featured prominently?
They did a little research trip here last year, which I was not here for, but I think they got the width of the streets right. You know when you go to other cities and other countries, they’re all different. So it feels like Toronto, the space feels right. There’s a little Honest Ed’s in there, but they changed it to Honest Ex’s which I thought was really cute… I don’t know…what else is good? What’s the other Toronto stuff? Oh, Lee’s Palace! Was that even in the show?
[Bryan looks over at his wife who is also in the room.] When they go into the first episode, when Knives is spinning around. When they–
Oh, that’s the Rockit.
Rockit. That’s what it was! It was one of the first things that he got – Sorry. I’m answering his question.
[laughs] No, no, that’s totally okay.
It was one of the first fully completed background scenes that he got–
That’s my wife.
When he was watching it, he almost started crying.
Oh, I did?
Well, the Rockit hasn’t existed in like, 20 years. It closed right after.
When you mentioned the Toronto street spacing a moment ago, it reminded me of my favourite locations that they animated in the show, specifically how they got the façade of the Royal Alex[andra Theatre] and David Pecaut Square so accurately in the finale.
Yeah, they nailed it, and we didn’t ask them to do that! They just went around Toronto, found great locations and they drew them with so much love.
Lastly, which cast member had the most fun recording their lines or had the best reaction when they read the script for the first time and found out what happens to their character?
Episode 5 always comes to mind because it’s the silliest one in a lot of ways, and it was kind of my episode in a lot of ways. Kieran Culkin and Brandon Routh both have funny stuff to do in the episode, and they were both having a really good time with it [laughs]. I think Brandon comes out as a really strong cartoon/anime actor in a way that I wouldn’t have expected.
All eight episodes of Scott Pilgrim Takes Off are now streaming exclusively on Netflix. Read our review here.