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Inside Last Night in Soho’s breathtaking trick dance sequence

Director Edgar Wright says it’s mostly one shot, with careful choreography and camerawork as the only practical effect

People keep asking Edgar Wright when he’s going to direct a musical, and no wonder, given how he’s integrated music with action throughout his filmmaking career. Some of his most memorable scenes take their cues from his soundtracks, from the jukebox zombie fight in Shaun of the Dead (set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”) to the musical battles in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World to pretty much all of Baby Driver.

But in his latest film, Last Night in Soho, one musical sequence underlines more than ever what a full Edgar Wright musical might look like, and it includes a startling dance scene that switches rapidly back and forth between two actors. It looks like a series of split-second digital effects, as former Doctor Who star Matt Smith dances with the movie’s co-lead, Anya Taylor-Joy, and she repeatedly body-swaps with the protagonist, played by Thomasin McKenzie. Wright explains to Polygon how the sequence worked — mostly as a single take, with only a single edit in the whole scene.

[Ed. note: Warning: spoilers ahead for the story setup of Last Night in Soho.]

Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) walks into the Café de Paris, with Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) trailing behind her in a broken reflection in a tiled mirror Photo: Focus Features

In the film, shy fashion-school student Ellie (McKenzie) moves to London, where she starts having visions of the past. In a dreamlike state, she wakes up and wanders through 1960s London, experiencing it both as herself, and as Sandie (Taylor-Joy), an up-and-coming performer searching for a chance to get onstage. Wright moves back and forth between their perspectives — when Ellie first looks in a mirror in the 1960s, she sees Sandie. When Sandie stands near a reflective surface, she isn’t aware of Ellie’s presence, but Ellie is looking back out at her.

“You’re going into a fantastical perspective where Thomasin is sometimes a voyeur, and sometimes body-swapping with Anya,” Wright tells Polygon. “When Anya’s emotions run high, Thomasin is suddenly in the moment as well. That came from the types of dreams I have. I have lots of dreams where I know I’m me, but I’m in somebody else’s body. Or I’m looking at myself, I’m having an out-of-body experience, that thing of constantly changing perspectives.”

Most of the mirror scenes were accomplished without digital effects. “They’re actually standing next to each other, for the most part,” Wright says. “When they’re very close to each other, what you’re watching onscreen is actually what’s happening. The really important thing about that was that I knew it was going to be better for Thomasin to be in the scene with the other actors. It would have been not fun, not challenging, and ultimately probably boring for her to do all the scenes on her own, so we designed the shots so she could be in there. And what it creates, I hope, is a very strange mood.”

Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) removes her earrings in front of a vanity as Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) silently watches Photo: Focus Features

The same principle of trying to do the effects practically applied to the big dance number. “We rehearsed with the choreographer, Jen White, fastidiously,” actor Matt Smith tells Polygon. “We worked very hard to get ourselves free and swaying in that ’60s-esque style. A lot of the visual tricks were done with us running around the back of the camera, and hiding, and jumping up — trying to run round and not be in the shot, and then come out again and make things work.”

Wright says there’s a single digital effect at the beginning of the sequence, when Smith first pulls Taylor-Joy past him and she turns into McKenzie. “The first swap was a repeated move where we did the shot with Anya and Matt, and then just did it again with Thomasin,” he says. “Even when we were doing it, I didn’t know we were going to be able to pull it off. And the reason it’s so good is because Matt Smith and Anya and Thomasin’s continuity is just so dead-on.”

Smith says the mechanics of the sequence were mostly a matter of repetition. “It’s like anything, the more you practice, the better you get, really,” he says. “I enjoyed it thoroughly, because I enjoyed working with Anya every day. She’s a good dancer, and we had a laugh, trying to get it right and making it look as cool as possible.”

According to Wright, the scripted version of the scene was much simpler. But in addition to that first planned edit between the two actors dancing, choreographer Jennifer White offered him six alternate body-swap moves, all using Texas switches — on-camera moments where one performer steps out and another steps in, with clever camera work concealing the transition.

“And I was like, ‘Why don’t we just shoot all of them?’ Wright laughs. “‘How long can we keep this going?’ Because it’s intoxicating to watch. That’s supposed to be the idea of the scene. The first dream sequence is alluring and glamorous and intoxicating, seductive. So that was how it came about. Other than that shot, you’re watching one unbroken take.”

Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Jack (Matt Smith) skip out into the London street together in Last Night in Soho Photo: Focus Features

Wright says making the shot work required split-second timing, with Smith handing one of his partners offscreen, and the other stepping in with split-second timing. “The three actors are doing a do-si-do around the camera. It’s just old-fashioned choreography. In a weird way, all the way through the movie, we are doing every trick in the book. Most of them have some sort of complicated 21st-century ways of doing things, but with some of them, what you’re seeing is exactly what’s happening.”

The eventual home-video release of Last Night in Soho may include full footage of the sequence from a witness-cam perspective, removed far enough from the action to show exactly what everyone’s doing, Wright says. “Watching that is like an amazing dance in itself, because really, a shot like that is a collaboration between the three performers — and then also the fourth performer in the scene, Chris Bain, the Steadicam operator. The shot stands and falls on him being in the right place at all times.”

Wright says this kind of one-shot sequence — what people in the industry call a “oner” — can be “show-offy, like ‘let’s just do it because we can.’” But he felt working without cuts would set a particularly breathless tone for the sequence. “The idea was, the longer we can keep these shots going, the more immersive it will be. You feel like you’re living vicariously through her. It’s about not breaking the spell. It’s like we’re showing you a reality of something, even if what we’re showing you is very fantastical.”

He understands that people may find it hard to believe that the sequence was handled without elaborate digital actor-replacement effects. “In this day and age, people always think, ‘Oh, there must be stitches, there must be cuts,’” he says. “But there aren’t. We did a Q&A the other day for BAFTA, and somebody said to the editor, Paul Machliss, ‘Can you talk to us about the edits in the dance sequence?’ And he said, ‘No, because there aren’t any.’”

Last Night in Soho is in theaters now.

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