Pam Grady, Special to The Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle August 8, 2010 04:00 AM Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Chad Ziemendorf / The Chronicle

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” stars (from left) Brandon Routh, Michael Cera and Anna Kendrick with director Edgar Wright at the San Francisco Four Season.

Anna Kendrick wasn’t sure what to think the first time she read Michael Bacall and director Edgar Wright‘s screenplay for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s graphic novel series about a Toronto bass player who must battle his new girlfriend’s seven evil exes before he can finally win her heart. The Oscar-nominated actress (“Up in the Air”) could not quite imagine how the words on the page would play on screen.

“Obviously, it’s a fantastic script, but it’s a little schizophrenic,” she says. “It’s a really difficult energy and tone to put on paper. The visual style is so much faster than your brain can read.”

The movie’s titular Scott, Michael Cera agrees: “I remember reading it and thinking, ‘How am I going to say those lines?’ ”

It was precisely that challenge of not just adapting a graphic novel, but translating it in a way that it would come alive on screen in all its intricacy that appealed to Wright. The 36-year-old Brit became attached to the movie soon after the first “Scott Pilgrim” novel was published in 2004.

“I loved the first book and I just thought the central metaphor of having to fight for love was strong and really interesting, and then the characters are so funny and relatable and the world is kind of fantastic and magical,” he says. “I couldn’t think of any other comic book movie like it. It’s a comedy but it’s full of action and it’s magical and romantic, so the ambition of it and the complexity of it are also what attracted me to it.”

Several delays in production worked to the film’s advantage. For one thing, by the time Bacall and Wright were down to the final draft of their screenplay, there were five Scott Pilgrim books and O’Malley was partially through a sixth, giving the writers that much more material to play with. For another, the director admits he needed a little seasoning, having made only one feature, the zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” Taking a break from “Scott Pilgrim” to make the buddy movie satire “Hot Fuzz” proved invaluable.

” ‘Shaun’ was pretty intimate,” Wright says. ” ‘Shaun’ was intimate enough to the point in rehearsal we could act out the whole second half of the movie like a little play, and we did. Essentially, there are really only seven actors in the whole thing. ‘Hot Fuzz’ was a big ensemble, and that kind of prepared me for this.”

“Scott Pilgrim’s” long gestation period also meant that Wright could cast the only actor he could imagine in the title role. He first spotted Cera playing George-Michael Bluth on the TV series “Arrested Development” while he and Bacall were working on the script. The teenager was too young for the part, but otherwise perfect.

Aged into the part

Time worked in the movie’s favor. Not only did Cera age into the part, but “Superbad” and “Juno” made the actor a bankable name. When “Scott Pilgrim” began the casting process, Wright considered no one else.

“To me, there was no other candidate,” he says. “There was no other young actor who could pull off the charm, the goofiness, the huge insecurities, and who would be fun to watch being a bad ass. Having a young action star playing Scott Pilgrim is just no fun, because he’s got to be an underdog.”

The huge production took 5 1/2 months to shoot, involving a large cast, many stunts, lots of special effects, and a very specific visual style.

“With something this ambitious, you have to be incredibly meticulous about how it’s all planned out, otherwise there is no way you’re going to get through your shooting day,” Wright says.

That control extended to his actors. He was not the complete martinet. For example, he allowed Brandon Routh, who plays Todd Ingram, vegan and member of the League of Evil Exes, to keep the silly voice he adopted for his role.

“I didn’t know if it was over the top doing it, but it just felt right,” Routh says.

“Brandon gets huge laughs out of playing it deadly serious. It’s great,” Wright adds. “I try to let the actors feel like they have enough rope.”

In other areas, though, the director maintained such iron control of his cast that he even dictated when they could blink on screen.

“I sort of have this lasting image of Edgar as the evil puppeteer, pulling our strings, because it was so specific,” Kendrick says. “It did sort of get to the point where you felt like you were being moved by a master, like every hand movement, eye movement was intentional. The whole movie feels handcrafted, and it’s almost like we were being handcrafted, as well.”

“Every time he would come in and program what we were going to do, and then we would just run the program,” Cera adds, laughing.

First big test

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” had its first big test in July at San Diego’s Comic-Con, where it was the toast of the convention. Whether that means “Scott Pilgrim” will conquer the world of a wide multiplex release beyond the realm of stoked graphic novel fans remains to be seen, but Wright regards the ecstatic reception as a good omen.

“Famously, things have been crucified at Comic-Con,” he says. “If they hadn’t been happy, we would have really heard about it, so the fact that they went bananas and there was a standing ovation after five years of working on it was very satisfying.” {sbox}