Who the hell is Scott Pilgrim?

He’ll be everywhere this summer and Edgar Wright loves him. Total Film asks Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley what the fuss is all about…

“Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!” He’s also 23 years old or something. Terminal layabout. Chronic forgetaholic. Will have to defeat seven evil ex-boyfriends if he wants to date Ramona Flowers. Shares a bed with a gay guy who can’t keep his trousers on for much longer than a Toronto minute. And in a turbo-powered new movie directed by Edgar Wright, he’s played by geek god of the moment Michael Cera.

Come this August, everybody will know who Scott Pilgrim is. He already boasts over 5,000 friends on MySpace, a further 100,000 (and counting) on Facebook, fans in Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino – oh, and a six-book comic series that charts the life and times of his down-and-out chums. Pilgrim’s popularity is rising faster than the price of sugar during wartime. But where did this unusually-monikered young man spring from? And why are comic book devotees and movie buffs alike starry-eyed and stuff about his upcoming big screen debut?

It all began with another twenty-something, this one called Bryan Lee O’Malley. Vital Stats: Canadian, Manga-lover, musician, video game fanatic. A professional cartoonist who previously worked lettering comics and illustrating Manga mini-series Hopeless Savages: Ground Zero, O’Malley’s first graphic novel – Lost At Sea, about a shy young girl who believes she has no soul – made waves in 2003. But he was itching to try something new.

“I wanted to take on something big,” the author explains. “I’d never really done a story that long, and many of the comics in Manga are in longer series’.” Sketching ideas in 2002, O’Malley dreamed up a multi-tome serial that fused all of his passions (see above) with the frequently stupid but entertaining existence of real-life twentysomethings. “When I started out it was very much just for me and my friends,” he says. “We were in that age range and we were going through that experience, but I wanted to do something that was kind of a fun, alternate take on our world.”

The result? The head-spinning, richly textured and laugh-out-loud funny (“If bad was a boot, you’d fit it!”) world of Scott Pilgrim, a coup for outside the (x)box creativity. Citing as influences everything from Mangas Beck and Nana to TV’s The Office and Arrested Development, O’Malley forged a giddy brew of reality, fantasy and video game fancy in which characters battle each other in duels that earn them points and extra lives… then go out and eat pizza or whatever.

Named after a song by now defunct Nova Scotia-based girlband Plumtree (“The band had broken up and I wanted to do a little tribute to them”), Pilgrim is the lazy but endearing lounger we all have the potential to be. Think a cooler, cleaner Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill. “He’s definitely got aspects of me,” O’Malley admits, “I often feel like an idiot in the way that I present him. He is a construct, but there’s definitely a large part of my personality in there.”

Having dated green teen Knives Chau, Scott meets Ramona Flowers – “the ultimate girl, the unattainable girl.” To win her heart, Scott has to defeat the manic pixie dream girl’s seven deadly ex-boyfriends. One of the ex-boyfriends is a girl. “The exes are pretty much pure fantasy,” O’Malley laughs. “They’re based on different kinds of inadequacies that you might have when you’re in a relationship. One of them’s a rock star. They’re the worst people you can imagine your lover having been with before you.”

Set in Toronto, the series nimbly ducks and weaves its way through this collision of hyper-reality and the everyday. Many of the settings are real deals, while things like band names (The Clash At Demonhead, Pilgrim’s own Sex Bob-omb), snippets of dialogue and even hidden Easter Eggs contain gamey, fanboy winks.

Hollywood soon came a-knocking. With Pilgrim showing promise, in 2004 publisher Oni Press slipped producer Marc Platt – of earlier comic book movie adap Josie And The Pussycats – a copy of Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1. In a flash Edgar Shaun Of The Dead Wright had signed on to translate the comic to cinema. “Everybody was interested immediately,” O’Malley remembers. “We’ve been talking about it ever since, so it’s been several years of discussions and drafts of the film.” And Wright himself? “He’s always full of espresso. He’s kind of unstoppable.”

Handing over his world to the spirited moviemaker was made easier by Wright’s clear affection for the material – no Alan Moore hissy fits here. “I’ve always felt like it’s in safe hands,” O’Malley says. “I feel like they’ve been much more dedicated to preserving the aesthetic of my work than I would have been if I was in their position.” The author has also enjoyed almost unprecedented involvement in the comic-to-canvas process, having been sent drafts as they were worked on (“It’s kind of unofficial but yeah I did write bits”), while actor audition tapes were also shipped his way.

For the role of Scott, there was only ever one geek for the job – Superbad and Juno’s gawky charmer Michael Cera. “I saw a verbatim scene taken from Volume 2 where Scott and Ramona are on a date in his apartment eating garlic bread,” O’Malley recalls. “And Michael Cera delivered [this line]… it’s so pitch perfect and so funny that it completely changed my view of my own work. I was blown away.”

With Cera cast alongside hot tickets Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin and Allison Pill, a gruelling six month shoot followed – “Edgar always knows exactly what he wants.” The film is finally set for release this August, mere weeks after the sixth and final Pilgrim novel is unleashed into hordes of salivating fans. O’Malley, who’s seen a rough director’s cut, is in no doubt of its total excellence. “It’s just so energetic,” he burbles. “It’s more amped up than anything Edgar’s done before. It’s strange for me, being the one who wrote so much of it and, you know, visualised it in my own way. But it’s amazing.”

Now all O’Malley has to do is relinquish that sixth book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour. Written during the making of the movie, O’Malley has even incorporated moments he witnessed on set into the comic panels. And the screen and book endings are apparently entirely different – yeah, anything could happen. Does O’Malley feel the pressure to deliver? “Yeah, yes I do. Especially with the film, it’s a lot to live up to.”

Still, Pilgrim’s popularity is ever on the climb (in the books, a Pilgrim popu-graph would no doubt resemble a fit-to-burst thermometer), something the author attributes to the comic’s inherent relatability. “There aren’t a whole lot of comics about nerdy twentysomethings,” he muses. “Comics are always about fighting, so even if it’s a comic about 23 year olds living in regular circumstances, there still has to be some crazy fighting. But anyone who lives in a big city and shares a house with roommates understands immediately what Scott Pilgrim’s about.”

Six books, one movie and almost a decade of his life later, it’s surely a poignant time for O’Malley having to bid Pilgrim farewell? “It’s gonna be weird, it’s cutting loose from a whole chapter of my life,” he reflects. “It’s hard to extract my… it’s all intertwined for me. I would say Scott Pilgrim’s certainly changed my life.”

Via Total Film

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