When I visited the Toronto set of Scott Pilgrim vs the World last summer it was during a climactic finale scene, which meant there wasn’t much access to the stage during shooting – nobody wanted to get spoiled on the end of the movie. And it also meant that a number of cast members weren’t actually working that day.
But that didn’t stop folks from coming by anyway. One of the actors who wasn’t supposed to be on set but who showed up to talk to the assembled press was Johnny Simmons, a younger guy who I think is a terrific actor. Not a lot of people gave Jennifer’s Body a chance, but if they had they would have seen that Simmons has a great screen presence and cool comedic timing. Which should work in his favor as Young Neil in Scott Pilgrim; in the movie Scott plays bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb, and Young Neil is their roadie/fan. Young Neil is one of those background characters that creator Bryan Lee O’Malley excels in – he’s not really central to the main story, but he feels very real and complete and like someone you might know.
How did you get into your character?
They just kind of put me in different clothes, really.
This isn’t your costume, right?
No, this is Johnny right now.
Just wanted to make sure. What’s your favorite part of this film?
The thing they’re shooting right now, the Gideon fight. Jason Schwartzman’s one of my favorite actors, for sure.
How close is your character to the book?
Yeah, it’s pretty close. It’s never really established that me and Stephen Stills are roommates. It’s one of the biggest differences. Which I think is kind of a big deal.
Can you talk about working with Ellen Wong, who plays Knives Chau? Your characters strike up a relationship.
We’ve become really good friends. Our characters start dating in the book, and we made up little back stories to our characters and little outtakes that we’d bring up to Edgar as a joke, and you know, kind of see different sides of stuff. We have a really good time.
Some of the other actors spoke to Bryan Lee O’Malley about aspects of their characters that weren’t in the book. Did you talk to him about that as well?
I got like a list of things at the beginning. There were ten things that Bryan made for each one of us, and he drew us our own personal picture of our character that was in color. I just have a copy of it, I think that they’re going to do something special with the originals at the end, like presenting them to us. But uh, I can’t remember what they were! But there was like, there were some funny things at the beginning that he gave us. Of course I can’t remember one of them now.
I don’t remember Young Neil getting into the action at all. Is it the same here or is it a little more involved with some fights?
Everybody has a stunt except me. Every single person has a stunt, but I don’t have a stunt, there’s nothing. No wire, no pulling. I try to get in on the danger, but there’s nothing.
You didn’t go to Edgar–?
I begged him. If there’s another one, I’m definitely getting a stunt.
How was it to work with Edgar?
He’s awesome. Yeah. He’s been hosting these double features [at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema]. Like last week was Team America and Army of Darkness. Which are two of [cinematographer] Bill Pope’s movies. So [Edgar] works all day long, fourteen, fifteen hours a day, then Saturday he goes into the editing room and then Sunday he’s hosting movies. He’s just obsessed with everything to do with the film industry and it’s really inspiring to watch. Especially one of my favorite directors. To be on set with him and seeing him that dedicated to something, and being so tired, where you would want to use your Saturday/Sunday to kind of take a break, he’s sitting there setting up movie screenings.
That’s his break?
Yeah, that’s his break, which is pretty cool.
Your character’s name is based on Neil Young, so do you get to play any music–?
I do, I take over Scott’s position. I don’t know if I’m supposed to give that away or not. Yeah, that’s a big one, I don’t know if that’s supposed to go in or not, but yeah… Scott throws me the bass at one point when he goes to fight somebody, and there’s this huge like slow motion shot that they shot at 100 frames or something like that, but it goes through the air and it goes to Young Neil. And he grabs a hold of it, and we shot it like ten times because the strap had to go perfectly over my head, and at first I had this rubber guitar and it didn’t look right. So they brought the cool, like it’s a Rickenbacker, which is about sixty pounds or something.
I thought you said you didn’t have any stunts?
Well, I guess that’s kind of my stunt, there you go. I could have gotten my nose broke. So, it comes over, then we change it to the other one and it’s just like this epic moment. And at the end there’s a line that Scott says that says, ‘Neil, you’re awesome at bass. You will now be known as Neil.’ It’s a cool moment, yeah.
Was the movie your first encounter with the Scott Pilgrim books, or had you read them previously?
I hadn’t read them.
So was the script your first–?
Uh huh. I read it about a year and a half ago, or two years or so. I was just leaving to New York to go film a movie called The Greatest, and it’s like there’s no way in hell that I’m going to get this, but I just went in on a whim, and like a year and a half later, or maybe just like a year, Edgar contacted me – somebody was saying they were Edgar Wright – on Facebook – and I was like yeah, whatever. And we had been waiting for feedback, you know, nothing had come of this. And for a while it was on hold or something. And I was focused on The Greatest and Jennifer’s Body, and then I kept asking about this film in particular. He friend requested me and I was like yeah, it’s Edgar, but it’s probably not. And we started messaging back and forth through the inbox and like a month had gone by when we were just talking, and he said,well, you’re in LA, if you want to meet up for coffee or whatever. And he was also [Facebook] friends with Jason Reitman, who doesn’t have his real name set up [on Facebook], so I figured it could have been the real Edgar. He said yeah, let’s meet up for coffee. I’d also like to offer you the role of Young Neil.
So then I call my manager, I’m like, is this like for real? Or is this a joke? And they didn’t know anything. And neither did the casting director, who’s Avi Kaufman — it was like this huge, mad scramble to find out if this was a legit guy or whatever. So I’m going to coffee with him the next day, still thinking this is all bullshit, you know, and there’s Edgar Wright sitting there. So the whole time we were having this meeting, and I’m just like holy crap, it’s really you and I just got Young Neil, okay. But he offered over Facebook.
Do you see any similarities in yourself and Young Neil, or how did you–?
I’m sure there’s similarities. I play guitar, so we had to learn bass, and Chris Murphy is our coach, from Sloan, and that was pretty easy to step into. I had to learn every song, because they didn’t know which one I was actually going to be playing. Yeah, I guess I’m kind of goofy and simple. He’s described with simple minded and layered t-shirts. Except no layered t-shirts today, I’m just going plain white.
Are you doing the music all live or did they have someone in the studio already? How did they do the music as far like is a lot done on set or–?
Yeah, they, I thought that was going to be kind of rough, because you have to match everything up and the lights have to be exactly in sync with like, for instance, have you guys seen the Gideon stage? It’s pretty epic. It’s like, they have all these LED lights, like the huge TV, what they use for the advertising so there’s little sound waves going through that syncs perfectly with the music. So, they have to shoot completely 360, so that all has to be perfectly synced each time. So they’ve got a system that basically runs the movie for the particular part that you’re playing and then the music syncs up with the lights perfectly.
So you have to do everything?
Yeah, pretty much. With the big stages they had to do that, so. The Gideon one’s the most difficult because it’s got so many lights and so many different angles where it would have to be perfect synced up. Whereas at, I don’t know, another, smaller venue, there wouldn’t be you know, crazy lights going on.
They have it already recorded them? They have the music already recorded?
Yeah, prerecorded. Nigel Godrich was the guy who recorded it.
Were they actually songs from the book?
I don’t know exactly if they were the exact same, but Beck wrote those, which was pretty epic.
Your scene with the guitar, is that your favorite in the film, or–?
Yeah, I think that would be the funniest of my stuff, probably. Yeah, that’s probably my favorite filmed, other than the Gideon. Maybe with the guitar coming over. Seeing Jason Schwartzman up there with his cane and his white suit – it’s insane, you know? There’s these gigantic pyramids that are built up next to each other in the Chaos Theater.
When you’re getting into character are you looking at just the script, or are you going to the book and using that as well?
Probably both. I mean, it’s pretty laid out, just by the ways that Bryan had drawn the character. It’s pretty easy. That’s what I was looking at when I auditioned. You just put on like a goofy sort of face and then try to zone out as much as possible when you’re on the set, and be scared of just about everything. And that’s all I think about whenever I’m up there.You know at a party, he’s got this party scene, he’s holding a drink and he’s just kind of looking around like “Shit. Oh man. I have to talk to somebody right now or else they’re going to know I’m not cool.” You know, just like zone out.
What was the best thing about working with Edgar?
I think just how he inspires you to go, to keep up with him. I heard that about Peter Jackson, who he’s friend with. Just a mad scientist who, basically never stops because he’s so obsessed with what he does and it’s never going in to work, it’s going to have fun and do what you love and just be a geek and sort of geek out, you know? And I think Edgar inspired me a lot in that way, to kind of, you know, it’s not really going in to work or set, it’s coming here to do what a lot of people would really love to do. Lucky enough to get to do it, so. That’s pretty much, that’s what I learned from Edgar.
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