With a six-volume graphic novel, a feature film, and a video game all to his name, Scott Pilgrim has been around the block quite a few times. In every iteration of Scott Pilgrim and his girlfriend Ramona Flowers’ tale, we find Scott fighting her evil exes and growing as a person, confronting his own mistakes at a steady pace. But, at a certain point, doesn’t telling the same story over and over again become a little tiring?
This is precisely what Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is all about: removing Scott Pilgrim from the equation and fixating on the series’s wide cast of characters as they navigate a world without the protagonist. While the film and video game are a more traditional brand of adaptation, the Netflix/Science Saru anime is something wholly unique in how it approaches this frequently told tale.
The pivot in the action happens right at the tail end of the first episode, a loose recap of the meet-cute between the couple and the baggage they both bring to the table. From there, the series spirals into something that places Ramona at the center, becoming something of a Columbo in search of an answer to the case of a missing Scott Pilgrim.
In an interview with Primetimer, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off co-creators BenDavid Grabinski and Bryan Lee O’Malley discuss what it was like making such a drastic change to the text and what it means for all of the characters at its core. Be warned, spoilers abound for the series, down to casual conversations about the most miniscule references.
Considering the series is called Scott Pilgrim Takes Off and he literally takes off most of the series, what was the original impetus to shift the series away from Scott himself outside of the bookends?
Bryan Lee O’Malley: We had a big conversation about Scott Pilgrim one night because I had been asked to do a show by Netflix. I wasn’t sure if it would actually happen and I didn’t know what I would do. But then I sat down for dinner with BenDavid and we were just kind of casually chatting about it. I think, pretty quickly, he came up with that idea, because in 2023, or whenever we were writing it, how do you talk about Scott Pilgrim without Scott Pilgrim the character taking all the air out of it? People like to complain about Scott Pilgrim, the character, and we thought: what if we could take him off the table and just see what happens?
BenDavid Grabinski: We were talking about if there was a way to tell the story where we got to give Ramona more to do and spend some more time with the exes. But it’s very hard to do that when you’re telling the same version of the story again, and I came up with this idea on the spot, kind of purely as a device to be able to let Ramona be driving the emotional arc of the season and not be secondary to the thing that we all love, which is a guy having to fight this girl’s exes. It’s a fun idea, but it’s already been done several times and we just thought – well, how do we change it up and not repeat what’s been done before? This concept just felt perfect for it and then Bryan came up with the title to match my idea, and we’re off.
The only time it retreads what’s already been done is in the first episode, which is this lovely adaptation of the text played straight. Was it always sort of planned to be this sincere mislead before pulling out the rug from underneath everyone watching right before the second episode begins?
BDG: Yeah, I jokingly call it a fake pilot.
BLO: When the book came out I remember I really loved people saying, “I just thought it was a normal slice-of-life thing and then, all of a sudden, he’s fighting and there’s a huge smile on my face.” So I kind of wanted to recapture that in a new way, like people now know what Scott Pilgrim is, they know he’ll probably fight evil exes, so what if he didn’t?
BDG: It’s been almost 20 years now and whenever someone does a unique story, it gets normalized. There’s so many things that are mainstream now that you forget how odd it felt on your first exposure to it. The first time you ever experienced a Scott Pilgrim story — most people when they were reading the books — you had no idea it was gonna go into these big video game fights and all that logic. This was a way to be equally surprising even after decades of this stuff becoming more normal.
The normalization of Scott Pilgrim kind of extends into how many interpretations there are of it, between the original book, the movie, and the video game. So, how do you try to bring something new to each individual character without sacrificing who they once were?
BDG: I felt like we were just trying to make the characters more complicated, more interesting, instead of contradicting anything that came before it. I just felt like we're expanding the world of the show. You're there and finding out new shadings and layers to people, new character dynamics of people who've never interacted before, it was just the opportunity to try to just push everything further.
And it's not necessarily that we're contradicting anything, because once you get to Episode 7 [in which Scott is revealed to have been pulled into the future by Old Scott] and they have the Virtual Boy thing [which allows Scott to see what’s been going on without him], you see the other stuff did happen. This is now what’s happening from him going back in time and abducting himself. We think that this could be your first viewing, that this could be your first experience of Scott, and when you’re done, you could watch the movie, read the book, play the game, and you can just keep adding to these characters and making them more interesting.
Maybe this is anime stan nonsense, but a lot of it feels like the Neon Genesis Evangelion rebuilds have done, in that all of these timelines or cycles are all in conversation with each other. Especially considering there are literal references to Evangelion in designing Gideon like Gendo Ikari [the series’s antagonist] and having an Anti-Kiss Field in lieu of Eva’s AT Field…
BDG: Old Scott in the Japanese dialogue track is actually the actor who played Gendo Ikari.
BLO: Yeah, it’s intense. I love it.
BDG: I encourage everyone to watch the show for the first time with the original cast, but it’s really fun to watch the Japanese one.
I know Aoi Koga [Kaguya’s voice actress from Kaguya-sama: Love is War] is playing Knives, which is perfect casting. But back to the Rebuild concept, was it a point of influence beyond just aesthetic?
BLO: We’re all kind of in conversation with reboots and remakes these days because they’re just all around us. So I think Evangelion and the Rebuilds kind of started out one way over 10 years ago and they were trying to be faithful at first, but then it kind of increasingly diverges. I didn’t see the last two until after we’d written the show, but all that stuff is kind of in the air; it can’t help but influence it. They’re responding to the same kind of cultural forces that I’m responding to, or the same artistic things. When you try to rebuild something, it’s not going to be the same; that’s the lesson that I take from that. So we try to push it further. We try not to rebuild it. We try to intentionally make it not “the same.”
BDG: I watched all the rebuilds while we were doing this. I was a huge fan of the show, but I had never watched the movies. I watched the first one [Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone], after we had been green lit and we’d written some outlines and stuff, and it has the same feeling that I think people will have in the pilot before the ending, which is, “Oh, that’s interesting, but it’s the same story that I saw before, but just kind of different.” And then the second movie [Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance], I was like, “Oh wow.” By the end [of the Rebuild series], I’m like, “This is a masterpiece.” I loved the last one.
It’s very interesting how much it is similar. I think it’s a really great comparison to say that this is a Rebuild of Scott Pilgrim, but I’d be lying if I said it was intentional. I think that the intent that [Hideaki Anno] had when he did those was kind of in line with our creative approach, which is that we’re not looking at this as though the other versions of Scott Pilgrim don’t work. We’re just saying: how can we explore it differently now? There aren’t any rules to doing it, but we still want it to have the same sensibility. The last Evangelion movie [3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time] feels exactly like the show, but it is 1000% different, like the same exact feeling, but narratively, it’s unbelievably different.
BLO: Yeah, you’re always kind of stress testing the themes and the philosophy behind the show, or the comic, or whatever, so for me it was just continuing to tackle those same existential things: what is Scott Pilgrim really about? What are all these people really so angry about? What are we all fighting about? So that was really fun and cathartic to explore.
So much of the book and the show to me feel like they’re all about these characters doing some level of auto-critique. A lot of what happens with Scott and Old Scott feels like what happens in Thrice Upon A Time with Shinji looking at Gendo and his anger and realizing they’re kind of the same person. What was the decision in pivoting back to Scott and exploring his own issues after sort of tossing him aside as the protagonist?
BDG: We always knew we were going to do that. I think that it’s a balance — as much as the story becomes more interesting when you take Scott out of it, this is still a love story of Scott and Ramona. And this is more of a story about Ramona and how she’s growing up and dealing with herself, but you can’t not have Scott. And we still love Scott as a character. So we just wanted to explore him in a different way that felt unexpected.
I think it’s also just at that point when the audience feels like they know what we’re doing, that they know where it’s going, and then we go to the f*cking future. I’m hoping that every time the audience gets settled and they feel like they know exactly what they’re getting into, we just go 100 miles an hour in a direction they’re not expecting but that hopefully will still feel correct.
That definitely is how it shows up. And in terms of surprising aspects, something that I’ve always thought was off about Edgar Wright’s film was that it was almost a bit too straight compared to the delightful and casual queerness of the comic, and the series itself felt very in line with that vibe in a new way. Just a lot of delightful queer beats, especially the third episode with all the women communicating and kissing is just phenomenal. Were you intentionally trying to make something queerer?
BLO: Yeah, I mean, from my point of view, I think so. In general, I’m always trying to make everyone kiss in my stories. So that’s kind of the impetus, but there’s so much to explore there.
BDG: I think with the movie, if you’re going to try and tell the story in two hours, most of your story is going to be “how is Scott going to defeat the exes” and anything else that you’re going to have, you do your best. But that movie would not work at three hours, it’s a difficult thing. And part of taking Scott away from it in the meta-sense is that now we get to lean into all the other stuff, which is the other characters and the female characters and the non-straight relationships, just all these things that are inherently part of Scott Pilgrim, but that become backgrounded if you’re trying to do a clean narrative that’s just about Scott and Ramona, especially because Ramona is complicated too.
I think 103 [“Ramona Rents A Video”], I’m really proud of it. I hope other people like it. I just think that Mae [Whitman, who voices Roxy Richter] and Mary [Elizabeth Winstead, who voices Ramona] have some of the most emotional dramatic stuff of the season there and I really love that resolution. She has this great funny death scene in the movie and books, where it’s just funny and glib, but what if we go so far in the other direction, so instead of doing that it’s about them getting closure for something that’s complicated and fucked up, but they were just young. It’s nice to just not shy away from the drama of it.
BLO: And it was very important to me to put Tegan and Sara at the end of the lesbian episode.
As it should be, but I am wondering what it’s like trying to balance that tonal line between the more existential questions about relationships and the self versus the comedy, since the show is obviously very funny and always pulling in these jokes and references?
BDG: I mean, that’s the whole show. Almost the entire creative process is Bryan and I just kicking the tires on everything over and over again and being like, “At this point, is it becoming stale that they’re having fights? Are we being too funny? Have we not been honest with these characters in a while?” Just figuring things out and following our own guts and being really hard on it, or sometimes we might have a really funny idea but it might undercut what’s happening.
As far as being dramatic, there’s some stuff I wrote that was kind of dramatic and people saying how they’re feeling, but Bryan would rightfully be like, “It doesn’t feel correct that these characters would articulate this or that they would even be aware of what’s going on with them in this moment.” For everything, we’re just always trying to find our own balance and hopefully people who watch it will feel the same way, but I think the thing that’s really fun to me is episode two [“A League of Their Own”] is just chaos before the show really slows down and becomes personal, and kind of emotional, and cute and sad. And I think you can never really settle in terms of your expectations of what the show is going to be. I mean, it’s up to the audience to decide if we succeeded but I think 103 makes me cry. I really love it.
BLO: Anime is really good at, like, action and high-flying stuff, but it’s also really good at emotion and sadness, like characters crying. It’s so powerful, so we really wanted to tap into that.
Just to keep on this thread, there’s obviously a lot of references towards works of art and specific creators: David Cronenberg, Columbo, Evangelion, Bubblegum Crisis. But one of the ones that stood out to me was actually Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which is both really explicit in Matthew Patel singing “Agony” but then subtler in having Knives yell out the lyrics to “Your Fault” [“You’re responsible, you’re the one to blame, it’s your fault!”] at Scott’s funeral. When writing all of these, is it all just for fun dropping in little references, or are there ever sort of larger, grander, thematic points about certain works in connection to Scott Pilgrim?
BLO: It’s probably all of the above. You are the first person to call out that one, I don’t even think BenDavid has gotten that.
BDG: I’ve only had it in my solo interviews and none of the ones we’ve done together. That’s my favorite thing, when someone’s like “you have multiple Into the Woods references,” and I’m like, “Oh you’re a good nerd.” But I will say, a dream of working with Bryan is that one of us will be working on an episode while someone else is writing the other one and you get to the end and think it’s perfect, but, like, episode two, I was really proud of it, and Bryan added that and he added two of the best jokes in it and another thing that I won’t get into the specifics of, but then I just looked great. Whereas I had the idea of them singing “Agony” but it’s so much cooler to have Knives do that and not underline it.
I’d say some of them have thematic elements but some of them are just things that we love that we organically could put in there. There’s no rule to it, but there is some stuff that adds subtext but you don’t have to pick up on it. And some of it is just funny to me.
BLO: I mean, it was the same in the books, right? It all kind of goes back to that. She actually has a Sondheim line in the books too, she just says, “I know things now.” To me that was always Sondheim. But then putting it in the show, it was just like the moment called for it and it just popped into my head. And we didn’t tell Ellen that it was supposed to be Sondheim or anything, so she just did it naturally and I think it just works so beautifully.
BDG: I think that’s the real danger of letting Bryan and I make a show together: we have the same dumb things that we’re passionate about that seem normal to us. Like the idea of adding a bunch of musical stuff to the season, maybe someone else would go, “That’s not Scott Pilgrim.” But unfortunately, we both just inexplicably are like–
BLO: Unfortunately, it is [laughs].
It is, though! You have so many interpretations of Scott Pilgrim, so why not a musical production [which appears in “The World vs Scott Pilgrim”]? Is there more of the musical itself, and what led into that?
BLO: There’s a tiny bit!
BDG: In the soundtrack, it’s maybe like thirty seconds of a medley. We had to cut some lines and some beautiful musical digressions to fit, but the soundtrack version of it I’m really happy with and it’s got a couple more really good moments.
BLO: And we recorded it with a full orchestra and a choir, it was crazy.
BDG: We went to Nashville to record with an orchestra for this stupid musical that Bryan, Joe Trapanese, and I wrote. I don’t understand how I got away with it.
BLO: We were standing in line in front of a line of Broadway guys who were all auditioning for Wallace to do like two lines as Wallace. And we had to pick right there, so that was intense.
This sounds like a dream come true.
BLO: It was! It was a great day and everyone had a great time.
BDG: It was a dream come true and now we’re at a point where we find out if people think we’re insane.
Scott Pilgrim Takes Off is now streaming on Netflix.
Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.