SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses several major plot developments throughout the animated series “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” currently streaming on Netflix.
On a bright day in late October, the creators of the new Netflix anime series “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Bryan Lee O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski, sit inside a Los Angeles arcade bar, trying to look relaxed.
“This is going to be a relief,” Grabinski says. But he doesn’t look quite convinced.
On its face, their show is the second adaptation of O’Malley’s beloved “Scott Pilgrim” graphic novel series, about the titular 20-something Canadian, his new American girlfriend, Ramona, and his quest to defeat her seven evil exes to stay with her. The first adaptation, of course, is director Edgar Wright’s 2010 cult movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” But even though the entire cast of that film — including Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Jason Schwartzman and Aubrey Plaza — returned to voice their characters, O’Malley and Grabinski scrupulously avoided discussing what their show was actually about. That is, until their interview with Variety, which they agreed to do only if it ran after the Nov. 17 premiere.
That’s because, unlike in the books and the movie, Scott (Michael Cera) doesn’t defeat Ramona’s seven exes in “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.” Instead, at the end of the first episode, he loses his first battle to Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) and disappears. The rest of the show follows Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she tracks down what happened to Scott, while several of her exes become involved in a “Scott Pilgrim” movie that effectively re-creates Wright’s film.
“It’s neither an adaptation of the books nor an animated version of the film,” says Wright, who executive produced the show. “It’s almost an alternate-reality sequel.”
The approach allows the series to tweak the very idea of franchise reboots and legacy sequels, while also allowing O’Malley and Grabinski to explore each of the characters — especially the exes — anew. Rather than vanishing from the story after his defeat to Scott, for example, in “Takes Off,” Matthew Patel challenges and defeats Gideon Graves (Schwartzman) — i.e. the Big Bad of the original “Scott Pilgrim” books and film — and takes over his media empire, upending the hierarchy of the entire story. Meanwhile, Young Neal (Johnny Simmons) — a tertiary character in the film — gets a spotlight as the ersatz screenwriter of a “Scott Pilgrim” movie that recreates what happened in “Vs. the World” (i.e. if Scott had won his battles). Another one of Ramona’s exes, action star Lucas Lee (Evans), gets cast as Scott; Scott’s ex Envy Adams (Larson) gets cast as Ramona. And so forth.
“The show gets to be in conversation with the original books and the film adaptation,” Wright says. “It’s both true to the source of the comics and commenting on them and on the film at the same time.”
For O’Malley, the show’s Möbius-strip premise resolves a creative block that had kept him from revisiting “Scott Pilgrim” in the years since Wright’s film famously flopped at the box office, only to become a cult sensation, one that keeps generating new fans.
“‘Scott Pilgrim’ was like background radiation that never faded away, and has just grown over time,” O’Malley says. “Every time I go anywhere in the world, people are still excited about ‘Scott Pilgrim’ — younger and younger people. They’re always [people in their] teens, 20s, and I’m getting older.”
Between Tumblr, Reddit and social media at large, in fact, “Scott Pilgrim” has become inescapable for O’Malley. “People debate ‘Scott Pilgrim’ characters — like, the finer points of their personalities — on Twitter every fucking day,” he says with a weary smile. “I can’t go online without people having an opinion about ‘Scott Pilgrim.’”
Even with that level of ubiquity — or perhaps because of it — O’Malley had never seriously considered reviving his comic series, which published its final issue a month before “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” opened. He thought about it “only in the abstract,” he says. “Only in the sense of, like, I would never say never. I was not thinking in terms of the sequel or continuation, or long-term anything.”
The pervasive “Scott Pilgrim” fandom did have an impact on how Universal and Marc Platt Productions, which had backed “Vs. the World,” viewed the property, though. In 2018, Platt executive Jared LeBoff reached out to Wright and, as Wright relays, said that Universal had asked him, “Is there anything more we can do with ‘Scott Pilgrim’ that’s not an expensive live-action sequel?”
Wright continues: “I remember saying to Jared, ‘Well, why don’t they do an anime?’”
By early 2019, LeBoff had partnered with Netflix’s anime team. They reached out to O’Malley and pitched him on the idea of reviving “Scott Pilgrim” as a TV show with the renowned Japanese anime studio Science Saru, now best known to U.S. audiences for its animated shorts in the “Star Wars: Visions” anthology series.
O’Malley was intrigued, but he was still stuck on what the show would actually be. “I liked the idea of working with Science Saru, but I had no story or motivation,” he says. “I didn’t want to do a straight retelling, because that just feels like death to me.”
A month after that meeting, O’Malley’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she died that November. “So that year pretty much just vanished,” O’Malley says. “I just didn’t have time to think about it.” By the end of 2019, Netflix and Universal reached out again, but he was still hopelessly blocked.
In February 2020, with no solution in sight, O’Malley grabbed dinner with Grabinski, and began venting his frustrations about the show. Grabinski could scarcely have been a better sounding board: The indie filmmaker (“Happily”) had bought every “Scott Pilgrim” book the day it came out, and had snuck into a test screening of “Vs. the World” months before the film opened. (The two became friends through a writers group that formed in 2011.)
So at dinner, Grabinski began brainstorming questions about what a “Scott Pilgrim” series could be: “How could we spend a little bit more time with Ramona? How can we spend time with the exes? How could you make a show that we wouldn’t have made back then?”
Eventually, Grabinski says, “I blurted out the idea, ‘Well, what if it starts as the same story, but then Scott loses the fight with Matthew Patel and seemingly dies? And then what if there’s a “Scott Pilgrim” movie within the show starring Lucas Lee as Scott?’ I pitched them kind of as a joke, but it sparked something in Bryan’s brain where he immediately was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”
“I feel like we spent the next hour drinking too much sake, and just talking about ideas,” O’Malley adds with a laugh. “I’m more drawn to a mess than to perfection, so all these ideas of disrupting ‘Scott Pilgrim’ really appealed to me.”
The duo took the concept to Netflix and Universal, and they loved it, too — it was even greenlit before anyone had secured the original cast. But even though O’Malley started doing press interviews that year with the actors (remotely, due to COVID) for the 10th anniversary of “Vs. the World,” he gave polite non-answers about ever reviving the property, and never hinted to the cast what he and Grabinski were up to.
“No one else knew it existed, because it didn’t really exist yet,” Grabinski says.
As the development process evolved, however, at least a couple actors who knew Grabinski and O’Malley socially began to catch word that something was afoot. “I had heard rumblings,” says Brandon Routh, who plays Ramona’s vegan ex, Todd. “No story details, just that there was a possibility of an animation thing happening.”
Eventually, Wright formally contacted the actors through the email group they’d maintained since 2010 to pitch them the new concept, including copies of the first two scripts. Since the release of the film, many of the cast have become full-fledged stars with packed schedules. So while O’Malley says having them return “was the golden ideal,” they tried to manage their expectations. “We were open to having to start all over if everyone said no.”
Grabinski expected to start hearing back “over the span of six weeks.” Instead, he says, “It was emailed in the morning, and before lunch, almost everybody had replied to the thread and said they were going to do it. I literally screamed.”
“It literally took no convincing,” Routh says. “It’s an automatic yes.”
As Winstead puts it, “There was just no way any of us could see it move forward with only some of us involved.” The actor said yes so quickly, in fact, that it wasn’t until months later, when she began recording her lines remotely from London, that she realized that Ramona was now the lead character.
“I was like, wait a second, this is kind of Ramona’s story now,” she says with a laugh. “It was an emotional journey for me to be able to continue her story and show all these different colors of her.”
O’Malley and Grabinski decided to have each episode focus primarily on one of Ramona’s exes, and to give each episode its own unique feel. Matthew’s takedown of Gideon’s empire in Episode 2 unfolded like an intense martial arts spectacular. Ramona’s confrontation with her ex Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman) takes place in a video store in which the two women careen magically through different movie genres.
“Sometimes, you get to the end of a season of a show, and it feels like it’s just one story chopped into pieces, and your brain can’t remember what happened in each of them,” Grabinski says. “I want you to be able to think, ‘Oh, that was the video store episode. That was the mockumentary episode.’”
One of the most delightful developments in “Takes Off” is when Routh’s character, Todd — who had been joined at the hip with his girlfriend, Envy — falls head-over-heels in love with Scott’s gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) while on the set of the “Scott Pilgrim” movie. When asked where that creative decision came from, Grabinski and O’Malley both chuckle, and shake their heads.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Grabinski says with a smile. “All I know, it just felt so correct. Sometimes, once you come across an idea, it just will not go away.”
For his part, Routh loved the opportunity to take his character in a totally unexpected direction. “I think it’s a great dynamic, and a fun out of the box way to experience Todd,” the actor says. “It was joyful. I could play with this new material which people hadn’t heard of.”
Both Routh and Winstead enjoyed revisiting their characters so much that they say they would be totally open to returning for a second season, and the show leaves the door open for that possibility.
“Absolutely,” Winstead says. “It was surprising to think that this could ever happen in the first place. So it’s almost hard to wrap your brain around it happening again.”
While the show does leave open the possibility for a Season 2 — with Gideon and his new girlfriend Julie Powers (Plaza) back in Gideon’s supervillain HQ, plotting something nefarious — Grabinski appears to be in actual pain at the thought of making more “Scott Pilgrim.”
“I literally can’t, on any level, think about anything past this season,” he says, closing his eyes. “We just obsessively focused on every aspect of this season for years. We’ve never had a concrete discussion about anything past it.”
Grabinski turns to his creative partner, who nods in agreement. “I want to put the toys back in the box,” O’Malley says. “Hopefully, they’re in an interesting place. If we decide to do more, there’s definitely stuff we could do. But we haven’t put any thought into it whatsoever.”
If they do decide to pursue a second season, they will at least be spared their decision to keep the big twists hidden from audiences, since any more story would be heading into uncharted territory anyway.
“Right or wrong, I firmly believe a lot of the enjoyment of the show is from never knowing where it’s going next,” says Grabinski. He even went through every episode to find shots for the trailers that wouldn’t spoil anything — particularly challenging since, as O’Malley says, “90% of the show is a spoiler.”
Ultimately, they’re just grateful they had the opportunity to take such a big swing. “I’m still in disbelief,” Grabinski says. “The fact that it exists is the only reason I know I didn’t imagine it.”