Scott Pilgrim has many lives.
His first and most definitive is the graphic novels. Created by Eisner Award-winning cartoonist Bryan Lee O’Malley, the “Scott Pilgrim” series’ eponymous hero is an aimless 20-something who is between jobs and is the bass player of a Toronto-based indie band. After meeting the girl of his dreams — Ramona Flowers — Scott learns he has to defeat her seven evil exes in order to keep dating her. The original six-volume series ran from 2004 to 2010.
Then there is the live-action film. Directed by Edgar Wright, the whimsically stylish “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010), starring Michael Cera as Scott and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona, proudly flaunted its 8-bit influences. Despite its lackluster box office, the fairly faithful adaptation is beloved and embraced by fans of the series.
This mainstream Hollywood attention even led to bonus lives: a tie-in animated short (2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the Animation”) and a video game (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game,” originally out in 2010, remastered and re-released in 2021).
Now, nearly 20 years since its original debut, “Scott Pilgrim” is getting its next life as an anime series.
Created and executive produced by O’Malley and BenDavid Grabinski, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” is slated to launch Nov. 17 on Netflix, and it reassembles the 2010 film’s cast for another go at the comically complicated dynamic between Scott, Ramona and their various exes.
The one thing O’Malley and Grabinski want to make absolutely clear is that this isn’t a straightforward adaptation of the movie or the books: “If you think you know what you’re going to see, you don’t,” promised Grabinski.
Netflix approached O’Malley a few years ago to gauge his interest in making a “Scott Pilgrim” anime series. It was only after the streamer mentioned the involvement of Science Saru — the acclaimed animation studio founded by filmmakers Masaaki Yuasa and Eunyoung Choi — that O’Malley’s interest was piqued.
Especially after the release of “Devilman Crybaby,” also on Netflix, “the idea of working with that particular studio was very exciting to me,” said O’Malley during a recent video call. “And I’ve always loved anime. I grew up on anime and never thought I would ever get a chance to make or even be anywhere near the process of it.”
“Scott Pilgrim” was deeply inspired by manga and anime. And with the live-action adaptation firmly in the rearview mirror, O’Malley thought that enough time had passed that revisiting it onscreen “wouldn’t feel scary or awkward.” Still, he was hesitant about just repeating a story he’d already told or constantly retreading familiar territory.
O’Malley credits Grabinski for opening his eyes to alternative ways of approaching the story “that still felt like ‘Scott Pilgrim’ but would be intriguing and new and fun.”
Grabinski, a longtime friend of O’Malley’s, who is best known for the dark comedy “Happily” (2021) and the “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” revival, admits that he is more than a casual “Scott Pilgrim” fan.
“I crashed a test-screening [of ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’] at the Arclight just because I was so impatient to see it,” said Grabinski, who also said he attended midnight releases to buy the graphic novels. “I went to the Comic-Con premiere. I saw the movie in theaters more than 10 times.”
So as a “Scott Pilgrim” super fan, when O’Malley told him that Science Saru was interested in doing a series, Grabinski said he “freaked out” in excitement. And while he had not intended to pitch anything “Scott Pilgrim” to O’Malley, one night over dinner, Grabinski started rattling off different ideas and elements the show could explore to tell a new version of the story.
“Once we started unlocking the potential of the new way of looking at the story, that really got me excited,” said O’Malley.
Elements that they felt were crucial to stay true to the feeling of “Scott Pilgrim” remain unchanged. The anime series is set in Toronto during the vague 2000s because so much of “Scott Pilgrim” is of that time period. However, the idea of having the characters use modern slang or be glued to present-day technology and social media was unappealing to O’Malley and Grabinski.
“I think the characters would just start to feel forced and false if we tried to do that,” said Grabinski.
Similarly, Scott Pilgrim in the anime series is still the Scott Pilgrim fans will recognize: an unemployed indie musician whose life gets complicated after falling for Ramona Flowers. Ramona is still the new girl in town who makes deliveries on inline skates. Scott’s band, Sex Bob-Omb, is still Sex Bob-Omb. But even though “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” will remain true to its not-too-distant past, it is a series meant for the audiences of today.
“Every choice we’re making is being put through a modern lens and through our life experiences,” said Grabinski. “But by keeping it in that time period and keeping it at that time frame of your life, you can add that perspective and stuff into the subtext and themes.”
And just because Scott Pilgrim the character has been frozen in time, it doesn’t negate the actual passage of it. O’Malley, who feels he’s in a place where he is able to look at “Scott Pilgrim” more holistically now, jokes that it’s not like he could go revisit his mind-set in his early 20s, when he created the graphic novels, to do things the same way anyway.
“We were all fools [in our early 20s] and you know that when you get older,” said O’Malley. “So some of the minutiae of what I spent pages and pages on in those books, I’m just like ‘yeah, I don’t need that right now.’”
With “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” O’Malley and Grabinski open up the story so it’s not just limited to Scott’s emotional point of view and how he perceives the world. This meant leaning into the “perfectly chosen” cast from the live-action film — which includes Cera, Winstead, Satya Bhabha (Matthew Patel), Kieran Culkin (Wallace Wells), Chris Evans (Lucas Lee), Anna Kendrick (Stacey Pilgrim), Brie Larson (Envy Adams), Alison Pill (Kim Pine), Aubrey Plaza (Julie Powers), Brandon Routh (Todd Ingram), Jason Schwartzman (Gideon Graves), Johnny Simmons (Young Neil), Mark Webber (Stephen Stills), Mae Whitman (Roxie Richter) and Ellen Wong (Knives Chau) — to really flesh out the ensemble characters so they are more than just people who happen to be in Scott’s orbit.
“We’re trying to get into people’s heads more,” said O’Malley. “Because when I was 25 years old, I didn’t know what these people were feeling necessarily. But I’ve seen a lot more life and I have more context for those characters now.”
And “we’re seeing them more outside of their relationship to [Scott],” added Grabinski. “Ramona especially. It’s been so fun to try to just give you so much more of an emotional connection to her and adding as much shading as we can.”
This time around, Ramona, understandably, does not deliver Amazon packages like she did in the original series. According to Grabinski, her new job was something they had to fight for and “was not product placement.”
In addition to Ramona, O’Malley and Grabinski have particularly relished the opportunity to further expand on the evil exes for the anime.
“I think my main regret that I’ve expressed about the books is that I didn’t get enough time to develop the evil exes,” said O’Malley. “Especially after knowing the casting, it [felt] like, oh, we should have more scenes with the evil exes.”
“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” also embraces that it’s an anime — not just a show with American sensibilities that is being animated by a studio in Japan. O’Malley and Grabinski tease hallmarks like over-the-top action scenes, big villain moments and even a level of sincerity that is possible only because it’s an anime series.
Grabinski described their learning curve for making an anime as a “trial by fire” with “thousands of Zoom meetings” as both teams figured out how to work with each other in a way that was new to all of them.
“Anime studios, we learned, don’t usually take notes,” said O’Malley, who also mentioned the high bar set by Science Saru’s work as well as Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
But judging by their enthusiasm and reverence for this process, it’s clear that he and Grabinski have enjoyed collaborating with director Abel Góngora and his team at Science Saru to make something special.
O’Malley and Grabinski’s hope is that their approach to the “Scott Pilgrim” story will appeal to both new audiences and longtime fans. The new elements and narrative surprises were made with existing fans in mind, but they also stem from an acknowledgment that retelling the same “Scott Pilgrim” story in a world where you can look up detailed synopses online already alters the experience.
“Our goal was to make something that, if you love the books or movie, this would be really surprising and you’d realize that this is the ideal version of what we could do,” said Grabinski. “This could be your first version of ‘Scott Pilgrim’ or this could be something for someone who knows it really well — we want it to be entertaining and engaging for both audiences.”