Director Edgar Wright had a great time at this year’s Comic-Con — but there was one thing he wasn't able to do. “It was the first Comic-Con where I did not go on the convention floor. It was kind of sad,” he says, almost wistfully. “Especially because the only time I had off was like, lunchtime on Saturday, which is when it has achieved critical mass.”
Simon Pegg pushes his phone across the table, showing off a photo of a man wearing a Boba Fett helmet. “That’s me on the convention floor. I walked around perfectly fine for about an hour, and had my little fill... and then came back.” Did he reveal his identity to anyone? “I said to myself, ‘If I see somebody dressed as Shaun of the Dead, I’ll take them aside.’ Because I knew there were a few walking around. But I didn’t.”
“Just hop into Slave I, and you’re outta there,” Nick Frost deadpans. “He came and showed me what he was dressed as. And I said, ‘As soon as I shut this door, I’m going to tweet what you’re wearing.’”
The world got its first taste of the potent combination of Wright, Pegg, and Frost in the celebrated UK series Spaced; by 2004 the trio moved to the big screen with Shaun of the Dead. Leveraging Frost and Pegg’s chemistry and Wright’s inventive direction, Shaun celebrated the zombie genre while delivering big laughs and a compelling emotional story. The action-comedy Hot Fuzz came next, and now they’re capping off the trilogy with The World’s End.
A riff on the science fiction genre, it’s the story of five childhood friends who reunite at the behest of Pegg’s goth-that-never-grew-up, Gary King. The mission: return to their childhood town and recreate a pub crawl they abandoned some 20 years ago. Frost plays Andy, King’s estranged best friend, and as the pints are poured — and old tensions rise — the group discovers that a sinister force may have taken over the town they once knew.
I spoke with the trio about their creative process, what ties their collaborations together, and the importance of challenging an audience with a good ending.
To start things off, there’s one band that has a particularly strong presence in the movie. Who’s the Sisters of Mercy fan?
Edgar Wright: [Gestures to Simon] This guy.
Simon Pegg: That would be me. I was a goth when I was [young] Gary’s age. And I wanted him to be a little bit like I was, but also like I really wanted to be at the time. I never dyed my hair black, which is something I always regretted. My friend Andy, who was my best friend at the time, he was more like Gary in that he was the leader, and he was the one that everyone looked up to, and he was the lead singer of our band. I was the drummer. So I really wanted to channel that aspect of my youth into young Gary, and have that be the Gary that still exists now.
And The Sisters of Mercy were my favorite band at the time. They were my absolute number-one band. My wall was covered in Merciful Release sorts of imagery, and I had all the albums, and I used to buy all the 12-inches, and I had all these picture discs, and limited-edition bootlegs. And I just wanted to pay tribute to them.
And when we first started to sort of devise [young Gary’s] look, we had to go to [Sisters frontman] Andrew Eldritch and his marketing team and ask if it was okay. And we heard that, you know, he was actually a fan of our stuff. So it was an absolute treat to hear from my hero.
You mention devising the character of Gary. Simon and Edgar, you’ve written several films together. Nick and Simon, you wrote Paul. When you’re collaborating like that, what’s your writing process?
EW: Well the idea for the film came up about six years ago on the Hot Fuzz press tour, and so we’d had the story for a number of years, and we would talk about it infrequently. And I think, you know, actually going off and doing separate projects and then coming back made it very beneficial.
Apart from anything else, we had gotten older, so we had more to say on the subject. But then when we actually got down to writing it... What we usually do is go away for a weekend somewhere and just brainstorm the entire thing and work out the story, and get the story nailed down so we knew exactly where we're going. And you know, if there's 12 bars, we know exactly what’s happening in the 12 bars. So then the actual writing process is like, I think we’re both very regimented.
SP: It’s very back and forth. It’s very collaborative. We’re very disciplined. We talk a lot, we debate stuff a lot. We laugh a lot, you know? It’s very productive. This one, particularly, because we had a real… You know, Hot Fuzz was very bitty. We kinda kept coming back to it to go away and do different things. It didn’t feel like such a [given] — as was Shaun of the Dead in a way, because we never knew if it was even going to get made through the writing process.
This one we knew what we were aiming for. In September 2011, I think it was, we had our first creative meeting after having the idea in 2007. And up until Christmas we worked on it. Then I went away to do Star Trek after Christmas, and every day I wasn’t working on Star Trek we worked at Working Title LA together, writing. And by mid-2012 we had a pretty much finished script, and we worked on it solidly until we started shooting.
Nick, when you get the script do you start kicking in bits for your character?
Nick Frost: No, I mean they finish it, and then I’m kinda one of the first people to get it. And then I kinda just go through the whole thing and note it.
SP: Stick his oar in.
NF: And stick my oar in.
"When Nick gives it his input it’s kind of the final piece in the jigsaw."
SP: Also, we write with — hopefully — people in mind. We wrote with all of our cast hopefully in mind, but we never know if we’re going to get them. Nick is the one person we know we’re going to get, so we write it for him. Absolutely. Totally. Knowing, somewhat, what his thoughts will be, and what his many, many strengths are, and that really helps. And so when Nick gives his input it’s kind of the final piece in the jigsaw, really. And then… the penultimate piece, because then we get into rehearsal with our cast, and then we have them start to say things out loud. And any impro that comes out, any funny ideas that come from all interacting together, we feed into the script, so that when we hit the set the script is there. There’s no real improvisation on set at all. It’s all locked down.
NF: As Edgar points out, a lot of the improvisation from actors comes at the end of a scene. And Edgar’s transitions are so hard, and he knows exactly what he’s going from and to, that there is no space at the end of a scene to improvise.
The films you’ve made together are so intricate, I imagine it would be difficult to even attempt that and still have it come together as a whole.
SP: Yeah, you can’t have your cake and eat it in that respect. If you’re going to have meaningful transitions, and foreshadowing, and paying off, you have to be able to track it all very carefully. If you’re relying on the actors to just be funny, it becomes more amorphous, and more of a performance piece.
NF: Well improvisations always kind of crumble down into arguments between the two characters, you know what I mean? That’s what it gets down to. And actors are such that they never want the other actor to have the last word. So it could go on indefinitely. I’m sure somewhere now there are actors improvising on a set they started to film in 1998.
SP: Trying to outdo each other.
NF: "You do it!" "No, you do it!"
You’ve said you didn’t intend to make a trilogy when you wrote Shaun, but it’s definitely become one along the way. What ideas and themes have linked these films together, and how did you try to tie them off?
EW: I think the thing that is in all three movies is the theme of the individual versus the collective. You know, the idea of standing up against conformity. Growing up. You know, taking responsibility. And then also the dangers of perpetual adolescence.
You know like in Shaun, Shaun has to grow up and be a man, be a hero. In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel has to dumb down to be a badass, and has to meet Danny Butterman somewhere in the middle so they become the perfect duo. And in this film it’s more of a cautionary tale, of like, you know, one character desperately wanting to turn back the clock and be 18 again, and when he does all hell breaks loose.
"We're not that lofty, or that optimistic, that we thought we could make three films."
SP: We’re not that lofty, or that optimistic, that we thought we could make three films, let alone make them a trilogy. But because we weren’t interested in making sequels, we still thought it would be fun to have them exist as a piece that you could watch a box set of, you know. And I don’t mean that in a way of thinking, "Oh, we could flog this" at the end. But they are linked.
You know, when I see Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in a box set with Scott Pilgrim, I always think, "That’s not right," even though they’re all Edgar’s films. That’s the only thing that links them. You know, Scott Pilgrim is a film in and of itself, as is Paul. If I was to see Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Paul in a box set together because they feature me and Nick, that wouldn’t feel right either. These three films have a genuine genetic connection to each other and were designed as such, albeit after the fact.
With all three you’re also able to subvert specific genres — zombie movies, action, sci-fi — but each plays as a great genre film unto itself. How do you pull off both simultaneously?
SP: It’s cause they’re not — none of the films are comments on the genre itself, really. Hot Fuzz, I suppose, is the most…
SP: Meta, because it actually uses the clichés of action cinema, and it’s a recontextualization of those sort of clichés. But all the films take that aspect seriously, because that’s the vehicle by which we’re, you know, carrying all the serious stuff, all the true character and true story. If the genre elements were made fun of, the whole thing would fall apart.
Shaun of the Dead is a zombie film. It’s not a piss-take or a parody. People always say, "Oh, it’s a parody of zombie films." It’s not at all! There’s no moment in Shaun of the Dead where we make fun of zombie films, you know? I think if anything, we make fun of romantic comedies in Shaun of the Dead. So it’s very important for us to make the films what we say they are, and have the comedy come from somewhere else other than the obvious choice, which is to make fun of genre cinema.
I also wanted to talk about endings. Without getting into spoilers, in The World’s End you tee up a nice, safe, conventional ending — but then do something much more adventurous. Was that always the plan?
EW: We wanted to do a very novelistic ending. It was always the idea to do this epilogue where, you know… In the opening of the movie you show this prologue with five guys and you do a book-ending kind of epilogue where you show the outcomes of what happened to those guys. So we liked the idea of doing a kind of, you know, I don’t want to give too much away, but almost — say, a post-apocalyptic Where Are They Now?
SP: We didn’t want to basically go back on our promise. And the promise is the title of the film.
"Sometimes re-establishing the status quo can be to the detriment of the film."
SP: Sometimes re-establishing the status quo can be to the detriment of the film. If you mess everything up and then return everything back to its place, when you leave the cinema you feel very comfortable. If you don’t, then everyone’s a bit… They’re going to think about it a lot longer. If the cozy world you live in isn’t put back together again, you’re going to think "Why not?" for a lot longer than you would if it's a big happy-ever-after. None of our films have happy-ever-afters. They have controversial happy-ever-afters. Shaun and Ed, at the end of Shaun of the Dead — it’s a weird little utopia they’re living in.
NF: It’s perfect for Ed.
SP: It’s perfect for Ed.
EW: He’s clinging on to his dead friend.
SP: He hasn’t moved on. At the end of Hot Fuzz, it’s this weird little fascist utopia they’re living in, you know? Where there’s this black-gloved overseer who’s basically beating up hippies by the recycle bins. It’s not as idyllic as it kind of seems to be. And with this one it’s probably the happiest ending that we have, ironically.
EW: There’s just a lot more mist.
Okay, last question. I know you guys have been getting asked this all day, but: the Cornetto Trilogy. Is it really over?
EW: Oh, I thought you were going to ask—
SP: —about the Royal Baby—
EW: —about the Royal Baby, or like, "Do you guys drink real beer on set." That’s the other question.
Definitely in terms of these films as a loose thematic trilogy. I think when people see the end of the movie, we have made it very final. These are our final thoughts on some of these themes. We’d like to work together again, so that just might mean we do something radically different next time.