In recent years, there have been few more glorious tales of geeks-made-good than the success of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Along with their longtime director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim), the pair turned an obsessive love of pop culture into a comedic outlet with the British TV series Spaced as well as the beloved cult movies Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Though Wright’s directorial pyrotechnics played a huge role in defining those projects, it was the natural comedy chemistry between Pegg and Frost that gave them a heart. The duo have been friends since their impoverished 20s as roommates and have somehow managed to translate endless late night chat sessions about comics and movies into a comedy career.
Their latest film Paul marks the first time that Pegg and Frost have written together, creating a loveletter to their friendship and shared passion for comic books and sci-fi (specifically the gentle alien films of Steven Spielberg). The movie follows two British nerds who travel to America for an orgasmic visit to Comic-Con followed by an RV road trip across the country’s UFO hotspots. An accidental encounter with the titular wise-cracking alien voiced by Seth Rogen takes them into an action/sci-fi film of their own, staying true to the formula of their previous movies that saw the pair bumble their way through the zombie and buddy cop action genres. Comics And Gaming Monthly got a chance to speak with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost about their latest film, Hollywood politics, and cheating on Edgar Wright with a new director.
How did the idea for this film come about?
NF: Well, we were stood in the garden shooting, well actually not shooting Shaun Of The Dead. We got crippled for a few days with really bad rain and British weather. So we were there in a tent waiting for the rain to pass and our producer Nira Park said to us, “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make a film somewhere where it doesn’t rain.” So we spit balled this idea and that soon became the desert and then the desert became Area 51. From there it was really a short step to think about these two comic book guys who find an alien.
It was so nice to see someone nail the unashamed geeky joy of attending a comic book convention. Was that something you enjoyed attending before getting into making films?
SP: Our first experience with Comic-Con was when we went to promote Shaun Of The Dead in 2004. Myself and Nick were always huge fans of sci-fi and comic books growing up. I never had the chance to go to a convention before, but I think if I had been the same kid living in San Diego or LA I would have been there every year. So I went and it was the most extraordinary place. I’d found my nirvana. I trudged around on the floor for hours as a punter and thoroughly loved it. We’ve gone back a few times for work and it just felt right that Graeme and Clive’s journey should start at the place where they felt very at home. The film is about them. They’re the aliens in the movie. Paul is more human than they are. We needed to see them in their element before we see them out of water. So Comic-Con seemed like a natural home away from home to put them in so that the audience can see them relaxed before we took them out of their element and into the shit.
Were you concerned about how the film would play to the Comic-Con crowd since they can be such vocal critics?
NF: Of course they can but we are those people, I think. We did not write this film as a dig at those people. It is a love letter to them rather than an observation about their nerdiness. If we could, we would be there every year.
SP: What was nice was when we did the presentation in Hall H last year, we showed three minutes of footage from the movie and a large portion of that was from the Comic-Con footage. It was amazing to be there at Comic-Con showing them images of us outside the building they were in. As a result, we almost literally raised the roof. They were going nuts. It was almost a relief because we were like, “oh good they know we’re being nice. We’re not making fun.”
NF: It was like Inception. It was a really weird meta cube.
How did you end up with Superbad helmer Greg Mottola directing and how did that working relationship compare with Edgar Wright? Did you feel like you were cheating?
SP: Edgar who? Well that was another Comic-Con story that starts with you Nick.
NF: Yeah, I’d been to Comic-Con a few years ago with Hot Fuzz and saw Superbad at a screening with Seth Rogen and Greg Mottola. We already knew that Edgar wasn’t able to do Paul, so once I saw Superbad, I really liked the fact that Greg took what could have potentially been Porky’s 4 and turned it into something that had a lot of heart. I hadn’t really seen a scene in an American film before where two best friends lie on the floor and drunkenly tell each other that they love each other. That was right up my street, so Simon and I got together with our producer and screened the film in London. We knew right then that Greg was the person for us. Then Greg had a meeting with Simon in New York and that was that. We all fell in love.
SP: Yeah, Edgar was never actually attached to Paul. Paul was an idea that we’d had during Shaun Of The Dead that Nick and I always kept on the backburner. So when Edgar set off to make Scott Pilgrim and we knew he’d been working with Bryan, it wasn’t like he was having an affair. We knew he was probably going to do that so we thought, “let’s do something while he’s away before we do our third film together.” So Nira said, “let’s do Paul because it had been hanging around for several years” and Nick and I were like, “ok that was kind of a joke but we’ll give it a go.”
Since this is your first time working in the Hollywood machine as writers, did you find it difficult to maintain your sensibility in that environment? Was there give and take between between you and the studio?
NF: Absolutely and it was very important to us that we did that. It was kind of one of our conditions. But being the stubborn SOBs that Simon and I are, we went into this with a certain mindset knowing what we wanted to do. That’s fine if you’re making a little indie film that you have complete control over, but once you start working within the studio system and they are effectively paying your wages and giving you a bloddy good piece of money for the opportunity to make the film, you have to give them facetime. That’s just how it is and we learned very quickly how to adapt.
SP: Compromises were made, but I like to think that the studio compromised as well, it wasn’t just us. We had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do, but at the same time we’re not naïve now. We’ve been in the film industry for a while and we know that you can’t make a $50 million cult movie. If you look at something like Scott Pilgrim, which is an extraordinary film that didn’t perform very well, it’s because it didn’t have the requisite wide appeal to pull those dollars back. It doesn’t make it anything less than an amazing film, but we realized that in this very shaky time in order to get Paul made and have a character who cost $20 million to put on the screen, we had to make sure that the audience who went to see it was bigger than usual. And it that respect, we opened the comedy up to be a little broader, made the references a little easier to get, and generally made it more inclusive as a movie. That was a fascinating process for us. It forced us to adapt and there isn’t a single thing in the movie that I wouldn’t have done. So looking at it now, particularly after it opened in England to a huge box office take, that’s exactly what we wanted and we managed to do it.
What was lost in the compromises?
SP: Well, initially we looked a lot weirder and geekier, but the studio wanted us to be more physically acceptable. We used to have huge permed hair, buck teeth, glasses. All of that disappeared, much to our chagrin. Originally we were fighting the studio on that and got a bit upset that we weren’t allowed. We kept saying, “we’re going to look like Gap models!”
NF: Why can’t I have a beard?
SP: Yeah, they didn’t like Nick’s beard and made him shave it off and then The Hangover took $57 million and they were like, “grow it back, grow it back!” The film was also slightly more philosophical initially. Some of the issues we touched on were a little more fleshed out. Paul was more philosophical. But we realized that sometimes nice, sparkling, witty, intelligent dialogue that goes on for more than a page can actually arrest the pace of the film. What might look nice on its own as a piece of writing can be detrimental to the structure and the way that the film moves. So there was a lot of stuff that we trimmed down to help with the speed of the plot. It was a learning process.
Could you talk a little bit about the challenges of acting opposite a CGI character? It must have been difficult to do all the subtle character comedy with a character who had to be animated in months later.
NF: Well, yeah. I mean, we didn’t go into this not knowing how it would be done. Simon, Greg, and I discussed it for hours. At one point we thought there might be a model with a speaker in its head and someone off-screen with a walky talky. But, what we eventually did was we shoot all of Seth’s stuff in motion capture before the main production of the film and then we used Joe Le Trulio who also played Agent O’Reilly in the film. He did such an egoless thing and played Paul on set. He would come in every day and put his knee pads on to be Paul. That enabled us to have a lovely kind of improvised knockabout quality to what we were doing, by making sure that we had someone to play off of which is really important. Then everything that Joe did went back to Seth and we rerecorded all of Seth’s stuff.
Have you been surprised by the sudden increase in popularity of the geek culture depicted in the film and do you think it hurts that culture at all to have become more mainstream?
SP: It’s interesting isn’t it? I think one of the things that happened is that when Star Wars was first about to come out, George Lucas hired a publicist whose idea it was to launch it as a novel before the film. That came out a year before the film was released, so it almost had it’s own pre-existing mythology. He created his own brand name recognition and he did that by selling it at Comic-Con. Comic-con was implicit in creating the buzz that generated the first impact of Star Wars. I think in a way that was the beginning of what we’re seeing today. Now Comic-Con is like a film festival and properties that exist in Comic-Con are being plundered for the movie industry because they succeed so well. The biggest movie franchises are now all comic book heroes and things related to the comic book world. I think it’s directly a result of that decision made years ago to generate buzz within the core fanbase. And now there has been the sort of domino effect and that core fanbase has exploded almost into the mainstream. Star Wars has so much to answer for cinematically for good and for bad in terms of its effects on the industry…oh, Nick’s making his shut up Simon face.
SP: In terms of just what cinema has to be to draw people in there, it’s had to progressively outdo itself to make it worth getting out of the house for. And a lot of these properties like Spider-man and X-men, they offer the opportunities to grandstand with huge special effects and draw people away from their flatscreen cinema-style TVS to the actual movie theater.
Finally, has there been any progress on the conclusion of your Cornetto Trilogy (starting with Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz) with Edgar Wright?
SP: Well, Edgar and I have been having quite feverish email exchanges recently because we’ve kind of hit the ground a little bit running on the next idea. The inception period has begun and we’re looking to spend some time together to try and hash out the first draft. We’re going to try and get it done a little bit quicker this time because we’ve written a few films now and we know how to do it. With Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, we were meticulous with preparation, perhaps overly so. We’ve already decided that it has to be the best thing we’ve ever written and hopefully we can knock it out with slightly more expediency. –Phil Brown