Tomorrow sees the U.S. release of The World’s End, the third film in a so-called trilogy of films from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting around a table with a group of San Francisco film writers to talk with them for a few minutes. Those few minutes became a lot more minutes, as once they started talking, they had a lot to say. Part one of this two-part interview will touch on subjects such as traveling to England, Raising Arizona, and putting peanuts in a log. Come back tomorrow for part two of this interview, and a review of the movie as well.
You mentioned during a post-film Q&A that you wanted to show parts of England that weren’t London, but then these parts of England that aren’t London have zombies, they have murderers, they have what we see in this movie …
Edgar Wright: Which is basically saying “Don’t go to England.”
Simon Pegg: Go to London.
Edgar: Richard Curtis’s films are sort of like a tourist board advert, ours maybe not so much. Don’t stray out of the tourist zones.
Simon: Stay in London.
Edgar: Stay in Zone 1.
Simon: Stay in Notting Hill.
Edgar: Do not go any further east, west, north or south.
Simon: What was the question?
Is that really what you were trying to get across?
Simon: Not at all, but I think the UK is seen in a certain light around the world, not least in America as being some sort of chocolate box, green and pleasant land full of castles and stuff like that. The context, irrespective of where we take it, whether it be zombies, or murderers, or aliens, that’s by the by. Where we’re trying to set the films is at least in a real part of England, something a little bit more indicative of the real place
Nick Frost: Southern England
Nick: Don’t go to Northern England because it’s full of unemployed miners who do strips.
Simon: Who have to strip for a living, yeah. We always want to start off from a point of reality and that’s where our roots always are, and then we go off to these places of fantasy and absurdity.
Edgar: But it’s also amusing to us, having grown up in those places, when we watch especially the Hollywood genre movies, it seems so far flung to us. Even when we did Hot Fuzz, watching American cop films seemed like sci-fi to us because it’s so far removed from — especially if you’re in the country or in a satellite town. So there’s something about having grown up in small English towns that you’re both obsessed with what goes on behind closed doors, and also that slightly mischievous desire to cause absolute mayhem.
Simon: Also, we’re parochial, like on a global scale, we’re parochial. England is a parochial country, and so we wanted to reflect that.
About this trilogy: aside from ice cream, what would you call the thematic thread between these three.
Edgar: I’m glad you asked. I would say the overriding themes would be the individual versus the collective, which is in all three movies. The dangers of perpetual adolescence — in Shaun of the dead, Shaun has to grow up to be the hero. In Hot Fuzz, if anything, Nicholas Angel has to dumb down to be the badass, and in this movie when Gary King decides to turn back the clock with the magic time machine known as alcohol, things go very badly wrong, so the moral of this film is actually said aloud by Rosamund Pike, she says you gotta go forwards and not backwards. I guess that’s something that links all of them, it’s that thing about three films about growing up.
Simon: The loss of identity, and friendship.
Nick: Friendship between men and how they must change. Right, guys? The different stages of friendship that men go through, or not go through.
Simon: And also Britishness, contemporary Britishness. Those things also. There are many, many connective threads that are more important and relevant than the ice cream. The ice cream and the fence jumping is just a clever invitation in. It gets a bit more cerebral after that.
Edgar: The ice cream is literally the dessert topping.
You’re obviously walking a very fine line in terms of tone, especially in the second half of the film. Obviously you’re very conscious of that. What steps did you take to make sure it didn’t go one way and stayed balanced?
Edgar: It’s definitely a tricky thing, and I think we like that all of the movies we’ve done have that balancing act. Like Shaun of the Dead is pretty dark. It’s funny to me that people have said this one feels darker than the other two. Yeah, but in Shaun he does shoot his mother in the head. That’s about as dark as it gets in a comedy.
Nick: Then his dad points a gun at him in Hot Fuzz
Simon: It ends with a weird proto-fascist utopia.
Edgar: We’re big comedy fans, and there’s lots of — even films you really like you can be in the cinema and laugh for 100 minutes and have kind of forgotten the film by the time you get to the parking lot. And we like to make films that hopefully do have laughs and do have thrills, but they have some other nagging themes that might echo in your head a couple of days later. That’s our aim in a way, is to have some deeper meaning there as well.
Simon: We’ve always been at pains to embrace and defend the idea of a slow burn, so you take time. You don’t just get in there and desperately try to be funny straight away, or play all your cards straight away, to try and fool the audience into thinking it’s hilarious. There’s value in building characters and story, and then when you do start taking left turns, or making dramatic choices, people have got a lot invested in it, and it’s a lot more effective, I think.
Nick: You can get away with more, as well.
You’ve said, Simon, that you take the audience’s intelligence seriously. Why do you think that makes for good comedy?
Simon: Because you should never underestimate the joy of audience participation in making links, and the joy of your own connections with the film. I think anyone can laugh at a person falling over, and we know that better than most, because we put it in every film we do, but there’s also a huge joy in working stuff out, and solving puzzles, and making connections between threads and seeing foreshadowing and things paying off, and getting all that. It’s a far more gratifying experience than hearing the world “come” every five minutes, you know what I mean? Nick loves that shit. (Big laughter in the room.)
Edgar: Nick is sold.
Nick: Ah, I love it.
Simon: When an audience leaves the theater when they’ve been taken seriously, they feel good about it. You know, we’re constantly being infantilized by what we see at the cinema. We’re constantly being underestimated, bashed around the head with it, and it’s turning us into mush. I would think in a summer that’s been fairly populated by Big Dumb Shit, you’d be thinking “oh that was tasty.”
So you think the audience feels when you take them seriously?
Simon: They should be. I mean I do. We make films for ourselves, and try to make things that we would leave the cinema thinking “that was enjoyable.” I remember the first time I saw Raising Arizona, I felt flattered that they thought that much of me, that I could get that film. I felt like I was complimented by it in a weird way. I love that feeling of feeling like I’m in on it, and not just having fireworks lit off in my face.
Edgar: All of the films that inspired us, and that continue to inspire us, are films that I wanted to watch again as soon as it finished. Films that make me say “I love that” but I want to see more. Rasing Arizona is a good example. I felt exactly the same way. I saw it first on VHS, and I watched it immediately again afterwards before I had to turn into our Blockbuster thing. I had to watch as much of this as I can before I have to return the rental just so I feel like I’ve seen everything, which is a good way to be. That’s the greatest kind of movie, where you feel like you want to watch it a second time before you’re through watching it the first time.
Simon: Maybe this is a good thing, but I don’t think you can watch any of the films we’ve made, particularly The World’s End, and entirely get it on the first watch. I think there’s stuff in there you can’t possibly get until you’ve seen it all before. There are punchlines that happen before the setup. You can’t get it until you watch it a second time. There are elements, because we feel like we owe it to the audience these days in the age of repeated viewing, of DVD, and downloading, and ownership, which we have of cinema now. You owe it to the audience if they’re going to spend money on what you’ve made. It needs to give back something, so when you watch it again and again and again, you’re still seeing new things, five or six times in. If that means people on the first watch don’t entirely get it, then that’s just the way it is.
Edgar: And because it’s in 2-D, it costs $3 less.
Nick: We had the Olympics last year, and I’m sick of the word “legacy,” because we heard it about a trillion times, but it’s about that thing, it’s about in ten years time, someone will say, “Hey, have you seen this film?” I was like that with Withnail and I and Spinal Tap. It’s those things where someone says “Hey, you’ve gotta see this.” That means a lot to us. It’s not just about (snaps his fingers) a pop shot. It’s about a slow build and something that people will watch in ten years potentially, or 15 or 20 years. That’s really important. It’s like putting peanuts in a log. OK, animals in a zoo, right? If you just lay the food out for them, they get really bored and sad, but if you hide it so they find it, they fucking feel amazing. Peanuts in a log.
Edgar: I’ve never heard that theory before.
Nick: People were thinking these animals are very depressed. What’s the big deal? But animals like to forage, to work for it. That’s what they’re happiest doing, so they decided, let’s hide food all over the place, and they became infinitely happier because they had to work to find it.
Edgar: What we’re basically saying about our audience is “listen you monkeys, we want you to work for your peanuts.”
Simon: As a species, we often take the path of least resistance. That’s why people like spoilers, because it just removes all the tension, and people want that, when we shouldn’t really be encouraged to do that. That’s where the message of the film comes in. Sometimes it is better if a higher power tells us what we want because maybe we’re a better people for it, but then that all comes down to control, and the debate starts.
Read Part 2 of this interview on Friday, August 23.