TONY Q&A: The World's End's Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Beer, nostalgia and the apocalypse: The Shaun of the Dead trio turns in a sci-fi movie that will leave you intoxicated.
Mon Aug 19 2013
He once tried to do an epic 12-pints-in-12-pubs crawl with his closest teenage friends, but failed before they could achieve local-legends status. Now a 40-year-old gent who’s never let go of his goth-garbed glory years, Gary King (Simon Pegg) is determined to finally complete that liver-killing circuit—even if it means conning his old buddies into returning to their quaint small town and confirming that the once-coolest cat on campus has become a complete failure. Only, his pals aren’t the only ones who’ve changed over the years. Once they return to this English hamlet, everyone they run into seems a little…different.
To say more about Edgar Wright’s brilliant new movie, The World's End, would be robbing folks of some serious filmgoing pleasures; the trailer already gives away a few too many revelations for our comfort. (Though if you feel like checking it out, be our guest.) What we can say is that this third collaboration between the British director; his cowriter and leading man, Pegg; and actor Nick Frost continues the winning streak the trio started with Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). And like those films, their latest project mixes elements of genre cinema—in this case, sci-fi and apocalypse movies—with male friendships, glorious nods to geeky obsessions, satirical jabs at English culture, an out-of-left-field pathos and the sort of blockbuster sugar rush that’s been largely AWOL this summer. (Read our review here.) TONY talked to this talented threesome in, appropriately, an English-style pub in downtown NYC.
Time Out New York: The idea for this came to you while you were shooting Hot Fuzz in your hometown, right?
Edgar Wright: We were shooting Hot Fuzz in my hometown of Wells, Somerset, and I remember looking at the dailies and going, Wait, there’s a Starbucks in the shot. I don’t remember that being there! We had to digitally remove it; the same thing happened with a McDonald's in another scene. I had this sensation of, What’s going on here? Where am I? The seed was planted then.
Time Out New York: I heard that when you were younger, you went on a pub crawl similar to the one Gary and his friends go on. True?
Edgar Wright: It is, unfortunately. Some friends of mine and I did something very similar when we were 18—the drinking age is younger in England, I should point that out now.…
Simon Pegg: Yes, please do! [Laughs]
Edgar Wright: Our adventure ended just as badly as the one does in the film. When I was 21, I wrote a script about it called Crawl, which was this sort of silly Dazed and Confused-ish coming-of-age movie. It never got made, of course, but every so often, I’d think, I wonder if there’s some sort of comic potential there that I could use. Then, when we were promoting Hot Fuzz, I thought, What would happen if those kids had grown up and then tried to re-create that situation as responsible adults, as a way of chasing their former glories?
Time Out New York: So the notion of adding sci-fi elements to it…
Edgar Wright: That came a little later. But that whole strain of smart sci-fi movies—what I like to call the “quiet invasion” genre—seemed like the perfect way of looking at that bittersweet feeling that I described originally: You feel alienated from the place you came from. You don’t recognize the place you grew up anymore.
Nick Frost: It’s happened to all of us.… The more you go back, the more things that you remember just disappear. It’s like watching that time-lapse photography of a bowl of fruit rotting away. There, and then phfft! Gone.
Time Out New York: Despite all the recognizable genre types—the zombie movie, the buddy-cop film and now the sci-fi "quiet invasion" movie—you never feel that these three films are just nudge-wink parodies.
Simon Pegg: We’ll ride a specific genre in order to get at another story, but…Edgar has said before that in our films, the genre elements are like a Trojan horse. It’s there to entice people into the theater and get them to look at a movie that, on the surface, may look like a million other films you’ve seen. But once you’re there, you’ll find that there’s actually quite a lot going on.
Nick Frost: I feel like Simon and I got the whole parody thing out of our systems with Paul.
Simon Pegg: I actually don’t think we’ve ever parodied anything. We’ve used elements and we’ve adopted things, but never with the intention of just sending things up, y’know? The closest we’ve come to that might be Hot Fuzz, since we drew attention to the absurdity of large-scale action films by setting these monumental scenes in a small English village.
Edgar Wright: Plus the joke in that movie is that, by the third act, it’s become everything it’s said that it’s not going to be. “Oh, police work isn’t like it is in the movies!” Then the last part comes, and…
Nick Frost: …and yes, it is exactly like it is in the movies.
Edgar Wright: With The World’s End, though, we wanted it to be like the sci-fi films we grew up watching. The threat was always a metaphor, whether it was fear of communism, or conformism, or some political movement going in the culture. For us, the sci-fi elements were more like a coping mechanism for talking about more personal things, like the hometown you remember so fondly is actually kind of a shithole.
Nick Frost: And you’re not young and vital anymore.
Simon Pegg: And no one remembers who you are despite how popular you thought you were 20 years ago.
Edgar Wright: One of my favorite moments in the film is when Simon’s character, Gary, figures out that some sort of invasion is afoot. He gets this huge smile on his face—because it’s easier for him to think that something or someone has taken over the town than to deal with the fact that he’s gotten old and faded into obscurity. “Oh, of course this is why nobody recognizes me!”
Simon Pegg: “It all makes sense now!”
Time Out New York: Were you at all like Gary when you were growing up, Simon?
Simon Pegg: [Sheepishly] I was definitely a goth like Gary, yeah.
Edgar Wright: He had a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt.
Nick Frost: Those might have been his clothes. Might have been.
Simon Pegg: I did have a group of guys I hung out with like the group in the film, though I wasn’t the leader. That was another guy, who was just the coolest and who sang in our band. I saw him recently at a reunion and he hadn’t really moved on. It was just kind of sad.
Edgar Wright: Nearly all these American manchild comedies tend to glorify the notion of perpetual adolescence, and we wanted to do something that was a bit darker and more honest. I mean, it’s still a comedy and it’s still got action and sci-fi elements; you’ll still have a fun time, I assure you, dear readers and potential ticket buyers! [All laugh] But we wanted to push it to places that other comedies wouldn’t necessarily go to.
Simon Pegg: Like the moment when you realize that, yeah, Gary is basically an alcoholic. It’s no coincidence that there are 12 pubs, one for each step towards beating an addiction.
Time Out New York: Are those particular elements of the story coming from a personal place from any of you?
Simon Pegg: Well… [Long pause] We’ve had friends who’ve gone through dealing with addictions. All of us have seen what happens to people when they sort of follow that notion of getting obliterated all the time to its logical end. I myself quit drinking when I was 40, simply because I was getting older and had become a dad, and felt like drinking was going to impair the sort of life I wanted to lead. And I have to say, it’s made me look at the culture of drinking, which is quite prevalent in England, in an entirely different manner.
Edgar Wright: One of the reasons we wanted to do the movie is that while we’re not trying to glorify Gary, we do have sympathy for that character. Yeah, it’s cool to be the teen rebel; when you’re 40 and you’re flipping the bird at the equivalent of a teacher, that’s not so cool anymore. But without giving too much away, he ends up getting to flip the bird to those pulling the strings. He ends up being the one who has to represent humanity. That was our goal: Could you take the guy who peaked at 18 and give him some shot at triumph, no matter how unlikely that is and how cataclysmic the results might be?
Nick Frost: Nostalgia is an addiction too, you know.
Edgar Wright: It was also important to establish how much this guy misses the ’90s and how much nostalgia plays into everything he does. He’s the most extreme example of that, but by the end, even Nick’s character is sort of like, Yeah, I miss those good ol’ days as well.
Simon Pegg: By the end of the film, everyone sort of misses the good ol’ days in general. [Edgar shoots him a look.] But I’ve clearly said too much already. [All laugh]
Time Out New York: Apocalypse and postapocalypse movies seem to be having a huge cultural moment right now. Why do you think people are so fascinated with these types of movies at this particular moment?
Edgar Wright: I’ve thought about this a lot, actually. I think people really think we’re destroying ourselves, and the planet, at an exponential rate, so this the-end-is-nigh idea is hovering in the air right now.
Simon Pegg: There’s no exit strategy, either.
Edgar Wright: Right, which is where the postapocalypse movies come in: Figure it out soon, or you get this. I have this theory about science fiction movies in that, when the space race sort of died, a lot of people sort of lost hope. When I was a kid, I just figured we’d be living on the moon by the year 2000.
Nick Frost: Or by 1999, if Space: 1999 would have had its way. [All laugh]
Edgar Wright: Once people realized that hey, we’re going to be left on earth here and everything is going to hell quickly, sci-fi soon became about our own self-destruction.
Simon Pegg: You had the millennial fears, the notion after 9/11 that you were never safe, the environmental paranoia, even the Mayan calendar thing.… The end has been on everyone’s mind for a while now. And these are the first things that tend to bubble to the surface in popular culture.
Edgar Wright: I’m glad you brought up the Mayans, because our film wrapped shooting on December 21, 2012—the day their calendar predicted the world would end! We think there may have been a misprint or a typo in their calendar, actually. “Wait, this isn’t ‘The world will end.’… It’s The World’s End is over on the 21st.’ ”
Simon Pegg: They were right all along!
Nick Frost: What happened was the second tablet was broken. The whole thing was supposed to read: “On December 21, 2012, the world’s end…will have finished shooting principal photography. Running time is 109 minutes. Rated R for sexual references and strong language.”
The World's End opens Friday, August 23.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
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