More than ten years after starring alongside each other in the British series Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have set out on their own, penning a love letter to American pop culture and Steven Spielberg (for whom they did voice work in the upcoming Tintin) in the alien road-trip comedy Paul. On a visit to Chicago, they opened up about their inner nerds.
After Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this is your first time working together on a movie without Edgar Wright. Was it weird to not have him around?
Simon Pegg: We knew Edgar couldn’t do this one because it wasn’t his kind of thing. It was very much mine and Nick’s baby. I think Edgar’s direction in this instance would have been wrong. Edgar’s direction is very much a character in his films. We needed a film that didn’t need Edgar’s superpowers, really. And we needed someone who had a very American sensibility. We had always imagined it being like Easy Rider with an alien. Greg came to mind because of Superbad. He’d given what could have been a very bawdy teen comedy a very sweet and classy edge.
Nick Frost: I went Comic-Con a few years ago with Edgar and we were fortunate enough to see the Comic-Con screening of Superbad, which was amazing. And we met Greg [Mottola] there. As soon as I saw Superbad, I thought, He’s great and he would be perfect for Paul. So, this sounds really Hollywood-ish, but we had a print flown to London and they put a screening on and we watched the film and we both looked at each other and went, “YES.”
SP: Edgar was filming Scott Pilgrim simultaneously in Toronto when we started shooting and Nira, our producer, was shuttling between the two of us. She’d come back and we’d go, “So how is he, what’s going on? What are they like? What are the actors like?”
NF: It was like being left for a younger, slimmer woman.
“Does he like them better than us?”
SP: Yeah, it was like we were ex-partners who were still friends but didn’t like them talking about—
NF: I’d be drunk sometimes and I’d be shouting, “WHAT DOES MICHAEL CERA DO FOR YOU THAT I DON’T!”
SP: He’s still very much our mate and we’ll be making films together forever. So, we could stomach him with those young, handsome others.
You’re not threatened.
NF: I’M NOT THREATENED!
SP: [Laughs] You really touched a nerve there.
NF: I’M NOT FUCKING THREATENED!
Why was it important for this film to be set in the U.S., rather than England?
SP: It needed to be, really. Aside from the initial joke, which was that we shoot a movie somewhere that didn’t rain, which is not the U.K., the whole pitch came from the idea of shooting a film somewhere where the weather was consistent and that became, in our minds, a desert and the first desert we thought of was Nevada and that related to aliens. Very, very easily, very quickly, we spitballed the notion of two British tourists and an alien. I think subconsciously the movie became a reflection of our own experiences coming over to America and meeting these incredible characters who turned out to be very normal. Meeting Steven Spielberg was like meeting Paul. He stepped out of the shadows and was just a guy.
NF: [Impersonating Spielberg] Hey, guys, I’m Steven!
SP: That was my reaction to meeting Steven Spielberg. I definitely think, subconsciously, our experience of coming to America, this film is the synthesis of that, of coming to this promised land that we’d grown up watching from afar.
NF: It’s a road movie. You can’t do a road movie in the U.K.
SP: You could do the whole of the United Kingdom in a day. That would be a short film.
What about the road-trip genre really appealed to you?
SP: Free holiday? [Laughs]
NF: Apart from the fact that we’re sci-fi nerds, we’re also aware that there is a great tradition in American literature, starting with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. If you think about America, it is about getting your backpack on and heading out. There’s something nice about having a kind of freedom within your country that enables you, if you so desire, to drop out and to put a backpack on and to jump in a freight train and go wherever you like and no one can stop you…that, as well as getting a free holiday.
SP: We did the trip in the movie before. We had to educate ourselves. It was the best thing we ever could have done.
NF: We’d been to New York and Miami and Seattle and L.A., on either sides. But apart from what we’d seen on television and film, we didn’t know what the interior of America looked like.
There are so many winks and nods to all kinds of sci-fi films in the movie, especially a whole bunch of Spielberg references. How did you get him involved? (He has a small cameo?) Was that at all related to your work on Tintin?
SP: Well, he saw that picture of [the Paul] model and said, “What is that?” and we were like, “Well, we’re making this movie and the character’s Paul…he was like, “Well, maybe I can be in it.” And we were like, “WHU?!?”
NF: “You just asked me to go and get you a Diet Coke, right? Because that’s what I heard, I think?”
SP: “That’s what you must have said. Rather than, can I be in your film?”
NF: We’d go in on our days off and just hang by the monitors and watch him work. If you ask him questions about Close Encounters or Jaws or E.T. or anything, he loves it. He talks about it.
SP: There’s no false modesty.
NF: Being geeks and nerds, for us to be able to just sit and watch his enthusiasm about making a film, it made me want to be a better filmmaker and a better actor and a better writer.
Paulopens Friday 18.