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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 42
High School Rebels at 40:
A Conversation With Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright on The World's End

I had not heard of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, or Edgar Wright prior to stepping into a theater to catch a screening on the opening night of Shaun of the Dead. I had gone only because the premise -- a bored, almost clueless twenty-something seemingly oblivious to the zombies shambling across London's streets seemed rife for good comedy. I didn't expect the movie to be an insightful blend of character and commentary, much less to develop the following it did. Perhaps if I had seen their television show Spaced, about young geeks trying to find life and love among a barrage of pop culture references, I might have thought differently.

I was more prepared with the release of Hot Fuzz, expecting more of the same. It was just as funny, certainly, and also offered a barrage of popular intertext -- this time involving modern action movies -- but also never fell into the trap of repeating the lines and ideas found in Shaun of the Dead. Standing alongside the previous movie, it served as winning companion piece.

Naturally, the trio decided to conclude what they have termed the Cornetto Trilogy, this time with The World's End, an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Village of the Damned. It's one of the best movies of the summer, a fitting end to the themes and ideas they presented nearly ten years ago.

The World's End
I got the chance to interview Frost, Pegg, and Wright when they promoted the movie in Austin at the beginning of August. Topics included the making of the movie, the themes and influences, and how they chose the villains and songs.

Simon, Gary is the least affable of the characters you've played in this trilogy. Was that a fun change for you to play? Obviously he's got an interesting heart at the core of him. It's a very different character from the previous two.

Simon Pegg
It was a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed it. I think Gary has probably been my favorite experience in terms of acting out of all three films. It was like the opposite of Nicholas Angel. Nicholas Angel is such a reactive character that he doesn't even smile for 40 minutes in Hot Fuzz. As much as I loved doing Hot Fuzz, he wasn't a massively fun character to play, but he was a necessary part of a larger story, whereas Gary was enormous fun to play because he's just so annoying. I never, ever forgot at any point why he is the way he is. He's incredibly driven, and super divisive, and manipulative, and mobile the whole time -- he never stops moving -- and it's because he can't, because if he stops, then the whole horrible truth of his existence will come crashing in on him. There's a couple of points in the film when it almost does, and he cries out to Andy for help at one point by saying how much trouble he's actually in. And when Rosamund Pike as Sam, says to him, "What happened, Gary?" You see it flicker across his face; everything's gone wrong. So, what I kind of wanted was, not until the very last moment when you see the truth of Gary King, is that, when that happens, you think, Oh, shit, maybe I should've been more patient with the guy. Because, the fact is, people in his situation are like that, sometimes. But at the same time, it was fun to essentially play Beetlejuice.

There's a similar question about the character Nick played. It's different from the characters you usually play: very straight laced. This guy's on top of everything. It's like you guys switched roles.

Nick Frost
Yeah. I mean, we had to…I think it's important that we don't just keep doing the same thing and people just get bored of it. What's the point of that? We are both actors, so any chance we get to be someone else and get to change things up and to challenge yourself…that's what we do. I think people just assume that we are those characters because that's who we played in those films. We're not. I'm probably more like this man than any other I've played before, with the exception of perhaps Ed, when I was like Ed. It's important to keep changing things, and to keep evolving. That's what this film is about: to keep going forward. Like our friendships, and like the friendships in the films that we portray. They have to change and they have to evolve. Otherwise they die.

Simon Pegg
And the change is kind of like a motivational change. Shaun is very reactive to Ed, and Angel is very reactive to Danny. And Danny and Ed are very different characters: Danny is like a puppy; Ed is like a sloth. Whereas the change comes here in that Andy is very active to Gary; Gary is very proactive. So it's more of a dynamic change.

Because there are several years between Hot Fuzz and The World's End, and you were busy with your own projects, you were working this idea for a long time. Is it something you always knew would come down the road, or was it more of the fans wanting more?

Edgar Wright
People would always ask when we were going to work together again. But we wanted to make the movie. You've got to make movies that you want to do, rather than you think you ought to do. We had the idea of this at the end of the Hot Fuzz press tour. So we had the story, the genre element and everything, worked out in 2007, but all of us went off to make separate films. And in a way, I don't think we would've written the same screenplay six years ago. So it was good actually having the break, because we get to get older and have more to put into it. In a sense, it becomes like Michael Apted's Seven Up! series. We get to kind of do something slightly different when we come back, which is great.

Simon Pegg
Also, we've never done anything just because, as much as we love the people who follow us, just because they demand it. We've never done a third series of Spaced, and we were asked about that a lot. We still get asked about that. We were always going to make this movie. Always come back together because we decided that we did want to make three after Hot Fuzz, and when we realized we were allowed to make three, then that became our ultimate goal.

Can you talk about creating your villains for this piece?

Edgar Wright
Yeah, it was really fun, actually, because, unlike Shaun of the Dead where it was just zombies, we wanted to come up with something slightly different. And of course they have precedence, whether it be The Stepford Wives or the Urbanks in Doctor Who or the replicants from Alien to Bladerunner, we always liked the baddies that could speak and could seem benign. But then, the design of them, there was a lot of fun in that. One of the themes of the film is that Gary is aggressively regressing his friends with alcohol, so they're turning back the clock and start acting more and more like teenagers as soon as they start getting drunk. And the baddies themselves are like action figures. We wanted them to feel like they were almost sort of playing with their toys. All of the imagery and the music are designed to make you start feeling nostalgic, so this whole idea of these baddies who are like action figures that break apart easily or you can twist their heads off. And it's not entirely clear how they work. We talked about the heads being like Easter eggs, because when you're a kid, you're like, "Oh, this Easter egg is rock solid. Oh no, it's empty!" A hollow bauble. So the idea of these kind of heads that you could smash really easily, but they just don't stop coming, so…

Simon Pegg
And the blue stuff was supposed to be like ink, like when you're a kid and when you get home from school, you'd often find your hands and face covered in ink, because you'd get pen on your hands. One would leak in your pocket…

Nick Frost
Pen in your mouth…

Edgar Wright
We did like the idea that they've got ink. There's blue bloods, which they get called at one point, which is a class reference. We just liked the idea of making the actors look like little kids.

Hot Fuzz

Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are great on their own but both heavily reference other movies. The enjoyment you get from them increases if you've seen these movies they're referencing. Is there anything you'd recommend viewers watch before The World's End?

Edgar Wright
I don't think there's anything you need to see. There's no Cliff Notes you need to enjoy this movie. And I think, in a way, with the other films we never wanted to feel like we were being exclusive in any way. I don't think you need to have seen Dawn of the Dead to enjoy Shaun of the Dead. So with this one, there's no film where we can say, "You'll get more out of it if you've seen this." In a way, we wanted to draw upon a particular genre that we grew up with, which is the social science fiction genre, of which there are a number of great American ones, be it Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives and Invaders from Mars, so many of the post-war and Cold War, there was enormous number of those films, the quiet invasion films. But then there's a lot of British literature and great writers that then were adapted into films and tv, like John Wyndham with The Midwich Cuckoos, which becomes The Village of the Damned, also John Christopher and Nigel Kneale, who wrote the Quatermass series, and then there were a lot of these filtered into tv, like Doctor Who and The Avengers and The Prisoner. So much of this is such a big part of our upbringing, and coming from small towns it's something where, if you have an overactive imagination, that's what you sort of want to imagine all around you. Even the central conceit of the movie, going back to your hometown and discovering that it's changed and is much like Simon's character Gary, you see at one point he's actually happy to announce it's maybe an invasion because it's easier for him to deal with that than it is with getting old or admitting the town is shit.

Simon Pegg
Also, The World's End is not about film in any way. Shaun of the Dead has a sort of meta-text to it because it's set in a pre-existing universe, that being the Romero universe. Hot Fuzz is kind of about film because it deals with Danny's love of action cinema and Angel's rejection of it, whereas there's nothing in The World's End other than the genre itself that relates to cinema in a sort of meta-textual way.

Edgar Wright
Funnily enough, the only two films that we actually rewatched before we wrote the screenplay -- we didn't rewatch any of the sci fi stuff because it was so ingrained in our brain -- but we did rewatch The Big Chill and this Gene Kelly musical called It's Always Fair Weather, which is about wartime buddies meeting up ten years after the war and discovering they have nothing in common. It was actually the reunion films that we went back to.

At their core, body snatcher movies are about losing one's identity. With this being the close of a trilogy that has been pivotal for all of you, did you feel like you were leaving a part of your identity behind? Was it particularly bittersweet?

Edgar Wright
I think there's a thing about leaving your past behind, if the movie's about anything. Rosamund Pike actually says, "You've got to go forward and not backwards," and the movie's about how dangerous it is to try to recapture former glories. That's what the movie is about. So if there's any meta aspect, there's something in that. And also, so much of cinema these days is about trying to recapture the highs of a film that came out 20 years ago, or like a toy you played with when you were a little kid. So if there's any meta theme to the movie, it's more about how we, as a culture, obsess with the past and it's time to move on. And so Gary is a guy who is trapped in that cycle. He forcibly turns back the clock and gets much more than he bargained for. I think there's an element of that.

Simon Pegg
It's always been on our minds, though. Each one of these films is about the possible loss of identity to a sort of marauding, homogenous force, whether it be zombies or the NWA or the blanks. The blanks are kind of the synthesis of the zombies and the NWA. They are sort of like aggressive modifiers. And maybe it's because we're making small films in the U.K. in a huge industry, which isn't always easy to navigate. Maybe that's what that is, it's our own sense of self against the mass.

Edgar Wright
And also with Shaun, he's much more of a schlubby everyman, but Gary King is still playing the high school rebel at 40. At the start it's deeply pathetic, and yet at the end, you have to be on his side and not theirs. We like this idea of taking this character and giving him the chance to be the rebel again and flip the bird to the man.

Both Hot Fuzz and The World's End feature former James Bonds as the villains. Was that just a coincidence, or was there some other plan here?

Edgar Wright
It was a happy coincidence. The thing is, the only way we can make this a trilogy…there are only two ways we can do it. Either we re-release Shaun of the Dead and digitally insert another Bond actor…

Nick Frost
Whose part would he have?

Edgar Wright
I don't know. He would have to be just in the crowd. The only other option is that an actor from Shaun of the Dead becomes James Bond.

Nick Frost
You're welcome. (Laughter.) They've never had a plus-sized Bond.

Simon Pegg
Big Bond.

Nick Frost
Zero-zero-zero seven.

Did you feel any pressure to make the ending more upbeat or audience-friendly?

Edgar Wright
No, that was always the idea. We liked the idea that it was slightly bittersweet, although we would actually say -- and I don't think this too controversial -- that The World's End in a sense has the happiest ending of the three. In Shaun of the Dead, his best friend is dead, and so is his mother. In Hot Fuzz, our hero is living in this black-gloved fascist state where they're beating hippies at the end of it. And in this one, in a roundabout way, everybody gets what they want, and characters who desperately want to live in the past get to live in the past.

Simon Pegg
We didn't want to welch on our promise of the title. The promise of the title is the world's end, and we didn't want to back away from that. If you return things to the status quo, you leave the cinema and forget what you've seen. You need to upset people's comforts, and that's what we wanted to do.

Edgar Wright
The other thing is, with most comedies you could laugh 100 minutes straight in the cinema and have completely forgotten about it by the time you pick up your car. On the flip side, if you do something that's slightly bittersweet, there might be elements where you go, "Oh, it's a bit kind of darker than I expected." But you might think about it in the next week. And that's what we aim for. In fact, most of the responses I've got to this film are from people I know or even fans saying, "I've been thinking about your film." Because it makes them think about their own lives or about people they know. A lot of people know somebody like Gary in their lives. They might be a friend or a family member, somebody they had to cut off. You might be that person. That's the nice thing about making these movies and making them at a certain budget level so they're uncompromised. Then they can be personal. By being very specific, you end up resonating more because you're not just going for blandly general to make everybody laugh but never think about it ever again. You give them something to chew on.

Nick Frost
We've been saying, "Have a look around, and if you don't know a Gary King, you might be Gary King."

Shaun of the Dead

Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" in Shaun of the Dead and Sundays' "Here's Where the Story Ends" in The World's End both give a deeper meaning to the scenes in which they are played. What is your process for selecting songs for pivotal scenes? Did you have them in mind as you were writing?

Edgar Wright
We wrote with those songs playing. We had a much longer playlist and then very quickly songs become like story points. Or even very early on, you know exactly what song you want in a movie like "Alabama Song" by the Doors…just the lyrics to that song, "Oh, show us the way to the next whiskey bar/Don't ask why/If we don't find the way to the next whiskey bar/I tell you we must die." Straight away, that's got to be in the movie, or some version of that film, and if we can afford the Doors, then by God, we'll have the Doors. It's either the Doors or David Bowie. Okay, it's the Doors. Can't have both -- too expensive. We write these things in, but even if you look at the soundtrack album, just the song names alone are kind of like DVD chapters because they absolutely tell you what's going on. "Fool's Gold" by the Stone Roses, when Gary is thinking about drinking somebody else's beer, is rock bottom number one if you're going to drink a stranger's beer. That's fool's gold, right there. We like this idea of having songs that are like very prescriptive. Even the songs Gary has on his mix tape are all these hedonistic party songs -- "I'm free to do what I want any old time" -- he listened to that when he was 18 and he's still listening to that at 40 because he wants to believe it.

Simon Pegg
He quotes directly from three of those songs, even to the point of when he suggests Andy tear the head off one of the blanks. He says, "Twist the melon, man," from "Step On" by the Happy Mondays, which is one of the songs used. That's his hymn sheet.

Nick Frost
Kind of justifies the way he is, too. Even the songs he loves are helping him now at this time of apocalypse.

Edgar Wright
What's great about those songs is they immediately give you that nostalgic hit. They immediately send you back to that time. But then they also have double meanings. Like the Suede song "So Young" is about heroin. So it works on two levels; it's kind of saying like, because, we're young, and yet you have the image of 40-year-old men walking around like they're teenagers. But it's a song about chasing the dragon, which hints at Gary's drug past as well. That said, it's very easy, within a couple of days of listening to those songs, you immediately pinpoint and say, "I want to hear that song in the movie."

Can you talk about any of the challenges in doing so much physical work in all of the pubs?

Nick Frost
(To Simon Pegg.) You broke your hand, didn't you?

Simon Pegg
I did break my hand. We actually trained very hard in the run-up to the shoot. Not just the fight training and learning the choreography, but just physical training and getting in shape because we worked long days and the fight scenes took a lot of energy and stamina to complete. We worked with a man called Brad Allen, who was a fabulous stunt coordinator and fight choreographer from Australia who worked extensively with Jackie Chan, and so brought that wonderful invention and almost clowning to the fight sequences. What Brad does really well is manage to make sure the characters are sustained through the fights. Usually in films, when a fight breaks out, you hand it over to stunt men and the characters stop being the characters and start throwing punches, whereas it was very important that we did the fights ourselves and we maintained our characters in the fights. So you've got Gary never wanting to set his pint down, you've got Andy becoming this berserker, Paddy's throwing these big haymakers, Martin's always wriggling out of things, and Ed is always hiding. We wanted to make sure that, even in the midst of that chaos, we stayed in character. And that was very much down to Brad and Edgar's collaboration.

Nick Frost
I was really lucky that I did a film before this, which was a dance film, so I tried to be a dancer for seven months. I had a week between that wrapping and the rehearsals for this. In terms of learning vast choreographies, I was good. And I'd trained as a kickboxer for three-and-a-half or four years in my early 30s. I was quite good at punching, too. This was like a dream for me to come and do this. I think it's just a question of sport. People don't realize you're doing that all day. You're there fighting for 14 or 15 hours a day, and certain fights take eight days to shoot. You have to be fit. A fear of mine was being hurt, being injured. I thought, "That would be terrible, what if I couldn't go on?" It would be awful. That was a fear. Staying fit, not injuring yourself. And I got to dance, which was fantastic, too.

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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