In The World's End, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost gather their former best friends to drink their old hometown dry. But when we talked to Pegg, Frost and director Edgar Wright, they told us how this apocalyptic comedy isn't like your usual "drunken midlife crisis" film. Plus the secret of using genre to tell a personal story.
We were lucky enough to speak with Pegg, Frost and Wright exclusively, when they were in San Francisco promoting The World's End, and here's what they told us.
How do you go about using genre elements to tell a personal story, as opposed to just sort of bolting the personal story onto the genre stuff?
Edgar Wright: I think if you have an overactive imagination, you tend to [think that way]. It's as simple as this, in a way: I expressed an emotion I was feeling, by mentioning it in the context of a science fiction film.
So, this genuinely happened: When I used to go back to my hometown, after leaving my hometown and going to college and then moving to London, I used to go back every Christmas to see my family. And it felt like every time I was going back, it would feel like the roster of people was changing, and the people who stayed there either didn't recognize me or didn't care. And it felt like a strange bittersweet experience.
And I remember saying to a friend of mine, "Oh, every time I go back to my hometown, it feels like [Invasion of the] Body Snatchers." So even just by saying that, you've immediately created the genre mix. It's expressing an emotion through [genre stories.]
But also, those genre films, especially the older ones — you don't get it quite so much these days, with modern horror — they are metaphors, they are all metaphorical. They're all expressing some kind of political/social situation. And so in a way, we make these relationship comedies [where] we're expressing how we feel through genre.
Simon Pegg: It's similar to the sophistication of what we did with Spaced, which was to have a story about two people whose life is literally like [that.] They would explain it to people, they'd say, "I went to the bank, and it was like The Matrix." But we'd actually do it for real. You'd see their lives realized through popular culture. And what we've done with our films, subsequently, is [have] it not be so obviously metaphorical. It's more like, we're actually using the genres and creating these realities where we can say this stuff about life and about friendship and about relationships. But they exist within these accepted genres: horror, action and science fiction.
So this film in particular, and all three to some extent, remind me a bit of The Avengers. The John Steed/Emma Peel version. They go to a small town...
Nick Frost: I hope I'm Emma Peel. [Laughs]
...so is there something about the small town that just lends itself to sinister weirdness?
Pegg: Well, we grew up in them, so...
Wright: Yeah. And I think it's a big part of British literature, even before The Avengers. John Wyndham would write these books. You know, the key one being The Midwich Cuckoos. And there was even a phrase coined to describe that genre, which is "The Cosy Catastrophe." Which I think was actually used as a negative term. I think Brian Aldiss criticized John Wyndham's books, saying they were cosy catastrophes. But in a sense, I see that as a good thing, because it's very much like you're seeing the end of the world through a very narrow focus.
And in a way that's what we wanted to do, is show it through the eyes — the bleary eyes — of our five heroes. The sort of, "This is something happening around them." And within the movie, they're not sure how wide-reaching it is. They have no idea whether it's like, "This is just happening in the bar that we happen to be in." Or is this happening all over the world?
Pegg: And that extends out to the country as well. We're from the United Kingdom, which is a very parochial country. It's very small, you know? It's an island. And its culture is [that] there's a lot of people, and it's all crammed into a small space. The U.K. itself is like a small town. Do you know what I mean? Compared to a country like America, or any of the larger continents, or even Europe, which is a lot of countries on one landmass. We are a very isolated, kind of small place. And I think that is part of our psyche. I think it extends from the villages out to the very nation. The islands of London and Manchester and Glasgow, but the rest of it is small towns.
This is the third film of your "Cornetto Trilogy," after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. So if somebody marathons all three of these films in one go, what's the one thing you hope they take away from watching the whole trilogy?
Pegg: Starbucks loyalty card? [Laughs] What would be nice is for people to immediately see the correlation between the three [movies.] There is stuff in there [that resonates]. You'll get to see the three fence jokes in a row. You'll get to see our preoccupations played out again and again, and maybe see our attitudes evolve, towards friendship, towards growing up.
In Shaun of the Dead, you have a guy who is refusing to face up to his responsibilities as an adult at 30. And in The World's End, you have that with guys that are 40, and it's a different attitude. And I think you will get to see it all in context. And see it as a progression, and see it as a piece. These three films together.
Frost: I think it's [good] to walk out, and be secure in the fact that it's fine for you to have a close male friendship, and not have to call it a "bromance." Not have to hide it under that "bromance" umbrella, you know? It's fine for men to be friends, and it not seem anything weird or potentially sinister.
Pegg: I'd like people to also... I feel like The World's End — and this isn't just some kind of ploy to get people to watch the movie more than once — but I think it will be great for people to see The World's End a few times, and then see them all in a row. Because you cannot possibly get everything that's in The World's End on a single watch. People who compare it to Shaun of the Dead have seen Shaun of the Dead five or six times. I don't think you can possibly — we didn't design it to be consumed in one bite. It's something that will take time to sink in as well. So it will be nice, I think, for people to see all the films individually and then see them as a threesome. And then I think you'll get the most out of that.
Was there a moment where you guys thought Shaun of the Dead wasn't going to get made? Can you tell me about that?
Wright: Oh yeah.
Pegg: Several, yeah.
Wright: At the point where it got put into turnaround... yeah, we sort of stopped working in TV to kind of write that script. We worked on it for about two years, and then it collapsed. The Company that we were developing it with went bankrupt, FilmFour. And I had a period where I thought, "Oh my God, I've just wasted those two years of my career." And also whilst turning down lots of work. So it's definitely like...
It's funny, people say to us now, "Did you always plan this as a trilogy?" And it's like, "Hey, we just felt lucky to make a film, when we made Shaun of the Dead."
Pegg: You just gave me a weird memory, of you, me, Nira Park our producer, and I think Jim Wilson — [we] were sat in Starbucks of all places, on the day Joe Strummer died, talking about what we were going to do. And it was the day that Working Title had said they'd pick us up. It's so strange to think that that's where we were, considering the "Starbucking" theme in the third film. We were saved in Starbucks.
The World's End feels as though it's deliberately resisting the tropes of both the "midlife crisis binge-drinking film" like The Hangover, as well as science fiction comedies like The Watch or whatever. Were there times when you came close to doing something and then pulled back and decided to do something different?
Pegg: It's more like a celebration of stuff...
Wright: I think what we wanted to do, actually... Like both of those films you mentioned, there's a lot of those "manchild" films. I don't think they really scratch beneath the surface that much. And a lot of those films glorify that behavior. Whether it's something like Old School. Or Hall Pass. Those "midlife crisis" sort of films. But in this, we wanted to do something where, the fact that they want to go back is a cautionary tale. This is going to have a bad ending if they try to recapture their glory years. It's not a triumphant quest.
Pegg: A lot of the "manchild" films sort of say, "[Adulthood means] conforming, but the best thing to do is to be a kid, and hang out with your guy friends. And be sort of drunken and misogynistic." And what we're kind of saying is, "Conforming isn't necessarily the right thing to do, but nor is that." What's important is being happy in yourself. You know, it's finding some kind of level of happiness, and that might not mean going back, because going back isn't always a good thing. And it also doesn't mean becoming something you think you should be, because that isn't a good thing.
The true goal in life is happiness. That measures everything — success, everything is measured by how happy you are in yourself. And [my character] Gary is bitterly, bitterly unhappy and trying to find happiness the wrong way. It isn't a celebration of getting drunk.