For someone making a movie about the dangers of nostalgia, Edgar Wright can't stop remembering first times and worst times.
The idea for his latest film, "The World's End," began more than twenty years ago with a teenaged pub crawl in Wright's hometown of Wells, Somerset, after a wild night of drink, music and possible hookups gone embarrassingly wrong: Wright ended up in lost in someone's back garden, staggering neck-first into a clothesline. (His buddies boozed on without him.)
Wright survived to become something of a prodigy as a TV director, shaping the British cult comedy "Spaced," where he met collaborators Simon Pegg (also his co-writer) and actor Nick Frost. The trio gained international fame with "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), an undead-invasion comedy, and its follow-up "Hot Fuzz" (2007), a high-action cop thriller set in an English village.
Now comes the conclusion of their so-called Cornetto trilogy, named for an ice cream treat that appears in all three films. Where the first two movies drew more heavily on familiar genres (zombie movies and '80s action flicks, respectively), the flavor of "The World's End" is darker, stranger, and more bittersweet, even as it veers off into the science fiction stratosphere.
After a recent screening of the Cornetto Trilogy at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., the three men bounce jokes off each other like a practiced comedy act, entertaining fan questions ranging from the cheerful to the bizarre. "I have attacks of nostalgia all the time, I don't know why," says Wright. "Because you are deeply unhappy," replies Frost, cracking them all up. But the Q&A stops dead when one audience member insists that Shaun's red necktie/bandana must be a "clear reference" to "The Deer Hunter."
"You're way off, buddy," Pegg shoots back. Even Wright, who's accustomed to queries about pop culture references in his work, is baffled. "No, that is genuinely a coincidence," Wright says. "Shaun's work uniform is quite standard for that kind of store. It's unintentional, but if it made you want to watch 'The Deer Hunter' again, cool." The Cimino fan persists, the audience gets restless. "This is turning into the angry town meeting from 'The Simpsons'!" yells Nick Frost. "We will build that Monorail! We will!"
Cheers erupt. The Kings of Cornetto score another win.
Wright, in a follow-up interview, explains how he transformed that youthful pub crawl into "The World's End," a late-in-life coming of age story about a wrecked Goth rebel (Pegg) rounding up four old friends (Frost, plus Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman) for an all-nighter. With the Cornetto trilogy over, will the Wright-Pegg-Frost collaboration continue? No firm plans right now, but as another nostalgia-obsessed filmmaker wrote: great things end, small things endure.
You've said that returning to your hometown to shoot "Hot Fuzz" re-awakened the idea of the pub crawl story. What changed?
The original script was short, and I put it aside for years. I used to go back to my hometown at Christmas, on holidays, and I felt my town was different, with chains, coffee shops and pubs, were taking over. But was it me or the town? Lots of things in the film really did happen: on one visit the old school bully didn't recognize me and I felt, well, am I happy or sad he didn't know me? Why is this so troubling? When I told Quentin Tarantino about the script, as I was rewriting it, he said, "You should watch this Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen movie called 'It's Always Fair Weather,' about buddies reuniting after WWII." I don't want anyone to feel it's required reading or anything. But it's nice to pay tribute to anything that has the tiniest inspiration.
The science fiction element, that came about in a natural way. These are the movies we grew up with as kids. In "Shaun" and "Hot Fuzz," the characters came first and then the amplification of their fears became the science fiction threat. I always find films about quiet invasions frightening: the idea that you're in a small town, as I was, and the invasion had already begun. The way that Gary King deals with it, when he realizes that it's all true, he's smiling. Science fiction is like a coping strategy. It's the perfect distraction. He leaps upon it: "Forget about the bad things I've done, my problems, now I'm in charge again!" He finds away to turn it to his advantage. It's easier to deal with an alien invasion to face getting old.
In a way, you tell us everything about the main characters in the prologue, which goes by so fast. One thing that struck me was the look of disappointment and confusion on the face of young Samantha—the young version of Rosamund Pike.
She's a dead ringer for Rosamund Pike, she is. Spooky. The actress was a little too young, 14 when she was meant to be 16 or 17, but she was so perfect. We had to cast her. All the young actors workshopped with their older counterparts, doing mirroring exercises—that "Duck Soup," Marx Brothers routine. On the BluRay, you'll see it. It's uncanny. That's one thing that goes back to "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," maybe. The solipsism of that age. You don't realize that other people have feelings. You know it was a bad thing to do, but you don't realize just how badly you've hurt someone's feelings. For her, she'll always remember that Gary King ran out and just left her—he's a bad person. But he actually thinks he can pick that relationship right back up again twenty years on.
So what happened in real life?
When the film came out in the UK, I contacted all the real people who'd been on that pub crawl and invited them to the premiere.
No, what happened in real life, back then?
For the record there is an element of fiction there. She finished with me, actually. Why it's based on that character is that my friend had a cute sister I went out with for a couple of months, and then another friend of ours went out with her for a couple of months, thereby creating an exceptionally awkward social situation. And the brother doing what Martin Freeman [does], covering his ears whenever we mentioned her.
Rosamund Pike, when I told her this story she said, "Oh! Can I meet this girl?" Are you in touch with her." And I'm still friends with her on Facebook, so I had to figure out how to pitch this meeting. So I told a white lie. I said, Rosamund Pike wants to talk to you because you have a really responsible job—she works in pharmaceuticals, as a compliance officer. I don't know what they talked about. But Ros came back and said, "Yeah. Mmmm-hmmm. I got it."
And Gary King, obnoxious mess that he is, is a magnetic person, as played by Simon Pegg. How much did he revel in that long hair and overcoat?
That's the funny thing. Gary's kind of a tragic character. And yet Simon said, this the coolest costume I've ever had. We realized that Gary King probably had some gray hairs. Simon said, "Maybe I should wear a wig, longer hair?" I said, No, you should dye it black. As soon as he did, he was loving it. He had his hair black for six months of the movie. And the long coat! When we wrote it, we looked at singers from the late 1980s, early 90s: from The Damned, the Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus. I never dyed my hair black. But I thought it was so cool. I did have a black trenchcoat. Never went full Goth.
The film's music isn't just a soundtrack, it's the mixtape that's Gary King's been playing to keep his past glory alive. What were you listening too while writing?
Simon and I wrote the script with those songs playing, like 200 songs, and some rose to the top over six years: "So Young" by Suede, "Loaded," Primal Scream. Half are hedonistic party anthems about being a rebel, others a bit more melancholic like Inspiral Carpets, the Sundays, Pulp, "Do You Remember the First Time." One thing that's key of British music of that time: the sense of regret. The emotions are bittersweet and melancholic. Gary, in his mind, becomes the star of his own Gothpocalypse. We want to coin that term, by the way.
Terry Gilliam spoke of "Time Bandits," "Brazil," and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" being a trilogy about the three ages of man. Would you view the Cornetto trilogy in a similar way, about three stages of manhood?
All are films about growing up in different ways. In "Shaun of the Dead," it takes a slap in the face in the form of a zombie apocalypse for him to become less complacent, like his stoner friends, and become more proactive like Kate. In "Hot Fuzz" he almost needs to like dumb down to be a better person. The two friends, the workaholic and the fantasist, they influence each other to become like the perfect double act. "The World's End" is more like a cautionary tale about the dangers of nostalgia. Gary is literally running away from change. What he's running from, they don't see themselves as being sinister or evil. They see themselves as representing progress, efficiency. Gary wants to be a rebel, rough around the edges, forever. But terrible things happen when you try to turn back the clock. I don't want to talk too much about the ending for those who haven't seen it—but some people see it as the bleakest ending of the three. Me and Simon see it as the happiest of all of them. We wanted it to be sort of a novelistic ending. We think it's very sweet.
What can you tell us about "Ant Man," which you've written with Joe Cornish (director of "Attack the Block.") Who's in it—actors, characters?
There's not really much to tell, as I haven't started working on it. That's why I have been very silent on it. I feel as though I'm about to start a new job and I feel as though I don't want to say too much or I'll jinx myself by going on about something I haven't actually started on. There is a script. But I have no new news, because there is nothing to report. As yet. Simon's having fun photographing himself next to every superhero standee in the meantime, just to blow up the internet. Listen, "Ant Man" is two years away, so don't worry about it. We can talk about it another time.
What other dream projects do you have?
Horror. I want to do a straight horror film, something that scares me, something that I haven't seen before in a film, an obsession of mine, that I had to write a horror film about. I haven't written that yet. That's a ways off.
With this movie, you've been touring, programming film retrospectives, tweeting like mad, even posting—for free—annotated, illustrated scripts for download. What more can a filmmaker do to get his film seen?
When you're promoting a movie and doing lots public screenings, Twitter is both great and also ephemeral. You are only reaching people who are right there at the moment. Does anyone look back at an old feed? Twitter's a great way to be approachable and communicate with fans, because I was a film fan—I am a film fan. I like that part of it. And it's fun, if there's a film I've seen in the cinema I will happily tell everyone what I think. But you have to turn it off at times. Crucially, I wasn't on twitter for all the months I was in production on "The World's End." I just couldn't keep up. And when I go into production again, I will do that again.
What is the line between communication with fans and becoming obliged to deliver what they want and expect?
You can't please everybody, that's impossible. Especially if you are adapting material, it's truly impossible.
What other gigs have you been offered, ones that you've had to turn down or defer? Will we see you directing "Mad Men" or something?
Why not? I have an idea TV that I would like to write and do. TV, guest-directing, is something I have been offered and I would love to do it but I am terrible multi-tasker. I get offered a lot of comedies. I would much rather guest-direct a drama and sort of play in somebody else's sandbox. That would be great. My chances of directing "Mad Men" are running out, though, as it is finishing next season.
What historical era fascinates you?
Hmmm. That has to do with my horror film so I don't want to talk about it. I tell you what I do get fascinated by: The history of buildings, London is an amazing place for that. I start to wonder: I look up and see the architecture most people on the ground never see. History, the story in ever sense of the word.
On your website, you've posted clips of your younger self talking about your award-winning films and videos. But I wondered about something in your bio: did you or didn't you attend film school?
No, art college. University of Bournemouth, in their brochure, rather naughtily makes it look like I went there. When I applied to the film school, they said no. So applied to the art school foundation course, got in, went, then applied to the film school again and got turned down again. So I am a film school reject. Twice!
Shortly after leaving art college, then, you made your first feature: not "Shaun of the Dead," but "A Fistful of Fingers," the Western. You've said you're not happy with it. What would you do differently?
It turns up online and I made them take it down. It's a very silly movie. I would eventually like to put it out on DVD. I was 20 years old when I made it. Though I appear to be 12. It was just naiveté. If I'd stopped to think about it wouldn't have happened at all. Thing that annoyed me, it felt like it was a step backward from things, short films, I'd made on video before I couldn't communicate what I wanted: I didn't have a video assist monitor. When you're making a movie you've got to be able to communicate what I want. It feels a little impersonal to me because I didn't communicate what I wanted to see on the screen. "Dead Right," which is on the "Hot Fuzz" DVD, is also extremely silly, and made around the same time, is much more like what I wanted to make. I learned that you need more coverage to pace the movie. Unless you want to go the direction of the French New Wave and use jump cuts. You see it a lot with independent movies, which use jump cuts. They have nothing else to cut to, to cut away to. It was a real lesson learned. I didn't have the coverage. If I had my way, that first feature would be closer to 60 minutes. But the producer said, if it gets under 70 minutes it stops being a feature. But it's done, nothing I can do now. I'm not going to go back and George Lucas it and redo entire scenes and add things. It's done.
You've been committed to British film. Where's the next one: London, Los Angeles.
I don't know where I live now. I live that strange nomadic life that directors live, going wherever the next tax break is. I'm not complaining, but I don't get to choose. If I am making a British film, I live in London. But if you are making a Hollywood film, I could be anywhere in the world. Even LA! It's all about tax breaks. At some point I have to settle somewhere. After this, I'll take a month off to regroup. And switch off the internet.