It’s one thing to sit and chat with an impressive team of actors and directors. It’s another to do the same with three men who changed the face of comedy and genre filmmaking in such a way that the rest of the world is still scrambling to catch up with them. Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have carved a formidable career together with their ground-breaking Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: a series of genre-bending, wildly hilarious films driven by Wright’s impeccable directing style, Pegg and Frost’s glorious chemistry and an intelligence rarely seen in comedy before or since.
After the roaring successes of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004) and ‘Hot Fuzz’ (2007), the trilogy comes to an apocalyptic climax with ‘The World’s End’, one of this year’s most anticipated films. Wright, Pegg and Frost visited Melbourne to promote the film, and on one unusually sunny morning, I got a chance to sit and chat with the trio about their work together, and the film we’ve all awaited with bated breath.
“We had the story idea six years ago,” says Wright. “But I’m glad that we didn’t write it then, because I think, in that six years, we’ve amassed a lot more material just in life, especially because the characters are older, and one of the central themes of the movie is the idea that nostalgia itself is the villain of the piece, and it’s dangerous to look back and dangerous to try and recapture your glory days.”
In ‘The World’s End’, Gary King (Simon Pegg), a man stuck in perpetual teenage immaturity, decides to reunite his high school gang and complete their teenage quest - to conquer the Golden Mile, an epic pub crawl through their home town that culminates in a final pint at The World’s End. What Gary discovers, however, is that the gang has moved on, grown up and settled into adulthood, and while they come along for the ride, it’s not without some resistance.
Since ‘Hot Fuzz’, the three have worked on their own projects, with Pegg and Frost lending their talents to ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, and Wright crafting his masterpiece ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ (2010). That interim, however, had no effect when work began on the new film.
“It felt exactly the same,” says Frost. “It felt like we’d finished ‘Hot Fuzz’ on Friday and we started again on Monday. I think that’s one of the advantages of being great friends. We know how we work and it just felt right.”
“It’s nice to also do a film about friends reuniting when we hadn’t written together for a few years,” says Wright.
One of the many ways that ‘The World’s End’ subverts expectation is in the role reversal of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s on-screen dynamic. While ‘Shaun’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ followed a similar pattern, here we find Pegg the perpetual child and Frost more grounded and assured.
“We would hate for people to be able to predict what was going to happen,” says Pegg, “and think ‘Okay, this is going to be this again’ and deliver that. In each of these films we’ve played wildly different characters, and the only way to continue that difference was to do what we did with this, which was radically change the dynamic. And it was great!
“Gary is simultaneously the villain and the hero of the film, and so he has to be a force of disturbance and a kind of naughtiness, which butts up against Nick’s character.”
“But you know,” adds Frost, “as a character he’s also incredibly powerful, and manipulative. I love the fact that within kind of four hours of re-meeting this character, I’ve fallen off the wagon. He has such a draw.”
Of course, as is the logic of the Trilogy, ‘The World’s End’ suddenly veers into unexpected genre territory as Gary and his gang find themselves battling, not only the Golden Mile, but the end of mankind as we know it. So, as well as a lot of drinking, the quest to The World’s End also involves an unexpected burst of action for the team.
“Because I’d just come off ‘Scott Pilgrim’ and done a lot of action, I felt more confident in myself,” says Wright. “But what’s even more different compared to that one is having the confidence that these actors could pull it off, so the camera can remain on them and never cut away. And that was really important because you realise that, also, it’s less about the baddies than it is about the fact that this is as far as their glory days kind of go and getting to be like the epic brawlers of their past.”
“It’s hard work,” says Pegg. “Some of those fight scenes took over a week to shoot and the way they were choreographed was almost like one shot, the appearance of one shot, so they were very precise. But it was quite fun to be that physical.”
“I think it’s a bit of a jib too,” says Frost, “when you see it’s clearly a stunt man doing it and you cut back to see some reactions and cut back to the action. If you can track the actual actor all the way from the dialogue into the action, it’s nice, it looks good.”
Conversation then turned to some of the more intricate details of the plot, particularly the genre twists, recurring gags and a few unexpected cameos, but it would be criminal of me to let slip any of those surprises. In fact, Wright has made a strong effort to save the film from the dangers of spoilers.
“We work with the trailer people, and you have to give them enough stuff to get people to go and see it, because if you genuinely cut together a trailer that’s just guys on a pub crawl, you will have a thirtieth of your audience. But there’s a lot more to it. What’s really important are the emotional arcs and beats and those kinds of pay-offs, none of which are in the trailer. And there’s lots of surprises that are not in the trailer. So, as long as you show enough spectacle that people will go, ‘Oh, it’s like fighting and pratfalls, and it looks funny and there’s special effects’, but you don’t give away the emotional pay-offs or any twists. You want people to see it as cold as they possibly can.”
Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have carved a formidable career together with their ground-breaking Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: a series of genre-bending, wildly hilarious films.
Now that the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy has come to its end, we finally have the chance to see it as a single piece of work; how they connect together. At a time where trilogies are almost standard, and single characters follow (sometimes unnecessarily) multi-movie story arcs, these three films stand as something distinct and unusual, and one of the rare cases of a trilogy where every film is distinct but equally as thrilling and satisfying as the other. And also breathtakingly hilarious, especially with a number of recurring physical gags that pop up in all three films. As expected, fences are involved.
“When we came to make ‘Hot Fuzz’, we realised that we were able to make a sort of thematic sequel to ‘Shaun of the Dead’, albeit not a full one,” says Pegg. “And we wanted to make some slightly more obvious connective tissue, put that on display for the audience. So, it wasn’t just the Cornetto, it was that one [the fence gag] as well. And it quickly became apparent to is that we had the opportunity at least to make a joke work over three disparate films.”
For Wright, Pegg and Frost, though, there are stronger themes at the heart of the films, ideas and pursuits that hold them together. These might be comedies, but they’re comedies with tremendous heart and brains.
“We’re always very keen to hang our comedy on a rigid, real structure of genuine drama and emotion,” says Pegg. “The thing is with comedy, if you make a film that’s just jokes, the minute one of those jokes fail, the whole film dies. We want to be able to freewheel into drama and stop the comedy and let it be something else for a little bit before we start peddling again with the gags.”
“That’s what life is, you know,” adds Frost. “I always think of it as putting the “fun” back into “funerals”. Funerals have often been the funniest things I’ve ever been to, and they’re, at the same time, very funny and terribly tragic. They work because of each other, not in spite of.”
“Also,” adds Wright, “the other overriding thing that becomes the central theme of this one, and this goes backed to ‘Spaced’ as well [their classic 1999 TV series], is the dangers of perpetual adolescence. In ‘Shaun’, it was a film about a man having to grow up and be less like one of his flatmates and more like the other one, and then, in ‘Hot Fuzz’, [Nick] Angel is the realist and Danny is the kind of naive fantasist, and how they will eventually become the yin to the other’s yang. But in this one, it’s the nostalgia, and the idea of that sort of arrested development. So, because we’d dealt with that a number of times, we wanted to make this a very final statement on it, in a way. If we’d have made something that was really light and fluffy and ephemeral, it might have been funny, but like Simon said, it doesn’t exist beyond the jokes and you would forget it by the time you’d left the cinema.”
“I think all three films are about finding the right level of maturity to live your life,” says Pegg. “You become an adult in your own way and, maybe you don’t conform to some perceived notion of what that is, but you take a stand and you are yourself and you find your way around adulthood, and you do it truthfully.”
If I came away with anything from our chat with Wright, Pegg and Frost, it was with a definite sense of awe and admiration. At a time in the evolution of cinema where screens are filled with ill-conceived cash-ins and brainless hollow spectacles, to hear these men discuss their work with such detail, intelligence and overwhelming passion brought great comfort and relief. With ‘The World’s End’, their trilogy may have come to a close, but there’s little doubt of the impact and legacy these films - and these filmmakers - have had and will continue to have for many, many years to come.