Writing for a film website is a pretty nerdy hobby and not nearly as much fun as it seems most of the time, but occasionally it affords one great fringe benefits. Weirdly, 2011 has for me been dominated by cool fringe benefits involving Simon Pegg and Paul. Earlier this year I got to interview Pegg, Nick Frost and Greg Motolla at Area 51. Pegg even tweeted a photograph of me standing next to him in a full body Tuskin Raider costume. More recently, I got to go to a swanky dinner with Pegg and director Greg Mottola to chat about the Blu-Ray release of the film.
Over the course of the evening, Pegg talked about the origins of the film, his love of different sci-fi, philosophy, the writing process, Mission: Impossible III and IV (Ghost Protocol), Star Trek 2, sequels to Paul, the importance of a good title, the state of geek culture, and much more. I even out-nerded Pegg for the second time; he’d never heard of Harlan Ellison!
Hit the jump for some of the highlights of the evening.
On the origins of Paul
Pegg: We kept having to re-do the record-throwing scene in Shaun of the Dead because the weather was so bad. We kept having to shoot in the wrong light. [Nira Park, the film’a Producer] said to us, ‘Why can’t you make a film somewhere where it doesn’t rain?’ and Nick and me were like, ‘Sure! It’s this: there’s two guys and they’re in the desert and they bump into an alien and he’s like, a really normal guy and he’s really friendly and his name’s Paul.’ We pitched this idea like it was a joke pitch.”
Q: So Paul was right off the top of your head?
Pegg: Yeah. Exactly. If we had thought about it a bit more we would have called him Rex or Fido, because he lands on the dog in the movie and it would have been that he’s named after a dog. But we said Paul in that first pitch and then we just stuck it with. It’s a bit weird that that dog is called Paul, isn’t it?
Our original pitch for it was like it’s like Little Miss Sunshine with Gollum in it. We wanted an indie, road movie feel. But in it would be this insanely impressive special effect.”
On the road trip Pegg and Frost took to prepare
Pegg: We found out that Universal had put a provision in the budget for a road trip and [Nick Frost and I] thought, ‘Free holiday!’ and we took off on this road trip from LA to Denver stopping at all the places we go in the film. We went to Las Vegas and then went out by Area 51 and then we went out to Utah, into Wyoming and ended up at Devil’s Tower. And we went off on this trip and we thought, ‘We’ll write the script. The trip will inspire us. We’ll be on the road, we’ll be writing.’ But we realized really quickly that we had to just look out the window. And it was quite right to do that. What we’d do is just sit in what we called the Chewie seat, which is the co-pilot seat and just watch America go by and just take loads and loads of photographs and drink it all in. And a lot of what we experienced on that trip we put into the film: the bird hitting the window, the meatheads in the dinner…not the aliens obviously. I am astounded to think we could have ever written it without taking that trip.
Q: How long was the original director’s cut?
Mottola: It’s about as long as Shoah. And it’s a lot like Shoah. Just not as funny.
On religion in the film.
Mottola: that kind of thing makes the studio uncomfortable.
Pegg: But the studio…we cut the crucifixion scene.
Q: What was the crucifixion scene?
Pegg: We nailed Paul to the cross. Actually, he nailed himself. But he put the last one in using his mind powers. […] I’m sure a normal Christian could find a way to fit extra terrestrials into their worldview, but we needed to make it so that one moment of empirical proof could totally change her worldview. So we made [Kristin Wiig] a creationist. And then we could make a lot of jokes about swearing, which Kristin does so well.
On a sequel to Paul
Pegg: If we could think of a story that was absolutely justifiable, that was worth doing, I would do it again, but for that reason, so I could have that experience again and enjoy working with people, the camaraderie and the friendship. Nick and I have this idea that we had out on the way to Area 51 that was really funny. It was like oh, this could be great. It would cost an absolute fucking fortune. If it involved more than one Paul, it would mean that we’d have to have twice that budget again. The idea was it was called Pauls. Again, it was like From Dusk Til Shaun, that title is so good we have to make that film.
On the geekiness of the film
Pegg: With this one, because we were making a different kind of movie, we were making a movie where the main special effect cost a lot of movie, you know millions and millions of dollars, we couldn’t just expect everyone to come to us and get the joke. We had to make it a little more inclusive, broaden it out a little bit. There are jokes in there that one or two people will get, that only one or two people will get but we couldn’t just rely on everybody being as into shit as we are. We had to invite other people to the party this time, which was fun to do in a way. We had to reeducate ourselves a little bit. But there is always room for a very specific reference. There’s always room for jokes that only one or two people in the world will get because I like to think of those two people getting it and just feeling orgasmic with self-pride.
I think there are less references in Paul than people think. The film is less about references. The film itself is somewhat of a reference because it accepts the existence of its primogenitors. We didn’t set out to make something totally original. It’s like; this film is the child of other films and we’re saying we know that. It’s a postmodern film in that respect. It is absolutely a film that is aware of its forbearers. But there’s a difference between referencing and just copying stuff. We don’t just have a list of films that we wanted. If something happens in the script…I have to give credit to Greg [Mottola] for the [Star Wars] cantina music in the bar. It felt like that’s the way it would be. if Graham and Clive walked into a bar that was shady, that’s the way they would see it. ‘Oh my god, it’s like the cantina!”
Mottola: But in reality something else was playing entirely.
Pegg: yeah, like Billy Ray Cyrus or something. But the film is almost like how they experience their lives. Ever since Spaced, which is very much about two people almost recounting their lives and using popular culture as a metaphor for their lives, Paul is a little bit like that. But there is a difference between referencing and just recreating. You see those films that are just like…what are those called?
Q: Epic Movie?
Pegg: Yeah. They just recreate a scene from another movie and that’s supposed to be funny?
Q: Well, people fart in their versions.
Pegg: Yeah. There is more farting. Whereas we didn’t want to get laughs like that in Paul. It was more like a layer of intertextuality if I can get really up myself. But I guess it’s quite nowish. It’s like things happen and then the mainstream catches up to it. And I think the whole of nerd culture or geek culture or whatever it’s called, which has now been assimilated by the mainstream now that marketing people have realized that it means money, even all the big noise this summer is comic book movies which traditionally were very niche markets. It’s partly to do with the fact that we as human being have a tendency toward infantile regression and it’s partly because that’s how society works.
Q: Speaking as a nerd, is that a bad thing? Watching Spaced it was like seeing someone who’s into all the things I am.
Pegg: It’s like getting into a band that gets big, isn’t it? There’s a little bit of selfishness there. Why does everyone have to get in to it? But so long as it doesn’t get watered down. We all know it from seeing our favorite comic books put on screen. It’s like when the first Batman came around; Tim Burton’s Batman. It’s like, ‘Don’t kill the fucking Joker in the first film!’ that’s like a relationship that goes on for years. That’s like a love affair that goes on for 50 years! And they threw him off a fucking bell free. So when prized properties…like Spider-Man 3, when there are ones that are mishandled, you feel like they’ve stopped talking to us. And you’ve also got to let shit go, I guess.
On the way genre is represented in the mainstream
Pegg: I suppose you have to be true to them; If you’re going to do it, you should do it properly and not dilute stuff or mess with it. Running zombies, now that’s messing with a genre in my mind. Running zombies is like souping something up because somehow it’s not good enough. It’s well known that I don’t like running zombies because the brilliance of the zombie, if I can get into this, I can’t believe I am…is that it’s essentially a villain who is utterly sympathetic. Zombies are tragic. They’re people. They’re desperate accidents that have happened. They’re walking representations of our own death. They’re the manifestation of our absolute worst fear walking and there’s something kind of pathetic about them and awful and yet they’re the bad guys. The example I always use is that there could be one in this room now and we could lock the doors and we could just avoid it for hours and hours and hours: just walk around, push it over. But eventually you would have to go to sleep and then it would kill you. That’s death. We can avoid death, we can eat healthy, we can do all this stuff and then suddenly when it’s screaming and running at you, it’s like, ‘What the fuck?’
Mottola: My feeling about genre is it allows us to tell stories we wouldn’t normally want to sit through otherwise. Film noir shows people behaving really terribly in the most venal human way. I think that if you just told a straight drama where people acted that way…I like those movies actually, but a lot of people would just run screaming from the theater and they’d only show at festivals. Turning it into a mystery story or turning it into a horror story, horror stories deal with the same stuff that a Bergman film will deal with but it just twists in a way that just makes the medicine go down a little better. I think it opens the audience up to feeling all these things we repress. That’s the genius of it, just the way comedy can open you up, a horror film can open you up too. These things that scare us on a spinal evolutionary level, now we can actually explore and share with each other and say, ‘Oh, I actually am afraid of death chasing me around the room very slowl’. For me, the big thing was werewolf films. I always had werewolf film nightmares and still do to this day because whatever it is, that Jungian thing… intuitively you sense when people cheat in the genres because they’re not paying attention to what actually gives it power. So fast zombies, just make it a movie about fast vampires.
Q: Does shooting Star Trek 2 in the fall affect your plans with Edgar? (This interview took place before the project was pushed back).
Pegg: Well, what Edgar and I are trying to do is fit in some writing time before I start Star Trek. We’d like to be able to sit down long enough to be able to maybe even get a draft out even. Because I think this time we’ll be able to hit the ground running. We’ve written two films together. We procrastinated a lot on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. We watched a lot of films. We luxuriated slightly. I think with this one, because we’re match fit, I think we can do a little bit more on the [makes a noise and typing gesture] and write as good a script but do it slightly more efficiently.
Q: Do you know what it’s about?
Pegg: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Q: Can you tell us?
Pegg: Of course not!
What Pegg could say about his next film with Wright
Pegg: One thing Edgar and I have discussed is that we’re not going to just do what we’ve done before. Even though we want this film to be like Shaun of the Dead times Hot Fuzz, we don’t want to be ‘the genre guys’. We didn’t set out to do zombie movies. We just wanted to make a zombie movie, and we wanted to make it in light of the fact that most British films were romantic comedies. We thought it would be funny to make a zombie movie and a romantic comedy at the same time. I think people want to figure us out and they want to know who we are and that’s not it. So we’re not going to do, ‘Okay, let’s do cowboys next’.
Paul is in stores on DVD, Blu-Ray and Vulcan Mind Meld now.