Finishing a trilogy is never easy. Once your first film is successful, expectations rise exponentially with each following entry. When your first two films are the massive cult hits “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” hopes for the final film are as high as for any mainstream blockbuster. Edgar Wright can handle the pressure. The director and co-writer of both films as well as this week’s “The World’s End” has proven again and again his ability to create new, original concepts within preexisting genre confines.
In “Shaun of the Dead,” he brought new life to zombie horror by infusing a heartfelt comedy into a bloody last stand. With “Hot Fuzz,” he took buddy cop action to a whole new level — well, really, he took it to a deeper, meta level already within itself. Now, the 39-year-old UK-native is breaking into science fiction via a pub crawl in “The World’s End.”
Indiewire sat down with a chatty Wright in New York to discuss the film buff’s incredible knowledge of pop culture, how he handles the pressures brought on by an expectant, ever-increasing fan base, and whether or not “The World’s End” is also the end of these three men’s collaborative efforts.
You’ve done what’s next to impossible these days. You completed a trilogy made up of equally excellent parts.
Thank you very much. That means a lot to me. We’re very proud of the movie. People will sort of say, “Are you sad it’s all over?” And I’ll say, “No, it’s just a relief that we did it.” (laughs) I literally finished the film in early July. This is now the 16th city on this press tour, and I had to go to France and do a little bit, and I thought I was literally going to collapse this whole month. We started doing prep in July of last year, and it’s been one of the most intense kind of years. It was a tough shoot, but I’m really, really proud of the film.
You can absolutely see all that on the screen. Obviously, you have an extensive knowledge of film. If you can’t tell from your movies, you can certainly hear it on Doug Loves Movies during your guest appearances on the podcast. At what stage in the production do your various homages make their way into the film?
This one was a bit different, really. In “Hot Fuzz,” I guess it’s the most meta of the three because it’s about the difference between the reality of the job and the fantasy of the movies. This one, it was less like that. There would only be a couple of ways that would factor into it. In a way, the sci-fi element in this movie is inspired both by books and films and TV that I grew up with. Like specifically the ones that would be on TV a lot when I was a kid, before I even knew what the word genre meant.
In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, post World War II, during the Cold War basically, there was a particular kind of sci-fi that would manifest itself in these incredibly paranoid, doomy sci-fi films. You know, “all is lost” and usually it would end on quite a bleak note. Whether it’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Village of the Damned,” “Invaders from Mars,” or on TV like “Doctor Who,” “The Avengers,” “The Prisoner.” And most of them are great metaphors of taking your fears and making them kind of like flesh in science fiction. All the great science fiction movies are metaphors for some kind of real fear rather than a fantastical one, and this movie is no different in a way.
So for Gary (Simon Pegg), the film is about growing up or the loss of identity. “Oh, if I stop being the high school rebel and settle down, have I lost my identity?” The movie is sort of about a man escaping from therapy and triggering his own intervention, first on a social level and then on a galactic level, but that first intervention when they all turn on him and tell him some hard truths, his response is to say, “You’re jealous. I’m free to do what I want, and you’re all slaves.” And slaves means robots, so Gary thinks, “Hey, I’m the last kind of rebel. You guys are all robots.” But then that fear that has manifested itself in terms of, “Hey. Wait a second. Maybe everybody else is a robot, and I’m the last human.” That’s the nice thing about doing these movies. It’s a relationship movie first and foremost, and then the fears in the characters manifest themselves as a fantastical threat, in this case as an alien invasion.
But, you know, I didn’t rewatch any of those movies because they were all things I grew up on. In a way, because the whole film is about nostalgia, the threat is more nostalgic. It’s more recalling 50s, 60s, and 70s sci-fi. Even the baddies themselves are like action figures. They rip apart like action figures. You can pop their heads off. The UK version of G.I. Joe was called Action Man. It was like a taller version of G.I. Joe, but very similar. You could twist the heads off, and take the arms off, much like the kid in “Toy Story.” Sid? Is it Sid?
The little boy who dismembered all of his toys to create Frankenstein monsters of his own? Yup. That’s Sid.
The one thing I did do — some of the actors playing the baddies are very young. I didn’t even show this to the main actors. This was just for the actors who played the blanks (robots). I made a little reel of great robot performances. I showed them some clips of Yul Brynner in “Westworld,” and Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2.” “Village of the Damned” and…what else is in there? Well, this is more about the choreographer (Litza Bixler) and stuff, but I like movies where there’s sort of an amorphous force. Sort of like older B movies like “Carnival of Souls” or there’s a great film called “Messiah of Evil” where there’s an amazing scene in the cinema when one person suddenly realizes the whole crowd is against them. Especially when you’ve got a film where a whole town turns, I wanted to take some images that were nightmarish for me as a kid and stylize them more.
With “Shaun of the Dead,” we did movement classes with the zombies so we could get them all to do the same thing. Sort of give them coaching on zombie performances. On this one there was a choreographer for the whole movie. You’ll notice everyone else in the town is always walking in step with each other. There’s that scene where they’re walking to the whiskey bar, and the entire town is walking in step. Then there’s that scene when they’re in the trailer and all the blanks are running down the street. They’re all running in step. So I liked this feeling that the whole town is against you. I wanted to synchronize everybody, choreograph this whole mob, and it looks terrifying.
All three of the movies in the Cornetto trilogy very much deal with Pegg and Frost’s relationship with one another. Their friendship.
But in three very different stages.
“Shaun of the Dead” is like an old relationship going south. Where it’s like, “I kind of need to get rid of my best friend.” “Hot Fuzz” is like a first date, and this one is like post-divorce. “Aw, they broke up a long time ago, and there’s bad blood.” Or one remembers and the other one doesn’t.
They’re all very much love stories with different difficulties and complexities. How did that aspect of the trilogy come about? Obviously the three of you remained very close throughout making them.
I think it’s more obvious in “Shaun” and “World’s End.” If you take away the cops element in “Hot Fuzz,” it’s about somebody who’s obsessed with work and somebody who’s obsessed with fantasy, and then shows how the two can meet somewhere in the middle. In this one, it’s about personal demons and old friends trying to work through issues. I think a lot of people have somebody in their life like Gary — someone that you were close to when you were younger that you had to cut off, or it could be a family member.
Aside from our own personal experiences, you think about bands sometimes because you always hear stories. When a band splits up, there’s always been a rift between two people who were formerly best friends and then something really bad happens. Then that was that. You’d think, “I wonder why they broke up.” Then you’d hear stories and, like, the lead singer broke into the guitarists house and stole his TV and sold it for drugs. So that’s the end of that band. Or the story of Syd Barrett in Pink Floyd and him being the star of that and then having drug problems and them having to let him go. So then there’s this heartbreaking story in the 70s that when Pink Floyd had then gone on and become very, very successful without him that, seven years later, he turns up at a recording session and they don’t recognize him anymore. There’s this story of Syd Barrett turning up at EMI, bald, and saying, “What do you want me to play?” The other band members were crying because they felt guilty they had to let him go.
So we think about things like that, but a lot of this one is from personal experience. Even a character like Gary, me and Simon had a lot of compassion for him because sometimes for characters you take your worst aspects and imagine what you could be like if you let some of your darker side take over.
I thought that was one of the more remarkable things about the movie. You see this guy at the beginning of the movie, and you don’t really like him. Audiences can have trouble with these kind of obnoxious protagonists, but you and Simon were able to pull this character out of it and get us rooting for him by the end.
We wanted him to be OK. His mission in the movie is an extremely wrong-headed one, and if anything, it’s a cautionary tale. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing because you should not try to turn back the clock. There’s nothing to be gained by going backwards. Once that starts to happen, and especially when booze becomes involved, you’re on a sort of hellish spiral. So they sort of end up in the depths of the Earth, and how are our heroes going to get out of this? In a way, that’s the thing. Our hero’s on a spiral and you want him to get out of it and get back up.
It’s such a tougher challenge when you create a character who is unlikable because when they get to that point, some people would just want them to stay down there.
You see a lot of the man-child comedies, and even the funny ones have a glorification of that. If there’s a film about, “Hey! He’s a big kid!” Then in the second act he has to learn to grow up, but also, “You know what? It’s OK to be a big kid.” I think in this one we created a situation where there’s no way back. There’s no way to return to the status quo, and we’re going to have an ending where we change the entire planet forever.
In your previous films, you really work to foreshadow what’s to come early on in each film. Now, though, you’ve got a devoted fan following will will be on the lookout for these tips. They’re an incredibly passionate group. A friend of mine, Andrew Gernigin, drove more than four hours to get to a theater showing “Hot Fuzz” on its opening weekend. He knew how important it was for the film to make money in order for you to keep making films at all, and he goes to maybe two films a year. So you’ve got these type of fans who are that devoted to your films. Does this alter your approach to making them at all?
We like doing that. I think on this one there is a lot of stuff going on in the first half hour. A couple things are fairly obvious and others are super subtle. A lot of people who’ve seen it twice, are like, “Oh! I totally spotted things. Now I know where the characters are going to end up.”
Well, it’s always easier the second time.
In a way, I know people have caught onto that so in this one the setups are more subtle, which is a dangerous balancing act. You can enjoy it completely at surface level, but there are lots of other slight setups. Without giving anything away, in the first bit of voiceover, Martin Freeman’s character tells you something that’s going to happen to him in the end. Somebody who worked on the movie, who had seen the movie about 10 times, was at a Q&A, and he said, “I can’t believe I didn’t see that. They literally say what’s going to happen to him!” The people reading this obviously haven’t seen it yet, but all of the pubs have relevance to what’s going to happen in that scene. They’re like tarot cards. The whole idea is the names. The most obvious being The World’s End. On top of that, the prologue is basically a prophecy of what’s going to happen later, like beat for beat. I like this idea of a prophecy foretold. Everything that happens the first night is kind of going to happen 20 years later. I really like doing that stuff. Maybe in this one it’s a bit more subtle in “Shaun” or “Hot Fuzz,” but maybe that’s because fans are on to this and you want it to have deeper cuts. I would hope the people who enjoy the film see it more than once because you’ll totally enjoy it on the first watch, but you’ll get so other things out of it a second time. In fact, critics who have seen it have said, “Oh, I totally spotted that line the second time around.” It’s a nice thing.
I can only go on when I would watch movies that then became my favorite movies. Like “Raising Arizona” is a movie that I saw and as soon as I finished watching it, I knew I loved it, and I thought, “I think there’s more to see in that movie. I need to watch it again.” [The] horror movie “Don’t Look Now” is one of my favorite films. One of the reasons is that when you watch it the second time all of the omens are there for what’s going to happen to these characters and it makes it even more terrifying, knowing the fates. “Raising Arizona” has so many omens in the first half hour that keep occurring throughout. So I was thinking about something we’ve done in all of the movies. There’s that thing in “Shaun of the Dead” where Nick Frost explains the plot of the film ahead of time. So we sort of wanted to do that, but we wanted to spread it around so that there’s lots of little key [clues]. It’s good. I like that. Hopefully it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Is there anything you can say about “Ant-Man” or any plans you have to reunite with these guys [Pegg and Frost] now that the Cornetto trilogy has been completed?
I’d love to, but there’s not much to say about “Ant-Man” because I basically haven’t started it yet. But I would love to do another film with Simon and Nick, so I hope your friend goes and sees the movie lots of times so we can make another one.
“The World’s End” hits theaters Friday.