Interview: Simon Pegg Talks ‘The World’s End’, Fandom, and More at SDCC ’13

By July 26, 2013
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Approachability has always been the cornerstone of Simon Pegg’s appeal – and not just any sort of approachability, either. Combined with subject matter that validates the pop culture idiosyncrasies of its audience, as in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (among many others), Pegg quickly became an on-screen proxy for the earnest nerddom that we all possess but seldom feel comfortable opening up about. Remarkably, in The World’s End, Pegg reunites with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost for a tale that takes an incisive look at all of the things we use to create value in our lives – and even how sometimes they can paralyze us.

Among the events scheduled at Comic-Con around the trio’s latest film was a breakfast on Saturday morning where Pegg, Wright and Frost shared breakfast with select members of the press. In addition to talking about his own fandom, Pegg explored the foundations of the film, the structure that he and his collaborators use to create emotional meaning from their postmodern influences, and the larger forces that drive his creativity.

I understand Bill Paxton sat next to you at the screening and at the end he said, “That was f*cking awesome.”

Pegg: He was great to sit next to because he was really vocal. The way he was responding to it was really nice because you’re always trying to listen out for how people react when you’re watching a film that you’re in or that you’ve made, and he was the best person to sit next to. It was great and it was great to give him a little tap on the arm when Nick references Aliens. He was really chuffed. It was extraordinary.

How involved in the post-production process are you after co-writing and acting in it?

Pegg: Consulting. I’ll go and see Edgar in the edit a lot and I’m always shown cuts before it’s locked. Once I finish acting I kind of have to go onto my next thing because otherwise I’ll just be tapping my fingers. So I was making a film called Hector and the Search for Happiness, watching the film in two minute bursts in South Africa because the internet was so awful, trying to see how it was going but I really trust our post team. Basically what happens, they do all the work and then they show me and I can say, “Maybe try that, maybe try that” and then they go away and work more. So I’m involved but not like they are. I’m not in the trenches.

We don’t see a lot of movies that end somewhere so completely different from where they start. Was that important to you – we won’t spoil where it ends up – but that it ends somewhere completely different?

Pegg: Yeah, we wanted for you to be watching the film and thinking, “Wait a minute, was this the same film with the kids at the school at the beginning?” Yeah, because I think the re-establishment of the status quo is a device which might anesthetize audiences a bit, might make them feel a bit nice when they leave the theater, but ultimately it makes you forget the film. When we go to the movies often, we see normality and then we see it disrupted, then we see it return to normal and that’s why we leave kind of thinking, “Oh, that was nice.” When in actual fact, sometimes it’s good to upset the status quo completely and leave it undone. Maybe boy doesn’t get girl. Maybe man doesn’t save the world. Then you think about it a bit more. You walk away and you question it and you start thinking about what would be the alternative to what happened? How would the ending be different if they’d gone along with the plan or if they hadn’t gone along with the plan? I think it’s more challenging to an audience to not give them necessarily what their comfort zone wants. And we didn’t want to welch on the title. Right from the beginning, we said let’s go through with it.

Fans are expecting a certain dynamic, but you and Nick are the opposite of in previous films. How do you balance Gary King being funny and tragic?

Pegg: Selfishly, I wanted to be the overtly comic one in this and also because Nick had been the overtly comic one in the other two, we wanted to give him the chance to be, for at least part of the film, to be the straight guy. And I wanted to make Gary as maddening and irritating and difficult to like as possible because I knew ultimately there was an excuse for it. I knew ultimately that there was a reason why he’s the way he is and when the audience find it out, they might think, “Oh, I’ve been a bit harsh.” And also, it’s just a lot of fun to be such a dick. As an actor, it’s a gift and I adore Gary. I think he’s amazing.

Did you make everyone say “Hail to the King” when you enter a room?

Pegg: Yeah, I knew guys like that who were the absolute most popular boy, they were the best looking, they were in a band, they were the lead singer of that band, they got all the girls and then they never quite moved on past that. That glory was so intense that anything that came subsequently was unfulfilling and that ate away at them so that they started to live in the past and then eventually just became shadows of who they were in every way, all their potential all lost. And it’s really sad. I wanted Gary to be at once maddening and lovable and dickish and [indistinct].

As a fellow geek and nerd, what are you excited to see at Comic-Con?

Pegg: I don’t get to see any of it. It’s work for me. We did press all day yesterday, I can’t go out on the floor unless I wear a Boba Fett helmet and that’s hot. There’s lots of panels I’d love to have gone to see. I’d like to have gone to see the “Game of Thrones” guys. There loads here, obviously, of course there’s loads here I’d love to see but I don’t get a chance to see it. It’s something like being in prison when I’m here because we got here and we went to our hotel room and we sat in our hotel room because we didn’t really leave and then we went to our World’s End party but we were in a little cabana, it was a little room we couldn’t really leave. Unless you want to go out and just constantly take photos and meet people which can be nice. Last night we were at a party and it was fine. I was there, that’s what I was there to do and it was lovely. No one’s ever anything but lovely. For you at the center of it, it becomes a little bit exasperating after a while so if you don’t want to engage with it, you have to step back. It’s a shame, I’m not complaining but one of the side effects of my job is I can’t enjoy Comic-Con anymore. I need to think of a better costume, cool and – –

Just tell them you’re dressed as Simon Pegg.

Pegg: Yes, well I cosplayed as a Boba Fett Shaun. I had a Shaun of the Dead T-shirt, this guy gave me this helmet in New Zealand, it’s a red and white Boba Fett helmet with a cricket bat antenna and it says, “You’ve got red on you” on the side. I got my assistant back home to send me a Shaun of the Dead tie T-shirt. I thought I’ll go as some guy dressed as a zombie hunter, but no one’s going to [think], “He’d never do that. He’d have to be an idiot to dress like that if it really was Simon Pegg” and there he is, hiding in the light. I’m quite low, low energy.

Did you ever think of just doing a Shaun costume so good no one would believe it was you?

Pegg: There was a guy at the screening last night who looked a bit like me and was dressed as Shaun of the Dead. It was Michael Sheen. I had to think of something better. Maybe Spawn.

Has it carried over to Hot Fuzz and do you expect The World’s End?

Pegg: I’ve seen them, less so with Hot Fuzz because it’s a harder costume to make. Shaun of the Dead is so easy. You need a white shirt and a red tie, and some ink. A cricket bat, not paddle. We don’t use a paddle. It’s a cricket bat. A lot of people make their own cricket bats which is kinda cool, so Edgar and I, when we were devising Shaun, we thought, “Let’s make a character that you can draw really easily, real quickly.” For all of them, you kind of wanted to make them, like if you draw a guy with sunglasses on, you’d know it was Nicholas Angel. Gary even with his long coat, immediately it’s a visually arresting personality. Each one of them has that because we always want to create characters that you can just sketch very quickly.

Is that from being a filmmaker, or going back to being a comic book nerd?

Pegg: It’s probably a bit of both actually. That’s just aesthetics. That has nothing to do with the richness of the character. Something that’s very visually recognizable straight away. Yeah, that might be from being comic book fans. Edgar used to draw storyboards himself for stuff, and he always used to draw me like Harry Osborn with this little widow’s peak. That kind of easy to sketch when you’re doing storyboards idea, that’s probably the reason for it.

Is there still a challenge to introducing Nerd Do Well and World’s End to people outside of Comic-Con? Do they get where you’re coming from?

Pegg: Yes, but probably on a not so microcosmic level. The thing is about our people, the people that are here, the people that seek out this kind of stuff, they have an attention to detail which is a non-mainstream thing. Not everybody looks at stuff the way we do but we make things for people that do. We never assume that people aren’t going to do that because then you’re underestimating your audience. You have to think of the cleverest, most cineastic, nerdy person when you’re writing because there will be someone who gets that and it means the f***ing world to them. With “Spaced” we always thought, if one person gets this joke, it’s going to make them feel so good it’s worth a billion people saying, “Yeah, it’s okay.” I would much rather make a small group of people very, very happy than a large group of people lightly entertained. That doesn’t mean other people who don’t apply that level of studious observation shouldn’t be entertained as well. The film should follow that anyone else would enjoy it too on a different level. Maybe not on such an extreme level but it should be entertaining and funny to people who won’t go so far into it. I just like to assume everyone is kind of smart. I don’t like this pandering to dumbness that we have. Because as human beings we often like the path of least resistance and we kind of go for the easy ride, myself included, we don’t always like to be challenged. We like to watch fireworks, not drama or real art. I think we should be forced to. I think we owe it to ourselves to keep challenging ourselves and make things interesting because the dumber things get, the more stupid, brash, unaffecting they get, then that’s how it will get.

Does that play into the ending of World’s End? If you’d focus tested that…

Pegg: No, if we’d got people in, if they’re there to watch the end, then that’s your problem. The focus group blows my f***ing mind sometimes. “People want this” well, f*** that. I’ll tell you what you want. Couldn’t it be this? Couldn’t it be that? It just gets so anodyne. Things get so ironed out by focus group testing because it’s just all about someone who has no connection to the artistic process whatsoever wants. It’s not about what you want.

Which order do you apply that specificity, those small references? Do you make sure people can access the emotion first and then build in references? Or build out from the tiny idea?

Pegg: It starts with the idea and also, there aren’t really any references in this film that we’ve made overtly. This film isn’t about “Oh, spot that. That’s from that.” because we got sick of people saying, “Oh, what’s that from?” when it was our f***ing idea. They just assumed we were being referential. I think any time, any kind of referencing you do, it has to come organically from the story. You can’t think, “Oh, I really want to draw attention to this here. Let’s crowbar it in somewhere.” Always with “Spaced,” “Spaced” was very referential. The idea was that Tim and Daisy lived their life through popular culture. It was like they were telling the story of their lives and they’d say, “Ooh, it was like The Matrix” or “ooh, it was like this” and that’s how they would explain it to people, so we literally made their lives like that. So it wouldn’t be like, “Oh, we want to make a reference to The Matrix.” We’d be going, “Okay, so they’ve got to get in to get this thing” and we might look at it, “Oh, I know, it’s like…” but then it comes from the story, not the other way around. We just never assume the audience isn’t capable of getting stuff. The World’s End, and this isn’t a commercial thing. This isn’t oh, we’ll get loads of box office if people see it again and again. I don’t care really. I want to be able to make another film so I want it to do well, but I want people to see The World’s End lots and lots of times and still be getting stuff on a seventh or eighth watch. There are little things that are tiny little things throughout the whole film. Not just the pub names and the tarot card thing, but references to all the characters about Oliver being all mouth and in the end he is just a mouth. Stuff like that that you’ll pick up on later and later because you owe it to the audience to make the film bear up to repeated viewing. We live in an age where we can just stick films on over and over again. We didn’t used to. We used to watch a film in the movies and then maybe it’ll be on TV. Then we can tape it and watch it and pause the advert, the commercials. Now we can own it and literally watch it again straight afterwards. We can pause it, we can zoom in on it, we can screen grab it. Films need to bear up, if you’re going to give the audience something that’s worth paying for, they need to bear up to that level of scrutiny and that’s always been very important to us because I like doing that. I like watching a film and going, “Oh, I didn’t get that the first time.” If you put a punchline before a setup, you don’t get the joke until you watch the film a second time because then you’ve seen the setup, then you see the punchline again and you go, “Oh, I get it.” You can’t get the joke unless you see the film more than once, so we do that a lot and that’s just because that’s what we like.

When you incorporate things we will recognize, like Point Break and Bad Boys II, how do you determine those? It would’ve been easier to do more obvious cop movies.

Pegg: Edgar and I like both those movies for different reasons. Point Break is a brilliant film. It’s brilliant because it’s made by a woman so it has a very neat view of masculinity. There’s a detachment to the machismo which just focuses it so much more, it’s brilliant. Bad Boys II is the opposite of that. It’s just batsh*t stupid and the machismo is totally just shameless and male, and it’s incredible for that reason. It’s so operatically daft so we like the idea that Danny liked this film that was just ridiculously to type and also this film that was actually covertly clever. Point Break is just a great film. I love it. It’s brilliant.

And perfect for the relationship between those characters.

Pegg: Absolutely, yeah, yeah, totally. It wasn’t Dirty Harry. There were other films it could’ve been but these ones seemed to be the right representative. We knew that people would go, “Oh yeah, Point Break, that’s a great movie.” The best moment for us for returning to the cinema at the screenings, it’s the Jaws moment, the [indistinct] thing with the eye that Spielberg used to come back in. For Shaun it was when Mary fell on the pole and she gets up for the first time. In Hot Fuzz it was Danny firing the gun into the air when he can’t shoot his dad in the end. In this it’s the Cornetto wrapper. That’s the moment to come in and hear the audience get excited. We knew Point Break had the power to create that moment because people do love that movie.

After three movies and a TV show, have you guys thought of collaborating on comics or web series, in a different space with different constraints?

SP: Yeah, but we’re still very focused on what we’re doing in terms of films. And TV as well, we’re kind of thinking perhaps towards – – I think a lot of the serious acting, a lot of the serious subject matter is migrating towards television and as much as it pains me that the cinematic experience could be fading, and I hope it doesn’t, you look at the amount of so-called film actors that work in TV now, that’s because that’s where a lot of the serious acting is taking place. If you don’t want to play a superhero or some kind of arguably juvenile – – I read an essay on America by Jean Beaudrillard when I was at University and it was all about the infantilization of society and about how we are kept young by being fed – this is a very contentious subject here – arguably juvenile stuff. It keeps us young because it keeps us in touch with our childhood, makes us more pliable, makes us a bit easier to control. It was all about the way that it suits the dominant ideology, late capitalism to keep us in a state of arrested development because it makes us easier to convince to be consumers and stuff. Here we are.

The World’s End arrives in theaters on August 23rd, 2013.

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Todd Gilchrist is a film critic with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies, and IGN.