Writer-director Edgar Wright and his filmmaking partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost met while working together on the British TV series Spaced, and while they’ve made feature films without each other (Wright wrote and directed Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; Frost and Pegg co-wrote and co-starred in Paul), they’re primarily known for their two previous collaborations, 2004’s Shaun Of The Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz. The new The World’s End completes a rough trilogy: The films’ stories are entirely unrelated, but all three are pop-culture-laden genre comedies about friendships between men, and characters struggling to preserve their rigid forms of self-identification, in spite of tremendous pressure from the outside world. (The films are jokingly called “The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” fusing Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors Trilogy” with Cornetto ice cream, which makes a cameo in all three films, in flavors appropriate to the film’s plots.)
The World’s End, co-written by Pegg and Wright and starring Pegg and Frost, centers on Gary King, an eternal adolescent who aged out of his role decades ago. While his former best friends (played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine) have moved on to careers and families, Gary is still a selfish, youth-fixated ninny, obsessed with the best night of his life, a 1990 evening when the five friends tried and failed to drink at 12 pubs on the fabled “Golden Mile” of their small hometown. When he talks the other four men into trying to re-create that night and hit all 12 pubs, they find their former home has been “Starbucked” into bland, uniform conformity, for surprising reasons that become clear as the movie bounces off The Stepford Wives and Village Of The Damned en route to apocalypse. In this interview, Wright, Pegg, and Frost give away the broad details of some of the film’s big twists, but also discuss why those twists aren’t as important as they seem in a film that’s really about friendship.
The Dissolve: After so many films, how has your working partnership changed, and how does it work these days?
Simon Pegg: It’s evolved, hasn’t it? We’ve finessed it, I guess, as we’ve gone.
Edgar Wright: When we wrote Shaun Of The Dead—Focus [Features] just posted the screenplay for the first time. We’d never put it online. But when we did that in 2001, we had both written before. Simon had written for TV, and I had written… Well, I hesitate to say that A Fistful Of Fingers had a screenplay. But when we did Shaun, we tried to approach it quite mathematically. And we read some of those books, like the Syd Field book [Screenplay: The Foundations Of Screenwriting] and stuff, and then we tried to apply the act-structure graph to favorite films of ours, which was quite interesting—things as diverse as The Birds and Gremlins. Maybe The Birds and Gremlins are not that diverse. [Laughs.]
Pegg: Back To The Future, stuff like that. Some scripts that were ingeniously structured in terms of how they set things up and paid them off, so the audience saw the ammunition.
“We never underestimate our audience. We take pains to make sure that they know we consider them to be intelligent, because otherwise, we wouldn't make the kind of films we want to make.”
Wright: I think for Shaun and The World’s End, the writing was quite similar, in terms of—we had a sort of plot structure, but what we piled into it was lots of personal experience. And I think maybe this one, even more than Shaun, is autobiographical, or there are a lot of elements of real things that happened that spark whole plotlines. Hot Fuzz was slightly different. We worked on it really hard, but we actually did research on that one. We interviewed lots and lots of cops. This one was more like, we knew what the story was going to be. It’s supposed to be in the style of ’50s, ’60s, ’70s science-fiction movies where the genre element is just a metaphor for how you’re feeling about something.
We feel that bittersweet disconnect from our hometowns, because it’s that sad realization of the passage of time that you can do nothing about, both architecturally and socially. You’re literally alienated from your hometown, so that’s what the movie becomes about. So we had this kind of plot structure. We’d had the story idea back when we were premièring Hot Fuzz, and then when we got back together to write it, after chewing on it for a long, long time, all of the personal experience and all of the elements just kind of came out in a big confessional-like weekend.
Pegg: Yeah, I don’t think we could have written it when we had the idea. The idea, when we first floated it, and we back-and-forthed a bit, was simply, “Going back to your hometown, it doesn’t feel the same, oh, it’s because it’s alien robots.” That was almost a flippant, like, “What could be the most different thing that was there?” And then when we came together again and had our first little brainstorming weekend, which is what we did with Hot Fuzz as well—we go to the same place, a little hotel in the west of England, and just sort of sat in the conference room and talked and talked and talked—that’s when the idea of what The Network was to become took shape. Initially it started out as this interstellar Facebook, you know, all these different planets that were banded together and were trying to reshape the universe, and that fed very naturally into the idea of the corporatization of High Street. That is like an alien invasion writ small.
Wright: We thought it would be a nice, sharp twist if you take a character who a lot of people know and recognize, or they can even recognize themselves in it—it’s almost like, what could have been? The person who peaks at 18, that high-school burnout. It’s cool to flip the bird at the teacher when you’re 18, but not so much at 40. And yet, when it really comes down to it, as far as Gary’s concerned, his friends who are responsible adults with kids and wives—they’re the slaves. “I’m the rebel, and you guys are the slaves.” And then they meet some real slaves. We wanted to do something where we showed both sides if the argument.
You know, most of the audience, at first, you’d recognize Gary as completely pathetic, like somebody who’s almost off the grid, to the point where he’s dressing in his 1990 clothes. But then when it really comes down to it, whose side are you going to be on? You’ve got to be on the humans’ side. So we really liked mixing all these archetypes together. If we had made this as a straight comedy-drama, you could have made a great Mike Leigh or Ken Loach-type film. But by making it in the comedy vein, you’ll actually reach a different audience who might never see the Ken Loach film. And no disrespect to Ken Loach or Mike Leigh; we’re huge fans. But it’s about reaching different people.
And one of the things we tried to do with this film, and with Shaun and Hot Fuzz—I think maybe more with Shaun than Hot Fuzz, because the middle one, not many people are in the police. Although, ironically, police officers absolutely love that movie. [Laughs.] And consider it reasonably accurate. But we wanted to make something where the characters resonated, and the darker elements give you something to chew on. Because even the funniest comedies—let alone the terrible ones—you might laugh for 100 minutes in the cinema, but have forgotten about it by the time you got to the parking lot. It’s fun once you’re in the theater, and then it doesn’t stay rattling around in your brain any longer than that. Most of the responses I’ve had to this film are from people who email me a couple days later and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking…” [Laughs.] Which is nice. Which is great.
The Dissolve: Terry Gilliam said the same thing about Brazil—that so many funny movies don’t last past the credits in viewers’ minds, but the great comedy-dramas leave shrapnel behind.
Pegg: I think you’re right. I think comedy is quite reactionary at times, because it can upset the status quo. Going right back to medieval times, that whole notion of Carnival—you turn a society upside down. The priests would dress up as normal people, and you have this day where—
Wright: You went deep-cut with that one. I’m very impressed. [Laughs.]
Pegg: —and then society would go back to normal the next day. It was a means of releasing stress. But ultimately, it didn’t change anything. And I think comedy, as a force of change, has to upset the status quo, but not put it back together again, so you’re left with a sense of unease. And that’s always been quite important to us. Not that our films are a mode of social change. [Laughs.] But we do want people to walk away and think, “Oh, was that…?” The end of Hot Fuzz is incredibly ambiguous. You’ve got two guys who appear to have simply superseded the last regime. They’re there in their black gloves, beating up hippies by the recycling bins. It looks like another oppressive regime has come into place after the NWA, and it’s Nicholas and Danny. Because they’re slightly fascistic in the way they look at the end. Shaun Of The Dead has a weird happy ending. It’s incredibly ambiguous.
Wright: Quite a few people have said in interviews, “Oh, this is a bit darker than the others.” And we’ve said, “Well, he does shoot his mum in the head in Shaun Of The Dead.” And people almost forget that. When we were making Shaun Of The Dead, we thought, “If we’re going to make a zombie movie, we have to have stakes like a zombie movie.” Like, in Zombieland, none of the main characters die, but in Shaun Of The Dead, 75 percent of the cast is gone. And it’s the same thing with this. If you have a film called The World’s End, obviously it’s deliberate. Even the fact that the last bar is called The World’s End—nobody embarks on a pub-crawl thinking it’s going to end well. [Laughs.] You’re literally on a mission to have a very messy night. It’s literally a journey of self-destruction, so that’s what we wanted to do. And we started to realize with this one that our films are becoming like Trojan horses, where… We’ve made a zombie film, a cop film, and a sci-fi film, but hopefully we’ve smuggled in this relationship comedy, and that’s the bit that might echo longer.
The Dissolve: That relationship has reversed in this film—Simon’s playing the more faltering comic character, and Nick’s playing a full-on badass. Was there a conscious attempt to change up the roles?
Nick Frost: Yeah, absolutely. But, that said, we don’t secretly go home and look at the laughter count and think, “Oh God, he’s got more than me.” It’s what the film needs. It’s never about the individual.
Pegg: Gary’s kind of the opposite of comic relief in this film. He’s like comic antagonism. He’s this force of maddening irritation. And he had to be that as the center of the film. In the last two films, [Pegg’s protagonists] Shaun and Nicholas Angel had both been reactors. Particularly to Nick’s characters. They’ve been very reactive, whereas we needed Gary to be proactive, and his main critic and reactor is Nick’s character, who doesn’t let him get away with anything—he’s always on his back, right to the very end, until he manages to get him to tell the truth. So for the purpose of the story, it had to be that way. But it was very fortunate for us, because it meant we could mix it up a little bit and have a different dynamic, and that was really fun for us to play. Nick gets to go through a radical change in character, a metamorphosis. But, yeah, it was fun.
Also, we all said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could play enemies?” We’ve always played friends, why not play enemies? But the trouble is, in a film with enemies, unless it’s that film with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr., the hero and the villain don’t meet until the final showdown.
Wright: Or Hell In The Pacific? With Lee Marvin and Toshirô Mifune.
Frost: An American soldier and a Japanese soldier stranded on an island together.
Pegg: I meant the science-fiction remake. Enemy Mine. So anyway, it was a product of the story, but it was a very welcome change.
Frost: Also, I said this before, when we did Paul, but I’d hate for people to get bored with what me and Simon do, in terms of our performances and the chemistry. If we played the same roles constantly in film after film after film, people would just get bored of it. And that’s not a reflection of us; that’s just how it is. I get that. I understand that.
Pegg: And also, this is a trilogy, which it has become through chance, and through our own realization that we can wrap up certain themes and address certain ideas in three different ways. This is the perfect payoff to that, because we’ve set up this almost codependent friendship in the last two films—one that starts that way, and one that becomes that. And then in the third film, it’s the antithesis of that. They’re at odds with each other. And so that moment when you see us fighting—if that had been the first film you’d seen us in together, it would be dramatic already, but because it’s me and Nick, who have always played good friends, seeing us fighting is like, “Oh God, they’re fighting!”
Wright: Some people think the ending is a bummer, whereas we see it as the happiest ending of the three. Again, without giving too much away, the change between who narrates the opening and who narrates the ending… Somebody at the start misses the old days, but by the ending, somebody else has that tinge of nostalgia. It’s supposed to be a very novelistic ending, showing where they all end up, and it’s something I always like in those novels where there’s a big jump in the passage of time, the “Where are they now?” epilogue. I think one of the most powerful things in American cinema is the last 30 seconds of American Graffiti, where you’ve been having this pretty light, funny, occasionally serious romp, and then it gives you, with no ceremony, the status of the four leads, two of whom are dead. And it’s such a shock, because you think, “Oh, I just watched 100 minutes, and I was totally with these guys, and now I know what happened 20 years later.”
The Dissolve: All of the trilogy films are about arrested development, or permanent adolescence; this film almost ends up feeling like a defense of that.
Pegg: At what cost, though? The cost is literally the end of everything. I think the three films are all about conforming, in a way. They’re all about conforming to what is on the outside—almost a passive-aggressive force of collectivism. The zombies are slow and ineffective. The NWA are seemingly very nice. Only The Network is more outwardly aggressive, but that’s kind of where we find ourselves in society, as filmmakers. We’re on the fringes of it a little bit. And the way our society works politically in the West… I mean, capitalism, generally, across Europe and America, is all about a very insidious form of oppression. It’s not outwardly so. Nothing’s banned. Nothing’s vetoed unless it’s really out there. Everything’s just very softly pushed on us, and we’re evolved and managed and shaped.
Wright: [Waves at the Starbucks cups in front of all three men.] And we’re all perfectly happy to drink Starbucks. [Laughs.]
Pegg: If anything is in our subconscious, it’s kind of that: as filmmakers on the periphery, trying to make stuff which isn’t necessarily mainstream, but to make it within a machine which is entirely about the mainstream.
“I think comedy, as a force of change, has to upset the status quo, but not put it back together again, so you’re left with a sense of unease.”
Wright: Yeah, I think that’s the thing. We like the idea that it is supposed to be a bittersweet, kind of happy ending. I think it is a happy ending of sorts. Gary kind of gets his wish. At the start of the film, he really wants to live in the past, and then he gets his wish in a way that affects the entire planet. [Laughs.] That was the other big change we wanted to make, because it made it very different from Shaun Of The Dead. In Shaun Of The Dead, it’s not Shaun’s fault that there’s a zombie apocalypse, and it’s not his job to fix it. Unlike Brad Pitt in World War Z, although I’m never entirely clear what exactly he’s doing in that movie. [Laughs.] It’s not Shaun’s job to save the day. He can’t solve the zombie virus. Whereas in this, Gary King becomes the catalyst for everything. We like this idea of him becoming the social nuisance to the galactic nuisance. But in terms of it being a satire, you’ve got to draw a very harsh line of, “Are you in or are you out? Are you going to be a McPerson, or are you going to be completely off the grid?” There’s no half measures. And so Gary, with his old cell phone and his mixtape and stuff, wants to stay resolutely on the other side of the line.
Pegg: But also, for people who consider themselves a minority in a way, artistically perhaps, or whatever, the message of the film, to cannibalize some AA speak, maybe we should give it over to a higher power. Maybe we would be better off if someone was making the decisions for us, because we are a very erratic, selfish species. And if there was some power that was saying, “Okay, you can have this, and not this,” maybe we’d all be better off, you know? [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Given that, how can you say that this is the happiest ending this film could have come out with?
Pegg: Because, without spoiling anything in the film, arguably everybody gets what they want. Gary ends up living in the past, literally, with his younger friends. Andy gets back with his wife. Peter is a better dad. Steven gets together with Sam, and Oliver corners the property market.
Wright: [Laughs.] Oliver is even more efficient. I don’t want to spoil—it’s a tricky one with this movie. People keep saying, “Oh, doesn’t the trailer spoil everything?” And I said, “No, there’s quite a lot of other stuff that happens. Don’t worry.” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: The initial trailers were surprisingly circumspect about the nature of the apocalypse in the film, and that’s so rare these days, to see a film with reveals that aren’t spoiled in the trailer. [Case in point: Later trailers for The World’s End give away much more of the story. —ed.] Did you have any control how the film was packaged and marketed?
Wright: Yeah, well, listen, the Shaun Of The Dead trailer features zombies, so that’s not a big surprise. So there was no way they were going to do a trailer for this where they weren’t going to show the monsters. I sort of said, “It’s okay to show this, this, and this, as long as you don’t show that, that, and that.” And they would say, “Okay, cool.” And sometimes they’d come back and say, “Can we show this?” and I’d say, “Please don’t show that bit, but I’m cool with you showing these bits.”
Pegg: I saw the TV spot last night. It came on the TV when we were waiting to go out. I was a little surprised at how much was in that.
Frost: It was a long one, too.
Pegg: It was a long one, and a caption came up saying “killer robots.” So, okay, there’s the bathroom surprise gone.
Wright: Yeah, but I think that’s okay. The thing is, if the emotional element of the film works, that’s what the movie is.
Pegg: I remember you and I had the argument of our lives in Chicago about six years ago, when you saw the TV spot for Hot Fuzz and said exactly what I just said.
Wright: Yeah, but I think that was different in terms of, that was something that’s a third-act reveal in Hot Fuzz, whereas this comes in a lot earlier. That was a third-act twist, whereas this film is about the pub-crawl. It’s about their journey into oblivion. The surprising things are the emotional payoffs, hopefully. It’s the same with Shaun Of The Dead. I think people forget how dark that is in places. I think sometimes with these movies—and I think this is a good thing, especially compared to a lot of other comedies—it’s like giving the audience a bar of chocolate, but neglecting to tell them it’s dark chocolate with chili inside. And then they go, [shocked but pleased] “Oooooh!” [Laughs.] And I think that’s good, if things are a little sharper. It’s at the limit of the budget where you can still be completely idiosyncratic, or put in quirks or darker edges. You could make 10 The World’s Ends for one Transformers. But if you made a film at Transformers level and made it this dark… It’s why the Transformers films are big and dumb, because they have to be, to appeal to everybody. And what’s nice about smaller films is that, by being specific, you might actually end up resonating with more people, over time.
Pegg: It says a lot about us as a species that in order to appeal to everybody, you’ve got to be big and dumb.
Wright: But I understand it, at the same time. I totally understand it. On that kind of level, when you have to make a billion dollars to make a profit—
Pegg: What I mean to say is that, generally, audiences… We never underestimate our audience. We take pains to make sure that they know we consider them to be intelligent, because otherwise, we wouldn’t make the kind of films we want to make. But audiences—including me, and all of us here, I’m sure—sometimes are happier to take the path of least resistance, because it’s less emotionally stressful than if somebody’s going to challenge you a little. Which is why big and dumb, everybody goes to see. It’s like they want to watch a fireworks display. Whereas if you go see something which is actually a bit of a challenge, you’ve got to psych yourself up a little more.
The Dissolve: You talked about how your films are so structured and emotionally planned, and about the narrative requirements and how they dictate the characters. How much room do you have within that to do what you want to do, for your own fun?
“We’ve made a zombie film, a cop film, and a sci-fi film, but hopefully we’ve smuggled in this relationship comedy, and that’s the bit that might echo longer.”
Wright: I think one of the nicest things about doing this, actually, is… You know, if you see the film a second time, you can see the prophecies foretold in the opening three minutes. There’s lots and lots of omens all the way through, even down to a tiny line that Paddy Considine says that pretty much sums up their feeling about society—when he’s talking about his job, he goes, “My company got bought out in ’08, but I’m happier. It’s less stress.” And that just means, like, “I’m totally cool with being ruled by a higher power.” But the really nice thing about doing this, outside of doing all the fights and special effects and stuff, is that actually, there are scenes where it is closer to doing a Mike Leigh movie. [In the sense that Leigh’s movies are conversation-driven, rather than in the sense of doing a drama. —ed.] I’ve got five amazing actors around a table, and I’m just going to sit back and observe that. Me and [cinematographer] Bill Pope would see it as a treat just to put the camera on five amazing actors talking.
Pegg: I think it’s a character film. I had the most fun I’ve ever had playing Gary, and I would defend him to the hilt, even though he’s a pain in the butt.
Frost: And most of the characters don’t change once they realize that the threat is galactic. They stay the same. It’s still about the pub-crawl, even though this thing is intervening, essentially.
Wright: It was funny, there was one film—it doesn’t really have any bearing on the finished film, but I mentioned it to Simon at the start of it. I talked about [Luis Buñuel’s] The Exterminating Angel, because I said, “I love the idea where that film is just like a party that you can never leave.” Because Gary is the first to kind of figure out what’s going on, it makes him captain again. And because his plan… He then wheedles everybody. [Laughs.] At every moment that there’s a chance to get away, he goes “No, no, no, no, we’ve got to get to…” Because all he’s thinking about is that he still wants to get to that last bar, and that’s what it’s about—just how to get to The World’s End in 12 easy steps. Specifically 12 steps, very pointedly.