The Badass Interview: Edgar Wright Is Up All Night With THE WORLD’S END

Edgar Wright talks about why you can never go home again, great all-night movies and what SHAUN OF THE DEAD has in common with a John Wayne classic.

The Cornetto Trilogy (aka the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy) began with Shaun of the Dead, continued with Hot Fuzz and concludes this summer with The World's End. The team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost -- who have been working together since their classic TV show Spaced -- are back with another comedy that tweaks genre conventions while also telling a completely sweet and human story. It’s sort of their signature at this point.

This time Simon Pegg plays the wild card character. Gary King is 40 but still living in his 20s, hoping to recapture the spirit of one magical night when he and his best mates tried to drink at each of the 12 pubs on their small home town’s “Golden Mile.” They never made it all the way to the final pub, The World’s End, but now Gary has brought everyone back together to try it again. When they return to Newton Haven to take another go at the Golden Mile they quickly discover why Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again -- because your small town has been invaded by robots from outer space that look like the townsfolk. Against this backdrop of an alien invasion Gary does the only thing he knows how to do -- he keeps drinking his way down the Golden Mile.

I talked to Edgar Wright while he was doing the final sound mix on the film. He was tired -- Wright runs himself into the ground when making his movies, subsisting on a diet largely made up of espresso -- but he, as always, was excited to talk, especially when the conversation turned to other great movies.

Q: In a lot of ways The World's End brings you full circle back to Shaun of the Dead, not just with pubs but with the idea of both films being about guys who need to grow up.

A: With Shaun of the Dead, with Shaun’s character, most people feel like that in their 20s -- ‘Man, I have to be an adult! I have to buck up!’  In this movie you’ve got five guys, four of whom are perfectly functioning adults who have grown up and have responsibilities and moved on with their lives, and one guy who not only hasn’t grown up, he wants to go backwards. He’s so unhappy with his current lot that he wants to go back in time. I’ve done pretty well in my life so far, but I still have time travel fantasies, I still have fantasies about going back to rectify things. I thought, ‘Why would I want to go back to being a teenager?’ Even though Gary is not really based on me, I do recognize that feeling. And there are people who want to keep that buzz of that one night going forever.

Q: That’s the thing, it’s the idea that you’ve peaked and you can’t deal with the idea of peaking. In other movies it’s usually the jock character who has that, the guy who is still reliving the big game. This is coming from a very different perspective.

A: What we tried to do with all of the films is take characters who might in other films be the sidekick or even a truly negative character and try to find them some kind of redemption. Simon’s character, compared to Shaun and Nicholas Angel, is charmingly unlikable. We push it as far as we can go, which I think is really fun for Simon. After two films playing the straight man he wanted to be the wild man. It’s nice to flip it all around and Nick is straighter, initially.

But I really think people who watch this film are going to say, ‘Man, I know that guy.’ And sometimes it’ll really freak them out, they’ll say, ‘Oh man, that’s my brother.’ Or ‘That’s me!’ It’s fun to give that character some redemption. Someone asked me what I want people to take away from the movie, and I said, ‘I want them to call that guy in their life just to see if he’s okay!’

Q: One of the things I love is how Nick and Simon are flipped. It reminds me of Belushi and Aykroyd switching spots in Neighbors. It’s fun to see that dynamic changed.

A: In the years between Spaced and The World's End, I’ve seen Nick go from being Simon’s roommate to a real actor and now a father. In that space of time, which is only like 12 years, I’ve seen that man -- he’s still great and fun as ever -- he’s become a dad. With some comedies it’s responsible, even if we as filmmakers have become successful, to play your own age. To not play 20something forever. And I think there’s more comic mileage to get out of that. The six years between this and Hot Fuzz... we couldn’t have written this specific screenplay six years ago.

Q: Pubs play central roles in all your British films. If you were making these movies in America it wouldn’t be quite the same -- bars don’t hold the same central spot in the common culture here. What is it about pubs that makes them so important to British life?

A: I think you have neighborhood bars in the US, and the smaller your town the more central your neighborhood bar is. It’s similar here in a way; being in London as a big city offers you a lot more to do. But when I was living in a country town, like Newton Haven, that was your one source of entertainment. There was one cinema, one nightclub and a whole ton of pubs. You’re going to end up going to them whether you like it or not.

Me and Simon, we have a love/hate relationship with them. When I was shooting Hot Fuzz there’s a pub scene where the cops meet and where the shootout happens in the end. We were shooting in this real pub and it was tiny. I said to [producer] Nira Park, out loud, ‘I never want to shoot in a fucking British pub ever again. I’ve had it.’ But that was before I came up with the idea for this one! The idea of doing an Arthurian quest movie about pubs was so vivid for me. We did one movie where one character wants to get to the pub, now we have to do a movie where the character wants to get to ALL of the pubs!

I had done exactly this when I was a 19 year old. I was living in Wells, Somerset -- which is where Hot Fuzz is set -- and there were 12 or 13 pubs and me and my friends were going to go to the outskirts of town, to the farthest one out, and do all 13. That plan went as far as 6 pubs. By the sixth pub, because I am quite a lightweight, I was almost blackout drunk and causing mischief. I had a weird, wild night and went off on my own for a bit looking for this girl I was kind of seeing, but I forgot she wasn’t home and I ended up waking her mother and she threatened to call the police because who is this drunk, idiot 19 year old on her doorstep? And when I realized I was being irritating I tried to run away and I turned around and ran right into a clothesline and almost knocked myself out. I found my friends at 2 in the morning and I had a big purple bruise on my neck where I had run into a clothesline -- I had literally clotheslined myself! I had got through less than half of the pubs in my town, but it always stuck with me.

When I was 21, after I did Fistful of Fingers, I wrote a script called Crawl, about teenagers on a pub crawl. I intended to make it but never did, and then years later we were doing the Hot Fuzz press tour and weirdly started thinking of that script again and then Superbad came out and I thought I couldn’t do anything with the script anymore. Then I was on a plane with Simon and thought maybe that’s just the start of it -- maybe that’s the first five minutes. The first three minutes of The World's End comprises what I might have made when I was 21. It’s a mini-movie, a mini-American Graffiti and I realized the story of them reuniting to do it again is going to be great.

Once you bring the otherworldly stuff into it, it comes together. It was an epiphany where I realized you could make a movie about alienation in your hometown, that you can return to your home town and feel alienated, the lack of connection with childhood friends, the pub has changed, your favorite coffee shop is missing, your favorite bar has been refurbished. People you went to school with don’t recognize you anymore. There’s something poignant and alarming about that, and it struck me as being like a quiet invasion movie -- the kind of thing that was a staple of British scifi in the ‘60s.

Q: You and I are the same age, and the early ‘90s are the heyday of our youth. This movie revisits that so well -- the soundtrack, the fashion, the fact that Simon is wearing that Egyptian eye necklace is so 1990. Can you talk about the idea of nostalgia that comes when you get close to 40, the feeling that you aren’t that old, but you aren’t that young anymore.

A: I think it’s a very odd feeling, especially when some of those bands are still around. You think, ‘Oh great, Primal Scream has a new album out!’ and then you realize Primal Scream started in 1985. It’s that feeling you’re not thinking in decades anymore, that some of the culture you were around is twenty years old or twenty-five years old. It was crucial to us to make everybody in the audience feel old. One of the first lines of the film is Simon saying, ‘It was NINETEEN NINETY,’ saying it like it was 1890. You’ve had plenty of ‘80s retro comedies, but to switch it to 1990 and make it sound like it was a thousand years ago is designed to make everybody in the audience feel ancient.

Q: We are farther from 1990 than American Graffiti was from 1963.

A: It seems ridiculous!

Q: Speaking of American Graffiti, The World's End is pretty much an all-in-one-night movie, like American Graffiti.

A: It is, absolutely. It has a prologue and an epilogue, but the rest of it is in that span.

Q: Is it harder to do a movie that’s set all in one night, or does the propulsive nature of the timeline make it easier?

A: I think it makes it easier, in a way. It’s got a very different feeling in that respect than Shaun or Hot Fuzz. The time is truncated. Most of Shaun of the Dead is one day, but this is all one night, and it has an effect on the shoot. We shoot some daytime and then the sun going down and then the rest of the shoot is at night. We shot for 12 weeks on this, and the last month was all nights, which creates a weird feeling on set. You start to feel like the characters, like you’re trapped in this hell night. A lot of it is on location -- nine of the twelve pubs are on location - and there was a lot of nights there.

I hope that, even more than Shaun and Hot Fuzz people feel those locations, the geography. It’s that oppressive sense of a night in a small town where you can’t escape. We were pretty much in the same two towns, so there are chase scenes where you’re really going from A to B, so people from those towns will be able to trace the steps of the action scenes.

It creates its own internal tension, making an all-in-one-night movie, and it was fun. One of the early ideas was can we make this almost existential farce? I don’t think you’ll see anything of Louis Bunuel in here, but I always liked The Exterminating Angel and the idea of the dinner party you cannot live. In this pub crawl one character has said ‘We need to get to number 12 if it kills us,’ and he does everything he can to keep the pub crawl on track. This is the movie where one of our heroes is going to have a great night... whatever the cost.

Q: Can you talk about some of the touchstone movies that informed the scifi decisions you made in The World's End?

A: There’s something strong about showing something bigger happening through a keyhole focus. That was present in a lot of ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s scifi films, British and American. While writing we didn’t rewatch any of those movies, but when we were prepping the movie I went back to a couple of them just for fun and it was interesting to see how we had captured them without watching them at all.

There were things from Body Snatchers to Quatermass, the Hammer ones from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They were influential themselves, in that they influenced films of the ‘70s. There were films like Village of the Damned and Stepford Wives. I like those small-town paranoia films, and growing up in a small town they always resonated with me. The idea of what happens in a small town may have larger consequences. And we did something in The World's End that we never did in the other movies, which is that it may all be our main character’s fault! In Shaun of the Dead it’s not Shaun’s fault there’s a zombie apocalypse; he has nothing to do with the outbreak of the virus. But in this one we have a central character who may be a galactic nuisance.

Q: How is the small town paranoia in The World's End different from Hot Fuzz?

A: Nicholas Angel is a stranger in Sanford, and in this film they’re going back to their home town. It’s one of those ideas that became very vivid to me way before I even thought of the movie. When I first went to college, I would come back home every holiday -- Easter, summer, Halloween, Christmas. Then the following year I just came back twice, summer and Christmas. Then the following year just Christmas. The next two years I didn’t go back at all. Then I went back for Christmas again.

Every time you go back there’s a change in personnel. The bars are different but the people stay the same... but the further you get away from them the less they recognize you. Something that’s in the film happened to me, where there was a bully from school who was a really tough character growing up, and one night I came home and he blanked me in a pub. I was really upset because I wanted him to remember me. It’s like he moved on in his life, like it meant nothing to him at all. It wasn’t that he was nasty to me, it was that he didn’t recognize me somehow really disturbed me.

I was thinking ‘This is like Body Snatchers, all the people I knew have been replaced by replicants.’ It was a metaphor for coming home but having the feeling you can never go back.

Q: This magazine is really aimed at a cinephile audience. What obscure pub or bar movies should they check out?

A: There aren’t that many movies set just in pubs. We may have thrown down the gauntlet for being the most pub-centric film of all time. I defy you to beat us!

Most pub films tend to be downers, tough stuff like Nil By Mouth or Tyrannosaur. But some films with good pub scenes in them include An American Werewolf In London, perhaps one of the most famous British pub scenes put to film. Withnail & I has an amazing pub scene, and the pub is central to the small village there. I always liked the pub scene in Get Carter, when Michael Caine goes in and says, ‘I’d like a lager in a straight glass, please.’ It says a lot about the north/south divide, it’s a real class film, southern Londoners versus tough northerners. Brannigan, the John Wayne film, has a great brawl in a pub, very silly.

John Wayne throws this guy into a jukebox. Unbeknownst to me -- I didn’t find this out until later -- the stunt man playing the publican we throw into the jukebox is the same guy. I found that out later and I couldn’t believe we did the whole scene and he never said, ‘Hey, did you see the John Wayne film Brannigan? Because I do the same stunt in that.’ Why didn’t he tell me he went into the jukebox in Brannigan, and he was thrown by the Duke!

There’s a whole wave of B-movies based on the works of John Wyndham that are pub-centric. I didn’t watch it when we were writing, but seemed to me the perfect low budget British scifi movie, called The Earth Dies Screaming. It has that great title and yet it pretty much takes place in one small village -- not even a village, a hamlet! Most of the action revolves around the pub, and there are robots in that making people into zombies. It’s amazing to have a movie called The Earth Dies Screaming that has a cast about eight strong.

Q: I’m going to name three all-in-one-night movies, you have to tell me which is best. You can only have one of these: American Graffiti, After Hours, Dazed and Confused.

A: I really love After Hours, but I’m going to go for American Graffiti. It’s a perfect movie, and watching it recently it hit me just as hard as it did when I was a teenager. The ending is perfect, you get the ups and downs of the night that goes from joyful teenage abandon to being dark and enigmatic to brutal in terms of its final epilogue. That film is a real masterpiece, and it goes from light and frothy to hard-hitting with real grace.

Q: Is it too controversial to say American Graffiti is George Lucas’ best movie?

A: No, he never made anything like it again. You can say that. I like Star Wars IV and V, but American Graffiti, in his career, is a one off. It feels like that kind of movie you can only make once. It’s an amazing moment of lightning striking for him and his technical team and editor and the cast. There is some real filmmaking skill in that movie, and some happy accidents as well and they gel.

Q: Was it during one of your programming stints at the New Beverly where you had American Graffiti on a double bill with Animal House and John Landis watched American Graffiti for the first time in decades?

A: Yeah! John Landis apologized for making fun of American Graffiti. He hadn’t seen it since the ‘70s, and it really knocked him back in his seat. He said, ‘I forgot how powerful that ending is, and it makes me feel bad we made fun of it in Animal House.’ He said the writers and producers of Animal House had kept knocking American Graffiti, saying ‘This isn’t the ‘60s, Animal House is the ‘60s!’ and calling it the anti-American Graffiti. After watching it he said he wanted to apologize for ever getting involved in that because American Graffiti is a great movie. He was taken aback.

My theory was the films make a perfect double bill because Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti turned into Tom Hulce in Animal House. Even the year works well! One ends the summer of ‘62, the other is the start of the college year ‘62. Dreyfuss is a writer, Tom Hulce is a writer. They could be cut together!

This was originally published in the "Cheers! A Celebration of Pub Life" issue of Birth.Movies.Death