For a film about five friends reuniting for one last go at a massive pub crawl, THE WORLD'S END is a surprisingly sobering experience. Given that the participants are all hovering around the age of forty, the notion itself reeks of folly at best, desperation at worst. But in the case of the film's protagonist, Gary King, what should look like bottomed-out despair is coated over with two blown decades of never-grow-old delusion. While all of his high school chums have left home to get on with their lives, Gary's still spinning his wheels in 1990. He's all smiles on the outside as he smokes and boozes his life away; it's a frantic overcompensation, but he's not going to admit to feeling anything but wonderful.
Though the laughs are frequent and the craft inventive as ever, THE WORLD'S END finds the typically sweet-natured trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost skewering our nostalgia-obsessed culture in increasingly ruthless fashion. The screenplay by Wright and Pegg draws on the disparate likes of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS '78, THE BIG CHILL and, most notably, WITHNAIL AND I to examine the personal/cosmic toll of refusing to let go of one's past, and the consequences aren't exactly cheery. Being that one of the primary tools used to stave off adulthood is alcohol, it also tackles the always uproarious topic of substance abuse. I repeat: this is a very funny movie. But it discomfits in ways SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ did not, and that was something I wasn't prepared for when I strapped in for the conclusion of the gang's "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy".
When I met up with Wright for a chat last week (an hour before he introduced his WESTWORLD/THE TERMINATOR double feature at the New Beverly), I was curious to find out what informed the weightier themes of THE WORLD'S END, if only to make sure he's doing alright emotionally. While I was unsurprised to find the indefatigably upbeat filmmaker in good spirits, I was intrigued by his belief that THE WORLD'S END leaves off on a more encouraging note than the previous films in the trilogy. The further we got into it, the more I began to realize that this is Wright's most personal movie, a coming-to-grips with the end of youth and a determined march toward an uncertain future. As for whether the denouement is anywhere in the neighborhood of hopeful, that's up to the viewer.
THE WORLD'S END may conclude this trilogy, but it does not mark the end of Wright's creative collaboration with Pegg and Frost. He seems certain they will work together again. But it is time to get on with a number of percolating solo projects, the first of which will be the long-in-development ANT-MAN (currently set for a November 6, 2015 release). As has been the case since it was announced, Wright had very little to say about his Marvel Studios assignment, but he did hint at a couple of other projects. I'm particularly fascinated by his idea for a non-traditional musical, which sounds like it will take the rhythmically precise fight choreography of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and THE WORLD'S END to outlandishly joyous lengths. And a straight-up horror film? Yes, please!
Wright and I talked for an hour, so we covered a lot of ground. We discussed his personal connection to the story, how he managed to complete such a technically complicated film in twelve weeks, and why he preferred dancers and tumblers over stuntpeople for this film's fight scenes. Wright's one of the most entertaining interviews out there. I think you'll dig.
Mr. Beaks: Having talked to you for so many years about this project and speculating as to what it might be, I must say I didn't expect it to go out as a sci-fi WITHNAIL & I.
Edgar Wright: (Laughs) There's a couple of pithy things that have been said about it. Trevor Beattie, the advertising guru, said WITHNAIL & I, ROBOT, and the actor Rufus Jones called it WITHNAIL & A.I.
Beaks: It's specific to that British kind of angry young man narrative, going all the way back to the early '60s and through to WITHNAIL & I - though this deals with arrested adolescence.
Wright: When you write a comedy that hopefully has some sort of dynamic tension, you've got to put characters in a vise in a way. So if it's a trilogy about perpetual adolescence, Shaun is that guy in the first one, Danny Butterman is the guy in the second, while Nicholas is an all-around critical case, we sort of wanted to tackle the issue head on in terms of "What happens if you try and go backwards? What happens if you try to recreate former glories?" It's as much a horror as it is a sci-fi, because as soon as Gary King tries to turn the clock back everything goes horribly wrong and yet strangely right for him. He kind of gets his wish of being the captain again. As soon as shit hits the fan, Gary's back in charge. We designed it to feel almost like a French farce: you set up the path that these characters are going down, and then when the curveball comes it continues in its main quest. That was always the idea. When we released the first synopsis, I think people thought that was a smokescreen. But, no, it really is, and it's just the obstacles that get thrown at them get more and more surreal.
But it's funny... having only finished the movie five weeks ago and doing this press tour, you find that you actually start to articulate what the film's about more than you ever said out loud while you were actually writing it. It was a theme that felt very personal to me and Simon. It's about a lot of things. It's about the dangers of nostalgia. There's a sense of the guilt that you inevitably feel when you move away from somewhere, that you've left your birthplace. I feel like I wiped my guilt slate by inviting all of my friends who were on the original pub crawl in 1993 to the premiere in London. I feel like I got all of that out of my system. But in terms of the choices we give the audience at the end of who you're going to side with, you draw a very sharp line between the humans and the robots, and who is going to be your ultimate human to represent the whole galaxy. But even in a character like Gary, who has got a lot of problems, me and Simon have genuine sympathy for him. And we really want him to pull some kind of triumph from the jaws of despair.
Beaks: But it is downbeat in a way.
Wright: That's funny because me and Simon actually feel it has the happiest ending of the three. (Laughs) They all have slightly black comedy endings. SHAUN OF THE DEAD certainly seems happy, but his mother, stepdad and two best friends are dead; they've achieved this sitcom status quo, but only through a massive body count. In HOT FUZZ, they've become fascists; they've become living Cannon Films cartoons with black gloves and glasses. In this one, everyone gets what they want, albeit in the midst of a bleak new dawn. But weirdly, the end scene of the film was one of the first ideas we had of where he eventually ends up - and where they all eventually end up. I think me, Simon and Nick... there's definitely a feeling with post-apocalyptic films where there's a sense of adventure and the pioneering spirit even through the murkiest of fog machines.
Beaks: I was hoping he'd be traversing the wasteland with a red-headed Melanie Griffith.
Wright: (Laughs) I haven't even seen that film, but I know which one you're talking about. I've never actually seen CHERRY 2000.
Beaks: I actually recommend it. But returning to that idea of going back home. In America, leaving home often means going a great distance. My hometown in Ohio is over 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles. It's a little more confined in the U.K., so I'm wondering if there's a difference you've perceived in that sense of leaving home.
Wright: I don't think it's any different. It was based on feelings that... as soon as I left school, if I was ever the Gary King type, it would be that I probably thought my status in my hometown was as some sort of local party legend, which was actually just in my own mind. As soon as you go back, even one year later, you realize that another class has come in, and the people who were there don't remember you anymore. A lot of things that are in the movie are absolutely based on real experiences: publicans who you thought maybe knew you by first name don't, the school bully doesn't even recognize you - that moment in the film is based on an actual incident. Especially if you go to a big city and you sometimes want to escape back into the womb, that's the horrible shock of it. If ever you get overwhelmed or think, "I just need to take a break and go back home for the weekend," and then you realize that it's not so much that you're not welcome there, it's just that they don't know who the fuck you are. I always thought that was an interesting bittersweet kind of emotion to deal with, so Simon's character at the start believes that the key to his happiness is going backwards; the other four realize this is not the case, but, through emotional blackmail, go back with him. It's a shock to the system. You have to grow up when your anchor has been taken away. You have to swim forward, or you're going to drown. I thought it was an interesting emotion to deal with, and, as the final film of the trilogy, it felt like the first two movies were about characters trying to go forwards, and this one is about somebody trying to go backwards, and he takes the whole world with him. (Laughs) But there's also something very different between SHAUN OF THE DEAD and THE WORLD'S END. It's not Shaun's fault that the zombie apocalypse is happening, and it's also not his job to stop the virus; he's not Brad Pitt's character in WORLD WAR Z, he's just a guy. But this does go more down that route of Douglas Adams or Monty Python, kind of a cosmic shaggy dog story, which we like. That was always the intention.
Beaks: Is this your most personal movie?
Wright: I think it is in a way. I think SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ have very personal elements. I'm sure people would wonder what's personal about [HOT FUZZ], but it's sort of based on the most fevered versions of conspiracy theories I would hear growing up about my town and tiny corruption or even just the thought of the Freemasons, and the mystery of that versus the reality. SHAUN was the version of us with no drive. Certainly, like a lot of people, there's a lazy period in your twenties where you just coast, and SHAUN is like, "I better write that screenplay before it's too late!" But this one is more obviously personal in terms of the characters all have elements of ourselves in them, or they're amalgams of people we knew or know. Certainly for me and Simon, we both grew up in small towns and moved to London, and went further afield. In fact, my parents have now moved away from my hometown, so I have no reason to go back there and it makes me sad. Out of the three of us, I'm definitely the most nostalgic, and it bothers me why I think about those days so much. Given that I have a lot of other things to think about and I'm perfectly happy moving forwards, I still have recurring fantasies about going back to school and doing better, or going on dates and doing better. I'm constantly trying to GROUNDHOG DAY my teenage years, which I find very strange. I discovered when I was twenty-one that I was shortsighted, and that I'd been shortsighted for the whole of school. I'd even made a film and been a projectionist and driven for three years, and then I realized, "Oh, that's why I couldn't see the backboard. I couldn't see properly." And I often wonder about what would happen if I could do school again and could see properly. I have a lot of odd, tiny little regrets. I don't know why it bugs me, but it does. And part of the film is about going back to correct one little thing to see if that's the key to your happiness. You could break down the film, aside from the sci-fi aspects, of "Man who runs away from help triggers his own intervention, first on a social scale, then on a cosmic scale." Quite a few people have said it's the darkest of the three. It's not consciously dark, but trying to be more honest and not shying away from the rawer, more painful sort of recognition.
Beaks: A sobering recognition. Literally. I thought that was one of the more intriguing components of the film, that it's acknowledges the toll of alcoholism.
Wright: I think it would be extremely irresponsible to make a film like this and not deal with that. It's cool to do a pub crawl if you're a teenager or a student, or if you're in your twenties and on a football team. But if you're getting close to forty, there's something else going on. (Laughs) Simon's character gift wraps the idea in the recreation of a classic night, but there's real obsession there. And later in the film, he starts to go off on his own. The third act of the movie is about one person saving the other; it's not about saving the world, it's about saving a friend from destroying himself.
The other aspect to it is... I think you can make a film that is very funny and still tackle pricklier subject matter, and not trivialize the issues. I still think it's a funny film; it's not like it gets deadly serious. There are tragicomic aspects, but what works for me about it is that Simon and Nick can straddle those tones brilliantly. Part of that is because they know each other so well. I think it was Harry Knowles who watched all three and said, "SHAUN OF THE DEAD is about a relationship going south, HOT FUZZ is a first date movie, and this is post-divorce." I think that's fair enough. Even though there's been a six-year gap between HOT FUZZ and THE WORLD'S END, it's nice to acknowledge the break. "We went off and did our separate films, but then we'll come back together."
Beaks: Going forward, since you've firmly established your visual aesthetic, I'm wondering how you'll apply that to ANT-MAN.
Wright: ANT-MAN will have less swearing than THE WORLD'S END.
Beaks: But applying your aesthetic to a studio film, and how you'll have to fit within certain parameters...
Wright: I'm excited to do it. It's been really great to do [THE WORLD'S END], and we're really very proud of it. It's emotional making it in a way - and, listen, I'd love to work with Simon and Nick again, and we have vague ideas of what we'd do in the future. But I do think that these three represent a piece now. With ANT-MAN, I look forward to spinning a yarn. That said, I think there are elements in the script that fit into everything I've done. All of the films I've done revolve around unlikely heroes who get a shot at redemption. I know that's in nearly all movies, but it's definitely something that seems to link everything I've written or worked on.
Beaks: So maybe in that way that, visually and thematically, you can tell MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is a Brian De Palma movie from frame one.
Wright: (Laughs) It's definitely the "bad mood" MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE as well. It's the most paranoid of the four. It's definitely Brian De Palma's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, which I think is great.
Beaks: Everything you've done thus far has had a comedic tone to it. You're obviously a big fan of horror movies. Have you ever thought of making a straight-up, scare-the-shit-out-of-you horror film?
Wright: Yeah. In fact, I have an idea for a straight horror film that I'm developing. It's one of the reasons I don't want to do DON'T. I would never do it anyway. The joke of that film is that it's ninety seconds long: it would not be good as a feature; you've already seen the best version of DON'T. But the other reason is that I'd like to do a straight horror film at some point, and with something like that, the challenge is that I've got to scare myself. I watch a lot of horror films, and I rarely get scared - probably because I've seen too many, and I know all the tricks. I get scared more by thematic material, something that really gets to me. I used to watch some horror films and think, "Oh, I could never direct a scene like that." The key to it is to find subject matter that makes me feel uncomfortable, because that would be a challenge to make. But that might be a ways off. What's been really great doing [THE WORLD'S END] is hopefully developing the style a little bit; I deliberately made this one more of a slow burn. I wanted the visual feel of the film to start to get looser and wilder as they get drunker. So it starts more in Mike Leigh land - certainly more than HOT FUZZ, which is over-caffeinated throughout.
And there's a lot of those '50s and '60s sci-fi movies, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Most of the U.S. ones are in the desert, and all the U.K. ones are in a little village. In the U.K., you have films like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED or QUATERMASS II or THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING - great title - where it would hint at a planetary situation from the small keyhole of a tiny town. That was always the idea for this: throughout the movie, they have no knowledge of how wide this goes, so to increase the claustrophobia of the night... it's the reason I showed AFTER HOURS the other night. It's that Murphy's Law thing of always contriving to keep them in the town on this path into hell, but I like the idea how in the final stages it just gets bigger and bigger, and suddenly shows more vistas in the last ten minutes than you've seen in the entire movie.
Beaks: You said you definitely want to work with Simon and Nick again. It seems to me that concluding this trilogy takes the pressure off of feeling that you need to work together again so soon.
Wright: I think that's true, although I would stress that [THE WORLD'S END] is something we wanted to do rather than something we felt we ought to do.
Beaks: I'm just talking in terms of expectations. A "We want it now!" type of demand.
Wright: I think there are some elements people expect that aren't in [THE WORLD'S END]. There aren't conscious film references and stuff, and not much that hearkens back to the previous films. That was sort of deliberate. If we call it the "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy", it's only right that they have slightly different flavors. But you're right that if we did something together again, it could be radically different. But doing this movie, and even doing this press tour with Simon and Nick, I'm just reminded how fortunate I am to have two best friends who just happen to be amazing actors. (Laughs) That just doesn't happen. Usually, you meet people through work, but in this case they were friends before we made a movie, and they are the two people I want to make movies with. I'd love for that to continue, but I also feel very satisfied that we made good on a promise - a promise as much to ourselves as to our fans that we'd make a third one. People keep asking, "Are you sad that it's all over?" And I say, "No, I just feel satisfied we did it." We never did a SPACED Series 3, but we did three of these films like we said we would.
Beaks: There's been a real movie musical resurgence over the last decade, and they're often made by directors who really shouldn't be directing musicals. I think you've got a real musical flair for staging set pieces, so can you promise me that you'll eventually make an honest-to-god musical?
Wright: I'd love to. I've actually written something for Working Title that's in that vein. It's not a straight musical, but it's definitely in that vein. In this movie, as you can see, there's quite a lot of choreography in the movie all the way through. Because our action is all syncopated, we had a choreographer on set almost the whole time. In fact, a lot of our baddies are dancers or gymnasts. I tried to get away from using more traditional stuntmen, so one of the first fight scenes involves a lot of tumblers and gymnasts. And the scene with the twins, those twins are both dancers; they're not stuntwomen. And the later fight as well... myself, [Second Unit Director] Brad Allan and [Gymnast/Choreographer] Damien Walters tried to design these fights that would be somewhere between Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton and Richard Lester; they would have gags and violence in equal measure. Even with something like that, there were quite a few scenes in the film where we played music on the set. The Doors one is obvious because everything is kind of choreographed to that song - definitely walking the tightrope of using a song on the shoot without necessarily having the money to pay for it. (Laughs) I'm glad that worked out. Otherwise, it could've been a poor B option. But even something like that scene with Suede, where, even though it's in slow motion, all five actors have got it piped into their ears, which immediately gives them a certain swagger that works. I love doing those things. I love working with dancers, and I think it rubbed off on the actors as well. All the actors except Rosamund are forty, and they all saw SCOTT PILGRIM and saw these twenty-year-olds doing these fights, and they said, "We can do that!" It's ironic that even though they're older, this one has the most punishing action scenes of the three. And I think they did an amazing job. Brad Allen, who is like the Simon Cowell of the stunt world... he would never, ever give false praise, but frequently after Simon and Nick did a take, he would go [nods approvingly]. I think all of them did a good job.
And then when you bring choreography into it as well, in terms of syncopation... there's a shot in the film where everybody in the town is walking to the same step. People mention INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS a lot, but I made some clip to show the crew things about movement. Some of the younger people on the crew had never seen WESTWORLD, and some of the really young actors weren't all that aware of THE TERMINATOR. And on top of that, I would show the choreographer scenes not just from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, but also CARNIVAL OF SOULS and MESSIAH OF EVIL... which has a couple of amazing scenes with extras in it. I wanted to take something like that, but say, "Can I do that as a musical number? Can I take it further and have everybody walking in time?" So that actually became a thing with a choreographer and dance captains. If you watch the trailer, the shots where the baddies are running down the street with glowing eyes... not only is that all in-camera, which there are no digital effects in those scenes. They're running with these glowing eyes on, which is actually quite difficult to do; you have to angle your head so that the lights are underneath your eyes so you can see. But they're all running in time. I wanted to take this whole goose-stepping thing a stage further and have this syncopated movement. It's a subtle thing, but it really looks and sounds weird en masse. If you actually listen to the raw footage, you would hear the dance captain going, "One, two! One, two! One, two!" I love to do things like that, and I'd love to do a musical.
Beaks: I keep thinking of the USO dance/fight scene, and how Spielberg had a deft touch with musical numbers. But like a number of great directors with this skill, he never got around to making an actual musical. I wonder why the great modern directors shy away from doing musicals.
Wright: Audiences don't always accept them. I thought it was a shame that SWEENEY TODD was sold without showing any singing in the trailer. They had to sell it as a bait-and-switch, whereas if you'd just been honest with people, I'm sure they would've gone with it. I don't really have a musical-musical in me; there's not something where I say, "I'd really like to do the screen version of that." But I would love to do a film that is highly choreographed, and I have an idea of something that I'd love to do in that vein. But there's not necessarily a West End or Broadway show where I'd love to do a film version. I don't think there is anyway. Most of them belong on the stage. Most of the MGM musicals were written for the screen, right?
Beaks: Many of them, yes. I was just thinking how your love for syncopated movement would be right at home with something like WEST SIDE STORY.
Wright: But I think the greatest of the Hong Kong films are sort of musicals. They even have that structure of the duets, the group numbers, the solo and the end medley. I love bringing those aspects into it. With this movie, as soon as things turn, every single extra is choreographed. Even if you look at the publicans, they're all doing the same motions. We had a thing that we taught all the publicans to do; they had a particular wiping of the glass and flicking it up. I've had a lot of nice responses from people who've seen it a second time; once you know where it's going, there's a hell of a lot to see a second time around. Even everybody's fates are prophesied within the movie, right down to some extremely subtle ones.
Beaks: I would have to say it's the first movie of yours where I felt like I needed to see it again to get a correct read on it. Every time I thought I had it pegged, forgive the horrible pun, it veered in another direction.
Wright: But that's good.
Beaks: Defying expectations is always good, especially when you think you've got someone figured out based on their previous films.
Wright: This has always been the case since we did SPACED, where we're always aware that fans will watch it many, many times, so we give people extra nuggets for a second watch. But a lot of movies are fun to watch once you know the fate of the characters. I like that the prologue is like a prophecy foretold, and the pub signs themselves are like the tarot cards of doom. They tell you exactly what's going to happen in every scene. I love that sort of stuff. Me and Simon would literally spend days naming the pubs in relation to what happens in the story. Maybe we'll eventually release our flipchart and screenplay for the movie, where you'll see the copious notes that start to look like John Doe's notebook.
Beaks: Everything you've described requires such planning and attention to detail. Do you ever feel that studio pressure of, like, "Why can't he just move it along?"
Wright: Even though it's got extremely precise and meticulous detail, we work pretty fast. I just did my technical commentary with [cinematographer] Bill Pope, and he said the actors were always on set because they never had time to go back to their trailers. We were just shooting the whole time. The shoot was about the same as HOT FUZZ, maybe even slightly less, but with special effects and lighting effects with bigger vistas. It's interesting the response I've gotten from other directors who've watched it. Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro both said, "I cannot believe you shot that in twelve weeks! That seems impossible. How in the hell did you do that?" If you haven't got the budget you need, you just have to pre-plan the shit out of it and the cast have to be all rehearsed. I would've been screwed if I hadn't rehearsed the cast, and they would be like, "How do you want to say this line?" I would never get through my day.
Obviously this is a way smaller budget than SCOTT PILGRIM. It was bigger than HOT FUZZ, but not twice as big as HOT FUZZ. But even on a bigger scale or a grander canvas, I've never felt the benefit of quite having enough time - which is a good thing. It's good to have those pressures. When you hear stories about movies that rattle crazily out of control, I can't even imagine what that would be like. One time on SCOTT PILGRIM, there was a physical problem that was beyond our control. Suddenly, our work rate of doing thirty slates a day, forty slates a day or fifty slates a day went down to eight slates a day. And Bill Pope said, "Now this is what a normal film is like." And I said, "Well, I hate it! I don't like being on the cruise liner!"
It's also great for the actors, especially if you're having to maintain an emotion for a long time. If you're doing an argument scene, you can't do that over two days; you have to keep people in the moment. In fact, one of the challenges about this movie, the scenes were either fight scenes, scenes with special effects or dinner table scenes - which usually in any director's book is like a nightmare sequence. If five people are around a table, that doesn't just mean five shots; that means twenty-five shots. Especially if around the table they have separate little asides and eyelines and looks, and Rosamund Pike comes in and two people have two separate asides with her... it's like every day was a dinner scene or a fight scene or a special effects scene. Every film feels tough, but we shot this in chronological order - which we also did with SHAUN OF THE DEAD - and I think it works in the sense that you can start to see the actors unravel as you go deeper into the night. It's a fun thing where the actors are getting more disheveled by the minute. I'm very proud of how un-vain the actors are, particularly Simon. There's no attempt to look prettier for the screen. He really commits to being a wastrel.
Beaks: I assume you're going to hold on for dear life to Bill Pope?
Wright: Oh, I love him! I think he's going to do the next one, which is great. The question is can I hold on to doing celluloid? That will be my next struggle. I stuck my heels into shooting this on 35mm. We even shot 16mm for the prologue, spherical for the day scenes, and when it gets into night and starts getting paranoid it turns into anamorphic because there are a lot of in-camera lights. And then we went back to spherical at the end. So we ended up using three different film stocks. I hope it's not the last hurrah for celluloid because that would be a very sad day.
Beaks: It'll be interesting to see if anyone can hold on. We'll see what Quentin does on his next one.
Wright: Quentin, as far as I know, has been stockpiling film. (Laughs) I think Quentin has all the Fuji stock.
Beaks: Who are the other holdouts?
Wright: Nolan. I think J.J. is going to try to shoot STAR WARS on film. What's funny is the film this year that made me think, "Oh, maybe digital is pretty good" was actually shot on 35mm. It was SPRING BREAKERS.
Wright didn't want to end on a bummer note regarding the death of 35mm, so that's your cue to rush out of your house to the nearest theater showing THE WORLD'S END, which opens nationwide today.