Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost

The Ballad of a Tricky Bobby

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Writer/director Edgar Wright, 32, writer/actor Simon Pegg, 37, and actor Nick Frost, 35, first put their friendship to the professional test on the British TV series "Spaced," and came out shining. The show was a hit and their friendship was intact. Their feature debut, Shaun of the Dead (2004), brought them a cult following in the U.S., and their eagerly awaited follow-up, Hot Fuzz, could bring them even bigger success. In a kind of homage/parody to every cop movie ever made, Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a straight-arrow supercop transferred from London (he makes all the other cops look bad) to a small town. Once there, he befriends the lumpen, dreamy Danny (Frost) and attempts to solve a series of "accidental" murders, with the greatest amount of firepower available. The film never gives up on its adoration for classic cop cinema, however, and at one point, Nicholas and Danny sit down to a DVD double-bill of Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break (1991) and Michael Bay's Bad Boys II (2003). Recently, the trio came to San Francisco for a frank (maybe too frank) chat.

JMA: The movie is a really clever blend of spoof, but also affectionate homage, and it's very good at both things. That's gotta be a hard thing to do.

Simon: I think you've got to never, never look down on your source material. Always hold it in high regard, because then you won't be tempted to make fun of it. With Hot Fuzz we're kind of saying a little about the genre, with Shaun we were just employing the genre. We took the genre and stuck it in the UK. We're not saying it's comic to do that, because obviously a zombie outbreak can happen anywhere. It wasn't funny in 28 Days Later when you saw it happening in London, and the comedy in Shaun of the Dead wasn't because there were zombies in London. There were other things at work. With Hot Fuzz, we're drawing attention to the formal quality of action movies by sticking it in a different context, so there is a gentle ribbing, but it's all done with a complete reverence.

JMA: There was a long list of movies you looked at to prepare for this, and a lot of them were good, like John Woo's films and Infernal Affairs, Oldboy, Lethal Weapon and Point Break, but some of them were terrible. How did you avoid looking down on the terrible ones?

Edgar: What were the terrible ones?

JMA: Super Fuzz is one...

Edgar: Super Fuzz is terrible, but I don't think it was on the list. We had Super Cops, which was a mid-1970s film by Gordon Parks, who did Shaft. That is brilliant. Super Fuzz was never on that list -- and shouldn't be.

JMA: Then you mentioned a bunch of Steven Segal movies and Chuck Norris movies, some of which are good and some of which are really not.

Simon: It would be easy to make fun of those.

JMA: Did you ignore the bad movies altogether and just focus on the good ones?

Edgar: No, it was kind of fun. The thing is, even with some of the Steven Segal films... we watched Out for Justice (1991).

JMA: Is that the one that takes place on Oscar night?

Edgar: No.

JMA: One of them takes place on Academy award night, which I thought was really funny. Everywhere he goes, if he goes into a shop, people are watching the Oscars on TV. It's a theme throughout the movie. It's really strange.

Simon: Oh my God.

Nick: I think you're thinking of Out for Oscars. [Note: it's actually Marked for Death, released in 1990.]

Edgar: No, but watching Out for Justice was actually quite fun. It was 80 minutes long, and I remember someone said, 'that was #1 at the box office.' And they really are like B-movies. There are so many things that are terrible about it, but then there's the odd flashes of things... it's like fast food. It's shit, but occasionally it tastes good. There's little moments in there. It's always funny to watch films. There's that Chuck Norris film Code of Silence (1985). Which is pretty good up until -- although its worse aspect is also its best bit -- his robot partner at the end, the Prowler. Which is so bizarre.

Simon: Pre-Robocop.

Edgar: It was pre-Robocop. One year before Robocop [Note: Actually two years before Robocop.] He has one of those, kind of like one of those Japanese dogs, like a bomb disposal code with guns. So watching those films is fun. There were very few films that were a chore. The worse crime for a film is to be bland. If a film is bad and entertaining, it's still entertaining.

Simon: That's also a message in our film, which is that there's a place for that. It shouldn't be frowned upon. It's often dismissed by the cineastes as being ponderous, but as long as it's balanced out with good things, and you watch stuff that makes you think -- and it does exist -- a diet of simply hamburgers will kill you. But it's nice to have one every now and again.

Edgar: I might go on a Morgan Spurlock bender of only bad films for 30 days. See what I feel like at the end of it.

JMA: Go to a doctor and test yourself?

Nick: Your eyes are failing.

Simon: Your vocabulary is getting less and less.

Edgar: Your sex drive is depleting after watching too many Steven Segal films.

Simon: You can see Steven Segal live in the UK at the moment. He's touring.

Edgar: He started a band called Thunderbox, like bluesy type stuff. He has a song called "Alligator Ass," apparently. [Note: True.] I would love it if all his films were just titles of his films. [Does Segal voice:] "This is a little ballad called 'On Deadly Ground.'"

Nick: "Out for Justice... Blues."

Edgar: The Steven Segal Blues Explosion. "Under Siege 2: Blues Territory."

JMA: Moving on. Simon and Edgar, you're both credited with the script. What's your writing process like? How much room is there for improvisation or tweaking on the set? And Nick, how much do you contribute?

(Nick shakes his head.)

Edgar: No, he's being modest. What we do is we write the script and we're very, very thorough about it. To quote another of my favorite films, we're "spectacularly anal." We sit opposite each other and hammer it out. And the reason we're so anal about it is that there are so many lines that recur and foreshadowing, but then Nick is the first actor to see the script.

Nick: But I'm more than just an actor, aren't I?

Edgar: And a friend. A lover. But basically Nick's input comes right at the start. When we rehearse it, we rehearse it with Simon and Nick first and go through everything, and then improvisations that come out of that, and there are at least three or four great zingers, Nick Frost copyright. Those are then written into the script, so then on the day, that's the script. We did the same thing with the rest of the actors. There were jokes that come out in rehearsal and we put those in but we don't improvise on the day because we don't really have time.

JMA: There's got to be a lot of setups, all that amazing action stuff...

Simon: What was the final number of setups? Over 2000?

Edgar: There were 1700, not counting 'B' and 'C' camera.

Simon: So there's little time for making up things.

JMA: What were some of your lines, Nick?

Nick: "I'm not made of eyes," was one of mine. And "We went through the NWA together."

Simon: In the UK, it's called the "Neighborhood Watch Association," and we wanted it to be the NWA [the hip-hop group], because that was a reference to "Fuck Tha Police."

[Nick starts to sneeze, but Edgar notices and starts taunting him. The sneeze is stifled before it can happen. Edgar laughs maniacally.]

Nick: I'll never get that sneeze back, you idiot.

Edgar: This is all gold!

Simon: You just robbed Nick's sneeze!

Edgar: I've never done that before! I feel so omnipotent! I feel like I've stolen your soul.

Nick: That's the worst thing anyone's ever done to me.

Simon: Do you feel like you've been nasally raped? ... I'm so sorry.

Edgar: I am the sneeze thief! I come in the night and steal little children's sneezes.

JMA: You realize I can write all this stuff down...

Simon: I can't wait to see 'You stole my sneeze, you c---!' You know that word in the UK is, even though it's technically the worst word, it's still kind of acceptable. One of my favorite jokes in the film is when you see the swear box and all the other words are blipped out except for 'c---.'

[Somehow we transition over to "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and Quentin Tarantino.]

Edgar: I saw some of Tarantino's episode being filmed. I went down to the set. That was amazing. It was really inspirational. It was just before we started Hot Fuzz. We always talk about making something in the mindset of a 14 year-old, with giddy excitement. Seeing him actually direct... he's so enthusiastic. You can see how inspired the entire crew is. It's crazy. He'll be talking about films right up until. The AD will be saying, 'roll sound,' and he'll be [switches to Tarantino voice]: 'And the thing about Mario Bava's The Evil Eye is... oh! Action!' He'd be in mid-anecdote and then get called away. He's on the thanks list for Hot Fuzz. His contribution to Hot Fuzz was this. He read some of the script when we were writing it, but when we were in L.A. he said, "OK. You're doing a cop film. I've got some cop films for you." And he projected two cop films for me at his house, in a double-bill. The Laughing Policeman (1973) with Walter Matthau, which is a San Francisco film, and an Italian film called Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976), which is the most amazing title, ever, apart from Half Past Dead. It's probably the most homoerotic cop film I've ever seen. The cops in it share a bedroom. They have bunks, and they're both real ladykillers, but the fact that they share a bedroom, it's like Bert and Ernie from "Sesame Street."

Nick: Have a little midnight banana fight.

JMA: Was that a major inspiration for this relationship in Hot Fuzz?

Edgar: Well, the homoerotic goes through most buddy films.

Simon: Absolutely, there are far more mainstream examples of that going on. Sometimes you wonder, 'surely they must realize.' With Kathryn Bigelow [Point Break], she had a level of detachment, being a woman, that really enabled her to bring that to the fore. But with other films, like Lethal Weapon, I don't know how they couldn't have been laughing.

JMA: I wanted to ask about that great opening scene with Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy. How did you get these three great guys to do this one little scene?

Edgar: With cameos like that, people kind of get the joke. Bill was in Shaun, and Simon supported Steve Coogan on a yearlong tour in the UK, so we have connections with all three.

Simon: I'm godfather to Martin's baby.

Edgar: The opening scene is like bringing in the top brass, and you keep going up a level with each person.

JMA: And the top person, Bill Nighy, is one of the greatest actors in the world.

Simon: Somebody said he was the British Christopher Walken. We use that symbolically in a way for what Angel is facing. The authority keeps getting greater. He's sent away by the powers that be.

JMA: You probably could have got Helen Mirren to be in that too.

Simon: That would have almost been too on the nose. Jane Tennison sends Angel away.

Edgar: I'd work with Helen Mirren any day of the week.

Simon: She's a brilliant actress. I remember when I presented a BAFTA award recently, and I was doing my little citation and they cut to Helen Mirren in the crowd and she was really laughing. And I just thought, "Yes! Helen Mirren likes me!" I was really quite thrilled at that tiny affirmation.

JMA: Nick, you have no real acting training? How did you get started and how do you find it today?

Nick: "Spaced" was the first acting I ever did. I never really imagined that it would go, that I'd have to act. The first few days in rehearsal were just terrible. I used to blush when I acted and I didn't like the sound of my own voice. I felt embarrassed that people were listening to me. But after I did the first series of "Spaced" and got paid and spunked it all up the wall in about five weeks. So I had to go back to waitering after the first series, which was kind of embarrassing, because people kind of liked the series. It was odd having to give someone the bill and then also give then an autograph. And then they'd stiff me. It was the ultimate. It wasn't until after Shaun of the Dead that I thought, "This is your job now."

JMA: Before I go I wanted to talk to you about Bad Boys II. It's such an odd film.

Edgar: In Austin we had this Hot Fuzz festival of classic cop films and one of the films we showed is Freebie and the Bean (1974). And Freebie and the Bean is kind of like the 1970s version of Bad Boys II.

JMA: Is Harvey Keitel in that?

Edgar: No, you're thinking of Mother, Juggs and Speed (1976). No, Freebie and the Bean is James Caan and Alan Arkin. It's the prototypical buddy cop film. It was really influential on Lethal Weapon, but it's very similar to Bad Boys II in terms of the most outrageous destruction of property. When you watch it, you're wowed by the stunts, but you keep thinking, 'How much did this cost?'

Simon: That film to me is almost a kind willfully arrogant homage to people to hate that kind of cinema.

Nick: And what must have been the cost of those two animatronic rats fucking?

April 4, 2007

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