September 26, 2002 | I met up with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright, the creative team behind the Britcom "Spaced" and now the brilliant zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead, right before I was scheduled to host a Q&A after a free screening of the film (comprised mainly of Romero fanatics and genre geeks) at Denver's Pavilions Theater. As the movie unspooled, the four of us retired to a Planet Hollywood where they were playing, of all things, an old, unknown FIXX song from the '80s. There was something pleasantly right about that, chatting with these blokes--who had made a half-assed record collection in Shaun of the Dead into an arsenal to irritate the legions of the shambling undead--as the detritus of our glossiest, Teflon age pounded the corners of one of the most soulless prefab eateries in the world.
We kept the conversation away from the usual suspects--I knew the stories about how the picture was inspired by an episode of "Spaced"; about how their next project is a cop actioner probably titled Raging Fuzz; about how they solicited extras through their website; about how they accidentally popped one fellow's eye out while inserting a zombie cataract lens; about how Wright, et al, figured that since they had a TV show they might as well have a movie, too; and about how Pegg and Wright had recently had latex casts made of their faces in preparation for bit parts in George Romero's upcoming Land of the Dead. We delved, instead, into Pegg's college paper on the issue of consent in George Lucas' Star Wars films, how exactly Peter Jackson's make-up artist Stuart Conran came to be involved with Shaun of the Dead, how Sidney Lumet's Q&A deserves a DVD release in the UK, and, most bizarrely I guess, how Wright had recently bought the entire Joe Don Baker Walking Tall hicksploitation trilogy--but hadn't yet seen the third, and most meta, of those films. Mr. Wright is manic and not unlike Tim Burton in demeanour and energy, while Mr. Pegg is calmer with a voice that, in person, sounds surprisingly like Terence Stamp's. Mr. Frost is surprisingly quiet; I don't think he was feeling well.-Walter Chaw
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Charting your influences: Sam Raimi, George Romero, Peter Jackson--I wondered how you managed to get Stuart Conran on board your project.
EDGAR WRIGHT: Not how you think. I was actually recommended Stuart from a mutual friend of ours. Stuart had done, of course, all sorts of things and we were lucky to get him, I thought from the very beginning, but when we discovered that he'd worked on Dead Alive, I mean, we were chuffed. He did most the prosthetic work for us, you know--he made the Halloween issue of FANGORIA. But it was sort of backwards how we came to work together--I like to think of it as destiny. (laughs)
How much CGI did you use?
EW: More than you'd think, hopefully. My intention was not to use any at all, you know. I'm sort of an old school snob when it comes to that sort of gore thing--I didn't want people to be acting at nothing, reacting to where I said a monster was. So I went in with a chip on my shoulder about it. But our F/X guys showed us what we could do. For instance there's a scene where this zombie gets a bullet through her head and what we did was that make-up put a bullet-hole on her head and we got a squib on the back of her head and did the scene and all that and then, later, CGI took the bullet-hole away for a couple of frames and sort of augmented the brains. Stuff like that--strings and mirrors, mostly. The philosophy of the violence was modeled on Battle Royale.
CGI has such the potential to ruin a film when it's overused, but I've been consistently amazed at how adept it is at fooling me sometimes.
EW: Oh yeah, it's amazing, man. You remember An American Werewolf in Paris?
Couldn't even get the fur right--they looked like blue lizards.
EW: (laughs) Right--that's the legendary example of too much technology isn't it. I was afraid of that stuff going in, but what it can do is make things look better--its limit comes when it tries to be the thing itself. That reminds me, while we were getting molds of our heads for Land of the Dead, they showed us some tests of new effects that they were working on and I saw one of the best arm-bitings that I've ever seen. I mean, just utterly convincing and totally gruesome, man. They're doing revolutionary stuff up there and if there's only one good thing that comes out of all these zombie movies the last couple of years, it's that someone's giving George Romero money to make his new movie.
Were you daunted at all in trying to recreate the legendary disembowelment sequence from Day of the Dead?
EW: No, no--we really wanted to do it, we all loved that effect and you don't see enough good disembowelments in movies. (laughs)
Even in a world with Mel Gibson?
EW: (laughs) No comment. No--we wanted to do that effect but we wanted to set it up a little differently, to make it seem like David had been picked up as a crowd surfer at the end of what was sort of a concert scene. What we were going for in the film wasn't a spoof so much as something much more reverent of our sources. I mean...these were our favourite movies growing up, especially Dawn of the Dead.
Hence the title--but I confess, when I first heard it, it sounded a little hostile [towards the genre].
EW: I should tell you that we really sort of just settled on the title. I think that it's misleading, that a lot of people go in thinking we're taking the piss out of zombie movies when really zombie movies are what we love best. The title's the worst joke in the film.
You use a lot of music from [Romero's] Dawn of the Dead--including a lot of the incidentals.
EW: Yeah, you know, a guy I know got me an unofficial soundtrack for Dawn of the Dead--it's floating around out there, it's a bootleg, but you can get it if you look even just a little. And what this guy's done is taken every incidental bit of music from the American version, all the drop-needle, non-licensed stuff, and put it together on this compilation. So you get everything from the film, not just the proper score, and we were really excited to find that most of that stuff didn't have any copyrights or estates on them, that we could use them for free just like Romero did when he was making his movie.
Knowing how you feel about 28 Days Later... were you offended, too, by the Dawn of the Dead remake?
EW: (laughs) Listen, the new film is good, it's well-directed isn't it? And it has a lot of smart stuff--the celebrity stuff in there is really funny, a couple of really nice lines. But fast zombies--man. They're not zombies anymore if they're fast, are they? My beef with 28 Days Later... though is that Danny Boyle really tried to take the air out of the genre--he said he didn't like them like he didn't respect them or something and insisted on calling his film a "thriller" or something like that. I didn't like that. The new Dawn of the Dead, though, it's really not a remake, is it. It's more like a good action movie than a zombie movie.
SIMON PEGG: I liked it, but I think that it missed a lot of the point and poetry of the original. Until the very end, there aren't actually many zombies in it. It's just this brilliant take on ingrained behaviours. One of the most telling moments of the film is when they steal the money from the bank--but as they leave the bank, they still walk out through the barriers. They respect the old rituals, you know, and it's brilliant in a million little ways like that--telling us about how we are and to what extent we're programmed into these insensible behaviours.
I got from your film the idea that the heroes sort of wished to be zombies in a way.
SP: Definitely at the start of it, you know, with Shaun lying around and all that and not wanting to take any positive action of any sort. But by the end... We like to say that it takes a zombie invasion to turn Shaun into a human being. We thought of our actual zombies, really, as innocents. Romero saw them as these carnivorous consumer shoppers in Dawn of the Dead, but we just saw ours as just totally blameless--they somehow just slide into zombification. That was our kind of politicism.
EW: I think they definitely want to take it easy at first, that's right--they want to drink and eat and play PlayStation. They rely, like we all rely, on things that we're comfortable with. That pub in the movie is based on our favourite pub back home. The whole idea of a lot of those early shots in the film is to draw a strong connection between the routine of your average guy and the shuffling mindlessness of your average zombie. We didn't even want to use the word "zombie"--we wanted to sort of take a look at what it'd be like if people we knew started seeing these ghouls wandering around their neighbourhood. I'd wager that it'd take a good long time before they realized that the monsters weren't just drunks or addicts falling down in the street. There's something inherently funny about most horror scenarios, after all. But as to your point that it seemed like the characters preferred that state of just lying around, I think that's interesting--I mean, even after Shaun realizes what's going on he takes all his friends back to his pub.
I read that you were a big fan of Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
EW: Oh yeah, yeah--great zombie movie in its way, amazing stuff he does in that picture with atmosphere and establishing shots. Robert Duvall as a priest--you just know that something really creepy is going on. I took a lot of cues from that film, mainly how the main characters, Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, sometimes they'll have these walking conversations about how so-and-so isn't acting right or whatever and all around them, in the background and foreground, you see all this weird shit going on. Garbage men taking out loads of what we realize later are what's left of people after they've been sucked up by the pods. That guy in the hall of the health department who has his face pressed up against the glass. And the heroes don't notice a thing until it's too late, they're too involved in their own stuff and, besides, there's always an explanation for all the weird stuff. I guess until there's not. We had stuff like people running down the street in our film, had sirens blazing all the time, you know, we really wanted a long build up to the film--to almost make two films.
What've you seen lately?
SP: Lately? Open Water.
NICK FROST: Ah, Jesus, that depressed the shit out of me. You know the last creepy movie, really creepy movie that I saw was Audition.
Miike--that's a really uncomfortable flick.
NF: (Imitating Audition's Asami as she tortures her victim with acupuncture needles:) Cree-creee-creee-creee! She sticks a needle in the guy's eye, doesn't she? What a great movie.
SP: Yeah, that part where she saws his foot off with a wire.
EW: I've been watching the Walking Tall movies, the old ones with Joe Don Baker--they're amazing.
The third one, he goes to see himself in the first film.
EW: NO! That's brilliant, isn't it. Bo Svenson, right? I heard that they were going to get the real guy, Buford Pusser, to play himself but that he died or something. They don't make them like that anymore. You know what they really need to do, though, is get Lumet's Q&A on DVD--you can't find that movie anywhere. (Editor's Note: Q&A is in fact readily available on DVD, but only in Region One.)
That's an amazingly vulgar, violent film--Nick Nolte's finest hour.
EW: It is, man, it's wonderful.
Did it even open in the UK?
EW: I don't remember, I saw it after in any case. A lot of stuff doesn't make it across the pond, people don't think that it translates.
Were you ever worried that the humour in your film wouldn't translate?
EW: No, never.
NF: We did worry that the distributors would worry.
EW: (laughs) There are small things, you know, that we knew wouldn't make a lot of sense, but you get it in context I think--we have different brands of stuff, like this ice cream that Ed sends Shaun out for the morning that all hell breaks loose. That was really funny to British audiences because it's first thing in the morning and this slob wants a bucket of ice cream--in the States it'd be something like Ben & Jerry's, I guess. But aside from that, this whole idea that humour doesn't translate, that's something that's disproved again and again, isn't it. Audiences are seldom ever as stupid as studio guys and publicity want to believe.
SP: No, we laboured over that script for like three years, just working and reworking it--we must have put a hundred drafts into it, sometimes just on one joke. But we worked on it with it in mind that American audiences love stuff like "The Simpsons" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm", you know. We had faith that you had the same sense of humour--that even when, like, we watch "The Simpsons" and hear real specific references, "Tom Landry's hat" and all that, we get the sense of the joke even if we don't get the details of it.
Not much improvisation, then, in the picture.
NF: No, no--almost verbatim off the page. Comedy's hard enough without fucking up each other's timing. There was a part though where they asked me to do my monkey impersonation that no one could get through--and another where my character was to describe an old lady at the pub as a sex addict/former porn star and I came up with something different every time. But that was a case where Edgar wanted a genuine reaction from Simon--he really wanted me to make him laugh, so that was the exception. The rest of the time though, for the most part, we went off script. We needed, I think, to really try to keep it as sober as we could so that the whole thing didn't fly off into outer space.
NF: (laughs) Right, that was one.
Tell me about the basis for your Marxist thesis on Star Wars.
SP: Right, the notion of consent being that when a film has inherent ideologies, by watching it without being critically objective, you implicitly consent to those ideologies. It wasn't just about Star Wars, it was about a lot of those fantasies, you know, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The sexuality of C-3PO came up, I think, but what's really fascinating now about those films and this notion of consent is this thinking that weapons of mass destruction are A-OK in the hands of the righteous, but bad in the hands of the bad. The Force is good, the Death Star's bad, and the most brilliant thing is the idea in Raiders that if you open the WMD box, release all this shit, just so long's you don't look at it, everything's going to be all right. Just the way that the films reflect this sort of post-Vietnam America where there's a lot of ambiguity morally and suddenly there's this film that's clear-cut. It's Bush's America, isn't it, Axis of Evil vs. the Neocons.
Was there any discomfort in the UK at all about all the villains in Star Wars being British?
SP: Ah, no, not at all. There wasn't really ever a recognition of the sort of sub-theme there of America breaking away, we were just glad to see us in there.
There're a lot of racial problems in the new films, though, that are harder to overlook.
SP: True. Even in the originals, though, there's this problem of Chewbacca.
He never gets a medal. Lando's a traitor and a letch and he's a general. Chewbacca's the dog.
SP: (laughs) Yes--the African-American issues are things that run throughout Lucas' stuff. You let the Judas run riot, but the faithful servant gets the shaft. Lucas is a sledgehammer racist. You know, one of my friends did the voice of that Asian--what do you call them: Neimoidians--in Episode 1, the "honorable Jedi" guy. Yeah, Toby Longworth. White middle-class English guy that Lucas instructs to talk like an Asian guy out of a 1940s movie. Definitely a lot of stuff about the Yellow Peril, clearly, all this kind of stuff in just the most crass kind of way. Talk about consent, you know, people are so violent about denying that stuff in the movies, but Lucas himself...
He defended Jar-Jar as a character who spoke "Jamaican." Is that a language?
SP: (laughs) That's hysterical. The thing is that when he wrote Star Wars he was Luke Skywalker, and when he did Return of the Jedi he'd turned into Jabba the Hutt. If you don't oppose it though, you just let it get right through, and decades of people just letting it all through have resulted in this culture that we have here of fear and ignorance.
Interesting about zombies and consent.
SP: Absolutely, I mean, we've come to a place where we fear ourselves again, the zombie radicals walking among us. The enemy within, the notion that killers are walking around inside of us--less the bio-paranoia, the body-horror stuff. This zombie thing is popular again I think because we're our own worst enemy again.