Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost came to Dallas to introduce “The World’s End,” their third film together following “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” which have won them a cult following in America as well as their native England. It’s a combination of a reunion movie and a sci-fi parable, about five high-school chums who’ve drifted apart but get together after twenty years to make the rounds of twelve pubs in their home town, only to find that people there have changed radically—due to the intervention of aliens. It’s done up with the trio’s trademark humor with a hint of regretful nostalgia added to the mix. During an interview, they were asked whether the success of the earlier pictures had made thought of a follow-up a stressful prospect.
“It was a healthy pressure,” Pegg, who stars and co-wrote the script with Wright, replied, “a pressure from ourselves not to sit on our laurels and just expect people to like it. Just because ‘Shaun’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’ had gotten some support and some love, we didn’t just want to assume that anything we did would get the same. We wanted to challenge ourselves and work as hard as we ever did so that we made a film that could stand alongside the other two. We feel that as long as we do it with honesty and hard work, we should technically be able to do it again. That was our modus operandi.”
“I don’t think external forces could put more pressure on us than we put on ourselves,” Frost, who co-stars with Pegg, added. “Also, we don’t second-guess what the audience wants. We just make the film that we’d like to make, and a lot of people respond to that.”
Wright, who directed as well as co-authoring the screenplay, said, “And also you have to make films because you want to do them rather than you think you ought to do them. So if there are any tonal differences from the other two, that’s our own decision. The three films are very thematically linked—they have the same sensibility, the same sense of humor. But we take them into different places, because we’re commenting on different stages in our lives. One of the nice things about doing these three movies is that we’ve got to get older with each one.”
Pegg noted that some gags were carried over from the earlier movies to provide links that fans would especially appreciate. “We’d mentioned the [Cornetto] ice-cream twice, and someone said, ‘Oh, is this your three-flavor Cornetto trilogy?’—what Edgar coined the Kieslowski gag. And we thought maybe we can make a thematic trilogy of films that are completely disparate, have different storylines in different universes, but have thematic internal links. Nick likes to think of them as the sankara stones from ‘Indiana Jones.’ They all exist on their own, but if you bring them together, they glow. There are jumping jokes. We had this idea—wouldn’t it be interesting to create a joke that had a constituent part in three very disparate films, and were funny by themselves, but if you brought them together you could see it as a series and an evolution. I’d never seen that before. And when we finally arrived at how we were going to do it in ‘The World’s End,’ it felt like…a great way to kind of not only do something novel but tie the three films together, almost like a little signature on each film that says, ‘Yes, this is one of three.’ But they also exist as one of one.”
The three ruminated about the theme of growing up that the picture expresses, and how they experience the change in their own lives. “When you get to a certain age,” Wright said, “you start thinking back about your formative years. Some people do it with happiness, and some people do it with regret. We had the idea that you’ve got three films about growing up. ‘Shaun’ is about [the fact that] Shaun has to grow up. In ‘Hot Fuzz’ you have to dumb down to be a bad-ass cop. In this one, it’s the idea that Gary [Pegg’s character] is so frightened of the future—or doesn’t even think about tomorrow—that he would rather turn the clock back. It’s like a time-travel movie, but the time machine is beer. He wants to take [his friends] back to being teenagers again, [but] you’ve got to be careful what you wish for…. It’s interesting to say that nostalgia can sometimes be dangerous to your health.”
Pegg added, “If all you have is nostalgia, it means there’s something wrong with the present—which does reflect on what’s going on in the film industry today. There’s so much calling back the stuff that’s gone before to generate interest from audiences. It kind of suggests there’s absolutely nothing now. Nostalgia is the enemy in this film. As Sam [the female addition to the male quintet played by Rosamund Pike] says to Gary at one point, you have to go forward, not backwards.”
And of the actual experience of going home, Wright noted, “It’s such a bittersweet feeling to go back.”
Pegg recalled getting together with his childhood friends once. “It was a lovely night,” he said. “We talked about the past and we caught up. And we never, ever did it again, because it’s all we have, and you can’t have a friendship that exists on nostalgia alone, because you have to move forward as friends, you have to evolve. We all have, the three of us, over the years. Going back and meeting those people was educational, because I remember loving them dearly when I was sixteen, and I kind of still do, but there’s no real forward momentum in that. There’s a sense of desperation when you’re trying to find some common ground, other than what you did when you were sixteen, and there isn’t any. It’s depressing.”
Frost recalled returning to the village in Wales where he spent part of his childhood: “I lived there when I was twelve, thirteen for a time. It might have been different if I’d grown up there, but going back I kind of felt like Brad Pitt in ‘Twelve Monkeys,’ you know? It felt like when you see a time-lapse photography of a bowl of fruit decaying. That’s what it felt like, and it always made me feel very sad. You could always tell how much time had passed by how many teeth people had lost. That’s why I don’t go back. I’m all about going forward.”
Asked what films served as models for “The World’s End,” Wright replied, “Certainly when we made ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ we were trying to make a film that was in the [George] Romero universe. And ‘Hot Fuzz,’ the whole premise of it was about the difference between the fantasy of Hollywood cop films and the reality of police procedural. But in a way the emotional aspects of this [film] and the sci-fi things tied up in a way that we would express our feelings about small-town ennui by wanting to imagine that there were otherworldly forces. When I used to go back to my hometown, I’d get this feeling like I was—pun intended—alienated in terms of it. Every time I went back it felt sort of different, and it was slowly changing without me. And the people in the town wouldn’t recognize me…and I would say to my friends [that] every time I go home it’s like ‘Body Snatchers.’ So it wasn’t the case that we started writing a film about friends drinking and then picked the genre out of a hat.”
But he added, “There are two films that we watched. It’s funny, with ‘Hot Fuzz’ we watched lots and lots of cop films. We didn’t really watch any sci-fi films, because there’s so ingrained in our consciousness growing up. Particularly in the U.K., there were so many sci-fi films on TV. I remember particularly growing up with things like ‘Quatermass and the Pit,’ ‘Invaders from Mars,’ ‘Village of the Damned.’ The two films that we did watch were ‘The Big Chill’ and the Gene Kelly musical ‘It’s Always Fair Weather,’ which is about wartime buddies reuniting after ten years and actually realizing they have nothing in common. Another film, with nothing to do with sci-fi at all, that I always think is a good ‘quest’ movie in the same way is that Burt Lancaster film ‘The Swimmer,’ because…at the start of the movie he says, ‘I’m going to get home by swimming through every pool.’ And as it goes on, you realize there’s a darker and darker story coming out. In a way I like that as another unlikely influence on this movie.”
As to the larger question raised by the sci-fi element of the movie—whether mankind might be better off with some sort of external power to direct it rather than left to its own devices—Pegg said, “Well, maybe a degree of control is a good idea. Maybe it would be better to let a higher power run our lives—what we do and what we’re allowed to do, because as individuals we’re an incredibly erratic, selfish, dangerous species. But the thing is, at what cost? It comes down to the idea that everything might be rosier with this system of control in place—the universe, the world might be an easier place to live in—but it comes at a specific cost, and that is our personal freedom, and is that personal freedom more important than our happiness? I don’t know. We leave that open for our audience to decide, or not decide, or argue about. Or just laugh at.”
“We’re very much back where we like to be, in a funny gray area,” Wright added.