Geeks bearing gifts
Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright discuss how they followed Shaun of the Dead with a spoof of American action movies in Hot Fuzz
British cinema is littered with failed spin-offs from TV and the crushed egos of comics unable to adapt to film. But with their horror spoof Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright somehow made the transition from small to big screen look easy. Was the film's international success a fluke? We'll find out soon enough. For Pegg and Wright are determined to prove they're anything but one-hit wonders with their new comedy- action-cop-thriller Hot Fuzz.
Actually, if anyone was likely to succeed it was them. Their sitcom Spaced - co-written by Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, and directed by Wright - was awash with movie tropes and nods to their favourite film-makers, including George Romero, Sam Raimi and John Woo. Self-confessed geeks, they proudly wore their often trashy influences on their sleeves. This was more than just homage, however; they were on a mission.
"We were always hoping to move towards making films," says Pegg. "Edgar was always going to be a film director, and I think it's largely due to him that the transition has been so smooth. His aspirations and abilities were always ready for film."
Despite the cinematic qualities of Spaced, a movie version was apparently never considered; television was its natural home. The show was a critical and popular success, but not so huge that it overshadowed Pegg and Wright's movie debut.
"I think if it had been as big a hit as The Office it would have made it really difficult," he says. "We could have made the same film as Shaun of the Dead but people would have more baggage about the old show." Shaun - an inspired riff on the zombie genre set in suburban London - had the same leftfield sensibility, point of view and sense of humour as the TV sitcom. But it also offered audiences new characters and a new setting.
This has not always been the case. Throughout the 1970s, British cinema was replete with sitcom spin-offs such as On the Buses, Steptoe and Son, Are you Being Served? and the especially awful George and Mildred. Monty Python's first cinema venture, And Now for Something Completely Different, was a collection of sketches from the first and second series of Monty Python's Flying Circus. They eschewed the sketch format with Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but returned to it in The Meaning of Life.
The worldwide success of1997's Bean, an Americanised version of Rowan Atkinson's British comedy, marked the return of the TV spin-off. This was followed by a chequered roster of flops and minor successes including Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson's Guest House Paradiso, Harry Enfield's Kevin and Perry Go Large, Ali G Indahouse and, most disappointing of all, The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse.
Did the Shaun/Hot Fuzz team learn from other people's mistakes? Wright says it was important for them to break away from Spaced so that "nobody could look at Shaun and say, 'Oh, it's really funny if you've seen the show.'"
Pegg suggests that TV characters can "false-foot" a film. "People think, 'Why pay to see them when you can see them at home for free?'" The forthcoming Simpsons Movie will be interesting, he says.
"We can watch the Simpsons pretty much any time of day. We've got them all on DVD. They're always on the television. It is going to have to be something special to pull everybody into the theatres to see it. I think it probably will, but I think that's a tough deal when you see a character from a comedy show transplanted to the big screen. It doesn't always work." Borat, of course, has shown that it can.
A note of irritation suddenly enters Pegg's voice as he recalls how some people accused Shaun of the Dead of being just an extended episode of Spaced. "I think that was wrong," he says. "It was shot on widescreen, it was very adeptly made. It was a film."
He and Wright had pored over books by screenwriting gurus Robert McKee and Syd Field, studying the "mechanics of screenplay writing, just to see if they really worked or whether they were bullshit". When they decided they did work, they built their screenplay around them.
"Because it was accepted as being a film, and because it did well here, and particularly in the States, it's led to other things and connections with people," says Pegg. "It meant that it's been a very good calling card for Hot Fuzz." All the same, he adds: "People tend not to want you to change position. It's like, 'You can't go there. You live here [television].'"
There isn't a complete disconnect between Spaced, Shaun and Hot Fuzz. There are echoes and reiterations of gags, lines of dialogue and situations from the sitcom in the movies, which, to me, are like the realisations of fantasies of Spaced's Tim (Pegg) and Mike (Nick Frost). It's as if they have become zombie killers in Shaun and action heroes in Hot Fuzz. Pegg laughs when I tell him this. "That's absolutely true," he says, adding that the thought had never struck him until now.
"When we were doing Spaced, we were writing about a group of young people whose aspirations were to break out into those worlds, and now suddenly we have the opportunity to do it for real.
"Those concerns that were present in Spaced - the love of genre films, science fiction, zombies, whatever - they were real concerns of our own, and we wrote about them because we loved them. And now that we're being given the opportunity to make films, we're able to do that on a much grander scale. Each project we've done has been an evolution from the last one."
INDEED, HOT FUZZ IS bigger, more complex and technically more ambitious than Shaun of the Dead. Pegg admits he and Wright felt they had to "step things up a little bit and prove that [Shaun] wasn't just a one-off, and that we could operate in the world of film. So we purposely took on something that was a lot grander, bigger and more sophisticated, certainly in terms of its execution, just to make that passage into being accepted as film-makers definite."
A smart combination of parochial English humour and absurd Jerry Bruckheimer-like pyrotechnics, Hot Fuzz casts Pegg as Nicholas Angel, a London cop so good at his job that he is embarrassing the rest of the force. He is reassigned to sleepy Sandford, in the West Country, where he is teamed up with an unworldly local bobby played by Frost.
They soon find themselves up to their necks in murder, and embroiled in a narrative that becomes deliberately more absurd as it takes its cues from Point Break and Bad Boys 2. Hot Fuzz was the film-makers' way of "creating a tribute to the bad-ass cop films," says Wright. Like the characters in Spaced, they were also living their dreams.
"It's no coincidence that Hot Fuzz is set in the kind of area where I and Simon grew up, because essentially the film is like a boyhood fantasy become real. I grew up in this area [Somerset], and it's a very lovely part of the world but very quiet, and I used to make amateur films as a teenager and invariably they'd be escapist teenage fantasies showing things that didn't happen in my town. With this we really wanted to make a film which on one hand is as British as it could possibly be, whilst on the other hand being as American as it could possibly be."
While the film's conventions are Hollywood-inspired, the casting is British to the core. Like Shaun before it, Hot Fuzz is populated with recognisable faces from almost every recent British comedy series one could think of (see panel), as well as the more serious acting talent of Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall. Iconic old hands such as Edward Woodward, Billie Whitelaw, Anne Reid, Edward Woodward and former James Bond Timothy Dalton play some of the leading local figures, but it is the new generation of comic actors and writers who hold the reins. Does Pegg feel like they are part of a creative movement?
"It's hard not to feel like that because you tend to stay working with the people you enjoy working with and as a result you start to look like you're a troupe," he says. Wright thinks of it as an "expanding rep company", along the lines of the way that Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers work. But "Hot Fuzz isn't just a revamp, casting-wise, of Shaun of the Dead, because most people weren't in it. Everyone's welcome," says Pegg.
I wonder if this is true also of the audience, because their films - violent, action-packed and geeky - seem to be aimed so much at young males. Is it a coincidence that Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz all begin with Pegg splitting up with a female partner or on the verge of losing one? Spaced had an "enormous female demographic", he claims, "maybe because it's an insight into just how ridiculous men are. Shaun was a kind of little apology to our respective partners for being lazy and wanting to just go to one pub all the time."
His Hot Fuzz character, he reveals, was supposed to have a love interest who worked in a cake shop, but they realised that the "film is really a very sweet romance between two straight guys". So she had to go. No doubt people will talk about the film's playful send-up of the homoerotic tension in buddy cop movies such as Lethal Weapon, but Pegg says this is the easy analysis.
"The thing that fascinates me and Edgar, and also underpins my relationship with Nick, is the situation where you have two straight men who are battling their own instinctive tendency to express their masculinity in order to be affectionate with each other," he explains. "I have no problem with hugging or kissing my male friends because I'm not frightened of it. It doesn't bother me and I know I'm not going to get a boner if I give Nick a big cuddle in his pants. And I don't care if I do. Whereas a lot of men can't do it because they think, 'This isn't right'.
"I love that struggle that goes on. It's the key to world peace in a way," he laughs. "If men could be OK hugging each other, everything would be fine."
This article first appeared in The Scotsman.
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014