The World’s End Directed by Edgar Wright
“The World’s End” is the final installment in the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy,” named after a British brand of ice cream that appears in all three films. The films are directed by Edgar Wright, co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and co-star Pegg and Nick Frost – the two previous films being “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.”
All three films feature very ordinary and very English lives and routines that are interrupted, profoundly, by strange goings on. In “Shaun of the Dead” the interruption is caused by a zombie outbreak and in “Hot Fuzz” by a murderous group of small town boosters.
“The World’s End” starts with Pegg’s Gary King realizing that he still harbors the regret associated with failing to complete an epic pub crawl in his home town. So he gathers up his old friends, with whom he has had little contact, and drags them back to their old stomping grounds in an attempt to finish what they started decades earlier. The outcome is much as one would expect from the series, although perhaps less overtly funny than “Shaun of the Dead” and a closer match to “Hot Fuzz.”
I sat down recently with the threesome (Wright, Pegg and Frost) along with several other members of the press, for a roundtable interview about the films. Much of the conversation was less than serious, as you might expect, with conflicting voices speaking over one another. What follows is an attempt to capture the content and the primary speakers on the topics covered. (The less serious comments are in italics.)
Prompt: Your films show parts of England, outside of London – but they’re parts that have zombies, murderers, and what we see in this movie….
Wright: Richard Curtis’ films are like a sort of tourist board advert and ours maybe not so much. Don’t stray out of the tourist zone.
Pegg: Stay in London. Stay in Notting Hill.
Pegg: The UK is seen in a certain light around the world, not least in America as being some sort of chocolate box green and peasant land, full of castles and stuff like that. The context, irrespective of where we take it, whether it be zombies, or murderers, or aliens – that’s by the by – we’re trying to set the films at least in a real part of England.
Frost: If you go to the North of England, it’s full of unemployed miners who strip.
Pegg: We always want to start off from a point of reality – that’s where our roots are in reality. And then we go off into these places of fantasy and absurdity.
Wright: But it’s also amusing to us having grown up in those places – when we watch Hollywood genre movies it seems so far flung to us. When we did “Hot Fuzz,” even watching American cop films it seemed like sci-fi to us because it seemed so far removed from our … especially if you’re in the country or in a satellite town. So there’s something that happens when you grow up in a small town – you’re somewhat obsessed about what goes on behind closed doors and also that slightly mischievous desire to cause absolute mayhem.
Pegg: Also we’re parochial – England is a parochial country and we wanted to reflect that.
Prompt: Aside from ice cream, what are the thematic connections between the films?
Wright: I’m glad you asked. The overriding themes would be the individual versus the collective, which is in all three movies. The dangers of perpetual adolescence – in “Shaun of the Dead” Shaun has to grow up to be the hero, in “Hot Fuzz” if anything Nicholas Angel has to dumb down to be the badass, and in this movie when Gary King decides to turn back the clock by the magic time machine known as alcohol, things go very badly wrong. So the moral of this film is actually said aloud by Rosamund Pike, she says you’ve got to go forwards and not backwards – so I think that’s what connects all of them that they’re three films about growing up.
Pegg: Loss of identity – and friendship.
Frost: Friendship between men – and how they must change. Different stages of friendship that men go through or don’t go through.
Pegg: And also Britishness – contemporary Britishness. There are many connective threads that are more important and relevant than the ice cream. The ice cream and the fence jumping are just an invitation in and it all gets a bit more cerebral after that.
Wright: The ice cream is literally the dessert topping.
Prompt: You’re always walking a fine line with tone, especially in the second half of the films.
Wright: It’s definitely a tricky thing – and all of the movies we’ve done have that balancing act. “Shaun of the Dead” is pretty dark – it’s funny to me that a few people have said that this feels darker than the other two and I’ve said “Shaun does shoot his mother in the head.” That’s about as dark as it gets in a comedy.
Frost: And Danny’s Dad points a gun at him in “Hot Fuzz.”
Pegg: It ends with a weird proto-fascist utopia….
Wright: I think the thing is that we’re big comedy fans – and even some films that you really enjoy, you can be in the cinema and laugh at for a hundred minutes and have forgotten the film by the time you reach the parking lot. We like to make films that have laughs and have thrills but they have some other nagging themes that might echo around in your head a couple of days later. That’s our aim in a way – to have some deeper meaning there as well.
Pegg: And we’ve always been at pains to embrace and defend the idea of a slow burn – you don’t just get in there and desperately try and be funny straight away, or play all your cards straight away to try and fool the audience into thinking it’s hilarious. There’s value in building characters and story – and then when you do start taking left turns or making dramatic choices, people have got a lot invested in it and it’s a lot more effective I think.
Frost: You can get away with more as well.
Prompt: You’ve said that you take the audience’s intelligence seriously – why do you think that makes for good comedy?
Pegg: Because you should never underestimate the joy in audience participation making links – and the joy of your own connections with the film. I think everybody can laugh at a person falling over, and we know that better than most as we put that in every film we do, but there’s also a great joy in working stuff out and solving puzzles, and making connections between threads, and seeing foreshadowing and things paying off, and getting all that. It’s a far more gratifying experience than just hearing the word “cum” every five minutes. When an audience leaves the theater when they’ve been taken seriously, they feel good about it. We’re constantly being infantilized by what we see at the cinema, we constantly being underestimated, bashed around the head with it, and it’s turning us into mush. I would hope in a summer that’s been fairly populated by big dumb shit, that you leave feeling “Oh that was tasty.”
We try and make films for ourselves – that we would leave the cinema thinking that was enjoyable. I remember the first time I saw “Raising Arizona” I felt flattered that they thought that much of me that I could get that film. I felt like I was complimented by it in a weird way and I love that feeling of being in on it and I’m not just having fireworks let off in my face.
Wright: All of the films that inspire us are films that I feel like I want to watch again as soon as it’s finished – films that I loved but I just wanted to see more of. I think “Raising Arizona” is a good example – I felt exactly the same way – I watched it immediately again afterwards. And before I returned it to our version of “Blockbuster” I wanted to watch as much of it as I can before I had to return it, the rental, just so that I’ve seen everything – which is a good way to be. That’s the greatest kind of movie – you want to watch it a second time half way through watching it the first time.
Pegg: I don’t think that you can watch any of the films we’ve made, particularly “The World’s End,” and entirely get it on the first watch. There’s stuff in there that you can’t possibly watch until you’ve seen it all before. There are punchlines that happen before the setup, so that you can’t get it until you watch it a second time. Because we feel that we owe it to the audience, in the age of repeated viewing, in the age of DVD and downloading and ownership which we have of cinema now – you owe it to the audience, if they’re going to spend money on what you’ve made it needs to give back something. So if you watch it again and again and again, you’re still seeing new things – five or six times in. And if that means people on a first watch don’t entirely get it, then that’s just the way it is.
Wright: And because it’s in 2D, it cost $3 less.
Frost: We had the Olympics last year and I’m sick of the word “legacy” because we heard it about a trillion times – but it’s about that thing – it’s about in 10 years time when someone will say “have you seen this film?” I was like that with “Withnail and I” and “Spinal Tap.” It’s those things where someone says “Hey, you’ve got to see this!” – and that means a lot to us. It’s not just about a pop shot, it’s about a slow build and something that people will watch in 10 years potentially, or 50, or 20 – that’s really important. It’s like putting peanuts in a log – you know, with animals at the zoo. If you just put the food out for them, they get really bored and sad. But if you hide it, they find it, and they feel amazing.
Wright: I’ve never heard that….
Frost: People were thinking these animals are very depressed, what’s the big deal – but animals like to forage – make them work for it, that’s what they’re happiest doing. So they decided, let’s hide the food all over the place and they became infinitely happier because they had to work to find it.
Wright: So what we’re basically saying to our audience is “Listen you monkeys, we want you to work for your peanuts.”
Pegg: As a species, we often take the path of least resistance – that’s why people like spoilers, because it removes all the tension and people kind of want that. You shouldn’t really be encouraged to do that and I think that’s where the message of the film comes in – maybe it would be good if a higher power comes in and tells us what we want, because maybe we’d be better for it – but then that all comes down to control and the debate starts.
Prompt: Mixing horror and comedy runs the risk of becoming a self-parody, but here we’re laughing with the characters – how do you find that line?
Wright: It’s tricky – I remember when we made “Shaun of the Dead” and there’s the scene where his Mum just died and we actually cut some jokes out, because we realized that the audience needed grieving time. It’s really tricky because you’ve also got to move the film along and in this one there’s some moments like where there’s not time to grieve some of the people who’ve gone. It’s a tricky balancing act absolutely, because you can’t make the characters look callous but there’s got to be stakes. In most horror films you don’t give a shit about the victims at all – they’re basically there to be killed every 15 minutes. But here you’ve got to feel bad for those that didn’t make it. And, without giving too much away, in the opening of the film you can see the fate of some of the characters in the prologue – it’s setting up these omens – it’s almost like the opening is a prophecy foretold of what’s going to happen at the end of the movie.
Prompt: Having spent three movies together, what’s the worst thing that any of you have done in the course of making them?
Wright: If I have any regrets it’s that I sulk too much on set – I let the stresses of the shoot just wear on my face – and I rely on these guys too much to be the cheerleaders and keep the crew morale up. All the films are fun to look back on and watch and they look like a breeze, but they’re really tough to make. This film took 12 weeks to make, which is long for a low budget film but not for the amount of action and special effects. And even scenes just sitting around a table are a bitch in terms of the amount of coverage you need. So the worst thing I’ve done to these guys is probably just being a moody bastard at times.
Pegg: Ah, finally you admit it!
Wright: But these guys have done nothing wrong.
Pegg: Stuff’s happened – I mean we’ve been hurt and we’ve broken bones, and we’ve been through emotional trauma – but all with the support of the others. We’re cooperative and anything less than that is counter-productive, so there isn’t even a scale of bad things that these guys have done in my opinion.
Frost: (To the person who asked the question): You’re slightly disappointed aren’t you?
Prompt: After horror and action, why go with science fiction? Aside from the themes mentioned earlier, there seemed to be an anti-technological theme than ran through the films.
Pegg: More anti-corporate than anti-technological.
Wright: Yeah – you’ve got this character who likes to see himself as a rebel but to everybody else he’s pathetic, he’s the guy that can’t grow up. It’s like you can’t be the teenager flipping the bird to the man in your 40’s. But then when it gets towards the end, it’s like you’ve got to be on his side because you don’t want to be with the aliens – you’ve got to be a human at the end of the day. So that’s one of the over-arching themes of it – and in terms of the sci-fi thing, it’s not like we pick a genre out of a hat while we’re writing, it was just something that felt like a way of expressing an emotion – we’ve felt that bittersweet emotion of going back to your home town and it changing around you. There was something in “Hot Fuzz” that stuck in my head, that really informed this film – “Hot Fuzz” was shot in my home town and Sandford in “Hot Fuzz” is supposed to be really beautiful and parochial and that’s what I imagined as the town where I grew up. And yet, when we were shooting that film, I had to digitally erase a Starbucks from lots of shots, because it just didn’t fit and it’s like that just doesn’t fit in my home town.
Frost: And the NWA [a reference to the Neighborhood Watch Association in “Hot Fuzz”] would never allow a Starbucks.
Wright: Exactly – they would never allow a Starbucks. So the irony of having to digitally erase a Starbucks was not lost on me. So I think there’s something about the social science fiction, sort of paranoid sci-fi, quiet invasion – like that genre, which is a big part of our upbringing through a lot of British and American sci-fi, whether it’s “Body Snatchers” or “village of the Damned,” or like “Quatermass and the Pit.” I remember once expressing to a friend that I felt that my town had changed because when I went back at Christmas to see my family, nobody recognized me – they either didn’t recognize me or didn’t care – and both of them bummed me out. And these were people I went to school with – even the thing with the bully in the film is based on a real incident. I remember saying … it’s like “Body Snatchers” – that the town changed without me. And it’s like the two go hand in hand really.
Pegg: It’s always story first – and as soon as you say the words “I feel alienated at home” it’s obvious what you’re going to do.
Prompt: For Nick Frost and Simon Pegg – of the characters in the three films, which are most similar and most different to you as individuals?
Frost: For me, Danny Butterman is the least like me. And I think I was probably like Ed when I was Ed, but now I’m a lot like Andy, sadly, without the violent pub rages.
Wright: But if you were pushed into it, you could handle yourself.
Frost: Yeah. Sadly. Absolutely.
Wright: You could 2 robots rather than 10 robots.
Pegg: The amount of stuntmen you knocked out on that scene….
Frost: You know I wasn’t always an actor so I do have a violent anger that erupts from time to time. But you never have to get to that, because if you front up and pretend to be a lunatic, people will always back down – unless they’re a lunatic and then you have a problem.
Pegg: I saw him once threaten to tear a man in half – it was brilliant.
Pegg: I am least like Nicholas Angel and I was probably a little like Shaun when we did “Shaun…” and Gary is probably somebody I could have been if I hadn’t been so conscientious in my lifetime. So, it’s difficult to say – “Shaun…” is a long time ago and I’m not like Shaun at all anymore, I’m more like Gary – but without all the alcoholic depression.
Prompt: The three films are almost like an homage to the English pub and to beer drinking, but this one now brings the great English pub crawl to an American audience, where a pub crawl is thought of as a stamina event – whereas in England, at least in the past, it was often a sprint because the pubs closed so early.
Frost: In England they used to open from 12:00[Noon] until 3:00 and then open again from 7:00 to 10:30[pm] – so you had to be quick.
Wright: Now it’s changed.
Frost: Yeah – now it’s changed – now they’re open all day.
Wright: I think the films are like a love/hate relationship with pubs in a way, because there are thing we love and things we hate about that culture. And that’s true in “Shaun of the Dead” because the character Liz does not want to be in the pub every night. And it’s Gary’s obsession to do these 12 beers, not the other four – they’re emotionally blackmailed into coming. But there is that thing about that sprint thing because we did used to think that Gary, in every scene, his beer is like an hour glass – and once he’s finished that beer, that’s the end of the scene. There’s a literally a line where somebody offers him another drink and he says “No, we’re done here” – and it’s just because he’s just finished his drink and it’s the end of the scene. …He doesn’t really even care anymore that the others have finished their drink, it’s just about him getting on to the next one. So he’s on his own sprint and it becomes more obvious as the film goes on that he doesn’t necessarily care if the others make it to the end with him.
Pegg: They’re less of an homage to pubs and drinking and more…they are invariably part of them because they’re British, and the pub is such a cornerstone of British cultural activity, and social activity. It forms such a vital part of our society that if we’re going to make a film about British society, in Britain, there’s going to be a pub in it. Even in “Hot Fuzz” there’s a pub – there are things that happen in pubs there –Danny and Angel meet and finally becomes friends in the pub.
Wright: It’s still at the center of social life.
Pegg: Because it is.
Frost: Even … “Eastenders,” “Coronation Street,” “Emmerdale Farm” – all our soap operas – the central point is a pub. The Woolpack, the Queen Vic, the Rover’s Return…
Wright: Somebody said to me about doing a season of pub-related films to promote “The World’s End” and I said outside of “Withnail and I” and “American Werewolf in London,” all pub films are complete bummers. I don’t know if you want to see a double-bill of “Tyrannosaur” and “Nil by Mouth” because that’s not a laugh riot, you know. But we like the idea that it is a big part … for “Shaun…” it becomes their fort – but in this movie we thought of it as being like an Arthurian quest. Also, the names are loaded with significance, even if the bars themselves are shitty, they always have these fancy names. So we thought of the idea of having the bar names being like tarot cards – you know there’s a thing, that’s maybe obvious or not, that all of the pub names are telling you what’s happening in the scene, like chapters. And even some of the things that are on the signs, like in The Mermaid, you can actually see the marmalade sandwich on the sign. We wrote the story, and we knew The World’s End was going to be the last one, because it’s a real bar. But then once we’d written the story we went through a book of real pub names and attributed different pub names to different chapters: “This is this one and this is this one and this is why.” So it’s a really fun thing to do – it’s a part of our culture that the three of us have slightly left behind but it’s still something that’s so much a part of the national psyche that you basically cannot escape it, just like Gary King cannot escape it.
[There was a pregnant pause.]
Wright: I think that was the most efficient roundtable I’ve ever seen.
Frost: I wish they were all like that.
Ed’s Note: “The World’s End” opens in wide release today.