-by Ken Plume
After directing a string of groundbreaking UK TV series (including the beloved comedy Spaced), Edgar Wright - along with co-writer and star Simon Pegg - hit the big screen with the even more beloved Shaun of the Dead.
Their latest is the genre-bending cop flick (and Shaun of the Dead follow-up) Hot Fuzz, currently in theaters.
Co-written and directed by Wright, it stars Pegg as a London cop banished to the hinterlands by jealous colleagues, who’s then teamed with a witless partner (Frost) before stumbling on a series of suspicious events that uncover the dark underbelly of the seemingly bucolic village.
We had a chance to chat wth Wright as literally the last official interview of the Hot Fuzz press rounds…
KP: I guess the question that everyone’s asking you - and I should probably start out with - is, what was it like to work with Bill Bailey?
WRIGHT: (laughs) Well, I worked with Bill Bailey before. Bill was in Spaced, and I also did his show back in the late 90’s, Is It Bill Bailey?…
KP: Oh yes… that was a six episode run, right?
WRIGHT: That’s right. And Simon Pegg was in it, and I directed all of it. It was a lot of fun. One of the sketches in Is It Bill Bailey? is kind of almost like a very similar character to Nicholas Angel, actually. It was about a baggage handler. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. You can actually see it on You Tube, if you look up “Bill Bailey baggage handler sketch.” It’s the spark of inspiration for Nicholas Angel, in that he’s the most dedicated baggage handler of all time.
KP: Now I have to go back and re-watch that sketch. I can’t get the one of Bill as the warlock applying for his unemployment check out of my mind…
WRIGHT: Oh yeah, that’s right.
KP: It’s hard not to notice - and I don’t mean this in a negative way - just how incestuous the British comedy community is…
WRIGHT: Well, to be honest that’s more sort of like a practical aspect of it, in terms of, as you might imagine, it being a smaller country and a smaller industry, there’s only a finite amount of absolutely world class comic actors, and all you do is gravitate towards the best people and the people you want to work with. We’ve been very lucky, between Spaced and Shaun and Hot Fuzz, to work with some of the best. There are still people that we haven’t worked with, but it usually comes down to you’ve got these brilliant comic actors… Spaced, we only did two seasons of - fourteen episodes - and when you’re writing parts you tend to think, “Oh, you know who’d be brilliant playing this? Bill Bailey.” And of course he is brilliant. So why should there not be a reason to cast him? Why wouldn’t you want to work with the best comic actors around?
KP: So when you’re saying “people you haven’t worked with,” does that mean you still get phone calls from Jimmy Carr?
WRIGHT: (laughs) I know Jimmy Carr, actually, and he is just starting to break out into doing acting, so he’s only done a couple of films. But out here he’s a very famous stand-up.
KP: Well, obviously his part in Confetti must have been an audition for you guys…
WRIGHT: I haven’t seen Confetti, actually. (laughs)
KP: You know Jimmy’s going to be heartbroken.
WRIGHT: I’ve been busy. I’ve been making the film.
KP: In writing the film, do you - in the process of writing - go, “This is a part we’re really looking at Bill for,” or, “so-and-so would be great for that role…”?
WRIGHT: In that particular case, yeah, we kind of wrote it with him in mind.
KP: When you’re writing the films, what is your pie in the sky sort of, “God, we wish we could get so-and-so for this part…”?
WRIGHT: Well, I think we have quite a number of those in Hot Fuzz. People like Timothy Dalton, Jim Broadbent, Bill Bailey… people who were our dream cast, actually.
KP: Did you write with Dalton in mind, or you had that character type in mind and Dalton just fell into place?
WRIGHT: I think in the case of Timothy we actually had that character type in mind and then later it occurred to us that we should go after Timothy. So, in that case, it didn’t happen straight away but we had it written in notes “a Timothy Dalton type.”
KP: Has anyone that you’ve really been chasing turned you down flat?
WRIGHT: Yeah, that’s happened a couple of times, but I think it’s bad mojo to mention them by name.
KP: Yeah, that bastard Jonathan Ross. I did want to ask you, having watched the film, were you intending to make a British version of Batman?
WRIGHT: Of Batman?
KP: Of Batman, yes.
WRIGHT: Why do you think it’s like Batman?
KP: It wasn’t until about the 20 minute mark when it started clicking in with me, when I thought, if you were to make a British version of Batman and have that driven character type, he most likely would be a British police officer - because vigilantism isn’t huge in the British mindset. And you introduce Robin in Nick’s character, who grounds Angel. You have the aversion to handguns. To the point where, does he every actually kill somebody?
WRIGHT: No, he doesn’t do that. And that actually is interesting, Simon used that analogy when we were talking about, you know, that Nicholas Angel is such a great cop and such a great shot, and nobody actually dies by gunfire in the film. He kind of takes them out, he disarms them. That’s an interesting analogy.
KP: One that you’re not wholly sold on, I can tell.
WRIGHT: The thing is Nicholas Angel is not a vigilante. In other words, he doesn’t have a secret identity. So, for me, that’s where it slightly falls down.
KP: Right. But like I said, it would be the British version of how you would pull off a character like Batman. I’m going to die with this.
WRIGHT: I’m not one to dismiss a metaphor or anything. I love the idea of it.
KP: It was either that or I was going to say really the two of them, Simon and Nick, are Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear.
WRIGHT: (laughs) Well, they mention Kermit the Frog in the film.
KP: Which they do, but never the Fozzie Bear analogy.
WRIGHT: Well he would be Fozzie, and Kermit is who Simon wanted to be when he was a kid.
KP: Well, I hear you’re doing a road picture next…
WRIGHT: That’s something that Simon and Nick are writing… I’m not involved in that.
WRIGHT: Well, they’re writing it. I’m not writing that one. I might come on board as an executive producer, but we shall see.
KP: You’ve made various statements about the state of British films and certain genres that British films haven’t really done in the past, and in watching Hot Fuzz - and Shaun of the Dead - it always struck me that British films are usually a very 1:85 world…
KP: I can’t think - outside of the Bond franchise - of any real 2:35, cinemascope British films.
WRIGHT: Well, no. We made a really concerted effort, and we did that with Shaun of the Dead as well. With Shaun of the Dead, having done TV, I really wanted it to look cinematic and I think what’s interesting is that 2:35 is great for action, but it’s also good for comedy as well, because most of your shots end up being two shots - essentially Simon and Nick - and that really works for the comedy. In the case of Shaun, it kind of worked that it had a similar ratio to John Carpenter films. And in Hot Fuzz, we’re kind of making like a prolonged Tony Scott, epic so it worked for that as well. You’re one of the first people who’s actually spotted that, and I appreciate that.
KP: Well, I appreciate you guys doing it. Why do you think that, traditionally, British films have shied away from that sort of grand vista approach to telling a story?
WRIGHT: Well, I think - for the most part - a lot of British films are maybe more concerned with realism. That might be it. That’s a very sweeping generalization, but I would say that’s one of the aspects.
KP: It seems to me that even in comedy, even looking at high and lowbrow comedy - from Ealing to the Carry On films - that British comedy always struck me as being very insular. Even the Carry On films are almost like an in joke for a British audience.
WRIGHT: I think when the Carry On films were made, I think they were making them mostly for the Brits, but the Carry On films were hits in Europe as well. It’s only really in the US that they didn’t really take off. But in Europe, and especially in Australia, the Carry On films were huge.
KP: You’ve made statements about breaking the mold in the past, as far as what a British film could accomplish, and that British film traditionally was largely uninterested in being a hit overseas…
WRIGHT: I don’t think that was necessarily the case with Ealing, but it was when the more recent comedy films have been spinoffs of TV shows that maybe people haven’t seen. What we tried to do with Shaun of the Dead is just kind of start from scratch so anybody could enjoy it and didn’t have to have previous knowledge of previous work.
KP: The one thing I’ve enjoyed about both Shaun and Hot Fuzz is that it’s not just a series of gags strung together. That it does make a point that there is a story, there are solid characters here…
KP: … and the comedy happens naturally within the world you’ve created.
WRIGHT: Yeah. I think that’s very true and hopefully that’s what makes them not spoofs, really, is that they do have a story and characters and the comedy comes out of the characters in the situation rather than just being… I think probably one of the things that people misrepresent Shaun and Hot Fuzz as the most is that they’re spoofs and every scene is from something else - which isn’t really the case. There are nods to things, but the idea is that it comes out of a character structure and characters and friendship. Shaun of the Dead is all about Shaun’s different relations, and in Hot Fuzz the buddy aspect of it is like two kind of disparate people kind of completing each other.
KP: I thought the wink and the nudge isn’t there. In American comedy, it’s all been about it being a pop culture thing. It’s like, “Oh look, you should know what this is, and aren’t we clever for putting it in,” whereas in Shaun and Hot Fuzz, it’s more that it’s in a natural situation in a world in which pop culture exists, and the characters are just going to go, “Oh, that was just like that movie,” and actually reference the fact that “we’re acknowledging the fact that this stuff exists within this world.” Which I think makes the characters much more real than if they were being, again, sly and pop culture savvy in a wink and a nudge kind of way.
KP: If that made any sense whatsoever.
WRIGHT: Yeah, I know what you mean.
KP: What was the tougher nut to crack, story wise? Was it Shaun or Hot Fuzz?
WRIGHT: I think probably Hot Fuzz is tougher, because I think that we were working slightly outside our comfort zone in terms of… like, with Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, we were essentially writing about people we knew and experiences that we had - but neither Simon nor I have been police officers, so we had to do a lot of research… and it wasn’t just watching our favorite cop films, but it was basically interviewing police officers and doing a lot of genuine research.
KP: Were you basically looking for strict procedural information when you were doing that, or were you also accumulating anedcotes?
WRIGHT: It’s everything, actually. The greatest thing about it… doing practical research is fantastic, because you just kind of get a sense of people’s characters, and there are elements of a Nicholas Angel and a Danny and Frank Butterman, and some of the other people that we met are based on people, interview subjects that we had. Even though we had an idea for the characters already, when you meet people who are the real people - like you meet an officer who has moved from east London to the country and the difficulties that he had in terms of adapting to a rural life - we already had the idea for the story, but then you actually seek out people who’ve done exactly that. And you just get great information and detail from them. So writing characters and anecdotes, there are several bits in the film that are kind of inspired by real anecdotes. The escaped swan sequence…. The idea of people having to buy cakes as punishment…. The idea of using a local policeman as a translator… that all came from real anecdotes.
KP: One of the other fascinating things - from an American perspective - is to view this sort of action film, and particularly the police force, in a non-gun culture.
WRIGHT: Well, this is the thing, it’s a sort of… and that’s why there haven’t been any British cop films, is because basically the British police are lacking that basic filmic requirement of having a gun. That’s why there have been no British cop films.
KP: But they’re remarkable runners and throwers.
WRIGHT: Yes, exactly. Though that’s not necessarily the case in real life.
KP: Was there any point where Simon was just sick of running?
WRIGHT: No, he really got into shape for it.
KP: When you’re visually trying to conceive of how exactly to pull of and ratchet up the action of a piece like this, knowing that you’re handicapped by not having something visual like a gun, and the ability to use that as either an action piece or a way to end a scene - how do you, in the writing, get around that? What were the discussions that you and Simon would have about, “Okay, well, how are we going to pull this off?”
WRIGHT: I think this is the idea. It’s kind of like with Shaun, but Shaun with budget and time constraints. Part of me always wished the action at the end went a little bit further in Shaun of the Dead. And with Hot Fuzz, I mean, we had double the budget - which is still incredibly modest by Hollywood action budgets, but we really tried to push the boat out as much as we could so the final act goes completely over the top.
KP: In doing that and cutting loose, did you ever find yourself checking how far you let it go, or was it always “What else can we throw in here?”
WRIGHT: Well, I think we just wanted the entire thing to reach a climax and every loose end be tied up. The idea of the climax of the film is - it’s almost like a sort of Russian doll ending in terms of like each set piece kind of comes out of the next and each one gets smaller and smaller to the point - not to give to much away - but the location of the final fight is almost like a scale gag in itself.
KP: A wonderful telescoping effect…
WRIGHT: Absolutely. That’s exactly it. And even, it could be said, like a video game structure. One of the ideas - like, there is even a line when Simon says, “You guys stay here. We’re going after the big boss…” referring to the end of level boss that you have in video games. And obviously video games are mostly based on action films and the idea of like… we really wanted tick every box of having every single action cliché - of every bonus ending and surprise baddy and hostage standoff - that you could possibly have. We really tried to go all-out on that.
KP: I enjoy the fact that it still has quite a British rationale for the criminal motivations of the piece…
KP: How far off base do you believe the commentary is on that sort of “Little Britain” type of thinking?
WRIGHT: I think even though the film gets quite ridiculous, that a lot of it is based on truth and some stuff that’s quite close to home. You do have that sort of little England sort of mentality of people kind of more interested in a surface gloss than what’s necessarily deep rooted problems. And that probably is quite a universal aspect - kind of people are more worried about graffiti then they are about what goes on behind closed doors, because graffiti is visible to everybody. There are definitely satirical aspects within the film, and the idea that the film can’t truly be slam bang unless it does have a load of guns in it. So there’s lots of aspects to it, in that respect.
KP: I guess you’re also commenting on how outsize and over the top these films are, as you say, by ending up in a tiny version of the world they’re inhabiting.
WRIGHT: Yeah. It’s like a big scale gag.
KP: And you got to do your Godzilla picture.
WRIGHT: In a roundabout way, yeah. I think that idea came… I’m trying to remember when that idea came around, but I think as soon as that came up, as a model village idea, it was, “Wow. That’s the way to end the film.”
KP: How would you describe the conceptualization process, and Simon as a working partner?
WRIGHT: We do write everything together. I think because I’m directing and we’re writing, I don’t really go into a great detail on the visuals in the screenplay, because I don’t need to communicate it to anybody. If I was a screenwriter and it’s been given to a director and I have strong ideas, I try and write them in - but because I’m going to be doing the storyboards, that’s where I can communicate that information. That’s where I’d put that information, really. So if you read the script for Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, they don’t really give a great indication of what the visuals are going to be like.
KP: When you talk about writing together, is the process the two of you in a room? Or do you go off and write separately and then meet back together…
WRIGHT: In a room thing, opposite each other.
KP: Are you generally on the same page, or do you guys go back and forth often?
WRIGHT: Pretty much. We literally sit opposite each other and just kind of hammer it out. You always have disagreements about everything, but then I think the best way to approach writing is to be completely honest with each other all the time. You never worry about hurting somebody’s feelings. You just be honest the whole time.
KP: In the two films, what would you say was the biggest point of contention you two have had over a story or character point?
WRIGHT: I can’t really think of anything, particularly. Nothing that springs to mind. And even if there was, I probably wouldn’t tell you! (laughs)
KP: I’ll bet Simon would.
WRIGHT: No, I don’t think he would… (laughs)
KP: How fluid, when you actually get on set, is what you’ve written?
WRIGHT: Well, what we do is we write the screenplay, and then we rehearse it with the actors. Firstly with Nick Frost, and then with the whole cast, and basically any good new ideas of improvisation that come out of that we then put in the script.
KP: Who would be the person, besides your core group, who surprised you the most on the day?
WRIGHT: Well, you’ve been in rehearsal, so you kind of know what people are going to do. Has anybody surprised me the most? Usually in that sense it’s kind of tiny parts, because they’re people that you haven’t rehearsed with maybe, like… um… which is very few. There’s only a few people in the whole film that I didn’t rehearse with. Like maybe our mystery, Oscar-winning cameo, for instance. Or the guy, actually, who plays the gas station clerk.
KP: Can you ever envision doing a film without that rehearsal process?
WRIGHT: It would not be a good idea, because I think it’s quite crucial for the… especially if it’s a comedy. If it was an action film it’d be different. If it’s a comedy, I think it’s a really good thing to make sure you rehearse, because you can work out a lot of stuff. If you’re doing it as a drama or a horror film or an action film, you might not need to rehearse.
KP: There’s been an aspect of, after Shaun was a hit outside the UK as well, particularly in the US, that a lot of people were going, “Well, now certainly you have control of the world and everything’s your oyster…”, and both you and Simon were always quick to deflate that by saying, “Well, you know, it did well in the US, but it was not a 400 million dollar blockbuster.” That there was this perception that all of a sudden you two had this immense power, you were leaving the UK, you were going to be Hollywood Edgar Wright and Hollywood Simon Pegg. Do you still feel that people perhaps are overestimating exactly what kind of power a modest success gives to a filmmaker?
WRIGHT: I don’t remember ever saying that. (laughs) No, I think maybe what we said… it sounds like we’ve been misquoted. What we said was… because after Shaun of the Dead we both had offers to do stuff over here. That might still happen, but we wanted to make our second film in the UK. It was as simple as that, really.
KP: What do you think that making a film in the UK, as opposed to the US, allows you? What are the benefits that you see, particularly having made your second film in the UK?
WRIGHT: I don’t know…
KP: Ricky Gervais has been famously dismissive of the British film industry…
WRIGHT: Well, Ricky Gervais is dismissive of everything. (laughs)
KP: That’s the best way to sum it up. Do you see where he’s coming from, in the statements that he makes?
WRIGHT: When he includes Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead in that bargain I disagree. (laughs) He did say that in an interview maybe about a month after Shaun of the Dead had come out. I thought, “Hmm, that’s a bit strange.”
KP: Well, that’s nice of him. Particularly since Stephen Merchant’s in the film.
KP: But not Ricky. Maybe that’s why.
WRIGHT: Well I don’t think… anyway…
KP: I’m not going to start a feud, I swear. (laughs) So at this point, now that the film is out, are you encouraged by the feedback it’s received? It already did well in the UK…
WRIGHT: Yeah, it’s been great. It’s been really great.
KP: What doors has this one opened up that you’re currently looking into? Obviously Ant-Man’s on the horizon…
WRIGHT: All of the things that I’m working on are things that I was working on before Hot Fuzz. To be honest, we’ve been doing the press since… I finished doing the film in January. I haven’t even thought… literally tomorrow is the first day when I start thinking about the rest of my life.
KP: And I’ll bet you can’t wait for that.
WRIGHT: I’m looking forward to having a lie in, but I am gonna go and have some fun tonight.
KP: Well, I was definitely encouraged by your statements regarding Ant-Man, that it’s not going to be a tongue in cheek affair.
WRIGHT: No. It will be funny, but it’s not going to be, like, a comedy. It’s not going to be a superhero spoof. That’s not the idea.
KP: A “spoof” is something which you guys have not done yet, even though many people who obviously haven’t been paying attention have tried to say that about both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, though neither of them are in any way spoofs of genres.
KP: But right now, I’m eager to let you go and hopefully start your life anew.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
KP: But as always it’s been a pleasure to speak with you.
WRIGHT: Thank you very much.
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