Exclusive Interview: Edgar Wright Talks THE WORLD'S END, Politics, Fitness Instructors, And More
The World's End is the final part of the so-called "Cornetto trilogy", named after the paper wrapped snack ice cream that serves as the kind of processed food glue sticking three of Edgar Wright's films together. From the Zombie mayhem of Shaun of the Dead, the Keanu-like onslaught of Hot Fuzz, and the Twilight Zone drinking game fun of The World's End, the team of Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have helped create some indelible moments with all three projects.
I can't say I fell as hard for the third in the series as the other two, but having seen it twice and given it a few weeks to set in, I must admit to many moments that are the equal, if not superior, to elements from the other two films. If it doesn't quite live up to my own sensibilities, with a slightly clunky ending that mars a pretty excellent setup, there's still quite a bit to enjoy about Wright's latest feature.
I spoke with the director from a miserably decorated hotel suite following a boisterous screening the night before at TIFF's Lightbox theatre. Guillermo Del Toro, recently returned to his new home base in this city, was on stage to discuss the filmmaking process. Edgar called Toronto home for several months as well, having shot the set-in-this-city Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as his last outing. The two filmmakers delved into several of the more overt elements about the film, about working together again as a team, and the challenges of maintaining your own creative vision within the studio system. Sitting down for an all too brief chat with Edgar the next day, I chose a different tact, concentrating instead of some of the more surprising themes that the film explores.
Welcome back to Toronto.
It's nice to be here. It's actually sort of strange to be back. I think the last time we were here was when we did DVD press for Scott Pilgrim and we did that screening at The Bloor cinema. And in that time The Bloor has changed and the Lightbox didn't exist, or I'd never been to it before and this place [waving his arms around], Toronto's Trump Tower certainly didn't exist!
Just remember, "The Donald" claims he designs the rooms himself!
I know! It's very fancy.
So, let's start with a hard one: Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?
I would never use that term. But I think personal obsessions come out in the films. In [World's End] there are elements of how me and Simon feel.
Classic horror and sci-fi films that we grew up with were very rich in metaphor. It's an expression of your personal fears. When we made Shaun of the Dead, the initial idea at least, if it had some social, political points to make, was to put ourselves into a George Romero film. We would watch his films and think, "what would I do in that situation?", as a Brit who's hungover and doesn't have a gun. How would I deal with that? It became this idea of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a George Romero film.
Some people assume that we write these scripts and say "oh, we're writing this popcorn movie, it's the half hour mark, let's pick a genre out of a hat, oh, sci-fi, OK!", but in reality, the sci-fi thread in this movie is an expression of our fears. It's almost like a coping strategy. It's about my feelings about how my country and my home town have changed, and I can do nothing to stop the passage of time. Even reaching middle age has manifested itself in this otherworldly threat because like [Simon Pegg's character] Gary King in the movie, he's happy when he finds out about the robots because it's easier for him to cope with that than the idea that he's 40, or that the town is not what it once was or that maybe it wasn't even as good as he thought it was.
It's that last point that I think is really critical: I'm just picturing the undergraduate film student who will take this film 10 years from now. The right wing student is going to see the plot of this film as a demonstration that England has been taken away from the "real English", that it's being subsumed by this foreign culture. One could read this really strong, libertarian, right wing, reactionary, almost fascist reading of this film if you had that proclivity. On the other hand, "I'm free, to do what I want, any old time" as an anthem was centered on a very leftist, hippie ethos...
Yeah, the film pretty much does a Peter Fonda thing.
The left-wing student could claim that it's a film simply asking at its core, "why don't we all just get along?", that we don't have to worry about class, that it's the "blue bloods" or 1%-ers that are trying to subsume our individual freedoms. It's a pro humanist film, and if we actually remove all class distinctions, then everyone will get along in some sort of agrarian apocotopia.
So, on which side of this political divide do you come down upon?
Take something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers - [the reason] why that film's so potent, the Don Siegel one particularly, is that the metaphor is so rich that both the left and the right can claim it as their own. The left say that it's the dangers of the McCarthy witchhunt, and the right say it's the dangers of communism.
In World's End we actually deliberately played both sides of the argument. Because it's a comedy and a satire we do draw a very sharp line in the sand, saying "do you want to be one of the alien robots, or do you want to be the high school dropout flipping the bird to teacher?" In reality, me and Simon and all of us can exist in this happy middle ground. But because it's a satire, we like to give you a harsh choice.
We also want to give Gary a character that with each revelation throughout the movie you think this man can't hit rock bottom any lower. Yet we still want him to find some kind of triumph in all of this. In a way, this movie is about a man that escapes therapy to trigger his own intervention. [He does this] first on a social level with his friends in the scene just before the bathroom where they all turn on him. He's triggered his own intervention by inviting them all there. They all start to turn on him and they tell him some hard truths.
Some people have even posited the theory that the moment after that where the sci-fi end comes in is Gary's dream. It's his "Ox-bow Incident", escaping what just happened outside. He doesn't want to admit it to himself, they turn on him and say "you need help, you have demons and you need to sort things out", and they say it to his face. Nick says "you don't need us to get fucked up, you've done a perfectly good job on your own", some harsh truths.
The other four are behaving as adults, but are they happy? Later on you find out that Paddy is dating a younger woman which means that on some level there's some sort of...
...A woman credited as "Fitness Instructor (26)"
I'm glad you mentioned that, that actress is a friend of mine and she's older than 26 and I said "do you mind if we credit your character as Fitness Instructor (26)?" And she said absolutely, I want to have that on IMDB forever. She's slightly older than 26, so she was quite happy with that credit!
[Anyway], even at the start the film you set up this idea that Czech origin of the word robot means"slave", yet the robots don't think of themselves as slaves. They think of themselves as individuals. Or at least they think that as a collective, they are a benevolent force. People like Gary King thinks of his adult friends as "wage slaves". He actually says "you've got your jobs and your cars and your wives and your security but I'm free to do what I want any old time". They say to him, "but is this what you really want?"
We thought there was something in terms of that tension. It's like with any job that you do, I'm sure at some point somebody has accused you of being a sellout. I remember when I had done Shaun of the Dead, I was at this party in London, a Working Title party, and someone said, and this is before Hot Fuzz had come out, and they asked "are you going to sell out and go to Hollywood?" I said I just made the most British film I possibly could. Hot Fuzz couldn't be any more British. What do you want from me?
And in doing [these films], it's a matter of personal pride to me and Simon. If we're going to make a British film, let's make a British film. It's important for the future of our resume to make these three British movies.
The answer to your question of where do we reside? We reside in the middle.
Here's the truth of it. We make jokes about Starbucks in the film. It's easy to rag on Starbucks. It's the evil face of some folksy, global homogenization. And yet we drank a lot of Starbucks during the shoot.
The baddies almost represent Apple. Are you going to be with Apple or are you going to not be with Apple? Are you going to be off the grid? I used to have a Blackberry and I switched to the iPhone. And yet, there are days when I wake up and look at my iTunes and think, "I don't own any of this. This isn't my record collection, what happened to my record collection?"
In the movie, we give you a man that's deeply flawed and likes to see himself as the high school rebel forever. And he eventually becomes your drunken representative of planet Earth. So there are elements of satire.
It was something that we wanted to do in this one that was very different in the other movies, especially as we thought of it as being a finale. In Shaun of the Dead, it's not Shaun's fault that the zombie apocalypse is happening, and it's not his job to save the world, he just has to save his friends. But in this movie, Gary King goes from being a social nuisance to being a galactic nuisance. This is where it goes more into Douglas Adams, Monty Python territory, that one man can be the trigger for global cataclysm. We always think of this character being that guy everybody knows where he would be spoken of, where people would whisper about him or say "did you hear about Gary King? Did you know he's in prison?" Or, "Oh my God, Gary King's in hospital! What has Gary King done now?" And we just thought that that guy being the one who just brought down the entire planet would be great.
Would you have been friends with Gary King in high school?
I was. My brother also knew a couple of Gary Kings, Simon knew a couple of Gary Kings, I think we also see ourselves in him a little bit.
Out of the three of us, me Simon and Nick, I'm the one who's most prone to nostalgia. And one of the reasons this script evolved is that I would have frequent attacks of nostalgia. There are pleasant ones, where you hear a song and you're transported back to a time, but I would have recurring time travel fantasies about going back and doing things again, like going back to school and doing better. Going back on dates and dealing with it in a different way. So I sometimes got this Groundhog Day thing in my head.
I feel pretty happy in my life and career, so why do I want to go back to school and do things differently?
Marvin the Paranoid Android makes a very subtle cameo as the head of one of your actors who also has a strong connection to the world of Douglas Adams.
Oh, you mean the football thing?
Oh, that wasn't intentional. With the eyes? Somebody said to me last night, are those eyes supposed to be "Fallout eyes"? And I said I've never played that game. I actually said to draw the eyes like TinTin. And there used to be this character in this TV show called Nosybonk. It was absolutely terrifying. If you type Nosybonk into YouTube, you'll see it. It was a show called Jigsaw. And it was a man with a white mask and a massive nose and googly eyes, and I used to find that terrifying.
Can you think of a film that you love and you think "hey, I could have made that!" and a film that you love and you think "nah, I love it, but that's not within me?" My usual go-to for that sort of thing is Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD - I read that in high school and I thought, "hey, this is my humour, this is my style, if I had the skill I would have done this if I had the skills and the smarts." Yet it's not even a little bit in me to have written something like HAMLET, as much as I love the story.
That's a really tricky one actually because I used to think about this more before I started making movies. Now when you watch movies you realize that the greatest films are ones that could not exist without that filmmaker. You wouldn't want to see my version of 2001. So I don't know.
I felt like that more when I was an aspiring filmmaker. After I made A Fistful of Fingers I'd see a movie like Scream and I'd go "oh wow, I would have killed to have done something like that!" I don't think I can answer that question.
I've had the opportunity to remake some of my favourite films. And I've not done them because I think a) I cannot add anything to this that isn't already in the movie itself and b) if I desecrated it, I would never forgive myself.
I've had the opportunity to remake some of my childhood favourites and not done them.
Do you still watch movies and do this sort of pondering about its meaning, reaching into the depths of the political machinations in the story, or are you stuck just watching movies as a series of cuts and edits and performances?
I think if a movie's really good, it will transport you
beyond that. I actually said to Guillermo [Del Toro after] Pacific Rim
[that] I want to go and see it again in 2D because I almost got lost in the
construction of it. I was in awe of how it was made and I wanted to go and
watch it again as a movie.
In terms of breaking it down, I wish there were more movies to do that with. I think one of the saddest things about the horror remakes of the last 20 years is very few of them are about anything. That's not something that you can point the finger at remakes in general, because some of the best are about something. Philip Kauffman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg's The Fly, and John Carpenter's The Thing are great remakes.
One of the things that is disappointing about so much sci-fi and horror of late, with some very rare exceptions, is they're not really about anything anymore. They're just surface level thrills so they don't last in the brain any longer than you watching them. They are perfectly entertaining sometimes, but I do feel that history will not be kind to them because they won't resonate in the same way as the older film. I really believe that.
I feel that there's a lot of horror and sci-fi films that people give a pass to because they've got entertaining surface thrills. But nobody will speak about them in 5 years' time. And I think the really great ones, people will continue to talk about. So I'd love to read more into genre movies. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely! On a related note, I found the CABIN IN THE WOODS nihilistic ending absolutely fascinating. The fact that they choose to end the world rather than actually save humanity in some French, existential ennui was just terrific. A lot of "horror people" didn't necessarily love CABIN, but I adore it. Where do you stand on that film?
Oh, I love that movie. I think it's great, fantastic. One of the things that's fantastic about it is, much like our films, was that it had an ending where there is no possibility of a sequel. A lot of the endings of our movies are final because I'd rather the further adventures live on in the viewers' imagination.
There are lots of movies, even like the Back to the Future sequels that are pretty good, but still, the ending to the first one is like, go out on a high and leave it there. Leave the end of the Matrix at the end of the first one, leave the end of John Carpenter's Halloween at the end of the first one. You don't need the other movies at all, there's nothing more that you need to know than the last 30 seconds of that film. That's a classic ending. Forget the rest. I'd like to erase the rest of them from my memory so the strong endings can resonate.
Thanks to everyone at eOne and especially to Edgar for
his time. I look forward to one day be considered a sell-out as well.
Photos courtesy of Marc Levy/Scene Creek