Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright of Hot Fuzz
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Most stateside moviegoers were introduced to the team of Nick Frost (actor), Simon Pegg (actor-writer), and Edgar Wright (writer-director) with the 2004 film Shaun Of The Dead, a funny, affectionate, slick send-up of zombie movies. But Frost, Pegg, and Wright have been working together since Spaced, a fondly remembered 1999-2001 UK series about a pair of slackers (Pegg and his series co-creator Jessica Stevenson) possibly destined to fall in love. The show, which can occasionally be seen in the U.S. on BBC America, relied on warmly conceived characters and a savvy command of pop culture, elements the team exported wholesale into Shaun and the new Hot Fuzz. Breaking with his tradition of playing slackers, Pegg plays a hardnosed London cop whose record puts his fellow cops to shame, leading to a forcible transfer to the country village of Sandford (actually Wright's hometown, Wells). There, he reluctantly begins a partnership with small-town cop Frost, whose knowledge of big-city police work is limited to the American action films that Hot Fuzz subsequently apes, and occasionally gleefully outdoes. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Pegg, Frost, and Wright for a conversation about Hot Fuzz's inspirations, people's assumptions about those inspirations, and what pop culture is doing to the latest generation of filmmakers.
The A.V. Club: Shaun Of The Dead had a direct source of inspiration—zombie movies in general, and George Romero in particular—and you obviously have a lot of affection for them. Do you have the same affection for the action films you're working with here?
Edgar Wright: Absolutely, even the ones that are seemingly derided. In the film, Nick's character's two favorite films are Point Break and Bad Boys 2. I wouldn't say they're the best cop films of all time, 'cause they're not, but they represent a particular strand of dumb, switch-your-brain-off, popcorn entertainment. They're what I call popcorn films. I'm a big fan; I like all sorts of genres. I do like an occasion to just switch my brain off and enjoy some mindless carnage. So this is definitely as affectionate toward the cop action genre as Shaun was toward zombies.
Simon Pegg: It's tough to approach something in this way if you don't really like it. You have to know it very well to… We don't parody it, particularly, but we know our stuff. You don't have that knowledge unless you're a fan of something. We come at it as fans, and as such, we have a really thorough working knowledge of the genre and know all its exponents. Even though we did actually do a 138-film research period. It was fun to do that. It was great to think about how we've got to watch Sudden Impact and Hero And The Terror today.
EW: Actually, Hero And The Terror was more of a chore.
SP: One of the less enjoyable ones.
EW: That was probably the low point of the 138 films. Well, The New York Ripper was the low point.
SP: I remember just sitting, thinking, "Why are we watching this?" It was so depressing.
EW: 'Cause it has a killer that makes Donald Duck noises as he snatches women. You can't go wrong with that.
Nick Frost: It's quite original, isn't it?
EW: It is original.
AVC: You need a gimmick if you're going to be a serial killer.
EW: I know, and a very odd gimmick.
NF: What would yours be?
EW: I think I'd make Donald Duck noises.
AVC: Was there any actor or director whose work was particularly helpful or inspirational for Hot Fuzz?
EW: I think we really wanted to cover all areas of the cop film. Within the two-hour running time, we pretty much cover the corruption cop genre, the fish-out-of-water cop genre, the serial-killer thriller cop genre, the buddy-action film. There's a lot of ground that we cover. I suppose people like Tony Scott, Michael Mann, John Woo, there's a lot of those elements, certainly in terms of the action and the overcaffeinated, ADD aspect of it. Obviously there's the classic '70s directors like Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, Don Siegel, so we definitely tried to cover a lot of ground. It's a very kind of immersive tribute to the cop genre.
SP: The actor that influenced me most was Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. He's the cop that I base Nicholas Angel on, the unstoppable, transforming man.
AVC: You kind of run like him as well.
SP: Exactly, that's exactly what I did. That was entirely a rip from him. But I did like his sort of bemused seriousness, and I wanted Angel to be something of an automaton before he meets Danny, and Danny helps him become human.
NF: He's a bit like Spock, isn't he?
SP: Everything's in his eyebrows, he's confused by mirth, and he meets Danny.
NF: You'd like to arrest mirth.
SP: I'd like to throw mirth in prison, until I meet Danny. You know, actually seriously, I did kind of think of Angel as being something of a Terminator-style machine, and brought that to the role, I think. It was hard as well, because he's not funny. He's a sort of humorless character, and coming from comedy, having to put down your comedy weapons is quite scary to do, to play dead straight. But it works, because Angel has to be the sort of bemused center to the movie for a while, and leave the funny stuff to this guy.
NF: I think Danny's an entirely original character. I think if I based Danny on any actor, it would either be a Labrador that acts, or Dunston from Dunston Checks In.
AVC: You can't get away from the ape impressions.
NF: No. But Danny's like a big Labrador, really. He's just happy to be there. Once he meets Simon, the thing that he's always wanted and guessed that life could be like, Simon introduces him to that. So as characters, they're half-people.
SP: You complete me.
EW: Wouldn't it be great with Dunston Checks In, if in China the film was called My Butler, The Monkey?
NF: It really is. You knew that, right?
AVC: [To Pegg.] So this is the first time, working with these guys at least, you haven't played a listless slacker type. Did you really want to get away from that with this film?
SP: Absolutely. I've only played two sort-of slackers, in Spaced and in Shaun Of The Dead. They're different people, but they have the same kind of everyman quality, particularly as a twentysomething. In Nicholas Angel, I just wanted to play a character that wasn't anything like me and had nothing to do with me. Both Shaun and Tim have emotional similarities, whereas Nicholas Angel is nothing like me. I don't know that man. And that's why we went out and we met cops and interviewed cops thoroughly, so we could try to learn and try to tell the story with some truth. That's always important to us, is being truthful. Not guessing, not making any assumptions. Just coming at it with knowledge.
NF: If you know what you're talking about, the comedy's all the more funnier.
AVC: [To Frost.] Meanwhile, you seem to be playing someone dumber than you've played before.
EW: He's less cynical.
NF: He is less cynical, absolutely. He's a very honest guy. Ed from Shaun Of The Dead, he was a cynical, slightly lazy, self-centered, mean character, but still fairly loveable. I guess if you weren't Shaun, you'd find him quite difficult to get on with. I think Danny is a much nicer… I think they're very different characters, that was fun. I don't want people to think I'm just…
EW: Danny's more of an innocent, really, and that kind of endears him to Nicholas Angel. His naïveté about the job and what he does, and what he thinks it should be, based on his knowledge of action films, it's quite charming, actually.
SP: Considering the amount of time he puts into the action buddy-movie genre, he's pretty blind as to what's going on around him. I think his unassailable positivity kind of wears Angel down in a way. No matter how many times Angel gives him a withering look, he still comes back, like a little dog. Eventually, Angel kind of… I don't smile in the film for 43 minutes, I think it is, and when I do, it's because Danny made me laugh. It's like at that point, Angel gives into Danny, like he's a force of nature and it's impossible to resist him.
AVC: A lot of comedy is very flat, stylistically. The weight isn't on the technical aspects of the film. But from Spaced on, you've developed a style of comedy that's very much in the filmmaking. How did that style develop?
EW: I think when I was getting into directing, or wanting to be a director, when I was a teenager, the two films that really inspired me were Raising Arizona and Evil Dead II. And in the case of the former, I thought, "Wow. Why don't all comedies look like this?" And then as I started doing comedy, particularly when I started doing it on TV, you'd see BBC producers saying, "It's not about the camera work, it's all about the performers. Don't make it over-tricksy. Just concentrate on the performers. Make sure you get the performers, and that's it. That's all we need to do." And I was thinking, "Well what if you do both? Of course the performance is important, the writing is really important. But what if you could have the perfect marriage of making it look really slick as well?" I think that's kind of what I tried to develop as a style, and Spaced was the first TV show I did where all the elements came together, really. The script and the performances and the style all clicked. Shaun was, in a way, a little bit more laid-back than Spaced. Spaced was really incredibly dense and fast, because of the number of flashbacks and inserts and things. Shaun was a little bit more laid-back because of the genre, because it was a zombie film with a creeping sense of doom, so that kind of fed into doing the long Steadicam shots and shooting it like a John Carpenter film and it all being 2:35 wide-angle. This film, because it's in the cop action genre, particularly riffing on the more recent ADD aspect of cinema was just a chance to go completely over the top. Which I thoroughly enjoyed, for the record.
By the end of the principal photography, we had done 1,700 shots. Shaun Of The Dead, we did 800. So we did over double. That's not including, sometimes we were shooting with three cameras. The film has six and a half thousand edits in it. Which is crazy.
AVC: [To Pegg and Frost.] So as actors, did you ever find that approach confining?
SP: No, because I think Ed's a very good actor's director as well. He happens to appreciate how the camera can become a character, but at the same time, he totally appreciates performance. He's not like some directors [for whom] the actors are just biological scenery. We talk about performances and stuff. He doesn't just leave it to us, he engages with us as actors, which makes it actually very easy. We know full well that Edgar likes to get a lot of coverage, he's not going to settle for a take he's not happy with. Some things will take a while to get, but as soon as he's happy, we move on and it's fine. Also, having done Spaced, I can't even remember it being that difficult on Spaced, but we know what the end's going to be like. We know why we're putting in this amount of work, or why a shot might be particularly tricky, because we know that what we do is create a whole package. It's the writing, the performances, and the style of camerawork, that's what we're working toward, and we're prepared for that.
NF: For me, even though Edgar likes to shoot the action as really quick and choppy, when it comes to dramatic scenes, they're usually shot as one. It gives you a chance to act, which is nice, because you can't really film a lot of coverage on the action scenes, because it's always all too quick. So when you get an opportunity, like behind the car or in the pub, to do a scene, a proper nice dramatic scene, it's always a treat. And they're usually shot as one, so you've got a big chunk of dialogue to learn, and you feel like you're working.
AVC: Spaced was primarily based on direct parodies of highly recognizable sources. That's less the case with Shaun, and except in a few cases, not the case at all here. Why move away from that?
EW: I think because you're making a film. When we were doing Spaced, it was more of an aspirational thing, because we're making TV, and part of the charm is, you've got slackers in north London acting out scenes from The Matrix or The Conversation. That was kind of, the characters could only communicate in pop culture. They were of that generation, which is still ongoing, that kind of knows pop culture, music, TV, films, video games, comics, and nothing else. Have no other life experience. With Shaun, we wanted to start moving away from that and make something within a genre. It was like, "Let's make a zombie film. Let's go as far to make it within the same logic as George Romero's." We like to imagine that Shaun is in George Romero's universe, that it's happening at the same time as the Pittsburgh outbreak.
And then with Hot Fuzz, again, it's about total genre immersion. One of the things that kind of backfires on us is because of Spaced, people assume there are more direct references than there actually are. And aside from the obvious ones, like Bad Boys 2 or Point Break, which we set up within the film, there are a couple of other dialogue things, like Chinatown, but not that many direct things. There are things that are about the entire genre, so it's weird when you look on Wikipedia and people say, "The scene where Angel grabs his fist is from Superman II," and you're thinking, "Ummm, no it's not." Or, "There's a shot from Matrix Revolutions." I'm thinking, "I've only seen Matrix Revolutions once, and will never watch it ever again."
SP: It's hard, really, to make any physical movement that hasn't been done in another film. If you grab someone's hand, it doesn't mean you're referencing other films with grabbing hands, but people…
NF: There's only so many ways you can grab a hand. People just assume that's what we do. I think it's a slight reduction of us, really.
EW: Obviously, there are some things… Like the end of Hot Fuzz, where there's a big mano-a-mano fistfight, is a little riff on the end of Lethal Weapon, but it's done in a different context. Some people say to us after films, "I really enjoyed Hot Fuzz, I'm sure there's loads of stuff that I'm missing." Not really. It's fine.
One of the things that was fun writing it, and watching that many films—not even action films, but going back and watching The Big Sleep, the Agatha Christie films and stuff like that—the really fun thing was to have your hackneyed dialogue generator working. You watch something like Steven Seagal's Out For Justice, and think, "Hey, someone actually wrote this. There was a screenplay for this film. Somebody sat down and wrote the line, 'Yo, fucknuts!' on a page."
NF: Then they must have taken the day off.
EW: It's funny, my agent came up to us and said, "That line, when Nicholas says, 'I'm gonna bust this thing wide open,' what film's that from?" I said, "I think it's from every film." It's just like you get into that kind of mode of generic dialogue, it's fun to do.
AVC: Only Nick is a Londoner by birth. Could someone with no knowledge of life in a smaller town have made this film?
SP: I think the jokes would have been a bit broader and a bit more obvious in terms of the day-to-day of country life. Edgar and I grew up in places where places like that existed, and actually grew up in villages not too dissimilar. Edgar actually grew up in the very town we shot it in, even though it's bigger than it looks in the film. You need to have a knowledge of it. One thing that irritates me is when people kind of make assumptions. As I've said earlier on, the truth is always the best place to start from.
EW: If you're from the place, you can have a slight free pass in satirizing it. If we weren't from that place, it would seem kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.
SP: It's like, Jewish comedians do the best Jewish jokes, and anyone else doing that, they don't have a right to, because they're not coming from that experience. I know that's a slightly heightened example, but it's the same thing. We're bumpkins, so we can make bumpkin jokes.
AVC: What's one detail that you got right, that someone wouldn't have?
EW: I think the thing that's absolutely true… On the DVD, maybe not the American one, but on the UK DVD, we got a commentary track from two real West Country officers, and I asked them… They're people that we interviewed while we were researching, and they said, "What do you want us to do with the commentary track?" I said, "Just rip it to pieces. So on the accuracy level, if there's something that's wrong, say so. If there's something that's right, also say so." And what's cool is, it's so funny listening to it, 'cause all of the actiony stuff… And this doesn't answer your question properly, but the thing that we do get right, that is so true, is the fact that everybody knows each other. Absolutely everybody knows each other. It affects the law enforcement, in a way, that you will have people sort of saying, "Oh, I know your mum," or "Oh gee, do you know this guy?" "Yeah, he's—" What is it? [Quotes the film.] "Auntie Jackie's sister's brother's boy." It's just that kind of thing of there being just one degree of separation within the entire town. I came from another county. I spent 15 years in Wells, but I was treated like an outsider. It was like, "Oh, you're not local." It's that thing of like…
NF: Three generations in the graveyard.
EW: Yeah, three generations in the graveyard, that thing they say about how you have to be. And that's why in the film, everybody has old English craftsman surnames, you know: Fisher, Weaver, Shooter, Thatcher, Cooper. It's the idea that it's a really pure bloodline. There's no French names in there, there's no Polish there, there's no Scottish surnames, there's no ethnicity. It's all completely pure.
NF: Ten generations in the grave.
AVC: You mentioned a generation that's grown up immersed in pop culture, and that's their favorite frame of reference. How do you think that way of thinking has affected that generation?
SP: I think it's been reflected in the kind of filmmakers this generation's thrown up, as well. We've kind of grown up in a post-Star Wars era, and what Star Wars did to cinema, in terms of an explosion of that kind of blockbuster culture. It's thrown up a generation of geeks. With the evolution of computer games and the Internet, that's all impacted on us as a generation, and affected the creative element of that generation enormously. So whereas the different schools of filmmaking… You had the film-school brats, and the guys who did commercials, and the pop-promo guys. Now there's a whole generation of filmmakers who grew up making their own films with video cameras, and have dined entirely on a diet of popular culture. It's been reflected in a lot of their work. It's self-reflective, it's quite knowing, but it's very literate.
EW: I think the thing is, probably the two films we've done—and some of the other things out there at the moment—are almost like a reaction. In a weird way, riffing on genres is kind of a reaction to formula. When you watch so much of the programmers and the films that you just think you've seen before, it's kind of going back to the well in terms of trying to conjure up the spirit of what made you excited about films in the first place.
Hot Fuzz in a strange way, for me, summons up the spirit of watching R-rated films that I was too young to watch. I was 14, 13 maybe, when Robocop came out. Seeing Robocop at my brother's friend's house, and not really supposed to be watching it, because it was [rated] 18 and I was 13. That mind-blowing experience, because not only is it a great film, but it feels illicit. So it's those kind of experiences… Like Grindhouse is recapturing this moviegoing experience that whole generations have never known.
SP: The revolution of video had a massive affect. We grew up in a time where suddenly you could own films. Before, they had a theatrical run, and then perhaps they'd come back, or you'd catch them in a retro cinema. Generally, that was it. You never saw them until they were on TV. And you were on someone else's clock. The whole kind of notion of film belonging to you has also risen in the last 30 years or so. Less, probably.
NF: You'd have to wait so long for it to come out, too. It was a real treat to get a video.
SP: I remember when Raiders Of The Lost Ark came out, it was the first sell-through video in the UK. It cost £19.99, and it was the first one you could buy and own. There was a rental period, where you could only rent them, you could get ex-rental, but they were always really expensive. This idea of popular culture became something that belonged to us rather than something that we looked at from far away. We realized we could be part of it and create it, instead of just being consumers only.