Interview: ‘The World’s End’ director Edgar Wright

Re-teaming for the third film in their loose ‘Cornetto trilogy’ – following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – director Edgar Wright joins forces with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (interviewed over here) for The World’s End.

While in Wellington for the film’s New Zealand premiere, we caught up with this bloody nice fellow to discuss his film, obscene language, seminal indie tunes of the ’90s, post-apocalyptic films, Bonnie Tyler and so much more.

The opening prologue sequence is awesome, and reminiscent of ‘Grange Hill’.

EDGAR WRIGHT: It’s funny you mention Grange Hill. Do they show that over here?

They used to… The splash graphics in the prologue, while not the same, just reminded me of it.

No, its true. That was very much the intention actually. Like I mentioned last night, I had written this script when I was 21. It was called Crawl and about teenagers on a pub crawl. And its sort of, not the basis for this story, but at least the basis for the first three minutes. We show this recollection of that night but shot it on 16mm,  with all this period stuff in 1990 and all the kid actors.

It was fun actually, we did the whole thing as a kind of little pre-shoot a month before we starting shooting. It was actually the first thing we shot and it was probably about the only sunny days of 2012 in the UK! So we managed to get the sun… It didn’t matter if the rest of the film was autumnal, in fact that was good, but we needed the last of the summer. It was supposed to be like watching a potted version of American Graffiti or Gregory’s Girl. I always love those teenage movies that capture that feeling of the end of the summer.

But the unhealthy bit comes when you try and keep things that way. It seems the conservation of time and place runs through the movie in a few different ways.

Yeah, what the movie’s about essentially – outside of all the cataclysmic mayhem and fighting robots – what it’s really about is that there are five guys, four of whom have grown up and one of them who refuses to. One of them wants to be a teenager again and will do whatever he can to recapture that former glory – including dragging his friends back to their home town.

We sort of liked this idea as well that alcohol itself becomes the time machine in the movie, that not only are they going back to their home town but that as soon as they begin drinking its going to regress them to being juvenile again. So there’s something you’ll see the actors doing, as soon as alcohol gets involved they start to act more like their teenage selves. Kind of trying to mirror what its like to have a crazy night drinking and how quickly old recriminations come out, old arguments, how people loosen up, become more sort of jolly but also more maudlin and angry, how quickly it turns to fighting and stuff.

So it’s supposed to mirror the different stages of drunkenness you go through. We wanted this idea that Simon’s character Gary King is trapped in the past and in trying to recapture that golden night he gets a very different epic night.

As well as recapturing or preserving the past, homogenising the present plays a part in the film. Even to the point where Simon’s character thinks it has happened to his mates.

All the way through the film we keep trying to look at both sides of the coin. You could say his friends have become robots, he sees that they’re the slaves and they’re the people that are the wage slaves. Even the way he’s dismissive of security and family and wants to be the rebel forever. Well, you can‘t do that, you can’t carry on being the rebel forever. At some point you’ve got to settle down. So it’s sort of trying to play it both ways.

We mention Starbucks in the movie and the homogenisation of all of the pubs. But I, as a person, sometimes feel disturbed about how much of my life I put in Apple’s hands. Oh my God, I’ve become part of the Matrix. If my MacBook went down, everything would be fucked.

You’ll have to bleep that out, I’m sorry.

No, language is fine! Speaking of language, “c-nt” pops up a couple of times in the film and I thought it’s such a Gary King word, full of such anti-authority contempt. It’s a gem.

What’s really funny is that with the British Board of Film Censors in some cases the c-word can get you an 18 certificate in the UK. Somebody from the BBFC follows me on Facebook, so I messaged him and said ” hey, can I ask you a question during the writing”. So I wrote to him and asked how many times you can say the c-word and still get a 15 rating, and I got this amazing email back saying “well technically, you could say it 3 or 4 times so long as they’re not close together and they’re not aggressive and it’s not used in a sexual context”. So great! It’s still a provocative word, but in the UK, and I’m sure it’s the same in NZ, you can use it affectionately between mates.

It can absolutely be a term of endearment.

Not in the States so much, but I know that in Australia, New Zealand and the UK the idea of saying to your friends “come on, you c-nts” is the ultimate term of endearment.

What will you replace the c-word with for the censored airplane version?

We always go for Klumps, as in The Nutty Professor. Actually, we’ve already done the TV safe version. I think we also went for “clogs”, as in “Oh yeah, look at these clogs”, that’s a good one.

You get to put so much carnage onscreen by not having spurting arterial blood, even though there’s all this tearing off of limbs, and then you spend all that capital on a couple of c-bombs. You were doing so well with your American rating and then that popped up.

I know! If it wasn’t for the language we might even get a PG-13. With the fights we did design them to be really, really brutal in a way, but there’s not really that much blood. Also, quite deliberately, there aren’t really any knives or guns.

We wanted to come up with something for the villains of the piece where they actually had a different move. They’re not actually fighting, they’re just trying to suppress. We worked out early on that the baddies are trying to suppress our heroes, they’re literally trying to suffocate them so they can knock them out. So then the fighting style almost became wrestling, as you’ll see in the movie. It’s almost like a slap fight where the baddies are trying to grab their faces, and they’re trying to slap them off.

I said to [stunt coordinator Brad Allen], “I want it to feel like the greatest pub brawl you’ve ever seen.”

Once we’d laid down that groundwork that these were the rules of the fight, the choreography doesn’t feel like anything else – in a good way, I haven’t really seen anything like this, which is nice. It was really nice working with Brad Allen, the stunt coordinator,  to come up with it. I said to him, “I want it to feel like the greatest pub brawl you’ve ever seen” and their fighting style is a mix of dutch courage, playfighting at school, Wrestlemania, and rugby tactics. Nick Frost becomes the brawler of the movie but you see at the start of the movie that he was a rugby player so he’s been in a fair few rough and tumbles in his time.

I was really pleased and proud with how all of the actors did in their fight scenes. As you can see in the movie, if you watch the fight scenes you’ll notice the camera never cuts away from the actors, you’re on Martin Freeman, you’re on Paddy, you’re on Nick. There’s no cutaways, there’s not that much doubling, and it was really fun to do. In a couple of scenes the people playing the parts of the baddies are actually stunt performers as well, so there’s no doubling.

Music features really heavily in the film, and as I understand it was a key inspirational source when nutting out the script – wasn’t there a big playlist playing while you and Simon wrote it?

One of the first things we did to get us in the zone was to make a playlist of songs from 1988 to 1993, a five year period when I was at school and Simon was at college. These were all songs that hit us at a particular time, and it works in the story through a mixtape that Gary King, Simon’s character, has, that’s still in the car and then starts to permeate all the pubs as well. The pubs start playing oldies, seemingly to make them feel comfortable. It really helped us write, since I get frequent bouts of nostalgia and usually it’s triggered by music. I hear a song and go “oh, wow” you know. Like hearing ‘So Young’ by Suede which is now 20 years old.

That’s terrifying.

I know, I was at college when that came out and I had that album on audio cassette. I remember that the first time I heard ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream was on the UK Top 40 when I wasn’t really into indie music yet. That broke into the charts at number 37 and I was listening to the song going “What is this? What is this intro?”. I was confused and amazed by it at the same time. So we tried to put in all those songs that have the immediate trigger of sending you back to the early ’90s.

I really like that run of songs around maybe the start of the third act where the song titles and lyrics are really specific to what’s on screen. There’s Kylie Minogue, St. Etienne…

‘Step Back in Time’, ‘Join Our Club’… They’re all totally on the nose of what’s happening! ‘Here’s Where the Story Ends’… That was all very fun. And also using ‘Alabama Song’ by The Doors just because of the lyric. “Oh show us the way to the next whisky bar, oh don’t ask why. For if we don’t find the next whisky bar I tell you we must die” That’s the movie! That’s the movie in those lyrics right there.

Steven Price’s score is really effective as well. It felt like a nice modern update on how I remember ’70s and ’80s British sci-fi TV.

It was sort of a mix between that, a little bit of Radiophonic Workshop and a bit of John Carpenter. Steven has had an amazing last three years. Three years ago he was my music editor on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and then he helped arrange the score for Nigel Godrich on that, then he did Attack the Block with Basement Jaxx, then Alfonso Cuarón hired him off the back of Attack the Block to do Gravity, and then The World’s End was his next film.

So Steven Price has suddenly rocketed into the stratosphere of doing a huge Warner Bros. movie this year, which is great because he’s so talented. But what’s also great about Steven is that he really likes the other songs as well, so he doesn’t kind of get protective about “this is my scene and song”. He gets as geeky as I do over the soundtrack and about the use of Suede and Inspiral Carpets and Teenage Fanclub.

I’ve read how you conceived of the villains in the film as half-destroyed action figures, the poster for John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’…

And Katharine Ross’s head from The Stepford Wives poster.

That’s it. When you first saw the poster for ‘The Thing’ what did you think that was? Did you see the poster before you saw the movie?

No, it think in the UK it had a different poster, I think the poster in the UK “man is the warmest place to hide” was something slightly different. I saw that slightly later and I always thought the Drew Struzan image is such a great image that isn’t in the movie – and the same with The Stepford Wives image with Katharine Ross’s head shattered like a bauble isn’t in the movie. But the other things that went into it, obviously  there’s the Autons from Doctor Who as well, who scared the shit out of me as a kid.

But the other thing about it were the action figures. As a kid I had Action Man – you’d twist the head off, you could take the arms off and you were always really aware of the joints. And with any action figure you’d take the clothes off and there’d be this plastic form with no genitals. Pull the arms off, pull the legs off, pull the head off and you’ve just got this body, and I though it would be really interesting to do this in a fight scene where they’re really strong, they’re really fast. You can pull their arm off, they’re gonna keep coming. Pull their head off, they’re gonna keep coming.

Without giving too much more about the movie’s baddies, is there anything else you can shed light on?

One thing that’s in the trailers that you see a little bit of is the blue gloop as we called it. And the reason that we went for that colour was that I don’t want to buy into this mandated idea that all alien blood should be green, which is in nearly every movie.

Also the reason its blue is I wanted something vividly different in the fight scenes, and also because when I was a kid at school I’d end up at the end of every school day with ink all over my hands. Fountain pen ink would have ended up all over my hands, and if I’d wiped my face it would have ended up all over my face as well. So my main image of being at school was having these inky blue hands, ink all over my face, and ink all down my shirt. So I thought a good way of making the actors look like little kids again was to cover them with ink.

As you can see from the movie I have a fondness for glowing eyes, and that’s like a combination of The Fog, Westworld and Bonnie Tyler’s video for Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Which is scarier than the previous two things put together.

Totally! Eric Fellner from Working Title put me in touch with Russell Mulcahy and I asked him about the glowing eyes in the Bonnie Tyler video and they did it by gluing bits of 3M tape to the kids eyes! Those choirboys have got their eyes shut and they’ve got them glued on top. It still looks spooky.

You could get away with anything…

Back then… You could glue scotch tape to a choirboy’s eyes in the ’80s, not any more.

You’ve covered a number of different genres in your films, but can you please make a post-apocalyptic feature?

It would be fun to do that! I think people thought initially that this is what The World’s End would be about, which it isn’t. But it’d be fun to do a very English version of that, because obviously we’ve all seen Mad Max 2, which is the classic post-apocalyptic movie. There are quite a lot of Australian ones, actually. And The Quiet Earth is another one that’s really good, the Geoff Murphy one from the ’80s.

What have you got coming up next?

This is definitely the end of this particular trilogy. We wanted to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and make an unofficial trilogy where they can all be enjoyed as stand-alone films. I’d love to work with Simon and Nick again, and if we did we’d do something slightly different. And I’m supposed to be doing this Marvel movie [Ant-Man] in October, although I only just finished this movie three weeks ago, so I’m going to get through this press tour and then switch into that brain later.

For more info and session times click here, or check out the trailer below.