Edgar Wright on The World’s End, the Cornetto trilogy, sci-fi

With The World's End out this week, Edgar Wright talks to us about Spaced, Hot Fuzz, Shaun Of The Dead, and ending the Cornetto trilogy...

Over the last decade, Edgar Wright has gone from being the kind of geek who obsessed about other people’s movies, to the kind of geek whose movies other people obsess about. You all know the story by now: Spaced begat Shaun Of The Dead begat Hot Fuzz, establishing him as one of filmmaking’s hottest directing talents, with an astonishing eye for visual flair and attention to detail.

Having stepped away from his regular collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to make kinetic 2010 comics adaptation Scott Pilgrim Vs The World – not to mention the long-in-gestation Ant Man project for Marvel – Wright has now re-teamed with his partners in crime for The World’s End, the final chapter in their so-called Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy of standalone but thematically linked genre comedies. We sat down for a chat with the writer/director to find out how he feels about this decade-long chapter of his career finally reaching the end…

At what point did you set out to make these films a thematic trilogy, and what was the line you drew between them as you went? I imagine to begin with, Shaun Of The Dead would have been intended as quite standalone…?

Yeah, and Hot Fuzz was, as well – in fact, we didn’t have the idea for The World’s End until we were on the Hot Fuzz press tour. I think the thing is that on a superficial level, what links the movies are things like ice cream and fence gags, but what they’re all really about is friendship between men, and getting older. They’re all about getting older – even as far back as Spaced we had jokes about them being too old at 26!

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I think with this one, though, it felt like we wanted to explore a slightly different angle on it. We always have this idea in our films where they’re about perpetual adolescence – and in Shaun he’s faced with Ed as a bad influence and Pete as a good influence, while in Hot Fuzz Nick is the professional but he has Danny alongside him as the naïve fantasist. But in this one, the idea is that Gary is both the hero and the villain of the piece, in that he wants to bring his adult friends down to his level. So while he says they’re jealous of him, you feel that actually he’s probably jealous of them, because they’re happy grown-ups.

So I think once we had the idea for the film, it felt like it could be a final chapter – our final statement on the dangers of perpetual adolescence, really!

And it came from the fact that I had already written this script… it’s funny, actually, because weirdly this is the longest-gestating of the three. I’d written this script when I was 21 called Crawl, which was about teenagers on a pub crawl. And I remember being on the Hot Fuzz press tour thinking about it; and strangely, I was thinking about how it compared to Superbad, how that film was about teenage kids and drinking, too. And I thought I’d probably never do anything with that script, until I thought “But what if it was about those guys now?”

And I have sympathy with Gary, because – well, I don’t know why, but I frequently have these time-travel fantasies about going back to being a teenager and going on dates again, trying to do better in school, trying to do my first films better, and so on! So I can sympathise with him in trying to recreate that perfect night.

So I think once we had that idea for the story, we thought it could be more than just ice cream jokes, it could actually be the end of a thematic trilogy. 

So do you think The World’s End successfully portrays the three of you as having “grown up” across the course of the three films?

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Well, I hope so – it kind of goes both ways, really, because one of the key jokes of the movie is that all of the other four are grown up, but as soon as alcohol is involved it becomes the magical elixir to make them all become juvenile again. And we like the idea that alcohol is the “time machine” in this movie, basically. So there’s this idea both visually and in their performances, to reduce them to being teenagers again – the blue “goo” that gets on their hands, the reason it’s blue is that when I was a kid, I’d come home from school with all this fountain pen ink on my hands! And I’d always have a white shirt with a blue stain, and these inky hands, and in the summer I’d wipe my face with my hands so I’d have blue all down my face, as well. So that, for me, that scene immediately after the first fight, when they’ve got blue all over them, that’s my way of saying, “They’re kids again”.

But I think at the same time it would be foolish of us to try and pretend to be 26 forever. The characters have got to get older, and it’s actually nice having a six-year break between Hot Fuzz and this, because now Simon and Nick are both husbands and fathers, and so they can’t pretend to be the stoner flatmates forever. And I think sometimes when I see movies where people are doing that onscreen, when in reality they’re actually married and stuff, I always kind of think it’s a crock of shit!

Why do you think this “perpetual adolescence” has been such a recurring theme in everything you’ve done together?

I don’t know, really – I think the reason we write these scripts is that it bugs me as to why I think about it a lot. And in a way, the real baddie in the film is nostalgia itself. The film is essentially about the perils of nostalgia, and being careful what you wish for. And the structure, without giving too much away, is that Gary King has imagined… well, he remembers this epic night, but he may even be seeing it through rose-tinted spectacles, because even in the opening scene we’re only going from his word. It’s him recounting that story, so he may even be making it sound better than it actually was! And then he wants to recreate this epic night, but it then becomes epic in a completely different way to how he envisaged.

The “horror” aspect of it for me is that thing of going back to your home town and discovering that you’re no longer welcome, on a number of levels. I just like that theme, really – although I think this one is both darker and sillier, at the same time, than the other two! 

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Both the previous films are heavily rooted in your own personal geography – Shaun being based around where you were living at the time, and Hot Fuzz being filmed in your home town. The town you built in The World’s End also feels quite strongly defined – did you draw on anything in particular from your own life for this one?

I guess so – I think what we wanted to do in the three movies was pick three locations that didn’t really get seen in films that much. So in Shaun you get the suburbs of North London that you only otherwise see in Mike Leigh films… as for Hot Fuzz, I’m not sure Somerset had ever been seen on the big screen before! And the idea for this one was that it had to be a “new town”, it had to be a garden city. And my mum’s side of the family are from the Midlands, so I was always aware of these kind of places when I was growing up.

One of the things that Simon and I have always been obsessed by is the homogeny of chain pubs, and how that homogeny is spreading like a virus throughout the country. And if I had to say what the most terrifying thing in the film is, it’d be the proliferation of those fake hand-written chalk boards… I find it genuinely alarming! Having moved to London from Somerset, I now find when I go back out, it’s like London has infected everywhere else, and all high streets look the same. So I wanted to recreate that hellish feel in the film. I wanted to make audiences around the country go back to their local pubs and think “Oh my god, they’re right!”

Can you talk a bit about the genre influences in the film? I got something of a Nigel Kneale, John Wyndham sort of sense from it, particularly…

Yeah, what I really like in those kind of books, and the TV series and film adaptations, is that they always show a global event through the keyhole of a tiny town. And John Wyndham, I think, was the king of that – The Midwich Cuckoos is the set text in terms of showing something really big through the eyes of a village. And then the Quatermass movies are great like that, as well, as they start out small, but by the end you’re having some kind of interaction with alien gods. And Quatermass II was actually shot in High Wycombe, where we also shot the station scenes! That was one of the other reasons we went for the Garden Cities, Letchworth and Welwyn, because when we walked around all the architecture was from the 1920s, and you think “This feels Wyndham-esque, this is definitely the right place to be”.

Of course there were American influences as well, like Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, Stepford Wives and so on. But I think the interesting thing about the British ones is that they themselves kind of became the template for a lot of things like Doctor Who, The Avengers – there’s so much TV that sprang out of Quatermass and the Wyndham books, and it still goes on today. So it feels like something I’ve grown up with, even through things like those ’70s UNIT episodes of Doctor Who…  

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It did feel a little bit at times, watching the film, how great it might be if you got the urge to make an episode of Who…!

I think this is it! This is my Doctor Who!

Your films always have great soundtracks, and this one felt particularly acute – a lot of the time it’s there to comment on the action, and is more a part of the story. How did you come to put that together?

When me and Simon were writing the script, we had made this playlist that was around 200 tracks long – all from 1987 to 1993. And we just listened to it on a loop, and we wouldn’t listen to anything else. Literally, every day that we started writing, we’d listen to Pump Up The Volume by M/A/R/R/S. And then from that, similar to the way the pub signs commented on every scene, we wanted to take these late 80s, early 90s indie or dance anthems and use them to comment on exactly what was happening.

There are two points about the soundtrack, really. The first is that Gary has his tape in the film, which has never left his car stereo, and that’s based verbatim on something that happened to me! I went to a wedding, with this friend who’s actually coming along to the film’s premiere, and while we were driving down he started playing Get It Hot by AC/DC. And I was like, “Oh man, I haven’t heard this in ages! I put this on a tape for you, didn’t I?” And he said “Yeah, this is it!” This was about 15 years ago, but I made a mental note of that, I had to use that verbatim dialogue one day. And he’s coming to see the film, so I hope he appreciates that bit!

The other thing is that I was around 16 in 1990, so it’s probably exactly that time that I started reading NME, and started to look beyond Top Of The Pops and the UK Top 40. And I specifically remember hearing Bruno Brookes saying “And now in at number 37, it’s Primal Scream with Loaded!” and hearing that song thinking “What is this? This is amazing!” It was around that time I was actually getting into “cool” music.

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But the thing is, some of those songs have never gone away – things like I’m Free and Loaded, they’ve never gone away, you hear them in bars now. Those songs have become to us now, what 60s songs were like when I was growing up. Sixties songs were oldies, now those songs are the oldies! So there was something about Gary King using these hedonistic party songs as his bible, but then they go back to Newton Haven and they’re playing in the pub as oldies! It’s terrifying on both counts!

And also, I feel like I listen to a lot of songs about being young, and it’s kind of bittersweet – so when I listen to something like Suede’s So Young, I love it, and I used to have that on tape, and I used to play it all the time and it was my favourite Suede song. And so while I love hearing it in the film, I also think “Aw, man, it’s a song about being young!” – well, it’s also a song about heroin, but still… we thought it was just perfect to put in the movie.

So in general I’m very pleased with the soundtrack, and I think it’s nice that as well as the more well-known ones, we have some tracks that people won’t have heard in a while! 

Shaun and Fuzz both came out in a pre-Twitter era, whereas nowadays you’re much more connected with your audience, you tend to engage with them online more. Does that inform your approach to the films at all, having a bit more of an idea of what people expect or how they might react?

I think the only thing with Twitter and so on is the way they make people kind of jump to discuss things – you feel like you have to write a review as soon as you’ve left the cinema! And I feel like when I see films, I like to think about them for a while, so for things I’ve worked on I’d like people to do that as well.

I don’t think it informs the movies, though – I think the only thing you can do is write a script that you feel means something to you. And what’s been nice about doing these three films is that they’re all in their different ways – even Hot Fuzz, which is kind of the barmiest – quite personal. And there’s that weird thing when people talk about twists and stuff in the films – people have said to me “Oh, how do you feel about them giving away the twist in the trailer?” And I say “Well, no, the twist isn’t that they’re robots, the twist is that it’s actually a film about relationships!” You know, we’ve tried to make a zombie film, a cop film and an alien invasion film, but we’ve actually smuggled three relationship films under the wire!

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