After last year’s Hollywood triple-whammy of Paul, The Adventures Of Tintin and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Simon Pegg is back on our screens this week in A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a macabre comedy in which a hapless writer is paralysed by his own paranoia. Following such massive, multiplex-sized movies, this is a step back into more modestly budgeted territory for the co-creator and star of Spaced, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.
When we had the chance to chat with the man himself last week, we asked about working with first-time feature directors Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell, the differences between Hollywood and UK films, and the perks of appearing in such ‘geek dream’ flicks.
But first, we couldn’t resist a quick question about The World’s End, and his future plans to work with Edgar Wright…
Everyone’s excited about World’s End. Of course, that’s the conclusion to the Cornetto Trilogy. Do you have any plans to work with Edgar Wright after that?
Oh, God yeah! Edgar and I never sat down and said, “Let’s make a trilogy”. We’ve been friends since Spaced, since before Spaced, actually, since we did Asylum. We’ll always work together. But with these films, we kind of set out to do three films that tied together thematically. We had the idea of thematic sequels rather than direct sequels. So World’s End will be the ribbon that ties Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz together, and will form a definite trilogy about the individual versus the collective. That’s kind of the thing.
After that, yeah, we’ve got loads of plans to do stuff. I know Edgar’s got Ant Man coming up, and I’m probably… I don’t want to be in that, because I like watching Edgar Wright films, and I distract myself. And another two scripts he’s written, which are fantastic, which he’s going to develop. That’s Edgar’s stuff. He’s such a talent, and I trust Edgar, I think, more than anybody, in terms of creativity, so I will always sit on his coat-tails as much as I can!
In A Fantastic Fear Of Everything, you play a very unfortunate writer, beset by his own imagination. Writers in film always seem to be shot, stabbed, maimed and driven mad in the service of entertainment. Why do you think that is? Especially considering Daisy in Spaced was probably more true to life.
Because they’re the lowest on the food chain, particularly in the film industry. It beggars belief, the lack of respect that directors and actors have for writers. Not all of them, that’s wrong to say. I think that’s why Edgar and I have this contained, protective circle around what we write. We write it, then he directs it and I’m in it. Because we come to set, and every single sentence is sacred. I mean, we’re flexible, and sometimes there’s room for improv if we’ve got time, and it necessitates it, but usually every word has got to be said the way we’ve written it, because the structure is so complex, and there are things which rhyme.
Whereas, I know writers who just hand their scripts in, and they get bent all out of shape by actors who want to say different things. It annoys me sometimes that actors think they have the right to change a script. It’s like, you’re an actor, so fucking act! Just because you’re a valued commodity doesn’t mean you can bend a script out of shape, and thus have the film lose its structure.
So they’re the little wimpy kids of the industry, so they get beaten about. But also they’re the classic tortured artists. Even more than painters, they’re literally putting their thoughts on paper, and opening themselves up to the world. They’re very vulnerable, tortured characters.
This film has had quite a journey. It started off as a short, then was developed into a television project, then the directors said you got involved and it was a lot easier to pitch as a film. What’s it like to have that power?
That makes me sound awfully powerful, but… Crispian was a friend, and he gave me this script that he’d written, which was an adaptation of [Bruce Robinson’s novella] Paranoia In The Launderette, and said, “Would you be interested in doing it?” And it looked to me like a short film. There’s not really a platform for short films, sadly, and there are some fantastic short films out there. They tend to be festival-based. It’s not like they run before features any more. And I said to Crispian, “If this has another act, and it was a feature, then I’d be really interested in doing it, because I love the material, but I’m really looking to do features at the moment”.
So he went away and came up with this third act, and ran it by Bruce, and Bruce had a few notes, and then suddenly Crispian had this epiphany, and all this about Jack being a children’s author… because you can’t just tack a third act on, the seeds of the third act have to be sown in the first act. But Crispian just blew my mind in terms of his capacity to write. I thought he was a guitarist, and he’s not. He’s a born filmmaker!
But both he and Chris were both debut feature filmmakers on this film. What’s it like working with first-timers, as opposed to seasoned directors?
It’s funny being more experienced on set sometimes. It was odd to a degree, but I never felt like either of them were out of their depth, or new to it. Crispian was alarmingly okay with everything. I think it’s because he may not have made a feature before, but he’s been around them his entire life. Longer than I ever have. Oddly, we shot on the sound stage at Shepperton where his mum and dad met. We didn’t realise that until Hayley Mills came to the set to visit, and she said “Ah, I met your father here”. And we were like, this room is responsible for Crispian’s life! And Chris Hopewell as well, he’d done some groundbreaking, world-beating music videos, so there was never a sense that these guys were feeling their way, or inexperienced.
If anything, the only advice I could give them was how to be jaded. [laughs] Weirdly, it was a strange thing working with Brad Bird on Mission: Impossible, because it was his first live action, and so there were moments where he was like, “How come these people need make-up?” That was almost more evident to me than these guys.
How different is it working on a film that cost two million dollars, to one that cost two hundred million? Is there just more people on set?
Ultimately, it comes down to your time and resources and the environment you’re in. Obviously the sets are bigger, you’ve got a little bit more freedom and time, but ultimately, it boils down to a microcosm which is exactly the same whether it’s a two hundred million dollar film or it’s a two million dollar film, and that is you have your director and your cameraman, and your DP and your first AD and your camera crew, and your actors. That’s it.
However big the set you’re in, you’re still just filming that little moment. Unless you’re filming five cameras on an exploding bridge or something. But when you’re just acting, it’s like, whether it’s Star Trek or Fantastic Fear, you’re still in a very intimate, small environment. The catering changes enormously. [laughs] British catering… We’ve got some brilliant catering firms, but we don’t have craft services. And I would move to America for that reason alone!
What particular craft services dishes do you wish they had over here?
You know, like hot and cold sandwiches. Just nuts. You can scoop up handfuls of yoghurt. It’s just great. You shouldn’t really do it, because you get fat. But it’s good when it’s all high protein. Like, on Star Trek, we were all trying to keep fit, obviously, and it was really handy to have zero carb wraps and shit like that. LA stuff.
This film seems to be almost in contrast to a lot of the Hollywood work you’ve done. Films like Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Tintin, they’re ‘geek dream’ films, which you wouldn’t think of turning down. This seems like more of an acting challenge, because the first act is just you in a room, jumping at shadows. Is that what attracted you to it?
Yeah! I’ve almost by happy accident become the guy from the geek films, because I do love that stuff and of course it’s a joy to participate in them. But I’m also an actor, and I love good writing and good parts and when I read this script, it felt like something I was really craving. And so it was a no-brainer for me to say yes. And also, you want to say, “I’m not just that guy from that thing, I have other strings to my bow”.
This film gives you the chance to bust out some moves and some rhymes.
There’s nothing funnier than a pasty white guy gangsta rapping. And I really love the idea, it was Crispian’s idea, that Jack had this bizarre love, affection and knowledge of gangsta rap music. He’s this Withnail-ian, post-Tramp character. Classic Bruce Robinson sort of affected down-and-out. And yet he’s a fucking bad boy when it comes to rap! He’s a big NWA fan, Ice Cube. He’s this aficionado. And I had to go for it when it came to do that rap. I just had to, totally seriously, try to be as black as I possibly could. And it was a nice little character thing.
You mention Withnail. Your character’s flat itself almost seems like an homage to Withnail’s cluttered flat, in a way.
It is, very much so. The idea was that it was an embassy previously, or a government building of some kind, that got turned into residential flats. So it’s just too big for Jack, and the room is so giant, and he’s so small. It’s like he’s the little boy lost, literally. And that was all Chris’ production design. There’s so much detail in there, as well. When you were in the flat, when I was there, I’d be just pottering around, opening drawers. There was shit in every drawer! Every book was relevant, every record. It was so meticulously put together. And I love that, because, even though you don’t see it on the screen, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel the completeness of the set.
The little thing that I loved when we did Shaun Of The Dead was that, in the Winchester, there was one of those big whiskey bottled filled with money, like when you put the coppers in. And in there, there was a tiny bit of tinsel, like someone had dropped it in there at Christmas. And it was the tiniest little detail, but I just looked at it, and thought “Aw, that’s good! That’s really good!”
I remember, when we did Paul, someone had written Clive’s novel, The Alien Queen. There was like seven or eight pages of novel in there, that was written! Really crappy sci-fi. And I just remember thinking, “This is amazing, no one’s going to see this!”
I guess that’s part of the geek dream aspect, that you get to wander around in those sets, and look around. You get to participate in that world.
In Star Trek, I have a Starfleet ring, my Academy ring. And you’ll see it flashing on my knuckle every now and again. I wanted to punch somebody in the face, so they got an imprint of my Starfleet ring.
Do you get to take that stuff home?
I stole my badge this time. I did. They were so strict with us last time. And on my last day, it was such a loose goodbye, everyone was really chilled out. So I just took my badge back to my room, put it in my bag, and… What are they gonna do, sack me? [laughs]
In keeping with the film’s title and plot, what’s your greatest fear?
I think, probably, critics! [laughs] No, I don’t know. Probably falling short of what I want to achieve. Death is obviously one that we’re all scared of. And I think all our fears go back to that one, even fear of spiders or balloons. All those things, as you see in the film, you realise that we project our deepest fears onto other things. But, I guess, failure. I’m a quite a driven person, and I really love working, and the idea of not being able to work, or people losing interest me as a creative person is scary.
I asked Chris and Crispian. Chris said drowning, and Crispian said spiritual annihilation.
Really? [laughs] That’s so Crispian!
Was he like that on set? All psychedelic and mystical?
No. He has an element of that about him. Like, he does things when the moon’s full and stuff, but he’s not a drippy hippy at all. He’s very smart and very focused, but he has a lovely spirituality about him, which I think is very endearing. [laughs]
Simon Pegg, thank you very much for your time!
A Fantastic Fear Of Everything is out on the 8th June in the UK.
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