Anyone following the combined careers of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright will know that God is in the detail. Assuming, of course, that God is a geek.
The conjoined acting/writing/ directing trio first came to our attention via Channel 4’s ground-breaking sitcom Spaced, and have since made good on its comedic promise with two hit features: low-budget zombie breakthrough Shaun of the Dead and pricier police-themed follow-up Hot Fuzz.
Their combined work is bound by an obsessive attention to in-jokes, generic homages and hidden treats. Such “Easter eggs” reward the eagle-eyed… for instance, there’s a pirate DVD of Shaun of the Dead in a supermarket bargain bin in Hot Fuzz. And they bind all three parts of their “accidental” trilogy, herewith completed by apocalyptic pub crawl movie The World’s End (in cinemas from Friday 19 July).
I meet up with the gang in a suite at Claridge’s (which Frost joshes is one he “keeps” at the famous London hotel). Pegg, 43, looks the leanest and healthiest, with posh specs, fitted T-shirt and groomed, swept-back hair; Frost, 41, with short hair and stubble, looks as comfortable as ever in the bulk that has defined his role as the essential wing man; and Wright, only 39, continues to sport the long hair and beard combo that seem to mark him out as a tiny tour manager rather than an internationally known movie director.
Wright looks rather pleased with himself. Because the film’s release date was pulled forward by a month, he knows something about the final cut that Pegg and Frost do not, as they have yet to see it: he’s inserted a tiny God-given detail in the edit suite, and teases them into guessing it.
“What’s one thing that’s in the other two films?” he asks, enjoying their pain as they rack their brains.
All three do famously feature a Cornetto (red for the blood-splattered Shaun, blue for the police-themed Hot Fuzz) and that’s where the trilogy’s title “Three Flavours Cornetto” comes from – an obvious parody on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours collection of arthouse films. But The World’s End is known to feature an as-yet- unexplained green mint-choc chip Cornetto. So it’s not that.
All three films also contain a variant on the “fence gag”, that is, an ill-advised vaulting short- cut across back gardens ending in disaster. The version in The World’s End even made the trailer. So it’s not that.
Wright offers a clue: “It’s a sound thing.” Screwed-up faces. Then Pegg jumps up. “The fruit machine?” “YES!” shrieks Wright. To explain: in Shaun, there’s a pub fruit machine called “Ooh Aah Dracula”, which goes, in Wright’s approximation, “Biddle-iddle-it-dit- diddle-it.” This electronic signature is also in Hot Fuzz. And I know I’ll now be listening out for it in The World’s End.
The empire of Pegg, Frost and Wright is built on such fripperies. Pegg recalls with regret an early unfinished screening of Shaun: “It didn’t have the noise of Ed’s camera winding on… which gets an enormous laugh.” (When Shaun’s sidekick Ed encounters his first zombie, he runs to fetch his Instamatic camera.) “Without it, it’s got nothing.” For men whose job it is to make us laugh, they take it very seriously indeed. They shot The World’s End – in which Pegg’s boorish ringleader organises a lads’ reunion after 20 years – in Hertfordshire’s pre-war “garden cities” of Welwyn and Letchworth. This means their trilogy contains, as Wright assures me, “one in the suburbs, one in the country, one in a John Wyndham-esque new town.” (Shaun was shot in North London, Hot Fuzz in Wright’s home town of Bath.) Wright is inordinately proud that Letchworth Council even let them “trash” a piece of history – Britain’s first roundabout.
The beauty of the trio’s defiant Englishness – a selling point to a cult audience in the States, where Shaun took an unexpected $13.5 million on a relatively limited release without making a single concession to the US market – is that it has opened doors in Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino asked Wright to direct one of the fake trailers for his Grindhouse compendium (in which Pegg and Frost cameo); George A Romero gave Wright and Pegg cameos as zombies in Land of the Dead; more substantially, Steven Spielberg not only hired Wright to co-script his animated The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn… he also cast Pegg and Frost as the Thompson Twins. The pair scripted and starred in the American sci-fi comedy Paul, while Wright directed his first American movie, the comic book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Of the three of them, Pegg’s career most resembles a geeky fantasy. Having starred in a number of gun-for-hire roles in British movies, he was cast as nerdy tech guy Benji in block- busters Mission: Impossible III and follow-up Ghost Protocol; but the cherry on the cake was playing Scotty in JJ Abrams’s rebooted Star Trek franchise. The offer came via email. At the time he told me, “It was enormous!” Little wonder he titled his autobiography Nerd Do Well.
Pegg admits to experiencing “a sense of ennui” when principal photography ended on The World’s End, drawing to a close an extraordinary three-part adventure. But Frost says, “It’s only the end of this. I certainly hope it doesn’t mean we won’t be working together again!”
Their fans must pray that success will not change them. It has singularly failed to thus far, unless you count Pegg moving out of London to the country (fair enough, though – he was born where they roll the cheese down a hill in Gloucestershire).
Shaun had a budget of $6 million and grossed $30 million worldwide. Hot Fuzz cost $12 million and returned $80 million. I ask what the damage was on The World’s End and Pegg tots it up: “It’s $4 million shy of double what Hot Fuzz cost.”
“It’s about being more ambitious,” explains Wright. “It required more digital effects. If you did the special effects in World’s End on the Shaun budget, they’d be extremely rough and ready. We tried to do something that looks really good.”
Frost adds, “It cost us a million to rebuild Britain’s first roundabout!”
Do they still feel like outsiders?
Pegg: “I find that the more ensconced we get [in Hollywood], the more like an outsider you realise you are.”
Wright, who has been back in the UK for a year, but lived in LA before that, says of the city, “I do find that expats say, ‘Hey, we’re all going down to the Cat and the Fiddle to watch the England game.’ You know what? I came to LA to avoid that.”
For all the glamour and opportunity, all three seem grounded and remain mischievous, as if perhaps they’ve snuck in through fame’s tradesmen’s entrance. They’re about to embark on an “enormous” press tour of the US, in order to sell what Pegg is quick to remind us is “a foreign movie” out there.
Unfortunately, they are not the only Hollywood names touting a comedy about a group of male friends coping with Armageddon – Seth Rogen’s This Is the End is already in cinemas. It has its roots in a short made in 2007 and uploaded to YouTube, while The World’s End was conceived during the press tour for Hot Fuzz, around the same time.
If it’s a problem for the British team, they cover professionally. “We always knew theirs was a Biblical apocalypse,” says Wright. “Ours is science fiction – a different story. The similarities begin and end with the word ‘End’.”
“They’re friends of ours,” chips in Pegg (he and Frost co-starred with Rogen – well, his voice, anyway – in Paul). “We know all those guys, and their film’s very funny.”
“Theirs couldn’t be more American,” exclaims Wright, “and ours couldn’t be more British!”
Or could it? It turns out they did after all make one concession to the Yanks in Shaun; they changed the word “biro” to “pen”. But as Pegg says, “Pen is a funnier word.”