Edgar Wright (above center) was the first director to ever email me about a review I’d written about his film (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, in 2010). With Wright, it’s not an isolated incident. More than just about any director, he seems to actively engage with the people who write about film, which I suspect is almost as responsible for him being a darling of the fanboy community as the fact that fanboys like his movies. It’s a phenomenon we’ve touched on before, but, put simply, nerds love to get invited to the cool kid parties.
His association with the fanboy community might be a double-edged sword. Sure, he gets glowing reviews from the fanboy community by and large, but I suspect, at least in the case of Scott Pilgrim, that part of the reason it didn’t make more money was that the mainstream saw it as a niche love letter to the Comic-Con crowd. Even though, if you watch it, it’s actually at least as much a critique of repressed adolescence as it is a celebration. Does inviting too many nerds to your party keep more cool kids from showing up, to uselessly extend a metaphor? Today’s pop-culture environment rewards mindless pandering to the man-child security blanket instinct more than ever – the nostalgia-industrial complex, if you will. The reason I enjoy Edgar Wright’s work so much is that he doesn’t just pander to the pop-culture nostalgia impulse, he explores it. Where does that impulse come from? What is it doing to us?
In The World’s End, which opens in North America this Friday, Wright is back with buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for the last installment of the Cornetto Trilogy. It’s a whacked out riff on trying to recapture your youth that basically takes the concept of “you can never go home again” to its most ridiculous extremes. It’s perhaps Wright’s most direct critique of prolonged adolescence yet, but the question remains, will fanboys just see it as a celebration? Will the mainstream just pigeonhole it as a fanboy movie? Is there room for nuance in this crazy, mixed-up world? And what of his gig directing Ant Man, set for 2015? I put it to the man himself in a phone interview.
[I have the full audio of the interview here too in case you hate reading.]
VM: So I think you were the first director to ever email me about a review of his own movie.
EW: Ohhh, is that a nice thing though, right?
VM: Oh yeah, for sure. And in general, you seem like you’re more active in engaging people who write about your movies. Is there a reason why? Have you ever thought about it?
EW:I dunno, I guess I still remember being a fan, d’you know what I mean? I used to kind of write about films myself. Somewhere I have a really embarrassing like, log book of every movie that I’ve seen with its own star rating [laughs], which not only did I have the star ratings, but I also compared them against Leonard Maltin’s. I’ve met him on a couple of occasions but I’ve never told him that.
I think it’s the fact that in your review you said I was “one detail-oriented motherf*cker,” and it really made me laugh. [I can hardly bear to read this review now, but here it is, in case you were wondering]
VM: Do you think that’s true?
EW: I was thinking, “I don’t disagree.” I think I actually have a sort of a mild form of OCD.
VM: So, in being that you sort of have a close relationship to people who write about movies, do you think that gives you any kind of advantage? Or is it a disadvantage, if people associate you with fanboy culture?
EW: I don’t think so, I think sometimes it’s actually maybe why I talk to other film geeks more than most. You’d be amazed in the industry at how few people actually go and see movies [laughs]. I mean, I don’t see it as trying to get any sort of advantage or anything. I think it’s about getting in touch with people who give good reviews and stuff. These films are not easy to get made and they’re not easy to make and not everyone realizes what an ordeal it is to get a movie done. So, I appreciate the kind words is all I was saying.
VM: On that note, being part of the fan-boy, “nerd culture,” sort of group of people that are characterized by—
EW: How dare you call me a nerd! [laughs].
VM: [laughs] Well, I’m saying people sort of associate you with that because you have such a close relationship with people who do what I do for a living, and I always wonder like, for the people who didn’t like Scott Pilgrim or who never saw it, it seemed like they just sort of assumed it was part of the immature fan-boy silliness and sort of missed the part where it was a critique of adolescent male thinking—
EW: Well, I think, y’know, in a way The World’s End is a film about growing up, and it’s a film about letting go of your past. You could say that Hollywood at the moment, in a way, sort of trades in nostalgia, so in that respect it’s a fairly ballsy message. In a way, Hot Fuzz especially, and sort of Shaun of the Dead, are films about the fantasy of movies. And so in essence they’re sort of movies about escapism. And in this one we’re saying that that can be a dangerous thing, and make sure to keep looking forward.
VM: That’s sort of what I meant, the way The World’s End is sort of a critique of the extended adolescence in the same way that Scott Pilgrim sort of was. I wondered, I mean obviously a lot of people got it, but with Scott Pilgrim it seemed like a lot of people missed that subtext. Did that reaction affect the way you did [The World’s End] at all?
EW: I don’t think so. I think you can’t expect everybody to see every sort of level of something. I think with both movies there’s an element where you can enjoy them at surface level. And, y’know, so, if somebody says there’s nothing to it, it’s all kind of lost.
VM: Do you think the way that we watch movies now, where we’re more geared to re-watch over and over and find the minutiae, does that affect the way that you make them at all?
EW: When we did Spaced we found that people who liked it would really watch it endlessly. I think that empowered us on Shaun of the Dead to put lots of foreshadowing in to the movie, and the same with Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. It’s definitely something where, the science of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, I’m sure, bigger producers would say, “Why not make it this entertaining on the first watch? Why not make it really obvious?” That’s the thing, most movies that you watch, there’s nothing to be gained after the first watch. A lot of big Hollywood movies, I’m sure you agree, you watch and you think, “Yeah that was kinda cool. I will never watch that movie ever again.”
VM: I’m sure there’d be a lot of people that would want you to put certain things from The World’s End in the trailer.
EW: Oh yeah, I mean we definitely had a discussion where some people said, “Why didn’t you do a trailer that just showed the pub crawl bit?” And I said because, y’know, a twentieth of the audience would show up. I mean, it’s a ballsy move, but I don’t think that would actually really work. Maybe you can get away with that with a teaser, but, the Shaun of the Dead trailer has zombies in it. So by all rights we have to kind of somehow show the threat in this. But I don’t think actually a lot of the surprises in this movie are not to do with the sci-fi element in a way.
VM: So, the movie’s sort of about English pub culture. When you brought it here, was there any pressure to tamp down the Englishness of it?
EW: Not really. I mean, not after Shaun of the Dead. Because we didn’t make Shaun of the Dead for international audiences. So it getting a release in the US, it was actually through a lot of the American sites like Ain’t it Cool News and other people that started to champion it, that it actually got a theatrical release at all. Because it was originally going to go straight to video in the US. With the response to that, like, the Britishness becomes (in a strange way) a selling point. I think people would smell a rat if we made it more transatlantic. And in a way, occasionally you get pressures early on, to sort of like, more with Shaun of the Dead, where you get the pressure of “what about casting like a big American star in this part?” or I think when we trying to get Shaun of the Dead financed, which was a struggle, more than one person said, “You should cast an American as Ed,” or something like that, something really stupid, or “You should cast an American actress as Liz, have an American in it.” Obviously we resisted that. No disrespect to Americans, but I’m sure American audiences would think that was funky too.
VM: Two words: Channing Tatum.
EW: [laughs] That’s the thing, you know, with that said, within the cast of The World’s End, you do have like Scotty and Bilbo [Simon Pegg and Martin Freeman], so we’ve got two stars from massive international hits [laughs]. Although, I would resist the film being retitled as Scotty and Bilbo in some international territories.
VM: Yeah, maybe for DVD.
EW: For Thailand. My favorite retitling of a movie is Shaun of the Dead in Spain is called “Zombie Party,” which is amazing. In fact, I don’t have a Shaun of the Dead poster at home, I have a Zombie Party poster because it just makes me laugh.
VM: So when I did the roundtable with you and Simon and Nick, I noticed that Simon, he’s generally thought of as the goofy, the wacky character, and then in person he comes of as the serious one of you three. He’s got this deep oratorial voice, and he seems very smart and polished. Is there any truth to that observation?
EW: I think, maybe naturally because he’s the oldest of the three, and he’s the most eloquent speaker, that when the three of us are together Simon becomes the serious one and me and Nick just goof around. I think it’s slightly different when I’m doing an interview solo. We just did our DVD commentary yesterday in New York, and Simon’s a very articulate man. He went to university and everything so he can do sort of proper… thesises, theseses? What’s the plural of thesis? See, I didn’t go to university so I don’t know.
VM: Theses. You never went to university?
EW: Thesises? No that’s not a word.
VM: No, theses.
EW: Theese? A flock of theese?
VM: It’s theses; I know this.
EW: Theses, see I should know these things. I went to art college, I didn’t get tested on theses.
VM: Yeah that’s the Latinate pluralization I think.
EW: I want you to put all of this in your FilmDrunk article.
VM: Oh, of course. This is the money shot of the interview.
VM: I think I pointed this out to you once before that, when I saw you at Comic Con for Scott Pilgrim, you were in front of like, five, ten thousand people, and you seemed really comfortable with that aspect of it. Is that something you’ve learned? Is that natural? Or is that just sort of like the personality you have to have when you’re the director and you’re the guy and you have to tell people what to do on a set?
EW: I think I was actually a lot more nervous then than I was this time. I think actually this time it felt like there was less points to hit, and we didn’t show any new footage at Comic Con. We didn’t show any of the fight scenes at Comic Con because we wanted it to be a surprise. So, we just kind of like, chatted.
I don’t know. It’s something that I really like doing. I sort of enjoy doing it more when there’s less at stake. The nice thing about doing those things is if you can have fun with it. If it’s something where you’re really having to be a car salesman, it’s not fun.
VM: Did you feel more like a car salesman on Scott Pilgrim than you did for this one?
EW: I think a little bit because, and I have to say that the marketing people on Scott Pilgrim were really behind the movie, and and we all together would sort of try and figure out, what’s the easiest way of selling this? And it actually was something that was just a lesson for us all. I think that when I was promoting that movie at the start of it, I was trying to extoll all the different virtues and genres that were in the movie, and by the end of the press tour when people said, “How would you describe Scott Pilgrim?” At the start of the press tour I would say, “It’s like a fantasy martial-arts kung fu love story romance musical epic!” and by the end I would say, “Oh it’s a comedy.” You realize that you kind of have to come up with a description of the movie that’s as sort of short and pithy as it would be on a hotel TV eventually.
VM: You’ve been doing press for this for like a month, and month and half now—
EW: I think it’s more like 7 weeks, if you include the UK and Ireland and Australia and New Zealand.
VM: Does it just grind you down? Seems like it’d be exhausting.
EW: It’s really good doing it with Simon and Nick. If it was just me on my own I think I would’ve probably slit my wrists by now, but Simon and Nick make it a joy and it’s just fun. We’re friends in real life, but like, making these movies, it’s nice to just be together for an extended period of time. And if there’s any sadness about it, there’s that slightly sad feeling of like, “Oh when am I gonna be in a room with Simon and Nick again?” It might not be for several years. You know, that’s enough to make me want to make another film with them, is that I just like being around with them. That side of it’s really fun.
The only downside, and listen, these are high-level problems to have, I’m not, as Nick Frost says, working in a Chinese uranium mine, the only thing that’s weird is going to all of these cities that I feel like I’ve never been to, because I only saw the hotel, and the cinema, and the hotel bar for fifteen minutes before falling asleep. I remember John Landis telling me, “If you’re on a press tour, make sure you get a day off in every place. Otherwise don’t go.” And I’m thinkin’ “Well that’s impossible!” It’s like, you travel a lot, but you see nothing. But, listen, these are high-class problems. Like, please don’t make the headline “Edgar Wright Bitches About Traveling the World.”
VM: I would totally do that, too.
EW: Just make it Edgar Wright Doesn’t Know the Plural for Thesis.
VM: That’s fair.
EW: Alright cool, man. Good luck with the site and everything, and I’ll probably speak to you again in another three years [laughs]. Oh you know, the next one’s supposed to be in two years, like, so, if it all goes according to plan. It may be the first time I might have a movie out in less than three years, I could break my own record.
VM: Are you breaking news here, what’s the next one?
EW: Well no, Ant Man is already scheduled. Disney already put it on the calendar for 2015, so that’s not news. It’s quite an exciting and also foreboding thing, thinking, “Oh yeah there’s already a release date for the movie.”
[Picture via Getty]
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