Saturday, November 24, 2007

Shaun Of The Dead's Simon Pegg interview

"The Notting Hills Have Eyes": SHAUN OF THE DEAD star SIMON PEGG interviewed!

[A shorter version appeared in Rave magazine, Brisbane 12/10/04]

There’s a term in the horror world for Evil Dead fanatics: “Dead-Heads”. Tread on sacred turf and they’ll carve you a new ass with a chainsaw.

I’m not sure if there’s a word for George Romero zombie freaks, but I have to admit I’m one of them. My misspent youth was in front of the VHS player glued to the 1978 Dawn Of The Dead and soaking in every gore-drenched drop. Which is why the prospect of Shaun Of The Dead was, to put it bluntly, a fucking abomination.

On the phone from Sydney, Simon Pegg, co-writer and Shaun himself, remembers that Golden Age of Video in the early 80s as well. Simon emerged from the unfathomably talented pool of British TV comedy in the 90s, along with Shaun... director and co-writer Edgar Wright and producer Nira Park, to create the award-winning sitcom Spaced. Now, twenty-odd years after his own severed-limb-strewn youth, Simon is about to fly to Toronto to play a zombie in Romero’s latest chunkblower Land Of The Dead. He also proudly reports Romero himself wears a Shaun Of The Dead badge daily on the set.

And with little wonder too. To everyone’s surprise (and relief!), Shaun... is the perfect Romero tribute, a wonderfully multi-layered and self-professed “love letter” to the great horror films from the 70s and early 80s, and it works on every level. It’s a zombie film rather than a smart-assed spoof, a reverent homage to not only Romero’s Dead trilogy but to John Carpenter, Peter Jackson and many others, that delivers the requisite amount of sheep’s guts and karo syrup. It's a character comedy with one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. It’s a social satire on urban alienation as well as a spot-on dissertation on that chirpy British middle-class prattishness. It’s also a genuinely touching love story and coming of age saga. Like the poster says: “A Romantic Comedy. With zombies.”

In one of the more bizarre love triangles in recent memory, our Crouch End hero Shaun has to choose between his likably shrewish, long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), and his sedentary housemate Ed (Spaced co-star/co-writer Nick Frost), the hilariously profane, chain-smoking, occasionally pot-dealing, Sega playing couch monkey and school mate who has an unhealthy preoccupation with Shaun’s mum (veteran actress Penelope Wilton).

At first Shaun manages to sail blissfully through the unfolding zombie holocaust, skidding on a patch of goo in the corner store before walking down his street past a tableaux of carnage with his face buried in a can of soft drink. Shaun and Ed finally realize something’s awry when a one-armed zombie staggers through the front door into their living room; Shaun’s well-meaning attempts to save the day, keep his mum happy and reunite with the less-than-impressed Liz see him transform from nebbish shop clerk to King of the Zombies, and that’s where the film finds its heart.

Director Edgar Wright may come from a TV background but has a bold cinematic style that exploits the film’s budgetary limitations. By fencing off the global zombie apocalypse to a small stretch of North London from the corner shop to the local pub, the Winchester Arms, and paring down the supporting cast to a core of sitcom professionals (including the gleefully deadpan Dylan Moran from Black Books), much of the film’s 4 million pounds could be spent on the spectacular makeup effects on the 200-plus volunteers enlisted from the Spaced website, creatures that mirror the classic pallid, milky-eyed Romero model.

There's real wit in Wrights camera shots and the editing, and in the script that flirts with the conventions of the zombie genre without resorting to the Scary Movie trick of hammering them over the head. Pick the sly nod to the end of Day Of The Dead where one of the cast is torn apart by zombies while still conscious. The Winchester Arms scenes play like Assault On Precinct 13, and there’s echoes on the soundtrack of Carpenter synth scores and a remix of the distinctive mall muzak from the original Dawn... A truly reverent tribute to a previously reprehensible, recently rediscovered genre.

Simon Pegg: It's a love letter, really, to those kind of films, to Romero and to John Carpenter and John Landis, you know, the horror comedy.

Andrew Leavold: Im guessing you’re around my age (early to mid 30s) so youre part of the VHS generation that grew up on B-grade horror films or video nasties.

Exactly. We kinda had that period of being able to watch films that we could never see at the cinema on VHS, as the video was starting to take hold. I spent many afternoons round at my friends house with the curtains drawn watching American Werewolf In London when I was 14.

Even in the music, you've got a homage to the John Carpenter synth scores.

Very much so.

And also that chintzy Italian 70s pop in the opening, like the mall muzak in Dawn...

It IS actually the music from Dawn Of The Dead. It's Goblin, the Italian prog-rock band, one of Dario Argento’s bands that did the score to Dawn Of The Dead. I think the bit at the beginning that goes “wa-a-a-a-a-a-a” is actually library music that they used in Dawn Of The Dead from the deWolf library, but there's a sequence in the film where we’re making the plan and I’m going through the various ideas of what were going to do, the music that underscores that is from Dawn Of The Dead, and at the very end of the movie, virtually the whole of the credits is the famous “doo-doo do do” (mall music) which we remixed.

It seems that music is a really important part of the film, apart from the fact your character’s throwing records at the zombies and arguing over which ones to throw, even down to editing the zombie fight to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” - that’s fucking genius.

We wanted to do a dance number (laughter). Edgar’s the big Queen fan - I’m a fan of the band, but Edgar was really keen to choreograph a very violent sequence to a really happy upbeat song. “Don’t Stop Me Now” is such a positive tune, it seemed perfect bludgeoning an old man to death to (laughter) which we nearly did - by the end of the movie, the stuntman was 72 who plays John the landlord, he’s a veteran stuntman but three days of belting him with plastic pool cues, we started to fear for his health!

I like the way the film’s layered - as a zombie film (and not just a spoof), as a character comedy, as a social satire, and as a genuinely touching coming of age saga.

That was our aim, we always wanted to make a zombie film, we didn’t want to make a spoof, we wanted it to be a comedy as well. That was always our intention, to try and balance those things without being irreverent or taking the mickey out of horror, because we love it and we wouldn’t want anyone to think that we didn’t.

British friends have said it’s a spot on satire of British culture, but the film has a much broader appeal than that. Did the humour transfer to American audiences?

Yeah, surprisingly. I always suspected because we have more of a shared sensibility with Australia it would go down well here, but I was surprised how fervently they embraced it. We did a month-long tour of the US, doing screenings in 17 cities across the country. They really took to it, and not only that, it’s been embraced by some of our favourite American directors, and Peter Jackson as well, who have given us quotes. It was very heartening in America to have Quentin Tarantino take us out to dinner - we spent a crazy night with him. In America I think they genuinely have taken to its British-ness. It proves that you don’t have to compromise to try to appeal to people to see the movie, if you just keep it very real and honest, people will relate to it. The Americans love the fact that we’re all having cups of tea and all those quaint English things we do all the time. (laughs) I was saying earlier today I think the biggest joke for the Aussies will be to see an Englishman doing well with a cricket bat!

You’d imagine the Americans would prefer their comedy more signposted like Scary Movie.

They have a tendency to go broad rather than challenge anyone - it sounds grand, but the metaphor of the film is simply being about getting lost in a big city and losing your identity and being apathetic and lazy, and that’s what the zombies represent. It’s not a great buried subject, it’s all there and everyone gets it.

Right in the opening credits too!

Exactly. We had a couple of people say “Is there a hidden meaning about it?” and it’s not hidden, it’s right there (laughs), there’s no code to break, it’s quite obvious!

Your timing was perfect, as the film was obviously planned before the spectacular success of the Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Days Later.

I think we happened to coincide with the Renaissance, I guess. In some respects the genre was ripe for reinvention. I think what kicked it off, if anything, was the Resident Evil game which managed to capture the spirit of the Romero zombies very well, and reminded everybody that zombies were fun. I think Michael Jackson, the giuy who’s done some questionable things in his career, but making zombies dance was perhaps the worst. It killed off the seriousness of the zombie film for a little while.

And to think that John Landis was responsible!

It’s a shame John Landis was party to it... We were worried when we first heard about 28 Days Later, as far as I knew we were the only one in production, and then the Dawn remake was annoying at first because our rather simple pun of our the film title was a reference obviously to a very old classic film, and it had a lot of old-school kudos because of that, but then suddenly with the remake and the reivention of the film, we then appear to be the fastest comedy reaction to a mainstream film in the history of cinema! It was so funny, one of the executive producers on our sitcom Spaced, a lovely fellow but slightly clueless, we got a phone call about two weeks before the film came out saying, “Listen, I’ve got some bad news, guys, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there’s a film called DAWN of the Dead!” He thought it was like “Dawn” as in the name! It ended up working for us. It was like a zeitgeist that got created. It was zombie time again and we managed to surf that it didn’t harm us fortunately.

The film obviously had a low budget - I thought it was great how you contained the apocalypse to a small stretch of suburb - from the corner shop to the local pub, and the only mentions of the outside world come from fragmented news reports, current affairs shows...

Obviously the budget was just over 4 million pounds - it’s actually in small budget films not bad - but for what we wanted to do it wasn’t much at all, in terms of time and money, we were always being stretched. And so it was handy that we didn’t get too grand. There were ideas that we had to 86, car crashes and explosions and things that were too difficult, and the whole pub sequence at the end when the zombies are breaking in featured a lot more molotov cocktails and fire, but we had to cut that right down and just concentrate on the meat, if you pardon the pun, of the plot.

And the great nod to the end of Day Of The Dead is when David gets torn apart by zombies while still conscious.

We all figured, “We’ve got to have a Romero disembowelling!” We’ve become friendly with a guy called Greg Nicotero, who did the effects on Day Of The Dead, and was there when they pulled those rotten guts out of the fridge to do the scene with Roland, because they’d left the fridge locked for a couple of weeks, and all the meat rotted. He’s been so outspoken in his support for the film. We’ve been to his workshop in LA, and he’s cast our faces to be zombies in Land Of The Dead, so we’re flying over to Toronto next month to be zombies in one of George’s movies, which is a dream come true. And George Romero has seen the film, and apparently, much to our utter joy, is wearing his Shaun Of The Dead badge daily on set. So that’s great.

It must have been one of those teenage fantasies either to be in a zombie film or make a zombie film.

Yeah, we did used to have that thing on set sometimes where you would suddenly look around you and say “Holy shit! We’re making a zombie movie!” Or you’d see some ghastly mutilated actor and think, “This is great!” I remember the day we finally got to work with a lot of zombies, we were filming the scene where we’re all pretending to be zombies and we walk through that huge crowd, we called “action” and 150, 200 people just suddenly went “Ugggghhhhhh!” It was mindblowing! I had to pinch myself to know that it was real. There’s an outtake on the DVD, it’s the scene where I jump up on the table to get their attention to try to make them follow me, and the first take I did of, all the zombies just came at at me so fast I had to shout “Fuck off! Stop it! I don’t want to know!” It was too scary!

And the zombies in the film are classic Romero zombies with the grey skin and milky eyes!

Our whole theme at the top of it was: let’s make a companion piece to the Romero films. I know it’s a comedy and that becomes the focus of the film, but let’s imagine when they were escaping to that mall in Pittsburg, what are they doing in North London? How are people in suburban London coping? The people who don’t have SWAT teams and access to weapons. And that’s what fundamentalized the film.

“The Notting Hills Have Eyes”.

Exactly! We’ve just started a rumour we’re going to be doing “Dave Of The Triffids” next!

I imagine Bill Nighy didn’t need much makeup!

Bill’s amazing. We offered him the part outright, because you don’t get him in to read. He read the script and he got it immediately and utterly. He’s like David Bowie’s better-looking husband (laughter), he has that wonderful cadaverous look, with a little bit of panstick he really zombied up well. He’d just done Underworld when we started shooting, so he still had a little bit of vampire in him - when he first started doing his zombie it was like a strange hybrid of Nosferatu and Bub from Day Of The Dead - it was like, “Hang on Bill, you have to stop growling...”

You had to file his fangs down!

Exactly. He was wonderful. And so was Penelope Wilton (Shaun’s mum) who had never seen a zombie film in her life, and just got it and went for it. We were very lucky to have those elder statespeople of acting.

The characterizations were perfect - you couldn’t have wished for a better ensemble cast.

So lucky. And I’m very grateful, not just the full cast who were brilliant actors and great fun to be around, we had a great laugh, but the 1100 people who came off the internet and queued up to be zombies. It would have been a very sparsely populated film if we had to pay all of the extras. Cut price zombies!

Every ten years or so there’s a pool of creativity that gets labelled “alternative comedy” - we don’t get to see that much in Australia, we’ve had Spaced, Black Books, The Office, Big Train... With Shaun Of The Dead you’ve had a much bigger hit than the Comic Strip films in the 80s, or Kevin And Perry Go Large and Ali G In Da House more recently.

We just wanted to make the film we dreamt of making. We never consciously thought about the outcome of it all or how well it would do, so it’s gravy really that it’s actually doing well and accepted on the big screen as a movie and not just an extension of a TV show.

Those films tend to rely on already established characters - the Saturday Night Live trap - whereas Shaun Of The Dead isn’t just Spaced: The Movie.

In England they’ve made that comparison a little more often but I think they were missing the point slightly. There is a spirit there which is similar to Spaced, but the point of Spaced was it was on the TV screen - Edgar shot Shaun... in 2:35 super widescreen In John Carpenter style to make it look like a film, because we thought it would be strange to see Crouch End in North London on the big screen!

Were you ever a fan of the bottom-end Italian ones like Zombie Flesh Eaters or Zombie Creeping Flesh?

The Fulci ones? I love The Beyond because there’s a whole lot more to it, it’s a real alternative universe. Strange film, with zombies in it. I think Fulci kinda missed the point slightly - he leaped on the gore and the grossness of Romero’s films but didn’t actually twig that was never really the most important thing in a Romero movie. The things that made Romero’s movies really good were the human beings, the little arguments and the greater social issues. One of the most ridiculous moments in zombie movie history - zombie versus shark...

From Zombie Flesh Eaters! the bottom of the sea. As if a human could fight a shark let alone a fucking crap zombie! They’re not exactly athletic, you know what I mean? Taking a bite out of a Great White is hilarious.

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