Writer, actor and best friend of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg exclusively shares the trials, celebrations and rodeos that go into making a massive film.
Paul. Why did we call the alien, the eponymous hero, the protagonist in our new film, Paul? It’s because we wanted him to be both extraordinary and ordinary. He’s this naturalised American alien. He’s informed our opinion of aliens subliminally over the past 60 years, and his image has been leaked and fed to us subtly so we’d get used to his face.
He created the character of Agent Mulder, he had ideas about ET, he advised Spielberg. But we just wanted to have a regular Joe name for something very, very strange. And it could have been so different. I mean, at one point, Nick wanted to call him Fudge.
As a project, it took more than seven years from inception to completion. We first came up with the idea when we were filming Shaun Of The Dead during the record-throwing scene. It was May 2003 with the typical mixture of sunshine and rain clouds. There’s always a matching issue when you film outside — you have to film in one state of light or else it jumps between edits.
We’d hedged our bets 50/50 and decided to shoot in cloud, so we had to wait for the sun to go in. Nick and I were sat with Nira Park, the producer, bemoaning the weather and she said next time let’s shoot somewhere that’s always sunny. So Nick and I started spit-balling these ideas. We immediately thought of a desert — the first one was the American West, then we thought of Nevada, then Area 51, then, of course, aliens.
The idea was that me and Nick would be travelling across America when we meet an alien and help him get back to his ship. So I drew this little poster for Nira — she still has it — on the back of a Shaun Of The Dead call sheet. It’s a picture of Paul giving the finger and it says ‘In America, everyone’s an alien’. And then, six years later, we find ourselves in New Mexico.
Paul had always been on the back-burner, but the fact that it wasn’t just dismissed as a frivolous silly joke in the back garden in Crouch End, that it percolated in the background — it felt more and more like something we might actually do one day.
Then, Edgar Wright, director of Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, went off to do Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and we knew he was going to be out of the picture for a while and Nira said, “Why don’t we do Paul?” So me and Nick spent the next 18 months writing it. When we write, we go into our office in central London, sit at our desks, surf the internet, go on Facebook and make each other laugh — we don’t force it at all. The first thing we do is come up with a loose story so we know where we’re going.
It’s like a colouring book where you draw the broad outlines and start filling it in with dialogue. And then you rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. We had more arguments writing Paul than we’ve had in 17 years of being friends. Ninety per cent of the time we agree, but when we disagree, you have to fight your corner. And sometimes it gets heated. But not in a way that turns into acrimony — it’s a debate. But if you’re not in a good mood and you pitch three ideas, all of which are rejected, you start to think it’s personal.
We had stand-up fights a couple of times. You get all teary, and your heart beats really fast, then you don’t talk to each other for three minutes. Then you say, “Look… I’m sorry about that.”
CHANGING THE TEAM
It was a wrench not working with Edgar. We’re all very much a team and I feel very safe with him. So the onus was on finding someone who could understand the material — and that was Greg Mottola. I’d seen [his 1996 film] The Daytrippers at the cinema years ago. So when his name came up, I thought, “My God, that’s a great idea,” because The Daytrippers is a road movie — it’s a very low-key character comedy, all the characters are well-drawn and that’s what we wanted. In a way, Edgar’s sensibility — and he agreed — was wrong. We didn’t need his particular kind of flair for this film. It would have overwhelmed it.
I finally met Greg in 2007, because I was shooting How To Lose Friends & Alienate People. I’d finished our last night shoot, so I’d left work at 9am, gone to bed and met Greg at midday. It was a Friday, the opening day of Superbad, so he was pale and slightly freaked out. I was tired and a little bit jaded. We met in a hotel in New York’s Lower East Side and I really liked him. I immediately thought he was the right guy for the job, so we agreed on it then and there. It’s a gentleman’s agreement — you leave the agents to work out the scheduling and fees — but a lot of people are like that. JJ Abrams is like that and Steven Spielberg is like that. And then it goes to the agents and you just hope he remembers what he said.
We were on set for 12 weeks for Paul and you see these people more than your own family — you bond quickly and necessarily. It was a particularly happy experience, and Nick and I felt very lucky. This was our own little film that we wrote and suddenly there’s this massive crew and vast numbers of people doing all this stuff for a silly idea we had in Crouch End. Usually you work a 14/15-hour day, so when you leave the set you want to collapse. Plus, you have to be up at 6am the next day, but in Santa Fe we had some good times after we’d finished filming. Me, Nick, Joe Lo Truglio, Bill Hader, Greg and a lot of the crew went to the Santa Fe rodeo and got absolutely trollied.
We all bought clothes from a shop called Kowboys. I had a really nice cowboy hat, this cool grey shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. The thing is, you feel utterly at home in that outfit because everyone is wearing it. I felt so right in that outfit. And Nick had this checked shirt and a Stetson. We were just walking around drinking beer and watching the ‘mutton busting’, which is kids riding sheep. It’s basically seeing how long your child can stay on the back of a sheep — extraordinarily dangerous. But Lance Bangs, our videographer, his son won. He was the best mutton buster. We were very pleased. Marshall Bangs was the winner.
When we moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, in June — the little town with the big name — we were staying in The Plaza hotel, which is where they shot No Country For Old Men, where Javier Bardem kills Woody Harrelson, and it is exactly the same as the film. Those were the corridors that Bardem stalked, so it was a little bit spooky. We all stayed there together and we’d go down and meet in the bar. We had some great nights. Those guys are enormous fun to be around. I mean Bill, Joe, and Kristen Wiig; all three of them are constant fun.
When you get comics together, people who enjoy being funny, it becomes a never-ending competition to see who can be the funniest. It’s like The Trip, but with less bitterness. And then there was the heat. And the potentially lethal lightning storms and hailstones the size of golf balls. It’s the irony of Paul that the whole point was to shoot in the sun and eventually we shot in the single most meteorologically erratic state in the US. There was a special meter on set that told us how close lightning storms were because if they got within a certain range we all had to take cover.
More people get killed by lightning in New Mexico than any other state — it’s just something else. I’ve never been anywhere where I can see the horizon in every direction. And on the plains in Las Vegas, you could see eight different weather fronts. There would be a storm over there, you’d be in 90-degree heat and there would be a rainstorm somewhere else — just grey columns going from the sky to the ground.
As for Paul himself, we always imagined him to be played by an older actor, like Rip Torn — who recently went a bit mad and tried to break into a bank. But when it came to casting talks with the studio, they wanted someone to appeal to an audience. Nick and I moaned, because it would be someone really young and then they said Seth Rogen and we went, “Oh hang on,” because he’s got a gravelly voice and yet he’s in his 20s. The voice was necessary, because we wanted to get across that Paul’s a journeyman — he’s been on Earth for 60 years. He’s funny, smart and croaky, because he smokes, and Seth just really fit that bill. And the studio was able to capture a lot of Seth’s facial expressions. They even gave Paul Seth’s weird little rabbit teeth.
Seth had to wear a full bodysuit with a camera on it and markers for the computer to track his movements. We shot the whole film with him in two weeks in a studio in LA, then Nick and I went down to Santa Fe to join everyone else. One thing we had to figure out was how the hell we were going to talk to Paul on set. We wanted a very conversational, naturalistic interaction with this creature and we weren’t sure how we could pull it off without Seth there. So we decided we needed an actor on set with us, and we thought of hiring someone specifically. But then it struck us that we had Joe, who’s an amazing comedy actor and at 5ft 7in is exactly the right height for Paul when kneeling.
So whenever we did scenes with Paul, Joe would often be off camera on his knees. And a lot of things we tried on set, Joe would go along with. So we’d write it in the script and give it back to Seth to do the lines. Joe’s got his kneepads framed on his wall now.
The most terrifying thing for any filmmaker is what’s called the assembly cut, which we saw just after we finished filming in Christmas 2009. It’s when you put everything together in the correct order and you watch it. And it’s usually about an hour longer than the finished film. It’s always terrifying, because it’s always rubbish. It’s like, “Oh f*ck! What have we done? This is awful!” It’s this meandering, shapeless, artless nonsense and you think, “This isn’t what we wanted to make.” And then of course, what added to the awfulness of it was that Paul wasn’t there.
A lot of the film’s effect was meant to be the interaction between us and Paul, but none of that was in it. It was just Seth super-imposed with his little head over a puppet body. On set day-to-day, Paul himself was either a thing called Mr Eyeballs, which was just a stand with two big balls for his eyes, a series of LED lights on the floor for positioning and tracking, a lighting puppet, which was a model of Paul, an animatronic puppet, which was a fully articulated foam latex creation over a robotic skeleton, a short actor called Christoph, a kid called Taner or Joe on his knees… we were acting with seven or eight different Pauls.
It was going to take a year to put Paul into the film, so firstly the film had to be edited, then delivered to Double Negative Visual Effects, who had to insert Paul, then re-edited. Then, of course, it takes shape, and after six months we realised it was going to be good. And then we started to hear David Arnold’s score, which always has a profound effect on a film. I went to the Air Studios in Belsize Park before I went to Dubai for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and David was just about to start a cue and I cried. I genuinely did — my eyes filled up with tears.
I grew up listening to the orchestral scores of John Williams and then suddenly there was an 80-piece orchestra scoring a film that I’d helped to create and it was overwhelming.
I guess this is the project I’m most proud of. I wouldn’t want to do down Shaun Of The Dead or Hot Fuzz, but it’s the most ambitious, most complex film we’ve made. And if it works — and even if it doesn’t — I’ve seen it and I’m very, very proud.
Paul is at cinemas nationwide from 14 February