Despite coming from three different genres, "The Cornetto Trilogy," the films that director Edgar Wright co-wrote with star Simon Pegg, does have a number of themes in common. The trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World'sEnd, which opens on Friday) are all playful takes on Hollywood genres (respectively: zombie horror, action, and science fiction). They can also be enjoyed as a collection of expertly staged fight sequences. And, they can be read as meditations on the power of social conformity.
In a recent interview here in San Francisco, Wright, Pegg, and trilogy co-star Nick Frost spoke of the films as portraits of losers under pressure. In all three films, Pegg plays antiheroes who struggle with identifying a path to happiness and fulfillment — middle-class characters who resist their prescribed middle-class lives. "These people have a character flaw which is then exacerbated by the situation they're in," says Wright.
In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun (Pegg) is a shiftless commitment-phobe, unable to move his life productively forward. In Hot Fuzz, Pegg is Nicholas Angel, an overzealous London police officer reassigned to a small English village. Pegg's Gary King in The World's End is a former teenage Goth rebel. Now, 20 years on, Gary remains a bit of a Goth, a marginal rebel, but also a pathetic alcoholic. He rounds up his four best mates — comfortable middle-class professionals played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan — to re-create an epic pub crawl they originally attempted as teenagers.
Despite the fact that The World's End is an outlandish, energetic good time, Wright and Pegg see Gary's self-destructive tendencies as keeping the film rooted in a recognizable reality.
"For both Simon and myself," says Wright, "there was a point in our lives where we could have become a Gary, if we'd let things carry on in a certain way. You write about the person you could have been as much as the people you might know. With all of the characters, you're writing echoes of yourself."
Pegg recalls people from his past who have that "terminal attitude that Gary has," a selfishness that stems from the fact that Gary "is not very well." But as backward, crass, and delusional as Gary may be, there is also a perverse, Quixotic nobility in his attempt to recapture the lost past and fulfill his misguided sense of destiny.
Frost plays Gary's best friend, Andy. Andy nurses a long-festering grudge against Gary, whose recklessness has turned Andy into an uptight, teetotaling corporate lawyer.
"Andy is doing corporate law, not family law; he's having marriage problems," Pegg says. "He's grown up and taken on another life, but it doesn't necessarily mean he's happy."
In contrasting Andy to the somewhat goofier characters he played in the other two movies, Frost says, "I've certainly been Ed [from Shaun]. I've never been Danny [from Fuzz]. But being kind of a time bomb, that's a nice role to play. Knowing that within three or four hours of meeting Gary again, Andy's going to go off — that's a nice thing to play with."
Though the film is grounded in characters facing recognizable human dilemmas, The World's End (like Shaun and Fuzz) takes a hard left turn about a half-hour into the proceedings, in the form of a rather unconventional alien invasion. Limb-crunching fight scenes ensue, a staple of the trilogy. As such, a major part of the rehearsals consisted of training and choreography.
For Wright, it was important to make the fights distinctive from the fight sequences in his other films.
"You want to believe that our heroes are actually in the thick of these brawls," says the director. "The only way to do it was to take a more Hong Kong approach in shooting longer, uninterrupted takes and actually showing that our actors can do the choreography. So once we designed that [approach] for the [first] fight, it became the template for the entire movie. I wanted the fights to feel fast and brutal. There's hardly any slow-motion at all. But they're funny and exciting. And they're mostly exciting because you can see that the actors are doing it."
For Pegg, creating visual authenticity in the fights was crucial in engaging the audience.
"It was very important for all of us that we do as many of the stunts as we could — as many as insurance would allow us," Pegg says.
When asked about the fluid, highly-readable visuals of The Cornetto Trilogy's fights versus the chaotic, blurry action sequences that dominate major Hollywood releases, Pegg suggests a theory to explain why that approach is so widespread.
"Maybe the reason that style you're talking about evolved is because you're cutting around stunt performers and doubles," he says. "You don't want to see anyone's face. You want to dupe the audience into thinking it's the actor. Whereas with us, we wanted to show the audience that it was the actors doing it and that we were all participating in the fight scenes as much as we were allowed to do."
Without spoiling the film's best twists, it's safe to say that Pegg, Frost, and their co-stars are not fighting traditional invaders. In fact, for much of the film, we are made to infer and guess who or what has done the invading. Wright strove to avoid clichés, particularly in the depiction of aliens.
"I feel like I've seen [aliens] a million times, and quite a lot recently," he says. "You tend to see the same creature designs. And I liked the idea more that it was about an overall intelligence and their puppets. The idea is they're trying to just repopulate the troublesome people [on Earth], but they've underestimated how much work there is to do."
Pegg provides a little background about how the "alien" concept developed, which was originally conceived as "an intergalactic Facebook."
"There were possibly billions of species involved in it," he says. "But their method of control is to replicate small amounts of whoever is on the planet and then, over a couple of hundred years, try and change ideology. They've always managed to do it, and that's why the replicants they make fall apart quite easily, because they've never come across anyone who fights back so much. Earth is this problematic little ball on an arm of the Milky Way."
"One thing we like, too, is that phrase, 'Never argue with a drunk,'" says Wright. "Because you cannot win. And our reputation in the solar system is that Earth is the planet of the drunken apes."