When writer-director Edgar Wright and actor-writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were working on their first collaboration, the British TV series Spaced (1999-2001), they realized they shared a few things: an eccentric sensibility somewhere between George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona, a soft spot for things English, and the desire to make popular genre films of a kind rarely seen in Britain.
"We wanted to make a film that was a matter of national pride," said Wright, 39, on a recent trip to Toronto. A handsome fellow sporting facial hair that would have looked right at home on a soft-rock album from the 1970s, he was sitting on a sofa next to Frost, 41, a hefty guy with a buzz cut. (Pegg was off doing similar press duties in New York.)
They ended up making three such films: Shaun of the Dead (2004), a zombie-romantic comedy hybrid; Hot Fuzz (2007), a buddy cop-meets-Miss Marple mystery; and their latest, The World's End, which opened in select cities yesterday. It's about a bloke having a midlife crisis (Pegg) who persuades his four former best mates to recreate an epic pub crawl from their youth, only to realize that their neighbours have been replaced by aliens willing to destroy Earth.
Collectively, the films are known as the Cornetto Trilogy, because each features a cameo by a Cornetto, a convenience-store ice-cream cone that's ubiquitous in Britain. Each movie has had a bigger budget and has done better at the box office (based on overseas sales) than the last – "and we triggered a little genre of other films in our wake, which is very flattering," Wright says.
They invaded North America, too. When Shaun of the Dead took off in North America, Pegg joshed to a reporter: "It's not like I'm going to be in Mission: Impossible III or anything," picking that franchise at random. Then director J.J. Abrams called and asked him to be in Mission: Impossible III. Not to mention its sequel, as well as a recurring role as Scotty in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. Wright, meanwhile, directed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in Toronto. All three collaborated on The Adventures of Tintin for Steven Spielberg and on Paul with Seth Rogen.
And, now, here Frost and Wright are, touring North America, drinking too many cups of tea, and answering my questions.
Me: Is your collaboration as fun as it looks from the outside?
Frost: "My wife is a great leveller. If I ever whinge too much after a day on the set, she'll say: 'It's not like you've been working in a Chinese uranium mine.' But I do know hard work. I didn't become an actor until I was 29. I waited tables for 80 hours a week, I worked in a field in Israel. I think that's helped me."
Wright: "I started by making amateur films when I was a teenager. It's an amazing thing for a hobby to become a career. But I take this very seriously. I put absolutely everything I have into the movies, sometimes to the detriment of the rest of my life, and health. So we do work hard. Maybe not Chinese uranium mine hard, but hard." He turns to Frost. "When you write your autobiography, I want one of the chapters to be called A Field in Israel."
Me: We've seen a lot of apocalypse movies lately, including Seth Rogen's This is the End. Why?
Wright: "The threat to the environment, wars, terrorism – we have a general feeling of dread that we're destroying ourselves."
Frost: "And then there's the Mayan calendar."
Wright: "Our last day of production on this film was Dec. 21, 2012. That's absolutely true. So we think what the Mayans foresaw was not the end of the world, but the last day of principle photography on The World's End."
Frost: "It's a mistranslation."
Me: Were you concerned about Rogen's film usurping yours?
Wright: "Seth and Simon have the same agent, so we knew about it a long time ago. We probably both started writing at the same time. We also knew it was a Biblical apocalypse, which ours isn't. Our only worry was, we needed to keep our title." (It's the name of the last pub on the crawl, and the scene of the film's climax.) "There was a point where Seth's was called The End of the World, but they switched it because of ours."
Me: Pegg's character is suffering from a mighty midlife crisis. You three seem too young to be thinking about such things.
Frost: "I'm married, with a two-year-old son, so my aging is speeding up now, I can feel it. The years are going by like that." He snaps his fingers. "The questions are getting bigger: 'Can I afford this house; are my wife and I going to be together forever; is my brother not well?' They can either cripple you, or you can put your head down and plow into it."
Me: Is pop culture accelerating so fast that 40 is the new 50?
Wright: "I think it goes both ways. On one hand, Radio One in the U.K. famously said they wouldn't play artists over 25, which is ridiculous. On the flip side, the idea that our parents would be married in their early 20s and have kids, that has changed massively. I just read some statistic that the number of people aged 40 to 45 having children is having a huge spurt. People who are 50 still act like adolescents."
At this point in the interview, Frost unleashes a huge, unselfconscious yawn. Wright looks at him.
Frost: "Sorry. I was suddenly bored by you."
Wright: "We don't come down on either side. This movie's about five friends, four of whom are happy in the present, and willing to move forward, and one who's unhappy and wants to go backwards. But when you turn back the clock, things go horribly wrong. Alcohol itself is a time machine. You get drunk and start acting like a teenager. At the same time, the aliens represent too much efficiency, selling out."
Me: You refer to these films as a trilogy. Will you make more? A film about old friends struggling to reunite can't be your last film as a threesome.
Frost: "We are like a family. When we're apart we miss each other."
Wright: "We're probably going to go off and do other movies separately. But I hope we also reconvene soon. Perhaps we'll make a movie in a Chinese uranium mine, so we can discover the true meaning of hard labour."
Me: You can't have anyone fetch you coffee, though. The minute someone brings you coffee, it's not hard labour.
Frost: "We'll be in a uranium mine. The coffee will heat itself."