LOS ANGELES — There’s a pub in North London called the World’s End that sits across from the Camden Town tube station. Luminaries, including Charles Dickens, figure among its famous patrons, but it’s also important in the annals of British comedy as the place where Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would meet up in the early years of their creative partnership, grabbing a pint after seeing movies like X-Men at a nearby cinema.
So when it came time for the pair to write the screenplay for their film about a 40-ish man in a state of arrested development who inadvertently stumbles onto an intergalactic conspiracy during a small-town pub crawl, the title was a given: The World’s End. The place even held a special significance for Nick Frost, Pegg’s longtime onscreen comic foil and offscreen best friend.
“Me and Simon used to meet there to go to the movies because there was an Odeon cinema,” Wright explained. “Simon went on his first date with his wife there, and Nick Frost fell off the wagon after two years of not drinking at the World’s End. He broke up with a girl and went straight to the World’s End and got hammered.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, plenty of alcohol is consumed in the new apocalyptic comedy from Wright, Pegg and Frost, which sees Pegg cast as the clueless, obnoxious Gary King, a former punk rock rebel who coerces, guilt trips and lies to his high school pals to lure them back to their hometown to attempt a famous pub crawl known as the Golden Mile.
Drinking their way through 12 pubs in the quaint hamlet of Newton Haven, the old friends — played by an impressive roster of English actors including Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Frost — find tension running high as past rivalries and wounds re-emerge.
And that’s before they run afoul of invading alien robots who bleed blue ink and have sinister designs on the human race.
Over the course of three films together, Wright, Pegg and Frost have garnered a following for their preternatural ability to blend the silly and the serious into a frothy, satisfying, decidedly English brew. The World’s End, which reaches U.S. theaters Friday, moves with the same oddball, kinetic rhythms as their previous movies, 2004’s zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s action movie send-up Hot Fuzz.
The new movie, though just as enjoyably offbeat and remarkably quick-witted as the first two, also offers the most overt exploration of the more sophisticated concerns that have always underpinned the trio’s genre-centric comedy.
“All of those genres that we’ve taken on, the reason for them ... is that they are Trojan Horses which we can smuggle in more human stories,” said Pegg, seated between his filmmaking comrades at Hollywood’s own English pub, the Cat and the Fiddle. “Shaun of the Dead is about growing up, and Hot Fuzz is about friendship and about having to dumb down a little bit sometimes if you want to get something done. The World’s End is about male friendship and letting go and nostalgia and addiction.”
“Most American comedies are like Hershey bars, and we like to be like those gourmet dark chocolates with bits of sea salt in them,” Wright added. “It’s chocolate-y and then you go, ‘Oh!’”
Pegg and Wright met in 1995. Wright had moved to London a year earlier after directing his first independent feature, A Fistful of Fingers. He found himself backstage at a comedy gig, where he ran into Pegg, whom he’d seen doing stand-up on television. In particular, he remembered a routine about England’s West Country, where both men grew up.
Roughly one year after that, Wright was directing Pegg in the six-episode TV show “Asylum,” and their friendship was sealed. “We bonded over having similar favorite films,” Wright said. “The two films we bonded over would be Dawn of the Dead, not surprisingly — it must be stressed George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — and Raising Arizona, which is our favorite film.”
It was the BBC series “Spaced,” about unmoored twentysomethings and their quirky neighbors, that properly launched their careers, however. Pegg starred in and co-wrote the series with Jessica Hynes, with Frost appearing as Pegg’s gun-obsessed best friend. With its barrage of pop culture references and nimble humor, the show won a fan base fluent in the language of “Star Wars” and video games, the same audience that helped make Shaun of the Dead a cult sensation in Britain that landed equally well with genre fans stateside.
Critics, perhaps not the most likely group to embrace a movie comedy about a slacker who becomes a more mature, attentive boyfriend in the wake of the zombie apocalypse, also were won over by Shaun — the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, for example, described the film as a “smart, cultish, semi-disgusting homage to the fine British art of not bothering.”
With their follow-up, the trio sent up the action genre in a film pairing Pegg and Frost as lawmen who uncover a secret conspiracy in a small British town (no aliens are involved). While promoting that movie, Wright and Pegg hit on the idea for The World’s End — and fell in love with the idea of creating a third film that could function as the culmination of a thematically connected trilogy.
"Hot Fuzz became a sort of thematic sequel to ‘Shaun’ in the sense that it had actors that recurred and some running gags and some themes, but the idea of doing a third one and the name for the trilogy didn’t come up until we were doing press for Hot Fuzz,” Wright said. (The movies have come to be known as the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, named for a British ice cream novelty that has unlikely screen time in each film.)
The World’s End was inspired in part by a screenplay Wright wrote at 21, Crawl, about a night of teenage carousing, but the narrative was also informed by his experiences shooting Hot Fuzz in Wright’s hometown of Wells, Somerset, when the filmmaker began to notice how different the place was from what he remembered.
“We’ve all had the bittersweet experience of going back to a small town and feeling alienated, pun very much intended,” said Wright, 39. “It wasn’t like we wrote a script about people on a pub crawl and then picked a genre out of a hat. The sci-fi paranoia element is us, as people with overactive imaginations, expressing our bittersweet feelings about the town, almost blaming it on otherworldly forces because the truth of it is too much to bear.”
Wright penned the script with Pegg — they also wrote Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz together. The concept allowed Wright to pay homage to the “all-in-one-night” movies he enjoys (such as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours), with the action involving Gary and his chums (a group that also includes actress Rosamund Pike) transpiring almost exclusively in one bizarre evening.
The pair also invested the movie with plenty of comedic moments inspired from their own lives. Gary’s costume, for starters, was taken from Pegg’s past.
“It was my favorite character to play, not least because I got to dress like I did when I was 18,” he said. “I loved it. I got to dye my hair black, which I never did when I was a Goth. I crimped it and I put feathers in it, but I never pushed it that far, I think I was a bit too scared. This was wish fulfillment for me.”
Significantly, with Gary serving as the story’s loony catalyst and Frost playing Andy, a serious corporate lawyer, the off-screen best friends upend their traditional movie rapport. Frost, a chummy teddy bear of a man, said the change was welcome — he’s often felt tagged by his Shaun of the Dead character, a “stoned idiot” named Ed.
“It was nice to act,” Frost offered.
“Andy, you’re similar to,” said Pegg. “You’re a responsible man in his early 40s.”
“With an atom bomb inside of me,” Frost added.
“We thought we’d mix it up a little bit and have Gary be this sort of mercurial force of irritation and chaos,” Pegg explained.
Pegg and Frost’s bromance dates to 1993, when the drama school grad met Frost, then a waiter at a Mexican restaurant. After bonding over Star Wars, they became fast friends and were roommates for some years, even sharing a bed at one point. Now, they’re both married fathers of young children — Pegg, 42, lives outside of London with his wife and daughter; Frost, 41, lives on the other side of London with his wife and son. (Wright divides his time between Britain and L.A.)
Their easy, genuine rapport often leads people to ask them how much of their dialogue on screen is improvised, but the answer, as it happens, is little. The World’s End was shot on a budget of just more than $20 million in only 12 weeks, leaving no time for casual riffing, Wright said.
“We always write these films that are too ambitious for the money we’ve got and the time we’ve got, so the only way to get through them is to come to work absolutely prepped,” Wright said, before turning to his colleagues to offer kind words. “What is the most extraordinary thing about Simon and Nick — cover your ears, I’m going to compliment you — is they make it look so naturalistic.”
Pegg, ears covered, shouted, “Speak up!”
Although the new film marks the end of an important chapter in their careers, Wright, Pegg and Frost aren’t quite ready to cry into their pint glasses just yet, yearning for days gone by. The trio say they will work together again, though each has found success in his own right.
Pegg has starred in J.J. Abrams’ two Star Trek films as Scotty, and he appeared opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol; he and Frost worked with Steven Spielberg on the performance capture film The Adventures of Tintin.
Frost, solo, has kept busy with other roles in television and films, including the English indie Attack the Block, last summer’s big-budget adventure Snow White and the Huntsman and the animated movie Ice Age: Continental Drift.
Together, they wrote and starred in the 2011 road-trip comedy Paul based on an actual drive across the U.S. the pair completed in their 20s; they did not, however, encounter a pot-smoking alien. That part was fictionalized.
Wright, meanwhile, made Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a 2010 adaptation of the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel starring Michael Cera, which flopped during its original run but has since become a cult favorite. (The film is screened regularly at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, where Wright sometimes curates special events, including a series he assembled that showcases some of his World’s End influences.)
Wright’s next project will see him graduate to superhero filmmaking ranks with Marvel’s Ant-Man, due out in 2015. Although the movie has yet to be cast, Frost insists he will star.
“We’ve tried to announce this so many times over the last couple of weeks,” Pegg said, mock frustration tugging at the corners of his smile.
“Costume hasn’t phoned me, though, which is odd,” Frost joked. “There will be the thorax, the mandibles.
“Edgar, how are we doing the mandibles?”
©2013 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
The World's End releases in theaters on Friday, Aug. 23, 2013. For more information on the film, click here.
Check out The World's End official Facebook page.
To purchase tickets, click here.