Interview: Edgar Wright Explains How to Drunkenly End the World

By  · Published on August 21st, 2013

The World’s End closes out The Cornetto Trilogy with a bang. With Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and this apocalyptic bar crawl comedy, director Edgar Wright and co-writer Simon Pegg have finished a trio of films about the ups and downs of growing up and moving forward. As an ender, The World’s End isn’t all that upbeat.

Wright hasn’t made a 180-turn putting out a self-serious downer, but this story of a few friends attempting to symbolically go back in time and finish an epic bar crawl ends the series on a bittersweet note. It’s fitting for the tonal shifts the other Cornetto films made, but audiences will leave The World’s End wondering what to make of the ending. For Wright, he wanted that ending to be a definitive (and happy) statement.

As it turns out, in order to threaten the world with destruction, you have to fight it out in the schoolyard.

Wright: You’re from Film School Rejects, right?

FSR: I am.

I am a film school reject, so I gravitate to your site.

Thanks. How did you take being rejected?

It’s a funny story. I was at art school that had quite a celebrated film course as well. I tried for that film course when I was 18, but they said I was too young. I tried this audio and visual design course instead. Two years later I reapplied for that higher course, but they said I was still too young and to try in five years. That year I directed A Fistful of Fingers [Laughs].

Plus, five years after that I was directing Spaced, so I didn’t go back. The funniest thing is on their website they include me in the alumni section. They don’t outright lie and say I did the film course, but they definitely do nothing to discourage that fact. Sometimes I’ll get kids on Twitter saying, “Hey, I’m going to AUB because of you!” I always say, “I actually didn’t do that course.” [Laughs] I like that I was good enough for them later to be an alumni, even though I was never accepted…This is, like, 1994 where I made several things. Television was essentially my college.

Was that a good experience?

Yeah. I was extremely fortunate, because I was very young. I had this low-budget movie under my belt, but I was lucky with TV comedy coming up with talented people around my same age. The first TV show I worked on was with the guys from Little Britian, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, who did a show in 1995 I directed, Mash and Peas. Then I met Simon Pegg around that time who was 23 or 24. Some of it is hard work, some of it is talent, some of it is being in the right place at the right time, and meeting someone like Simon.

Did you both hit it off pretty fast?

Yeah. We did this show together called Asylum, and when we were working on that we quickly realized we had the same favorite films and had the same style of comedy. I remember even thinking back then, “Ah, I want to make a film with this guy! He’s my perfect leading man.”

Did you both dream of the Cornetto trilogy back then?

Not as a series. The idea of it being a trilogy didn’t come together until after Hot Fuzz. We didn’t discuss Shaun of the Dead until after the first season of Spaced. Actually, in 1995 I wrote a script that I intended on being my second feature which never happened. It was about a group of teenagers on a pub crawl, which was called Crawl. The script was very much what the first three minutes of The World’s End is like, and it was in the vein of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. It was one of those “all in one night films,” but I never did anything with it.

After Hot Fuzz when I was thinking about doing a third film, I thought, “I wonder if there’s richer comic potential in the idea of adults trying to recreate something from their teenage years and the quest to reach out to former glories…” The sci-fi idea linked into our idea about how home towns change. We both came from small towns, moved to London, and then it was that thing of seeing your hometown change without you, whether its friends or architecture.

There’s a moment in the film where Eddie Marsan’s character has a speech about a bully not recognizing him, and that happened to me and I had the same reaction: I was more annoyed that he didn’t recognize me than if he had. Another tiny moment in time that shocked me was in Hot Fuzz where when Nicholas Angel is riding the horse and you see a Starbucks in the background. The town of Sandford is suppose to be this idealistic town, so I digitally erased it since I didn’t think they’d allow McDonalds or Starbucks in Sandford [Laughs].

And the sci-fi idea was there from the beginning, because Gary King would be more comfortable with the town being aliens rather than he’s gotten old or his old town isn’t that great. The alien invasion is a metaphor for: how has the town changed without me?

Looking at Gary King and Scott Pilgrim, they’re unlikable in many ways. How far can you push those flaws until an audience won’t root for them?

With Simon’s character there’s a couple of things going on. Dramatically, we thought it’d be more interesting to examine. It always baffled me when people say Simon Pegg and Nick Frost always play the same role, because Shaun, Nicholas Angel, and Gary King could not be more different from each other, in the same way Ed, Danny Butterman, and Andy Knightley are very different. It’s interesting doing different dynamics: showing friends who are too comfortable with each other; Hot Fuzz was like a first date where they grew to love each other; and The World’s End is post-divorce.

I think as long as it’s funny, it’s okay. Without giving anything away, you learn things about Gary that…if someone in your life is a dick there’s probably a reason why. We present this character everybody knows who peaked at 18, and we wanted to focus on that drunken King Arthur. There’s something self-destructive about a pub crawl, and we wanted to bring that to it literally as well.

I think you can see early on there’s a bravado to Gary that shows he’s clearly hiding something. We talked about as if you were meeting a manic depressive on a high. You’re meeting them high on life, but you know it’ll all come crashing down. That’ll usually happen when they’re drunk. You’ll see him quiet at first, then silly, then boisterous, then angry, then silly again, and then he’ll blackout, which is basically the structure of the movie [Laughs].

[Laughs] Structurally your films tend to move at a breakneck pace. Are you always tweaking that rhythm, making sure the film doesn’t move too fast?

Yeah, I think so. There was one moment in World’s End where you get that depressing test screening note that says, “Hmm, there was too much talking…” You usually want to say, “Ah, grow up.” [Laughs] There was one scene I cutdown quite a lot from and someone later said I can’t skip over that scene and I cut it too fast. They were right, so I put stuff back in. It is a balancing act, because you have to play it for people who loves those emotional arcs and someone who can’t stay off their iPhone for five seconds.

Do you enjoy test screenings?

Yeah…Well, I don’t enjoy them, but they’re always interesting. The tricky thing is you have to make it work for everybody. The worst thing you can do after a test screening is slash it for the lowest common denominator. You have to try for a middle-ground.

Something that separates this from Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead is the main focus isn’t a duo, but an ensemble. What made you switch it up?

There is something about them being standalone films, which is nice. The ice cream thing is a joke, with there being three different flavors. They have similar sensibilities, actors, some overarching themes, and the idea of an individual versus a collective. Because it’s about friends uniting, you need more than two people. Basically, the number of people around that table is the number of friends I would go drinking with as a teenager. The last summer I was in my hometown before I left for London there was five of us. I’m sure everybody has that feeling of the opening, that last feeling before going off to college or move away. You all think you’re going to be friends forever.

I’m lucky, though. I’ve stayed in touch with my friends and invited them to the premiere in London. As soon as the trailer came out, I sent them an email saying, “Does any of this look familiar?”

[Laughs] Do your films usually begin that way, with reflection or whatever is going on in your life?

They definitely begin like that. Shaun of the Dead is a movie about turning 30, and while I’m not 40 yet, this is a movie about turning 40. You start to think about the past or any regrets you have. Also, you have a character that desperately wants to be a teenager again, because he’s unhappy in the present. Without giving anything away, he gets his wish of living in the past. I can sympathize with him to some extent, because I want them to be happy.

Since this is the last one we wanted to make a final statement on arrested development and perpetual adolescence. Most movies are either remakes from 20 years ago, toys you had as a kid, or trying to recreate your child, so we wanted to do a film literally about all of that. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but even a drink is a time machine in this movie. Even as they get tipsy, they start falling back into the hierarchy of Gary being in charge and they all fall in place. When they’re drunk they’re literally like teenagers.

As for the baddies themselves, they’re like playing with action figures: the heads and arms ripoff. The blue came from when I was in school, because I used to windup with inky hands at the end of every day, which would end up getting on my face and shirt. The whole idea of the movie is using these different signifiers and images as regression. Even the fighting style in the movie doesn’t have knives or guns, it’s just kind of them fighting in the schoolyard, with them almost slap fighting [Laughs]. We wanted the fighting style to be like the fights kids would have.

When you adapted Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, did you still add those small personal touches?

That was mostly about bringing Bryan Lee O’Malley’s words and art to the screen, but I personally sympathized with that character. When you say he’s unlikable, you can’t have a hero that’s perfect. He has to learn from his mistakes. Any hero that’s perfect won’t be funny or dramatic in anyway. I sympathized with Scott Pilgrim because I was a daydreamer in school and, as you grow up, you have to realize other people have feelings. In terms of stating the obvious, your actions have ramifications, especially when you’re dating. You do things without thinking when you’re dating. You have to learn from those mistakes, and that’s what that movie was about for me: taking responsibility for your actions.

Gary King is a more critical case, because he’s been doing this for 20 years. He refuses to grow up and willfully goes backwards. One line in the movie is the whole point, “You have to go forward, not backward.” At the end of the film, Gary shouts, “We’re going backwards!”

The soundtrack is also integral to Gary King’s arc.

Absolutely. With this one, it’s a part of the plot of the movie. Along with booze, music is a time machine. Music is a very positive way to look back. When you hear a song that you listened at 18, you feel 18 again and some memories comeback. When we were writing the script we made this playlist of songs from 1988 to 1993, which was when Simon and I were in school and college. Very quickly songs rose to the top of, “We’re not only going to use this song in the film, but make it have structural importance.” Songs like “Loaded” by Primal Scream, “I’m Free” by Soup Dragons, and “Step On” by Happy Mondays become a part of the movie. We like this idea Gary is so drunk he starts to believe he wrote those lyrics himself, so when he starts quoting the Soup Dragon song back, he’s saying it like he thought it up.

Would you say the film has a “happy” ending?

It’s funny, someone asked this in the Q & A. We see it as a happy ending. We don’t skimp on the title and some people have said, “Wow, this is darker than the others…” In Shaun of the Dead he shoots his mother in the head and his best friend is dead. With Hot Fuzz the two of them become black gloved, sunglass wearing faccists beating up hippies [Laughs]. In a roundabout way, this one gets dark indeed, but characters get what they want. I see it as a happy ending, and a part of that comes from Gary taking advice that Nick Frost’s character gives him in the pub. I’ll talk more about it on the commentary, because I don’t want to give it away [Laughs].

The World’s End opens in theaters August 23rd.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.