In 1999, the U.K.'s Channel 4 broadcast the first of two series of the Britcom Spaced, directed by Edgar Wright and starring comedian and actor Simon Pegg, also the co-writer of the series. Though Spaced will have its official U.S. premiere in September of 2004 on the Trio cable network, an American cult audience discovered the show some time before through Region 2 DVDs and illegal downloads. In much the same way, Shaun of the Dead—co-written by Wright and Pegg, with the former behind the camera and the latter starring as Shaun—gained large numbers of U.S. fans before the film even had a U.S. distributor. With the U.S. theatrical release on the horizon (it's always darkest before the Shaun), Pegg and Wright embarked on a U.S. promotional tour. I interviewed them after a screening and Q&A at San Francisco's Embarcadero Center Cinemas, on August 11, 2004.
Groucho: So Shaun of the Dead arose partly from your love of—mutual love of—George Romero's Dead films and Resident Evil video games.
Edgar Wright: Games. We want to stress that! (Laughs.)
G: And specifically from an episode of the first series of Spaced.
EW: Yeah, that was a—oh, sorry.
G: No, I was just going to say, what convinced you to take the leap to film for the idea?
Simon Pegg: I think it was about—it was that very morning when we'd shot that, we basically kind of did a zombie sort of pastiche in the Spaced. And we had such a good time making it, and we just managed to somehow get our own television show going, we thought, "Well, why the hell shouldn't we get a movie going, and why the hell shouldn't it be about zombies," you know? So it was that kind of—that little moment sort of sparked us off in a way.
EW: And then also, I think, in the show that we did, quite a lot of the stuff in Spaced was quite cinematic: that it was shot single camera, and it wasn't with an audience and stuff, so you know, we did kind of—we did often kind of think to ourselves, "God, wouldn't it be great if Spaced was on 35mil." You know, it was very—it just became the thing of—especially also because the style of the show was similar to the film in terms of it being "adventures in suburbia" and stuff, so we wanted to take that, you know, further in terms of, you know, let's do something for real--let's also do something—on TV it's good to do something where you don't have to worry about returning to the status quo at the end of the episode. You know, you can do something weird like, you know, not just the film, but the characters have a beginning and a middle and a very sticky end, you know, so yeah.
G: And there's a lot of—I guess, some references in the film to the show, but were there—?
EW: Not many. We certainly didn't want to alienate—what's great about showing over here is that it does not matter at all if you haven't seen the show.
EW: In fact, there's probably only about, like, two references to the show.
G: I was just going to ask, did you make any conscious decisions to separate yourself from the show, given the similarities?
EW: Yeah, because one of the things that the show was—it had a lot of film references in it. And one—in that way that the characters in it were kind of governed by kind of, like, pop culture and one of the things that we...didn't want to do in the film, especially with that title, as well, with Shaun of the Dead and such, we didn't want to have too many film references. We didn't want it to be like the Screams or Scary Movies where it's sort of self-reflexive and everybody's going—. You know, it's, it's almost like the characters haven't seen any zombie films or haven't played Resident Evil, so that was one of the things where it differs. And also because...Spaced had a lot of fantasy sequences in it whereas in this, with one exception, it all takes place on one day. So we actually wanted to continue the same sort of—actually make it bit more—even though it's horrible—a bit more realistic. The characters, the comedy is a bit more naturalistic and a bit realer, you know. It's—you want to get the feeling that this is really happening, and even though it's a comedy, that the reactions are actually quite truthful.
SP: In a way, one of the most—there are two fully unbelievable elements in the film, one of which is of course the zombies; the other is the fact that they wouldn't know what to do, because we all know what sort of zombies are, you know. But we had to kind of dumb down our characters in a way to not be culturally aware. So, uh, yeah. So in that way it differs from Spaced.
G: And it's important to know that the film isn't a spoof. It's more of a reverent genre shift.
G:Sort of like Young Frankenstein, maybe.
EW: Yeah, I mean, that's right. Young Frankenstein is definitely broader and, uh, and more—and sillier, in a great way, but Young Frankenstein is—. You can—what you can really tell when you watch Young Frankenstein is that Mel Brooks loves both, you know, the horror films. So yes, a friend of mine said a good thing about Mel Brooks' career, which I thought was spot on, is that he says the reason why Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein are the best ones is because those are the two genres that he genuinely loves. And later in his career, it's like, oh, Star Wars and the Robin Hood films, it's a bit more scattershot. That—I think what's great about Young Frankenstein is that it's really funny, but it's really affectionate at the same time.
G: And of course, Romero's films are tongue and cheek a bit to begin with.
EW: Yeah, so is Shaun of the Dead.
G: And he's given you guys his blessing—
G: Right? You sent him a copy of the film, right?
EW: We sent him the print—we sent him—so we shipped the print to, like—he was on holiday in Florida and because—'cause we had kind of heard that he wasn't happy about the remake happening at all [Ed. Meaning this year's Dawn of the Dead remake], and I don't know what he actually thought of the actual thing, but we took a gamble on we kind of thought, "Well, you know, I think he might like ours because it is so reverential." And so it was a bit of a gamble, and we shipped the print out, and he watched it on his own, like at ten o'clock in the morning. And then later that night he rang us in London and me and Simon, in fact, spoke to him on the phone for half an hour, and he just really loved it and he was really—I mean he was quite touched by the compliment, really. So I mean, for us that was kind of like the icing on the cake. It really—after that we both kind of said to each other, said, "Well, it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks now." It's like, George likes it and that's good enough for us, really. So, it was cool, he's really nice. I mean, he's a really sweet guy.
G: Would it be fair to say that British comedy has a tendency towards understatement and American comedy towards overstatement?
SP: Well, I think it's a kind of—that's the weird thing is that people always want to try to kind of quantify what makes, you know, a national sense of humor. And it's easy to get lost in, in what might be the most popular, or the most accessible when I think in actual fact the British and American sense of humor, at their most sophisticated are very, very similar, in that they're very dry, very ironic. You know, I mean, certainly recently with some of the American TV shows, Curb Your Enthusiasm, [Larry] Sanders, and you know—
EW: The Simpsons.
SP: The Simpsons, obviously is a great—I mean Futurama, Steinfield [sic], I mean the list goes on, for examples of really great underplayed comedy, you know. So I think there is a—you know there are—we have tendencies within our senses of humor, which are different. You know, I mean there's a kind of bawdy seaside aspect to British comedy, which has been obviously exemplified by Benny Hill, who's very popular here, not necessarily that popular at home. But—in America a kind of—another, again, a broad sort-of sitcom-style comedy, but ultimately we, you know, we have a similar sense of irony and a similar sense of, you know, the absurd. So, and I think that's why that this film seems to be working here because it ain't that far away from, you know, what you guys think.
EW: It's also—I always find it funny that that comes up a lot—the kind of the difference between the American and U.K. Comedy—and in the U.K. journalists always say, "The American comedies are so good, look at the quality of Frasier and Larry Sanders and Seinfeld," and I think, what happens in both countries is that you guys don't get exported all the really shit British sitcoms, and we don't get all the bad British American ones, so we don't see the other side of it, all we see is your best exports, and all you see is our best exports, and you don't see the bad British ones.
EW: But they don't show, like, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps over here, do they?
SP: You're lucky.
EW: And we've never seen Full House.
G: Well, you're better for it. So, Simon, your timing has been hailed for being precision—
SP: Oh, come on.
EW: Precision timing. (Laughs.) Accurate. (Laughs.)
G: Would you attribute that to your stand-up days, or what was your training—what was your drama training before stand-up?
SP: Well, I went to university in film and theater, film and TV, and I'd always wanted to be an actor, really, when I was a kid. And then also I always wanted to be a stand-up, as well. I was doing stand-up comedy when I was, like, seven in front of, y'know, these strange groups of old women that my grandma used to take me to, and at school. And when I was at university, I suddenly realized that the profession is a very unsteady one, and it doesn't afford you any autonomy; you're having to wait for your next job the whole time, and stand-up suddenly re-emerged as something I thought, "Oh, "I can do this, and it gives me some kind of control." So I went into stand-up with that in mind, as something where I could have some control over my own destiny. And through that got back into acting, because I would see the TV companies plumb the stand-up circuit for new talent, and got back into acting that way. So I've always been really interested in comedy, you know, so I guess it was, you know, I went through that route from stand-up back to actor, and I haven't done stand-up for a little while. I miss it.
G: Let's talk about the soundtrack. The soundtrack's a real kick; it's also featured on the film's website. What led you to the choices that you made, specific to the scenes?
EW: It's a really, really important aspect to it for us, and even though we had lots of really strong ideas about the tracks, some of it's quite organic. Some of it was written into the script, like "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen was always written into the script, 'cause it just, when we were thinking, it was, like, the most joyous song to kind of, like, soundtrack somebody being beaten to death, we thought of "Don't Stop Me Now." And also "White Lines" was always in the script, and then there were other ones that changed, and it's interesting how, especially in the editing process, when suddenly you'd get, y'know, you're sitting in a bar, and, like, sort of "Ghost Town" by The Specials comes on, and you go, "Fuck! Yes!" And you're thinking, "That's it, that's the opening music," but it always changes and stuff. And I really, the score was always, like, supposed to be, was—that was what the pitch was, was like, sort of, we wanted to do a twenty-first century John Carpenter or Goblins score, and that was always the intention. And the score is very much kind of like, pays homage to, like, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing and, like, Goblins' Suspiria soundtrack, so that was sort of the idea. I like the melding of definite things like, um—there are other things that changed, like Chicago, the use of that came in at the last minute, mainly because we tried three different songs, and that was the one that got the biggest laugh, and then stuff on the end credits was done last—unfortunately you didn't hear it tonight. There's like a Kid Koala remix from music from Dawn of the Dead, and Ash from Coldplay did a Buzzcocks cover. So it's like a constantly evolving thing, but I actually love for me to decide it, it's my sort of favorite aspect—
SP: It was strange...the opening titles music was something that Edgar found fairly late on, which is "The Blue Wrath" by I Monster, and perfect in timing, y'know, that kind of very quirky but slightly spooky piece of music which we, you know, which absolutely fits fantastically. I mean, it's like—it's a track on an album, Never Odd or Even that Edgar just sort of came across—
EW: And it was an album that I was listening to and I was almost about to turn off 'cause I was thinking, "Well, this is okay," and then that track came on, and it was like, "Hey, hang on!" (Laughs.)
SP: You struck paydirt.
G: So comedy has rules, and zombie movies have rules. Are there any rules for rom zom coms?
EW: Yes. No screaming. Too many horror comedies descend into screaming. So there's no screaming in the film. Two: what other rules are there? No zombie pratfalls.
SP: No funny zombies.
EW: No funny zombies. Zombies shouldn't be doing anything funny as such, although—
SP: Zombies are not allowed to contribute to the comedic aspect of the film.
EW: It's the characters that are funny, it's not the zombies. And what's the third rule? Simon has to be in every shot?
EW: Simon has to be in every shot.
SP: Which we broke.
EW: Every rule that we had, we'd break it somewhere, like, 'cause we thought, we're not going to do any Spaced fantasy sequences, and then we have that one big one with the plan sequence. It's like Shaun is going to be the center of every shot, except for the bit when he runs off for about twenty minutes, so, but we definitely—
SP: Rom, zom, and com are all things in their own right, and should be treated as such, y'know—
G: Alright—thank you.
G: Thanks a lot for talking to me.
SP: My pleasure.
[For Groucho's review of Shaun of the Dead, click here.]