By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist March 18, 2011 at 6:21AM
Yes, it's Friday. SXSW Film is over, SXSW Music is in full boozy swing and "Paul" -- after running a helluva pace through the press gauntlet at the festival and in the preceding weeks -- is finally hitting theaters. And while it seems that the chatter and buzz around "Paul" has been non-stop, this is the rare case of the film that actually deserves it. Directed by Greg Mottola, the film is much more than it what appears to be combining the breeziness of a '70s road trip film, the magic of early Amblin entertainments and of course, the distinct humor of the film's leads Simon Pegg and Nick Frost who are joined by Seth Rogen who voices the titular creature. It's a winning combination in a unique film that brings together a tremendous ensemble cast to play along including Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch, Sigourney Weaver, Jeffrey Tambor, Joe Lo Truglio and Bill Hader.
We sat down with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to talk about how bad weather spawned the idea for "Paul" and working with the great team they assembled for the film. And oh yeah, they do also talk a bit about the cameo in the film, so if you don't want it spoiled, stop reading after the "Tintin" co-cap question.
The Playlist: Congratulations on Paul.
Simon Pegg: Yeah, we’re showing it tonight, this is the first time with an American audience, and with us being there, it’s very nerve wracking. We really want it to do well and it’s the kind of audience that we’re going to pitch the film for and we’re really lucky to do the movie.
What was the inspiration for the film?
Nick Frost: Bad weather is the short answer. We were shooting 'Shaun of the Dead' in London and it’s like here. The weather can be great in the morning and then it pisses down, we’re running for four hours, then it’s cloudy, it’s sunny, it’s just quite difficult to shoot in those kind of conditions so we were standing under one of the tents in the pissing rain and our producer kind of said -- she was angry as well because we were losing time -- she said, "It would be good if we could shoot somewhere without any rain." And we laughed and the three of us started kind of spitballing and then Simon said the desert and that became Nevada and that became Area 51 and then it wasn’t too big a jump. I mean it was like a joke at first as well.
SP: We were just kind of thinking about a tenuous way to not shoot in England. And it literally was like kind of, if we make this film then we can do that. The pitch itself was very flippant and we wound up…you know I drew a little poster for [producer] Nira [Park] saying there’s a picture of Paul giving the finger and the idea immediately was that he be very ordinary and quite human even though he looked extraordinary. Nira put the picture on her notice board in her office and it stayed there for seven years and it never went away. The idea, we always had this idea maybe we should do Paul, we’d talk about it and write scenes and eventually the time came when Nira said "Alright, let’s do it" and what was essentially a gag turned into a movie.
Is that how a lot of the story ideas for you two come together?
SP: It’s a good way to do it I suppose. If something has to be done organically why wouldn't that be? I mean that’s kind of it. We just sit around having a laugh and usually if it makes us laugh a lot, then it’s probably funny. That’s not always the case but it’s a good starting point if you’re going to write a comedy.
And you guys wrote this one together, right? Was this the first script you’ve written together?
SP: The first screenplay, yeah. I mean we’ve written TV shows, sitcoms that we never totally followed through with because…
NF: We got one of them commissioned and stuff, but then it got to a point where we were close to pre-production and we got bored of it and we were being asked to do some things or call certain people that we didn’t agree with and we just walked away from it. So I mean I personally was getting to a point where I maybe wondered if Simon and I were to ever write something. Or finish it or get to a point where, we’re now at SXSW about to show the American audience. It kind of proves to me that we can finish things, it’s probably a reflection of us getting on as well or getting older and we’re not the same people we were ten years ago when Simon wrote 'Spaced.'
SP: I don’t even remember that.
NF: If you can get to your late thirties and then start working that’s pretty cool.
Once you finished the script, did you want Edgar Wright to direct it?
SP: Edgar has to be in it from the ground up. He had nothing to do with the conception of the idea, it was all me and Nick and it was a pet project of mine and Nick's. We also realized, when we started to think of it seriously, that Edgar’s directorial style would not fit this idea. There needs to be a certain amount of restraint in the way the film was framed and Edgar’s directorial style is an amazing force, you know it’s a character in the movie. What we wanted was an American indie sensibility. We didn’t want Edgar to have to ape that, we wanted someone that was that. And also, the more fantastic the directorial styles are, the less effective Paul would be. It’s not a mundane style but certainly a subtle restraint and a kind of, more arch kind of comedic approach to serious stuff. I love 'Daytrippers' and we both love 'Superbad' and love the way that Greg had managed to stop that from being a kind of crass teen comedy and something altogether more kind of sweet and classy.
You went to Greg and just clicked?
SP: Yeah, he’s such a great guy, Greg, so very on it. It’s funny he showed us a picture recently of himself when he was at film school or something, when he was very young, when he was like 17 and it was a picture of him with his heroes basically and it was a picture of him and George Lucas that he had kind of coupled up with all of these Star Wars images all around it and it was like he was always going to be the guy that directed this picture. I’m amazed we met him so quickly and so late.
The film is a bit of twist on a traditional sci-fi
NF: You could say this is a road movie with an alien in it.
SP: And it’s also a tribute to a lot of those great sort of well structured caper movies of the 80s like "Back to the Future," "The Goonies," "Gremlins," "Raiders [Of The Lost Ark]." Those films are just sort of like, these incredible sort of momentum filled excitement pics. And that’s what we wanted to do.
Tell me about the cast.
SP: It’s a bit greedy really.
NF: We were so lucky when we think about it.
SP: Absolutely, yeah. I mean [the success] of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" meant that potentially now the script will go to the actual people and not go to the agent's assistant who reads the first page and shreds the fucking thing. So we were lucky, we were also lucky that Greg knew a bunch of these guys too. They loved working with Greg and he liked them [too]. It was very much hands across the ocean but that wasn’t lost on us either, a couple of times we went into a huddle, him and I before shooting to say we have to fucking [raise] our game right now. It would be easy to get lost in there if you weren’t with it and concentrating. Plus, we wanted them to think we were good.
You guys are restrained in the picture.
NF: I don’t think if you have a film where everyone’s a funny guy, it doesn’t work, it’s fucking crazy. You need a way into the picture, you need to identify with somebody. If everyone’s nuts then there’s no one to identify with. And the good thing is [as a] writer -- and I’ve always thought this, right back to 'Spaced' -- is that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t give yourself the best lines, because they’re still your lines. We really wanted to write a good female part for Kristin [Wiig] because it felt like…she’s so underused in Hollywood.
Did she do improv with the swear bombs?
NF: A little bit. We’d work it through and stuff. I’ve said it a couple of times this week but if someone had taken a grainy black and white photo of us around the monitor looking tired or grizzled or doing that to Simon or this to Greg and Kristine’s kind of looking really upset, they think "Shit, this is filmmaking, this is what it really is…these guys are making a movie." But if you could hear what we were saying it’s, "What do you think is funnier, dick milk or tit bags?" That’s the kind of absurdity of our job sometimes.
SP: Every now and again a moment will arise and there was an unscripted swear there for Ruth that we thought "Oh we could stick one in here" and we’d sit around and say "asshorns" and "butt crackers" and "baby boners" and Kristin sat there, trying to say the line, and you bet your hairy love eggs [she] just could not fucking do it for laughing. I think that’s on the blooper reel of the DVD. She’s extraordinary. And Bill Hader, weirdly enough, was, you know he was a fan of 'Spaced' before we even met him. He got it on some sort of bootlegged DVD or something and we caught bits of him on YouTube and had obviously seen him in "Superbad" and what have you and it was a real kind of a bit of a love in. It was exciting.
It seems natural that you’d all work together.
NF: Absolutely. I think on set it was the case in that we rarely went back to trailers, we’d stick around on set, if we didn’t have to get changed we’d stay around on set and just hang out, and play games and…
SP: We’d watch each other act as well. And you’d hang around them because you understand we’re also fans so to get the chance to sit around the monitor and watch Kristin do her shit or to watch Jeffrey Tambor work. Again, that’s not lost on us, that’s what we want to watch.
What was the process in working with Seth Rogen and having the alien be fully CGI?
NF: We couldn’t have done it without him. We always wanted the script to be fairly knock about and certainly improvisational in feel. So we pondered for a while, "How were we going to do this, you know?"
SP: Yeah we had to figure it out like a math problem so we want a CG character who feels like he’s so there that we can sort of improvise with him on set. That’s what we want, how do we do it? In the end we started with Seth, did like two weeks of performance capture, just so we could get a reference of him. They didn’t know they were particularly going to use that movement but they wanted to get the physicality. Then Seth went off to do 'Green Hornet,' we knew we were going to lose him, so we couldn’t… and it would have been hard to ask him to come on set and just be off camera. Joe [Lo Truglio] then took over because we had a very adept comic actor who wasn’t in a lot of scenes with Paul and very talented and funny. And we said "Look we don’t want to keep to our script particularly." So we were able to keep it lose and conversational. Joe threw in some improvisations, we threw in some stuff he could react to so that what we had then was something Seth could listen to and replicate. Seth did the audio again afterwards.
NF: Looking at all of Joe’s stuff as well.
SP: Eighteen months from wrap.
NF: Considering the main character is a CGI alien, we had to wait a long time to figure out whether or not it had succeeded. I think I said a couple times this week it’s like having a colonoscopy at the world’s shittiest hospital and having to wait 18 months for the results, you know because if he’s bad, we’re fucked immediately.
SP: Except we were getting results every six months or so that were going, "It might be good, it might be okay," and then suddenly we see him. The last 5% [of the digital work] weirdly enough were the most significant. They start bringing in how the light moves across the surface of his eyes and how his corroded artery flexes and how his diaphragm moves.
How was it working with Steven Spielberg on "Tintin"?
NF: It was awesome wasn’t it? It was so much fun and he’s, he’s such…
SP: He’s addictive, he’s addictive to want to be around. He’s like an older boy you want to impress with your skills.
NF: So true, that’s exactly what it is.
"Tintin" was all mo-cap too. Was that a different experience for you guys?
NF: I’ve never done anything like that before. We squeezed into these amazing suits and you have an area called the volume which has thousands of cameras monitoring your every movement and it kind of felt a lot like pretending when you are a kid because not everything is there. It felt a bit like rehearsing a play.
SP: You have cameraman moving around you....
NF: It’s the most elemental kind of acting in a way because there’s no method. There’s no room for method, you’ve got to just appeal to that childhood sense of improvisation and at the same time you work really fast because it’s not like you have to do lots of different setups on a scene, you film the scene once all the way through so you learn more lines than usual.
Who suggested the cameo?
NF: It was his idea. When we pitched the idea of it, that Paul had been informing Steven Spielberg’s creative decisions to Steven Spielberg, he immediately suggested that he do a cameo so that amplified his presence. We kind of went, "What? What did you say?" We sort of ran away and you heard pencils going…we came back, "Here’s the scene, will you do it?" and he’s like "Yeah, sure." So he came to a sound studio in LA in January 2010 and did his scene with Seth and it’s funny because the line is about I want him to do something Messianic and he’s saying "You know what? I never meant 'E.T.' as a Christ metaphor," and we’re like, "Say the line Steven!" But I don’t have high praise enough for him.