Nick Frost and Simon Pegg long ago established their geek cred.
First, Pegg and Frost co-starred in the “zomedy” Shaun of the Dead in 2004. Three years later, Pegg co-starred with Frost in the cop-action movie spoof Hot Fuzz; Pegg also co-wrote both films. More recently, Pegg voiced the character Reepicheep in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and he played “Young Scotty” in the Star Trek back-story film from 2009, Pegg’s highest profile role to date. He’ll also star in the planned sequel. Frost, also a sketch comic, has acted in the BBC Two science fiction sitcom Hyperdrive, narrates UK’s Channel 4 reality show Supernanny and is perhaps best known for playing Mike Watt in the British television comedy Spaced.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The British pair’s latest film, Paul, which opens today, is their homage to sci-fi fandom. The alien-themed comedy/road movie centers on two British geeks, Clive Gollings (Frost) and Graeme Willy (Pegg), who leave San Diego Comic-Con on a RV trip through the Southwest. But when they take on an unexpected passenger, an Area 51 fugitive humanoid named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), they find themselves completing a mission whose details Paul won’t divulge, all the while pursued by the authorities. Comedy and adventure ensues. Frost and Pegg star; they also co-wrote the screenplay. Sitting in the director’s chair was the geek-friendly Greg Mottola, who gave us Adventureland and Superbad.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Pegg and Frost, who are longtime friends, as they passed through Boston on a press tour. Drinking coffee in a hotel suite overlooking the Charles River, we began by geeking out on Peter Jackson. Both recently wrapped shooting on the Steven Spielberg–Jackson motion-capture juggernaut, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (which comes out later this year). They had spent some time hanging out at New Zealand’s “Wellywood” movie studio and FX house Weta Workshop. (A couple of years ago, researching my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I had been given a peek inside that secret Geekland. And was sworn top secrecy.) Frost and Pegg had been shown the big models from The Lord of the Rings — Cirith Ungol, Minas Morgul — by P.J. himself. I tried not to drool.
But the fact that they could name Cirith Ungol and Minas Morgul cemented their nerd integrity. As we talked, one sentiment became clear: They didn’t make Paul to make fun of those who collect comic books, wear Flash and Spider-Man T-shirts and fantasize about alien abduction (even though both characters in the film do). They come in peace, to praise geeks and do geekdom justice.
Ethan Gilsdorf: I wanted to say, as a geek, a fantasy and science fiction fan and a gamer, I think your movie Paul hit the mark. I was there at the screening with my girlfriend and my sister we kept whispering to each other as we checked off all the inside jokes. You hit Star Wars, Star Trek, The X-Files, even The Blues Brothers. And the Steven Spielberg canon, from Close Encounters to Raiders. Even Jaws.
Pegg: It’s replete with gifts for those who know their stuff. There’s pretty broad references but there’s also a lot of little ones as well. There are plenty of smaller ones in there for the faithful.
Frost: It’s actually quite nice to know that to someone who is — I’m going to use the term “uber-geek”— [the film] is not an insult. I think a secret fear of mine is that people who are uber-geeks would look at it and think it’s slightly broader so maybe we don’t quite like it. But it’s nice to hear that for the super geeks, you like it a lot.
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Pegg: Some of it’s like “Sci-Fi 101.” We had to make this film appeal on a broad level because it cost a lot of money, because of Paul, really. He’s expensive. It’s like hiring Will Smith, literally, to get Paul on the screen.
Gilsdorf: How much of what we see on screen was in the script? Did you improv much? Some of the sight gags we see in the background — I’m thinking the reference to Duel, [an early Steven Spielberg film] that we see in red letters on the movie marquee of that Main Street. Or the cantina music in the country and western bar.
Frost: We have to credit [director] Greg Mottola for the cantina band music in the roadhouse. He had this great ideas of having a Dixieland band playing it. We were thinking, “Oh Greg, that’s one reference too many.” But in the end we went with it. For many people it was their favorite nod, which just goes to show how much we know. We trust Greg 100 percent.
Pegg: A lot of what you see at Comic-Con we did not have in the script. The slave Leias.
Gilsdorf: I was thinking geeks might bring bingo cards that replace numbers with things like “Swooning Ewok,” “Mention of Reese’s Pieces,” “Line from Aliens.” You know, and shout “Bingo!” when they win.
Frost: Yes, great idea. [They laugh.]
Gilsdorf: Were there any scenes that didn’t make the final cut?
Pegg: We did write a scene that never went in. There was a shot of Graeme and Clive in the bathroom at Comic-Con and in walks an Ewok. The Ewok is going to the toilet by standing on a bucket. Next to them, a bunch of storm troopers come in and just push him off.
Frost: Or there was another scene of: we’re in a bar and it was going to be shot in a certain way that we were the only humans in the bar. And everyone else was a hobbit. It’s just our asses and these curly heads walking around, back and forth. [He gets up to demonstrate.]
Pegg: The Prancing Pony.
Gilsdorf: Lots of references to Spielberg, too. Like on that movie marquee we see towards the end of the movie, Duel. That’s a pretty obscure reference to his feature movie directing debut.
Frost: [In that shot] Easy Rider is on double bill with that, with Duel, because of it being Steven Spielberg. Obviously, Steven Spielberg is in the movie [Editor’s note/spoiler alert: Look for, or rather, listen for, his cameo.] The movie is very much a tribute to him. But Easy Rider because the street we were on was the street where Jack Nicholson meets Peter Fonda. It’s Las Vegas. And we see Dennis Hopper for the first time. That’s Las Vegas, New Mexico. We got free tattoos. A tattoo artist found us at lunchtime and said, “I want to give you a tattoo.”