March 15, 2011
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the duo behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, are about to release a new film, Paul. Just as their previous two collaborations were tributes to the action and horror genres, respectively, Paul is Pegg and Frost’s homage to science-fiction films. For Pegg and Frost, sci-fi holds a special place in their hearts. When discussing Paul at a round-table interview last Tuesday, the pair continually referenced their own experiences with nerd culture, particularly their love of ’70s and ’80s era alien flicks such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Additionally, Pegg himself has appeared in the most-recent Star Trek film as Scotty (of “Beam me up” fame) and the British time-travel series Doctor Who. As Pegg himself put it, “We’re geeky, and we always will be.”
That may be true, but it doesn’t mean that Frost and Pegg only make films which require a fluency in Klingon to understand. In particular, Paul has a raunchy surface, but at its heart it is really a film about two buddies helping a friend out of a jam. That friend just happens to be an alien the government has secretly been studying for the past 60 years. Paul (the alien, voiced by Seth Rogen) landed in America in the 1950s and has since been sharing his intergalactic knowledge with Washington, D.C., as well as influencing popular culture. The reason he looks so familiar is because he has intentionally guided our idea of what aliens should look like since he came to Earth. In one of the film’s cleverest moments, Paul is heard advising Steven Spielberg via telephone. The voice on the other end of the line? Spielberg himself.
Pegg and Frost had told Spielberg about Paul while on the set of their next film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Apparently, the director was thrilled. “His eyes just lit up, and he said ‘I love it.’ Then he said, ‘Maybe I should be in it.'” Pegg and Frost were understandably delighted. “So we went away, wrote this scene, then we came back and said, ‘Are you gonna do it or what?’ We loved the idea of him literally phoning in a cameo,” laughed Pegg. “The irony was beautiful.”
Spielberg isn’t the only big name to make an appearance in Paul. Along with Pegg, Frost and Rogen, Sigourney Weaver (a mainstay of the sci-fi genre), Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig also star, and there are additional cameos by Blythe Danner and Jane Lynch. Paul is Frost and Pegg’s first movie to have a mostly American cast and director (Greg Mattola, who also helmed Superbad and Arrested Development) and the first to be set in the United States. Before filming, Frost and Pegg went on a road trip across the country to explore the film’s setting. “It was awe-inspiring. It’s an extraordinary landscape, and it’s vast and terrifying,” shared Frost “We said ‘wow’ more than we’ve ever said ‘wow’ before.”
The story of two Star Wars-loving Brits and an alien named Paul might not seem like material for a great movie at first, but Pegg and Frost have managed to create a film that is both hilarious and touching. Rogen was a key addition, and he has added his own comedic style to Paul and made him funnier than the character the writers had originally created. “Initially it was an older gent we had in mind when we thought of the character,” explained Pegg. “When we adjusted our mindsets to it being a younger actor, when Seth’s name came up it was like little sirens going off in our heads, because here was someone whose voice sounded quite old, but coming from the mouth of someone who was actually a lot younger than you think.” Rogen imbued Paul with an old hippie, seen-it-all, laid back vibe that works well against Pegg and Frost’s characters, Graeme and Clive, who are initially both awkward and terrified.
The duo is traveling across the country on the way back from Comic-Con International via trailer when they meet Paul. The alien has just escaped the secret government facility where he has been living the past 60-odd years, because he has discovered that the scientists there want to cut up his body to study extra-terrestrial life forms. Clive and Graeme decide to give him a ride to safety. The three travelers eventually meet Ruth (Wiig), the daughter of a bible-thumper trailer park owner (John Carroll Lynch). Meeting Paul challenges Ruth’s entire upbringing and slowly changes the way she perceives her world. The relationships between these four characters form the heart of the film. Paul is filled with cute nods to science-fiction tropes and other references to popular culture. The film also works hard to justify its R-rating, but like other Rogen films, the characters’ vulgarity just makes them more likeable.
Like their characters in Paul, Frost and Pegg are best friends in real life. They constantly banter back and forth with one another, demonstrating their impressive improv skills. It almost sounded as though they were speaking in prewritten dialogue, always ready with a witty comeback or rebuke. The pair has worked together since they created Spaced, a show that debuted in 1999. After collaborating for over a decade, it’s clear that Pegg and Frost have not grown tired of one another.
Though the two have no future projects together lined up after Tintin, which is the third installment of their Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy with director Edgar Wright (of which Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are the first and second parts, respectively) I hope there will be another film at some point in the future.