Writer/star Simon Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright
Working Title Films usually means British romantic comedy, and 50% of the time it means Hugh Grant. Well, there’s no Hugh Grant in Shaun of the Dead, but it does purport to be a romantic comedy. A zombie romantic comedy more specifically, combining the two genres.
Simon Pegg stars as Shaun, a drunken slacker who loses his girlfriend because he can’t leave the pub long enough to give her the attention she needs. But when a zombie apocalypse happens (which he doesn’t notice for the entire first act), Shaun’s first priority is to rescue his girlfriend. Therefore, the zombie apocalypse meets British romantic comedy.
Co-written by Pegg and director Edgar Wright, the duo behind Brittan’s Spaced, Shaun of the Dead opens in America on September 24. The two met with me at the Mondrian hotel on Sunset, though Pegg was a bit low key, still suffering jet lag from a redeye the night before.
What is the tone of the film?
Edgar Wright: Well, it’s a horror comedy, but I’d say it’s more of a comedy than a horror. It’s a strange one because it’s not really a spoof because part of the point in the film is that the zombie epidemic is deadly serious. And the zombies aren’t really funny.
It’s not a spoof, but it’s not like Scream either.
EW: No, because we wanted to try and find our own spin on it. Even though I love the first Scream, we thought the whole thing of doing a self-reflexive film where the characters are saying, “Oh, remember what they did in Dawn of the Dead? Did you ever see this one movie?” We didn’t want to do any of that kind of stuff because we felt post-Scream it’s getting a little bit done. And part of the point of the film is that while it’s a comedy, it’s very reverential to the George Romero films in terms of it works within the same logic and it works within his world. But the characters that we happen to be following and their reactions to the crisis are what’s funny. So the zombies aren’t really funny. It’s all about the characters and their reaction. That was the idea really. So we hesitate, we certainly don’t use the word spoof.
Simon Pegg: The only spoof I think is the title, which was just we thought of very early on and it kind of stuck. Because once the word got out that we were making Shaun of the Dead, we didn’t want people to think we were backtracking or changing our minds. You always worry about films when you hear about them making decisions after announcements are made. People don’t really know what they’re making. So we doggedly stuck to what is essentially the worst joke in the film.
EW: As they said in Variety, “The weakest joke in the film is the title.” Yeah. It’s funny because in the UK where it’s a bit more known, people were more aware of what it was going to be like. But it’s interesting, like as soon as we finished it, we sent a print to George Romero, because we kind of thought, “If I was George Romero and I heard about a film being made called Shaun of the Dead, I’d be thinking what the fuck is that?” So we sent it to him and straight away he was like, “Oh, it’s great.”
SP: Because there have been- -
EW: Night of the Living Bread/
SP: I think he was assuming it was going to be a similarly low budget, affectionate spoof when in actual fact, it was a much bigger- -
Were there any other title suggestions?
EW: At one point, it was Tea Time of the Dead, but we thought that was a bit too quaint.
SP: Dave of the Dead was a [possibility].
EW: We want to do a sequel, M. Night of the Living Dead. Because he loves acting. You see him in Signs. He likes his cameos. He could play the lead character, M. Night of the Living Dead is the sequel.
SP: Or From Dusk ‘Til Shaun.
EW: I’ll tell you what it was. It was a working title because we thought if we had a character that was called Shaun, then hopefully some enterprising subeditor of a magazine, when reviewing the film, would have a caption and they’d put “Shaun of the Dead.” And it kind of just stuck really.
How long could you tease the zombies before it actually happened?
Simon Pegg: We wanted to keep it going for- -
Edgar Wright: As long as possible.
SP: As long as it was feasible. The whole point is that in London, the way people are, they’re just very insular and no one ever looks at each other. You don’t look at each other on the subway. You literally step over people with their hands in the air every day asking for money. There’s this thing of you can live in a city and be completely alone, not notice anything going on around you.
EW: Spend the entire day without talking to somebody or looking someone in the eye.
SP: That’s what we wanted to get across in that moment, particularly when Shaun goes to the shop when he’s all hung over. He doesn’t notice any of the zombies around him just because he never had before, so why should he at that point?
EW: Even though it’s a comedy, it’s kind of like one of the more serious things of people being like sort of quite a blinkard existence and walking around sort of in a bubble of their own problems.
One of the things that inspired the film was around the time, it was at the foot and mouth crisis in the UK. I remember not reading the papers for like two weeks. And then the first thing that I heard about it was when I saw footage on TV of burning cattle. And I was like, “What’s going on?” And I had to ask somebody. There was the embarrassment of having to ask somebody what was going on. So we liked the idea, in terms of Shaun and Ed, it’s not like the TV doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s just they’ve missed that bit. I just think that’s interesting, with CNN and stuff, there could be some crisis happening and if you come in halfway through a report, you have to wait like half an hour to find out what exactly is happening again. So it’s like Shaun and Ed have missed that bit.
Why did you stick with classic slow zombies instead of new, slick aggressive zombies?
SP: Because they’re just not as good.
They’re more effective.
SP: I don't think they are. As a certain kind of threat, as monsters from the id, they’re more affective as aggressive killing machines, but I think the whole point of the zombie as Romero framed it was that it’s us. They’re like larva. They just keep coming.
EW: That encroaching nightmare logic.
SP: They’re much scarier because they aren’t aggressive. They hone in on you and stuff, but they’re zombies anyway. There’s no moral agenda there. They’re not evil, they’re not governed by some scientist. They just do what they do. They’re us. They’re death personified. I always think the great example is that we could have one in a room with us here now. We could probably still conduct the interview just by walking around and avoiding it. But eventually you’d have to go to sleep and that’s when it would get you.
EW: Also, I think the other thing with like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake is one of the great things about the original films is the zombies had personality. When you have the running piranha attack style zombies, it almost inadvertently creates this zombie master race because when you have running zombies, you don’t get the fat zombie, you don’t get the kid zombies, you don’t get the elderly zombies. In the Dawn of the Dead remake, all the zombies were between 18-35 and six feet fall, and mostly all like stuntmen and stuff.
SP: And also, isn’t the root of the word zombie from somnambulist, which means sleepwalker. By the very running immediately stops them from being zombies.
How many background gags do you think the audience will miss?
Simon Pegg: 47.
Edgar Wright: Well, we designed it very much to be A, being a fan of films like Raising Arizona which has a lot of little details to pick up on and repeat viewing kind of stuff, but also being fans of DVDs, there’s a lot of stuff going on, particularly in the first half which prefigures what’s going to happen later. So some of them are very gettable, like when Ed says talking about with an argument with Peter, “The next time I seem him, he’s dead.” Some of them are more obvious, and then there are more subtle ones. So we definitely wanted to do that, especially in a first half hour which kind of is insidious where you think, “Where exactly is this going? Is this like a straight rom-com?” There are some strange things going on in the background.
A lot of the dialogue, some obvious things that reoccur, like “You’ve got red on you” and stuff. But there are some more subtle ones in there as well, so I hope if people enjoy the film, they’re going to see it a second time on DVD later, they’ll sit there going, “Oh, right.”
SP: Also, if you watch the film once, there are lots of things that you won’t get because there are punch lines in the first act, the setup to which isn’t until the second act. Like for instance, everyone in the opening credits you see, you eventually see again as a zombie. And you probably wouldn’t really notice them, particularly in the opening credits because they’re just people on their phones walking around. When you watch it again, you go, “Oh, there’s the guy from the pub at the end and there’s the guy from the garden.” So we filled it. Both me and Edgar are firm believers in never underestimating or talking down to an audience, and giving an audience something to do, to give them something which is entirely up to them to enter into the film and find these hidden things and whatever. And I think when you do that, it’s a far more gratifying experience to watch. People are constantly just spoon fed mindless rubbish because it’s easy to just sit there like a zombie and consume it. Whereas if you actually have to go in there and get your mind working, you feel like you’ve had a nice meal.
EW: It’s also one of those things actually with the script, when we were developing it and getting it financed, some people completely got it and other people didn’t get it at all. Mainly because if you speed read it and skip the stage directions which say what’s going on in the background, a lot of the jokes, particularly in the first half, are about the context. Shaun is walking to the shops hung over, but what’s funny is what’s going on in the background. So it’s kind of like two levels of things going on really. So we definitely wanted to make a comedy that has a lot of detail to it.
Did you cast any of your friends as zombies?
EW: Oh yeah. We had all friends and family. The zombies were made up, because it was a low budget film, we had some proper actor and specialized extras and stunt men and physical performers. Even amputee stuntmen and dancers and all sorts of things, circus performers. But then a lot of the other zombies were like fans of the show that we did in the UK. We put a thing out on the website in the UK. Also it was on Ain’t it Cool News. They printed this thing like a call to arms, like “Have you ever wanted to be a zombie? Would you like to be in a film?” So through that, our hotmail account just melted down, but before it melted down, we had like 1000 replies. So a lot of the big crowd scenes are made up of fans of both stuff that we’d done before or just zombies. It’s one of those things like whenever people say “Oh, do you want to be in a film, do you want to be in this scene?” And people get wise to when somebody says “be in a film”, it means that they’re going to be sitting in the back of a restaurant for 12 hours doing nothing, pretending to have a meal and getting really bored and saying “I’m never helping out on a film ever again.” At least being a zombie is a pretty fun extra thing to do because at least you get to get covered in blood, do the funny walk.
SP: It got to the point when we were doing some of the crowd scenes outside that we were filming in an area where there were lots of kids and they all got in on it as well. My mom’s in it, my sister’s in it, your brother’s in it. We’ve got friends in it. There are actually quite high profile British TV star cameos in it that you probably wouldn’t even notice, that the British wouldn’t even notice, let alone the American audience.
Did you ever have the same person doubled as more than one zombie?
EW: I don't think there is actually.
SP: We didn’t need to double up. There were so many willing cadavers.
Why did you continue beating the zombies with blunt objects and never learn to impale them?
Edgar Wright: Well, there’s one particular bit, obviously in the Queen scene, that’s kind of a bit of artistic license because I sort of choreographed to the song. But I think it’s because maybeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ it’s a good point.
Simon Pegg: Your instinct, rather than precision stabbing, is more about just random bludgeoning.
EW: He impaled the [one] guy, didn’t he?
SP: Yeah, then that doesn’t kill him.
EW: It doesn’t work, it doesn’t kill him.
SP: You bash their brains in or whatever and I don't think their as clinical to cut heads off or anything like that. And also, obviously in America, everyone carries a 9. In England, we don’t have any guns whatsoever.
EW: But that was one of the central jokes that we really wanted to do, we always wanted to do for a long time, which is I like the idea that when Shaun finally gets a rifle, his aim is absolutely appalling.
Because that is exactly what I would be like. I play so many Playstation games and watch hundreds of John Woo films, but if somebody gave me an automatic, I wouldn’t know how to take the safety off. I just know if I was in that situation with a rifle, and a zombie like here, I would miss. I would totally miss.
How much fun did you have beating zombies?
SP: It was a lot of fun. It was great. I mean, it was tiring because it was summer. We had to do lots of takes.
EW: The Queen scene was particularly tough, the scene beating up the bartender, because it’s like a steadicam shot and getting the timing all right. That actor playing John the bartender is a 72-year-old stuntman. And we really wanted to use a stuntman that was that age because we didn’t want to use a double. But obviously for him as well it was pretty tough all day. The spectacle of spending the entire day hitting a 72-year-old man in the head.
Was it hard to get the rights to Queen?
EW: No, we paid for it. With some of the things that were written into the script like Queen and “White Lines,” and things that were in there from the first draft. And other things come up later, say, like Chicago was a later thing. Even using the Queen song in the end credits came about because we had already said that we were going to use “Don’t Stop Me Now” and then we were listening to the greatest hits and “You’re My Best Friend” thinking, “Hang on a second. These lyrics are really spot on for the end of the film.” So the music thing is really important to us. It’s an organic thing, like I’d be sitting in a cafÃƒÂ© and “Ghost Town” by the Specials comes on, I’m thinking, “Hang on a second. This should be at the start of the film.”
Is David based on Alan Rickman?
EW: No, not really. I think it’s more based on A, it’s an amalgam of some people we know, but it’s more based on Dustin Hoffman’s character from Straw Dogs. Like the kind of mild mannered pacifist who’s always right. It’s based partly on that and based partly on Harry from Night of the Living Dead. In terms of the guy who’s always right but his way of talking about it is really tactless. Actually David, who seems like the idiot in the film, but actually everything he says is spot on about what’s happening. And it’s just the fact that he talks sense but being tactless is his greatest crime.
How did you pitch this to Working Title?
SP: They pitched it to us. Well, they came to us.
EW: It was originally with Film Four because we did a show with Channel Four in the UK. And Film Four briefly went bust, but I think Working Title [was appropriate because] aside from being a zombie film, it’s supposed to be like a satire on the tradition of British rom-com of which Working Title, that’s their biggest export. But I think what was really cool when they picked up the film is that they totally understood that and wanted to do it. And so I think it’s nice that on the one hand, they can make Love Actually. On the other hand, this is like a more subversive English comedy. So I think they just got into it. We were sort of really pleasantly surprised at how they, unlike some other companies, completely got it.
Is the line about the infected monkey rumor a stab at 28 Days Later?
EW: Oh yeah, totally. That was a joke that came up later. We’ve actually got to know Andrew Macdonald, the producer of 28 Days Later quite well, and he really laughed at that. That was our little jibe at 28 Days Later, rage infected monkeys. It’s my voice as well doing that.
Were you ever going to reveal the cause of the outbreak?
SP: Wasn’t important.
EW: When we had the first script meeting with Film Four, the only script note they had was they said, “You have to explain the zombies.” And the thing is that in any zombie film, a lot of the zombie films the explanation is always different. It’s like a meteor, a satellite, gas, crop spraying chemicals. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a Macguffin.
SP: It’s not relevant.
EW: It’s a waste of screen time.
SP: The point is that they’re there.