Simon Pegg on Paul and Why Scott Pilgrim Failed to Connect With Audiences

paul-simon-pegg630.jpgSimon Pegg swears that there are not as many movie references in Paul as you might think. Which technically may be true, if only because there's a good chance that his new film does feature less than a million. Regardless of the actual amount, though, Pegg, Nick Frost and director Greg Mottola (Superbad) have created a bona fide nerd oasis in Paul. But will non-nerds want to show up to this party, too?

In Paul, Pegg (who co-wrote the film with Frost) plays Graeme, a British tourist on an alien-themed holiday in America with his best friend, Clive (Frost). While visiting alien hot spots across the American Southwest, they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a cigarette smoking alien who escaped from government officials who want to dissect him for research purposes. I spoke to Pegg twice over the course of the last few months (the majority of the following interview is from last week, but it does combine aspects from a separate conversation) about the many movie references in Paul -- including why he had to tone down the Star Trek ones -- whether there's an anti-religion message in the film, his thoughts on Zombieland, and why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World failed at the box-office.

For American audiences, when compared to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, do you think Paul will have even more mass appeal?

It's probably the broadest film we've made. Comedically, generally, it will have a bigger appeal because it's less niche than Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were. We've opened up ourselves a little bit more and created more of a crowd-pleaser, perhaps, than the sort of cult-y aspects of Shaun and Hot Fuzz. Those two films appeal to a specific group of people who also understood the genre that it came from. Paul immediately takes on a more popular genre, anyway. In that respect, it probably has more appeal. It's set in America, it's less foreign than Shaun and Hot Fuzz -- it definitely has something going for it for its appeal here. But I think generally speaking, it's a broader movie. Across the world it will have a wider appeal.

And I suppose if you want to start the story at Comic-Con, it pretty much has to take place in the U.S.

The idea came, initially, from this desire we had to work in an environment where the weather was consistent. It started as a very flippant joke on the set of Shaun of the Dead. We were filming a scene in the garden and it was raining and it was really screwing us and we were like, "Can't we just make a film somewhere where it's hot?" We jokingly said, "Let's make one in the desert," and that became like Area 51, and it wasn't that much of a leap to aliens. And how do we get ourselves into that? So it becomes two British tourists and they're in Area 51 and they find an alien. And it was like a kind of joke pitch that we came up with for filming somewhere that, ironically, has one of the most erratic weather patterns in the United States -- Santa Fe, New Mexico. But, initially, our intentions were to go somewhere and that happened to be America. It wasn't that we felt, "Oh, we can't make this film in the U.K." We wanted to make it in America. We wanted it to be about aliens and we wanted ourselves to be aliens in the movie. The film is about aliens -- Graeme and Clive are the aliens in the film, not Paul. Paul is more American, more of an Earthling, than they both are. He's naturalized and just because his ethnicity and appearance are literally alien doesn't mean he's more alien than they are.

There are a lot of movie references in Paul...

Not as many as you think...

Wait, really?

Probably people just assume that everything is a reference. No, I think there is a broader kind of referentiality to the film because it draws on a lot of science fiction because Paul has been an influence on that. So there's all of this sort of retroactive plagiarism which we did by all of the ideas for Predator and E.T. all came from Paul.

Was there ever a time when you thought, "OK, we have one too many in there. Let's don't go overboard."

Yes. It was hard not to because obviously Graeme and Clive are very culturally savvy in terms of that particular aspect of popular culture so a lot of their framed references are science fiction. They live their life through popular culture so what you saw is how they saw their lives. If they were telling you what their lives were really like, they'd be telling their lives like, "Oh, it's like a scene from The Matrix." So Graeme and Clive, almost their entire frame of reference is made up from that particular part of culture -- it's going to be very frequent in the script that they talk about or refer to it or act it out. But, yeah, at times we were kind of like, "Oh, no." There were more Star Trek references, initially, and we took them out.

Too meta?

Yeah. Because I was Scotty, suddenly. And I became Scotty... we had already started writing Paul when I got the part so we actually took references to Star Trek out. There were far more. Initially when we are bumped at the crosswalk, it was by Borgs instead of by Orcs. We changed it because it felt to meta.

Yeah, I was actually going to ask about that since your character is wearing an Empire Strikes Back tee shirt for most of the movie if there was a deliberate attempt to steer clear from Star Trek?

Yeah, we did rein that in. Also, part of us were thinking, "Oh, god, Star Wars has been done to death." You know, it's become this thing now with Robot Chicken and the.. the...

Family Guy?

Family Guy and Fanboys and there's almost this culture of Star Wars references now. But the fact is it's still plays a huge part in the lives of these people in terms of that aspect of popular culture is a huge touchstone. Also, we have to make this film more, as I say, we had to widen this film out. At the same time, we didn't want to take away that level of consistency from the audience. Whereby they have a certain degree of work to do. So you mention Star Wars or Aliens, or something, and the audience gets it and they feel like they've been spoken to personally because they've seen it and have the ability to make a connection. So we were a little broader with those references. So, yeah, the cantina music, people are going to remember that. People are going to remember Han Solo's line or Ripley's line from Aliens. So the references are a little less obscure in Paul -- they're a little more out there because it has to appeal to a larger scale.

[Watch Pegg and Frost reenact a scene from Star Wars here]

With the religious aspect of the film, are you worried about pissing off a large segment of moviegoers?

No. I mean, not until people said it... I grew up in quite a religious environment and everyone, there's a lot of humor there, you know? I mean, comedy is a safe place where we can rehearse ideas that we might not want to address in the real world. It's like a rollercoaster -- you can experience fear without really dying. And, so, I think everything should be open to being on the table for comedy. It's a comedy about an alien, I'd be upset if we offended anyone, actually. The very existence of Paul does throw Ruth's [Kristen Wiig] faith into question because she had a very specific set of beliefs. That's not real. Anyone who finds it offensive must be having an internal struggle somewhere else.

And there's probably a lot of truth to that. I do know a lot of people whom, when it comes to this subject, can get pretty offended very quickly.

I like to think that people have a sense of humor. I like to have faith in humanity and think that people can laugh at themselves and not ever feel threatened. It certainly wasn't our intentions to ruffle any feathers, it's a comedic device. But I guess often times with comedy people don't find it funny. It's just one of those things, any film with an alien in it -- even E.T. -- throws into question the universe as we perceive it. It makes it a bigger place. So that
is just something we wanted to address.

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Comments

  • Scraps says:

    Why can't they just make an ALF movie? Who would play Willie in 2011?

  • Andrew says:

    "Anyone who finds it offensive must be having an internal struggle somewhere else. "
    Yes because "Religion is dumb." is such a well reasoned argument. How could anyone possibly get offended at your shallow lazy caricature's of what you think religious Americans look like?
    Especially with how completely necessary and totally relevant and not at all straw-man those religious components were to the film. Shoved into the "story" like a fat guy trying to get through the door at IHOP on the first day of Stuffed Crusted Pancakes.
    I love Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but that quote honestly just makes me want to sock Simon Pegg in the mouth.

  • Russ says:

    Religious Americans are the bane of the world, pure and simple... and yes, religion is very, very dumb. Also its JUST A FUCKING MOVIE!!!

  • Bill says:

    What's dumb about it? See if you can answer the question without resorting to the kinds of straw-men referred to above.

  • Alex says:

    Just a movie, don't think Simon Pegg is the kind of guy who loves offending people, so wind your fucking neck in

  • Wandering Menstrual says:

    @Andrew
    "I love Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but that quote honestly just makes me want to sock Simon Pegg in the mouth."
    Or you could just, y'know, forgive him. Your quote (and your lack of self-awareness) seriously made my morning. You proved Pegg's point so well.
    @Bill,
    So you're saying the burden of proof is on the people who DON'T base all their decisions and beliefs on Middle-Eastern mythology from thousands of years ago? You and Andrew were made for each other.

  • stolidog says:

    Lazarus.

  • Wandering Menstrual says:

    I like this game, Stolidog. Here's mine.
    When Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt. And every-fucking-thing else that preceded the salt thing in that story.
    Your move, Bill. Prove us wrong.

  • Shy Matsi says:

    Scott Pilgrim was probably one of the best movies that no one saw or even heard of! There was definitely a marketing problem!

  • Jason says:

    Since when does Movieline censor the word "shit"? What is happening to the world?

  • Had "Paul" restricted the Christian humor to Wiig's character Pegg's argument would hold water. But the film's other Christian character, the father of Wiig's Ruth, is practically inhuman. I'm not sure he said more than five sentences in the movie. He just stalked around with a crazed look in his eye, and then in the final reel his actions get far worse - I won't say any more for spoiler sake.
    That, plus several other lines in the film run against Pegg's defense. I have to give credit to a Bill Maher who just says I hate religion - deal with it.

  • Rhatik Darkio says:

    @WANDERING MENSTRUAL i couldn't agree more

  • Rhatik Darkio says:

    i have seen my share of both heavenly and other worldly things good and evil,before i became a man of God, to say its either this or that is false the truth is its all, God does exist he made man ,woman , beast and alien,there are things going on right now which people cant conceive to be a reality of truth,

  • samiam says:

    Religious *people are the bane of the world, pure and simple...
    *Fixed

  • samaim says:

    Seriously? It's a word, who cares.

  • jtims says:

    "...there are things going on right now which people cant conceive to be a reality of truth."
    Yes, like grammar and punctuation, oh enlightened one.

  • Alex says:

    Science. Look it up.

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