I’ve seen the film twice now. I think it’s your masterpiece.
Aw, thank you so much. Guillermo Del Toro did a Q&A with me last night in Toronto and he said something that really made me laugh. He said, “it’s highly ironic that your most mature movie also has killer robots in it.”
Thank you, though; that means a lot to me. We’re very proud of the movie. Some people, you know, would rather we do a Shaun of the Dead 2 or a Hot Fuzz 2. But even though we’ve made this trilogy of sorts, it’s really important to keep mixing it up. They need to have slightly different flavors and tones. You need to grow with the characters.
Are these characters personal to you?
There is a lot of personal stuff in Shaun of the Dead and in Hot Fuzz, even though it might not seem like there is. But The World’s End is the most personal of the three films. It was great for Simon [Pegg] and me to write. We developed the idea for this script about six years ago, but we didn’t start writing it until two years ago. We already had the story in mind, but when we actually started writing, all of our personal experiences from over the last couple of years just sort of came flooding out. So much of it comes from our own experiences, or from personal anecdotes. It’s fun for me to see it all up there on the big screen.
I often feel that your movies are quite personal and emotional. Some filmmakers who make genre films seem to build in social satire sort of flimsily, as if they were straining to make a point. But in your films it seem like the genre elements are simply the emotions manifesting themselves.
How do you balance those genre elements and the more genuine emotions?
Simon and I are both fans of genre filmmaking, so I think some of it is just instinctual. A lot of the science fiction that inspired this movie, whether it’s books or movies or TV shows, were things that I grew up with, and I know them so well that it’s almost an instinctual thing, in a way. For example, in Shaun of the Dead, the zombies sort or represent complacency and conformity. But when we were writing that movie we were thinking more about how we might put ourselves into the George Romero universe, to see how that sort of film might play out if the heroes had hangovers rather than guns, and how they might cope. With The World’s End, I feel like the sci-fi elements reflect how Gary King, the hero, feels throughout the movie. It’s almost like a coping mechanism. There’s a scene in the film in which Gary realizes that there are otherworldly forces controlling the town, and when he delivers the speech which explains the plan to his friends, he’s happy, he’s smiling. And the reason he’s smiling is that it’s easier, in a way, to conclude that there might be an alien invasion than to realize that a) he’s old, b) the town has moved on without him, and c) that the two may not be as good as he remembered it being anyway. In a strange way, blaming the passage of time on some external forces becomes his coping strategy. I come from a small town and I have these kinds of bittersweet feelings when I go back, because it isn’t the place where I grew up. But obviously I went away and I have no right to go back and say, “Well, that shouldn’t be there.” The genre threats in this film are like a very surreal manifestation of that emotion.
It seems like the genre elements come into play here at precisely the moment Gary has his major realization. He understands that the night is drawing to a premature end; he’s in denial about the fact that nobody recognizes him and that he isn’t really a local legend. And although the film doesn’t go quite so far as to say this for sure, it seems as if the movie is turning into Gary’s fantasy.
Absolutely. It’s like his reprieve. And as a master manipulator, he very quickly turns it around to his advantage. He’s kind of so brilliantly Machiavellian when he’s drunk that he can say, “Hey, wait a second, this is the perfect cover.” People sometimes ask me why the characters would continue with the pub crawl, and I always say it’s because Gary King is a master bullshitter. [Laughs] He shuts down every alternative. He doesn’t want there to be any other option or any escape. It’s common in a lot of small-town films, especially in films noir, to have this sense that you cannot escape from the town you’re in. It happens in this great Jim Thompson novella called Nightmare Town: there’s this feeling that you cannot escape the town no matter what you do. In a sci-fi context The Prisoner always had that. I like this idea that once the characters accept that they’re going on the pub crawl, there is no going home—they’re fucked. There is definitely this idea that the alien intervention sort of arrives as an excuse to continue their quest.
And by that point in the film it seems like Gary has hit rock bottom.
Yeah. His first point of hitting rock bottom—well, actually, one of his many points of hitting rock bottom—is his attempt to ditch his adult friends to go out with some 16-year-olds instead. They wouldn’t take him, of course, but I think there’s something really pathetic about asking a 16-year-old at the next urinal where he’s headed next. A 40-year-old man saying to an 18-year-old, “let’s go for a drink,” is a bad idea. But yes, absolutely, the film is definitely designed so that the robots only enter once the normal story has reached its end, when things have come to a head and it’s clear it isn’t working. And that’s also the point at which Gary King gets to become the captain of the team again. I mean, essentially, if you took out the sci-fi element, this is a film about a man who escapes therapy but triggers his own intervention. The end scene is his cosmic intervention. That’s the idea: he won’t listen to doctors, and he won’t listen to friends, so finally it’s alien overlords who have to come in and intervene. And his response to that, without giving too much away, is to turn to self-help. That’s what it should be in the first place: only you can help yourself.
Preferably not just by drinking twelve pints.
Right. It might be acceptable to do a pub crawl if you’re a teenager or a student, or if you’re a doctor or a nurse, or maybe if you’re in the armed forces or on a sports team. But if you’re in your late 30s or early 40s, doing a pub crawl is like submitting to a night of self-destruction. That’s really what the film is about. It’s one man’s journey: he really wants to get to the The World’s End, and he absolutely gets his wish. We worked really hard on the emotional arc of the film. We wanted there to be a clear emotional revelation for Gary. He’s a character who only admits to his demons when he’s alone, whether it’s in the mirror or alone with Nick or Rosamund. When other people are around and he puts his trench coat back on; it’s as if he’s thrown on his armor, and he’s ready to stick up his fingers to the man. For us, he’s a very complicated character. He’s much more of an antihero than Shaun or Hot Fuzz’s Nicholas Angel. But Simon and I have a deep, deep sympathy for him, and we want him to be ok. We want him to work this out. It’s interesting: when we did this Q&A with Guillermo Del Toro last night, he said, “Success is fucking up on your own terms.” I sort of think that’s what the film is about. Nobody can tell you what to do—you have to find your own happiness.
Of course, in a way, Gary is a lot like Shaun and even Tim, the hero of Spaced. There’s even a scene in the bar in Spaced that's very similar to one here. What makes Gary seem more of an antihero or more tragic than Tim or Shaun?
Well, the thing about those three characters is that Simon and I put a lot of ourselves into each of them. Tim is basically what we were like at the time when we were making that series. Shaun, on the other hand, is what we were worried we would become. Shaun is a guy who has let ambition slip away, who’s happy to settle for less and become lazy and complacent, until his amazing girlfriend just up and walks out the door. Both Shaun and I went through that sort of situation, where we both had something great in our lives leave us, and it makes you think that you need to sharpen up and take life by the reins and be a better person. Gary, I think, is sort of a horror-movie version of us if life hadn’t gone our way. I had an old friend who told me, just after Spaced had come out, that he could have had my career if he’d been as lucky. And I sort of though, well, hard work goes into it, determination goes into it, tenacity goes into, and talent goes into it, but he’s not wrong: luck does come into it too. Big time. You have to be in the right place at the right time.
So you feel lucky in that way?
I always feel in my career I’ve been extremely fortunate that a number of lucky breaks have come my way to get me here. Gary King is just one of those people who never got a lucky break. That’s kind of the reason I have sympathy for him: I could be that guy. I see a lot of myself in that. We used to think of it that, in Shaun of the Dead, Pete is probably what Shaun should aspire to professionally, Ed is what he should not be, and currently he’s somewhere in the middle. Is he going to be a professional or is he going to be a stoner for the rest of his life? Here, for the adult characters, like Martin Freeman, Nick, Eddy, and Paddy, Simon’s character represents like the Ghost of Christmas Past. These are your teenage years coming to haunt you and drag you back into the mud. I think there’s an idea of a parallel reality: if I hadn’t had those lucky breaks, would I be Gary King? I used to date a girl in band who knew a lot of people who were in bands themselves. I always found it fascinating that those who’d had some small success, like a Top 40 single, would deal with it in different ways. Some would think it was cool and have moved on with their lives. But then there were those people who sort of hung onto their past success. They’ll never be happy: you can’t cling onto some former glory. And that’s what Gary is doing.
And his glory is much smaller than a Top 40 hit.
But at the end of it he’s become the ultimate legend!