Billed as a "romantic comedy with zombies," the irreverent British flick Shaun of the Dead mixes two distinct genres to produce some very interesting results. When London is suddenly and mysteriously plagued with hordes of the undead, listless everyman Shaun (Simon Pegg) is forced to get his act together and do something more than just hang out at the local pub with his slovenly roommate Ed (Nick Frost). Besides fending off the living dead and devising a plan for survival, Shaun must also save his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) and his beloved mum (Penelope Wilton), and come to terms with his gruff stepdad (Bill Nighy).
We joined a cordial contingent of media outlets to field questions to actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, who co-wrote the film together. The duo had previously collaborated on the British sitcom Spaced, which featured a Resident Evil-themed episode that proved to be the seed that eventually spawned Shaun of the Dead.
SIMON PEGG & EDGAR WRIGHT Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
August 10, 2004
EDGAR: In the UK, our proudest moment--because we were really pleased with this whole critical response--was on the day that it came out. The Guardian and The Sun, which could be like the polar opposite in terms of the really high brow and kind of low brow paper...it got four stars in The Guardian, and in The Sun, it got four bulldogs. Four bulldogs!
MEDIA: How hard was it to pitch the concept of a romantic comedy with zombies?
SIMON: It's weird, we went to all these places having had this idea. What happened was because of Spaced, we were approached by quite a few film companies in the UK saying, "Do you have any ideas? What would you like to do?" And we had this idea that was bubbling around, and it was quite unformed, but we knew we wanted to do something with zombies and try and do the British spin on it. And we had meetings with people, and we thought of ideas while we were there.
EDGAR: That was kind of the first couple of meetings. It took us a while to find the hook, because we're big fans of the genre. But then also there have been a lot of horror comedies. We didn't want to do a spoof. We certainly didn't want to do the Scary Movie approach. And between Sam Raimi's stuff and Peter Jackson's stuff, a lot of ground had been covered. So then when we found the hook of the zombie element is played completely straight, and what's funny is the characters. And so it's not a spoof, it's genuinely a horror comedy in terms of the situation is horrible, but these characters and their reactions happen to be funny. And they said that was the hook all the way through. So we tried to keep to our own logic. And on top of paying homage to the original films was then the idea of actually satirizing the traditional British "rom-com" at the same time--having something that was kind of subversive by having a first half hour which almost plays like a straight romantic comedy, but then giving it a lethal injection. So that was the idea. And what was ironic is that Working Title, who eventually produced it, out of all the companies, got it straight away, even given that it was as much of a spin on their own films, almost like a satire of that. But they're the ones who kind of said, "Yeah, we get this, this is great."
Why zombedies...I mean, sorry...
EDGAR: "Zombedies" is good! [laughs] That's a good Freudian slip.
SIMON: Just that they're fascinating, I think. I think they're a great and enduring movie monster in that they're really allegorical--they are us. They're fascinating as well because they're not really evil, you know. They don't have an agenda that's driven by any kind of moral rage or anything like that. They're just us, they're just us dead, and they are the absolute embodiment of our greatest fear. And there's something quite wonderfully eerie about them, and slightly inept as well. There aren't many movie monsters who are as pathetic and tragic, or even sympathetic as zombies. Often in the Romero films, you'll find that the zombies are slightly more attractive than the people that are trying to fight them off. Also, just a lifetime of watching those films and loving them and being given the opportunity to make our own zombie film. I mean, what more could you want?
EDGAR: The great thing with zombies which works in terms of the horror, and especially in terms of the comedy, is the strategy aspect, or the fact that they're a slow encroaching force. With any other movie monster, you wouldn't be able to have a discussion about Prince's career while zombies are coming at you. [laughs] You certainly couldn't do that with the 28 Days Later zombies--the conversation would be over. So it worked on two levels. We really love old school slow zombies, but it also worked on a comedic level as well.
RadioFree.com: Speaking of 28 Days Later, there's a brief reference to that film at the end of the movie. Was that in-joke added at the last minute?
EDGAR: [laughs] Yeah, that wasn't in the original script. That was a very later sort of audio gag.
SIMON: That's very good. I've worked with Andrew Macdonald, who produced 28 Days, and also got to know him slightly better since the film.
EDGAR: Yeah, he liked that gag.
Did a lot of people catch the reference?
EDGAR: Whenever you watch it, you hear about 10% of the audience going, [laugh].
For those who missed it, what exactly was the reference?
EDGAR: Right at the end, when you see the epilogue with all the news reports, the last report that you hear is my voice. You hear it saying, "Initial reports that the virus was caused by rage-infected monkeys has now been dismissed as bullsh*t."
SIMON: It cuts out just through bullsh*t.
EDGAR: It cuts out halfway through bullsh*t. We just thought it was funny because that film is so deadly serious, and you think, "Monkeys infected with rage? WHAT? How do you do that? What, they watch some footage of riots and then they go crazy?"
SIMON: It's funny...
How hard was it to keep a straight face when you were shooting some of these scenes?
SIMON: Sometimes it was very hard. Nick makes me laugh a hell of a lot, and sometimes it was really difficult not to. But you could hear that filmstock wearing through the camera and you knew that every second was valuable, so we had to just bite our lips on several occasions quite painfully.
EDGAR: On any of the outtakes, whenever Simon and Nick crack up, you can hear me [laments], "Oh guys, come on!" But it was funny.
Do you feel your movie depicts how people might really, actually act if confronted by zombies?
SIMON: One of the first scenarios we cooked up was, "What would you do if there was a zombie in your garden? And how long would it be before you actually realized that it was a zombie and not a person who was a) drunk, b) dressed up?" You know, you wouldn't, actually. It wouldn't be on your list of permutations.
EDGAR: Is it like a student prank? Is somebody out of their head on ecstasy? [laughs] What is it?
SIMON: With Mary, they realize there's something wrong with her because of her eyes at first. But it's not until she stands up with a gaping hole in her that they realize "something might be wrong," you know. What would really happen is that people would absolutely go to pieces and wouldn't be able to move. They'd be gibbering wrecks. But we tried to kind of do the most realistic reaction you could do in order to keep the plot moving. The realism is very important. Because once you superimpose something fantastic onto something very real, then both are heightened.
EDGAR: It works on two levels. It's kind of making a joke on the English reserve, that everybody's so deadpan. It also works on the level that Shaun and Ed are really hungover, and so their initial reactions are all governed by the fact they all have splitting headaches. And they're really sort of still probably drunk from the night before. We watched some films again that we liked as teenagers, like Return of the Living Dead, which I used to love as a teenager. And I think the first twenty minutes is fantastic, but I watched it again, and the last sort of two-thirds was almost exclusively people screaming and people going, "Aigh! What's wrong with my hand?!" And we decided to have no screaming in the film, so at no point in the film does anybody scream. We just wanted it to be like a slightly different level of responses to what's going on. So it's more like catatonic shock and deadpan reactions to things.
[to Simon] Is the title character Shaun based on you, or someone else?
SIMON: Well, yeah, it's kind of me a little bit--the way I used to be. Not that I was ever as unmotivated as Shaun. I didn't stay in my Saturday job for the rest of my life. But certainly that whole predicament of knowing when to start your adult life, about knowing when to actually buy a house rather than rent one, knowing when to stop living with your best mate and start living with your girlfriend or whatever. I mean, all those things. For Edgar as well...
SIMON: And also the whole Winchester aspect of the film is based on a pub in North London called the Shepherds, which was an extremely important and integral part of my life for about three years, which was just this amazing local that was a two minutes' walk from my house. Nick and I were living together at the time, and we just used to spend all of our time in it. And my girlfriend was always like, "Why can't we go somewhere else?" And I would be like, "Well why? What else could anyone want?"
EDGAR: In a way, the film is a 90-minute gore-soaked apology for being a bad boyfriend, and sort of being complacent in relationships. We thought it was funny that Shaun's quest, which is essentially the moral of the story, is "it's the thought that counts." Shaun's plan is terrible and he gets everybody killed. [laughs] He puts everyone's life in danger, but at least he made the effort! That was kind of what we thought was quite funny. "Well, you know, it didn't go so well, but you made the effort, so that's what counts!"
Is this a love story hidden in a zombie film, or a zombie film hidden in a love story?
SIMON: I don't think anyone's hiding. That's the thing, it's both those things.
EDGAR: It's both.
SIMON: It's a love story and a zombie film. That's what we wanted to do--to have the two run concurrently together.
EDGAR: Yeah, we didn't want to do the thing in some films where when something takes a left turn, it takes a complete left turn. Save From Dusk Till Dawn which is great. It's a thriller, and then it takes a left turn, and then it's a horror film. But we wanted to do a similar thing but keep all the elements going. So you kind of accept the romance, and they collide, and they keep going at the same time. It's not like it ever forgets the romantic comedy aspect. And certainly in the way it wraps up, we wanted to have an ending that was kind of bleak but kind of happy at the same time. We wanted to keep everything sort of going.
Did you intentionally use the comedy to keep people off guard for the scares?
EDGAR: Probably when you're watching it, it's more of a comedy, and then the more shocking bits come as a surprise. You kind of see the poster, you think you're going to see a zombie film, and then when you start watching, you think, "Oh well, it's a comedy" almost to the point where you've forgotten. And now people start dying: "Oh yeah, this isn't funny at all. This is kind of serious!" So we wanted to kind of keep people off guard.
Were there any creative differences over how the movie should play out?
EDGAR: We wrote it very closely together and spent 18 months writing it. The only trouble is more just in terms of it being an ambitious film for a low budget, and actually executing what we had written. We wrote it and rehearsed it, and then it's all about making it work. It was a joint effort.
RadioFree.com: Any thoughts on the Resident Evil sequel, which looks to be your theatrical competitor?
EDGAR: I haven't seen the sequel. We're big fans of the games. I think what probably made people remember the Romero films again is the initial Resident Evil game was really good and really nailed the tone. I'm not as big a fan of the film, but the Resident Evil games certainly are responsible for the renaissance in zombie films. It's great that it's all kind of come full circle, now that George Romero gets to make his fourth one, which is great. I remember when we were writing it, when we were making it in the UK, at first we were really worried about 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. And then we consoled ourselves, thinking, "Well, the other films are unlikely to have a scene where they sing with a zombie, or a scene where they fight to Queen, or a scene where they discuss Prince." So we were confident enough that ours was going to be reasonably unique in that respect.
SIMON: When we had first started writing Shaun of the Dead, as far as we knew, we were the only zombie film. We were the first people, short of the game, to actually re-embrace the genre. Obviously, we were a little disappointed. But there's room for everybody. We're quietly confident.
EDGAR: It's cool.
Do you think the current state of the world has led to a resurgence in horror films?
EDGAR: The outbreaks of zombie films always seem to coincide with troubled times in terms of people being kind of paranoid. And certainly, we're big fans of those films of that era of Dawn of the Dead and the '70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that sort of come up not necessarily at a time of war, but at a time of paranoia and uncertainly. And I think that's why these zombie films have come back. It's fear of like biological warfare.
SIMON: Fear of ourselves. You can sort of see there are patterns that emerge. You can see at the time when we're fighting the foreigners, there are lots of alien movies. When we're frightened the evil ones might be among us, that's when we start having films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
EDGAR: Fear of sexually transmitted disease, and then lots of body horror films.
SIMON: But also these films come in cycles. Every now and again someone thinks, "Oh, no one's done Frankenstein for a while" or, "No one's done werewolves for a while, let's do that."
EDGAR: "Let's do them all in one film like Van Helsing!" [laughs]
SIMON: Yeah, exactly.
EDGAR: "Let's ruin them all in one film!" [laughs]
SIMON: It was just time. But Michael Jackson killed zombies, basically. I mean, he's done a lot of things. He's done a lot of great things. He's had a varied career. But one thing he did do with "Thriller" is he murdered the seriousness of zombies. And I think society was just about ready to re-embrace them.
EDGAR: It's a classic video. John Landis...
How did you cast the zombies? Where did all these people come from?
EDGAR: I'd say the fact that we had so many zombies is almost directly down to the internet. We certainly had a core of proper actors and specialized extras and stuntmen and dancers and all sorts of specialized kind of people.
SIMON: Circus-skilled people...
EDGAR: Circus skills like mimes, you know. But then a lot of the rest of the people, we basically put out a call to arms on the Spaced website, which is the show that we did, which then got put on 8 o'clock news as well. We don't really know how many responses we had because the Hotmail account melted down after like the thousandth e-mail. So basically, the film is almost entirely populated by fans, which was great. And we're in debt to them, really, that they came and came again.
SIMON: They're all put through a rigorous training program.
SIMON: We did have almost like "Zombie Idol" kind of auditions where they were vetted. If you watch any zombie film, if you watch carefully, there will always be some extra in the background trying to build their part. Even in Dawn of the Dead, there's some hilarious ones--people just overacting in the background.
EDGAR: We wanted to really avoid this thing [extends both arms straight forward], the mummy walk. Simon had a funny thing in the auditions. We said, "Try to pretend that you're either like a) drunk, b) like an elderly woman, or c) like a drunk, elderly woman." And that was the thing. But it's funny, even in our film, I remember there was one shot where Nira, the producer, came up to me and said, "There was one guy, he was doing it wrong." And I sort of said, "What? What? We haven't got time, it's fine." Then I watched the film and this one guy in the back, one short guy, is going like that.
How hectic was the shooting schedule?
EDGAR: It was really tough because it's pretty ambitious for a British film. There's a lot of exteriors in the film, and the British weather, even though we filmed it in the summer, is so changeable. And the fact that a) it takes place in the course of one day, and b) about 50% of it is outside, was tremendously tough because you can never win. If it rains, you're f*cked. So that was the toughest thing. It was really, really difficult. Some days, we'd lose an entire day to rain. It's just difficult in terms of we really wanted to try and cram as much in, and doing it on a low budget was not easy.
The movie is set in a small town in England?
EDGAR: It's actually in London. That was the point of the film, actually, is that it's in the capital city. But usually the London that you seen on film is the London of Patriot Games, or 101 Dalmatians, or even 28 Days Later: Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, double decker red bus. And we wanted to avoid all of that. The only film that's ever done London locations great is American Werewolf in London, and that used all of the things, but it did it brilliantly--Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square--but we really wanted to avoid that.
SIMON: We do have a red bus.
EDGAR: Yeah, but we have a hopper bus, we don't have the double decker.
SIMON: The double decker, yeah...
EDGAR: Exactly, the double decker is the tourist version. So we wanted to avoid that. And when we had the first meeting, we said the one thing you will not see in this film is zombies on Westminster Bridge.
RadioFree.com: Did Shaun of the Dead world premiere at the Fantasia film festival in Montreal?
EDGAR: Not world premiered. Actually, we showed it in Comic-Con the night before. It was the Canadian premiere. It premiered in London in April.
RadioFree.com: What was the fan reaction at Fantasia?
EDGAR: Apparently, it went down really well. We won like three silvers at Fantasia, which was great. But we were in San Diego at Comic-Con. So it was annoying because I would have loved to have gone, especially because one of the guys who did something on the soundtrack, Kid Koala, lives in Montreal. And as soon as he did the film, he said, "Oh, you've got to show it at Fantasia, they'll love it there." So it was really nice to drop him an e-mail saying, "You were right! Three silvers!" [laughs] "Isn't that great?" But we would have loved to have gone. I would have loved to have gone, but it was unfortunate that it clashed with our panel at Comic-Con. But apparently it went down very well, but I wish we could have been there.
Could you talk about the casting of Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton?
EDGAR: Bill Nighy was offered it first and accepted it straight away. And it was great, because he has a relationship with Working Title, and he was just brilliant. Nighy on the set is fantastic and really, really funny. And he publicized it so much in the UK. When he was on the red carpet for Love Actually, he'd start talking about Shaun of the Dead, even to the point of where it became a standing joke amongst journalists. "Bill Nighy will bring up Shaun of the Dead at the drop of a hat!" So that was cool. And Penelope as well was great. She not only has a great reputation on the London stage, but also she was in a sitcom in the UK called Ever Decreasing Circles which both me and Simon remember really fondly. And so it was really nice to get somebody who has a lot of gravitas playing that part.
SIMON: She looks remarkably like my mum as well.
EDGAR: Yeah! [laughs]
Being so close to the material, who did you look to for an unbiased opinion of the work?
EDGAR: Our producer Nira, who did Spaced the TV show with us, is very honest in terms of what she thinks.
SIMON: We had constant script meetings as well.
EDGAR: But also we're very honest with each other in terms of we pour over it endlessly, obsessively, like spending entire days on just one paragraph.
Could there be a sequel? After all, Shaun's best friend is still around...
SIMON: Yeah, but then the trouble is he'd have to spend the whole film acting like a drunk monkey, and I think that would be a shame not to use his better talents. I think the best thing about doing the film, coming from TV, is that we've always said you don't have to--
EDGAR: --return to the status quo at the end of the film. You know, that's it, that's the film.
SIMON: It doesn't have to be set up for the next episode. It can be trashed entirely. You can kill everybody and not worry about it. And I think some sequels can retroactively diminish the first film. Even Jaws, you know, because of Jaws 4.
EDGAR: What about Jaws 2 and 3? [laughs]
SIMON:Jaws 2 and 3 are nowhere near as bad as Jaws 4. Anyway, that's another argument. But we just wanted to leave it how it is.
EDGAR: Simon wrote an idea that could involve what happens to Ed afterwards.
SIMON: It was remarkably similar to the original Day of the Dead script.
EDGAR: Right, right, right. Maybe the idea of an alternate reality. But certainly in terms of zombies, we've done zombies now. Even though we're still big fans and we do love them, we've kind of done our zombie bit now.
So what's next for you guys?
EDGAR: We've been starting to write a new film. We've wanted to do a film that's, if not a sequel to Shaun, certainly a sequel in terms of we like creating our own world and our own sensibility. And a lot of the directors that we admire like Tarantino, and Wes Anderson, and the Coen brothers certainly create like a universe for their kind of films. And we'd like to do a similar thing and make another film in another genre that kind of has the same sense of humor and some of the same cast. So that's what we'd like to do next.
SIMON: I'm with him.
SIMON: We're working together.
So how long has this been a relationship for you guys?
EDGAR: [jokingly] We've been a gay couple now for nine months.
SIMON: Ah, no. We started working together in '97 I guess it was.
SIMON: And then we'd made Spaced, and then Shaun was the logical kind of continuation of the work we started there. Yeah, it's been a little while. Seven years.
EDGAR: It's nice, not just for me and Simon, but it's nice to kind of get a growing repertoire of people that you work with. And there are people that we've worked with before on this film, like Nick Frost and Peter Serafinowicz. And there's other people we knew but hadn't worked with like Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran, but then Bill and Penelope, we had never met before. So it was just great to not only continue relationships with actors that you've worked with before, but then also bring new people into the fold.
RadioFree.com: Is there any specific genre you'd like to tackle for the next film?
EDGAR: Potentially the action genre, because there's never been a good British action film! [laughs] I don't think there's been any British action films! [laughs]