In the new movie Paul, opening this week, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg play a pair of comic book geeks on a road trip to America’s UFO heartland, Area 51. Little known to these two sci fi nerds, a smart-ass alien has just escaped from a nearby top-secret installation and hitches a ride in their rented RV. Not only does this film star comic heavy-weights Pegg, Frost and Seth Rogen (voice of Paul), but it boasts a riotous cast which includes Jane Lynch (Glee), Sigourney Weaver, Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), Kristen Wiig and Jeffrey Tambor. Greg Mottola (Superbad) directed the script penned by Pegg and Frost.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg this week at Austin’s SXSW film fest to discuss their new sci-fi themed comedy Paul. Director Greg Mottola joined us as well as we discussed the story, the culture of comedy, and the alien effects. Audio version included at the end of the page.
The Pegg/Frost comedic duo are most well known for Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Their new film is all about the laughs, and the sci-fi elements become a vehicle for jokes and popular culture references/nods. Pegg explains “It’s never planned. We don’t have a checklist of things to mention. Basically our frame of reference is popular culture so whenever we liken something to something else all our metaphors and similes come from popular culture…We sort of immediately go to those touchstones to create our reference palate so that’s why the references are there. There’s probably more in there than I realize. We’re making a film that has obvious progenitors so we don’t want to pretend that we’re somehow being completely original, this film owes a lot to other films.” Frost adds that the main characters “live in that world to, they live in a world where they are big fans of Star Wars so in many ways their points of reference are ours.”
Pegg and Frost did plenty of research on popular culture and films to prepare to make this film. Frost said, “we kind of knew what we wanted to do, we’ve been watching Star Wars…how many times did we watch it together? So we had a kind of rich palate to draw from so we were ready to go. For me Close Encounters and Star Wars kind of defined my childhood, and my move from kicking and screaming into adulthood.”
Pegg added, “for Hot Fuzz we watched a lot of action films because we wanted to learn the lexicon of action cinema so we could speak it fluently in the context of a British village…that film was more of satire because it was taking on those grand themes from American action cinema and putting them in a different context. With Paul we kind of felt like we already knew all that stuff, that was already in our subconscious. What we needed to do was drive across America in an RV and that’s the research we did for Paul. So cinematically speaking all the references come from a sort of subconscious love for that kind of cinema. I watched Back to the Future recently and realized how much that film had inspired Paul, in terms of structurally and the way that the tension accumulates.”
When asked abut their favorite genres, and how they feel about horror comedies versus other types of comedies, Pegg said, “We just make the films we want to see. It’s not like we’re ticking them off or trying to get through them all, it’s just that we’re into that kind of stuff. Paul was an idea we had way back, before Hot Fuzz actually, something we had on the back burner that suddenly became a reality. Uh, I can’t think of another…it’s not like I want to take a crack at Westerns or anything…”
The alien effects in the film are CGI, and when asked about that choice instead of going with an animatronics or puppet alien Mottola explained, “I think it’s really hard to do a character who’s that verbal and feels naturalistic with puppetry. I mean I’m not a huge fan of CGI, when it’s done well I’m amazed by it, but by and large I’m often disappointed with it so it scared me to use it. And we explored animatronics but with animatronics you can’t talk that fast or be that flexible…you can be a lot more nimble with CG…you’re so limited and it takes so long to shoot anything with puppetry.” Pegg added, “also we weren’t making a comment on the process of putting an alien in film. We wanted it to be about Paul instead of the process of making Paul, and the easiest way to do that was CG.”
Pegg also said, “True story, the animation crew on Paul was about 400 people. Some of the animators were Italian, and they gesticulate too much so Paul was constantly doing this (Pegg waves hands about), and they had to sort of tell them to put his hands like this…you know because we wanted Paul to be very real and naturalistic and that’s why he’s CG and not a puppet.”
Since Rogen was a voice actor, Frost said that it was kind of like rehearsing a play when they started with him. “We did it all before we started shooting, before we shot properly in Santa Fe. So we had Seth in the studio with his motion capture suit on and it was kind of like rehearsing a play…and we just did it like that. That’s how we got started, and then we shot in Santa Fe and Joe Lo Truglio very kindly played Paul on set everyday.” Mottola added, “we knew we couldn’t have him (Rogen) there on set which scared me, because I felt going back and doing my homework and looking at E.T., which I hadn’t seen for awhile, I realized that what sells it is the actors, the kids, making believe that they’re acting against an alien. So they (Frost and Pegg) needed someone to play off of, so Joe who’s a great actor and great improviser came and…he changed stuff and he made things really playful. And then we’d go back and show Seth what Joe had done or created and there was a cool…you know interplay.”
Pegg said, “we wanted to be freer on set too, we’re very keen to come to set with something very concrete and not fuck around. But, at the same time, we wanted it to be quite loose and have people be able to improvise if they wanted, and we wanted to be able to change things on the fly, so we didn’t want to come to set and have to say things exactly like we did in the rehearsal room, we wanted to be able to come up with new stuff and having Joe there freed us up to do that. Which also helps it to be more conversational, seem more real in a way…Paul has been played at any one time by Bill, Joe, Seth, a little child, a small actor in a suit, a stick with balls on it, a grey ball, an A.D. light, a puppet, an animatronic puppet…he’s had many incarnations.”
That concludes the interview. We’d like to thank Greg, Simon and Nick for speaking with us. Be sure to see Paul, now out in theatres. Also, make sure you check out our Paul review