Simon Pegg co-wrote and starred in the British TV series Spaced and the movies Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Run Fatboy Run, and Paul. He also appeared in Mission: Impossible III and J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek. He just released his first book, a memoir called Nerd Do Well, which focuses on the childhood passions that made him into the nerd celebrity he is today.
This interview first appeared in io9’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Visit io9.com/tag/geeksguide to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
The inside cover of Nerd Do Well features doodles that you did as a kid and includes references to Velvet Thunder and Planet Pegg. Are there any stories behind those doodles?
Velvet Thunder was, weirdly, an idea that Nick Frost and me came up with very early on in our relationship. It might have been our first collaborative effort, because it dates back to about 1994 or 1995. We were thinking of making a film, but only on video, what would, these days, be like a YouTube clip about two cops. One of them was called something like Dave Velvet, and Big Daddy Thunder or something, and together they were Velvet Thunder. And I think the first adventure that we were thinking of was actually a zombie outbreak, which is interesting considering the idea in some respects is like a combination of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. It’s like we dissected our first ever idea and then sent it into two other movies with Edgar Wright. But that was Velvet Thunder. Planet Pegg I think was probably just me on the phone to somebody and imagining a world that was entirely made of me.
The book contains a fictional account of you as a super spy with a robot butler. Why did you decide to include those sections?
I’d started developing that character on blogs and stuff and with my web mistress Harmony at peggster.net, and I’ve used it a couple of times. But I really like the idea of writing myself as this incredibly self-involved bombastic superhero with a robot butler in the most florid prose possible because it’s just enormous fun to be bad on purpose. And with the book it felt like an interesting device to kind of undermine the notion of writing a memoir, because in a sense writing a memoir is an act of incredible self-indulgence, and I think that by slipping those chapters of fiction in I was kind of saying to the readership, “Yeah, I get it. I know this is as ridiculous as this story is—but I’m going to do it anyway.” It was a kind of like a “Don’t worry, everything’s okay, it hasn’t all gone to my head,” kind of gesture. The fact is, the memoir was suggested to me by a publisher who we were having talks to write a book with, and it was not something I had really set out to do; it wasn’t my intention, and the idea was kind of sold to me, and I found an angle that I thought would make it worthwhile, which was to try and track the ironies of being a fan and then becoming part of the world I was a fan of, and I thought it was a neat little circularity there that could be quite entertaining, if you like that sort of thing.
You mentioned that it’s written in this sort of over-the-top pulp style. Did that voice come naturally, or did you have to work at it to make it that over-the-top?
No, it comes naturally, completely. That’s my default, sort of—that’s how I want to write. It makes me laugh to be so overly descriptive and to be quite dumb about it. There’s something amusing to me about dumb fiction and people who wield literature like it’s a machine gun. I had great fun in trying to come up with different ways of saying “he said.” You know, that’s always one to try and vary so much that there’s never the repetition of the same word on the same page. He seethed, he mumbled, he communicated, he croaked. It’s all that kind of stuff which I find enormous fun.
Have you written much prose fiction other than that, and do you think you might write more in the future?
I’d like to write an entire novel of Simon Pegg Super Hero, actually, or at least perhaps a graphic novel. The memoir element I think I’ve definitely exhausted; I wrote everything I wanted to write, there’s nothing more I really want to share. But the adventures of Simon Pegg and Canterbury could go on and on, and it was just too much fun not to do. I would see those chapters as like a break. It would be like I’ve written three chapters about my childhood, it’s time to have a rest, and I’ll write two-thousand five hundred words about my riad in Marrakech. It was almost a relief. So to write an entire book of that would surely be fun. Maybe I’ll write a fiction story and then slip in odd chapters about my childhood to offset it.
For a nerd memoir, this book seems fairly light on tales of you being bullied and ostracized. Was your childhood relatively free of that, or did you just choose to focus on other things?
I had the same sort of altercations with other kids as most people do, and I do include a couple of them in there, only because they stick in the memory; those things always, always stay in your memory. But no, I had a fairly happy childhood. It wasn’t going to be a story of woe anyway; I didn’t really want to talk about stuff that upset me as a kid or was particularly difficult to talk about. It’s the kind of stuff that you’d speak about in the pub with your mates. It’s stories that you’d relate that are easy to give away because they’re just experiences that people can relate to. I didn’t really want to write a book that’s just about difficulty and pain. I don’t think I’ve had enough to do that in the first place.
You talk about how the movie E.T. was a big influence on you and it was obviously a big influence on your movie Paul. As a kid, was there ever a time when you believed that aliens were real and that the government was hiding the truth?
I had a lot of interest in the unexplained when I was young. I loved the mysteries of the unexplained, the paranormal, In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy. And there was a magazine we had in the UK called The Unexplained and that fascinated me. I was definitely drawn in by it. I hadn’t intellectualized it at that time; as a child you’re much more susceptible to fantasy. It’s not until you get older that you realize essentially everything you’ve been told as a child was a lie. But now, as an adult, I believe thoroughly that there is life on other planets. I just don’t believe that they come visiting in saucer-shaped spacecraft and don’t tell us—that they come across eons of time just to finger us. It seems like a waste of time. And also, when you start thinking—the human race is very egotistical, so we kind of assume that we are somehow important and worth visiting, or that our tiny little flash of existence is significant enough in the universe to merit being visited. There might be billions of other civilizations that have existed at different times for us, we think of the world in terms of the way we perceive time which is just like milliseconds galactically. So I’m sure there’s other life out there, I just don’t think they come visiting with us.
Is it true that you wrote your undergraduate thesis on a Marxist overview of popular 1970s cinema and hegemonic discourses?
I did. The piece was actually called Base and Super Sucker which was a play on the phrase “Basic Super Structure”, which is a Marxist proposition, hegemony and consent in Star Wars and related works. Basically I was using Marxist modes of critical theory to address Star Wars. And the main thrust of it was that if you watch any kind of television or theatre or film that has certain kind of themes or opinions and you don’t critically recognize them, then you consent with them. So very simply put, if you watch a racist comedian and you laugh, then you are a racist. And there are various preoccupations and concerns that flow through popular cinema that reflect things that are going on in society, certain ideas and certain fears. The thesis suggested that by watching films like those you are participating in those fears and preoccupations.
What aspects of Star Wars did you apply that to?
Well, for instance at the time, in the late seventies and mid-eighties we were in the height of nuclear paranoia and we were feeling that we could be bombed at any second by the Russians, and a lot of films at the time reflect that sense of ill-ease, particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. All those films are riddled with bomb paranoia and also with justifications for having bombs like that. So you have weapons like the Genesis Project in Star Trek, you have the Death Star, the Force, you have the Ark of the Covenant, all of which are fine in the hands of good people. Like the Ark is fine if it’s owned by the Americans, the Genesis Project is fine if it’s with the Federation, but with the Klingons it’s a weapon; the Death Star is a bad thing because bad people shouldn’t have big bombs. It was basically kind of saying that ultimate power is okay as long as it’s in the hands of the righteous. So yes we’re allowed to wield nuclear bombs, but they aren’t, that kind of thing. And also Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most brilliant one in that it’s saying “If you don’t look at it, it can’t hurt you.” Almost kind of like, leave it to us or leave it to the government. And Spielberg wasn’t saying that, but these things just float to the surface—these preoccupations that maybe if we don’t look at it it’ll go away. That’s how Indy and Marion survived all those avenging angels in the end of Raiders: they just closed their eyes. It’s indicative of how society was feeling at the time.
In Shaun of the Dead, Shaun is initially unperturbed about the prospect of killing his zombie stepdad. Did you ever worry about how your actual stepdad would react to that?
No, not at all. I think he probably would have known that I don’t want to kill him. Because that was fiction; it wasn’t me saying anything to him, it was just an interesting thing. I played out the politics of a step-relationship and it was a fairly fruitful thing to draw from as a writer because there are certain dynamics of a step-relationship which are dramatically interesting. You know, you’ve got a certain vying for a mother’s attention and you have the strangeness of having a new father and, there are faults and weaknesses on both sides. In the film, Shaun doesn’t like his stepdad at all, and they don’t get on, but in the final moments, when his stepdad is going to die, they reconcile and their true feelings sort of come out. I thought that was really interesting in terms of the sort of stag element of two guys sort of facing off. That they would behave that way towards each other even though deep down they actually have respect and love for each other. That wasn’t really my relationship with my stepdad, but I could see how that could exist. And there were certainly elements of that in real life, which I drew on, but he knows I don’t want to kill him. We get on just fine.
Shaun of the Dead seems to have a completely happy ending, but in your book you make it sound as if you see the ending in kind of a more sinister way. Could you talk about that issue of whether or not the movie has a happy ending?
I think the movie does have a happy ending. Edgar and I wrote that ending way before we’d written the main body of the film. We loved the idea … the details of it are obviously quite tragic, but in actual fact the status quo that has been established is actually beneficial to everybody involved. A certain character doesn’t have to worry about having a job anymore, or all he has to do is everything he always enjoyed doing, and Shaun gets the girl, so it was kind of idyllic; it was like a utopia after everything that had happened. But I also like the idea that maybe it’s left ambiguous whether or not Liz is in on it or whether or not Shaun is just still hanging onto his past in the way that had always held him back before. The thrust of Shaun of the Dead is that it’s about a guy who has to let go in order to become a human; he has to fight a horde of zombies to become an adult human male. And there is a slight indication at the end that maybe he’s still clinging to the past, but that’s just because that’s more interesting than a completely happy ending. Like in Hot Fuzz, the ending is quite idyllic: it’s Danny and Angel and they’re partners and friends, but there’s just a very faint fascist overtone to the whole thing, whereby you might just think it’s just one regime has replaced another regime. Yes, the NWA has been thwarted but at the same time what’s replaced it? You know, it’s two guys that would go and beat up some hippies.
Since Shaun of the Dead came out, there’s been an absolute avalanche of zombie stories. What do you make of this phenomenon, and what have been some of your favorite recent examples of zombie books and movies?
It’s interesting. I think we were part of a movement that occurred in the early part of this decade, when Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later came out—which wasn’t a zombie film and nor has Danny ever claimed it was, but it certainly drew on certain themes from zombie films. It owed a debt to Romero and John Wyndham. And then the Dawn of the Dead remake came out right about the same time. As far as we knew when we went into production with Shaun of the Dead, we were the only zombie film out there. We thought, “Wow, we’re so ahead of the curve here. We’re literally resurrecting a dead genre and we’re going to be the only ones,” and then suddenly we weren’t. But we were quite pleased because Dawn of the Dead opted to sort of like soup it all up a little bit, and it’s a great script. I really like [the screenwriter] James Gunn. The opening fifteen minutes particularly is excellent. But I think it really deserves to have its own identity. I think it was a shame that it was called Dawn of the Dead not least because it could have stood on its own as a new film; it didn’t have to be related to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It was a shame that George has never been given the recognition he deserves for those films; even though he’s very lauded among our circles, he’s never really made that much money from those films, when he actually created an entire subgenre by himself. We were very, very slavishly respectful to his vision. We took his whole mythology that he invented—the sort of cannibalistic zombie that doesn’t just eat brains but eats the whole body—all his rules we adopted and transplanted to North London and our sort of hapless hero.
The subsequent iterations of the story have been related to video games. The fast zombie has kind of seemed to have come to the fore, which for me isn’t as interesting or as effective, so I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to my zombies. But I really enjoyed Isaac Marion’s book Warm Bodies, which is a sort of romance, really, with a zombie, and has wrongly been called “Twilight with zombies,” which it so is not. But it’s a very interesting evolution of the zombie myth which kind of moves Romero’s vision forward in a way that I thought I might not like but I actually did. There’s been some great zombie fiction. The two Living Dead [anthologies]: very, very good. The games have been good—Left 4 Dead is great, and those zombies run. I like the way that you kind of have your cake and eat it in that game; if they don’t see you, they’re just sort of stumbling around puking up and leaning against walls which I kind of like, but then they all start screaming and running. I think my problem with that is simply that without the motivation, when they’re just stripped of will, they’re very interesting because they’re quite tragic but when they start running … it’s like they’re in a bad mood and suddenly there are motivations projected onto them and they just come across as less interesting.
You and Nick Frost will be appearing as the Thompson Twins in the upcoming Tintin movie. Are you a fan of the Tintin comics and if so what are some of your favorite moments from the books?
I was a fan growing up. There was an animated series of it that I used to watch when I was young. I can’t say I read the comics particularly, but I certainly knew who Tintin was. … But it wasn’t until I started working on it that I actually got in and read TheCrab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and what have you. But I felt I knew it already. I knew the Thompson Twins, and everyone knows who Captain Haddock is. There seems to be this odd sort of negativism about it in certain circles at the moment because people don’t know it. That’s partly because brand recognition has become such an important thing in Hollywood. It’s like marketing people are so desperate for people to have heard of the film before they’ve seen it, films are being made of fucking Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. Pirates of the Caribbean alone is—whatever you think of those films—based on a ride in a theme park because people have heard of the ride. It’s a very cynical way of getting people into the theatre. I think the thing with Tintin is that nobody knew Indiana Jones before Raiders, but nobody was worried that Raiders wouldn’t do well because Indiana Jones was—God forbid—a new character, someone we hadn’t heard of before, so I think that’s an odd sort of criticism about Tintin. It’s just bizarre and bone-headed, I think. It’s Steven Spielberg for Christ’s sake.
Can you say what kind of differences we can expect from the comics to the movie?
First and foremost, it’s interesting that Steven Spielberg went after Tintin way back in the ‘80s, after Raiders, when he was told by European fans that Indiana Jones bore a certain similarity to Tintin in terms of being a globe-trotting sort of adventurer. Steven was fascinated because he hadn’t heard of Tintin and so pursued it and got involved with the Hergé estate. The Hergé estate have been thoroughly involved with the movies so they’ve been there for approval and stuff. I think it was very important to Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson—who was also very much a Tintin fan—that the film be true to the original comics. But there are elements of the original comic which wouldn’t translate to modern day. It’s faintly racist at times, but that’s not going to be in the film.
The marvelous thing about this movie is that Steven and Peter were right to wait until performance capture gave them the opportunity to essentially bring Hergé’s vision to life on screen in 3D; the film is extremely beautiful because it is the architecture of Hergé but done in 3D—and I’m not talking about 3D, the gimmick used to tempt people into buying more expensive cinema tickets. To do it with actors would be to see people trying to look like cartoons, whereas with performance capture you’re able to make people look like cartoons and have them look thoroughly real and solid. And so, from what I’ve seen of it, and I haven’t seen much, but it’s a remarkable achievement. I think basically the comic books are comic books and have had to be turned into films; formats aren’t transferable. People often assume that they are. People think comic books can just be films and films can just be video games and video games can be films, and that’s not true. Each one of those media has criteria of its own and doesn’t necessarily translate to the other.
So [Hergé’s] stories have been embellished, obviously, to fill time that’s required for the cinematic acting, but I think everything that’s been done to do that has been done with great care and attention to the traditions of Hergé.
One thing that’s interesting about the motion capture is that you and Nick Frost can play twins in the movie. How does that work, like if you have actors who are different sizes than their characters? Does the computer just work all that out?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. When Nick and I put on our motion capture suits, on the monitor we would look like the Thompson Twins. It’s kind of slightly crude 64-bit rendering of what we would look like, but nevertheless we would be reduced to these two—or maybe enhanced! —to these two bumbling detectives, and it’s amazing that when I watch the film, the bits that I’ve seen of the film, I can see it’s me and Nick even though we both look exactly the same. I can tell who’s who, and physically and facially it’s apparent. That was kind of weird. It’s hard to explain.
Your role in the upcoming film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol involved filming in Dubai. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
I was training mainly when I was there. I think I only did about three or four days shooting in Dubai. But I got to see Tom [Cruise] hanging off the Burj Khalifa and that was amazing. You weren’t allowed to approach the window pane that had been taken out with the Burj Khalifa anymore than like twenty-five feet. Everyone within twenty-five feet of the hole in the skyscraper had to wear a harness. But Tom Cruise was just so up for it, he just sort of looked outside and then looked back inside at all of us and then just grinned like a maniac. I’m glad those pictures of him got out, on the Burj Khalifa, because it means that people will know that he actually did it, and there is genuine jeopardy there; it’s not a digital effect. That’s something that’s missing from a lot of contemporary film. You can watch amazing action scenes and you’re not going to be particularly thrilled by them because you know no one was ever in any danger. You can see some girl leaping through the air to attack a giant robot and just think “Eh, whatever,” no matter how amazing it is because she never did it. She was hanging off some strings in a green room. Whereas, you know, in the case of MI4, or Ghost Protocol, as we call it, Tom was a hair’s breadth away from death, and that’s got to be more interesting.
In the book, you describe that when you met with George Lucas he gave you some advice which was basically: Don’t be making the same movie 30 years from now. Is repeating yourself something that you worry about, and have you given any thought to where you’d like to be in 30 years?
It does in some respects. I constantly get asked about making a Shaun of the Dead sequel and it drives me insane. I understand why, but a slight moment of critical thought would point out the fact that it’s a stupid idea. Why just go back and do the same thing again? I mean, that story ends; it has an end. And I think to kind of go back to it would possibly retroactively hurt the original. I don’t see any point to making a sequel for the sake of it. I mean, I’d love to make another Paul, if only to recreate the experience of making the first one, but I wouldn’t do that without an amazing story. I think if a story deserves to be elongated, fine, but I’m not really interested in doing the same thing over and over again; that’s why I got out of television.
And, so, finally, are there just any other recent or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
I’m just about to start shooting a movie called A Fantastic Fear of Everything, which is based on a Bruce Robinson short story. It’s about a writer who is essentially paranoid and is forced to go to a laundromat. It’s a really, really amazing script, very, very funny, but also very different from anything I’ve done before. I’m really looking forward to doing that. That’s going to start shooting in the UK pretty much as soon as I get back home next week, so that’ll be the last thing I do before I start the next Star Trek, which we’re all told should be happening in the fall, which could be any time in the next six months.
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Simon Pegg is the writer and star of 2003’s hit British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and a vocal advocate for the slow, shambling zombie over its faster counterpart seen in many recent movies. In a 2008 opinion piece published in the UK national newspaper The Guardian, Pegg strongly argues against sprinting zombies:
“A biological agent, I’ll buy. Some sort of super-virus? Sure, why not. But death? Death is a disability, not a superpower. It’s hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.”
Ironically, Pegg himself may have played a pivotal role in the rise of the fast zombie in cinema by poking fun at how easy their slower cousins are to avoid and annihilate in Shaun of the Dead. Director Zack Snyder said that he chose to make his ghouls run in the Dawn of the Dead remake, released one year after Shaun, not because of the infected in 28 Days Late,r but because it’s not so easy to make fun of a faster ghoul.
Furthermore, the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ epic zombie novel World War Z set to be released in June of 2013 will reportedly break from the source material and feature fast zombies.
No doubt slow zombies will always have their place in literature, and even on television as AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead continues to prove with each record breaking episode. But will they ever be seen on the big screen again outside of the comedy realm?
With a public that is more zombie aware than ever before, are slow, shambling zombies scary enough to get the job done in the condense, ninety minute film format? Only time will tell.