A chat with Greg Mottola, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg, Paul, Spaced, Shaun of the Dead

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It’s no secret that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are best friends, and it shows in their previous work on the British TV series “Spaced,” and in films like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” But while the duo has always had fun working together, “Paul” marks the first time that they wrote a movie without the help of friend/director Edgar Wright. While down in sunny Austin for the film’s U.S. premiere at South by Southwest, we joined a few other bloggers under tent located just outside the RV from the movie to chat with Simon, Nick and director Greg Mottola about the evolution of the project, what it’s like working with a CG character, and how they landed the ultimate cameo.

Journalist: So how much was this just purely conceived by you guys going to Comic-Con?

Simon Pegg: "The conception of the idea was entirely an accident, being brought on by being slammed by the rain when we were making “Shaun of the Dead."

Simon Pegg: The conception of the idea was entirely an accident, being brought on by being slammed by the rain when we were making “Shaun of the Dead,” and Nia, our producer, said “Well, let’s make a film where it just doesn’t rain.” We did the stuff in the garden with the zombies and it took us weeks to shoot that scene because we kept having to come back because the weather was wrong. So Nick and I kind of went…we were sort of like, all right, here’s the pitch: it’s set in a desert somewhere in America, we’re two British tourists and we meet an alien. And that was it. And then I drew a little picture of Paul giving the middle finger and saying “In America, everyone is an alien. We called him Paul because we thought it would be funny if he was like a really regular guy. And then I put it in the armoire and it got locked in the office. It stayed there for seven years. Every now and again, when we got a break between projects, we would write a little bit of “Paul.” So it was all sort of like a spitball of ideas. And then Edgar went off to do “Scott Pilgrim” and I said “Wait, let’s do ‘Paul’.” And Nick and Paul are like “What, that joke we had in 2003?” And then we went off on this road trip and realized there was a film there and it was actually a really good idea we had. And Greg came on board, sort of midway through 2007 and suddenly here we are.

Greg Mottola: And then we found out that in the desert, it rains all of the time.

SP: More than it does in Crouch End. (Laughs) It doesn’t rain for as long though, but it’s just a big murderous burst every 20 minutes. In London we had steady lightening meter. Which as a fan of spring weather it was tremendously exciting to see that red meter beat, and then there was red button and we had to clear the set. We had hail stones in the U.K., that was a new one.

Journalist: Do you guys sort of come up with a litany of references that you guys wanted to interject or incorporate into the story?

Nick Frost: I don’t think we ever had a list. We never have a list of bits and references that we want to put in, it’s just that that is our frame of reference, you know, when we’re hanging out together. There’s a bar or a packed cantina, that’s just us. That’s from where we have come from as people, as kids. I mean there a couple of things… obviously when we knew Sigourney was on board it was hard not to put the words “you get away from her you bitch” somewhere.

SP: There are more references in this film that I know because…

NF: I think we’re fond of our own references.

PaulSP: They’re really five star references. You have to go back and think, “Where did we do that?” Our metaphorical palette is probably cultural. So when you’re making a film about popular culture, or that exists within popular culture, it’s hard not to acknowledge your genetitism. “Paul” is in the spirit of a lot of other films, and as such can’t help but have references. I think it would be kind of stupid not to. We’re saying yeah, we’re that kind of film, it’s not like we’re doing something new. “Paul” is a post-modern movie in that it is the child of a lot of other films. And we kind of are basically accepting that by referencing those other films. It’s also a film that we wanted to make because we thought it would be amazing to have a very sophisticated CG creation in a very mundane…the interior of America is not mundane, but I’m talking about gas stations. You know, we see Gollum in Middle Earth and it’s amazing, but that’s where he belongs. You see the “Star Wars” characters in that galaxy. You know, they are impressive sometimes but that’s where they belong. Paul doesn’t belong in an RV. You know, you see this guy living out of an RV at a gas station. This is totally the hardest thing to do with CG as well, apparently… you have one hour of daylight.

GM: Yeah, the challenge of making him photo real. I had a meeting with David Heyman, who produces the “Harry Potter” films; he was surprisingly one of the producers on like five sights per film. And he said, “Yeah, just try and keep them out of daylight. Just keep them in the dark. It’s just so hard to sell.”

SP: Just have the script saying: Exterior, day, desert. (Laughs)

Bullz-Eye: How different was it shooting with the knowledge that you’re going to have to put a CG character in the film?

GM: Well I mean ignorance is a very handy tool. When you’re a filmmaker, not knowing what the hell I was getting into was…if I had known, I would have been a lot more scared then I actually was.

SP: You would have run away.

GM: Yeah, I would have run away. The Double Negative people, who I think they do an amazing job, were there from the beginning. But we kind of rushed through…we only had like two months prep. We rushed through prep. And there was a little bit of CG school for me in the prep. We did all of this motion capture and things with Seth. We just ran through the whole movie as if we did a stage play. I mean we set up folding chairs, it was very improv.

SP: It was like a Lars von Trier movie. (Laughs)

Greg Mottola: "To me, one of the things that was most exciting is these guys did something really bold. They wrote a character that doesn’t exist and they gave him a lot of funny lines."

GM: To me, one of the things that was most exciting is these guys did something really bold. They wrote a character that doesn’t exist and they gave him a lot of funny lines. And there are scenes were you kind of pushed it at different places in the movie. And if that didn’t work, we’d have nothing. So you know, it was very scary. But one thing that helped us enormously was when I had the bright idea begging Joe Lo Truglio to be the voice of Paul while we were shooting because one of the things you had to accept with casting Seth (Rogen) was he was going off to make “Green Hornet.” He couldn’t be on set. So it wasn’t like Andy Serkis was there…

SP: We should have asked Andy Serkis…

GM: And so we asked Joe, because he was in the film and because Joe’s a great improviser and a really good actor to do Paul. Joe took it really seriously and looked at tapes at what Seth was doing. But then brought his own stuff to it, which Seth later stole from Joe. And I think that made a huge difference.

SP: Yeah, it meant we could keep things conversational. One of our remixes initially, when we spoke to Double Negative, which they really were excited about, because they were animating a background. You know, we were giving them the main character
to create. We said we wanted it to be like he’s there and it’s quite conversational, he’s talking, and have almost like an improvised feel sometime. You know, the conversation should feel naturalistic, and you can’t do that if you have a set…our minds are responsive once you get to set, it had to stay fluid and flexible so Joe was encouraged to make stuff up and we threw stuff at Joe that he responded to. And then later on, Seth looked at all of that stuff and was able to replicate it so that it maintained that feeling of life. Which is why I think Paul feels so present in the movie; it’s like you do forget that he’s CGI. He’s just there. We all talked about this for ages, but giving him a weight so that he weighs something. You know, certainly a lot of CG characters I know can’t really move around the set, you know, but I guess it’s kind of easier said than done to get a character to weigh something.

GM: I mean, that’s the difference between doing a full CG movie… you know, “Toy Story 3” is brilliant, but the style of it can be kind of like Looney Tunes. It’s an exaggerated reality. They don’t have to obey the laws of physics. And here we had to make it kind of, you know, I remember having conversations with producers that shall remain unnamed that said, “Well, you know, he’s animated, he can do anything. Shouldn’t he just go like this and all his muscles pop up like “The Mask” or something. Because that’s what animated characters should do and we wanted him to…a big part of it was just getting the acting right. Making him feel like he’s a good listener.

SP: Not doing anything as well; we talked about that a lot to.

GM: Yeah, the first animation we basically intended to make him do it like he was Italian.

SP: Yeah, when you’ve got a big budget, the first kind of go-to place for these guys is to give you you’re monies worth, and that’s with facial expressions and people doing something constantly. But because we wanted Paul to be real…

PaulNF: Really, on the whole, I think it was kind of counting shoes at first to have him do nothing and just to perform, as opposed to being a larger than life clown.

Journalist: Well that allows the film to feel more like a buddy flick, in that two dudes have an alien. So how did you work out the dynamic that it just wasn’t going to be two best friends and an alien, but three friends who are on an adventure together?

NF: We kind of wanted him to change them, you know? As people, you always kind of quote “Ferris Bueller.”

SP: Yeah, it was always kind of the idea that Graeme and Clive are very co-dependent, nuclear and exist as a duo. You know, it’s like a pair and nothing can come between them, ever. The reason we start at Comic-Con is that we wanted to see them in their most comfortable environment before we take them back to their mess. And that’s why everyone mistakes them for a married couple, because they’re so intrinsically linked together. Paul comes along and he teaches them to be individuals. So it becomes four people because they pick up Ruth (Kristen Wiig) as well. We just liked the idea of having a central figure who was kind of mercurial and changed everyone he came in contact with but couldn’t really change himself. The central premise of the movie is that Paul is the most human character in it and the real aliens in the film are Graeme and Clive, foreigners in America, as well as foreigners of their own species; they’re more alien than Paul is. Paul has been on earth for 66 years. On that very first day, when we were making “Shaun of the Dead” and we spit-balled this idea, was that Paul was like just a guy. He was like a trash-talking, initially quite old, like an old Jewish retiree who moved to Florida or something like that. So that changed as the clarity…so that was always a real important idea, that Paul be…and we’ve since kind of had this theory that maybe…

NF: Jackie Mason.

SP: Yeah, Jackie Mason and Rip Torn were our original kind of…but looking at it now, as far as the film industry, I would say that the film is a reflection of mine and Nick’s journey to America. And when we met Steven Spielberg for the first time, you know he steps out of the shadows and was just a kind of normal guy.

NF: That was our reaction to meeting Spielberg.

SP: It’s like we spent a long time idolizing this world. We finally got to it and everybody was normal. And that’s kind of the story of “Paul.” Graeme and Clive meet the very summit of their ambitions, the key figure in all their most nerdy fantasies and he’s just this (doing a Spielberg impression) “What the fuck?” kind of guy.

NF: Our kind of guy, you know. That was our reaction when we agreed to do a cameo.

SP: It was his idea. We were onset with “Tintin” and I had my phone and a picture of this alien bust we had taken on our road trip with us that Greg Nicotero, who’s a special effects guy in L.A, had given it to us. And we took photos of it in various parts of America so it looked like…

Journalist: Like the gnome?

Simon : "The reason we start at Comic-Con is that we wanted to see them in their most comfortable environment before we take them back to their mess. And that’s why everyone mistakes them for a married couple, because they’re so intrinsically linked together."

SP: Yeah. And we did it at Devil’s Tower. So I took a picture of the “Paul” bus, which is an angrier looking, not quite as lovely as Paul, but in front of Devil’s Tower. And we were making “Tintin” and I just showed it to Steven. And of course the last time he had seen an alien near Devil’s Tower was when he made “Close Encounters.” He was like,
“What’s that?” And so we explain the story to him and we said we had this idea that maybe you had a hotline to them over the years and in touch with certain kinds of concepts. And he’s like “I like it, I like it.” And he starts saying, “Maybe I could be like in the movie and phone Paul at one point.” Nick and I were like looking at each other going, “What are you saying?

NF: Did you just ask me to get you a Diet Coke?” (Laughs)

Journalist: So were Melinda Dillon and Dee Wallace not available to play the Blyth Danner character?

SP: It’s no surprise that Blythe and Melinda Dillon are quite physically similar actually. Before we happened upon the idea of the voice being a woman and Sigourney was the first person we thought of and we decided to change that sort of gender dynamic in the film. We always kind of figured Richard Dreyfuss would play the voice, or somebody who had a thematic link to the genre. So we did always talk about possibly working with “Close Encounters” alumni.  Obviously, the sandwich shop is named after Drew Barrymore’s character in “E.T.” But Steven seems to be the ultimate…

GM: The most valuable.

Journalist: You’ve obviously worked with Bill before. And what’s interesting about his character is that he is more straight forward and he’s obviously a very gifted comedian. Was it just purely that he was living out sort of the way you defined the character? That he was more serious?

SP: Bill Hader?

Journalist: Yeah.

Male: Well Bill had been on board pre-day one.

GM: Yeah, just as a favor to us, Bill came and was the voice of Paul. And he knew full well that we would be casting someone else.

SP: But at that time it was going to be somebody older.

GM: Yeah. But he just did it to help us out. We always knew he would be in the movie somewhere. And the thing is that character needed to not…I mean, obviously it’s ridiculous, but we needed him to be one of the bad guys. Ultimately, he and Sigourney are the real bad guys.

SP: Bill plays overwrought really, really well. And also, when we realized that we wanted Joe to play O’Reilly, we liked the idea of having Bill and Joe, who are physically very different and really funny. (SPOILER ALERT) But we also liked the idea of the two loveable sidekicks going bad – particularly Haggard goes from being enthusiastic, wet… What’s the word?

Journalist: Wet behind the ears? You were going to say wetback, I think. (Laughs)

SP: He was wet behind the ears. There we go, I got it. But who’s essentially become concerned. And we like to challenge everybody and seeing people do things they have not done before, and that felt like the right thing for Bill. We’re huge fans of his. He was always going to be in the film. He’s been in “Saturday Night Live” and he’s also an amazing actor. (Aside) Is a wetback somebody who swims across the Rio Grande? (Laughs) Yeah, he’s not that.

Reporter: Can you tell me about the texture and atmosphere in your films? There’s a certain…I don’t know how you achieve that. I don’t know where I’m going with that question, sorry.

GM: Well, it’s strange, because every time I start to make a film, I think, well maybe this one will be a little slicker looking; it will be a little more polished. And I just have something against polish. I always want them to be a little gritty. So, I always find myself, for one reason or another, telling the DP, “Don’t make it look so pretty; don’t make it look so slick.” And I think in this movie, there was a strategy involved in starting in a way that is a bit more mundane and more indie feeling. You know, when Simon and I first met, we talked about “Little Miss Sunshine” and an alien instead of Alan Arkin. And so the scenes in the RV are actually shot fairly naturalistically, look-wise, handhelds.  Sort of in my mind the joke being that the most expensive thing about the film was this $14 million special effect is in the indie version of the film. And it’s when the other characters get introduced, like Jason Bateman’s character and the agents, that stuff is a little more like a Hollywood movie. And the Hollywood movie and the indie movie kind of merge, crash into each other in the third act. But that was the general schematic. The truth is we also pictured this movie…for a movie with like 600 special effects shot, we had to shoot it really quickly and there’s only so much we can do.


SP: And also for us, this is mine and Nick’s idea, so we were never going to make this film with Edgar. And also, very early on we realized that it was not suitable for Edgar’s style of direction. When Edgar directs, he kind of puts himself in the film as a star. That’s a choice he makes, which says, “Here I am. I’m Edgar.” And that works really brilliantly, particularly when you’ve got something like “Scott Pilgrim,” which the language of that film is set to take that kind of style. With “Paul,” it was almost like we wanted to make “Daytrippers” with an alien in it. And then we saw “Superbad.” I mean I find it really serendipitous working with Greg. “Superbad” was what nailed it for us because we saw a comedy that could well have just been a brightly light, crass, post-“Porky’s” teen comedy. But it had a real heart and sensitivity. And a lot of that came through by the way it was shot. And also, with someone with a comic sensibility behind the camera, not just a camera pointer…there are great shots in “Superbad” that are just really neatly done, and just quietly very effective without being like “Hi!” So it was almost like Greg was our first and only choice to direct “Paul.” It was like this is the guy; this is what we need. We needed it to be an indie film…

GM: I still don’t get it. (Laughs)

SP: We had “Superbad” flown to England so Nick and I could watch it in his room. Paul in a film that Edgar directed would be less fantastic. Because his context would be I’m almost as fantastic as him. We needed a very measured, human style to offset Paul, you know? And that’s what we did.

Journalist: You had Bill and Joe doing the voices of Paul. What was the decision to bring Seth in after you decided that he wasn’t going to be like an older character?

SP: Seth’s got an old voice.

GM: Yeah, I knew Seth since “Undeclared,” and he was always this kind of old man trapped in a young person’s body, and still is. He’s still young, half my age. And I think for me, the reason why…when I would picture in my head what if Paul was really old, it just felt like well, it’s just not going to be the right energy.  I mean Seth I felt can do all of that sort of jaded, world weary quality but with a lot of vitality and a lot of attitude. And also, we needed somebody who could be patient and strap on the motion capture suit and put on this camera that was attached to his head that looks like a harmonica for a folk singer. And would be really game, be willing to try stuff. And I mean yes, the studio wanted us to get somebody who was a name that would help sell the movie. Not that any of us were against that, so long as it was somebody who was going to be great. And at one moment, we thought about well let’s get someone who hasn’t done other voices in animated films, because Seth’s done that. And then we realized that everyone, including Stephen Hawking, has done an animated piece. There’s nobody alive that we’ve heard of that hasn’t done it. I mean, I love Seth to death. One thing I love about Seth, when I read the script, Paul as a character is somebody who does not give a shit what anyone thinks of him. Which I think is a big part of his appeal, his charm, is that, yes, he’s childish at times; yes, he’s foolish; sometimes he’s a coward, sometimes he’s braver. He’s a really good friend and a real mench at times in the film. You know, he is sort of a fuck you to authority guy, he does not care what anybody thinks about him. And that is Seth. I mean Seth, as a human being, has not changed since I knew him as a 17-year-old. Now that he’s famous and rich…he hasn’t changed at all. He doesn’t do anything different than he did then. And you know, he’s a guy who would walk away from show biz if he wasn’t having fun. And that’s Paul. I think that’s kind of the liberating quality of Paul.

SP: It’s a testament to Seth’s performance in this film that I constantly forget he’s in it. People say who’s in the film and I go Jason Bateman, Justin Timberlake, Kristen Wiig and I forget. Because when I see the film I don’t see Seth. I see Paul. After the premiere in London, I was going home and had had a great night and I was thinking, “Someone wasn’t there tonight that I really missed. Who was it?” And I realized it was Paul. By digging a lot of Neil Young and kind of thinking about what Paul would be like…I personally think it’s one of Seth’s finest performances ever.

GM: I mean we spent a lot of time thinking about what those acting peaks were and then we videotaped every bit of it. And then I sat for a year and half with the animators going, “Look at what Seth’s doing here, it’s really good. We’ve got to use that.”

SP: Sometimes when I watch the movie, I see Seth in him so much.

GM: Every actor has like a little tick usually, or a tell. His was doing this. (Rubbing his chin with his index finger and thumb) He would do it all of the time and Joe would say,
“Stop it.” At one point, I just had Paul go like that. It’s a scene with you, you’re having a heart to heart and Seth was like, “Oh, fuck you.” It was like he was trying not to do it but he is.

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