Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – Get High With Paul
Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Greg Mottola and Jason Bateman at the New York press day for “Paul.”
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost
Get High With Paul
by Brad Balfour
In Paul, screenwriters/actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg crash the San Diego Comic-Con, forever endear themselves to the fanboys, mark off some of the talent they have on their “favorite stars to work with” list and get the girl… or alien. It was inevitable that the Brit minds behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz would come up with something that both exploits their cultural background and wallows in it at the same time.
Take the story they tell… Fanboys Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) hit the US for a road trip so they go to Comic-Con and visit various UFO hotspots – Area 51, Roswell and others – where they happen to run across Paul, the actual alien who crash-landed on Earth in 1947. Then the adventures begin as they help Paul escape his captors – who are chasing the intergalactic detainee to harvest him for his transcendent powers.
Add into the mix director Greg Mottola – who made both Superbad and Adventureland – and Paul becomes a film that is not only about aliens but pot-smoking as well. With this combo of talent on hand, it would be enough to make this sci-fi comedy worth a viewing – but then it also stars SNL vets Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Joe LaTruglio, plus Jason Bateman and Sigourney Weaver – curious star turns to say the least. And it has one of the funniest hero performances on screen by Seth Rogen, going from one green guise to the next.
How does you feel Paul compares to some of the other alien movies out now?
Simon Pegg: I think of all the alien films that have come out recently – and we do seem to be a part of a zeitgeist of alien cinema – Paul is probably the only one who would pass you a joint rather than shoot you in the head. The others seem to be malignant and Paul is the only one that’s benevolent.
If you actually encountered an alien here on Earth what would you ask them?
Nick Frost: I would ask them what they eat and how they prepare it.
Simon Pegg at the New York press day for “Paul.”
Simon Pegg: He’s a keen chef. I guess I would enquire about the secrets of interstellar travel. I mean they’d have to have overcome an extreme hurdle to get here. That’s the thing. I think there’s definitely life on other planets. There’s more chance of there being life than not, but the thing is that we may never meet because of the distances between our worlds are so enormous.
Nick Frost: Maybe he’s already here. Maybe he’s inside. If the ship landed, the doors opened and like a shrimp it came out that wouldn’t be any weirder than anything written by science fiction.
Prior to penning the script you actually did a road trip throughout the Southwest US and drew a lot of inspiration from that. Can you encapsulate that trip and how did it inspire you?
Simon Pegg: It was the single most important thing that we did prior to writing the film, making the trip.
Nick Frost: It’s the only thing we did, too.
Simon Pegg: That’s true. We’ve traveled around America a lot. We’ve been to a lot of places in America, but always we’ve gone airport to airport and we’ve never driven. It’s not until you drive that you realize just how enormous and breathtaking and beautiful and scary and lonely and varied and extraordinary this country is. The fact that it has so many people in it and you can still go an entire day and not see a soul. A lot of what we experienced on the road in terms of some of the people that we met, some of the adventures that we had, went straight into the script. The only thing that didn’t happen to us on that trip was meeting the alien. We made that up, I confess. But a bird hit the window. We ran into some sort of scary hunter types at The Little Ale-Inn [a pub].
Nick Frost: We were the only people in The Little Ale-Inn before they arrived and we were being quite boisterous like we owned the place and then these two guys walked in who looked to be very serious men with kind of hunting suits on. We got quite quiet and went, “Come on, lets just go.”
Simon Pegg: An atmosphere descended on the place, and so, yeah, that was important. When I look back on it now I think, “It’s amazing that we actually considered writing the film without doing that.”
Nick Frost: Originally, we were going to sit, or I think for the first few hours, we sat a little table in the RV and tried to write things and we suddenly became very aware that that was ridiculous. What we needed to do was sit and watch America drift by.
Simon Pegg: Look out the window.
There’s a lot of road trip in science fiction. Star Wars is a road trip. Star Trek is a road trip. So are Lost in Space, Fantastic Voyage and on and on. When you look at the science fiction genre, it is usually a road trip movie or has that component in there somewhere.
Simon Pegg: I guess that it’s a journey into the future itself. The very nature of science fiction is about pioneering into a time that we don’t yet know or a technology that we don’t yet know. In that respect it has the momentum of a journey. So, yeah, it is. It’s about uncharted territory and that’s what the road trip is all about: the voyage of discovery. So in that respect, yeah. It’s a metaphor for travel, I guess, science fiction. It’s a metaphor for forward movement, forward momentum. For us, it was about wanting to make Easy Rider and put an alien in it. That was it. The agreement was to make Greg’s [Mottola] first film Daytrippers, but instead of Liev Schreiber we’d have ET.
Nick Frost: Kevin Costner out of Fandango. That’s what we wanted to do, I think.
Nick Frost at the New York press day for “Paul.”
And shoot somewhere that has nice weather since you’re from England…
Nick Frost: Yeah.
Simon Pegg: But for some reason we went to New Mexico.
Nick Frost: New Mexico has one of the highest incidences of lightning death in the States.
Simon Pegg: Although, having said that, we fell in love with that place and we were completely enchanted by Santa Fe and New Mexico. It’s a very spiritual place and we ended up being slightly dreamcatcher-y about it.
There are so many references in the film. How did you go about figuring out what references you were going to put in there, what tributes? And were they based on your favorite films – what are those?
Simon Pegg: It’s more organic than that. We didn’t have a checklist of films that we wanted to name. Obviously, we’re appealing to our love of Close Encounters and ET, but we didn’t really set out to make any references. It’s just that that’s our frame of reference culturally. We grew up on cinema and television and that is what we defer to for our metaphors in life, those touchstones. So, the cantina band music in the roadhouse was Greg’s idea, and it was entirely like, we’re in a situation where strangers are going into a bar which is a bit unnerving and the first thing that springs to mind is that scene in Star Wars. So we had the Dixie Band play the cantina band music.
Nick Frost: And with Sigourney, as well. I mean, you’ve got Sigourney Weaver [star of Alien] onboard and I think we all three had that conversation, like, “Well, lets see if we can get it in somewhere where she says, ‘Get away from her, you bitch.’” She was amazing. In particular, we were up in the ski basin in Santa Fe, the three of us and Blythe [Danner] and Sigourney. We’re all standing around and Sigourney was giving Blythe a line reading about how to do it, and I think that for all three of us that’s one of those moments that you think, “What an amazing job we’ve got.”
Simon Pegg: Then Sigourney had started telling a story about how James Cameron had only given her one take at that moment. So that “Get away from her, you bitch” you’ve seen in Aliens was the one time that she got to do it because she was like, “I could’ve done it differently.” And we were like, “What?!” That’s like the most iconic delivery of a line in cinema history.
Nick Frost: I think as well as us putting references into the script there are also other references that he leaves his lovely imprint and his homages to [Steven] Spielberg and Duel.
Simon Pegg, Kristen Wiig and Nick Frost in “Paul.”
How did that scene where Paul eats a live bird come about?
Nick Frost: With Paul eating the live bird, again, working with the idea that Paul has been around and perhaps helping the film industry and television industry for the last 20 or 30 years, it was our chance to get to reference to V. In V when you see, is it Robert Englund…
Simon Pegg: It’s that woman, isn’t it?
Nick Frost: Yes. So you see her eating a dead bird it’s because Paul eats birds. It was a little reference to V.
Simon Pegg: Also, he brings it back to life. We wanted the majesty of his healing powers to be wondrous and then he just suddenly eats it. We loved the idea of him eating a dead bird is horrible. Then immediately you think, “Yeah, he’s right,” and then you go, “Hang on. We eat chicken all the time. Of course we eat dead birds.” That was the joke. We had Paul having this wondrous moment of using his resurrection powers and then suddenly he just eats it.
Nick Frost: What’s also funny is when you write that you just think, “Oh, that’s easy. We’ll just shoot it and that’ll be that,” but when you come to film that kind of thing and you work out that there are laws here that you cannot show an indigenous bird being eaten you have to find a bird that’s not indigenous to the States. What did we use? I think we used a Dutch starling. Something weird like that.
At the end of this film Paul seems to be the most human of all the characters. helping everyone to be better humans…
Simon Pegg: The joke of the film is that the least alien person in the movie is the alien. He’s the most at ease with himself. He’s the most relaxed, the most well adjusted, the smartest guy – and he’s the alien. Graeme and Clive are the aliens. They’re the ones that have come over from a different land into this different world. Ruth is an alien in that she’s lived this very cloistered life and suddenly the universe has opened up to her. Everybody is in some way alien and Paul is the catalyst that helps them come to terms with that. We just thought that was a really interesting idea, that our alien hero was actually more human than they were. He’s like a cross between ET and Bill Hicks.
Nick Frost: I like that.
In the film and the script there’s a strong emphasis on Darwinism over creationism and how closed-minded Kristen Wiig’s character Ruth is at first. Why was that important to emphasize?
Simon Pegg: It’s mainly because we were interested comedically in the idea of someone having their world view altered completely. In order to do that we had to have Ruth’s particular faith be at the very extreme end of Christianity, the literal interpretation of the bible because by Paul’s very appearance that is then called into question and that opens up the whole comedy of her trying to swear. We’re not trying to tell anyone how to think. I grew up in a cathedral school. I had religious people around me as a kid. They all had great senses of humor. We’d like to assume that everyone has a sense of humor and comedy is an arena where you can rehearse ideas that might not be comfortable to you in the real world. It’s like a roller coaster. You can experience fear and know you’re not going to do die. This is a really interesting idea. If an alien came down to earth all of us would have to question what we believe about the universe because Paul has his creation stories as well. I’m sure that his people have their creation stories.
Nick Frost: That’s not something that we did lightly as we were writing. We had to think about this and take it seriously and not be flippant about it. Then as writers, if you start to censor yourself about certain things then where does that stop? I think it’s more insulting to Christians to imagine that they wouldn’t have a sense of humor.
Simon Pegg: Everything has to be on the table comedically, as well. As long as you’re in a position to talk about it, like, if you’ve experienced it, it should be joked about. If there is a God and he did create us he sure as hell gave us a sense of humor. So it’s an insult to him not to use it.
Kristen Wiig and Simon Pegg in “Paul.”
What did you have in mind putting the sexual tension into the movie?
Nick Frost: Did you say sexual tension? I guess you felt that sexual tension.
Simon Pegg: It’s funny that Graeme and Clive were almost like a married couple. They’re very codependent and I think that Ruth and Paul present themselves as threats because Clive is very jealous of Graeme’s relationship with Paul at first. They finally break the ice together and share a cigarette because they go through that very physical moment when Paul gives Clive his knowledge.
Nick Frost: It’s something that we’ve done in the past as well, as mates. Like, if he talks about a girl which means that I get moody about it, just joking and then he does the same.
Simon Pegg: I have friends that Nick, if I talk about them, then Nick gets angry and it’s similar. There’s some guy that Nick hangs out with called Danny and I’m sick of hearing about him.
Nick Frost: He’s just a mate…
Simon Pegg: He’s not. He’s more than a friend. I just don’t like him.
Nick Frost: You’d like him. He’s cool. He does things that you won’t do.
You guys are aliens yourselves in a way, whether in this movie or in real life as Brits and how you’ve coordinated the clash of the British and the American sense of humor?
Nick Frost: There is a percentage of Graeme and Clive in all of us. Even though we’re not the nerdiest, geekiest people in the world – we call them normal sometimes – if regular people could hear us, it’d really be like that thing of, “What are they saying? What language are they speaking?”
Simon Pegg: We do have big, nerdy elements to our characters and we do love our science fiction but we’re not quite as low functioning as Graeme and Clive are at first because they literally live in their own world. But in some respects I think we’ve taken our experiences in coming over here to America and working and doing our press tours and meeting people over here, we’ve taken those experiences and put them into Paul. Sometimes it’s easier to forget that we’re foreigners. We speak the same language and so we just have this natural feeling like we’re related or that Britain is an extension of America in some way. It’s not. We’re different countries and we are foreigners here. Sometimes we feel extremely integrated and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we feel, God, they really think we’re foreign. I remember when we were in Austin once and were having breakfast. Nick asked the waiter for some “buh’er” and the waiter said, “Pardon me?” Nick said, “Can I get some buh’er for my toast here?” “What?” Then Nick had to go, “Butter.”
Nick Frost: He’s talking about the differences in languages, but tuna, trying to order a piece of tuna or a tuna fish sandwich is like, “What?” and you actually have to say, “Tuuunna.” There are points where you do go, “Oh, we’re different. We’re in a foreign country.”