They put their own spin on the zombie movie with "Shaun of the Dead" and the action genre with "Hot Fuzz," and now Simon Pegg and Nick Frost work their magic on another cinematic classic: the road movie (or the alien movie, depending on how you look at it).
"Paul" finds the British actors taking a trip across the deserts of the American southwest and having an extremely close encounter along the way. While passing Area 51, they pick up Paul, a three-foot, wide-eyed alien with a penchant for drinking, smoking, farting and crude insults. And he's voiced by Seth Rogen. How can you not love him?
Pegg and Frost drove their RV to Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest premiere of "Paul," where we had a chance to chat up the comedic duo.
"Paul" makes it fairly clear: You guys are movie buffs.
Simon Pegg: I thought we hid it [laughs].
Was the project born as an ode to classic genre movies or did you just really want to go on a road trip with an alien?
Pegg: It became that, but the initial idea for the film was actually kind of flippant in a way. We really wanted to shoot a film where we didn't have to wait for the sun to come out. We were doing "Shaun of the Dead" and we were stuck in the garden doing the thing with the records with the zombies and it took so long to shoot because the light kept changing.
Nick Frost: We stood under a horrible tent with those sheets of rain. Seriously, our producer said to us, 'wouldn't it be great to do a film somewhere where it didn't rain?'
Pegg: And it was kind of a joke pitch: two British tourists (they have to be tourists if we're going to be abroad), they're in America, in a desert, they meet an alien and they help him get back. I drew a little poster and it was this joke, a chance to get a little holiday in the sun.
Frost: It was like a flow chart. "No Rain." "Desert." "Nevada." "Area 51." "Alien." "Dollar Signs."
What was your approach to working with director Greg Motolla ("Superbad") on bringing the alien Paul to life?
Pegg: We always said from the very beginning that Paul needed to be the best CG thing you've ever seen, just so he can be very naturalistic in a very mundane setting. We don't want to make a comment about puppets, we don't want to make reference to previous alien films...
He's just one of the guys.
Pegg: And you can do it with puppets. Yoda did that in 1980. But we just thought...we've seen characters like Gollum and other CG characters in worlds where they belong like Middle Earth and the "Star Wars" world, but we've never seen one sitting in an RV.
Frost: In broad daylight as well.
Did you end up spending a lot of time talking to a blank space, a tennis ball perhaps, or was there someone physically playing Paul on set?
Frost: We were so lucky to have Joe Lo Truglio, who plays Agent O'Reilly in the movie, on set to play Paul as well. He was there every single day, so we could have Joe all the time. He had special knee pads and everyday he was Paul. It could not have been the film it was without Joe as Paul.
The movie tackles some serious issues in the film, dabbling in some religious arguments amongst other things. How did those things fit into the equation and did it require a particular balance?
Frost: I think that's art. I think it's me and Simon and even Edgar [Wright]. Something can be serious, heartfelt and also be funny. I don't think you have to do one without the other and I don't think one really works without the other. For some of those gags to work you need to give a s**t about the characters.
Pegg: And to be honest, the religious thing was a byproduct of us having a joke where a girl learns to swear for the first time. We weren't so intellectually grand as to take on the grand evolution versus faith battle. We just thought it would be funny if Ruth (Kristen Wiig) literally had to make up swear words, how much fun would ensue with that.
There are many colorful, poetic phrases in this film and Kristen Wiig certainly delivers most of them.
Frost: A lot of it was her.
Pegg: There was one...she called us a pair of "baby boners." But that never made it in to the film.
Frost: I like to imagine someone looking at a photograph of me, Simon, Greg and Kristen standing around the monitor and we're all kind of looking thoughtful. You might think we're discussing aperture size or how we're going to shoot something, but in fact we're discussing the relative merits of what's funnier, "baby boners" or "bag of tits."
"Paul" pays immense respect to the world of geeky interests, ranging from comics to belief in aliens and UFOs. But it also manages to ask if we should, at some point in our lives, grow up from that world. Do you guys feel that pressure personally, from being younger to now?
Pegg: I think we used to be big believers growing up. I used to be a big fan of the paranormal, I got all the magazines growing up.
Frost: Me too.
Pegg: I was obsessed with UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, all that stuff. You get older and you get more pragmatic and realistic and you realize that its highly unlikely that were visited by these creatures. I have no doubt there is life on other planets...I mean, there is, there has to be. It's silly to think there isn't. But the culture of ufology is a combination of witnessing experimental aircrafts and being raped by relatives, probably.
Frost: Wow. You went there.
The beginning of the film is set at the legendary San Diego Comic-Con. What was the hardest part of recreating that world?
Frost: We shot the exteriors in San Diego a couple of months after we finished. And then everything inside we shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the convention center.
Pegg: We scheduled those scenes right after the actual Comic-Con so that everyone could come make the 90-minute journey and bring their stands...we had a lot of exhibitors there. Lucasfilm, Sideshow Replicas...
So these weren't actors, these were actual Con-goers.
Frost: And we got to use their livery as well. When you walk down the street you see those banners as well.
Pegg: It would have been a shame if we had to make up a comic convention that was obviously Comic-Con, but we couldn't say.
Frost: Greg actually looked in to shooting at Comic-Con. But it would have been terrifying and it would have been disrespectful to the Con-goers. I mean, it would piss me off if I saw a film crew shooting somewhere I wanted to go and I couldn't go there. But the real reason we couldn't shoot there, and these were the Fire Marshal of San Diego's words, was, 'no f**king way' [laughs]. And that was that.