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The alien road trip comedy Paul doesn't premiere until March 18, but this weekend at SXSW the RV will be rolling into Austin, bringing the North American premiere of the movie to the town that, for this weekend at least, is full of more movie-loving geeks than you could possibly ask for. Last summer I got the chance to talk to the film's stars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, plus director Greg Mottola, at the other geek mecca of the United States: San Diego Comic Con. The movie actually kicks off at Comic Con, as Frost and Pegg's ultimate geek characters travel all the way from England to fulfill their dream of attending Comic Con. From there they hop in an RV to drive across the American Southwest and visit all the famous alien visitation sites like Area 51-- where they happen to run into a real alien, a little gray guy voiced by Seth Rogen.
Back in July we hadn't even seen footage of what the alien, Paul, looked like, so the questions were very general and non-spoilery-- perfect, since the movie still hasn't even been released. There's also an interesting digression into the differences between British and American comedy near the end, which has nothing to do with Paul but is totally fascinating to hear from Frost and Pegg, who have dominated so much of British comedy in the last decade thanks to Spaced, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Check out the interview below, and come back this weekend and next week for more interviews, a review of the film, and tons of reporting from SXSW on top of it all.
Hot Fuzz is an action movie that comments on action movies. Are you doing the same thing with the E.T. type movies or the nerd road movie?
Simon Pegg: We never ever set out to be pastiches. Shaun of the Dead is not a parody, Shaun of the Dead is a zombie film. If it's a parody of anything it's a parody of romantic comedies. Hot Fuzz was a very affectionate pastiche, in that we love these movies and we want to explore the more absurd side of them. Anything we do is never done with any kind of superiority. We love those movies and we wanted to explore the more absurd side of them. Anything we do is never done with any kind of superiority. We're fans. Paul is a love letter to Spielberg…and Agent Scully.
Were you excited to bring in actual comic book authors and publishers to recreate Comic Con at the beginning?
Pegg: The thing about trying to shoot Comic Con is that if it doesn't look like Comic Con, we're going to get killed, so we had to make it look as much like Comic Con as we could.
Greg Mottola: We wanted the film to work for true believers and general audience too, but we really wanted the true believers to feel--
Pegg: Only Marvel said no. There's references to casual drug use and atheism, so there was reluctance form the some of the biggest houses.
Nick Frost: Hulk and God can't live side by side.
Pegg: But we got a lot of support from the kind of comics we read. It was fun to recreate Comic Con in New Mexico. It was very weird to be on that set, because they really nailed it. The production design really got it right. It was weird to be just me, Nick and 20 slave Leias.
Mottola: I was worried we wouldn't get extras that were dressed up in costumes, and we just put out the word in New Mexico. I was shocked how many slave Leias live in New Mexico.
is it tough balancing what sci-fi fans want and what mainstream audiences want?
Mottola: I think we looked at the references in the movie to make sure they were doled out the right amount. Some stuff that only insiders would get but wouldn't make other people feel like they were left out on the joke. But Spielberg films, a lot of those references are just part of fantasy movie 101. There are definitely things in there that are true believer stuff.
We've heard that there's a lot of early Spielberg influence in the movie.
Mottola: Yeah, part of it because it's a road movie, and it goes through the Southwest, and I had a lot of affection for Sugarland Express and Duel, back when Spielberg was starting. I watched them a few times and tried to think about the feeling of the film. We were taking this very expensive special effect, which was the alien, and he's just a character in a story. It's just a bunch of guys in an RV driving somewhere. Basically we're taking this incredibly expensive high-technology and making it--
Mottola: And really just wasting it.
Frost: We'd seen CGI characters in thing and the world they inhabit was always very glossy and very colorful. What we hadn't really seen is a dusty, desert scenario with a bleached-out alien in it. Ten minutes into the film you forget you're watching a CGI alien.
Pegg: We thought of it like Greg's movie Daytrippers but with an alien in it.
Frost: Instead of Liev Schreiber.
Mottola: Yeah, we're trying to get a method acting performance out of a CG character, which has been really hard. But it's a cool challenge. If it really works it will hopefully feel different from what other people have done with the technology.
Why did you cast Seth Rogen as the alien?
Mottola: It felt it was someone who needed a different energy from the characters they would be playing. They were very sweet, naive and slightly repressed, not fully realized people yet, and Seth is brash and can play obnoxious. But Paul is also kind of the cool older guy who shows you the ropes. It seemed like a really good, interesting energy that would contrast with what they were going to end up doing. Seth's Canadian, but Paul's very Americanized little alien. It becomes a culture clash, which is part of the charm I hope.
Can you talk about the rest of the cast you managed to get, like Sigourney Weaver and Jane Lynch?
Mottola: It's kind of an embarrassment of riches. I couldn't believe the people we were getting, but everyone had the right spirit for what it was. Obviously it's fun to work with the same people-- Bill, Kristen, joe, they bring so much to it. It's interesting to see the British comedy vs. American comedy thing.
Can you talk more about that difference between American and British comedy?
Pegg: I don't know that there is a huge difference. The difference lies in the reference points, the specificity. We find the same things funny. On a grand scale we laugh at irony, laugh at silliness, laugh at slapstick. It's just that our reference points are different. I can watch The Simpsons and laugh at a joke that I don't really understand, because I get the structure of the joke. I think much is made of this supposed difference, but I don't think it's all that big. British people use irony socially a little more. We're inclined to be a little bit drier, in terms of our interactions. We're slightly more ashamed of our own emotions. North Americans generally seem to be OK with emoting, we don't. We're a bit embarrassed by it. Ultimately what we find funny and what we laugh at is pretty much the same. There is a big difference. There's this big thing where British comedy snobs say, Americans don't do irony. Americans do irony better than anybody.
Mottola: It's a good time for televised comedy in the last 10 years or so. I think one thing I always envied about the way they do it in the UK is they do six episodes in the season, and there's real care. Having worked on Arrested Development, which had a normal order of 22 episodes of season, I'm amazed at what they were able to do in three seasons. I think that does make it harder for shows like that to exist. In British TV comedy, where obviously Spaced came from, there's a care you can give it that's harder to do.
I think Americans think British comedy is so much more sophisticated. We're sort of intimidated by it.
Pegg: I don't know why that is. I think because our seasons are shorter, these more intense bursts of comedy come from where we are. Because of our accents people assume we're born in the Elizabethan period. We have buildings that are older than 200 years. It's somehow exotic to American audiences. I think American is a very young country in a way, it has a kind of exuberance and excitement that is similar to, if England is like an old person, then america's like a teenager. It has that same excitement and brashness and awe, whereas we're really cynical and old and smell like piss. It's lovely to come here, for people to say that, it's kind of funny, to comment on our ethnicity in that way. It's hilarious, because we just feel like old guys.
Frost: We make a point of bringing our tea with us.