Edgar Wright’s films aren’t spoofs. Yet you wouldn’t glean that from watching him answer questions following a screening of his latest film, The World’s End, at Boston’s Brattle Theatre. Audience members, one by one, quizzed the director and his frequent collaborators, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, on their influences: about the sci-fi films that informed The World’s End, about the cop films that served as the backbone for Wright’s prior Hot Fuzz. One audience member even asked if the red tie Pegg wears around his forehead in Shaun of the Dead is a nod to The Deer Hunter. (It isn’t.)
Wright’s elaborate editing, kinetic camera work, and detailed mise-en-scène put him in a plane above his peers. His images and gags repeat and reverberate over and over again in slightly different forms, like the aesthetic equivalent of screwball-style dialogue. While his contemporaries are merely telling jokes on screen, Wright is dedicated to creating visual compositions that are as integral to his vision as the punchlines they service. In his review, Slant’s own Calum Marsh even went so far as to crown him the definitive comedic filmmaker of his generation—the Tashlin of the 2010s. Wright talked to me about the films that helped him develop that voice, whether or not he’s interested in breaking out of comedic filmmaking, and why it’s so endlessly frustrating to be defined by the films he references.
All four of your films are about immaturity and, especially with The World’s End, about growing up. Do you feel you’ve grown up as a filmmaker? Do you feel—in terms of your choices, your preferences, your interests—like the same filmmaker who made Shaun of the Dead?
I think some things have changed. I think when we did Spaced, the TV show, there was a very aspirational quality to it. It was a TV show where the characters were constantly escaping into big-screen moments, because they live a mundane life, and they’re escaping into filmic references. Literally, as a means of escape. And certainly, with this film, it has the least references in it. Even the sci-fi elements are a part of the overall regression of the characters. They get drunker, they act more like teenagers, and then it gets down to fighting like action figures, and getting ink on their hands like it was a school day. The threat of the aliens is harking back to a more innocent time, of the sci-fi films of the ’50s and ’60s and early ’70s.
It’s funny, Guillermo del Toro watched The World’s End in Toronto the other day, and he did a Q&A with me, and he said, “It’s ironic that easily your most mature film to date also involves killer robots.” I thought, “Yeah, that’s good, isn’t it?” I like that aspect. I don’t think any of the films I’ve made are perfect, so I’m always just striving to do better. I think any director who sits back and says, “My film is perfect,” is either a liar, or the most arrogant person on this Earth.
So, Gary King…do you love this character, do you hate him? Are you too close to levy judgment?
Well, I have a lot of sympathy for him. I think some people would watch the movie and say, “Well, Gary King, I wouldn’t want to be him.” And I don’t think many people want to be him. But I think, me and Simon, we want to understand him. We want to help him, in a way. Everybody has that friend who’s a liability. Somebody in their family or their friends. It has to come off, like a former appendage, you have to get rid of the Gary King in your life. And I think, in a way, the film is about that guilt, of leaving somebody behind. And the movie’s about “what if that guy shows back up in your life, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, and you have to deal with it.” You have to deal with him, but in a way you have to help him conquer his demons. To me and Simon, that’s a powerful thing. Even if someone has done you wrong, but there’s a connection that goes very deep, you want to be noble enough—even in the face of a lot of bad—to see the good in someone. Me and Simon write movies very therapeutically. It’s talking about people we know, and ourselves. So we have a lot of sympathy for him. We want Gary, whose a walking car crash, to snatch triumph from the jaws of defeat.
I certainly agree with del Toro that this is your most mature work to date. Do you feel like there’s a little bit of dissonance, going from something like this into a comic-book adaption [Ant Man, for Marvel Studios]?
I’m looking forward to Ant Man because I want to spin a yarn. I think actually, you’ll see with the script, that there are thematic elements that carry through. There are at least a couple of elements that will be consistent with the others, in terms of an unlikely hero, a shot at redemption…and the character, like in The World’s End, is a little bit older.
So, yes and no. By not doing sequels to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, by doing three standalone films, we’re at least in control of the themes. The more personal material in the movie. It’s almost like a Trojan horse; you’re smuggling in this relationship comedy under the auspices of an action film. Which it absolutely is too. [It has] laughs, fights, special effects.
The truth of it is, it frustrates me, fans and even critics who don’t quite understand how hard it is to get these films made, and to get them off the ground. You’re not always in control of what order you make your films. Even the biggest, most successful directors will try to get a passion project off the ground, for years. And be thwarted. So I don’t think that many directors really have complete control over what order their films get made. I don’t have any problem with doing The World’s End, something very personal, but I feel comfortable with the idea of doing something completely different next.
And is there a chance we’re going to be losing your voice as a writer? News stories popped up connecting you to Disney’s remake of The Night Stalker, and I was sad to see someone else was writing the script.
Oh, he’s a friend of mine—the writer. I brought him on. He wrote Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity. We worked on the story together, and it was more because I physically couldn’t write it, because I was making The World’s End. It was as simple as that, really. It’s a similar thing with a movie I found called Collider, which I came up with the treatment for, wrote the story with another writer, and he’s writing the screenplay, because I was busy on The World’s End. I absolutely want to continue being a writer-director. Ant Man is a screenplay I wrote with Joe Cornish. But sometimes, writing every idea you have—it’s years and years of work. So this is where it’s like, “well, I have to go make a film now, but I don’t want this project to go away.”