Three strong buddy comedies into his career, Nick Frost has proven himself to be an unapologetic and hilarious fanboy. The funny Brit first caught Hollywood’s attention in 2004’s zombie spoof Shaun Of The Dead, in which he and friends/collaborators Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright referenced George A. Romero’s classic zombie films with cleverness and wit. The trio returned three years later with the equally spot-on Hot Fuzz, a rollicking action-comedy that paid homage to everything from Bad Boys to Point Break.
For their latest collabo, Frost and Pegg turned to Superbad director Greg Mottola to helm Paul (in theaters tomorrow), a science fiction road trip comedy right out of Steven Spielberg’s early 1980s playbook. The duo geek out as two English blokes who follow up their first-ever trip to Comic-Con with a sightseeing tour of America’s most infamous UFO destinations. Along the way, they cross paths with Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a sarcastic little grey alien that drinks, smokes, and curses up a storm. Since it’s a Pegg/Frost movie, some of Paul’s funniest moments cite sci-fi favorites such as E.T., Aliens, and Back To The Future.
Paul is a special project to Frost for a much more technical reason: It’s his first time writing a feature film screenplay (he co-wrote it with Pegg). A lifelong science fiction lover, Frost made sure to pepper the movie with winks, both obvious and subtle, toward the genre’s biggest supporters. Complex appreciates sci-fi as much as the next Gene Roddenberry fan, so we chopped it up with Frost about Paul, shameless nerds, and the benefits of carefully rendered CGI. He also hit us off with six sci-fi movie recommendations, films that’ll make for ideal viewing after you see Paul this weekend (click on the above thumbnails to read all about those).
Complex: Paul is the first movie that you and Simon Pegg have starred in together without your pal Edgar Wright sitting in the director’s chair. Do you and Simon feel like you have to prove yourselves a bit on this one?
Nick Frost: We haven’t been asked that question at all, actually. It’s quite an interesting question. Not to prove ourselves—I just think we wanted it to be good. Especially after Edgar comes out with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which is arguably one of the fucking greatest films ever made. [Laughs.] I think it’s such an amazing achievement; I’ve probably seen it three or four times now, and I never get bored of watching it. But I think Simon and I knew it would be different—let’s put it that way. That’s not a kind of different being bad; that’s a different being good. We just wanted to make a comedy film that’s actually funny.
Did you guys start writing Paul after Hot Fuzz, or is this a project that’s been in your heads for a really long time?
Nick Frost: Well, we spit-balled the idea when we were doing Shaun Of The Dead, actually, which was, what, eight years ago now. That makes us seem like the world’s laziest screenwriters. [Laughs.] We had it as an idea. We had really bad weather at times on Shaun Of The Dead, and we were losing hours of shooting because of the rain. Then, the sun would come out and you couldn’t match what we were shooting. So our producer Nira [Park] very flippantly said, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a movie somewhere where it didn’t rain as much?”
And with that, we started thinking about the desert, and that became Nevada, and it was a very short step from that to Area 51 and these two comic book guys who go there and witness a car crash with an alien inside. We went off and did different things at different times, but it was always in the backs of our minds. Sometimes I’d get a text from Simon, saying, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if…” And then I’d send a text back with ideas and then we’d write them down. Then, about three or four years ago, Edgar went off to do Scott Pilgrim, and Nira said, “Look, why don’t we think about doing Paul seriously?” And that was that.
Paul is actually your first screenwriting credit—Simon and Edgar wrote both Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Did that just naturally happen?
Nick Frost: Well, it was me and Simon’s idea, you know? Certainly, I’ve always wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to act, but it just didn’t work out that way. So to get a chance to write a movie was pretty cool. Simon and I have written things together before. We’ve kind of written sitcoms that we got commissioned but for one reason or another they never got made. So it was just a nice opportunity for me to get a promotion of sorts. Even though I didn’t write Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, I did have creative input in those, but this was kind of an official step up.
I think because Simon and I have written those things in the past, which we never managed to get made, it was very important for both of us to kind of prove to ourselves that we could complete something. In terms of how we actually did it… Simon and Edgar watched a lot of films before writing Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, but Simon and I knew pretty much what we wanted to do from the beginning with this, which was draw from movies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T., Star Wars, and Indiana Jones. We knew where we were coming from, so we sat in our office in London, with our desks pushed together, and just wrote it line by line.
Was the writing process quick?
Nick Frost: Once it was just him and me in an office, it probably only took eight months, but before that we’d be writing and then someone would have to go off and shoot a movie. He’d come back and we’d write for a couple of weeks, and then I’d go off to shoot a movie. It got to a point where we needed to hand in a first draft of the script, and I think Simon was doing Run Fatboy Run, so I kind of went off on my own. We’d already written 40 pages of the screenplay, so I went off on my own and finished the whole thing, like a pre-draft. That was up to about 200 pages, which is massive! That’s like a five-hour movie. [Laughs.]
Even though I realized that from the original draft I did there’d probably only be 10% or 15% in the finished thing, when we got back together we had something tangible that we could call a “finished script.” Then we trimmed out all of the shit—took out the things that didn’t work and strengthened the things that did.
Are the characters you and Simon play close to how you guys are in real life? Meaning, are you guys huge nerds who wear Star Wars shirts?
] Yeah. I think Graeme and Clive are Simon and I at our geekiest. They’re like 20% of what we are, I think. When we go to Comic-Con and you hang out with these people, it becomes clear that we are
them. If Paul
is a love letter to anyone apart from Steven Spielberg, it’s one for attendees of Comic-Con.
We’ve hung around people like that our whole lives. There was a line in the script that got cut out, which is a shame, but it came from something that happened to me. When I worked as a waiter, quite a few years ago, Attack Of The Clones
had just come out, and it was showing at a movie theater that was attached to this restaurant I worked in. So I met these sort of amazing guys who came in, and they were in their early 60s but still wearing their original New Hope
T-shirts. Obviously, both they and the shirts had seen better days. [Laughs.
] You could see their stomachs sticking out of the bottom, and they had these big gray beards. I went over to clear a table, and they’d been eating shrimp, so all that was left were the shrimp shells. I had one of them turn to his mate, and this is what he said: “It looks like a pile of dead droids.” [Laughs.
] And I thought, Oh, I love you. I love you for saying that. Look at me—I could be this guy in 30 years
Nothing wrong with that—we’re all huge geeks around here. When you guys were writing this script, did you have anyone in mind for Paul’s voice?
: Well, Seth Rogen came into the picture a little bit later on. Since we perform, too, whenever Simon and I wrote a particular scene, we’d play three characters each and see if what we wrote worked properly. We’d do that a lot of the time. Whenever we did Paul, we kind of did Rip Torn’s voice, since we’re big fans of his. Simon and I spent a lot of time just pretending to be Rip Torn even before we started doing this. We’d say [in an exaggerated Rip Torn voice
], “Oh, have a big salty dog, you pussy!” [Laughs.
So it was kind of always him. Paul was more angry and jaded and cynical when we first wrote him. Then you kind of realize, the nearer you get to shooting the film, that he needs to be a bit more three-dimensional. So, instead of making him angry, we decided to make him a bit more laid-back, a little more sympathetic. We wanted to make him the most human character in the film, essentially; Graeme and Clive are the aliens and it’s Paul who’s the human.
Also, the studio wanted to have someone who’s “comedy relevant,” I think the term is. It’s a very clever idea, you know? We had a list of people, and they had their own list, and the only person who corresponded in both lists was Seth. I think we were so lucky with Seth in this. Even though he is very young, he has that lovely old, gravelly, kind of mature voice, but he also has tremendous comedy chops, and he’s very inventive. You’d think that a voice performer could just come, say the lines, and dial it in, but he gives such an amazing performance that I think a lot of people forget it’s him.
It also helps that the effects used to create Paul are pretty damn effective. Often with computer-generated characters in live action movies, they look cheesy and not at all realistic, but Paul looks really good.
: Well that’s the thing if you’ve got a movie where the main character is an effect. It just has to
, or otherwise you’re finished. People are so savvy and film-literate now, that if anything is even a tiny bit rubbish it’s just leapt on completely. It took [director] Greg Mottola and [effects companies] Double Negative and Spectral Motion, and then Simon and I coming in with our two cents’ worth—it took so long to work out how it was going to be done, and what was the best way to make Paul look. Even stuff like Paul actually weighing something—I think there’s that thing with CGI characters where they look like you could just click your mouse over them and move them all over the screen. It’s very rare that they have a physical weight to them, you know?
We wanted him to do nothing at all, and I think sometimes that’s counterintuitive to the people who are making effects. You’re paying so much money, so their initial instinct is to make them do something all the time, whether they’re scratching their noses, or twitching, or farting. That’s kind of how we see CGI, and it was very interesting to Simon and I to try and show that you can make Little Miss Sunshine
but with an alien instead of Alan Arkin. We just wanted him to be this very amazing visual effect in a very bleached-out, hot desert landscape.
The idea behind Paul is that he’s been on Earth for over 60 years and has secretly guided both pop culture and the government’s philosophies toward aliens. That set-up allowed you and Simon to write a scene in which Paul basically gives Steven Spielberg the idea for E.T. over the phone. How fun was it to get to tweak the history behind one of your all-time favorite movies?
: It’s funny, because we actually got to make Tintin
[which comes out in December] with Steven. When we were on the road trip for Paul
, we had this big alien head with us, so we took a photo with this alien head underneath Devil’s Tower. And when we were shooting Tintin
we showed Steven this photograph, he was like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. What is this?” And then he said, “Oh, well maybe I could come and do something in it.” As a sci-fi nerd and a massive lover of his movies, you don’t turn that down. [Laughs.
] So he took part in that scene. It’s amazing.
He’s lovely and he’s a friggin’ genius, and he’s so enthusiastic. Whenever you get a chance to be around that kind of filmmaking genius, you just stand and just watch him do his business, and it’s fantastic.
Check out Nick Frost’s 6 sci-fi movie recommendations after the jump.