On the morning of their South by Southwest premiere, The Film Stage caught up with Paul stars (and writers) Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as director Greg Mottola. The group was actively in the middle of promoting their comedy (opening today) and Mottola joked that he flew in to Austin to hang out in a parking lot. Located in a mock-up of an RV park, the team was kind enough to answer our questions:
TFS: How much of the film was inspired by your trip to Comic-Con?
Simon Pegg: The conception of the idea was an accident. We were slammed by the rain while making Shaun of the Dead and Nira [Park] our producer said let’s just make a film somewhere where it doesn’t rain. We were doing the scene where zombies were throwing records in the garden, and it took us weeks to do that scene because we kept having to go back because the weather was all wrong. So, we said here’s the pitch: ‘it’s set in a desert somewhere in America, Area 51, we’re two British tourists who meet an alien.’ I drew a poster and with the tagline “in America everyone is an alien” and we called him Paul because we thought it would be funny if he was like a regular guy. And Nira put it on her notice board. There it stayed for seven years, and every now and again, when we got a bit of a break between Hot Fuzz, we’d write a bit of Paul, and spit-ball ideas. Then Edgar [Wright] went off to do Scott Pilgrim [vs. The World] and Nira said, “alright – let’s do Paul”. And we’re like “oh, that joke we were in” and we realized there was a film there and it was a really good idea. Greg [Mottola] came on-board midway through 2007 and suddenly here we are.
Greg Mottola: And we found out in the desert it rains and hails all the time.
SP: More than it doesn’t, but it doesn’t rain for as a long as it does in Gloucestershire; the supreme irony is it’s a big murderous burst every 20 minutes. And what we had that we didn’t have in London was a lightning meter and it was tremendously exciting to see the red meter beat and we’d have to clear the set because of lightning.
GM: We lost about 3 or 4 crew members.
SP: We didn’t have lethal hailstones in the UK, which was a new one.
How do the references find their way into your films – do you have a list?
SP: I don’t think we ever have a list of beats and references we want to put in; that’s our frame of reference. Our bond, whether it’s the Star Wars cantina, that’s just us. That’s where we’ve come from as kids. Obviously there are some things, like when we knew Sigourney (Weaver) was on board. I think there are more references to things I don’t know, and people are finding them. Our metaphorical pallet is about pop culture and when you’re making a film about pop culture it’s hard not to acknowledge your progenitors, and Paul is in the spirit of other films. It’d be stupid not to, this isn’t something new. Paul is a post-modern movie in that it is the child of a lot of other films, and we accept it by drawing attention to other films. We also thought it would be interesting to have a very sophisticated CG creation in a rather mundane film and the interior of America is anything but mundane, but we see Gollum in Middle Earth and that’s where he belongs, or the Star Wars characters in that galaxy. Paul doesn’t belong in a fucking RV, so we wanted this kind of thing of “what?” when he leans out of the window at a gas station.
Nick Frost: Apparently the hardest thing to do with CG is to have…
GM: Yeah, the challenge of making him photo-real, I had a meeting with David Hyman – the producer of Harry Potter films – and oddly enough the producer of one of my first films, Daytrippers, and he said “just try to keep him out of the sunlight – keep them in the dark, it’s so hard to sell.”
SP: Right, well take that! We’ve got ‘Exterior – Day – “the sun beats down on Paul’s face.”
How different is it shooting with a CGI creature?
GM: Well, ignorance is a great tool – not knowing what I was getting into. If I would have known I would have been more scared than I was.
SP: You would have run away.
GM: The Double Negative (the British VFX company) people were there from the beginning but we rushed through prep – we had two months. There was a bit of CG school for me, with motion capture with Seth (Rogen). We ran through the whole thing like a stage play.
SP: It was like a Lars Von Trier movie.
GM: There’s a lot of Dogville references in this movie.
NF: No insertion shot, we kept that in?
GM: To me, one of the things that’s most exciting is that these guys created a character that doesn’t exist and gave him a lot of funny lines, and they play straight man to him in places in the movie. And if that didn’t work we’d have nothing, so it’s scary. But one of the things that helped us enormously is when I had the bright idea of begging Joe Lo Truglio, who was on set every day, to be the voice of Paul. We accepted Seth was going off to make The Green Hornet. Joe is a really great improviser, and looked at Seth’s tapes and brought his own stuff to it.
SP: It meant we could keep things really conversational, when we brought it to Double Negative and they were really excited about creating the main character, and have an improvised feel with a naturalistic conversation. You can’t do that if you have a set of lines that you stick to on set, so Joe was encouraged to make stuff up and later on Seth looked at all that stuff and was able to replicate it, which is why Paul feels so present.
NF: We talked about this age in CGI; we wanted to give him a weight. Many CGI characters are just floating, so he feels present.
GM: That’s the difference between doing a full CG movie. Toy Story 3 is brilliant but it’s an exaggerated reality. Those characters do have weight, but it’s not photo-real. I remember having conversations with the producers and they were like “he’s animated, he could do anything” like The Mask or something, because that’s what animated characters should do. A big part of it was making him feel like a good listener. The first animation he tended to have big expressions; he tended to be Italian.
NF: When you have a big budget the first go-to is these guys tend to give you your money’s worth because we wanted him to be realistic, but people essentially do something to have him do nothing, to perform rather than be in a larger-than-life cloud.
How did you work out the dynamic of the buddy movie?
SP: We kind of wanted him to change them, like Ferris Bueller. Graeme and Clive are co-dependent, we started to Comic-Con so we can see them in their most comfortable environment before we take them out of there, but that’s not even home. They’re mistaken for a married couple because they’re so integrally-linked together. Paul comes along and they separate. Actually, four people because Ruth comes along (Kristen Wiig). We liked the idea of having a central figure that changed everyone; the central joke is Paul is more human than everyone else. And the real aliens are Graeme and Clive; they’re foreigners in America and their own species. They’re more alien than Paul is. Paul’s been on the earth for 60 years. Paul was just a guy – a trash-talking, but an initially-quiet Florida retiree, so that was an important idea.
NF: Jackie Mason and Rip Torn were our original ideas.
SP: Looking at it now, if I were a film student I would say it’s a reflection of Nick and mine’s journey to America. When we met Steven Spielberg for the first time, he stepped out of the shadows and he’s kind of a normal guy.
NF: That was our reaction, and I went to fall over.
SP: We spent a long time idolizing this world and when we got to it, we found it all to be quite normal, and that’s the story of Paul. Graeme and Clive meet the summit of their nerdy ambitions and he’s this “what the fuck” kind of guy.
NF: That was our reaction when [Steven Spielberg] agreed to do a cameo. We just laughed.
SP: Cause it was his idea. We were on set at Tintin and I had a cut of the alien Greg Nicotera, our special effects guy, gave us and I took photos of it at various points throughout America so it looked like it was –
GM: …like the gnome.
SP: Exactly, and we did it at Devil’s Tower, and we were talking Tin Tin, and of course the last time he’d seen an alien in front of Devil’s Tower he was making Close Encounters so he’s like “what’s that?” and we explained the story to him. And we’ve had this idea that maybe he’s at a hotline to you over the years and you’ve helped him with certain ideas and concepts and he thought about it and said, ‘I like it, I like it’ and he started asking if he could be in the movie at some point and phoned-up Paul and Nick and I were like ‘alright, what are you saying?’
Bill Hader is a gifted comedian; he’s more serious here…
SP: Bill had been on board since pre-day one.
GM: Just as a favor to us he came in and read for Paul during an early effects test.
SP: But he knew it was going to be something different.
GM: We wanted to put him somewhere, but that character needed to be one of the bad guys.
NF: He feels threatened.
SP: Bill plays over all really and when we realized we wanted Joe to play O’Reilly, we had this idea of two lovable sidekicks going bad, and one becomes insane. We like to challenge everyone.
NF: He’s also an amazing actor, beyond Saturday Night Live.
GM: He wanted Joe to have more of the comedy, it being a silly comedy.
Greg, can you talk about the texture and atmosphere in your films?
GM: Every time I start I always think, maybe this one will be a little slicker, more polished, but I have something against polish. I resist it. I gravitate towards telling the DP: don’t make it look so pretty. Here’s a bit more mundane and indie feeling, and when Sam and I first met we talked about Aliens and Little Miss Sunshine, and the scenes in the RV are shot fairly naturalistically – the joke in my mind being that the most expensive thing about the is the $14 million dollar special effect, and the cops chasing them with Jason Bateman. That stuff is more like a Hollywood film and the Hollywood film and the Indie film crash into each other in the third act, that’s the general schematic. For a movie with 600 special effects shots, we shot if quickly.
SP: And this was mine and Nick’s idea, it’s very different and we were never going to make this film with Edgar, so early on we realized it wasn’t suitable for his style of direction – he puts himself in the film. And that works brilliantly in Scott Pilgrim, where the language of the film necessitates that style. With Paul, we wanted to make Daytrippers with an alien in it, instead of Liev Schreiber, who is an alien, really. Then we saw Superbad and I find it really serendipitous but we saw a comedy there that could have been a crass post-Porky’s comedy that had a real heart and sensitivity, but with a real comic sensibility. There are great shots in Superbad that are quietly very effective. So Greg was our first and only choice. Paul in an Edgar film would be less fantastic because his context would be so fantastic.
What was the decision to bring Seth in, after you decided he wasn’t going to be an older character.
SP: Seth’s got an old voice.
GM: I knew Seth since Undeclared, and he was always kind of an old man trapped in a young person’s body. He’s half my age.
SP: and annoyingly so.
GM: I think for me, the reason why – it felt like Paul being old wouldn’t be the right energy. Seth can do that jaded vitality and strap on the motion capture suite and camera attached to his head, and would be really game. Yes, the studio wanted a name to sell the movie, but we weren’t against that as long as they were great and we were thinking about someone who hasn’t done animated voices in other films, but we realized that’s nearly impossible. Even Stephen Hawkings was on The Simpsons. There’s nobody alive who you’ve heard of that hasn’t done it. When I read the script, Paul as a character doesn’t give a shit what everyone thinks of him, which is part of his appeal and charm – sometimes he’s a coward, sometimes he’s a good friend – but he’s enough of a “fuck you to authority” guy – and that’s Seth. He hasn’t changed since he’s been 17; he’s the kind of guy who’d walk away from show business if he wasn’t having fun. And Paul is a pot-smoking bisexual from outer space.
SP: It’s a testament to Seth that I forget he’s in the movie – people ask whose in it, and I say Jason Bateman and Kristen and all the cast. When I see the film I think it’s Paul, and we had the premiere in London and I’m thinking “someone isn’t there that I really missed tonight – who was it –it was Paul.” I personally think it’s one of Seth’s finest performances ever.
GM: We spent a lot of time working on the acting beats and looking at it over the year with animators and saying, ‘look what Seth is doing here, it’s really good, we’ve got to use that.’
SP: He’s got Seth’s teeth; he’s got little bunny teeth.
GM: Yeah that’s another thing, every actor’s got their ticks and Seth’s is (touches his teeth), so I’ve been trying to get him to stop since he was 17, so we used it.
Great – thanks so much for sitting down with us.
Paul hits theaters March 18th.