Edgar Wright, Hot Fuzz
Brit Edgar Wright’s film career began when, straight out of college, he wrote and directed his ultra-low budget debut feature, A Fistful of Fingers (1994), an affectionate comedic homage to spaghetti westerns. The film played a few festivals, and was enough of a success to get Wright work directing sitcoms and sketch shows, where he worked with many of the best British comic performers around. His friendship with actors Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson resulted in the trio creating Spaced, a television series about the oddball residents of a house in London which achieved cult status. The show, which playfully and regularly referenced Hollywood films, ran from 1999 to 2001 and led to Wright and Pegg working together on their idea for a romantic zombie comedy, or “rom-zom-com.” Shaun of the Dead (2004), co-written by star Pegg and Wright, was a huge box office success in its native U.K., a surprise sleeper hit stateside, and was vocally supported by everybody from Quentin Tarantino to George A. Romero (who recruited Wright and Pegg to be zombies in his 2005 movie, Land of the Dead).
Hot Fuzz, Wright’s follow-up to Shaun, had a staggeringly successful U.K. opening weekend in February, taking an almost unprecedented $11.7 million. The film, which reunites Wright with Pegg and his Shaun of the Dead sidekick Nick Frost, riffs on the Hollywood buddy-buddy cop movies of the 80s and 90s with its plot about an overachieving London cop, Nicholas Angel (Pegg), who is relocated to a sleepy countryside village, a place where crime is seemingly non-existent. Unsuprisingly, Angel and his new partner, beer-guzzling Bad Boys fan Danny (Frost), soon discover that beneath the village’s placid exterior lies a truth more sinister than either could have imagined. Hot Fuzz is extremely funny and unashamedly enjoyable and, like Shaun of the Dead, is so fresh, charming and inventive that it manages to be referential (and reverential) without ever being derivative. Wright’s direction is top-notch, while the script he co-wrote with Pegg is full of numerous details which perfectly set up future gags and make repeated viewings all the more satisfying.
Filmmaker spoke to Wright last month about his first forays in film, making one of the Grindhouse trailers, and why Robocop makes him cry.
Filmmaker: How old were you when you made A Fistful of Fingers?
Wright: I was just 20, and I did it about 2 weeks after leaving art college. It was the culmination of doing lots of amateur films, making films on super 8, then video. I actually won a video camera on [the U.K. kids TV show] Going Live! It was all in conjunction with Comic Relief, and I’d made an animated super 8 film about disabled access. The stuff I’d done up until then, all the amateur films, I’d funded myself from working at Somerfield [supermarket] – the same one that’s in the film [Hot Fuzz], actually. But A Fistful of Fingers was funded by a local businessman. It was a guy who had seen all the amateur films that I’d done, and I think he’d inherited a lot of money – a tax loss kind of thing – so we basically got £11,000 to make the film, and we shot it in 21 days on 16mm. It was a weird experience, because it was so powered along by its own naivety. There was something brilliant about it. I went through a bit of a deep depression during the editing because I realized that I’d committed something to film and it had all come back so quickly. What was funny was that during production, I didn’t really think twice about anything: I didn’t do a second draft of the script, I only cast from my school friends – it didn’t even occur to me to try and find local actors. We used the crew from some people from the local independent film circuit and most people from my college. But literally the first D.P. that we met was the D.P.
Filmmaker: How much has your approach to filmmaking changed since those early days?
Wright: I think it’s just learning what the hell I’m doing, basically. It’s funny, on the Hot Fuzz DVD in the U.K. we’re going to put on the cop film I made when I was 18. Watching it back, there are some similarities in terms of the style but the thing that I really notice is how bad the sound is, and how important a really detailed sound mix is. The stuff I used to do when I was making amateur films, like this cop film I made, Dead Right, I basically didn’t have any access to library music or sound effects at all, so there’s like no sound effects on it and the whole thing feels so airless, it’s weird. With A Fistful of Fingers, it had the spirit of ‘Let’s do the show right here,’ but the worst thing about it is that it’s quite ramshackle and lame, and it feels like a Bugsy Malone production because it’s all 18-year-olds pretending to be badass Americans – it’s funny. Basically, I wanted to do another independent film, but I wasn’t really that happy with A Fistful of Fingers and how it turned out. It was alright, some people liked it and I got my break through [Little Britain comedians] Matt Lucas and David Walliams, who saw A Fistful of Fingers and really liked it, and recommended me to their agents at ICM, and then also asked me to do their first sketch show. So when I started doing TV stuff, I was very lucky again to work immediately. The first show I did was with Matt Lucas and David Walliams, and Jessica Stevenson was in it, the second show was with Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, Julian Barratt and Bill Bailey. I completely lucked out by working with some brilliant people very early on. So [what helped was] working with great actors and feeling more confident as a writer. I don’t ever think of myself as a screenwriter, even though I’ve written two screenplays, mainly because I’ve written out of necessity, because I can feel the films that I want to make in my gut. I think doing TV, and especially Spaced, was really like learning my craft and learning editing and writing.
Filmmaker: Was working in TV a necessary step for you to take? Were you always intending to come back to making films?
Wright: I always wanted to come back to film, and I had written another film after A Fistful of Fingers, but then I started to get into TV and then I was lucky to be successful at it almost straight away. What was weird was that before Shaun of the Dead, I’d done about 9 years of TV, and doing music videos and commercials as well, and it was great to come back to film having had a proper education.
Filmmaker: Was there pressure on you to make a sequel to Shaun of the Dead?
Wright: We were asked on several occasions about doing a sequel, asked about doing an American TV series version of it, doing an English TV series version of it, doing a game. We just felt that the story had been told – and it helped that most of the characters were dead! Even recently, I got an email from an American TV channel wanting to do a version of Shaun of the Dead, and I just thought, Why? Hot Fuzz is the only film that cannot be remade in the States, because it would completely lose its point. Why would you remake that in the States? Why would you remake Shaun in the States?! It doesn’t make any sense, it’s pointless. And it’s the same with Spaced. Spaced got as far as a script stage, being developed, but I just thought, Surely there’s nothing charming about watching American slackers act out American films? Surely the charm of it is that people are in a North London pub recreating scenes from The Matrix? Doing it within its own country doesn’t really mean anything.
Filmmaker: Because of Shaun of the Dead, you became friends with directors like George A. Romero, and Quentin Tarantino.
Wright: The most amazing thing after Shaun was the support from other filmmakers. Some of my favorite filmmakers championed Shaun of the Dead, and I was also very fortunate to become friends with them. That was really amazing, that period of getting great word from Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King, George Romero. George was the first person to respond, and he absolutely loved Shaun of the Dead, and that was a real vindication for us.
Filmmaker: And your relationship with Tarantino and Rodriguez led to you doing one of the Grindhouse trailers.
Wright: Very recently, in fact. I finished it within the last three weeks. I got asked to do it in 2005, when they were first starting to develop it. I was in L.A., and out with Quentin and Eli Roth, and he said, “We’re doing this Grindhouse thing. Do you two want to do trailers?” And we both went, “Uh, yes please!” So, [I was] very, very flattered to be asked. I wrote the script in December 2005 and sent it to Robert and Quentin. I got an email from Robert saying, ‘Oh, that’s great. Perfect, perfect’, and a phone call from Quentin saying, [he mimics Tarantino’s voice] “You know, the funny thing is, like uh, these are the first completed pages of the script!” They hadn’t finished either of their screenplays, so I felt like the school swot because I’d turned my Grindhouse stuff in first. Then it cut to over a year later to film it. I had such a blast making it, it was hilarious. The really fun thing about making a trailer is that you literally just shoot the money shots: no continuity, we didn’t shoot any sound. David Arnold did some music for it. Everybody’s in it for a laugh, and did it for next to no money, or no money. And I did it for free. I’d like to say that on record to the Weinstein Company: I did it for free. So that was great, it was brilliant, and I’m really, really proud of it as well. And they really loved it, which is great.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that you watched 138 DVDs as research for Hot Fuzz. What were the worst and best films you saw?
Wright: And there were some on VHS as well, because some things aren’t on DVD, like Busting. Isn’t that a great film? Well, I don’t think it’s an all-round brilliant film, but that chase in the middle is extraordinary. I watched some bad films, though. I have more patience than Simon [Pegg]; I will sit through anything if I think it’s in any way constructive. There would be ones that I would watch on my own time and then I would maybe cherry-pick the best bits to show him.
Filmmaker: Did you have to endure any Chuck Norris movies?
Wright: Oh yeah, I did. Some of them I’d seen before, like Code of Silence, with the amazing prowler ending. I saw Silent Rage, Delta Force, Invasion U.S.A., Hero and the Terror. Hero and the Terror is probably the worst; that was really, really poor, like not even fun in a “so bad it’s good” way. The best film I saw, that I was really blown away by, was Gordon Parks’ The Super Cops. I’d seen it on TV when I was 9, and obviously I couldn’t properly appreciate it then. It’s amazing, but not released on DVD, and is just great, a really underrated little film. Ron Leibman is amazing in it. It’s based on a true story, about Greenberg and Hantz – who were nicknamed Batman and Robin – in the 70s in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s incredible. The script is by Lorenzo Semple Jr., of Batman, Flash Gordon and The Parallax View fame.
Filmmaker: Why is your nickname Eball?
Wright: Nick Frost just gave it to me on the set of Spaced. I don’t think it particularly means anything.
Filmmaker: To quote the journalist in Hot Fuzz, “What’s your perfect Sunday?”
Wright: It would start off with the obvious of like probably going to a caff and reading the Sundays. When I’m on my own I tend to get quite antisocial, so if I’m on my own in the flat, I like watching the extras on DVDs. I’ve got so many Italian horror films and things from Anchor Bay where I haven’t quite got round to watching the film, but I’ve watched every single trailer. I like watching trailers and extras and making-ofs. The other day I watched that documentary, Going To Pieces, about the slasher films, which is brilliant. It’s out on THINKFilm, and it’s this documentary initially about Halloween and Friday the 13th, but then goes into so much detail about every single rip-off – Prom Night, He Knows You’re Alone, The Prowler. I love really in-depth documentaries, about everything, not just film.
Filmmaker: Which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Wright: I would say Clint Eastwood, but then there’s quite a few recent Clint Eastwood films I haven’t seen. I’ve probably never missed a Woody Allen film. I would watch every Woody Allen film, even the ones that are not so good.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Wright: I do get quite choked up at the weirdest films. I get choked up when I’m entertained, I don’t always get choked up when I’m sad. So I would cry at the end of Rumble in the Bronx where Jackie Chan turns to the camera and puts his thumbs up. That would set me off, or at the end of Robocop, when he goes “What’s your name kid?” and he says “Murphy.” It isn’t always specifically sad films which would start me crying.
Filmmaker: When did you last do it for the money, not the love?
Wright: I suppose maybe the last time I did a commercial, which I haven’t done for 5 years or more.
Filmmaker: And finally, which phrase best describes your philosophy on life?
Wright: “Give the kids what they want.” I would always say that when there was a gory moment on set. If there was a question of how much blood, I would say, “This is what the kids want.”