Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have been friends and filmmaking collaborators for nearly 15 years. But that doesn't mean they don't drive each other crazy from time to time.
"Being in character for this latest film, I used to physically irritate Nick on set," Pegg confesses during a Comic-Con roundtable interview where the trio were promoting their newest film, The World's End.
Frost smiles and fondly remembers the trauma.
"I'd ask Simon, Are you going to play your character like that? Because it's fucking annoying.'"
Friendship, like filmmaking, is a complex, long-term commitment for these three. Their relationship began in the late 1990s with the cult television series Spaced, but it wasn't until 2004's Shaun of the Dead that they became instant sensations in the film world. A romantic comedy posing as a zombie-apocalypse film, Shaun of the Dead introduced wider audiences to Wright's breakneck directorial style and the unique on-screen chemistry between Pegg and Frost, a new kind of odd couple.
Despite their success, not much has changed between the three friends. "It isn't different at all," says Frost. "If any of us changed, the dynamic amongst us would change, and I think we're all in a position where someone would say something."
In a sense, the checks and balances of friendship define each of their films.
The "Cornetto Trilogy"—named after the ice-cream treat that often pops up in each narrative—is a fascinating and entertaining examination of camaraderie as a fluid and sometimes conflicted experience. Hot Fuzz (2007) might be a vivacious love letter to action cinema on the surface, but it's also a deep character study about a workaholic police officer, Nicholas Angel (Pegg), who finds meaning outside his profession by bonding with a dimwitted colleague (Frost) over the cinematic power of Point Break and Bad Boys II.
When asked why these themes of friendship are so important, Pegg responds thoughtfully and sincerely: "It's part of who we are, and it's important to write from the truth."
The films that Wright's directed and co-written with Pegg are endearing in their devotion to witty genre riffing, yet this referential streak masks the deeper human concerns of wounded men trying to find their way in a volatile world.
The fragility of male friendship comes to a drunken culmination in The World's End, which opens in wide release on Friday, Aug. 23. The rambunctious sci-fi adventure film follows a group of five childhood friends who attempt to finish a pub-crawl they failed to complete as teenagers. In the middle of their pursuit, they discover that their hometown denizens might in fact be aliens in disguise.
Pegg stars as Gary, a lifelong selfish bastard who was once a badass and rebellious teenager but has descended into drug abuse and alcoholism as an adult. After being released from a mental-health ward, Gary cons his estranged buddies Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Constantine), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) into returning home for one last go at The Golden Mile, a legendary drinking challenge ending with the titular pub.
Set in the seemingly quiet country town of Newton Haven, this boozy adventure has an underlying sadness to it. Gary revels in the fact that citizens have been replaced by extraterrestrial look-alikes, forcing his friends to realize these are actions of a pathetic and desperate man clawing at the last hints of warped nostalgia.
It's hard watching Gary move from pub to pub, trying to deny the fact that his friends would rather be anywhere else. Denial is one of Wright's favorite themes. It pops up in Shaun's evasion of adult responsibility in Shawn of the Dead and Nicholas' blatant emotional repression in Hot Fuzz, but it's most potent in The World's End.
A cross between The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a kung-fu film, The World's End fits the "all in one night" structure that Wright has admitted to admiring so much.
"I love After Hours, Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti," he says. "In each of these films, things get darker and weirder as they go along."
Except The World's End doesn't just get stranger as it progresses: It turns increasingly violent the more the characters drink. "The drunker these characters get, the more indestructible they feel and the more confident and idiotic they become," says Pegg.
The performances, especially Frost's fantastic turn as the reserved businessman Andy, mimic this idea in consistently interesting ways. Calm, collected and precise throughout most of the film's first half, Andy turns into a Hulk-like monster once he gets drunk.
Choreographed by iconic stunt coordinator Brad Allen (The Matrix Trilogy), the action scenes unfold almost like ballet performances timed to perfection and covered in long camera takes. One extended and elaborate fight sequence inside a pub creates multiple planes of movement within a single frame, including Gary's attempt to keep from spilling his beer while fighting enemies and Andy's expert use of twin bar stools as battering rams.
Hints of this visual audacity were apparent in Shaun of the Dead (the tracking shot that follows the lead character's trek from home to the convenience store stands out), but Hot Fuzz mostly cherished a frenetic montage style pilfering off the likes of directors Tony Scott and Michael Bay.
In contrast, The World's End is all about group coordination, so it makes sense that Wright showcases the movement of these men without the impact of cutting shots down to size. The irony remains that even though life and death depends on timing and precision within the story, these men survive by being flagrantly reckless.
One of Wright's favorite motifs is painting the countryside as a nesting place for humanity's darker impulses.
"I grew up in a small town," he says. "If you have an overactive imagination, you immediately leap to thoughts of what dark secrets are lurking underneath the surface."
The World's End follows in Hot Fuzz's footsteps in terms of setting. Both films peel back the façade of country living to reveal threats of murder, deception, conformity and corruption.
Even more treacherous is the idea that memories can be perverted and hollowed out over time without the person even knowing it. This idea was hinted at in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of which explore the notion that small-town living can be as toxic as city life.
In The World's End, Gary spends most of the film trying to recreate a past memory that may never have existed in the first place. With the opportunity of escape readily available, he decides to continue with the pub crawl simply because it's the last bastion of hope for him to claim some sort of power over his broken life.
What keeps The World's End from being an allout tragedy is the notion that despite Gary's selfish, ego-driven decisions, Andy and the gang remain by his side for as long as possible.
If you take the Cornetto Trilogy and even Wright's hypnotically loopy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as different windows into the same universe, one can surmise that the only way to sustain friendship is through creative improvisation and patience.
Gary says it best when he proudly states, "History is a sketchbook." In many ways, Wright, Pegg and Frost have been tinkering with this idea all along, taking their love for film history and merging it with the human conflicts that connect them as friends. Whether it's the dead walking the Earth, a no-holds-barred shootout or an alien invasion, all you've got are your mates. So choose wisely.