Set Visit: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite in Paul!
So after a night of hopping the bars closest to Hyatt Regency Albuquerque--all entered with the wise words of Jim the Driver in mind--we journalists are off to our rooms for a few hours of sleep before our 9:15 a.m. call time.
We (that is, ten web journalists and a Universal Studios publicist) are off to the Albuquerque Convention Center, a two-block walk from the hotel. It’s our first and only day on set, and the cast and crew of PAUL are less that one week from wrapping production.
We’re at the Comic-Con (San Diego, for New York is a true laughing stock in the eyes of the West Coast circus). The minute we arrive, it’s off to wardrobe, which is nothing more than a wooden table, a bent clothes rack and two middle-aged women scanning our shirts for licensing clearance. A green ringer tee from Old Navy gets approval, but a Stark Expo ‘74 shirt (given out at 2009’s Con) is denied and switched with a Hellboy.
“Any of you guys been to Comic-Con?” an assistant asks. “Prepare for déjà vu, brother,” he says in the sea of Stormtroopers, Hobbits and Salve Leias (one male!). They’re ready for their wide shot, Mr. Mottola.
We journalists are the first to enter the auditorium, which today will masquerade as one of the many famous Comic-Con halls, where panels, sneak peeks and premieres are held each year. Today, we sit in on a panel. Sort of. There is no one to field our questions, only an empty stage and assistant directors ready to turn us extras into…actors.
“Pretend like it’s your geek god up there on the stage. Whether it’s George Lucas or Gene Rodenberry or Bob Stencil or a combination. Up there is your god!” And immediately the extras’ wheels fly off their hinges: “The [il]legimitate love child of Forest J Ackerman and Glen A. Larson in front of me??”
The hoots, hollers and horns sound off! Who is the god for these geeks? And who will fill that empty seat behind me?
“Okay, now raise your hand to ask your geek god a question!” We do.
“Paul is chosen and asks a question. Everybody look at the empty chair in row four!” We do.
“Now he’s made a funny remark, so laugh!…Okay, now he’s just said something really disgusting. You’re repulsed!” We do, we are and we’ve just been upstaged by a computer-generated alien who won’t even show up until post-production next month.
Five to seven takes later, our hands are beet and our throats are scratched.
“Perfect everybody, thanks so much, we have what we need!”
Then, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the stars of PAUL (and 2004‘s SHAUN OF THE DEAD and 2007‘s HOT FUZZ), emerge from the back of the converted hall. Pegg sports a t-shirt with The Flash and Frost, who runs up and down the aisle recording the crowd with his camcorder, dons a black CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON tee.
“It’s like Starbuck was literally fucking Apollo up there,” says Pegg of our decibel-raising cheers.
In between the next series of takes, the two joke with the extras and thank us for showing up, to which we reply, “Thank you!”
Less than an hour later, we’re huddled to the location where we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon: the Comic-Con floor, or at least the most accurate recreation you’ve ever seen in film or television. In a 100,000-square-foot space, booths house obscure comics and manga and toys and props, all guarded by brand-appropriate cardboard cutouts or, in one extraordinary case, a Gentle Giant-constructed Jabba the Hutt.
“Wow, they did a great job! It’s almost exact!” one of us says.
“Hell of a lot better than ENTOURAGE,” says another.
“Except for the pizza stains…there are no pizza stains on the carpet,” notes another.
Other than that--and the Hot Dog on a Stick in the mock food court--the location is a spot-on replica of the convention floor. Many of the booths and banners, production designer Jefferson Sage tells us, are recycled from Cons of years past.
“We’ve noticed that DC and Marvel--”
“Yeah,” says Sage, interrupting with a regretting laugh, and brushes off the question before it’s even asked. “We did approach them and they didn’t want to be apart [of the film].”
So despite no Superman or Batman or The Avengers, and the fact that you can actually see what color the carpet is (blue, natch), this is It, an unpopulated haven for the geeks to nerd out and the nerds to geek out.
We’re allowed to observe and wander the set, passing the Sideshow Collectibles booth and coming upon one with Bryan Lee O’Malley’s celebrated and simple Scott Pilgrim comic books strewn across the table. But they’re not for sale, no matter how much we plead.
“Prop pieces only,” the booth master says.
At a turn, we find a major prop piece. At a spoilerific exhibit, a spoilerific book sleeve covers a not-so-spoilerific autobiography: “Yanni in Words.” New, a copy runs about $16.50 on Amazon. Rounding that there are about 50 copies on display, that puts the “Yanni in Words” prop budget around $825. Each of us ponders shoving a copy of [CENSORED] under our shirts as a memento, but the cast looms by.
Nick Frost talks to a young female (assistant?), while Simon Pegg flips through various comics and, noticing the journalists hovering around him, points out the Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor’s character) booth to us.
“Kristin Wiig will be on set tomorrow…fiery red hair. Hot,” he says, rubbing in the fact that today is our only day with the cast.
Before we can quiz him on his well-documented fanboy obsessions, we’re ushered away and shown eleven flimsy chairs. We set ourselves in front of a pair of stacked widescreen monitors off by the crafts service, whose donuts are harder than the table they sit on. The top monitor shows Pegg and Frost, the bottom extras and other background activity. After “Action!,” the British leads do their thing, their characters (Graham Willy and Clive Gollings, respectively) stepping onto the Comic-Con floor for the first time since coming to America, jaws past their neckline. The bottom screen shows little hustle or bustle.
“They need more extras,” one of us says.
“And costumes,” says another.
“And sweat!,” comes another.
“And cut!,” shouts director Greg Mottola.
Half of us are plucked into the background of the scene. The rest of us…wait. That’s really all there is to do on a movie set if you’re not primary cast or crew: wait and eat.
Eventually, we chat with executive producer Robert Graf, who chats set accuracy (sans pizza stains), the impossibility of filming at the real Comic-Con and benefits of filming in New Mexico (“They have a tax incentive program”). Then, the prop master bicycles in two essentials to the sequence: the SHAUN OF THE DEAD cricket bat and a HOT FUZZ shotgun.
“Yeah, those are it.”
Following lunch, we sit down with producer Nira Park, who worked previously with Pegg and Frost on Channel 4’s SPACED, SHAUN…, and HOT FUZZ. We question her about producing both PAUL and Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD simultaneously (“I do a nine-hour journey every Sunday”), how the project was introduced (“Simon and Nick drew this cool picture of an alien on the set of SHAUN…”) and choosing Greg Mottola as director (“He just ‘got’ it. We never talked to anyone else”).
Then, we’re back to our flimsy tan chairs, where we wait for Pegg and Frost. Throughout our 20-minute interview, Simon dominates and Nick chews on his necklace, tossing quips at the precise moment we would laugh the hardest.
The two share their thoughts on the difference between American and English film crews (“England, there’s no overtime. Here, nobody gives a shit about things running over”), working with “empty space”/the CG Paul (“We do use puppetry, animatronics, and stand-ins”), pop culture’s role in the film (“Paul has been on Earth for about 60 years…having an affect on popular culture”), influences (“The film very much draws in the tradition of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS… and E.T.”), the theological views in the films (“It won’t go down so well in the middle states”), and much more. (The full interview is coming soon!)
Later, director Greg Mottola takes a short break from lassoing his crew to chat with us. He talks about his and Edgar Wright’s intersecting worlds (“It’s a collision of kingdoms”), influences (“I have a long love of fantasy and science-fiction…2001, STAR WARS, Isaac Asimov…”), settling on who the major cameo will be (“Simon says, ‘We should turn around and it’s Twiki from BUCK ROGERS…, just going ‘Bidi-bidi-bidi’”), working with Simon and Nick after Edgar Wright’s huge success (“It’s very intimidating…I just made a decision I wasn’t going to try and do what he does”), and much more. (The full interview is coming soon!)
Much time has passed and again we find ourselves in the same flimsy tan chairs, huddled around the same two black shiny monitors…but in a different location. Now, we’re on the floor with the--
“Quiet on the set!,” the first AD yells. It’s a demand echoed by another AD, and then another. This barrage of command all happens in about two seconds, about twice as long as it takes for the onlookers to hide their BlackBerries and the dozens of extras to take their place for their shining moment, which faces good possibility of being cut.
The extras--Wookiees, Cylons, Lara Croft, a lobster with pigtails, crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise, a mock Nicholas Angel and Danny Butterman--stroll the floor, point at off-camera obscurities and pretending to be wowed.
Simon and Nick are on a virtual reality stage. Pegg duels with two kids, making the most of their child labor guidelines by flailing his legs like a madman and striking chops at rapid speed, while Frost dukes it out with a green TV screen and whatever will be inputted in post, firing an army’s worth of ammunition and avoiding every bullet sent his way.
It’s 5 p.m., which gives us another two hours on set. But our interviews are secured in our recorders and we’ve seen about every shot that will be locked today. So in between takes five and six, we unglue ourselves from those flimsy tan chairs and exit quietly past the crafts service table and through the double doors of the Albuquerque Convention Center. Past the cricket bat-twirling bloke in the bloody work shirt, a pile of three dozen abandoned Comic-Con swag bags lay underneath a table, their contents spilling out.
“Just like the real thing.”