WRIGHT, EDGAR

Director Lampoons the Law in (4/07)
Features

If you lost count of the body count in Shaun of the Dead--2004's horror-comedy sleeper hit from Britain--you should be similarly challenged by the cinematic carnage of Hot Fuzz, the second big-screen volley from actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, opening on April 20 from Focus' Rogue Pictures label.

You may be just as amused as well. Doubling as their own screenwriters, the two have gone gunning for another movie genre--the action film, transplanting the bombast of the muscular American blockbuster improbably in a sleepy West Country town in England.

Pegg plays a trigger-happy, hotshot London cop with the satanic/saintly name of Nick Angel, whose overzealous crimefighting puts his department to such collective shame that his superiors (cameo-shooting Bill Nighy, Steve Coogan and Martin Freeman) "sentence" him to a career in the country to cool his heels. Even before he's officially installed in his rustic reassignment, he's corralling and collaring underage pub-crawlers. Soon his obsessive do-goodness gives rise to a serial killer working overtime on the populace.

In no time at all, without much rhyme or reasons, the hills are running red--which, of course, plays right into director Wright's schizoid scheme of things. He and Pegg call this phenomenon "popcorn logic--that's the phrase we came up with after watching a lot of Jerry Bruckheimer/Joel Silver movies," Wright remembers, "and it's totally that kind of thing in action films. At some point, usually toward the end--physics, logic, any sane thought, everything goes right out the window, and we have pure, dumb entertainment."

Swaggering mucho-macho through the mayhem, alienating and unhinging the community he is supposed to be protecting, Pegg resembles the young David Morse as the obsessed, by-the-book bobby. More to the point, he brings to mind--psychologically as well as physically--the late David Graf, who played the militantly aggressive, trigger-happy Sgt. Tackleberry in the Police Academy series. However, Wright says neither David was specifically referenced in the character. Rather, "there are always the elements in there of Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man--in terms of him being a very straitlaced person in a place where everybody has a different opinion. Also, there's a strain of '70s cop films like Super Cops and Prince of the City where police officers who were incredibly virtuous and hard-working were penalized for that. I always liked those kinds of characters."

Obviously true believers in the genre from boyhood, Wright and Pegg did a long swan's dive into their research. "There are lots of films that inspired us--classic fish-out-of-water films like Witness and Get Carter, everything from The Blue Lamp to Serpico. We just immersed ourselves in the genre. We picked on pictures we could have fun with. Quite a few films are mentioned directly like Straw Dogs and Lethal Weapon."

They even sprinkled actual clips from Point Blank and Bad Boys II into their bubbling stew like so much seasoning. In a subtle distinction lost on most people, Wright insists the Bad Boys sequel is superior to its original. "Just based on the sheer amount of vehicular destruction," he insists, "Bad Boys II deserves an Oscar. You have never seen that many cars being trashed in a film since The Blues Brothers and Freebie and the Bean."

Clearly a man who knows his stuff--and that knowledge enabled him to recruit for cameo duty the ex-"Equalizer" (Woodward), a former James Bond (Timothy Dalton) and the foremost interpreter of Samuel Beckett (Billie Whitelaw). Oscar winner Jim Broadbent was also enticed aboard to play the jovial police chief of this initially crime-free hamlet.

When Pegg is partnered with Broadbent's hard-drinking, dim-witted offspring (Nick Frost), the movie turns into what could be characterized as the screen's first bobby-buddy flick. Their previous teaming--Shaun of the Dead, with its mother lode of shuffling stiffs on the march--inspired a new movie nomenclature: the screen's first rom-zom-com film.

Both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz came out of "Spaced," a slacker sitcom that enjoyed two seasons (1999 and 2001) on the English telly and played on BBC America over here. Pegg and Frost co-starred in that, along with Jessica Stevenson, who co-wrote the shows with Pegg, and Wright directed every episode. "It had a setup similar to 'Three's Company.' It was about two people in their late 20s sharing a flat--a struggling journalist and a struggling graphic artist who have to pretend to be a couple to get an apartment.

"But explaining it in those terms doesn't really get 'Spaced' across. Really, it was about people who were absolutely obsessed with pop culture so, within this show, there were endless leaps into fantasy and dream sequences and loads of movie references."

The triumvirate was formed by the series, and the comedy connection continues to this day. "We immediately connected over the same material," remembers Wright. "We definitely have very similar tastes in comedy movies as well as in some of the genre films."

Case in point: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead. "That was something we really bonded over. There was a sequence in 'Spaced' which involved Simon's character having hallucinations about zombies being in the apartment. When they were writing it, that's when I found out we were huge fans of Romero. We started waxing lyrical about Dawn."

The episode was so much fun for them to shoot that they decided to take their passion to the big screen. Hence, the dawning of Shaun of the Dead. Yes, Wright says, it was daunting to leap into feature films from a small-screen base, but, even more important, "we just wanted to make sure we could do something on film that was as personal to us as our TV work--something that had our stamp all over it. Sometimes, people who go into features lose the spark of what they were good at in the first place. That's why we went with the horror genre. We definitely liked the genre and we definitely liked George Romero, but what we liked about the Romero films--what inspired us for Shaun--was that, for the most part, they were about people. Certainly Dawn of the Dead and, particularly, Night of the Living Dead are about character relations within a crisis. You could easily rewrite those films and substitute something else for zombies and pretty much have the same film."

Maintaining a human pulse amid the hilariously overstated violence was quite a high-wire act, but critics concurred that Wright negotiated it with a degree of grace and success. The good reviews brought in the paying customers, and an instant cult film was born.

The humor traveled well, Wright was happy to see. "It was very encouraging to know that the sense of humor of the film--which, because we're obviously English, had a very English sensibility to it--was universally accepted. To see the same jokes that would play in the U.K. play just as well in Detroit, Miami, Seattle, Phoenix, et cetera was wonderful."

Hollywood took note of Shaun's smooth ride into the global market, and, as a result, Hot Fuzz was made for more than double the money ($16 million) than Shaun cost ($6-7 million). Most of this went toward lighting and editing effects and slam-bang sound work ("the Wright stuff," in the director's view). "Pretty much all of the things I've directed have a similar style. In a way, Hot Fuzz has more in common with 'Spaced' in terms of fast editing. It's a style I like. I like making things that are very dense and have a real rhythm.

"Also, in this particular case, since we are making a film in a very sleepy area of the U.K., the idea of editing it like a Tony Scott or Michael Bay film is one of the inherent jokes."

Indeed, the lickety-split pacing punches up the joke of the setting. "We're real big fans of incongruous humor. The central conceit of the film is that you've never seen a cop film in the U.K. like this--because, basically, they do not exist. There is no precedent for cop films in the U.K. Unlike every other country--Korea, Japan, France, America, Spain, Italy--the precedent for cop films in the U.K. is absolutely zero. Lots of gangster films, no cop films.

"James Bond is never set in the U.K. He's always in the Bahamas or Europe or Cuba. You never see him in London, outside of MI5. He's never in the U.K. for any of those films."

The fact that British bobbies historically don't "pack heat" has produced a pretty wimpy persona, Wright feels--"certainly from an international point of view. Things are changing in the U.K. I'd say probably 25 percent of U.K. officers do have armed-response units, but, for the most part, your bobby on the street is not armed, so there's that factor which already makes it not very filmic. Another factor is that constables wear the round helmets, which is such an antiquated and outmoded form of uniform. It seems totally impractical to still be wearing this sort of turn-of-the-century helmet, and yet it is still going on today."

What genre will Wright & Pegg be annihilating next, he can't say. "We don't really approach it like that," he admits. "It's more like stories that we want to tell rather than what genre it is. We're both big fans of cult films and action films, and I think in both cases with Shaun and Hot Fuzz we made a film that we wanted to see made in England."

Their roots were also their guide. "The area that the film is set in is where Simon and I grew up--in the West Country. We saw Shaun of the Dead as very much a London film where we live now, and we wanted to make a film from where we grew up. There's an element of it inspired by the teenage daydreams of an overly imaginative imagination."