Sir Peter Jackson has a cheeky anecdote about his first meeting with British film-maker Edgar Wright.
Jackson had finished The Lord of the Rings and was busy on pre-production work for King Kong. "Word came through that there was a film-maker and his actors coming to New Zealand to promote their movie Shaun of the Dead – and they were keen to meet.
"I didn't know a hell of a lot about the movie. I'd been a bit cut off from the real world for a while. I asked if I could see the movie first. I had a screening at 10 in the morning and I watched it by myself. I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. It was absolutely fantastic. I called [my partner] Fran [Walsh] at home and said: 'Wow, I've just seen this amazing film'. I asked if we could see it again at 2 in the afternoon. So we saw it again."
The private screening of British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead in 2004 for Jackson was just in time. Wright, along with stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, arrived in Wellington that night.
"My first impression of Edgar was of a 12-year-old boy with a false beard."
Sipping an espresso in a Wellington waterfront bar last weekend, Wright, 39, still sports a beard. It's neat and trim and doesn't look false. But maybe it's because over the past decade Wright – who was directing top British comedy series while still in his early 20s – has grown into the part of successful film-maker.
Wright was in Wellington on a whistlestop tour to premiere and promote his new movie, The World's End, with stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Conveniently, one of the film's other stars is Martin Freeman, who has been domiciled in Wellington for several weeks completing The Hobbit with Jackson.
Wright was last in New Zealand in 2007 with Pegg and Frost to promote Hot Fuzz, their follow-up to Shaun of the Dead. It was that trip, he says, that sowed the seed for the idea for The World's End, a comedy about former school friends who reunite after years apart to finish a pub crawl in their home town, only to find that it has been overrun by aliens.
"We were flying from Wellington to Sydney. I had written this script when I was 21 about teenagers on a pub crawl. It was very much in the vein of doing an English American Graffiti-style movie. [But] I remember that the same year Hot Fuzz came out, [the American Graffiti-influenced] Superbad came out. I was thinking: 'I will probably never do anything with that script. Somebody's beaten me to it with a movie about teens drinking'.
"Then I thought: 'Wait a second. What if it [the pub crawl] was just the start of it.' We were already thinking about what we'd do for a third film. I told Simon: 'You know that pub crawl script? What if it was about the older guys trying to re-create their glory days?' Both of us are from small towns. And I wanted to do something about that and this seemed to be the perfect fit to do paranoid social science fiction, to take that proverb of 'you can never go home again' and to give some kind of sci-fi metaphor to why your home town was different to what it once was."
But while the idea gelled, Wright, Pegg and Frost had other commitments, which meant The World's End was put on the backburner. Before Shaun of the Dead, the trio had worked together, including television comedy Spaced. But post Hot Fuzz they were also busy with other projects. Pegg had the biggest profile on film, including two Mission:Impossible movies with Tom Cruise and as Scotty in JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboot. After Hot Fuzz Wright made his first Pegg and Frost-free movie, the American action comedy Scott Pilgrim vs The World, based on a graphic novel series.
Pegg and Frost also voiced Thompson and Thomson for Steven Spielberg and Jackson's The Adventures of Tintin, while Wright co-wrote the script.
It wasn't until mid-2011 that Pegg and Wright found the time to sit down together and write The World's End script.
The film has been dubbed the third and final in "the Cornetto trilogy", as the icecream features briefly in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and – hilariously – in The World's End. But while there are similar themes running through all three comedies – including regret, lost opportunities and a lot of action happening in pubs – The World's End is their most personal movie, Wright says.
For one, he tried – and failed – to complete a pub crawl in his late 20s with Pegg and Frost in the small English town that he grew up in. And the reason they made the attempt was because Wright never finished an equally ambitious pub crawl while a teenager. "It ended spectacularly badly. I got through even fewer pubs. But it was a highly memorable night."
The experience made Wright think about why he was trying to recapture his youth and the same question is raised in the film.
Then there's the over-the-top character Gary King, played by Pegg. Unlike the rest of the school friends, who have moved on with their lives, King is still fixated on his youth and the failed pub crawl. Wright says as people age they always know someone like King.
"The characters and the emotional side of it had some kind of resonance. A lot of people have had that experience, even if you still live in your home town."
Wright is busy promoting The World's End for the next few weeks, then the focus will be on finally bringing another long-planned project to the big screen: Ant-man, based on the minuscule but powerful Marvel superhero.
At one point Ant-man was to have been Wright's next movie after Scott Pilgrim. Then Wright discovered that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz executive producer Eric Fellner had been diagnosed with cancer. Wright says if it wasn't for Fellner's tenacity Shaun of the Dead may never have been made, so Wright and Pegg decided that making The World's End first took priority.
"I wanted Eric to see this movie. I went into Marvel and they were very understanding when I said, 'I really want to do Ant-man but I have to do The World's End'. They understood ... there was something personal about it. It was slightly like a wake-up call. When you've made a promise to somebody it brought home to me how much he means to us as a mentor. He basically kick-started our careers.
"The happy news is that Eric is in good health."
The World's End is screening now.
Watch Peter Jackson discussing the movie with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
- The Dominion Post