Like so many screenplays, The World's End has its origins in a Starbucks. As director Edgar Wright tells it, the ideas for the sci-fi action-comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost came to him while shooting the trio's last film, the buddy-cop parody Hot Fuzz. That film takes place in the quintessentially English town of Sanford, "an untouched pastoral haven, a hamlet of loveliness," says Wright, "and in reality there was a Starbucks right in the middle of the street that I had to erase. It didn't fit in the movie. So that stuck with me, the fact that there was a McDonald's and a Starbucks that hadn't been there."
That you-can't-go-home-again moment led to two running themes in The World's End, which finds 40-something loser Gary King (Pegg in greasy, wannabe-rocker hair) returning to the small town where he grew up. As the self-appointed "Party Nazi," he pushily herds his high school chums, including the straitlaced, several-years-sober Andy (Frost), through a 12-station bar crawl they'd failed to complete as teenagers. It isn't long before the five friends — the other three played by Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan — discover that their hometown has become more familiar than it ought to be. Every bar — The Famous Cock, The Trusty Servant, The King's Head — has the same menu, the same bartender, even the same clientele.
"'Starbucking' as a verb is what we are talking about in terms of the British pub, in that these old boozeries have been taken over by a chain and homogenized," says Pegg. "Nostalgia's all about comfort and familiarity, and Starbucks creates a weird synchronous nostalgia: They're creating a nostalgia in the present, a benign sense of comfort by making everything look the same."
Wright interjects, "Can you make a note in the article that says two of the three filmmakers" — he and Frost — "were drinking Starbucks? As in the film, Simon's the only rebel. Simon's drinking Canada Dry."
The Herculean effort to distance oneself from one's own nostalgia is the central theme and the emotional core of The World's End. "It's a love-hate relationship," Wright says. "Shaun of the Dead was a love-hate letter to London. Hot Fuzz was a love-hate letter to our hometowns. This is a love-hate letter to the past. It's about what we love about the past, but it's also about the dangers of looking back."
Unmentioned is the central irony of their latest work, that the script's explicit disavowal of nostalgia clashes obliviously with the film's reliance on boyish delights: killer robots, consequence-free violence, the apocalypse.
Though Wright traces his and Pegg's preoccupation with the themes of arrested development and perpetual adolescence back to Spaced, the 1999-2001 British sitcom that first brought the trio together, the dangers of nostalgia seem to have become all the more compelling in recent years.
"Two of us were passing 40," says Pegg. "We're approaching middle age — we are middle-aged. It's a time of reflection." It's a stage of life they also unwittingly typified while discussing doing a Reddit Ask Me Anything with their publicists just before this interview. Thinking the AMA was an auction, Wright and Frost happily agreed to participate until Pegg, the most tired (and probably busiest) of the three, clarified that it'd be a huge undertaking and that they'd need to do a lot of research to prepare for the session.
"I don't feel any different at all [getting older]," asserts Frost. "I think just everything around you changes. I still dress like a big kid." Of the three, he's the only one in a T-shirt. It advertises the Die Hard video game Nakatomi Plaza.
"Can I just say I don't dress like a big kid?" Pegg responds somewhat peevishly. Indeed, he doesn't. Covered up by a stylish gray wool cardigan and clear plastic frames, his strawberry-blond hair slicked back, he looks more like a Swedish architect than a movie star. He has an air of intellectual ennui about him, too, except when he's about to fall over from leaning too far back in his chair. Wright dons the standard director's uniform of shiny black blazer and jeans.
Frost relents. "To be honest," he says, "I would never go on a pub crawl [like the film's characters] because walking around drinking in a big group of men is complete anathema to me. I would rather stay home and have a couple glasses of champagne and enjoy a nice curry with my wife."
"That's the next movie," Wright jokes.
"A Nice Curry with My Wife," Frost riffs. "Me, Philip Hoffman, Catherine Keener."
"A Late Curry," adds Pegg, referring to Hoffman and Keener's Oscar bid from last year, A Late Quartet.
Wright is more than happy to spread that sense of "where did the time go?" to his audience. Having co-written the screenplay with Pegg, the director explains that he made the characters long for 1990 "to make people feel old. That was 23 years ago, guys!"
Well aware of the culture's creeping '90s nostalgia, Wright laughs, "We wanted to get in early and kill it."
"We're looking to do the '00s nostalgia now," says Pegg. "People will say, 'Remember the first iPod? It was white and chunky, and it was hilarious.'"
"Like me!" chirps Frost.
As with the other two films in the Cornetto Trilogy — so called because of fleeting cameos by the ice cream brand in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz — The World's End is also a cheeky British retort to Hollywood.
"A lot of movies [today] are about nostalgia, about rec-reating things from childhood," explains Wright. "Big studio films are either remakes of films from 20 years ago or adaptations of toys or inspired by things from your childhood. There's also the man-child genre in American comedy, which is usually about glorifying the idea of being a big kid. So we liked the idea of giving that a twist. By forcibly trying to turn back the clock, Gary [Pegg's character] is sometimes the villain of the piece. We wanted to combine all of these" — alienation, nostalgia gone awry, and rampant Starbucksification — "into one hellish night. As soon as the bottle is uncorked, things go wildly wrong. In that sense, it mirrors a night of drinking, because no bar crawl ever ends happily. It's always going to end in annihilation. All of the different words for 'drunk' lend themselves to images of devastation: 'wasted,' 'annihilated,' 'obliterated.' All lead to this boozy Armageddon."
Well before the American release date of The World's End, Pegg is already thinking ahead to the DVDs. The movie is "definitely one of those films you need to see more than once," he says. "This isn't some cynical marketing ploy of ours to get people to pay more than once. [The film] is engineered to be re-watched. In this day and age, thinking further down the line with DVD and stuff, you owe it to audiences to make films bear repeated viewings, to bury stuff in there that you couldn't possibly get on a first watch. Sometimes we'll put a punchline before a setup so you won't be able to get the joke until you see the setup. Which means you won't be able to get the joke until you see it a second time. So foreshadowing, callbacks and things, you'll pick up on it all more clearly the second time."
Then he describes his own dystopia: "When everyone who's bought these DVDs has one and there's a surfeit of DVDs in five or six years, you can get a free DVD with every box of Cornettos."
In keeping with their vigilance against nostalgia, neither Pegg nor Wright seems willing to indulge fans by returning to their past films. "The problem with most sequels," says Wright, "is that they have to return to the status quo. Or if you do a second film — no disrespect — but after the first one, it becomes more ridiculous. Like, with Scream, Neve Campbell has been through the wringer four times! When you're doing a sitcom, when we were doing Spaced, you always have to return to the status quo at the end because it's too difficult to change everyone's lives every half-hour. But with these movies, they're extremely final. In the course of a movie, you can change not just five people's lives, you can change the world. Which is fun!"
Adds Pegg, "There's the headline: 'Give us five minutes and we'll change the world.'"