Ghost Hunting & Game Playing: Simon Pegg Interviewed

Simon Pegg recalls Colin the dog from Spaced and getting the call from Spielberg in a career-spanning interview with Elizabeth Aubrey

“Nick Frost and I always used to love to go ghost hunting in our spare time,” Simon Pegg tells me, laughing over lunch at the offices of his and Frost’s production company in Soho. “We’d drive out to an abandoned church or something and we’d give ourselves alternative names and then start to look for ghosts.”

The anecdote sounds like a sketch from 90s cult television show Spaced, the programme that launched the careers of the real-life best friends. Detailing some of their youthful ghost-hunting expeditions, the protagonists could very well be their Spaced alter egos, Tim and Mike. “We went as total cynics though,” Pegg quickly clarifies, laughing, adding that neither him nor Frost actually believed in ghosts – or at least, he thinks they don’t.

Pegg is now turning his and Frost’s part Ghostbusters, part Spaced experience into a new television series, Truth Seekers. “It’s something being written right over there,” he explains, pointing to a room across from where we are sitting. This will be one of the first projects to emerge from inside the walls of Stolen Pictures, their new production company. Immediately after our interview ends, Pegg will finish writing the pilot episode.

“It’s just a silly idea we’ve been tossing around for ages. We just thought it would be really fun to do a show based on a low-rated YouTube channel about ghost hunting that starts to get some actual, real results.” Basing a comedy around truth in a post-truth era seems like classic Pegg-Frost territory, their ability to capitalise on the dark tragi-comedy of contemporary society always proving fertile ground for both fantasy and farce in their previous work.

“These days when you look at paranormal activity on YouTube, there’s stuff you look at and you think, ‘okay, that might be a ghost’ and you aren’t scared by it at all because rationally, you think somebody has obviously created a trick. But then it’s like, well, if you did record some kind of paranormal event on video and put it on YouTube, nothing would change because people still wouldn’t believe it – they’d still think you were charlatans.”

As music radiates from the office where he is due to return to work later on, I ask him if the decision to go back to television was because of a yearning to return to his Spaced television roots or a need to break from his frenetic film schedule of the last few years (Pegg has four films out this year alone). It’s a question that somehow takes us initially to Colin the dog, who was as much a star of Spaced as his human co-stars.

“Ah, Colin!” Pegg reminisces. “I remember writing chunks of Spaced to specific pieces of music,” he says, as the music continues to echo into the room where we are talking. “It helped me to structure the whole scene when we rescued Colin the dog from the vivisection laboratory. That was all choreographed in my head to a specific piece of music. I always listen to music when I write; I’ll always be thinking of something if I listen to music.”

Pegg remembers the initial question and we dart back to the topic of television. The complicated answer, he explains, is partly because of the new artistic possibilities the genre affords, and partly because of business and survival.

“Everything has changed so much lately – and quickly – in terms of what television is. Television is no longer this poorer cousin of film. Television is now an incredibly diverse canvas and what constitutes a TV show now can be so cinematic and so huge that the boundaries between film and television are rapidly evaporating … now you can have Game of Thrones or something which is a vast cinematic epic, taking place over ten episodes of a season – yet it is not somehow smaller. The opportunities that television affords now are just super different.”

“If we want to run a business, there is no money in independent cinema, unfortunately. I still want to make it and I still want to create it but the film side of Big Talk productions which made Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul and The World’s End really wasn’t the money-making side. It’s a really rickety world out there for filmmakers and there are no sort of mid-budget movies anymore. For financial reasons, really, television is such a fertile marketplace: that’s where it is at present.”

Pegg began his professional life as a stand-up comic after studying Theatre, Film and Television Studies at Bristol University. He moved to London in 1993, after his then girlfriend inherited some money – “thank you very much to my ex-girlfriend,” Pegg deadpans. After arriving in Cricklewood, Pegg initially continued with stand-up before he was spotted and asked to take part in a TV pilot.

“I was quite directionless really; I was just trying to gig as much as I could. I did a gig in Chiswick one day and Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews were in the pub where the gig was. They offered me a role in the pilot for Big Train and Hippies and that’s how I managed to stumble into TV.” Eventually, it was meeting and working with Jessica Stevenson and Edgar Wright on a separate project which led to the beginnings of Spaced.

“Jess and I did a show together on the Paramount Comedy channel called Asylum and Edgar Wright directed it. Someone at Paramount was moving to London Weekend Television and said: ‘oh you and Jess should do something together’ and that was how Spaced was born.”

After two successful seasons of Spaced, the Edgar Wright-directed ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End followed. From there, Pegg’s career flourished as he appeared in the Mission: Impossible series as well as writing and starring in Star Trek. He also appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; as a child, Star Warswas one of his favourite movies.

“I was wearing a great big fat suit and I was right in the desserts of Abu Dhabi at fifty degrees,” he tells me about his part in The Force Awakens. “But I was of course more than happy to wear it,” he laughs. Watching Star Wars as a child repeatedly at his local ABC Cinema in Gloucester, Pegg revealed in his 2010 autobiography Nerd Do Well that it was one of his favourite films of all time.

“Being in it was more of an experience for me than actually watching it, eventually, because when I came to watch it, I knew what was going to happen, so I didn’t have the surprise or the discovery that I would normally have watching a Star Wars movie,” Pegg explains. Having had the opportunity to be in it and literally sit amongst all those incredible creatures…” his voice trails off and a huge child-like grin beams across his face at the memory. “To meet Chewbacca – Chewbacca! It was absolutely incredible.”

Yet just as Pegg’s Hollywood career was thriving, he quickly burned out and started to suffer from depression. “Directionless” is repeated again as he describes this difficult period; he contemplated giving up acting altogether. The actor told his agent that he was taking six months off to think about the future, joking that nothing would bring him back to work – except, perhaps, a call from Steven Spielberg.

Serendipity ensued; a few weeks later, Spielberg called and asked him to appear in his next film, Ready Player One – a film based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. Packed with pop-culture references from the twentieth century, Pegg was already well aware of the novel because it referenced his own writing.

“It was so strange when the call came. I was very aware of Ready Player One because of its reference to Spaced and similarly, Steven Spielberg is mentioned in it quite a lot.” Pegg describes it as a dreamlike moment, especially as his love of film was initiated by watching one of Spielberg’s films – Raiders of the Lost Ark – as a child. The film proved an important one, not only professionally but personally; it helped him to bond with his stepfather as a child following his parent’s divorce.

“I think Steven specifically decided not to keep any of the overt references to him in the movie for fear of being self-aggrandising. He is quite humble. People are seeing the film as being this rampantly referential nostalgia-trip, but actually it’s a bit of a cautionary tale about all that kind of stuff. It’s about the dangers of looking back and the tendency – which is really present in film these days – for everything to be rebooted, remade, and revisited – always looking back at things we used to like.”

“Really, some of it is just about [familiarity] and it being the only value there is; with Ready Player One, it’s more embracing the tendency towards nostalgia as a way of commenting on it and suggesting that maybe there’s also ‘now’, which is kinda important too.”

Pegg plays Ogden Morrow, a scientist who helped to create OASIS, the virtual reality game where people choose to live instead of the brave new world that 2045 has become. “He’s the less socially awkward computer nerd of the two,” Pegg says of his character. “He’s kind of a combination of Jobs and Wozniak. It was really good fun because I get to play him at various stages of his life which was really interesting. In the present day in the movie, he’s seventy-something and then in the past when he’s seen back in the day designing the game, he’s thirty.”

Pegg speaks at length about the irony he feels, appearing in a film based on a book that references his first writing project. Interspersing his talk with critical theory, obscure film references and philosophy from his Bristol days, he says he often explores the parallels between his former and current professional world colliding.

“There is an entertainment value in recognisable tropes and there is something to be had from familiarity – a frisson of joy, or easiness, or whatever you experience when you see something you know. But if something is just that, it’s empty… sometimes you go and watch things now and they are just trips down memory lane. If you remove that, there’s no substance underneath.”

“When we started Spaced it was kind of about people that have no contemporary frame of reference for their experiences. The only way they can describe their lives is through popular culture because they were the beginnings of that generation who are now sort of infantilised adults who are desperately consuming fairly childish things because that’s all they know and all they want. But with Spaced it was never just about making references for the sake of it – that was how they saw reality.”

It was at Bristol University where Pegg found himself amongst fellow film aficionados for the first time after a childhood spent as an avid cinema goer and VHS-watcher. “I discovered a whole new sort of chapter of my film-appreciating life… we were looking at Godard and all the greats of alternative filmmaking.”

His final year dissertation, he says, was about cinematic consent. “I started to analyse popular culture in more theoretical terms. I ended up writing my extended essay on films like Raiders and Star Wars as questions on the hegemonic elite.”

“If when you watch a movie which has certain political messages – even if they are inadvertent – if you don’t recognise those messages and distance yourself from them or accept that they’re being sexist or racist or homophobic or whatever it may be, then you are consenting to those ideas.” He draws a deep breath and laughs at the end of the sentence; “there was a lot to it.”

He explains how his studies informed his first film writing project, Shaun of the Dead. “We wrote it to be dismantled and examined. I remember writing it and thinking about how I would view this if I was looking at this film with a critical faculty. I would be thinking in terms of Shaun’s Oedipal desires, the social and cultural meaning of the zombies.” His studies still inform his work to this day: “I always think of how [the writing] will be interpreted.”

2018 will be one of his busiest years to date. Work on the next Mission: Impossible finished in January and Ready Player One has just been released in cinemas. There’s the writing of Truth Seekers to finish and he’s about to begin promotion for another film, Terminal, a dark film noir in which he stars alongside Margot Robbie.

“Vaughn Stein, who is the writer and director of Terminal, funnily enough, went to Bristol. We met and I got on really well with him. The script was very dialogue-driven, very character-led, and I really liked the idea of doing something different. I’d been doing Mission Impossible and Star Trek and running around a lot and having a lot of fun. I felt like I wanted to do some acting as well as reacting. I play an English professor who is very unwell and finds himself in this late-night café having conversations about death with Margot’s character. It’s very, very dark.”

Critically, Pegg thinks Terminal will surprise because of its distinctness from his other acting roles. It could also, he says, signal a change in the type of project he takes on in the future, having relished the opportunity to explore something much more sinister in tone. Does he have any thoughts on all the talk of a more nefarious Star Trek franchise emerging, if the rumours of Quintin Tarantino wanting to make a new Star Trek film are to be believed?

“We all got this email the other day from J. J. Abrams just sort of saying, ‘um, oh guys, Quentin Tarantino came in the office and pitched this and we’re gonna think about it.’” Pegg starts to laugh. “We were like, what? People just assume, I think, because it’s Quentin that it will be R-rated but he is a massive Star Trek fan… who knows!” Does he have any plans to do another Star Trek himself? “I know we’re doing more. I’d love to – I love those guys. It’s, of course, difficult because we lost Anton [Yelchin] and moving forward without him still feels unimaginable.”

Pegg lives with his wife and daughter in the country, firmly away from the limelight. Valuing his privacy, Pegg eschewed social media at the height of his fame. “I left Twitter because I didn’t like who I was on Twitter,” he begins. “I found that social media is a kind of pocket narcissism – there are people I know in real life, who I love, whose social media presence I despise. I didn’t like my social media presence in that I was like, ‘well who the fuck cares what I think?’ particularly when someone died. One of the main things was this sort of obituary porn you get on Twitter when someone dies.”

“It’s an uncomfortable place because it gives everybody the illusion that their opinion has weight and meaning. That’s not to say that everybody’s opinion means nothing, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be broadcast and it doesn’t have the validity of fact or truth. It also enables people who are less than enlightened to broadcast their horribleness with some kind of authority…”

“…Sometimes you find yourself tweeting ‘ah I went out with such and such last night’ and it’s like ‘ah, fuck off you name-dropper’! I kept getting angry at people I know and like, and was constantly, like, ‘shut up!’ Really, Twitter feels like the end of a party now, it’s like the drunkest, most belligerent, difficult-to-get-rid-of people at the end of the night are still there, swaying and giving their opinion.”

He says he is at his most content and creative when social media noise is silenced; coping with it, he says, wasn’t a healthy experience. Pegg says he’s firmly concentrating on work instead. As the interview draws to a close, we end by discussing his and Frost’s first film to emerge from their new production company. Slaughterhouse Rulez is a comedy in the spirit of Shaun of the Dead and written by Crispian Mills.

Pegg has a cameo in the film, alongside Frost and Michael Sheen, but this time, they have all stepped back to allow younger actors to take the lead. “It was funny, being the old guy on the set. I felt a bit like Bill Nighy must have done on Shaun of the Dead.”

What can we expect from the film? “It’s a comedy-horror film about a public school that sells off parts of its land to a fracking company. They unearth a terror from the deep which sort of exacts a brutal revenge on the school.” It sounds almost like something Pegg and Frost may well have uncovered during their paranormal investigations. “No comment,” Pegg says, laughing, as he heads back towards his writing room to finish work on the script as our interview draws to a close. He picks up a pile of papers and beams as he starts to write; music echoes from his writing room.

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