Last year I went to San Diego Comic Con twice. The first time it was the usual smelly, crowded nerdvana. The second time it was in Albuquerque New Mexico. The second version was a set built for the film Paul, a movie that teams Simon Pegg and Nick Frost up with director Greg Mottola and a mocapped Seth Rogen. I’m not going to lie – I liked the second one better. And not just because it had catering.
Mottola’s crew had turned a section of the Albuquerque Convention Center into an almost dead ringer for a corner of the San Diego Convention Center. There were booths from real comic companies and displays of real collectibles and toys and junk. Most importantly there were cosplayers everywhere; some brought their own (pre-approved, cleared with legal) wardrobes while others were outfitted by the huge collection of geek-approved t-shirts and costumes that wardrobe had brought along.
Some of those costumes, as you might expect, are Star Wars related (some, cheekily enough, are from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). I was surprised to see so many Stormtroopers and Princess Leia’s as Pegg has been very vocal about his Star Wars disillusionment (he flew to New York to see The Phantom Menace early!), which he dramatically re-enacted on Spaced, having Tim burn all his Star Wars memorabilia in the wake of Episode I. ‘Wasn’t my idea,’ he said. ‘I said, “No Star Wars things.” You know, I’ve got a lot of friends at Lucasfilm because I think they all agree with me, but they just don’t tell their boss.’
Even though Comic Con is only a small part of the movie – probably about ten minutes at the opening – it was important to Mottola to get it right. After all, Comic Con was where he met Pegg and Frostin 2007, when he was bringing Superbad. In fact, two Universal pictures may have had a genesis that weekend - Paul definitely began there (‘That’s where I met those guys,’ Mottola said. ‘It was a collision of collisions.’), and Edgar Wright recorded a fake interview with his future Scott Pilgrim star Michael Cera. So Mottola wanted to be sure he was showing the truest fake Comic Con he could.
‘We don’t have a gigantic budget and we saved a big chunk of money to do this right. But luckily the people who worked on the movie just killed themselves. I mean, there are people setting this up for the last four days, 24 hours a day, making it happen and obsessively went and researched it. But, you know, a lot of the vendors and the smaller independent publishing companies jumped onboard and said, “We’ll donate our stuff. We’ll bring our graphics.” I have to say, people like [George] Lucas and Star Trek people have been incredibly generous in letting use their stuff and be cool about it. It goes so far in creating a verisimilitude.’
So if Paul isn’t a Comic Con movie, what is it? It’s a road trip film – with an alien. Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are British dweebs doing a road trip in America.t’s like their fantasy road trip. ‘Their idea of a fantasy America road trip, their first time in America, is to come straight to San Diego Comic-Con,’ said Mottola. ‘They have very little interest in anything to do with America except for that and Area 51, and they’re going to sort of hit the UFO sites in the southwest of America.’
And just as luck would have it they meet an actual alien, one who is escaping Area 51. That’s the mocapped Seth Rogen. That’s Paul. ‘This is a two-hander,’ Pegg explained. ‘The central characters in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead were my characters, Nicholas Angel and Shaun, and Nick’s characters just stole the show, that’s what they did. Whereas this is like we’re both the lead in this film and Nick’s character is probably a little bit more confident, a little bit more assured than mine. Graeme is a bit more messy, less proactive. Paul’s kind of like Ferris Bueller, you know, he kind of affects everybody around him and never really is affected himself.’
Mottola says that Seth Rogen compares Paul to another famous movie character. ‘Seth’s analogy was: Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. He’s not that guy who changes, he changes the people around him. He’s actually quite fine the way he is. He’s just sort of a catalyst for a bunch of people who are a bit repressed or need to come out of their shell or whatever, and he affects them. He’s actually quite a liberal guy. And there’s some stuff in this movie that hopefully you all think will be kind of cool for a mainstream film. I mean, there’s discussions of theology and sexuality, because Paul is a totally liberated character who has no hang-ups whatsoever. It pushes some buttons about Christianity and stuff like that, that I think we can sneak in because he’s a fantasy character and you can say those things with a guy who’s not real. If one of your favorite comics got up in a movie and started preaching about atheism, it might ruffle some feathers. But I think we can let our little alien guy say a whole bunch of things that are kind of provocative.’
You heard that right – there’s going to be controversial elements in the film. You don’t have a road movie with a guy named Paul and not touch on something larger. ‘Paul’s very presence represents a contradiction to certainly creationist values,’ said Pegg. ‘Kristen Wiig’s character, Ruth, is a furious Christian and has a whole worldview rocked by the appearance of Paul and so has to question the notion of her faith and divinity in general. So there is a serious little thread going through it which we had quite fun with.’
Mottola and crew didn’t just recreate the floor of Comic Con, they also did their version of Hall H, which is where the exciting presentations happen. That’s where the assembled set visiting journalists got their moments in the sun, seated around Pegg and Frost in the audience as Graeme and Clive went to a very exciting panel. Our job was to sit there and, on cue, become ecstatic as the camera pushed in on Pegg and Frost. What were we being excited about? Nobody knew – there was some talk about getting Mark Hamill to do an insert shot coming out on stage – but Pegg had a very specific idea of what he wanted.
‘We thought maybe Twiki. Just a guy like waving. And [saying] “Bidi-bidi-bidi.”’
Sadly the photos released by Universal indicate that this intrepid reporter has been cut out of the scene. My memory plays tricks on me – I recall sitting next to Nick Frost, but the photographic evidence shows that some other dude in a blue shirt was between us. So while you can’t see me, you can see other jerks like Steve from Collider and George from Latino Review. This is going to reflect poorly on Paul‘s eventual numerical rating, I’m sure.
One thing we didn’t get to see was Paul himself. Rogen wasn’t on set, and would never be. In fact, they had already done the first part of the Rogen-oriented work. Said Frost: ‘We did mo-cap in Los Angeles like four months ago and we did his bits. And then we came out here and a few times in the last couple of weeks I said to Simon, “You know, Seth Rogen is in this film as well.”’
That presents a challenge. You want your actors to be acting off something in the scenes, and you want your alien to work as well as possible. Mottola turned to experts. ‘We’re working with Double Negative, who we’ve known for a long time,’ Pegg said. ‘They did Shaun and Hot Fuzz and have since done plenty of things: Hellboy 2, Cloverfield. And we’ve got Spectral Motion doing the puppetry that we do use and the live lighting reference puppets and animatronics. But it’s hard to talk to a red light, or Mr. Eyeballs is this pole with two ping-pong balls on the top.‘
There are also some live people standing in for the alien. ‘We’ve got a little guy in a costume and we’ve got a child at points playing Paul,’ said Frost. Joe LoTruglio, who has a regular human role in the movie as a federal agent chasing the trio, also does some occasional Paul stand-in work.
‘We have to shoot Paul so many times,’ Frost said. ‘Like, we did a scene in a night shoot the other day where, because the sun was coming up, I had like ten minutes to do my single. And then we re-shot Paul’s stuff the other day and he had like an hour and a half. Why? That’s not fucking fair!’
Pegg explains the process, where they have to do multiple takes for each shot to get the different elements: ‘We do it with those two guys, then we do it with no one there or then we do it with Joe Lo Truglio. Then sometimes we do it with a gray ball. Then Joe Lo Truglio, then nothing. So, you know, for each one shot we get, Paul has eight. We would have been wrapped by now.’
‘Paul’s a complete asshole,’ Frost said.
What’s especially weird about this method is that Rogen already did his mocap, well before the cast got to location. With talents like Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe LoTruglio and of course Pegg and Frost on set, you would think that Mottola would want to leave some room for improv. Turns out he did. ‘Seth will have to come back and always was going to,’ said Pegg. ‘What we did initially in Los Angeles was very preliminary and it was just to get a sense of the performance and what Seth would be doing.’
Paul the movie is going to be coming to the real Comic Con this year, so I’m hoping to see some footage and especially some of that alien in action. What we won’t be seeing at Comic Con are any Cornettos.
‘There is no ice cream consumed This is not a Cornetto film,’ Pegg said, referring to the ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ trilogy that Pegg and Frost have started with Edgar Wright (part one is Shaun of the Dead and part two was Hot Fuzz). ‘This is a different thing.’
Frost agreed. ‘This is part one of the Pepsi and Klondike Trilogy.’