Comic-Con International in San Diego (Comic-Con for short) is less than a week away, and anyone who has ever had a chance to attend will know what a magical–dare we say “spiritual”?–experience it can be. Comic-Con is particularly significant to the makers of Paul, a new road comedy teaming Shaun of the Dead stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with Superbad director Greg Mottola. Not only does their movie begin and end at the annual Geekfest, but it also could be seen as the place where two comedy factions first collided.
There are many famous legends of like-minded individuals from different backgrounds meeting for the first time and creating a movement, the most famous story being the one about when punk rock legends The Sex Pistols played their first show in Manchester, England, leading everyone in attendance to form their own punk rock bands. (This phenomenon can be seen in Michael Winterbottom’s film 24 Hour Party People in case you don’t believe us.) If there was going to be a similar coming together of like-minded individuals in the world of comedy and geek and genre fare, then it would have to have been at the premiere of Greg Mottola’s Superbad at Comic-Con in 2007.
We happened to be at that premiere, and sitting behind us was Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright and his long-time pal Nick Frost, the duo having come to Comic-Con to show footage for their own upcoming comedy Hot Fuzz. It was the type of screening studios and filmmakers love because the audience just went bananas, howling at all the raunchy humor and loving every second of the movie. Clearly, something happened in that theater that night, because years later, many of the creative people in that room would be working together, Wright directing Superbad star Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, while Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, looking for someone to direct their script for Paul, would bring on Superbad director Greg Mottola. The results of this bizarre game of Pan-Atlantic Red Rover may as well have been kismet, because it ended up with the filmmakers behind two of the funniest comedies of the last decade working with the stars of the other one’s movie.
Mind you, ComingSoon.net has spent a lot of time at Comic-Con over the years, some might even say TOO much time, and when we were invited to Albuquerque, New Mexico to see what the trio were up to on Paul, of course we jumped at the chance, unaware that we’d be transported back to Comic-Con. By coincidence, just a few weeks earlier we had spent a day on the set of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim (which you can read about here and here).
Paul is a road trip comedy, one in which Simon and Nick play British fanboys Graeme Willis and Clive Collings, who come to the United States specifically to attend Comic-Con in San Diego and visit some of the great UFO sites they’ve heard about for years. At Comic-Con, they encounter a little green alien named “Paul” who joins them on the remainder of their road trip. Before our visit, there wasn’t a ton that was known about the project except for that general premise, and while we were on set, Simon, Nick and Greg still wanted to keep details of what happens in the movie as much of a secret as possible. What we did know was that Paul would be created entirely using CG animation based on motion capture, first done by Seth Rogen, who also provides the voice of Paul, then with a number of others filling in on set. (As far as we could tell, Rogen never actually came onto set with the rest of the actors.) One thing you have to realize (or remember) is that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are two of the biggest geeks out there, to the point where they seriously make some of those writing for geek sites pale in comparison. Over the years, we’ve heard all the stories about how much Pegg, Frost and Wright were looking forward to “The Phantom Menace” and how much they hated it, thanks in large part to one Jar-Jar Binks, so to imagine them making their own movie that would involve a CG alien using motion-capture made us wonder whether they would be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that brought down George Lucas.
Over the course of the movie, the trio would either run from or run into a variety of characters including Jason Bateman as FBI Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil, Jeffrey Tambor as world-famous sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild–he wrote something called the “Sky Farm Trilogy” apparently–and they even got sci-fi legend Sigourney Weaver on board to play a role. Apparently, Kristen Wiig even gets dressed up in a superhero costume to look a bit like the character Atom Eve from Robert Kirkman’s comic book “Invincible,” which sounds pretty hot!
Once we arrived at the Albuquerque Convention Center, we were told that we would be appearing as extras in the movie, and we were taken to meet with Elizabeth Gabel, the woman in charge of extras, who had to make sure we were dressed properly for our appearance. We met her in one of the Convention Center halls that had been designated to hold what seemed like hundreds of extras, all dressed up as various Comic-Con archetypes you might see there. The first thing we spotted were three attractive young women dressed as Princess Leia in her slave girl outfit, but that number would later grow to six or seven of them, all congregating together in their own little clique. Oh, and one of the Slave Girl Leais was clearly a dude. Looking around, we saw at least one RoboCop, a Shredder from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, someone dressed up as Pikachu, a strange lobster with pigtails and LOTS of Trekkers of various shapes and sizes.
It wasn’t going to be too hard for the visiting online press to fit in, since most of us were already wearing movie T-shirts, some of it swag we’d gotten from Comic-Con weeks earlier. We happened to be wearing our super-cool “Invaders Must Die!” T-shirt for the British rock band The Prodigy, but the wardrobe person didn’t know what it was and didn’t approve it, even though their song is featured in the trailer for “Scott Pilgrim,” ironically enough. Instead, we were handed another rock T-shirt, this one for the band Anvil whose doc Anvil! The Story of Anvil was released to raves months earlier. Fine, we weren’t the biggest fans of the movie, but that seemed better than going shirtless or being forced to dress up like Slave Girl Leia; we’re not exactly built like Taylor Lautner after all.
Once dressed appropriately, we were led upstairs to a large auditorium, which would quickly fill up with most of the extras we’d seen earlier, but we were put to the side and given special seating before any of the rest of them filled up the auditorium. By the luck of the draw, we were selected for the plum location directly behind the empty seats kept open for Simon and Nick. It was a strange audience since our group of visiting journalists looked more like the typical Comic-Con crowd than many of the local extras who had signed on for the day, but you could tell some were giving it their best college effort, including a cute young woman whose hair was dyed blue.
Basically, they were creating a Comic-Con panel where some guest would walk out on stage and the crowd would go wild before people in the audience would start asking questions. Greg Mottola’s first AD John gave the audience some instructions on what they would be required to do during the scene, as he instructed us to applaud and go wild. A few people in the crowd were given fake cameras that would allow them to snap pictures of whatever was happening on stage, essentially just props with working flashes. Once the extras were prepped, Simon and Nick came out looking very different than we’d seen them in previous roles, both of them having long, noticeably greasy hair, and Pegg sporting a beard. The two of them sat in the two empty seats in front of us, and filming of the scene began with all the extras and the visiting press really getting into the fervor of whatever was happening on stage without really knowing what might be added there later. Meanwhile, Nick Frost (who was sitting directly in front of us) seemed hellbent on making sure whatever he did would completely obscure us from every shot. From the pictures we were sent, you can see that he did a pretty good job because all you can see of us is a bit of our hair and maybe an ear. Either way, this scene was going to be part of a quick Comic-Con montage at the beginning of the movie before the guys meet Paul, and they’re likely to only use a few seconds of it in what would be roughly 10 minutes of cut-together footage.
After our “big movie debut” failed to happen, we were taken back downstairs to the main set (which had been kept very much a secret from us), and without being told what we would see, we walked through the doors and nearly fell over. Somehow, they had managed to recreate a good chunk of the Comic-Con exhibition floor, the Mecca of Geekdom, in the middle of a convention hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They even had scored the distinctive banners that mark the aisles on the convention floor directly from the people who put on Comic-Con. A lot of comic book companies like Image, Top Cow, Fantagraphics and Oni Press sent their entire booths over after the end of the convention to be used on set. It was pretty funny to see how many “Scott Pilgrim” posters and books were visible at the Oni Press booth as a blatant tie-in to the movie being made at the same time by Simon and Nick’s long-time collaborator Edgar Wright. Neither Marvel nor DC Comics wanted to be a part of it unfortunately, so that part of the Comic-Con was clearly missing, but there were tons of other exhibitors of toys and statues to make up for them. Still, this was a scaled-down version of the convention floor with different areas that could be used for filming the opening and closing scenes of the movie, and there even was a small concession area in the back where they could shoot one scene. A bit later, we’d have a chance to talk to the film’s production designer Jefferson Sage, who told us a little bit about how they went about creating the hall to the right scale and have everything they needed for the scenes they were shooting in the space.
We were given 15 to 20 minutes to wander around the floors checking out all the different booths and areas, because it really was a lot to absorb at one glace. The best part of this was that unlike the real Comic-Con, where there are literally tens of thousands of fans crammed into the exhibit hall, we had the entire run of the place to ourselves. “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” memorabilia seemed to be fairly prominent, including a life-size statue of Jabba the Hutt, around which all those Slave Girl Leias we saw earlier posed for a picture.
There were also a number of booths clearly set up just for the movie, including a couple displaying the books written by Jeffrey Tambor’s character Adam Shadowchild that we probably shouldn’t discuss at length, because they may give a couple clues to the arc of his character. We also probably shouldn’t mention a booth from the end of the movie that gives a similar clue to the outcome of Graeme and Clive’s journey with Paul. Another booth that was clearly part of the story was a tent-like structure with a sign on top saying “Area 51” adorned with camouflage and netting, which obviously would play a large part in setting up the guys meeting Paul.
After wandering around a bit, we were taken off to the side of the set to do some interviews, noting that the size and layout of the space was somewhat similar to Wonder-Con in San Francisco, which is itself a somewhat scaled-back version of Comic-Con. As we sat there waiting for our first interview, a guy on a bicycle from the props department rode by us with a bloodied cricket bat in the basket. Seconds later, another bike drove by with what looked like riot gear from Hot Fuzz. “Okay, someone is definitely taking the piss out of the visiting journalists,” we thought, and it was very much something Simon or Nick might do to screw with people they knew were familiar with their previous work. After all, many of those attending this set visit have known the duo since they did their first U.S. press tour for Shaun of the Dead, an event that’s held in as high esteem as when the Sex Pistols toured the United States. (Yes, we’re going to keep showing our age by making references to the Sex Pistols, in case you were wondering.)
After doing a bunch of interviews, we were taken back to the convention floor set, which was now teeming with people in all sorts of costumes, including at least one or two people dressed up like Shaun and a pair dressed up as Nick Angel and Danny from Hot Fuzz. We were placed at one of the booths off to the side adorned with Radical Comics posters with stacks of comics on the table. These were in fact not all Radical Comics books but all sorts of vintage Marvel and DCs with a carefully-placed Radical Comics book on top to mask the books of the companies who decided not to participate. If you’ve ever been to any comic convention, you probably know what to expect from a busy exhibition hall floor, but they had somehow managed to fill up most of the place with all sorts of Comic-Con types from the casual comic fan to people dressed up in the elaborate costumes we saw earlier as well as a few new ones, including a child dressed as Boba Fett and a few guys wearing Devo energy hats, something we’d never seen at Comic-Con before.
The first shot of the day they filmed in this space involved Simon and Nick walking onto the convention floor for the first time and looking around in amazement, the camera panning around them to capture Comic-Con in all of its magnificence. As we saw earlier at the mock panel, Greg’s 1st AD was working hard to wrangle all the extras and make sure they walk around in enough of an organized fashion as to not be complete and utter chaos. Throughout our time on set, they were filming a lot of B-roll to get a wide variety of shots of different Comic-Con denizens walking around, and we noticed a couple extras who kept appearing as if they were trying to get as much camera time as they could.
A few of the extras walked up to our booth and we had to pretend to talk to them without actually speaking aloud, something that is harder than it may seem. The three or four of us manning the booth continued our mock conversation with whomever would come up to look at comics until they said “cut.” Although there’s a chance one of us might get into that shot of the montage, it’s even less likely, since we were really there just to create the background ambience for the 360-degree camerawork Mottola was using on the scene. You’d probably have to scan the movie frame-by-frame on DVD to even see our booth, not that we’d stop anyone from trying to find us.
A bit later, we’d watch Simon and Nick film another part of the Comic-Con montage in which the duo are checking out a virtual reality booth. This bit seemed heavily improvised as they were allowed to do all sorts of crazy things, reacting to what they were seeing in their virtual reality glasses–which again, none of us could see. Nick pretended to be holding all sorts of guns and weapons, and at one point, Simon starts fighting with one of the kids playing at the booth with them, falling down as if he’d been shot. Watching Simon playing around in this scene made it clear that he’s great with kids, a good thing because apparently his wife had their first child mere weeks earlier.
After they were done shooting this Virtual Reality sequence, Mottola and the guys moved over to the “Area 51” tent we had seen earlier, where they began discussing and preparing a scene that would be shot there, but it was pretty late at that point and time for us to leave. Now while this wasn’t one of those set visits you leave feeling you know too much or everything about a movie, it was a generally fun day being a part of the production, rather than just watching it, even if the chances of actually being in the movie are pretty slim.
Paul opens on March 18, 2011. If you’re at Comic-Con, then don’t miss the panel for Paul on Saturday at 4:45 PM in Hall H, and who knows? Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk to them more that day.