Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far, far away
Even readers who adore J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis may not realize that, back in their day, no one was writing the kinds of stories they enjoyed — what Tolkien called “time-travel’’ and “space-travel.’’ So they did, embarking on their famous novels set in Venus, Narnia, and Middle-earth long before fantasy or science fiction would become the established genres they are today.
Like Tolkien and Lewis, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are British and longtime friends. Also like Tolkien and Lewis, Frost and Pegg tell stories that please them. “Paul,’’ the latest film they wrote and in which they star, opens Friday. It’s about two British geeks who leave the pop-cultural convention Comic-Con, in San Diego, on an RV excursion through the Southwest, only to take on an unexpected passenger: the title character, a gray-skinned, big-eyed, Area 51 escapee (voiced by Seth Rogen). Greg Mottola (“Adventureland,’’ “Superbad’’) directed.
“We’ve written a film that we want to watch and laugh at with our mates,’’ said Frost, in Boston last week to promote the film. Unlike the socially-awkward, aspiring science fiction writer Clive Gollings he plays in the film, the cheery Frost sported dark-rimmed glasses that self-consciously bespoke “nerd.’’ “That’s always what we have always done. You find that there are pockets of ‘us-es’ everywhere.’’
Those pockets of fanboys and fangirls will have a hard time not whispering to their theater seatmates when they spot the dozens of dorky inside jokes riffing off of “Star Wars,’’ “Star Trek,’’ “The X-Files,’’ “The Blues Brothers,’’ and nearly every fantasy or adventure film in the Steven Spielberg canon, from “Close Encounters’’ to “Raiders.’’
“The movie is very much a tribute to him,’’ said Frost, who was 10 when “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’’ was released in 1982; Pegg was 12.
Some of the references are more “sci-fi 101,’’ said Pegg, who plays Clive’s best friend, the wannabe comic book artist Graeme Willy. That’s to make sure average moviegoers and not just hardcore genre geeks will buy tickets. “We had to make this film appeal on a broad level because it cost a lot of money. Because of Paul, really. He’s expensive. It’s like hiring Will Smith, literally, to get Paul on the screen.’’
But Pegg promised the film has plenty of obscure references, too. “It’s replete with gifts for those who know their stuff,’’ he said. “For the faithful.’’
One such nod: “Duel,’’ an early Spielberg film, is listed in red letters on the movie marquee seen toward the end of “Paul.’’ “ ‘Easy Rider’ is on double bill with that,’’ said Frost. “The street we were [shooting] on was the street where Jack Nicholson meets Peter Fonda.’’ Be on the lookout for even more abstruse references, and cameos.
In fact, geeks might bring bingo cards that replace numbers with such items as “swooning Ewok,’’ “mention of Reese’s Pieces’’ “Mos Eisley cantina music (played by country band),’’ “dialogue from ‘Aliens,’ ’’ and “bevy of metal bikini-costumed, ‘slave girl’ Princess Leias.’’ Drinking coffee in a hotel suite overlooking the Charles River, the two stressed that the point of “Paul’’ was not to ridicule those who collect samurai swords or speak Klingon (as both characters do in the film), but to celebrate them.
“We never wanted to make fun of it,’’ said Pegg. “Obviously those kind of fans are our bread and butter and helped get us where we are. We didn’t want to then turn around and say ‘Ha, ha. You big bunch of losers.’ ’’ Clive and Graeme are portrayed as mildly, and endearingly, dysfunctional and codependent, but ultimately good guys with big hearts.
Both actor-writers long ago established their geek cred. Pegg costarred with Frost in the cop-action movie spoof “Hot Fuzz’’ (2007) and the “zomedy’’ “Shaun of the Dead’’ (2004). Pegg cowrote both films and more recently voiced the character Reepicheep in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.’’ “Young Scotty,’’ from “Star Trek’’ (2009), is his highest profile role to date. He will also star in the planned sequel. Both have acted in the forthcoming “Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,’’ and when the Spielberg-Peter Jackson motion-capture juggernaut hits screens later this year, each of their stars will rise even higher into the dweeby firmament.
On the “Paul’’ set, they also geeked out on special effects required to bring the pot-smoking, wise-cracking space-dude to life. Rogen (“The Green Hornet,’’ “Knocked Up’’) shot a video reference version of the movie and recorded dialogue on a sound stage, but never joined the actors on location. Instead, Pegg, Frost, and the rest of the cast, which includes Jason Bateman and Kristen Wiig, acted with “a child, a small man, a ball, a stick with balls on it, some lights,’’ said Pegg. “All the way through I was thinking, this is never going to work.’’
Lining up sightlines between the eyes of humans and the yet-to-be generated CG Paul (to establish believable connections between the characters) caused the biggest headaches. “How do I know where to look?’’ Pegg said. “But it worked.’’ (“You see Ewan McGregor looking at Jar Jar Binks,’’ he added, taking a swipe at the “Star Wars’’ prequels. “He’s like looking above his head.’’)
If one geek fantasy is finally to defeat the bully, get the girl or boy, and find fame or fortune with your secret passion, then “Paul’’ fulfills the dream. Not to spoil the ending, but Willy and Gollings do become rock stars in their own realm.
Another holy grail is that geeks might get to hang with real wizards, orcs, hobbits, superheroes, or robots. For two hours, “Paul’’ brings this pipe dream closer, too.
“We always see these characters in fantasy environments. We see Gollums in Middle-earth and all the ‘Star Wars’ animations are in the ‘Star Wars’ universe,’’ said Pegg. “The context fits the sprite. But in ‘Paul,’ we wanted that character to be in an environment that was totally, literally, alien to him.
“And that makes him seem even more real, because you don’t expect to see him.’’
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,’’ can be reached at www.fantasyfreaksbook.com.