Teatime of the Dead

by Suw on October 30, 2004

The day has come. The day has gone. And my mental state is still somewhere between 'squeeee!' and 'oooooh!'.
Now, we all know that I don't deal well with fan/star situations, we all know that I have a perfectly healthy and not in the least bit obsessive interest in Shaun of the Dead, and we all know that at midnight, the coach turns into a pumpkin in a nasty case of apocolocyntosis.
I've spent most of the last few weeks since my friend Paul got tickets for The Cult of Shaun, a Shaun of the Dead masterclass with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, sublimating my nerves into other activities. After all, there's nothing like a kick in the shins to take your mind off a stubbed toe. And I did quite well – this morning was not spent nervously shuffling round London waiting for impending humiliation, mainly because I knew that it would be perfectly possible to totally avoid any actual contact with either Simon or Edgar.
Instead, I met up with Steve, Paul and Bal at the Marquis of Granby for a few pre-masterclass drinks and some lunch. Then on to the Curzon Soho cinema which, I must admit, I rather like – it just has a nice atmosphere to it.
Never been to one of these ScriptFactory masterclasses before, so really had no idea what to expect. The format is basically that Simon and Edgar were interviewed on stage by Jason Solomons, a film journalist who writes for The Observer. They also showed three snippets from the film.
Actually, that in itself was interesting. I've only seen SotD on DVD, so have never seen it on the big screen at all. Although the quality wasn't particularly good – it wasn't a film projector that they were using – to see the film at that size was illuminating because even after seeing it ten times already, I was still spotting things I'd never seen before and jokes that I'd missed.
An example is the sequence where Shaun and Ed have just killed Tim the Groom and are discussing the Plan, trying to decide where would be safe to hide out until the crisis is over. They comment that they can't bring Shaun's Mum and Liz back to their flat because it's a mess – this said whilst in the background is Tim the Groom's body, covered with a coat. I'd never spotted that before so I fair near pissed myself at a gag I'd not previously noticed.
It was also interesting to hear people around me reacting too. I've only ever seen the film with a maximum of me and one other person in the room, but to hear the peals of laughter ripple through the audience was really fantastic. That, precisely, is the reason why you cannot beat seeing a film in a cinema with a hundred-odd other people, and why I have to see SotD on the big screen some time.
But back to the masterclass. I'm crap at remembering spoken stuff, so I can really only give edited highlights here, things that stuck out. I also need to disclaim on behalf of my memory – I'm doing my best to be accurate but, well, fallibility is my middle name.
The conversation ranged from discussion of the writing process to working with WT2 to why the Second Coming is not such a bad record after all – although not everyone likes it, it does have some good tracks. (I agree with Simon on that, actually.)
Interesting points were that Simon admitted that originally, when they had started to think about writing a film, he had the usual 'I don't need to read about writing feature films – no one can tell me how to write' attitude. Despite that, he had got a copy of Syd Fields and read about structure etc., and that he found it really useful stuff. That is, to my mind, good to know.
Essentially, they had had so much fun with the zombie episode of Spaced that they decided that they wanted to do a zombie film. Over a period of time they toyed about with ideas and until eventually they had the time to sit down and really work on it.
Whilst they were making Spaced, they did get quite a few film producers asking if they had any ideas, an admission to which Paul and I mouthed to each other 'Bastards!'. I wish some film producer somewhere would ask me if I had some ideas – I've got a small book full.
Anyway, they winged a meeting with Working Title, which came to nothing, and then successfully pitched to FilmFour. Seven drafts and two years down the line, however, FilmFour scaled back and Working Title (WT2) stepped in to pick up the pieces. Lucky for us all that they did.
In terms of the writing process, they started off with index cards, each with a scene on, which they then arranged into some sort of order. They then brainstormed that with a flipchart, writing each scene out, making character notes and generally beginning the fleshing out process. (*cough* no pun intended.)
The flip chart is actually on the DVD and, as Simon pointed out today, doesn't differ that much from the end film, which goes to show just how bloody talented the fuckers are. Apparently they did cut out a plane crash, but that was voluntary. After all, no point putting something that you know will get axed for budgetary reasons. The original title was apparently Teatime of the Dead, which was a stab at encapsulating the quintessential Englishness of the film.
Another interesting point that they both made was that this idea that Americans don't get irony is bollocks. As Edgar said, this is the country that brought us the Simpsons, so the idea that they don't get irony is totally illogical. In fact, they didn't think about internationalisation at all during the writing process apart from for one gag. In the garden, during the scene with Bloody Mary, they changed the word 'pissed' to 'drunk' because in America, 'pissed' means 'angry' and the gag just wouldn't work.
As it happens, when an American friend of Edgar's quoted the line back to him, he actually misquoted it as it had been originally written: “Oh my god! She's so pissed!”
The American audiences, in fact, 'got' Shaun of the Dead without any problems. The only gag they didn't get was the Cornetto joke (Shaun asks Ed if he wants anything from the corner shop, and Ed asks for a Cornetto), because they don't have Cornettos in America. But for a 90 minute, very English film, that's pretty good going.
In fact, I think SotD spent three weeks in the American top 10 box office charts, which is not to be sneezed at.
Regarding product placement in the film, Simon's advice was to be brand specific. Now, I've heard people on Zoe get quite apoplectic about brands in scripts, but I think Simon has the stronger point – if the brand is integral then you have to be explicit. For example, in the film Ed is playing Timesplitters2. Now, that's more than just a name of a game, it's a cultural reference and as such it needs to be spelt out.
They had hoped that they could clear the rights to use Medal of Honour, but the games studio wanted to vet the script before they would clear anything. When they realised that Ed was a weed-smoking layabout, they decided that they didn't want to associate with weed-smoking layabouts so vetoed the game's use. Simon pointed out that this pretty much describes their entire customer base so is a touch on the illogical side.
Simon and Edgar's attitude was that it's actually better to be explicit and go through the (painful) process of clearing rights than it is to save the effort and make brands up, because everyone knows when a brand is fake and it's detracts from the reality of the film.
They also discussed the marketing of the film, and how they were involved in pretty much every facet of it, down to Simon writing the copy for the Threshers SotD promotional leaflet. The drawback of this, as Edgar said, was that once you say you want to look at everything, you have to look at everything, even the promotional beermats.
I'm delighted to hear that Simon and Edgar are going to be involved in the comic book adaptation. Initially they had not been sure that they wanted to, but they realised that it was going to happen anyway, and that it would be better if they were involved. That has to be good news for all of us.
Some of the other stuff that they talked about is also the DVD commentary, particularly stuff about the order in which they shot various bits of the film, but what was interesting was the discussion of how much stuff they actually improvised on the day.
One example is Shaun's walk to the shop. The first slate on the first day was the second walk to the shop, after the zombie invasion. Simon improvised much of the physical aspects of the walk – the trip, the scratches, the coughs – all of which he then repeated when they later shot the first walk to the shop, so that the two sequences closely mirror each other.
They also talked about how the original ending was a bit weak, because they ran out of money and time to do anything more impressive. After the test screenings, the responses were unanimous that the ending didn't work, so WT2 asked them to write two versions of a new ending – the ending that they'd do if money was no option and a more realistic one.
Apparently the 'ideal' ending involved Phil driving the Jag through the pub wall and explosions and stuff. WT2 picked the sensible ending, which they shot six months not only after principle photography had finished, but after the first cut had been made. Simon said it was a bit weird to be going onto the set of a film that, essentially, he'd seen finished and on screen.
Edgar talked about test screenings too. Simon had wimped out and not gone, preferring instead to skulk around at home and let Edgar go instead. The test subjects, though, didn't get to see the finished film, but an early cut. The sound hadn't been redubbed, the SFX were missing, as were some of the sound effects, making it a not entirely pleasant experience for Edgar, who knew what was missing.
This highlighted, however, the important of sound design. In the Bloody Mary scene, with Shaun and Ed in the garden, Ed takes a photo of Shaun struggling with Bloody Mary. After pushing her over and holing her on the rotary pole thingie, the two men stand in shock and Ed, almost instinctively, winds on the camera for another shot. Understandably, without the sound of the wind-on mechanism the audience just didn't pick up on what Ed was doing, so the gag fell flat.
There was a short question and answer session, during which my nerves reasserted themselves (potential for interaction, you see). One of the questions was 'How do you maintain control?', to which Simon answered 'Stamp your foot'. Somehow, I think that may be closer to the truth than most people would care to believe.
After the questions finished (ooh, I'm getting nervous now just thinking about it), Simon and Edgar left the auditorium. I honestly thought that was the end of it, that they wouldn't then be hanging around in the bar area just outside the auditorium, so I was a bit surprised to see them there.
Now, I suffer, as we all know, from that whole 'don't bother the talent' mentality, the one that prevents me from going up to anyone famous. But, well, I thought to myself that if I didn't go and say something, I would really kick myself. Simon was standing there, without much of a crowd around him, so I went over and shook his hand and gathered my nerves and attempted to express my admiration for his work.
Unfortunately, the best I could do was 'I just wanted to say that I really like your film'.
What the fuck's that? I'm supposed to be a writer, for fuck's sake. Articulate. All that shit. And the best I can do is 'I really like your film'?
I then went on to explain that it was, in fact, the first zombie movie I have ever seen. Unsurprisingly, Simon recommended that I watch Dawn of the Dead, which I duly promised to do. And of course, now I'm going to have to because a) Simon told me to and b) I promised. Oh fuck.
Anyway, by this point I was verging on gibbering. I don't really remember what he said after that, but I thanked him again, mentioned something about hiding behind cushions and ran away.
So, Simon, if you're reading this, you have joined the ranks of a very small elite. Only you and Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals have actually made me truly lost for words. Yet, like Gruff, Simon was the perfect gentleman, polite, friendly and not in the least bit star-like.
As Steve said afterwards, one gets the impression that Simon just doesn't do the star thing, that he's just him, and this attention is a perplexing and peculiar aberration. Of course, I guess he might actually be a complete git, but his apology to the audience that they didn't have time to answer all of our questions was obviously honest and heartfelt and gives the lie to the complete git theory. (Waffling in a cinema near you…)
After talking to Simon I couldn't possibly leave without also talking to Edgar, and it occurred to me whilst waiting that I could give him the uri to OpenZombie, my SotD wiki. Of course, I had to explain what a wiki is, but he said he'd go take a look.
I also asked if they were going to release the script online, but apparently they are probably going to do a script book, so they are not going put it online anywhere. I refrained from giving them the Creative Commons argument, but I did beg for a copy anyway and gave Edgar my email address. Not expecting to hear anything at all, but you never know. There's the chance that he might go to my wiki and thence to here and he might take pity on me and email me a copy.
So, Edgar, if you're reading this, please, let me have a copy. I promise I won't put it online.
Then, suddenly, we leave the Curzon and I'm left somewhere between 'squeeee!' and 'oooooh!'.
Rather than go to any of the other London Film Festival screenings, we repaired to The Cambridge for a full post mortem. Conclusions were that it was a really good masterclass – entertaining, interesting, educational.
I must admit, one of the reasons I love SotD, Spaced, Simon and Edgar so much is because when I watch their stuff, when I look at what they do, I am not left with a bitter taste of envy, but with the most delightful feeling of gleeful enthusiasm. When I listen to the soundtrack or watch the film, it immediately renews my love for film, and my belief not just in the British film industry but also in myself. It makes me want to get on and market Tag, to finish the next screenplay, to start the one after that.
I also love sitting around with other writers dissecting everything from Spider-Man 2 to the state of father's rights. I was joyous, though, to discover that Paul had only recently seen SotD for the first time, and I really did love discussing it with him in some considerable detail.
But the thing that is going to stay with me is the memory of Simon, sitting only a few metres away from me, saying “I'm really pathologically a geek and I'm very proud of it”.
We need more geeks like Simon around, and more films like Shaun of the Dead.

Anonymous October 30, 2004 at 10:59 am

I'm very proud of you, Suw. I expected you to faint having touched – actually touched – Mr. Pegg and to have to drag your unconcious body out of the cinema.
You're so cute when you're starstruck. Bless.

Anonymous October 30, 2004 at 12:30 pm


Anonymous October 30, 2004 at 12:52 pm

Hm. So going to a masterclass by two writers I admire is creepy? Or was it briefly talking to them afterwards that's creepy? Or writing it up on my blog so that I don't forget what they said? Or was it asking for the script?
I think your creepiness threshold is way, way too low. If you knew some of the things that some Duran Duran fans have done, then you would know the true meaning of the word 'creepy'. Yesterday's events weren't even in the same league as 'creepy'.

Anonymous October 30, 2004 at 9:04 pm

It was a good session, Suw. I've been to loads of these talks and they have the potential to be awful. But this one had a good compere and two excellent subjects. You can tell they've worked together a lot, it was like watching a good double act – there were several occasions when Edgar set up a line for Simon – sometimes deliberately, othertimes just cos their minds work on the same track.
I think your note is pretty comprehensive.. I was just struck by how human they managed to be after a load of success. And it was good to see somebody make a film using some of the formulaic 3-act stuff and actually acknowledge that it helps. It shouldn't straight-jacket you, but it can liberate you if you let it (but don't take it too seriously).
Anyway, I hope you're back on Planet Earth again. Let us know if you hear anything back from them

Anonymous October 31, 2004 at 12:59 pm

Somehow, I doubt that I will ever hear from them, but at least I tried.

Anonymous November 1, 2004 at 9:19 am

Throwing your knickers at Simon Pegg, now that might be creepy. But, really it would only be inappropriate fandom. To be counted as creepy in my book, you'd have to slip an unsigned note into his pocket containing the words, 'I love you, I want to kill you.'
Anyway, congratulations Suw. I also tend to suffer from famous-person-meltdown (Iain Banks shook my hand once, and I went bright red and ran away. Thank goodness Iain M Banks wasn't there, or I'd be doubly-embarrassed,) and I think you did great!

Anonymous July 8, 2005 at 1:59 pm

Yo, Chill.

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