Once known as the greatest British sitcom never to be seen in America, Spaced attracted new attention in 2004, thanks to the success of the zombie comedy Shaun Of The Dead. Shaun was co-written by star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, two-thirds of the creative team behind Spaced, which aired on Britain's Channel 4 over two seasons in 1999 and 2001. Pegg co-starred in Spaced with his writing partner Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson), playing a pair of London twentysomethings with big dreams and possibly not enough ambition to make them come true. Passing themselves off as a couple in order to secure a flat, they end up surrounded by movie posters, carry-out menus, and eccentrics.
Part slice of turn-of-the-century slacker life, part reference-rich, pop-culture-mad pastiche of everything from Star Wars to The Shining, Spaced came to life via Wright's spirited gift for carrying off cinematic touches on a television budget. Subsequent to Spaced, Wright has directed Shaun and Hot Fuzz (both with Pegg) and is now connected to two high-profile comic-book adaptations, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series (set to star Michael Cera) and Marvel's Ant Man. Shortly before Spaced's DVD release, Wright talked to The A.V Club about the roots of Spaced, a not-picked-up Spaced remake shepherded by McG, and what he's doing next.
The A.V. Club: Why did it take so long for Spaced to come out on DVD here?
Edgar Wright: I think until Shaun Of The Dead came out, there probably wasn't that much demand. And when we did the press tour for Shaun Of The Dead in the States, which was about four years ago exactly, people kept asking about it. In every Q&A;, there would always be one person… I'm sure there was a large majority who didn't know what it was at all, but there would always be somebody who would ask, "Is there going to be a third series of Spaced? When is Spaced coming out on DVD in the States?" So I'm glad that at least one of those questions will never get asked again in a Q&A.; [Laughs.] I think really, it was a just a case of getting the rights sorted out for the music, which were cleared for the UK, but not for the rest of the world. I'm very pleased it's finally coming out.
AVC: How does the show look to you now? It's been a few years since you finished the second series.
EW: Last November, the British Film Institute, to celebrate 25 years of Channel 4… The fact that it's on BBC America is slightly confusing. It's not a BBC show, it's Channel 4. Which I don't know if you're aware of. It's one of the other networks, and sort of famous for doing quite experimental and edgier stuff. Channel 4 is the same network that did Brass Eye, Ali G, and Father Ted. So they had this marathon in November, and we did a Q&A; and introduced it, and it was pretty much a full cast reunion. In fact, the Q&A; is on the DVD. I watched the whole thing and some episodes I hadn't seen for a very long time. I'm kind of overwhelmed when I watch it, especially when I watched it in one hit. So much work went into that show, and so much blood, sweat, and tears. It was really exhausting, watching the whole thing. There's a couple of things that feel a little dated, and a couple of bits were… There were moments in the second season where if we didn't jump the shark, we came very close. [Laughs.]
AVC: Like what?
EW: I think looking back, we're faintly embarrassed by the Matrix episode. Even though there's loads of good jokes in that one. I think at the time, we thought The Matrix was as cool as we thought Star Wars was during the first season. [Laughs.] It was very funny timing that the first and second series landed on either side of The Phantom Menace. It's kind of amusing. It absolutely… It couldn't have come at a better time to really show the before-and-after contrast of that phenomenon.
Maybe the one with the robot wars and the One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest parody—which I like, and fans, it's one of their favorite episodes. But I'd like to think 90 percent of the time, Spaced and the other stuff we did is more than the sum of its parts. There are pop-culture references, but they inform something about the characters. What was interesting, actually, when there was this recent remake—I'm going to call it a farrago, the remake farrago—one of the things that really struck me was how dear the show was to me. Not that that wasn't clear to me. But it also became very clear how many of the reference points and the pop-culture references are quite personal, and that they did come from real experience, and they did come from all three of us. And there were sometimes stories behind every single reference. So it wasn't necessarily a case of just having a checklist of what was zeitgeisty from the last 18 months.
AVC: Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes wrote the series together. How did you come to be involved?
EW: I had done a show with them both for some of the same producers—Asylum, which was on a network called the Paramount Comedy Channel. Which there are a few clips of on the documentary. Simon and Jessica had worked together before, I'd worked with Jessica separately on a sketch show [Mash And Peas] with Matt Lucas and David Walliams. And basically on this show Asylum, which I wrote with David Walliams, Simon and Jess became a really dominant double-act in the show, and were just brilliant together.† Very different sort of show than Spaced, but very similar stylistically. And they were so great as a twosome that one of the producers suggested they start writing a show. So they started writing Spaced, and I was very fortunate to be involved, or certainly to be their choice as director right from the start.
Usually in TV… A TV director could be anything from a main grip to just a glorified cameraman, and sometimes a director can be the person who is hired last. It's very much a producer's medium. But Spaced was really great, because I got to read and chip in on the scripts right from the first draft. So there was like an 18-month period whilst they were writing, and all three of us went off to do other shows between Asylum and Spaced. But the scripts were kind of developing. That was great for me, because I had a lot of time to think about it, so when we actually started shooting, we could hit the ground running and really go for it. If I'd only had six weeks of prep, it might have been a different story.
AVC:† How different was it in terms of the style and the approach to other British television at the time?
EW: I think prior to that… Growing up, there were TV shows that were very funny but very traditional. Classic things like Fawlty Towers, obviously, and Blackadder were pretty traditionally shot. And then there were the ones that start to break the mold, or be really ambitious. The ones that spring particularly to mind would be The Young Ones. That was a show in the early '80s that was a year-zero, extinction-level event for comedy just in terms of how much it tried to break the rules and do something different. I think that was a big influence. And then also shows like The Day Today and Brass Eye, when they came along in the mid-'90s. I just remember watching Brass Eye and being so utterly blown away by the scope of it, and how much it managed to cram into an episode.
I always tended toward… There was a sketch show, Smith And Jones, pretty funny but quite traditional, with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. Usually on a show like that, a sketch show, if they had a circus set, you could bet any money the circus sketch would be five minutes long, and you'd see five other circus sketches later on in the series, because they had to justify the expense of the set. Then something like The Day Today with Chris Morris would have a joke with a tiger, and the tiger would be onscreen for five seconds. You'd get "Wow! There was a tiger!" And then it'd be gone. That was the thing that really struck me. And with Spaced, the level of effort put into small sections didn't necessarily mean they had to be onscreen for a long time. I think there's something to be gained from seeing something very elaborate in a short space of time, and that having an impact, rather than getting into lots of bang for your buck.
AVC: How did you manage that on a Channel 4 budget?
EW: I frequently look back and try to figure that out! Somehow it all came together. I think it's just a lot of really hard work and a lot of planning and stuff. When I watched the marathon in November at the BFI where they showed the entire thing, it was exhausting watching it. I'm only 34, and I made Spaced when I was 24, and it just kind of overwhelmed me in terms of—I just thought, "Man, we did a lot of work on that show." [Laughs.] I think that was the thing—we just used to work really hard and have a crazy amount of setups per day. And just used to really go for it. Also, I think scheduling-wise, it was always a thing of—you'd have days down in Brian's flat where you'd be shooting weird inserts which would be a lower page rate per day, and then other days when you were in the flat, you had to kind of make up for that by shooting more—the dialogue stuff, more per day. I think in a strange way, because we had a low budget, we were pretty under the radar, and we didn't really get that much interference. It was low enough that nobody was on our case. But I think we owe it to our producers. Nira Park and Karen Beever just wouldn't give up. The editors were really into it. We just put an enormous amount of TLC into it, and worked on it 24 hours a day, basically, to try and make it look good for the money.
AVC: Did Simon and Jessica ever write anything that you couldn't shoot?
EW: Not really. I don't think so—I can't think of anything off the top of my head. If you saw the scripts for the first series and compared them to the second series, the first scripts were written, and they are the show you see onscreen. But there's a lot of detail that isn't in the script, what the episodes ended up looking like, with visual ideas and graphics and sound gags and all sorts of things. Then Simon and Jess could write the second series knowing what the end result of the first series was. So there was a strange thing where we had more money for the second series, but the scripts had become three times as ambitious. And even just down to when you have shorter scenes, and more scenes per episode, that immediately has an impact. So the second series was really tough to make. And for my money, one of the reasons we didn't have a third one was it was absolutely cripplingly exhausting. The scripts were already pretty dense, and the making of it just made them even denser.
AVC: It's all grounded in a particular kind of London subculture. Is that something that you all came out of?
EW: At the time, certainly in the first series, we were pretty much living those lives. We were all the age groups of the characters, I was 24, Jess was 25, Simon was 27. We were all living in similar living quarters to the characters. I did a commentary with Patton Oswalt on one of the later episodes, and at one point during the commentary, Patton is looking at this street and says, "Where the fuck is this place in London? It looks terrible." And I said, "This is where I used to live! In fact, this is where I still live now. This is just North London, that's it." There's no other way to quantify it other than this is what North London looks like. It's certainly not the Richard Curtis kind of London that you see.
AVC: There are parts of London you never see in movies.
EW: That's what we tried to do with Shaun Of The Dead as well. Usually in film, you have Richard Curtis' London, and you have Guy Ritchie's London, and both of them are a slightly Disneyland-esque kind of fantasy! [Laughs.] Both on the nice end and the gangster end. But Spaced, that's what the majority of London looks like, as you know, you've been there. Really, that was one of the things when we were making the show, we really were those characters. We were really playing those games. Even the PlayStation console that was on the first series was my one from home. Nick was living with Simon. He was essentially Simon's funny friend, who up until he started acting, almost had the fate of being a kept man. [Laughs.]
Spaced was partly a reaction to other youth-oriented sitcoms that were out at the time that were basically trying to rip off Friends. There were a couple of shows, one called Game On and another one called Babes In The Wood, that were very much trying to do Friends in a British way. And they'd always have wine bars or fancy coffee shops, or they'd always look funky in a way that didn't reflect the reality. And the reference points were always wrong. It would always annoy me when somebody in Game On or Coupling would be playing a videogame and saying "I'm playing Mega Kill Zone 4!" It would always annoy me that there wasn't any specificity in the references. I think the real thing was that we were essentially exactly the age group of the characters on the screen and in a similar financial bracket and living conditions.
AVC: Did you ever worry about anyone outside of that particular age group not getting the references?
EW: The yardstick that we tried to use was The Simpsons, because The Simpsons has some incredibly obscure references. It should always be the case that you should be able to enjoy the episode on its own terms without knowing those things. It doesn't really matter if you've seen Don't Look Now or The Conversation. That's immaterial to what's onscreen. Maybe there were moments when we didn't listen to our own rulings and stuff, but generally the thought was that it didn't really matter if you hadn't seen the things we were talking about. But I think the flipside is, it did end up speaking to a certain generation, and that's maybe one of the reasons people still talk about it, because they feel they've been spoken to.
AVC: What exactly happened with that "farrago," McG's American version of Spaced?
EW: I think—not having anything to do with it, I'm not in the loop—I think it's not happening, I don't know. [Laughs.] I don't think the pilot got picked up.
AVC: Did you see the pilot?
EW: [Hesitates.] Yes I did. [Laughs.]
AVC: Should we leave it at that, then?
EW: Yeah, let's leave it at that. [Laughs.] That should say all, really. I'll only say that I had to watch it twice, and not necessarily because I liked it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Moving on to happier things, did you realize at the time of Spaced that you'd be working with these people for the next 10 years?
EW: I hoped so. I remember being with Simon and Jess on Asylum—I remember being blown away, and thinking what an amazing person Simon was to work with. I felt like he was my muse. I'd been writing for comedy and making amateur films—I made a film when I was 20. Up until that point, I'd been using my school friends and casting whoever was around. And then to actually meet really talented comedy performers, and go "Oh my God, this guy's amazing!" And Jessica's amazing. And Nick Frost, too. When Nick Frost appears onscreen in the second episode of Spaced, when he turns up at the party in the second episode, that was his first time ever in front of a camera. It was exciting. I certainly hoped that I'd be working with those three—I'd certainly want to work with them again.
AVC: Nick Frost is especially good in Hot Fuzz. That's a really tender, vulnerable performance.
EW: Absolutely. I think that's the thing people almost forget about. It's easy to pitch his characters as one particular thing. The likes of Mike the gun nut, or Ed the stoner, and Danny the dumb policeman. But what all of them have is a soft side, and a sensitive side, this kind of wounded-puppy-dog side. Which is what really makes them. It was interesting to see the version of Mike in a certain remake, and how it didn't have any of those subtleties at all.
AVC: It's probably the emotional element that people really latch onto with Spaced, more than the references. What care do you take to make sure that finds its way into your projects?
EW: There has to be that element. Otherwise… People talk about Hot Fuzz and Shaun as if they're Zucker brothers films, or Mel Brooks films. But the reality to us, at least, whether people get it or not, is that once we're within those genres, our films do come from a personal place. Shaun Of The Dead, aside from the zombies, is actually very personal about relationships, both with girlfriends and family members. There's a lot of stuff there that's really close to home for me and Simon. Even with Hot Fuzz… That was set in my home town, the town I grew up in. And those elements, even the crazy sort of batty conspiracy, are things I kind of grew up around. [Laughs.]
So there's always that sort of thing—they're both, in a weird way, quite personal projects. And Spaced very much so. Because in Spaced, we were projecting what was happening to us at the time onto the screen. Where we were living and what we were thinking and what we aspired to be. And I think that's one of the reasons that whole remake business is so hurtful to us. Because it didn't seem like it was such an easy, high-concept thing where you could take the plots and the characters, and hey, remake a show. What's special about Spaced is… I don't want to say the heart, cause that's not got it exactly. It's the emotional element. The writers of the show are the stars, so there's a real personality to them; Tim and Daisy are real extensions of Simon and Jessica. There's experience behind every single joke, or it comes from some kind of real place. I don't want to sound too—I'm starting to sound like James Lipton all of a sudden. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you permanently closing the door on the idea of a third season?
EW: I don't think so. To constantly annoy the fans, we've never said never. There's times when we all have different answers for this, as well. I can't speak for the group, and Simon can't speak for Jess and myself, and vice versa. But I certainly feel like both seasons end on a note whereby it could be the last. The intention was to always try and write something that wraps it up. The second series was an exhausting experience, and we took a bit of a break. And then that break just got longer, to the point where it was difficult to go back. Especially age-wise, you certainly couldn't return to Tim and Daisy being in their late 20s. That would be as fraudulent as anything else. There's a very British tendency with TV to quit while you're ahead. They call it the curse of Fawlty Towers. The Young Ones is another one like that, where at the end of the second series, they drove off a cliff in a bus, and the bus exploded, and they all died! [Laughs.] It's the Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid of comedy endings. So there's definitely a tendency to do two seasons of something, then just stop. To go back—it could be brilliant, and there could also be a million things that go wrong. Personally, I think we should leave on a high and let that 14 episodes be it. But then you see something like Before Sunset at the cinema, and you think "Ah! That works really well!" It's kind of a 7 Up kind of feel, where you can return every 10 years.
AVC: What are you working on next? There are several different stories out there.
EW: They're all true. Because I've kind of been on this… Since Hot Fuzz came out, I've been writing about four different things. But Scott Pilgrim, the adaptation, is likely to come next. So I've been working on that. We're starting pre-production on that in October. And I've been writing this script for Marvel as well.
AVC: Ant Man, right?
EW: Right. And also, me and Simon are hatching an idea for a third film. And then I'm also writing another solo film as well. I've been trying to get together a little slate of material. I found after the experience of making Shaun Of The Dead and then returning to the blank page—because Shaun Of The Dead was the first screenplay I ever wrote properly—the experience of returning to the blank page and having nothing in the drawer was intensely painful. I just thought, "I never want that to happen again." I've been like a squirrel, writing like four different things at a time so I've always got plates to keep spinning in the air.