When talking about film regarding extra-terrestrial themes there really are only two themes; films where the E.T. is shown as evil, vicious and determined to wipe out mankind…or they are shown as innocent, lovable and friendly to select humans who help them escape to their original home.
Paul, opening this Friday in theaters, is the latter and latest of what seems to be an invasion of films that feature a creature that is not from this world. Released by Universal and produced by Relativity Media, Working Title Films and Big Talk Pictures, it stars Seth Rogen (The Green Hornet), Kristen Wiig (Macgruber), Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead), with Pegg and Frost also doing the screenplay and Rogen as co-producer. It’s directed by Greg Mottola, (Superbad, Adventureland) and has a supporting cast that includes Jason Bateman (Hancock), Bill Hader (Pineapple Express), Blythe Danner (Little Fockers), Joe Lo Truglio (Role Models), John Carroll Lynch (Get Smart), Jane Lynch (Glee), Jeffery Tambor (Arrested Development) and Sigourney Weaver (Avatar). The sci-fi comedy is rated R for Language, Sexual References and Drug Use. Released in the United Kingdom on February 14th, 2011 it was the top grossing film in it’s first weekend.
Paul (voice over by Rogen), an extra-terrestrial captured by the government in 1947, seeks to escape from the notorious Area 51 where he has been held for over sixty years. He suspects his usefulness has served its purpose and he’ll soon be put to final use via dissection to see what makes him tick. He carjacks a passing RV but an accident causes an encounter with two comic book nerds named Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings (Pegg and Frost) who are on a trek to visit a convention and various E.T. sites around the country. Apparently, communication is no problem because Paul speaks English very well, with more than a bit of sarcastic wit that he somehow picked up in his sixty plus years as a government prisoner. Paul relates the government plan to gut him, and the two men decide to help him rendezvous with an incoming spaceship to take him back home. The trio then accidentally pick up a woman (Wiig), who is on the run from her domineering father. This sets the scene for a cross country chase with government agents and the father after the unlikely foursome.
So how did two English guys come up with the idea of a sci-fi film set in the Nevada desert? Seems like it had to do mostly with the weather. During filming Shaun of the Dead in England, Pegg and producer Nira Park were discussing his next project with Pegg lamenting the rain delays they had in filming. Pegg wanted his next movie to be shot in a warm, dry climate. He said to Park: â€œLetâ€™s make a film somewhere it never rains, like a desert.â€ Park then relates; â€œThat day, over lunch, Simon handed me this drawing of an alien with a tagline that read, â€˜In America, everyoneâ€™s an alien.â€™ He said, â€˜This is our next movie, a road trip with an alien.â€™ We talked about it a bit and how the film would be shot in the American Southwest. After that, I pinned the piece of paper on my drawing board and kept thinking about it. It was a brilliant idea.â€
To get an idea of the landscape, Pegg and Frost took a road trip across the southwest in an RV and actually worked elements of that trip into the script. Said Pegg “Every day there was a new experience. We had a real adventure. It was vital and brilliant fun, and we never could have written the movie without it.â€ When the trip ended, the pair then watched dozens of alien and road trip films. â€œWe just sat opposite one another and banged it out, line by line,â€ recalls Frost. â€œFor a time Simon went off to do How to Lose Friends; Alienate People, and since we needed a draft of the script, I went away for a couple of weeks and wrote a big 180-page script. When Simon returned, we took that behemoth and completely deconstructed it. We kept what was good, and what was bad was elbowed. Simon had a big monitor so I could see what he was typing. We discussed every single line, sometimes for hours.â€
The two then looked for a director. Both had been impressed by Greg Mottola’s work with comedy in Superbad and felt Mottola’s style was light and he could bring an indie feel to a mainstream film. Six months later, Mottola received the script for Paul. He recalls: â€œJust as Shaun of the Dead is about zombies and Hot Fuzz is about action movies, this was an homage to late â€™70s science-fiction films and the genre of science fiction in general. This was something that had tremendous nostalgia for me. They were writing about it from the inside as two fans of the genre. My operating principle is that when I want to make a film, when I read a script to try and decide whether to throw my hat in the ring, I have to feel that itâ€™s something that I am uniquely qualified to doâ€¦that I have a way of doing it that would be different than the other guy.â€
The decision then had to made with regard to who would “play” the central character. All agreed that Paul had to be more than the usual CGI alien, he needed a distinct voice that “humanized” him and made him more appealing to audiences. As Seth Rogen had worked with Motolla in Superbad, he was an obvious first choice. â€œWhen Sethâ€™s name came up, it seemed cool,” says Pegg “because Sethâ€™s got a lot of youth and vitality. He also has this gravelly voice, and obviously heâ€™s incredibly funny. As soon as we started thinking about Seth, we began to adapt Paul slightly. By the time Seth got to him, Paul had evolved into this Ferris Bueller-style sprite who changes everyoneâ€™s lives.â€ Adds Rogen; â€œFerris Bueller is rad to begin with and rad to end with, but everyone else is a little more rad for hanging out with him for the day. Thatâ€™s what we talked about with Paul. Graeme and Clive are incredibly nerdy and in their shell and very afraid to do anything; to go after a girl or pursue their career aspirations. Paul coaches them through that. Plus, these guysâ€™ dreams come true and they meet an alien and heâ€™s actually a fun guy to be around. He does things like drink beer, smoke weed and make jokes.â€
So, last week the world was in danger of extinction in Battle: L.A. and this week it’s the alien who gets our sympathy. What is one to think? This plot has actually been done before in the 1984 film Starman, which involved a cross country chase of an alien assisted by humans while being pursued by government bad guys. I suppose enough time has passed that this concept will come across as fresh material, plus the alien being portrayed as more than a CGI character is a different twist. Have a good trip, Paul.
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