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In the new comedy Paul, in theaters March 18, British actors/comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — cult-pop icons for their acclaimed collaborations with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) — play comic-book-reading, sci-fi-lovin' English geeks who meet a potbellied, flip-flop-wearing, stoner-slacker who also happens to be an alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) while Winnabegoing through the American Southwest visiting fabled extraterrestrial hot spots. Among them: the Little A'Le'Inn, the fabled middle-of-nowhere truck stop/tourist trap located in the Nevada desert along an epic stretch of two-lane road known as ''Extraterrestrial Highway.'' The wind-whipped clapboard charmer resides not far from the real Area 51, a U.S. Air Force facility that's used to develop and test experimental aircraft... or so they say.
Last week, EW.com (that's me, Jeff Jensen, on the left) hung out with Pegg and Frost as they paid a return visit to the Little A'Le'Inn in advance of Paul's release. Fortunately, we were neither abducted nor probed by any big-eyed, bulbous-skulled, bony-fingered humanoid creatures — or by any aliens for that matter — and were able to return with pics, as well as revealing tales about the production of Paul itself.
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Pegg and Frost, who wrote the script for Paul, researched the movie by going on the very same RV road trip that their characters take in the movie. Universal Studios, the movie's distributor, covered the costs. ''It was like a paid holiday!'' says Pegg. Adds Frost: ''It turned out to be the most valuable thing we could do. We learned so much about RV culture and saw part of the country. It would be insanity to think we could write this movie without this trip.''
According to Paul director Greg Mottola, ''They wanted to see America — the real America — from the road. And because they're actors, they had a driver.''
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When Pegg and Frost visited the Little A'Le'Inn during their exploratory road trip, they had a close encounter of the allegedly hillbilly kind. ''We were the only people here, me and Nick,'' says Pegg. ''We were running around the place, just geeking out, and these two guys came in. Real hunter-trucker types, and the way they were looking at us scared the bejeezus out of us. 'They're going to kill us for being science-fiction freaks!' Our fight-or-flight response was triggered. We thought, 'We're totally going to fight these guys!' And then we promptly ran away.''
Looking back on the experience, Pegg and Frost recognize they were letting their imaginations — and some preconceived stereotypes — get the best of them. Says Frost: ''We kind of realized the other day that the film may be a subconscious reflection of our own experience of coming to America — this place we've watched all our lives on television and the movies — and meeting all these amazing people and learning that they're actually pretty ordinary and not weird creatures, at all. Or most of them, at least.''
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At the Little A'Le'Inn, you can buy a decent burger (and all sorts of alien-inspired T-shirts, toys, and trinkets) and play on a banged-up, blurry-screened Pac-Man machine. (Someone give them a Space Invaders or Defender box already!) You'll find a wall papered with photos snapped by people claiming to have captured actual unidentified flying objects on film. You'll also see a couple behind-the-scenes snapshots from Paul — although for the record, Paul didn't actually shoot at the Little A'Le'Inn. Director Greg Mottola says that because of budget reasons, ''we shot the vast majority of the movie in New Mexico. So our art department came to this place and took a lot of pictures and tried their best to replicate it. They re-created the sign and the UFO hanging from it. We shot the scene in Albuquerque. Our version is not quite as remote — you can actually see other humans in the vicinity.''
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No, they aren't the Men in Black. They're the guys who drove us down the road to shoot underneath the Extraterrestrial Highway sign. Yes, we needed someone to drive us. Actors, you know. (And a pampered journalist.)
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The inspiration for Paul: bad weather. Says Pegg: ''On Shaun of the Dead, we were having a lot of trouble with the weather, and our producer Nira Park said, 'On the next movie, can we do something where it doesn't rain?' As a joke, Nick and I pitched this idea of a movie set in the desert. That led us to thinking about Area 51, so of course that meant having aliens in it. And since we had to insinuate ourselves in the story somehow, we figured we'd be British tourists. I drew this poster, with an alien giving the middle finger. And I named him Paul, because he's just an ordinary guy. And I wrote under the picture: 'In America, Everyone's an Alien. Paul. Coming Soon.' Well, Nira stuck the picture on the wall in her office, and the idea never really went away. In our quiet moments, we kept talking about Paul, as if it was our fantasy movie, but something we'd never actually do. It came to [Shaun helmer and frequent collaborator] Edgar Wright going off to shoot Scott Pilgrim. We knew he had to be away for awhile, and so Nira said, 'Why don't we make Paul?' And we went, 'Sure!'''
Adds Frost: ''Yeah, all those years dreaming about Paul, it wasn't as if we were seriously developing a movie. It was just us basically mucking around in the garden! But Nira is so tenacious; she gets stuff done. Simon and I, we're basically just lazy SOBs without her.''
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With Paul, the uniquely English Pegg and Frost collaborated with a pair of uniquely American comedic sensibilities that shared their love for all things geeky. ''What no one would know about me from the films I have made is that I am a real science-fiction fan,'' says the Superbad helmer. ''When I was 7, my parents took me to see 2001 in a theater. They feel asleep, but my mind was blown.''
Mottola says he wanted to take the job of directing Paul so he could work with Pegg and Frost and also tackle the creative challenge of getting an emotional, comedic performance from a computer-generated character. The process began with casting the funnyman behind the digital mask. ''Seth was the first person I thought of,'' says Mottola. ''I've known him since he was a teenager. He has always been an older man trapped in a younger man's body. He's also completely, sincerely genuine; he just doesn't care what people think of him. And that's Paul. That's how Simon and Nick wrote him.'' (Mottola reports that Rogen saw another, non-alien antecedent in Paul's pop culture DNA: ''When Seth first read it, he said, 'He's Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop — the cool guy who changes people around him but doesn't need to change himself.''')
It should also be noted that Paul smokes pot, ''which made Seth a natural choice for the role for other reasons,'' laughs Mottola. ''Sometimes I wonder if the government has Seth under surveillance...''
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We weren't alone with Simon and Nick (and Greg) during our Area 51 adventure. Outside the inn, Team Paul shot a couple videos for a pair of comedy websites, and as it happened, both had the keen idea of working a Star Wars angle, one more so than the other. Of course, both Pegg and Frost are noted Star Wars fanboys, with Pegg crediting George Lucas' classic space fantasy as the gateway drug for a life hooked on geek stuff. ''We were exactly the right age and exactly the right demographic to be seismically impacted,'' says Pegg. ''From that point forward, I hoovered up anything with space or aliens in it: Star Trek, This Island Earth, The Thing.''
''And the action figures! I could re-create the experience in my garden!'' laughs Frost, who cites Close Encounters of the Third Kind as his sci-fi spark. ''My auntie was dating an American airman, and one day when I was 11, I was at her house and he said, 'I have a video for us to watch.' It was Close Encounters. It was the first movie that really meant something to me — even before I saw Star Wars.''
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Pegg and Frost have found ways to work out their geek passions throughout their individual and shared careers, from their British sitcom Spaced to Pegg's participation in J.J. Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise (he plays Scotty, but you knew that) to Frost's role in the British alien-invasion film Attack the Block, scheduled for a May 13 release in the United States. But their sci-fi fandom finds its fullest expression in Paul, which communes with (and quotes) a variety of alien-visitation flicks. ''Most sci-fi today is derivative of what has come before,'' says Pegg, whose previous films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (both costarring Frost and directed by Edgar Wright) paid homage to the horror and action genres, respectively. ''All we've done with Paul is admit to it.''
''They're the Kanye Wests of geek culture,'' says Mottola. ''They take the things they love, dice them up, and put them back together with their own jokes.''