Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are experiencing a Spielbergian moment in their careers. Their new movie, “Paul,” an alien road comedy, is a love letter to Steven Spielberg films like “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But the two British comedians also got a chance to watch Spielberg work up close as actors in the director’s upcoming film “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.”
On Sunday morning, hours before the premiere of “Paul” at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, Pegg and Frost talked about the unusual work environment on the “Tintin” set, which relied on much of the same performance-capture technology that James Cameron used on “Avatar.”
“Steven, he did a lot of his own camera work,” Frost said. “He’d get a movement he really liked, punch the air and do a little dance. It’s intoxicating. You want to perform for him. You want to be around that kind of enthusiasm.”
Spielberg first enlisted Pegg and Frost when Pegg was meeting with him about a writing job. Instead of the writing gig, Spielberg asked the pair to play Thompson and Thomson– two bumbling detectives from the classic comic series by Belgian artist Hergé. On the set, they were among the first to see Spielberg — who had never even shot in digital on a film – as he learned to use new technology.
“It was like he had a new train set,” Pegg said.”There was a genuine sense of novelty to him.”
Often Peter Jackson, who is producing the film, watched from a monitor in New Zealand. “Peter would do a bunch of rewrites at night while we were asleep,” Frost said, “and then we’d come in in the morning and be given the script.”
Pegg and Frost wore performance capture suits on the set, where a bunch of gray-painted chicken-wire would stand in for a setting like a marketplace.
“It was like rehearsing a play, like when you’re a kid and you’re pretending that thing over there could be the Millennium Falcon,” Frost said. “You have to concentrate. Peter Jackson is on the monitor, Kathy Kennedy is there producing. Daniel Craig — who looks amazing in a motion capture suit, by the way — is there. It’s like a big idiot’s dream.”
Pegg and Frost were visiting the set on one of their off days when they showed Spielberg a photo they had taken on a road trip to prepare for “Paul.” The photo–of an alien bust next to Devil’s Tower, the distinctively shaped Wyoming mountain that Spielberg used in “Close Encounters” — outed them to the director as Spielberg diehards.
“He very casually said, ‘Well, maybe I can be in it?’” said Frost. “We looked at one another and made a weird fangirl squee and then ran home and wrote him a cameo straight away.”