You’ve Got Red on You:
How Shaun Of The Dead Was Brought To Life
Ellis Reed reviews You’ve Got Red on You - the forthcoming book about the making of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, written by Entertainment Weekly's Clark Collis...
Shaun of the Dead (UK, Edgar Wright, 2004) is so firmly entrenched in the pop culture landscape that it’s hard to imagine it not existing – and yet, like everything else in the universe, it very nearly didn’t.
Whenever you scratch the surface of an event, however small, you reveal a long chain of cause and effect, composed of things that went one way instead of another. If the multiverse is real, then there’s a dimension where Edgar Wright didn’t watch the first half of An American Werewolf in London when he was ten. In another, Resident Evil wasn’t released while he was working on the same set as Simon Pegg. It isn’t clear if Shaun of the Dead would exist in either of these worlds or countless others that come to mind when reading You’ve Got Red on You, which is the first book by Entertainment Weekly’s Clark Collis.
Here, Collis has performed an unprecedented deep-dive into the genesis of Shaun, mapping out the many events – some big, some small – that led to it not only getting made but also taking off in a big way. The resulting tome is densely informative, continually fascinating, and, like all the best non-fiction, written with a soupçon of storytelling flare.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Shaun was once the plucky underdog, rather than a pop-culture juggernaut. Collis does a fantastic job of setting the scene and taking us back in time. The book begins in medias res, with a nervous Pegg pacing in the kitchen. ‘There was no guarantee that Pegg’s small-screen fame would translate into box-office takings,’ Collis reminds us. ‘Wright’s sole previous movie, the comedy-Western A Fistful of Fingers, had been released for just one week at a single London cinema almost a decade earlier. British horror films were a rarity at the time, and zombie movies had long fallen out of fashion.’
Specifically, Pegg is waiting to hear if George Romero, who invented the modern zombie film, had enjoyed a private screening of the film he starred in. ‘Shaun of the Dead was due to receive a wide release in the UK,’ Collis explains, ‘but its future across the Atlantic was less certain. Wright and Pegg had written a defiantly British movie whose hero, at least initially, fights the undead with a cricket bat… The movie’s executive producer Jim Wilson arranged for American horror director George A. Romero to watch the film, in the hope that he would give it a buzz-generating quote.’ This is a clever place to start, and Collis ends the prologue on a cliffhanger – ‘at last, the phone rang’ – before jumping back in time to 1985, where a young Edgar Wright is about to watch the first half of An American Werewolf in London.
From there, we dive into a 400-page tour of the events, personal relationships, and chance happenings that led to the making of a modern classic, through the production and beyond. As Michael Smiley puts it: ‘Sometimes the universe puts people in the right place at the right time.’ But also, as Wright puts it: ‘It was hard work.’
The fact that You’ve Got Red on You is so well written is perhaps unsurprising. Collis is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, so he’s certainly got the CV for it. However, even with that in mind, the sheer amount of information and insight is highly impressive. He interviewed dozens of people who were in or around the production, with the key players being remarkably candid, and the resulting book is credible and authoritative. We hear both sides of the strained relationship between Wright and his DP, which makes for fascinating reading, and Pegg admits that he didn’t immediately warm to Wright: ‘I was a bit uncertain of him at first… I remember thinking he was a peculiar character. He just seemed to be this kid who was always around.’ We even get to hear the ideas that Pegg and Wright brainstormed, albeit only briefly, for a sequel, which was provisionally named From Dusk Till Shaun.
We also get a huge amount of insight into Wright’s directorial style, and, more specifically, the lasting impact of his first feature, which left him trying to edit a film without enough footage. A topic that comes up again and again, both in the interviews and the author’s own analysis, is the sheer amount of material that he now tries to get in his shoots. ‘[His] catchphrase used to be, “Just one more.” You would have done 150 takes and you’d hear, “Just one more. One more.”’
Collis lets a number of people have their say on the matter and also gives his own verdict. ‘Wright was not asking for an unusual number of takes,’ he explains, ‘but rather insisting on an abundance of set-ups, which captured scenes from many different angles and distances so that the material was available to fulfil his cinematic, kinetic directorial vision in the editing suite.’ We get a frank portrait of a director who was driven, at times, to make tearful phone calls or smash up a bookshelf, without him ever becoming unsympathetic. ‘I tried my best not to have a tantrum on the set in front of the crew,’ he tells Collis. ‘But alone in my office, I just boiled over. I felt like I had the most to lose on the movie, and I was just trying to do everything I could to get the coverage I knew I would need in the edit. I’m still embarrassed that it happened and I have never done anything like it since.’ It’s a fascinating pen-picture of a major figure in modern British film.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Even if you don’t have a special fondness for Shaun of the Dead, a passing interest in film is more than enough to make it rewarding. In fact, it’s probably the richest, most densely fascinating thing I’ve read on the subject of the making of a movie. Because there’s so much to digest, it also feels very re-readable; once you’ve been through it properly – which you must because it’s very well structured – you can flick to a random page to be reminded of something interesting. There’s no flab, and wherever your eyes land, they’ll be rewarded. Very highly recommended.
As well as reading You’ve Got Red on You, we took the opportunity to ask the author, Clark Collis, some questions…
Ellis: I was really surprised to learn that You’ve Got Red On You is your first book. What was the genesis of this project? Why Shaun and why now?
Clark: The film’s director and co-writer, Edgar Wright, is someone who has always been on my radar, initially because we both grew up in Wells, Somerset. I loved Shaun of the Dead when it came out and wrote an oral history of the film for Entertainment Weekly, where I’m a senior writer, a few years back, which got me thinking about writing a book. Almost two decades after the film’s release, it is clear that Shaun is beloved by so many people and I thought at least some of them might be interested in how the movie was made. Although I started researching the book before the pandemic, the events of the last couple of years mean that the film is, sadly, more resonant than ever right now.
E: As a fan, what was the most fascinating discovery you made during this project? And of all the possibilities that didn’t play out in reality – like the treatment for From Dusk Till Shaun – what would you most like to see, if you could dimension-hop through the multiverse?
C: The surprising thing to me was how hard it was for Edgar, Simon Pegg, and producer Nira Park to get the film off the ground and then how hard it was to actually make. Watching Shaun, it’s easy to think that everyone must have been having fun all the time, and certainly many people look back on the experience fondly. But it was also an incredibly difficult and testing production.
With regard to the never-made follow-ups, I do like Edgar’s idea of starting a second film exactly the same way, with the same characters, but this time having them face off against ‘bodysnatchers.’ Of course, to some extent, the Shaun crew would ultimately make that movie with The World’s End.
E: How were those interviews conducted, and what were they like? Were there any moments when you felt a bit star-struck, or is this just par for the course in your job at Entertainment Weekly?
C: The interviews took place during the pandemic and so were over the phone or Zoom. I wouldn’t say I was ever star-struck, as I’ve interviewed Edgar, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost quite a lot by this point, but I was certainly grateful that people found the time to talk with me. Simon, for example, was shooting the latest Mission: Impossible movie in Germany when we spoke and so, I imagine, squeezed me in between jumping out of a helicopter with Tom Cruise.
E: One thing that really comes out from the text is the sheer number of people, meetings and events that had to converge for Shaun of the Dead to land in a big way. Is there anything British cinema can do to encourage the next cult classic? Or is it like trying to bottle lightning, and these things just happen when the stars are right?
C: As someone who, before he saw the film, thought Shaun of the Dead was a terrible name for a movie, I don’t think I’m in a position to be giving advice on such matters. But this is definitely a story about talent and determination and friendship and a love for cinema triumphing over some very long odds.
E: In your interview with The Film Buds, you described the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy as ‘cumulatively… one of the best trilogies of all time.’ Being the first, Shaun has a bit of an ‘underdog’ quality about it, which is obvious as soon as we read your prologue. Would you consider writing books about the other two? Or does Shaun’s origin story have a human interest angle that the others lack?
C: There was a point when I definitely considered making the book about the whole trilogy rather than Shaun on its own. I think it was the right decision to concentrate on one of the films, and I didn’t lack material, but it might now make it difficult to write a book about, say, Hot Fuzz, as I would be covering so much of the same ground. Then again, Hot Fuzz was shot in my hometown, so, like an off-brand James Bond, I’m never going to say never, uh, again.
E: As you note, Shaun of the Dead follows Romero’s lead by including ‘a nugget of sociopolitical satire at the heart of their movie.’ For Shaun, the thesis is ‘modern life turning people into zombies.’ Imagine someone gives you four million pounds to produce a zombie movie, exploring or satirising something that hasn’t been done before. What would you choose? Or – as per the notes on zombie fatigue/saturation – have they all been done?
C: I feel like the outbreak of a deadly virus which a significant portion of the population believes either doesn’t exist or can be treated with horse medicine might be something worth satirizing in a zombie movie.
E: When you think about British horror in the years since Shaun of the Dead, are there any other comedies that you would recommend to our readers? And if you were curating a festival for British horror comedy, what would your line-up be?
C: I’ve seen a lot of really interesting, and at times deliciously terrifying, British horror films of late: Saint Maud, Censor, A Banquet, the latter of which just played at the Toronto Film Festival. With regards to a British horror-comedy festival, I could happily spend a day watching Attack the Block, Prevenge, Sightseers, pretty much any Ben Wheatley movie, and, of course, Shaun of the Dead.
E: Lastly: what’s your next project?
C: I honestly don’t know. Working at Entertainment Weekly does keep me busy, especially around Halloween time. I have some ideas for more books, but nothing I can talk about at present.
Many thanks to Clark Collis for taking the time to answer our questions! You’ve Got Red on You will be published worldwide by 1984 Publishing on the 19th October.