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August 2008

Spaced: The Final Frontier

Edgar Wright discusses the cult hit that launched his career as Americans finally get a chance to see it legally

The Ides of March this year brought good news and bad news. The good news was that Spaced, the 1999-2001 series that spawned the beloved modern classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, was finally hitting DVD in the states. The bad news was that the release was in conjunction with the launch of an American remake developed by McG, the man responsible for Sugar Ray, the Charlie’s Angels movies and The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll. Even worse, the entire creative team behind the original show was completely frozen out of the remake, a far cry from previous amicable UK/US translations like The Office, which included Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in its earliest stages and still lists them as executive producers.

The internet went nuts, furious at the mere existence of the abomination that fans quickly dubbed “McSpaced.” Director Edgar Wright and stars/writers Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes went public, posting angry blog messages about their exclusion. I particularly liked Hynes’ plans for a McG “counter attack”: “A British re-make of 'Charlies Angels' called 'Charlies Angles' – about three female architects who love to design buildings make biscuits, and wear button up cardigans. That's gonna hurt you Mc.G huh?– a remake of one of YOUR films with no titties?? Huh??! HUH!!!” In the end, the McSpaced pilot wasn’t picked up, mostly because it sucked, but partly because a million angry nerds wished violent death upon it.

So now only the good news persists, and what good news it is! Spaced is quite simply one of the best TV shows in recent memory, as funny and creative as it is sincere and heartfelt. Wright couldn’t be prouder. “It was great, really. I realized even then how fortunate I was to be doing this particular show and what a gift the material was because they’d written something very ambitious and I felt very confident that I could do it for them. So I was in a very good position for my age, and also, in TV directors don’t always have as much sway as they do with film. But in this instance I was given a lot of license to experiment, which is brilliant.”

It follows the adventures of aspiring comic book artist Tim Bisley (Pegg, before he was… well he’s not really famous now, but you get my drift) and aspiring writer Daisy Steiner (the lovely Hynes) as they share a flat, watch TV, play videogames, smoke marijuana and deal with their wacky neighbor, their wacky landlady and their wacky friend named Twist. Not the most revolutionary concept for a sitcom, obviously, but that’s the joke: Spaced renders its everyday adventures in the most grandiose, cinematic, downright surreal ways imaginable. “I wanted to reflect the films that I liked at the time, and be a bit more ambitious,” remembers Wright. “At the time a lot of TV comedy was very flat and certainly there was a conventional wisdom especially, I’d done some things at the BBC before where you were encouraged to keep it simple and keep it about the performers, and there is wisdom to that, there’s a reason for that, but at the same time I wanted to push the envelope.”

TV was a whole other ballgame in the 90’s, though. This was before The Sopranos, before Lost, before any of the cinematic sweep the best television provides today. Wright’s sources on Spaced came from the world of film. “I was very influenced by directors who had an overall style and a vision, particularly in comedy, everybody from the Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi to even people like John Landis and Joe Dante.” And between in the break between seasons one and two he got more recent inspiration. “In the same period I saw Rushmore, Election, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich… it definitely felt like there were directors out there that I really admired, like the Wes Andersons and Alexander Paynes.”

As such, he shot Spaced like one long movie. “It didn’t seem like there was really any other way of doing it. The first series we shot without a pilot, we just went straight ahead and did seven episodes. And the way we scheduled it, it was shot kind of like a film. The entire series was jumbled up, which made it quite ambitious in places because there were odd days where you were doing lots of scenes from different episodes.” Creating something new and different isn’t always easy, though. “I would see something like Raising Arizona, which is a favorite film of mine, and the way it’s directed is especially stylish, and think at the time, ‘Oh, I wonder why other films aren’t made like this.’ And the truth of the matter is because it’s really tough.”

But his work is greatly appreciated by legions of fans, including celebrity testimonials on the packaging from the likes of JJ Abrams, Eddie Izzard and Judd Apatow (“I laughed hard and I hate comedy”). The commentary tracks include Quentin Tarantino, Patton Oswalt, South Park's Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, SNL's Bill Hader and Oscar-winning Juno writer Diablo Cody. Wright surely appreciates his American fandom. “I’m very flattered. It was amazing when we did the Shaun of the Dead press tour in 2004 how many people favored it and how many American fans had the British DVD. I know people who screwed up the region setting on their laptop to watch Spaced.”

Watching it again, it’s strange how un-dated it seems nine years after it first aired. Granted, Twist’s rave gear may look a little retro, but Spaced occupies its own friendly, witty universe that will never get old, especially if you’re lucky enough to be seeing it for the first time. Even after finding big screen success, Wright still has a special place in his heart for the show. “I’m really, really proud of it. Funny enough, I had an instance where I watched the whole thing in one day because last November they did a special Spaced marathon at the National Film Theater in London, and so we introduced it and did a Q&A, and pretty much ended up watching the whole thing. And it was really intense and overwhelming to watch fourteen episodes in one go; it kinda felt like three years of my life flashing before me! Sometimes I look back at it and I’m just amazed with what we managed to do with the budget and the time.”


  © copyright scott howard