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What if one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time had input from an honest to goodness alien from outer space? It’s kind of a goofy question, but one that inspired one of the greatest film cameos ever projected onto the silver screen.
We are, of course, talking about 2011’s Paul (currently streaming on Peacock), a sci-fi comedy in which a pair of UFO enthusiasts (played by the inimitable Cornetto Trilogy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) embarks on a road trip with a genuine extra-terrestrial. The laid-back cosmic castaway (voiced by Seth Rogen) has more in common with the character of Roger from American Dad! than he does with the alien beings we often associate with the genre of science fiction. He's just a regular dude who, if it wasn't for his bulbous head, would blend into any crowd.
Paul has been on Earth for so long, that he’s effectively assimilated into our culture and, in some cases, influenced it. That brings us to a brief, yet mind-blowing, cameo from the one and only Steven Spielberg who — at least according to the universe of this movie — got the idea for E.T.’s healing ability by exploiting Paul’s otherworldly knowledge in the early 1980s.
"Nick Frost and I had worked with Steven on Tintin at the beginning of 2009," Pegg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frost, tells SYFY WIRE over email. "We told him all about Paul whilst we were filming. We mentioned the idea that in the mythology of our movie, Paul had been an advisor to him whilst he was making E.T. He loved the idea and jokingly suggested a cameo. Nick and I immediately hashed out the scene and held him to it. Being the gentleman that he is, he made good on his suggestion."
It was only natural, given how the project was always intended to be "a love letter to ‘70s sci-fi movies, particularly those by Spielberg," states Paul director, Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland). "Needless to say, I have held Steven in the highest regard for all the decades since I saw Jaws at the age of 11. He’s unquestionably our country’s filmmaker laureate, if there were to be such a thing."
Paul's short flashback to 1980 takes place inside a mysterious warehouse packed to the ceiling with crates. "That was something Greg Mottola and the Double Negative [VFX] crew came up with in post," Pegg says of the setting's nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paul sits at a table, smoking a cigarette and advising a young Mr. Spielberg on the minutiae of a little coming-of-age tale that, in two years time, will generate hundreds of millions of dollars and captivate audiences around the globe.
“I want him to have some kind of a special power, do you know what I mean?” an enthused Spielberg states over the phone. “Something... messianic.”
Paul suggests the concept of “cellular revivification” or the “restoration of damaged tissue through telepathic manipulation of intrinsic field memory.”
“What’s that mean?” asks Spielberg.
“It means healing, Mr. Spielberg...”
This excites the director. “Yeah, right — healing!” he exclaims. Like by touch or something like that. Maybe his finger lights up at the end when he reaches out and touches?!”
"Maybe,” says Paul, clearly humoring the filmmaker. “You know, sometimes I find less is more.”
“Hey,” Spielberg declares as the camera pushes in on the speaker. “Trust me...”
Words to live by. Two years after that little clandestine conversation between alien consultant and Hollywood titan, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was released into theaters, becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1982 and an instant cinematic classic.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards — including Best Picture (which it should have won, by the way) — the film spawned a host of imitators and wove itself deep into the fabric of popular culture, thus paving the way for films like Paul, which find clever ways to homage and re-contextualize pieces of media we have all cherished for decades.
"On the day, we all gathered at an ADR stage in Los Angeles," Mottola recalls of the recording session with Spielberg. "Unsurprisingly, because Steven was going to be there, we had a considerably larger gathering of actors, producers, and execs than usual. Seth Rogen was there [because] he and Steven were going to do the lines together. I recall that when we were finally rolling, our sound recordist was giving me a signal to hold on a second. There was an excruciating gap of silence and Steven asked, 'Is anybody going to call action?'"
Continues Pegg: "He came in by himself, without any fanfare, in his baseball cap and bomber jacket and did the scene a few times with Seth. He pitched in to make it sound as natural as possible, riffing with Seth to give it a conversational feel. I remember him denying that there was any kind of messiah metaphor at work in E.T., but he still said the lines as scripted. Nick and I just sat there and pinched each other. We do that a lot."
There is something so indescribably fun about playing around with the tropes of the genre in grand meta fashion, while also having the folks who helped create them agree to get in on the joke. Paul takes this a step further with the casting of Sigourney Weaver (famous for battling the Xenomporphs as Ellen Ripley in the Alien series) as a shady government figure trying to capture Rogen’s star-man.
"I remember after Steven saw the movie, he sent me a lovely email, saying how much he enjoyed the film and that there were so many references to other science fiction films, he developed a nervous tick," reveals Pegg, who'd team back up with Spielberg several years later for Ready Player One. The actor concludes: "I have such huge love and admiration for him. It’s a combination of massive professional respect, heartfelt gratitude for the films he has made, and genuine affection for a sweet, big-hearted guy. He’s my hero."
Paul is currently streaming on Peacock.