CEO Miles Ketley and Shaun of the Dead stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost speak to DQ about their burgeoning production company Stolen Picture, why they’re targeting television and their ambition to surprise audiences.
Over the past 20 years, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg have become regular faces on television and film, establishing themselves as one of the screen’s most beloved double acts.
From their exploits in Channel 4 comedy Spaced to cinema’s Cornetto Trilogy – comprising Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – they have cemented their reputations as comedic actors with a unique, witty and genre-busting sensibility, particularly through their collaborations with director Edgar Wright.
In 2017, the actors partnered off-screen to create Stolen Picture, a production company helmed by CEO Miles Ketley with ambitions to devise and produce entertainment in line with Pegg and Frost’s on-screen personalities.
“We realised we’d spent most of our career making lots of money for other people and we felt like, ‘Why don’t we try to create our own creative hub and reap the benefits of that, but also have the freedom to do what we want?’” Pegg tells DQ. “We had a couple of experiences working with producers who had more of a say than we wanted.
“It also felt like a nice thing to do at this point in our careers to be able to foster new talent and give people the kinds of opportunities we were given.”
Frost says: “We wanted to have ownership of things we invented and to have a network of people around us who could say, ‘OK, let’s make this; let’s take what you want to do and try to find a way to do it,’ as opposed to someone saying no.”
When starting Stolen Picture, the pair originally envisioned building a film company. “But in this age, it’s not a sustainable model to just make films unless you make massive films, if you can get films made at all,” Frost says. “Once we met Miles, we refocused. A lot of things we pitched or ideas we had, Miles said, ‘Why don’t we make it a television show? Make it eight hours instead of a two-hour film.’”
Pegg notes that with the evolution of television over the last five years, “we did have our eyes on doing television because it’s just a different animal now, but making it our main bread and butter was something we decided upon together because that’s where a lot of the creative freedom exists now.
“Unless you’re making very low-budget indie films, you’re not really able to have an experimental edge. Everything has to be very commercial or very high budget, and TV seems to be a place where you can experiment again. To do stuff that’s really challenging, really interesting, most actors are going back to television now.”
Frost continues: “But it’s also a company, it is a financial thing. We are responsible for people who work for us. We do it for the love of what we do and the art, but it is a company, so I want to make something that’s successful and popular. I don’t want to be afraid of embracing [risks]. We’re not going to make [French musical romantic drama] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but, hey, the company might make some money and we can have a nice Christmas meal.”
With backing from global studio Sony Pictures Television, which has a minority stake in the company, Stolen Picture’s first project was 2018 horror comedy Slaughterhouse Rulez, which was co-written and directed by Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills. Pegg and Frost starred alongside Asa Butterfield, Finn Cole, Hermione Corfield and Michael Sheen.
Next up is Amazon Prime Video series Truth Seekers, about a group of part-time paranormal investigators who team up to uncover and film ghost sightings across the UK and share their adventures online. As their supernatural experiences grow more frequent, terrifying and deadly, they uncover a conspiracy that could bring about Armageddon. Pegg and Frost again co-star and have co-written the series with Nat Saunders and James Serafinowicz.
The prodco has also partnered with comedian Sara Pascoe (W1A) to shoot a BBC2 sitcom about family, relationships and biology, with Pascoe’s character on a mission to understand why everyone else is pairing up and having babies.
Frost says a lot of the projects being developed at Stolen Picture come from ideas he and Pegg have been working on for several years, both together and independently. The company is also picking up IP, such as the rights to Ben Aaronovitch’s fantasy crime novels Rivers of London. “I read it on holiday years ago and then read all the books [in the series] and said, ‘These are fucking great. Why is nobody making this? It’s fucking crazy,’” he recalls. “The IP became available when we started and we got that.”
But while the company has been built in the image of Frost and Pegg, the key to Stolen Picture is that the company is not beholden to them. “Part of it is identifying what their creative vision is and then finding projects that are faithful to that, and working with other talent who share that vision as well,” Ketley explains. “At the heart of it, it’s always about authenticity and how we build up a company that can retain that. It’s about making sure the artistic integrity is something they can be proud of.”
To that end, Frost says the founding duo have had to learn how to let go of ideas and put their trust in other people. “If we’re going to have a company that only makes shit we’re in or we’ve written, we’ll only do one thing a year,” he remarks.
But fans hoping to see projects from Stolen Picture that echo the fast-cut style and genre riffs of Shaun of the Dead or Spaced, for example, are likely to be disappointed. A quick glance at Pegg and Frost’s credits highlights some of their wider interests, with Pegg becoming known for roles in the recent Star Trek and Mission: Impossible films, while Frost has appeared in martial arts series Into the Badlands and comedies Sick Note and Mr Sloane.
“Our sensibility isn’t as narrow as some people might assume,” Pegg says. “Obviously we’re known for doing genre spins and that sort of thing, but we have ideas for dramatic pieces and theatrical pieces and things beyond what people might assume we’re into. It just needs to reflect our standards.”
Ketley continues: “We’ve wrapped on Truth Seekers, which the guys wrote, which some might say is in their wheelhouse but actually is an evolution beyond that. Then we’re collaborating with Sara Pascoe so again, not something someone would expect coming necessarily but that absolutely shares the same sensibilities.”
Truth Seekers, Frost reveals, is based on his own experiences with Pegg. “On a Saturday night, we would drive to some remote Saxon church in [English counties] Surrey, Sussex or Essex and just sit in the car near a misty graveyard and talk about going in, and then we’d go in and knock on the door and it would be locked,” he remembers. “I always ended up getting injured. I hurt my calf really badly once when I hit it on a gravestone. Just doing that shit and ghost hunting, wanting to be afraid and enjoying the sound of the chime bells ringing at night. That was years ago and, as you get older, it’s like, ‘This would be a good idea for a team of ghost hunters.’”
Pegg says: “Shaun of the Dead was a take on all the American films about zombies and swat teams where we thought, ‘What would the people in Crouch End do?’ So, rather than a team of paranormal investigators with all this amazing equipment in New York, Truth Seekers asks what people here would do, an amateur ghost hunter and broadband installer who has a YouTube channel with six followers. What’s his story? That’s what Truth Seekers is.”
“It’s a live-action Scooby Doo,” Frost adds. “With no dog.”
Working on the eight-part horror comedy with Saunders and Serafinowicz, Pegg says the four writers were rarely in the same room at one time. They wrote the first and last episodes together and, after the story had been broken, they went off individually to write episodes and share notes.
“That period of a writer sitting somewhere and flourishing or not, embracing the ennui, having a wander, eating a light meal and then writing something if the flim flam takes them… in television, that’s not realistic,” Frost says. “Just smash it out. It’s high pressure, you can’t be fragile. You just have to take it on the chin if someone says, ‘Your shit sucks.’ Not everyone is pushing the same way. Everything is a first draft until you finish it. It will always be picked at and changed.”
Pegg agrees, adding: “You try to write the worst version of it you possibly can because it takes the pressure off and then you hone it and hone it. We did have a sort of writers room, and I’m not used to writing like that. With Nick or Edgar or whoever, it’s a slightly more intimate process. But it worked. It had to, because my time was scarce and so was Nick’s, so it was great for them to carry the weight sometimes.”
Stolen Picture is also developing a small-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The story is about a man who returns to his hometown for a funeral and remembers events that began 40 years earlier.
Pegg says it’s a story he has wanted to bring to the screen “for the longest time.” Then as he began talking to Gaiman about the prospect, it turned from a film screenplay into a limited series.
“Neil’s really on board,” he says, “so we’re coming up with a way of doing that, which is really interesting. I’ve also been working with Crispian Mills on this time-travel comedy drama, Technicolour Time Machine, for seven years. It’s just been in our back pocket as a passion project.It started out as a screenplay and now it’s more like an eight-part series of three seasons, so that’s all really exciting.”
As evidenced by Truth Seekers, Pegg and Frost’s ambitions also lie away from acting. Both have written before, most notably Pegg on Spaced, Big Train, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Run Fatboy Run, The World’s End, Star Trek Beyond and with Frost on 2011 alien comedy Paul.
“We’ve never really been just actors,” he says. “It’s not really a case of reducing our screen time. We operate in all facets of the process. Ultimately, I’d love to direct feature films, because with television, you’re making little feature films anyway so it’s a great breeding ground for directorial capabilities.”
In contrast, Frost says he’s happier to focus on acting and writing. “I want to do different things. I’d like to be more mature in the characters I take,” he admits.
“If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d have said I do want to direct. There’s part of me that wants to just because I’m nosey and I want to be in control of everything. But there’s also part of me now that thinks, ‘Why bother?’ I’m happy to produce, write and act in it. There are amazing directors [out there]. We had Jim Field Smith on Truth Seekers, and I’d look at him and think, ‘If I’m not going to do anything that good or bring anything new to it, why bother?’ It’s true.”
On working with Wright, Pegg says: “I used to watch Edgar and think, ‘What’s the point?’ But I have since developed ideas and feel like I have a director’s voice. I’ve worked with directors and watched them and felt, ‘I could do this.’ I’d love to spend time behind the camera, just live with a project for a year-and-a-half, through pre, principal and post-production. You don’t get to do that when you act in a film. By the time you’re doing press for a movie you did a year ago, you’ve forgotten what the fuck it’s about.”
“Simon’s got [the next] Mission: Impossible, then there’s a gap where we want to do Technicolour Time Machine, which you’re co-writing and going to star in,” Ketley says to Pegg, before suggesting: “Wouldn’t it be great if Simon also directed Neil Gaiman?”
“Neil and I have become friends over the last couple of years and he’s really adamant we do it,” Pegg reveals. “The great thing is we can tell the story faithfully to the book [as a TV series]. When you adapt a book for a feature film, you always have to truncate it and people who love the book are often disappointed, no matter how good it is. With a TV series, you can do the book a service and try to adapt it faithfully. There are things a book can do that film can never do – you have to interpret it into a visual thing rather than an imaginative thing. But the space to do that afforded by television feels really fresh and exciting.”
Are they concerned about upholding fans’ expectations of the type of work they might be expected to produce, or are they keen to step away from what they’ve done before?
“It’s not our job to determine that,” Pegg says. “We’d be stuck in the mud if we tried to do what they expect of us.”
Frost concludes with a reference to his starring role in BBC two-parter Money (2010), which is based on Martin Amis’ cult 1980s novel. Frost played John Self, a dysfunctional director who goes to America to make his debut movie but ends up speeding towards self-destruction.
“People fucking hated it,” he says bluntly, with a nod to the less-than-complimentary contemporary reviews. “People really loved the book and didn’t think I was John Self. Then Martin Amis came out and wrote a thing saying he thought I was amazing, and everyone turned on him. That told me everything I needed to know about pleasing fans.
“I just want to make good things and be in a nice company with nice people, which I haven’t achieved yet! One out of three ain’t bad.”