As an actor, Paul Feig has appeared on shows as diverse The Facts of Life, The Drew Carey Show, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. As creator of the short-lived, much-loved NBC series Freaks and Geeks, he helped launch the careers of such current comedy icons as Seth Rogen, Jason Segal, and James Franco. As a director, he helmed 2011's Oscar-nominated comedy smash Bridesmaids, which should have firmly put to bed the antiquated notion that women can't be funny.
I guess what I'm saying is that after this many years in the trenches, Paul Feig knows his way around the serious business of being funny. His latest project is The Heat, now in theaters, re-teaming him with Bridesmaids alum (and Oscar-nominee) Melissa McCarthy alongside Sandra Bullock. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel interview with the director about the film, his two stars, and other lessons he's learned from his time in the industry. Here's the transcript:
Given all of your television experiences that you've done, both as an actor and filming some great television series, how has that formed your work as a director - a feature film director?
TV is such a great proving ground. I went to USC film school, so I had film school, but I always credit TV as the ultimate film school. Because you're working in a world where you are in a very tight schedule, and also a lot of times you are not getting the script until very late in the process. I used to be very prep heavy.
I would storyboard, work all the stuff out and TV actually freed me from that made me a better comedy director because I show up and I'm ready to be in the moment because what happens is we get to the set and you start doing the scene, or say even rehearsing or whatever, and you go, like, "Oh, these funny things." You have to be able to adapt very quickly and from television I was able to do that, and so I feel like it just helps me capture the energy of a funny performance better by not being so planned out.
So, I always say a little bit of chemistry goes a long way, and in this film [Melissa] McCarthy and [Sandra] Bullock have fantastic chemistry. How did you decide on the two of them coming together? Was it always the two of them?
It was just a happy accident, weirdly. I got sent the script and was told that Sandra was interested in being in it but then there was nobody mentioned for the other role. So I started reading it, and about ten page in suddenly I had this epiphany of like, "This is Melissa!" And she and I had been trying to figure out something to do together since Bridesmaids. After that moment to me, it was just like, "There's nobody else who could play this role. This has to be the two of them."
And fortunately we were able to nail them down and because of that, you know, I'd never done a movie before where I didn't audition people together but, since they're two big movie stars, we're just so happy to get 'em. And when I was going to the first rehearsal, I remember thinking, like, "What if they don't have any chemistry?"
You think to yourself, "Clearly they're gonna be great together!" and you get two people together and it's like, "Oh, they're terrible." But they just hit it off like a house on fire the very first time they met. They bonded over being mothers of young kids, and then from there just their comedy sensibilities meshed and yet were different enough. They both kind of enjoyed each other, and was kind of in awe of what each other did.
As a comedy director, how beholden do you feel to the words on a page, and how much leeway are you willing to give to just let a scene play out? Because, somebody like Melissa McCarthy, at some point you probably just want to let her go and do her thing.
Yeah, I'm very beholden to the script in that we really work those scripts hard, because you need...that is your template. That is your blueprint. But then once I get to the sets, I'm not even that hardcore about it like, "We have to get those word for word," 'cause I want people to start to make it their own immediately. That's when it's funny. I feel like actors sort of reciting lines, there's an energy that you lose for comedy.
We definitely stick to what we have but then we really start loosening it up very quickly, and then that will slowly evolve, because on the set I'm coming up with ideas in the moment, I'm kind of calling them in, the actresses are having their moments. Katie Dippold, who wrote this script, she was with me the entire time.
We bring in other writers to sit with us, and what they do is they have Post-it pads, and they write jokes and they put 'em on my script -- they put 'em on my arms and everything, so I'm just sitting there getting these jokes, 'cause I like to create lightning in a bottle really is what it is. And then we cross-shoot, so we're kind of shooting both actresses at the same time, so if they surprise the other one with something the first time, we have it.
Then we just kind of go. From there sometimes it degenerates into just total anarchy, but most of the time it's pretty controlled though, because again if it gets too far afield you can't use it. But at the same time, I never wanna stop something that I think won't fit in, because sometimes we'll just figure out how to use it, and it'll be great.
Following up on that, with all the improvisation you've done, how many scenes did you have to cut out? Did you have a preset running time for it? Because comedy really depends...sometimes when you see a movie that runs over two hours you feel like there's a lot of padding...
I very much don't like movies to run over two hours. I actually still to this day feel like Bridesmaids was a little long, 'cause we were like two hours and five minutes long on that. My target is always about 1:45, and this movie's like 1:50. If something's working, I won't cut it out. I've sat through movies that are seventy minutes long and they feel like they're five hours long, and I've sat through three hours movie that feel like they go by like that.
So it's really that just needs to dictate it, but that's why we do so much test screening during all of post. I start 2-3 weeks into my director's cut doing recruited 500 people screenings 'cause then it allows me to...I'll get to a point where I'm like, "I think this works." We're trying out stuff we like, but I'm not in love with everything, so that if people don't react to something it's very easy to be like, "Okay, throw that out. Lose that."
You do your full director's cut at ten weeks, and by the time you show it to the audience, you're just like, you're in love with everything and you're just tense, and they don't laugh and you're like, "Well they don't get it!" It's like, you've gotta be brutal. We don't even settle for chuckles. We record the audience and some people will go, "Did that get a laugh?" and you listen, and like a few people laughed and you're like, "You know what, it's not strong enough. Let's try to top that."
We always want big laughs from the audience, and so by the time, after ten test screening over the course of several months you end up with something that you go, like, "This works." We know it may have varying levels of working with different crowds, but we know that it always works. The majority of the people are going to laugh. It's a big commercial comedy. There's a lot of money at stake for the studio so you really have to be scientific amidst the art of comedy.
A small extension of that: do you cut your own trailers, or did you cut the trailer for this film? I noticed there - and this sort of goes with that improv - there are some scenes in the film that differ from those that show up in the trailer.
Yeah, I don't cut the actual commercials. What I do is I feed them, really from the very beginning of the process, they're getting the dailies even when we're shooting, but then I always set up a thing between the editing room and with the marketing department to go like, "Here's a bunch of funny stuff we found. Here's a bunch of funny combos." I have no problem with putting stuff in the trailers and the TV spots that aren't in the movie because I know whatever we put in the movie is gonna be funnier than those jokes, and we have all these extra funny things. And I hate when I go to the movies and I feel like I've seen all the comedy already. For us it's very...it's fun to say, "Look, this is gonna be funny, here's a bunch of funny things."
And when you go to the movie, then it's this great surprise, like, "Oh, hurray, I didn't expect that." Even that scene in the trailer where she breaks the glass , and then faints, that's great for that, but in the context of the movie it didn't feel right. Like, I didn't believe that Melissa's character would faint, and it's so funny when she starts laughing, but that's an extra thing. You go, like "I know what's coming...oh, that's different, and that's funny!"
Circling back around to Bridesmaids, obviously that was a huge success in a way that I think a lot of people were surprised. Were you surprised by it?
I was surprised by the level of success it hit. You never make something thinking it's not gonna do well, but at the same time, I was kind of in my head it was like, "If we could get to $100 million I would be thrilled," 'cause then it would kind of be considered as having done well, it'll show the town that women can attract an audience. And then when it went past that, it was kind of like, "Oh!" But it was great, I was so happy.
Did that put pressure on you for your follow-up?
I put pressure on myself for that, because you don't want to backslide if you can avoid it. And I like making the bigger commercial comedies. I've seen a few directors I know have that big success, and then they immediately parlay that into their small personal film, which from an industry point-of-view is kind of like, not that exciting 'cause they go like, "What, has he only got one in him?" And I'll be honest, I've made indie films before, and while I love it, I really love making something that a lot of people are gonna see. And the fact that you make a studio film, you get a marketing machine behind you, you know you're going to get out there.
I suffered with little indie films, where...just trying to get people to care about them, and we all work too hard to not have our stuff seen, so I love it. But with this...I couldn't figure out what to do next, and it took me awhile, so when this script came it seemed like the perfect next step from Bridesmaids, 'cause it's still strong women, but it's not that same story and it's even more of a bridge between men and women, because it's creeping into the male genre but it's with these two women. So, my hope is always to just make people not care if it's men or women in a movie, they'll just go, like, "That looks funny," and guys will not be afraid of a movie with two women on the poster.
I couldn't help think about Jerry Lewis' statement recently about female comedians...
Yeah, what is Jerry doing? I love Jerry Lewis, he's one of my heroes, and it's like, "Jerry, just stop."
Sometimes when it comes out that way, it's like, "It was such a different generation." But even then there were female comics...
That's what I don't get. I mean, some of my favorite female comedy actresses, if you look at Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, and all those old screwball comedies, the women are hilarious in those movies, so I don't quite know where this is coming from. It's such an antiquated...you kinda can't believe that we're still kind of having the conversation sometimes.
When Bridesmaids was coming out, it was all about "Can women be funny?" It was like, "Seriously? Is that the question?"
"With this cast you're gonna ask that question?"
Yeah, I know! Like, aren't these the funniest women you've ever seen? And I've known funny women my whole life and grew up around them and knew women who were funny actresses, and then professionally I've met a bunch, worked with a ton. So it's never...I'm always perplexed by people's perplexion at that.
Well, this sort of is a corollary to the idea that women couldn't carry a film - especially comedy, that you always needed a male anchor as well. Remember a couple of years ago, I forget what studio it was, one of the senior executives was very vocal about it. He wasn't going to greenlight any movies that starred a woman.
Oh, totally. I ran up against that for years and years. I mean, there's things I want to develop...I did a movie, a Christmas movie called Unaccompanied Minors, based on a Miss American Life story, about a pair of sisters, one sister gets lost. And when the script was sent to me, it was with a boy and his little sister, and I was like, "Well, can we make this like it was in the thing, and have two girls?" And it was like, "No, no, you can't." They were so, kind of like, "You can't do that," that you almost go like, "Oh, I guess you can't."
With Bridesmaids, you kind of go, like, "Why?" I'd been hearing for years you just can't have women in this stuff. And I'm like, "Why? Who says?" Women are half the population of the planet. I think they will show up to a movie with themselves in it, and so it's nice to slowly be proving that wrong. But it's still...there's still not that many movies starring women. We're the only...us and Aubrey Plaza in the To-Do List are kind of the only...and those are smaller movies, we're the only big studio film that's got all these women in it, and it's embarrassing.
Speaking of that struggle, in Bridesmaids you have Annie with...she tries to be independent and she has that failed bakery. And you have Sarah in this movie, who can be seen as abrasive because she's ambitious, and she has that failed marriage. Is that meant to be a commentary on sort of that struggle in the industry, or is it more incidental to the story?
I always want to have flawed characters who have things to overcome. I mean, with Bridesmaids it was very much...we're introducing you to a character who's kind of, quote-unquote, a loser, when we meet her, and so in order to stick with that character, you had to go, "Oh, she used to not be like this, she used to together, she used to be strong, and she's in a bit of a downslide." That allows you to go through her destroying her friend's wedding showers, stuff like that. With this it was really about strong professional women who've not compromised.
And it's great, because they're great at their jobs, and we're not judging that, whereas in so many movies it's like, "You have a job, you're not getting a husband!" It's like, no one cares about that. I just like the idea of a character who's great, but she has a flaw, which is she's a little too arrogant, or she just needs to learn how to work with people, which is all in service of getting her to having a friend, to be able to open up. But it's not any big commentary really, beyond just letting these characters be three-dimensional and flawed and having a journey to go on.
Circling back around to television: Freaks and Geeks. It's been 13 years. It came and went, but it's now thought of as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Do you feel vindication from that?
Yeah, you definitely do. When the rug is pulled out from you so unceremoniously...we kind of knew we were gonna get cancelled at the same time. Ratings-wise we were not good, so I can never get too mad at them about it. Still, to the critical acclaim we had at the time, today I think would have floated us. The business is so different now, with all shows out on DVD and streaming.
Now they're seeing, like, if you have a show that you know is good, but it doesn't have an audience, keep it going, because people eventually binge-watch it, then it'll pick up. So, I think if we'd had the business model around that we do now, I bet we probably would have survived. But being the show that, 13 years later, people are still commenting on...it's crazy. It's such a wonderful feeling.
And it was talent-rich too. There were so many people involved that, wow, they've all gone on. You're kind of like the godfather of modern comedy.
That's right. I don't really like to think that. It's funny, because people occasionally go, "Is there gonna be reunion?" It's like, I can't afford the cast!
Many thanks to Paul Feig for his time. Be sure to check out The Heat, now playing in a theater near you!