“The Funniest People I Know Are Women”: Director Paul Feig on The Heat, Bridesmaids and Freaks and Geeks
As one of the most respected comedy writers in Hollywood, Paul Feig’s professional trajectory has become something of an industry legend. The comedian turned actor-writer-director-producer has been relentless in his quest to leave an indelible mark on the state of comedy television and cinema. And his ambitions are infectious. Along the way, Feig’s helped launch the careers of many talented actors; James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen all became household names thanks to Feig's instant television classic, Freaks and Geeks. What's more, we all have Paul Feig to thank for directing (and producing) one of the most unforgettable female-dominated comedies of all time, Bridesmaids. His directorial prowess brought us what was arguably Melissa McCarthy’s most unforgettable role to date. In case you need a refresher:
This April, Feig's back at it with the release of his newest project, The Heat. The film stars, yes, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, who play two oddly-paired FBI agents who are forced to team up to take down a ruthless drug lord. It's still early, but we think it's safe to say that The Heat is predestined for megahit status. Just take a look at trailer, hot off the press:
The Credits met up with Paul Feig at the Austin Film Festival, where the always dapperly dressed writer-director (he has an affinity for directing in fine suits) gave us the lowdown on his plight from struggling comedian to A-list writer, director and producer. Feig talked with us about his creative process, his insistence that women be more prominent in comedy, and what it’s like working with some of the funniest personalities in Hollywood.
THE CREDITS: You’re a prolific ‘doer’ in the TV and film world—from writing, producing, directing, and acting. Do you have a favorite of all the hats you wear?
PAUL FEIG: I love directing. But since I’m a writer also, I really like either writing my own stuff, helping the writers, or doing rewrites on things I direct. So for me, the two are very linked together. Really, for me, directing is writing. As I’m directing, we’re coming up with lines and jokes, improvising, and getting ideas off each other. I would say, the writing and directing all falls into one category, and I really love being a film director.
Comedy is at the heart of most of your projects—from Freaks and Geeks to Bridesmaids. What about comedy most appeals to you?
Comedy is more like real life, in a way. I’ve always enjoyed good dramas, but I have less patience for dramas that are just dramatic. What I like about comedy is trying to find the emotional through-line; to find the dramatic moments in it. That, to me, is life: you’re laughing one minute, you’re upset the next minute. I mean, think of the worst things you go through with people: someone is always trying to make it funny. In general, unless it’s a huge tragedy—no, even then–people are trying to lighten things up or try to find light moments because we would go crazy otherwise. I just like making people laugh. It’s a much more satisfying response to get from people.
My favorite kind of emotion to elicit is when people are really happy and they kind of choke up because they’re so happy. That, to me, is an honest response and it’s not as manipulative as trying to make someone cry. That’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel: it’s very easy to make people sad.
How did you get into your line of work? Did you always know you wanted to be in film and television, or was there a specific point when you thought, ‘I just have to do this’?
Ever since I was 5, I wanted to be a performer. I wanted to be an actor and that lead to being a comedian.
And early on, two things happened: I got very enamored with Woody Allen when my friend took me to see Take the Money and Run on a double feature with some horror movie that I couldn’t stand. We saw the horror movie first and I was so upset by it, and then this hilarious movie comes on, and it was like: 'that's so great!' Just hearing people laugh. That was also the first time I became aware that Woody Allen writes and directs his own stuff. I started seeing beyond just being an actor into how it would be cool to do your own thing and write for yourself.
Then, when I was working as a tour guide at Universal Studios in—I think it was 1981—we all went to the opening day of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it was just packed. It was at the Chinese Theater, lines around the block, and I had never seen such a response to a movie. That was the first time I actually became aware of the actual art of directing. I was just taken by the visuals in the film. That’s when I decided I wanted to go to film school.
I had a long career as an actor and did quite well at it, but I kept wanting to go behind the camera. Then one day, I just decided. I did one low-budget $30,000 little feature back in 1997 that never got released, which I starred in. I had fun doing it, but I think at that moment, I got more enamored with being behind the camera and helping other actors be their best.
I imagine your experience as an actor helped with directing.
Hugely. My mantra to anybody who wants to be a director is: you have to take acting classes. Take improv classes, do stand up; you just have to perform in order to know what an actor is going through. So many directors get very technical and, yet, they don’t understand what an actor is going through—which doesn’t allow them to get the best out of an actor because they’re creating an environment in which the actor doesn’t feel safe or feels pressured or even judged in a bad way.
Can you explain how Freaks and Geeks came into being? How heavily did you rely on your own experience in high school and how did you bring the show to life?
That was very much based on my childhood. I had seen so many high school movies and TV shows that people really like, but so many of them seemed to be heavily weighted towards people who were dating and having sex. That wasn't really my experience. We were so immature, that wasn’t even on the plate for us when I was that age; the thought of asking the girl to the dance and holding her hand was mind blowing enough.
Also, I hadn’t seen the other side of the people I knew [represented on television], who were the burn-outs and the freaks, as they were called in my school. I had these drama classes, and that’s where these nerdy outsiders and all the burn-outs would be; it was an easy A for them and for us, well, we really liked drama. So all of us became friends and I realized we were all on the same wavelength—we were all just rejecting the system in our own way. I really used a lot of archetypes of my friends and people I knew.
[The script] kind of poured out of me in two weeks. I gave it to my wife—she’s a good populist judge—and she thought it was good. And my old friend Judd Apatow, we’d done stand up together years before and he had a big deal at DreamWorks then. He’d seen my low budget film a year earlier and was like: if you ever have an idea for a TV show, let me know. So I sent it to him and within twelve hours, he called me back and said he wanted to do it.
It was this great moment, because the movie I’d made had really drained my bank account. I was a regular on this show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch as an actor and they wrote my character out as I was paying all this money to make this movie. It went from being the worst year of my life professionally to suddenly getting this second chance—it was a whirlwind. We sold it. [Apatow] and DreamWorks bought it from me, and it took a couple months to make a deal on it. By the time we were done, it was almost January, which is very late in pilot season. They sent it to NBC, who’d been trying to develop a high school show with the feel of Welcome to the Dollhouse, which was a big movie of the previous summer. This one hit the sweet spot for them. They were really excited about, they were like don’t change anything! It’s the thing you dream of. I was like, we’re going to have to make a stand: they’re going to want me to cast good looking kids, well forget it! I went in and was like we have to cast real kids and they said yes, we agree. We really just sailed through it. And then we made it, and we got picked up.
A lot of your projects feature strong female leads. Is that intentional, or is it something that happens subconsciously while you’re writing?
All my friends growing up were girls, so it’s just kind of how I think. I was an only child and I always wanted to have an older sister. And all the funniest people I know are always women, so I think my brain just kind of goes that way.
As the years went on, I would also feel sick to my stomach when I would see these movies and how bad the female roles were. In a comedy, they were always the mean girlfriend or the bitchy whoever. Comedy’s just so male driven behind the scenes that I think a lot of comedians have kind of a little boy’s perception of women, like: ‘oh they ruin the fun,' or 'they’re just mom breaking up a good time.’ It's always just bothered me to see women relegated to such bad roles. All my favorite people that were making me laugh were female comedians on SNL. So I feel very comfortable writing female characters.
You worked with some pretty epic casts and several larger-than-life comedians. When you’re directing, how do you maneuver letting an actor’s unique humor shine while also keeping the project on track?
Obviously when you’re writing, you have these characters in mind. Then, when you start to cast it, you can’t be a control freak because you start to contain the talents of other people and turn them into puppets for yourself. Even if you’re brilliant, your script can be better if you open it up to people. Sometimes, the actor has a different idea for the character’s voice and sometimes it’s jarring—but that can be great.
What you don’t want to do in this business is find somebody great and then not use them because they don’t fit this preconceived notion you had. Someone else will grab them and make them a star and do something great with them, as they should. You want to discover that person or have their talents in your project. And so you start writing to them, and writing to their voice.
We like to do workshop sessions early on during the writing process. Once we have our cast, we bring them in and have them read—maybe doing improv with them, and playing around. That’s when you start hearing their voice and what they have to bring. From there, you just keep adjusting, so that by the time you get on set, they are the character and you’re in sync with how they talk. Which is great, because you can play on the set and go: oh try this, try this. You can start thinking of jokes in their voice, because you’re in tune with everyone.
I also do a lot of cross-shooting wherever I can, which is where you’re shooting the person and the other people in the scene at the same time. We did that in Bridesmaids in the diner scene. We were just like: talk about sex, talk about this, surprise her with this. So they’re surprising each other and you’re getting it on film the very first time they say it:
It’s lightening in a bottle, really, because the danger of comedy is when you’re shooting one person and not shooting the other person while they’re improvising. You’re never going to get that energy back. You’re going to get only one side of that and you have to say, ‘oh, can you say that again?’ to get the other. It just doesn’t recreate. There’s something about that first time a line comes out. We even had lines in rehearsals and workshops where there were some of the funniest things you’ve ever heard. But when we wrote it into the script, it just wasn’t funny the second time around, even if we’re like, ‘say it how you said on set.’ Finally, you’re just like: oh forget it, it's gone.
Let’s face it, everybody who is at the stage where you are going to hire them is really talented and has a lot to give. So to not utilize that is ridiculous.
What does your creative process look like when you’re working on a new project?
When I’m writing, it’s kind of a 9-6 sort of thing. For three to four hours in the morning, I sit at my desk. Whether I’m writing or not, I’m just going to sit there, think, and wander around the room, if I have to. I’m most fertile in the morning as far as writing goes. Then, I take a longish lunch. But even at lunch, I bring something I want to read for research or a pad and paper. I’m always at the ready for ideas to come out. There’s usually a bad period, early in the afternoon, where I’ll just give in and take a little 20 minute catnap to refresh the brain. And then I'll end the day well, by bearing down into the work.
Are there any self-imposed rules you follow when it comes to writing?
As far as rules go, I have to write five pages a day. Within 20-25 days, you get through a rough draft, good or not. I get pretty scientific about my process, which doesn’t mean that I feel confident about it. I always feel like the most undisciplined writer that ever lived, honestly. Especially that minute you get up and wander around or look on the Internet.
Also, for me, I like to watch real life. I don’t watch a lot of movies, which is my secret shame. I think I got a little ruined when I was in film school, because when I was kid I only watched comedies. Then when I was in film school, I went through this period of watching everything. And then you have these classroom discussions where all the film students were so obsessed with film—as they should be—but, I started to wonder if they were all just recycling stuff they'd seen. I thought: isn’t it better to go to downtown LA and watch people and walk into weird stores? That would get my creativity going more than anything else. So I’ve taken that to heart.
Your latest film project is set to hit theaters in April 2013. What was it like to work on The Heat?
It was fun—a real whirlwind because I was developing some other projects and then this script showed up. I read it and fell in love with it immediately. I knew Sandra Bullock was interested and she is just perfect for it. And as I was reading, I thought this was the dream role for Melissa McCarthy. She was already off in Atlanta doing her summer movie before going back to Mike and Molly, but I just thought 'we have to make this thing.' But she only had six weeks to shoot it. So eight weeks after I read that script for the first time, we were in production; which is pretty unheard of.
But, Melissa was such a trooper. She went literally from her last day on her other movie, flew in that night and then we started shooting the next day. She had the busiest summer ever. She’d go back and do Mike and Molly and then fly back to us for the weekend to shoot. It was intense. But I like when that happens. It’s like Freaks and Geeks; I love when things happen fast. As long as good people are working on it, you get a good script to base from, and you get the input of other people, then you’re ok. It’s so easy in this town to over think everything—you can overdevelop the life out of something.
What advice do you have for anyone aspiring to be in the film and television industry—whether it’s a hopeful screenwriter, director, or producer?
You just have to do it.
Wait! What? C’mon, there’s no secret? Everyone’s always looking for the secret.
[Laughs] There really is no secret. Here’s the gift that everyone has now, that we don’t have then—I’m starting to sound like an old man—but what we didn’t have in the past was “The Internet.” That changed everything. What we used to say was the two things Hollywood held over you was production and distribution.
But now? For production, you can shoot a movie on your iPhone and it will look good and you can edit it on your computer with built-in software. Then, you can upload it to the Internet and it’s out there. As we’ve seen over and over again, people find stuff. If something is good, it’s hard for it not to gain traction. So, to me, there's no reason not to be doing anything.
And if you’re an actor, you have to be performing every night! You have to be acting daily. Whether you’re in an improv troupe or doing a play, you just have to up the odds of being seen. It's all about timing—when somebody is going to read your script, see your play. So just keep doing it.
When I wanted to be a stand-up–I started when I moved out to LA–there were a lot of comedy clubs back then. I went to every stand up club. I would do three different clubs a night for their open mics. I would go on as late as I needed to, just to work the act, to get comfortable and get my skills together. Just to be seen. Eventually, it works. Casting directors start to see you and you get called into stuff.
Of course, at the end of the day, talent wins everything. You have to be able to back it up. Some of the most talented people I’ve ever seen in my life are working regular jobs. They never went into the industry and are back in Michigan, because they weren’t driven to do it. And that’s fine. But there’s a reason why some people get famous: because they were driven to get there.
*Images courtesy of Paul Feig.