I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are few gentleman who are more enjoyable to talk about the art of comedy than writer-director Paul Feig, who became a much-in-demand director thanks to the mega-success of 2011's BRIDESMAIDS, a film that also turned Melissa McCarthy into not only a bankable actor, but practically a household name. Feig followed that up with 2013’s very funny THE HEAT, pairing McCarthy with Sandra Bullock
Feig will always be something of a hero to me, if for no other reason than he and Judd Apatow created the short-lived series "Freaks and Geeks." He's directed some of the finest episodes of many great TV comedies, including "Undeclared," "Arrested Development," "30 Rock," "Weeds," "Parks and Recreation," "Bored to Death," " The Office," and nearly the whole first season of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie." Hell, he even directed an early episode of "Mad Man.” As a producer, he’s working on THE PEANUTS MOVIE (out in November) and the Yahoo Screen comedy/sci-fi series “Other Space,” which I highly recommend.
His latest film, SPY, might also be his best, not only because he manages to turn Jason Statham in a genuine comic master without losing an ounce of his badass status, but SPY works as much as a thriller as it does a very funny movie. Feig is back with McCarthy again, this time as an office worker for a spy organization (she’s the voice in the ear of Jude Law), who is thrust into the field when the identities of the whole outfit are leaked. With great supporting work from Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Alison Janney, and “Call the Midwife” star Miranda Hart (not to mention Mr. Statham), SPY works on just about every level it’s playing on.
Also, let us not forget that Feig is just days away from beginning to shoot the first scene of his self-penned, all-female GHOSTBUSTERS reboot. And with that, please enjoy my Chicago-based chat with Paul Feig, just a few hours before we did a Q&A screening of SPY that evening…
Capone: Good to see you, sir.
Paul Feig: How are you doing?
PF: Good. I’m always happy when I see your name on the roster.
Capone: Thanks you kindly. I actually saw this down at SXSW.
PF: You were at the big screening, good. That was a fun night.
Capone: That was a crazy night, because it went from TRAINWRECK to SPY to FURIOUS 7.
PF: FURIOUS 7, I know. That’s why I always worry about those. People could just show up and be like just cross their arms and go, “Fuck you,” which I probably would have done when I had my little films that I was trying to get into film festivals. But it was so nice of people to let go and have fun with it.
Capone: It was funny, because in both Judd’s movie and your movie, there is an unlikely scene stealer. LeBron James in TRAINWRECK…
PF: Yeah, I’ve heard LeBron is hilarious.
Capone: …and Jason Statham in your film. For those of us who have been following him from the old Guy Ritchie days, we know this guy started out as a comic actor, but he hasn’t been really tapped to do that in a while. He’s perfect for the role of an action-oriented spy, but he’s also funny as hell.
PF: Yeah. I’ve been fanatical about him since day one, also. It was when I first saw the first CRANK movie, I was like, “He’s fucking funny and he knows it.” With the Guy Ritchie films, you’ve got to figure he knows he’s funny, but you’ve got to really know you’re taking the piss out of yourself if you’re doing a movie like CRANK, because it’s bananas. And so I was like, he’s awesome, I’ve liked him anyway. I’ve got to get him into a comedy. Over the years, my wife and I have been obsessed with him. So I was like, “I’ve got to figure it out.”
So when I was writing this, it was like “Okay, this is the one because I need this rival spy for her.” It’s funny, because when everybody from the studio on down read the script, they assumed, “Is this for Will Ferrell or for Adam Sandler or one of these guys?” I was like, “No, it’s for Statham.” Then people really light up. It shows tonally what you want to get across in a movie like this, because it’s not a spoof. It’s a funny spy movie, so you need the legitimate aspects of it.
Capone: That’s what you did with THE HEAT too. You’re not making a spoof of these genres; you’re making a spy or buddy cop movie that have a lot of laughs in it. Talk about getting that part of it right. You don’t want to make it too serious, but at the same time, you want it to feel like it fits comfortably in the landscape of spy movies.
PF: Right. All I do as a comedy director—all any good comedy director does—is guard tone and keep the consistency of tone, because that’s where it all falls apart. In the first five minutes, if I’m making MOULIN ROUGE, I’m like “This world that’s nuts, there’s weird sound effects, and everything is heightened.” As long as I then don’t break that rule, then you’re with it forever. So all you’ve got to do is really guard that tone, because a movie like this can go off the rails so quickly. I knew exactly how I wanted to do it, but you do feel like you’re dancing on the razor’s edge.
There’s this one scene after Susan gets captured, and she’s being held in that big, crazy room, I knew we had some jokes I wanted to try, like when Rose forgets her name and this and that, just because it was a serious scene, and we wanted to find the funny things we could have in there. And so a couple of takes into the master, I jumped the gun a little. I’ll usually save those jokes and feed them in as we get the close-ups. I was like, “Let’s just try them in the masters. Try this, you forget her name…” And everybody got silly in that take and was overplaying it a little bit, and it was chilling, and I was like, “This movie could be terrible1” Suddenly, this is the worst version of SPY HARD, where it’s just goofy. I was like, “Okay, stop. Don’t do that.”
All I ever ask is people treat it deadly serious. You’re not trying to be funny. We will find the funny stuff. When you work with great people like Melissa and Rose, they definitely know what the funny is in there. So it’s just really guarding that tone. We’ll shoot tons of jokes. I’ll shoot some jokes that I know are just too big, but I want to have them, because sometimes you’re in the editing room, and if it weaves in in a way where it feels honest, like an honest mistake—all jokes are people making mistakes at the end of the day—and you go “I think we can get away with it.” So I like to have that whole giant tool kit. But then you have to be hard on yourself to go like “This joke is going to tip the tone off to the side,” and then the audience is going to go, “Eh,” and the danger is going to go away, the stakes are going to go away, and then you’re just left going joke to joke.
Capone: You do something with Melissa here that you haven't done with her before. People call her a force of nature, which she is, but I sometimes have a feeling that’s just a euphemism for “It’s just funny when she breaks things or runs into things.” But here, she’s the smartest person in this group of spies, she knows her stuff, and it makes it funnier. The mistakes she makes are honest because she’s untested, and they’re probably mistakes we would make. Was that something that you and she wanted to try together?
PF: Yeah. It was an interesting road, because when I first wrote the script, I didn’t write it specifically for Melissa, because I didn’t think she was going to be available. It was something I was going to try to make in the fall of that year, and she was on “Mike and Molly.” So I wrote it kind of with her in mind, or maybe Kristen [Wiig] in mind—several funny women I know, just knowing I wanted it to be an “every-person.” But I knew right from the get-go, I didn’t want someone who was dumb or silly or goofy. I wanted someone who was really good.
The whole genesis of the thing for me was…all you do is tell personal stories through your characters. Breaking away from having done BRIDESMAIDS with Judd [Apatow] as a producer, and then going into THE HEAT, you’re like, “Oh shit. He’s really smart and he knows his stuff. He guided us along in a nice way, so I’m going to go do this thing [on my own]. Maybe I won't be able to do it.” Just that idea of working with somebody who’s great and charismatic and has this thing, and then you go, “I’m going to strike out on my own.” How does that affect you? So I like that dynamic of “Can I do this?” That’s why it’s important to have the Jude Law character. She works under him, and he’s doing all this stuff. And even though she’s helping him out and really pushing him forward and getting him out of trouble. This is the more extreme version, obviously, not my situation. He’s worked it so that she won’t leave that position; she’s dependent on him. Then she has to go out on her own and do it. I think that’s a very relatable thing. So that’s why I wanted to make sure she had a skill set.
It’s funny, when the movie first got announced, when I first sold it to Fox, almost every reporter wrote, “She’ll play the bumbling spy.” She’s not bumbling, even though we had the joke where she gets on the scooter and it falls over, we thought it was going to be really funny, but then I was like, “I can’t do that because then it’s just going to be like she’s an idiot.” Then I thought, “How would that happen? In Europe, they have those scooters with the roof on top. So I bet those are top heavy.” So if she gets on and she’s ridden a scooter before, she knows how to do that, but if she gets on this thing and it’s weighted different, she goes down.” That to me is a nirvana physical gag. Blake Edwards was always the master of that. “What is the logic behind why this thing happened?”
Capone: The other funny thing is a significant part of this film is an office-place comedy, too. We keep going back to those guys in the office. It starts with Melissa, but we keep going back to Miranda and those people. I think people are going to be talking a lot about Miranda after this opens, because I don’t know a lot of people that watch “Call the Midwife,” but she’s amazing in this film.
PF: I’m really into the idea of the banality of evil. You think this one thing, but it’s not at all glamorous. Just the idea that there are people out getting all the glory, the spies of the world, but they have backup. I just take it to the next degree of “The people down there are actually smarter.” But it’s a marriage of, you need the guy who’s got the brawn, who’s got the physical components. I really liked the idea of the unsung hero. Because everything I do is about outsiders and about people who you pass on the street and might not notice. Those are the people’s stories that you want to hear.
Capone: You mentioned Rose before being a great go-to person. I came up watching her mostly in dramatic parts, so seeing her in BRIDESMAIDS was a little bit of an eye opener, and now she’s turned comedy into her primary career. What does she bring?
PF: She brings the most important thing to me, which is a commitment to the realism of the character. I always compare her to Steve Carell, because they build characters exactly the same. Melissa does too. They come from a very dramatic place, all of them do. We work to figure out what the character is, what the touchstones are—what aspects of different personalities or of your own personality that you want to bring out. And then she builds it in such a way that she’s building a real person that she inhabits. So when you do that, she’s not trying to be funny. She becomes this character that has these funny aspects to her. So just by being that person and having these different attitudes and giving these lines that she does, her jokes are feeding this stuff in, then it just feels real. It’s so authentic. This is my favorite thing she’s ever done, her role in SPY. Of course, I’ve seen the movie a million times, but every time I watch her, I see something different that she’s doing. She’s just so subtle. It’s because she is that person when she’s doing it in that moment.
Capone: She’s also one of the world’s great beauties, which throws you completely, because a lot of times you catch yourself looking at her, and you’ll say, “Wait, she just did something really funny and crazy.”
PF: Totally. But the whole giant hair thing, that was her. We knew we wanted to have some Eastern European hair for her. We had a lot of pictures that tend to be kind of big, but then she went into the makeup room with the hair person and called me in. When I first walked in, I was like, “That’s bananas. That hair is so elaborate.” But she was so into it. But you know what? If that’s what it’s going to take for you to find that character, we’re just going to make fun of your hair. You can just see it the way she holds it. That made her become that character. Nothing makes me happier. It’s like when Melissa sends me pictures of her in different wardrobe and the wig, and you can see the way she’s clowning and falling into the character. She found it. As a director, I’m never going to get in the way of that. I may hide it occasionally, but if that’s your process, I was an actor long enough to know when you tap into that thing, you don’t mess with it.
Capone: You could have easily made this a PG-13 film with just a few tweaks. Was there any pressure to clean it up?
PF: No. Fortunately since my deal at Fox is to do R-rated movies for them, it was never talked about. But I know there were moments of “It’d be great if you could!” But nobody really pushed it. For me, a movie with this kind of danger and these characters and these stakes, you can’t have villains that don’t swear. I love portraying swearing because, to me, it’s what makes something honest. Look, that’s why I love NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, because it’s so aggressively about not swearing—that’s funny. But then you get a mob movie and nobody swears? As an audience member, you go “Something feels off about this. It doesn’t feel honest.”
Capone: I’m sure you didn’t realize when you started this press tour that this was going to become your first round of GHOSTBUSTERS discussions.
PF: It’s non-stop.
Capone: But I will say this, having seen you go through this process a few times now, I imagine part of the appeal of doing this is to tackle a genre that you haven’t tackled—horror and the supernatural. This isn’t about re-creating something or re-booting something. I think you’ve gone on record as saying parts of this are going to be scary. Is that the exciting part for you in tackling this?
PF: That’s exactly right, totally. That’s the very exciting part for me. That’s why I took it on. I naively thought people would be like, “Oh, that’s cool. It’ll be another GHOSTBUSTERS movie!” I didn’t realize people attached so much to it, but I get that, 100 percent. I’m obsessed with other things too. But at the same time, people attach an agenda that you don’t have to it. My agenda is exactly what you said. Katie [Dippold, co-writer of THE HEAT] and I have been talking forever about how we want to do a scary comedy. THE HEAT 2, which she wrote based on an idea that we came up with, was scary; it was like a funny SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which I don’t think we’re ever going to make because Sandra doesn’t want to do another sequel.
So it was really this thing of going “Yeah, this thing’s there. Sony has been calling me about it. I don’t know how to do it as a sequel. Wait, I can do this with funny women, which is my favorite thing in the world and if I can reboot it so that I can reestablish the rules and have fun with the origin story of it—I want to develop a technology. I want to have all that stuff being seen for the first time by the world around them, and ghosts being seen by the world around them. To me, it just made me creatively very fertile and felt like it would be fun. It seems like the majority of people are really excited about it. The thing with the internet is you get the dissenters, which you guys deal with the time.
Capone: I’ve never noticed.
PF: [laughs] And I’m not like calling the men and women who are against it anything other then to say, “I get it. I totally get it.” All I can say is, I was approached to do this. No one else wanted to do it. And I’m excited for what myself and my team and my actors can bring to it.
Capone: I think the more you distance yourself from what it was, the better.
PF: The others exist, and they’re awesome. They are of a time. Harold [Ramis] is gone, Bill [Murray] doesn’t want to do it. Look, if all those guys were standing in front of me going, “We want to make another one,” I’d be the biggest shithead in the world to throw that out. But it’s like I know Ernie [Hudson] and Dan [Aykroyd] would love to do it, but I can only do what makes sense to me. I know that other people get mad, like, “Oh, sure. Amuse yourself and ruin our childhoods.” That’s not my intention, I swear.
Capone: Those are some pretty fragile childhoods
PF: I know, it’s so easy to destroy them, apparently.
Capone: What’s funny is, you’re also producing this PEANUTS film, which does not look like the Peanuts I grew up with, but at the same time, I’m really curious what you’re doing with that one.
PF: Honestly at the end of the day, it’s exactly like the Peanuts you grew up with. We are so slavish.
Capone: “You’ve ruined my childhood.”
PF: [laughs] I’m ruining so many childhoods over the next year and a half. It’s crazy. And that’s what’s interesting about this, there’s a lot of stuff attached to it, and yet it’s also an older-generation thing, so to bring it to a new generation, but with that same purity and warmth that the original one had, that’s all we’re obsessed with—just trying to make it as funny as we can while not at all going out of the tone of what it has meant to so many people for so many years.
Capone: I remember reading interviews with you from a while ago where you said Charles Schultz and Peanuts were some of the defining things of your life.
PF: Oh, yeah. They were my STAR WARS. When it was brought to me to come on as a producer, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. I felt like I wanted to guard it against any potential threats that might be coming in and trying to modernize it. The lovely thing was, the minute I came on board, [director] I found out Steve Martino and the Blue Sky [Studios] team are obsessed with that as well. If you get a chance, when the movie’s coming out, talk to Steve. They broke down every pen line of Schultz’s. It’s so slavish to it that the 3-D CGI doesn’t make you go, “Oh, what’s happening?” It almost pulls you in more because it makes them real but still keeps the cartoon-ness of them. I’m so in awe of what Steve has done with this. It’s just unbelievable.
And when it first got announced, I remember Brad Bird, who we all love, was really against it. He was like “Oh no.” [His exact Tweet was: “Nothing will capture the simple genius of Charles Schulz's distinctive ink lines like computer graphics.”] I was like, “You’ve got to wait and see.” That’s a problem. Everybody thinks they know what your agenda is, and everybody assumes your agenda is terrible.
Capone: You announced that GHOSTBUSTERS cast pretty quickly. There are some inspired choices in that group [Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong].
PF: It was actually after months and months of deliberation.
Capone: Where are you right now in the production? When do you start shooting?
PF: Start shooting in the middle of June.
Capone: And you said you don’t think a sequel to THE HEAT will happen? You said it was written or being written.
PF: I hope someday we can do it, even if it’s without Sandra. She’s been very vocal that she doesn’t want to do another sequel. She hasn’t liked any of the other sequels that she’s done, I think.
Capone: Fair enough.
PF: Yeah, fair enough. I didn’t like any of the other ones that she did either, but I think this one could be great. But with that said, I’m so happy with the SPY franchise, and it’s the world I really like to play in, this whole international, high-stakes thing, that I’m fine. I just get sad because I know how funny that script is.