Paul Feig, the man behind "Bridesmaids," "The Heat" and "Freaks & Geeks," is back with "Spy." It's a movie that takes the spy genre seriously, even though it's in a comedic context — Feig says the last thing he wanted was to do a parody.
"When you do that, there's no stakes, and so as an audience member, if you're watching that, you have to have silly villains, and there's no danger, and so you're really going joke to joke, and it's almost impossible to pull an audience through. 'Austin Powers' did it masterfully, but it's really hard."
Finally getting to make a spy movie
Feig says he has a deep-seated love for spy movies.
"I've always wanted to do one, but I'm a comedy guy, so I thought, well let's make a real spy movie, but then the challenge is how do you make that then very funny and never subvert the action and subvert the characters," Feig says. "For years, I've told my agents, get me a Bond movie, get me a Bond movie. But like, who in their right mind — would the Broccolis be insane if they hired a comedy director to direct James Bond?"
Making "Spy" gave Feig the chance to add his take to the genre. It also gave him the opportunity to explore the form with female characters, which has been Feig's recent hallmark.
"For me, it's a much more relatable spy movie, because it's about somebody who was completely undervalued — and no one would think would be a good spy — who actually gets to prove herself."
Making Jason Statham funny
The film features one of the modern kings of the action film: Jason Statham. Feig wanted him to play the part seriously, but found that Statham's actually a funny guy.
"I mean, if you've ever seen the 'Crank' movies — there's no way he could have not known he was being nuts and hilarious in that. There's no way. He's too smart of a man."
Feig says that Statham was nervous about the way the movie was set to play with his persona.
"I said, 'Don't worry, I'm just going to feed you all these crazy lines.' But as we fed them, and he would do them, and nail them, it's like, 'I wonder if he'd say this.' So we just started writing weirder things," Feig says. "Every time I'd feed him one of the lines, he would just burst out laughing, and then you'd do one take where he'd get halfway through and start laughing, and then he would nail it the next time."
When Feig first started the script, McCarthy wasn't attached yet.
"I didn't think Melissa was going to be available," Feig says. "So I kind of just wrote it with an everywoman in mind, which so many of the funny women I know can just play that. They can just play people you like and just would meet on the street. But when Melissa heard about it, and then I let her read a draft, she came at me, said she really wanted to do it, which was music to my ears."
This makes for Feig's third feature featuring Melissa McCarthy. He says that he loves underdogs, and she plays the underdog everyperson well.
"She's just that person on screen that people want to be best friends [with]. You immediately feel very comfortable with her when she's on screen. And it was important for me, in this one, I really wanted to show off the side of Melissa that I know, that an audience doesn't know. Because they're so used to seeing her play these brash, really in-your-face characters, and the Melissa I know in real life is very sweet and unassuming."
In "Spy," McCarthy is a little less "Bridesmaids" and more like her "Gilmore Girls" Sookie St. James character.
Underdogs who aren't incompetent
McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who goes from working behind a desk to being in the field, where she's assigned identities that ensure people ignore her.
"Since I didn't write it specifically for her and came up with this whole device, it was just supposed to be about a normal person getting put in the field. You would think, 'OK, I'm going to be a spy, so they'll make me glamorous, because that's every movie I see.' It's like, 'No no, you have to hide in plain sight, so we're going to make you look like a tourist, or we're going to make you look like the most unremarkable person ever.'"
Feig says McCarthy loves playing characters like Cooper, naturally falling into the role.
"If anything, she had a harder time having to glam up when we had Susan decide she was going to take matters into her own hands and be hot."
The secret to her transformations: Wigs.
"It's funny, I always just let her pick her look and her wardrobe and things, because she has to build it from the inside out and outside in. And the first thing she will always do is go to a wig store and send me pictures over my phone of her in the most horrendous wigs, and I just crack up. And when she sent me the one that's on all the posters, with that little gray kind of perm, I was like, OK, you're on fire."
Feig says that McCarthy developed that wig love from doing sketch comedy with the Groundlings in Los Angeles. With her character in "Spy," both Feig and McCarthy wanted to show that the character may be out of practice when it comes to spycraft, but that she wasn't incompetent.
"That was very important for both she and I. Every movie we do — talking about 'the Heat' and all these things — we never want any character to be dumb, because that's not fun."
Feig's love for the rules
Feig says there's always a little bit of him in his characters.
"Everything I write, everything I do, the first thing I have to find is, how does it relate to my life? Because all I care about is portraying real emotions through these characters, because that's the only way you're going to care about their comedy or anything."
The characters he's connected with in recent films: Sandra Bullock's character from "The Heat" and Kristen Wiig's character in "Bridesmaids."
"I probably really felt close to Sandra's character, who was this person who was very officious, trying to do what she's doing, but she was so by the rules that she kind of wasn't allowing herself to sort of open up and see things in a different way. And I've always been kind of a rule follower all my life, and I'm always happier when somebody— like, there's nothing worse than when somebody goes, 'write whatever you want!' I'd rather them say, 'OK, you've got a bus, and a building, and a bongo, write a movie about that."
Feig's connection with Wiig's Annie was how the character was dealing with falling on hard times.
"Honestly, I was coming out of a very similar situation, because she was somebody who was doing well, and then things had gotten pulled out from under her. I had done 'Freaks & Geeks' and I was doing these movies, but then I had two movies in a row that did very poorly. And because of that, I went into movie jail. And so, look, I was lucky — I got to work on some of the best TV shows as a director, but it still wasn't my thing. I wasn't showing my vision off."
Breaking out of movie jail
Feig says all his movies are his children — but that those movies are his uglier children. He had to rebuild his reputation after several projects that didn't succeed commercially.
"People now kind of look at 'Freaks & Geeks' like it was a success, but it was really a failure. It was a financial failure. I mean, critically it was a success, but that didn't matter, because this wasn't even when there was streaming, or even shows out on DVD."
Next, he did a drama, "I Am David." One test screening showed him that the movie was doomed.
"We got all the audience there, the screening goes great, we get really high scores. I'm like, 'This is it! We're a hit movie!' And then the audience is leaving and they're handing everybody little white envelopes. And I'm like, 'What is that?' And they said, 'Well, when we were trying to recruit the audience, we told them what it was about, and nobody wanted to see it, so we had to tell them we'd give them five dollars if they came to the movie.'"
Up next, Feig took on "Unaccompanied Minors," a family Christmas movie.
"I said, I want to try doing a studio film, because the other one was kind of an independent movie. So I went in with my eyes wide open, but right when we got into production, suddenly the head of the studio got very nervous that it was anti-divorced parents. Because it was based on a 'This American Life' story that was actually very touching, and so we had to yank out the emotional core of it, and so it was just kind of a romp. It was fine, but it didn't do well, and so I went right into movie jail."
Feig says he wasn't being hired and couldn't get a movie off the ground to save his life. He credits his agent for guiding him into directing TV episodes of great shows, including "Arrested Development," "The Office," "Nurse Jackie," "Mad Men" and "30 Rock."
"So I was getting known for doing really good episodes of television, and then always stayed friends with my pal Judd Apatow, who we had done 'Freaks & Geeks' with. And about 2007, he had invited me to the first table read for what would turn into 'Bridesmaids,' and thought it might be something I'd be interested in. And then about three years later, it came to fruition, and he was nice enough to bring me on it. And fortunately that was a hit and got me out of movie jail."
Passing the Bechdel test
Feig says he's proud that his movies pass the Bechdel test — the idea that a movie treats its women fairly if there are at least two women, they talk to each other and they talk to each other about something other than a guy.
"I got so tired of years of watching movies for women, quote-unquote 'chick flicks,'" Feig says. "All these really funny women I know would pop up in movies, in male-driven movies, and have nothing to do. They weren't allowed to be funny. They were allowed to be mean, and shrewish, but not funny."
He says he wanted to do movies that were unlike that, films where his female characters had nuance.
"— where they're professionals, and they're being funny, and they're being obscene, and they're being rude," he said. "But not women playing men, because I've seen movies do that, and that's terrible too."
Feig says that he feels he has a feminine creative voice.
"I grew up with, all my best friends were girls, all my friends now are basically women, and I just have fun laughing with them. Male comedy's very aggressive in a way that I can't do. There's plenty of guys that do it great, and so we're fine with that, but I want to get more jobs for these funny women, because they just make me laugh."
A current hit that excites Feig: "Pitch Perfect 2," directed by a woman, with a female cast and a largely female audience.
"Anytime this happens, it's such a boost for women," he said. "But at the same time, I get frustrated, because I go, 'Wow, the fact that this has to be a big thing is terrible, in 2015.' That this is the summer where everybody's like, 'There's four movies that are featuring women!' And it's like, really? Are we celebrating? Are we patting ourselves on the back for that? This is really, really sad."
Feig says that it's a sign of progress, but that it shouldn't have taken this long.
"If it's moving the rock up the hill, that's fine, but the fact that that rock is at the bottom of the hill is a crime, and it's been a crime for years, and years, and years."
The all-female Ghostbusters
The next project for Feig: "Ghostbusters," long in development.
"It still hasn't been made yet! It still could fall apart," Feig half-jokingly said. "I'd been contacted about it a year and a half ago when we were making 'Spy,' but they wanted to do it as a sequel. Ivan Reitman had contacted me, and Sony had. Friends of mine actually wrote some of the scripts, and they were all really well written, it just, for some reason, it just bumped me to make it a sequel. It just felt like it was too far away from the original one, and Harold [Ramis] had just died, and I knew Bill [Murray] didn't want to do it."
They kept pursuing Feig, even though he felt like he couldn't shine in the constraints he was being given.
"Finally I was like, 'God, it's this great idea.' 'Ghostbusters' as an idea is great. Funny people fighting the supernatural is a great idea. So finally I said, well if I had to do it, what would I do? And so I said, well, if I can make it all female characters so I could employ all the hilarious women that I know, then, that's interesting to me. That, I know how to tell that story. But then I was like, but if they have to be the daughters of the original 'Ghostbusters', that feels sweaty to me."
To avoid the feeling of trying too hard, Feig opted to make it a reboot.
"We'll come into a new world that hasn't ever met ghosts, and we'll have new origin story, we can reinvent all the technology. Then I got excited," Feig says. "I ironically was on my way to Comic-Con when I thought of that, and with my producing partner Jessie Henderson. And I said, 'you know who would be great writing this is Katie Dippold, who wrote 'the Heat.'' And she said, 'Well Katie's going to be at Comic-Con today!' So, oh my God! So we sat down. I told Katie, she loved it, so we're writing it together."
Listening to the critics — and to Twitter
Feig says it's been a fun project — even though some on Twitter have been mad about it being a reboot, about the all-female cast and about the other "Ghostbusters" movie being spun off.
"I listen to everybody. I read every terrible tweet I get on Twitter, just because, you know what? I don't want to cut myself off," Feig says. "There's plenty of voices you don't want to hear, trust me, and there's plenty of voices that are just rabble-rousers and jerks. But out of some of that comes real kind of data that you want to hear. Plus, I just want to know what I'm up against, so I'll read it all."
Part of that feedback has been strong early reviews for "Spy."
"I know what my business benchmark is, and that's the only thing that Hollywood goes by, because I've been on the other side of when you're, 'Hey, you're a critical success and nobody's watching!' And it's like, ugh, OK, great, and they don't let you do anything."
Qualitatively, Feig says that the most important thing is how the audience reacts, which he sees in test screenings.
"I'll throw out any joke that I love that people don't laugh at it, so I want to make sure that they're having a good time. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't care about the reviews, because what I'm trying to do with comedy is trying to make comedy, not that's highfalutin or anything. I just want to do comedy that's... I don't want to say smart, because that sounds elitist in a way. I just want to entertain an audience, but I want to do it in a way that's not pandering."
Feig says he was influenced by his mom, who was always decrying programming like "The Jerry Springer Show."
"She goes, 'It just lowers the general mood of the public,'" Feig says. "I just don't want to lower the mood of the public... says the man who makes R-rated comedies filled with swearing and lots of gross stuff, so, I'm a total hypocrite."
Critics don't tend to get behind comedy, Feig says, because successful comedy has to look effortless.
"That's the very reason why Steve Carell never won an Emmy for 'the Office,'" Feig says. "He made it look so easy, and having worked with him on 20-plus episodes, he worked his A off doing that show, because that's not who he is. He is not Michael Scott."
Meanwhile, drama looks like work, Feig says.
"When you do drama, drama can look like it's taking so much work, because the camera's working hard, and the visuals, and the story's so overwrought, and the acting's big and all that. If you do that in a comedy, it comes off sweaty," Feig says. "And so we almost have to make a trade of, look, I would much rather have an audience happy watching something. I mean, people come up to me and say, I've watched 'Bridesmaids' 40 times. I take great heart in that."
What Feig wants his movies to do
The movie that shut-out "Bridesmaids" from awards: "The Artist."
"'The Artist' beat us in everything, everything, they won for every comedy award, everything. I loved the movie, but I still will say, when you're in a bad movie, do you turn on 'the Artist,' or do you turn on 'Bridesmaids'? And so that to me, not to be a jerk, but that's why I got into comedy. That's why I started as a stand-up, and that's why I became a writer, and that's why I went behind the camera, because I want to make people laugh and enjoy their lives."
Feig wrote in one of two memoirs about his relationships with women — he was a virgin until 24.
"See how much I love ladies? I waited 24 years before I bothered them," Feig says. "It shows I'm the ultimate underdog, in a way. I mean I was just always such an eternal optimist, almost like a Charlie Brown-type character, who just kind of went, everything's going to be so great, and there's nowhere to go but down if you're that person. But you're also not cool if you're that person. You just want everything to work out. And so that's why, any movie I make, even if it's kind of dark or has these violent themes, I like to think there's kind of a buoyant optimism about them. At least the main characters, that they're really trying, they really think they can pull this off. And even when they hit adversity, they bounce back and just keep trying to go forward."
Feig's next projects
The women behind "Broad City" are currently writing a project for Feig, though they're not starring in it.
"I'm hoping to do several films with them, because I think they're brilliant."
He's also producing "Peanuts," out in November.
"I go from my R-rated things to the most G-rated family-friendly thing you could ever imagine. But I mean, Charlie Brown, Peanuts, that was my refuge when I was a kid. I couldn't go to sleep at night without reading a Peanuts book."
Feig says he wanted to guard the property he loved so much.
"It's so true to the material that it's practically religious to it."
How Paul Feig writes
Through all these projects, Feig continues to make new things. He shared his creative process with us.
"I have a hard time writing in a vacuum. I need stimulation. I need to see people. But then it's hard for me, if I write in a public place, I'm so focused on people, I can't not listen to what everybody is saying. And so part of me loves, sometimes I've written in other countries, and it's great, because you just hear talk, and you go, 'I don't understand what anybody is saying, so this is great!'"
Feig's favorite place to write: his apartment in New York.
"I go to New York, I'll write in there during the day. If I get blocked or something I'll just go walk around, get that stimulation. And then I can write all day, and then at night I know I'm going to have a nice meal or whatever. And my whole thing is, my goal is I write five pages per day, so in less than a month, I can have a first draft of a script finished — in whatever shape it's in, just get to the end."
Feig says that's the most important thing for any writer.
"If you want to write a screenplay, get to the last page. I used to have so many half-written screenplays, because when you get in the middle of a script, you're just convinced it's terrible and you're lost in the wilderness, but just realize you're always going to feel that way, no matter how well it's going. So keep going forward."
Feig says he still loves the writing process — but only when he has an idea that he loves. You'll have to head to the box office to see if that love continues to shine through.