If writer/director Paul Feig had only been responsible for creating the cult hit “Freaks & Geeks” that would probably be enough to endear him to cinephiles forever. Loosely based on his experiences growing up as an outcast in suburban Michigan (and shepherded to the small screen by pal Judd Apatow), Feig’s magnum opus is still finding viewers over a decade after it was unceremoniously cancelled by the network. Though it only ran for 18 episodes, to this day the series frequently pops up on Best-Of lists and its cast of former unknowns — James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, John Frances Daley, etc. — are practically Hollywood fixtures. Hell, two-thirds of them just co-starred together in “This Is The End.” After his show went off the air, Feig also mined his awkward experiences growing up for two hilarious non-fiction books (“Kick Me: Adventures In Adolescence” and “Superstud: How I Became A 24 Year Old Virgin”) and has probably directed at least one episode of your favorite show (“The Office,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Bored To Death,” “Weeds,” “Mad Men,” “30 Rock,” “Parks And Rec,” “Undeclared” and “Arrested Development“).
After striking out on the big screen at his first three outings he knocked it out of the park with 2011’s megahit “Bridesmaids” and found himself with a whole host of projects to choose from (including “Dumb Jock” for Melissa McCarthy, a comedy vehicle for Jon Hamm, a remake of “The Intouchables,” a pair of Reese Witherspoon comedies, a third ‘Bridget Jones‘ entry and a host of potential TV projects and eventually landed on “The Heat,” a female buddy cop comedy (the first of its kind?) from “Parks And Rec” writer Katie Dippold. The action-comedy (not a spoof as Feig was quick to point out) reunites the “Bridesmaids” helmer with his breakout star Melissa McCarthy and teams her up with Sandra Bullock as a pair of mismatched cops in Boston. Our own Gabe Toro gave it a solid “B” saying, “fans of the Bechdel Test will be delighted that this film passes it early and frequently.” To help drum up some attention for the picture, Feig stopped by the 92Y Tribeca in New York City last week week for a 90 minute conversation about his new film, his comedic influences and how he believes “Freaks & Geeks” would have a better chance on TV today. Here are some of the highlights.
Feig’s approach to characters is just to make sure they feel real because even bad guys think they mean well.
“It’s so great when you’re ahead of your time because what it really means is that you died early,” Feig said recalling the fate of his beloved cult series “Freaks & Geeks” which was cancelled after just one season. As has been widely reported, Feig wrote the pilot script on spec as a reaction to the teen shows and movies at the time and it was his wife who encouraged him to send it to friend Judd Apatow who was immediately interested in producing it. What makes the show continue to connect with so many fans even a decade after it went off the air is that it was the blueprint for Feig and Apatow’s funny-but-real sensibilities. Like Apatow and his ‘Freaks’ actor Seth Rogen, Feig also began performing standup at an extremely young age (15) and began honing his timing even earlier by reciting Steve Martin‘s routines in the mirror.
“For me [‘Freaks & Geeks’] defined what I think is funny. I don’t like comedy that’s really crazy or in-your-face, I mean, I can enjoy it but I don’t want to make it. Because I never like when [I’m watching something and] I go, ‘Ah, c’mon, why is that guy acting like that? Why are they doing that? Why are they saying that?’ And so, I wanted to have all these litmus tests of ‘Do I believe the characters?’ and the biggest test that I run everything through to this day is, ‘Does the person playing that character like that character? And does the person writing that character like that character or feel it’s a real person?’ Because when you have a contempt for your characters, even your bad guys, then you create these stereotypes or archetypes that aren’t real,” he said. “I’ve quoted this a million times so I apologize but there’s this George Bernard Shaw quote I read that says, ‘All men mean well.’ And for me, that’s the key to everything. As long as everyone thinks they’re doing something good and right, then everybody feels honest. Even a bad guy.”
He believes ‘Freaks & Geeks’ would have a better chance on TV today.
“I think TV is way better than movies these days to be honest and I work on movies,” Feig said candidly even as he knew he had shown up to promote his new film. Unfortunately for him, ‘F&G’ came just a few years before the current second Golden Age of Television which has given critically acclaimed shows with limited audiences other avenues to stay on the air. Feig believes that if the show had been picked up just a few years later they would’ve at least gotten a second season which NBC never granted them at the time. “Why we would do better today is that tonally we’re more in line, everything [on TV] is a little more behavioral now, especially comedy. When you have a critically acclaimed show now, even if it’s not highly rated, you know that people are going to catch up by binge-watching it. So I think a network or studio would be much more interested in keeping it around to get that first season out on Netflix or on DVD so people can catch up. So I think we would’ve at least gotten another half season and then they would’ve waited to see what happened and hopefully people would’ve caught up to it.”
He relies heavily on structured improv.
Though the Apatow extended comedy clan has a reputation for heavily improvised films, Feig says that the key is to use it within a tightly structured script. “True funny people know where the line is. And people who aren’t good at comedy don’t know where the line is, so they’re just off in the ether. But I wouldn’t hire those people. You have to have the people with that internal governor but then you can set them loose.” Like on “Bridesmaids” where co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo were constantly on set to throw out new jokes, write Katie Dipold was on set every day for “The Heat” to allow the cast the room to play around within the structure of each scene. “It’s all about capturing that lightning in a bottle at the end of the day.”
Says Melissa McCarthy is one of the best improvisers he’s ever worked with.
“When we were casting ‘Bridesmaids’ we saw a lot of funny great women but we hadn’t quite hit the soul of [her character] Megan. And really late in the process, Kristen and Annie said, ‘Oh you’ve got to see our friend Melissa, she works at [famed LA improv troupe] The Groundlings and people line up around the block when she performs. It was like, ‘Well, thanks for telling me now! Why didn’t you tell me earlier…’ and Melissa comes in and blows us all away,” he shared. “It was a very funny role [on the page] that was slightly nervous and wanted to be [Wiig’s character] Annie’s friend all the time. And Melissa comes in with this kind of butch thing and we thought, ‘Oh, that’s kinda cool. She’s playing it gay. That’s kind of a cool take on it.’ So she goes through and she’s cracking us up and we started to do the improv thing. So I said, ‘Try this thing where you’re trying to get Annie to hang out with you.’ And she goes on this whole tear about getting guys and man sandwiches and we were just like, ‘Oh, so she’s not gay. She’s man-hungry. That’s so brilliant! Okay, she’s in.'” Feig went on to praise McCarthy as “one of the best improvisers I’ve ever worked with” on a list that includes SNL alums Wiig and Maya Rudolph, Steve Carell and Zach Galifianakis, that certainly comes as high praise.
Why he chose “The Heat” as his follow-up to “Bridesmaids.”
As we discussed above Feig certainly had his choice of projects after “Bridesmaids” blew the doors open for female-led comedies. And though he explored a few other directions he eventually landed on the script for “The Heat,” by “Parks And Recreation” writer Katie Dippold. “After ‘Bridesmaids’ I was really in a quandry about what to do next. I was developing things like ‘Bridget Jones 3’ and nothing felt right. I didn’t know what to do and then out of the blue this script dropped into my house called ‘The Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest idea ever.’ It was weird that it hadn’t been done before or at least that I know of.” Feig read the script trepidatiously on a plane concerned that it wouldn’t live up to its concept but found himself laughing out loud through the entire flight. Sandra Bullock was interested in the role of uptight Sarah Ashburn and 10 pages in he knew exactly who should play the wild card Shannon Mullins. “10 pages in I just thought ‘This is a home run for Melissa.’ And it got funnier as I was reading it [imagining her playing the character].”
On his first film, the flop “I Am David.”
Though many people think of Feig as the creator of “Freaks & Geeks” they may not be aware that before “Bridesmaids” he actually had made 3 prior films that all flopped upon release. His 1997 self-financed effort “Life Sold Separately,” his 2006 John Hughes homage “Unaccompanied Minors” and in between a 2003 survival drama called “I Am David.” “The first movie I did was a drama about a kid who grew up in a Communist labor camp and has to escape so you can only imagine how people flocked to that film,” Feig said. “It was right after ‘Freaks & Geeks’ and my mom had died and it was a story about finding your mother that I really responded to and I shouldn’t have made it but I’m proud of it. So I put all this time into it and we do a test screening out in Irvine California. And people love it and give it high scores and we go, ‘Great, we did it!’ And I’m watching as everybody is filing out of the theatre and there is somebody at the door handing out white envelopes to everybody. And I said, ‘What are they giving them?’ And they said, ‘Well, when we told people about the movie, nobody wanted to come so we had to promise we’d give them five dollars each to show up.’ ” Ouch. He said he knew then that his film’s fate was sealed and that in the end “I don’t think a movie could have bombed worse than that one did.”
Feig says TV is a writer’s medium and that a bad script is no excuse in film.
As a filmmaker who has logged more hours in TV than doing material for the big screen he described the importance of the writer in each medium. In TV, they run the show but for films, it’s ultimately up to the director. “As a director with a writing background, the knowledge of writing is really important especially if you direct movies. The difference between movies and TV [as a director] is that in TV you are a facilitator because it’s a writer’s medium. It’s as if you are making a movie and you go ‘You can direct 10 minutes of this movie.’ You have to be in sync with the general vision of it,” he explained. “When you’re doing a movie you are the storyteller. My DP from one of my films was telling me about some actress who had directed a movie. And I said, ‘Oh how’d she do?’ And he said, ‘She did great but it was too bad she got stuck with a bad script so the movie wasn’t good.’ I was like, ‘You know what? When you’re moviemaking, that’s not an excuse. You are the person. It’s your job to fix that script, whatever it takes.’ The best way to do it is working with great actors if you didn’t write it yourself or to work with great writers if you didn’t write it yourself. The natural inclination is to jettison the writer but for this movie I said to Katie Dippold, ‘I want you on the set with me every day. I want you with me the entire time…’ And she was my sounding board.”
On directing “Mad Men”
Since Feig had been on hand for “Mad Men” during its first season (he directed episode 9 of Season 1), many wondered if he had a hand in helping his “Freaks & Geeks” leading lady Linda Cardellini get cast on the show this season. (For those curious, she appeared as Don Draper’s love interest Sylvia.) “I had nothing to do with getting Linda on that show but Matt Weiner who runs ‘Mad Men’ loves ‘Freaks & Geeks.'” As to how he ended up working on the show before it became a phenomenon, he went onto explain, “I got sent the pilot of ‘Mad Men’ and I dress like this all the time so I just responded to the look of it!” Feig said, motioning to his signature three-piece suit.
“I thought, ‘That’s a great looking show!’ And thought yeah I want to do this and I signed on to do it. When I went there for the first time to meet with them they said, ‘Oh I’m sorry sir, casting is down the hall,'” he laughed recalling as he explained to them that he was actually the director. “The funny thing is when I watched the pilot for the first time — the pilot is awesome — but I remember going, ‘I don’t know. It just looks like it might not be fun. That lead guy [Jon Hamm] just seems so humorless and I don’t know if I can get through a week and a half with this dour guy. And I show up on the set and see this surfer guy with scraggly hair who’s joking around with everyone and I’m going, ‘Is that the guy?’ And it’s Hamm who’s just the biggest comedy geek in the world and he’s like now one of my favorite people in the world and one of the funniest guys I know.” Feig went onto cast Hamm memorably as Kristen Wiig’s asshole fuckbuddy in “Bridesmaids” and came close to doing another project with him. He said of the experience, “It was a thrill to get to work on that show.”
He loves Woody Allen.
“When I was very young my cousin took me to a double-feature and the first one was called ‘W‘ [the 1974 thriller starring Twiggy as a woman being stalked by her ex] and it was this horrible movie about a man stalking a woman and at one point she had dogs and he kills the dogs and paints with blood on the walls. So I was just sitting there in misery watching this thing. And it ends and I’m thinking ‘Ugh, we’ve got to get out of here.'” His cousin however persuaded him to stick around for the second film on the bill which turned out to be Woody Allen‘s 1969 breakthrough “Take The Money And Run.” He called the experience of watching the film a “religious moment” and said it taught him the possibilities of what comedy can be. “That was a real big deal for me. And a few years later Time Magazine had him on the cover and it said Comedy Genius. And I didn’t think you could be a genius at being funny [but that really opened my eyes].” He went on to name Golden Age directors Howard Hawkes, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra as well as Blake Edwards and John Landis as other influences. “I liked filmmakers who did things that made audiences feel good. I know that Capra took the hits for being ‘Capracorn’ and these kinds of things but I like that. I want to find a way to do that where it doesn’t feel corny or manipulative.”
He’s a huge admirer of “Girls” and also loved “This Is The End.”
Though “Girls” may be one of the only great comedies on TV that Feig hasn’t worked on, he had nothing but praise for the show and it’s creator Lena Dunham. “Lena’s a friend but I really admire what she does. I loved what she did with ‘Tiny Furniture‘ and I was kinda blown away by that movie personally. I love anybody with an original voice is what it basically is. You want to have a take on the world. That’s all I care about really, I don’t like people who just do things just to do it or chasing what’s hot right now. All I really care about is ‘What is your take on the world?’ I know what my take on the world is. I’m into the underdogs and want to show people who are trying to find their place in the world. And I’m so excited when I get to see other people’s takes on the world.”
“I went to the premiere of ‘This Is The End’ and it’s complete guy humor but I’m so proud of Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg, co-writer/director] because this is your take on the world and you’re telling it in this crazy way. But it’s actually weirdly sweet and completely nuts and way over the top. But again, if somebody’s trying to do something different and say something, I think it’s great,” he said praising his former ‘F&G’ castmember Rogen.
As for those still on the fence about whether or not to check out “The Heat” this weekend Feig offered a final summation. “Comedy is comedy. My goal is to have men and women look at a poster and if there’s two women on it they go ‘Those are funny people. I like those people.’ Not men, not women. Funny people should get their chance and let’s get rid of chick flick and guy comedy and let’s just make comedy.” Amen.
“The Heat” is in theatres now.