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‘Spy’ Director Paul Feig on ‘Ghostbusters,’ Sexist Backlash and How to Write Great Roles for Women

'Spy' Director Paul Feig on 'Ghostbusters,' Sexist Backlash and How to Write Great Roles for Women

Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne are hilarious in the Bond spoof “Spy,” the latest female-driven comedy from sharp writer/director Paul Feig, who brought us the strongly women-oriented box office hits “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat.” The film played huge for the Paramount Theatre crowd at its SXSW world premiere, where McCarthy came briefly onstage to introduce the film before shuttling off to catch a flight to shoot another movie.

Despite its broad humor and long and muddled action scenes, this is the work of a daffy and deft writer of female dialogue, giving McCarthy (as dowdy CIA agent Susan Cooper) and Byrne (as a prim, terrorist affiliate of the CIA’s arch nemesis) many uproarious moments to chew on. Jason Statham brings comic machismo as a childishly sulky agent gone rogue. The audience ate it all up, with laughs drowning much of the dialogue.

“Spy” is an earnest comedy about funny women doing funny, slapstick things—and Feig will take that formula to make his first franchise restart with Sony’s “Ghostbusters.” When announced earlier this year, the reboot starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon sparked misogynistic vitriol across the internet, with many fanboys complaining that Feig was defiling their “sacred cow,” as he puts it. The 1984 original was directed and produced by Ivan Reitman— who produces Feig’s film—and starred Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd. and Harold Ramis as eccentric New York ghost catchers.

Feig sat down with TOH at SXSW to talk about his plans for the film, the future of women’s roles in film, why TV is a better place for them, and why he isn’t trying to reinvent the “Ghostbusters” wheel but, rather, wants to up the scares and the laughs for a new generation.

Fox opens “Spy” on June 5, 2015.

READ MORE: The Cast of “Ghostbusters” Reboot Chosen

What’s great about working with women?

They’re just so many funny women I know and I don’t see them getting the roles they deserve. I love working with women. I’m more comfortable working with women sometimes just in the comedic sense because I understand the female sense of humor more because it’s less aggressive. I’ve always hung out with the girls ever since I was a kid. When you’re bullied by guys, either your friends are sensitive other guys or you hang out with the girls.

That was my group of friends, and it just sort of carried forward, watching things going. There are funny women I know, they’re in this movie but they’re not being allowed to be funny. They’re playing the mean girlfriend. And you’re going, “Well that’s not fair.” I just have a better take on the feminine point-of-view and there are all these funny women who need to be working. It worked out great. I don’t really want to do anything else. Somebody said to me, “Aren’t you afraid of being pigeonholed?” Would you ever say that to a director who works with men? Would you go to Scorsese and say, “You shouldn’t keep working with guys.” It’s ridiculous.

Were you already picking up on this dearth of good female roles when you were young and growing up on movies like “Ghostbusters”?

Kind of but at the same time, it wasn’t as bad back then. I grew up on old black-and-white movies, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, these strong female roles, so it was never noticeable until we started getting into the ’80s and ’90s watching comedy, going, “Wow this has become such a boys’ club!” For no other reason than that it’s just a guy’s take on the world.

To most guys, women start out as mom who breaks up a good time and then it’s the girlfriend who doesn’t want you hanging out with your friends every night, wants you to be around. And then the wife who puts the kibosh on you going out. All these male comedies felt like they were that version of “here comes the lady to break up the good time” and they never expanded beyond that and the “heart of gold” best friend character who Cecily Strong does so well on SNL now, the girl from the romantic comedy. It’s true, it’s spot-on because that’s how women are portrayed in a lot of these things.

Do you feel guilty that you, a man, have to step in and provide these roles for women?

I do feel weird about it. Selfishly, I loved it. I’m thrilled that I get to do this because I love doing it but there should be more women directors because the imbalance is just too great right now and there’s no real reason for it. I’m slowly getting to a position where I can possibly hire directors so I want to try to get as many female directors working as I can but the whole industry as a whole needs to catch up. The goal for me was not to be the only guy who gets to do female-led comedies. I’m happy I get to but the excuse for Hollywood shouldn’t be, “Oh that’s what he does, and so he’s the only one who can do it.” That’s silly.

You were very vocal on this issue when “The Heat” came out. Has there been any advancement at all?

Somebody pointed out to me that there are five comedies coming out this summer that have female leads. That’s pretty cool. If it’s starting to move, that’s great. I just want to make sure the projects are really good because Hollywood will look for any excuse to go “Well, we tried it and it didn’t work.” Please make those movies work. You can’t expect people to go see movies that don’t work. No matter what the cause is. I’m not going to go see something for a cause if I’m not going to be entertained.

You also worked quite heavily in television before you came to film. What was different about that world for women?

TV has always been way better for female roles. First there’s the perception that a lot of women watch television but, I don’t know, tons of women see movies so that doesn’t even hold up. But for some reason the TV space is more open to it because, I think, with TV you’re just trying to get somebody to tune to your channel. With movies, you’re trying to get somebody up out of their house, into their car, pulling money out of their wallet and sitting down in the theater. That’s a big hurdle, so I think that’s why movies are so aimed, in general, at 15-year-old boys because they’re the ones who will get up to go see stuff — and I’m only going by Hollywood’s logic, I don’t know if I buy into it. TV has been more open to [women] because it feels like the stakes are lower somehow. I don’t know, I’m talking out of my ass on some of this stuff.

What sparked “Ghostbusters”? Did you set out to subvert this formula we’re talking about of the “comedy boys’ club”?

No, not at all. People think I did. There were plenty of angry tweets to me that thought I did. It was purely a creative decision. I’d been contacted starting last year when I was in production on “Spy.” I was getting calls from Sony, Ivan Reitman called, they wanted to do a sequel and I was so flattered because I love the franchise so much and wanted it to come back. I just couldn’t figure out how to do a sequel 25 years later where two of the original cast members weren’t even going to be in it. I’d read the original scripts that had been written to try and do it — some of my favorite comedy writers wrote those scripts, and they were really good scripts — but something felt off. The math was off.

So I kept saying no and then finally had lunch with Amy Pascal and she was just like, “Why doesn’t anybody want to do this movie? None of you comedy directors want to do this!” I went on this whole thing, this is a sacred cow, this thing we all grew up with and thought, “I don’t know how to do it.” But there’s this great franchise sitting there, this great idea of funny people battling the paranormal. That’s an awesome canvas to paint on. So I thought, if I had to do it, what would I do? The most obvious things are the last things you think about. And I thought, if I made them all women, then I know how to do that. I get excited about that. I can see the comedy and the fun in that. But are they their daughters? What’s their thing? I want to see them develop the technology and I want to see the world confront ghosts for the first time and I thought, “Let’s just reboot it.”

It was as simple as that. It was no more evil than that and there was all this feeling of this evil plotting, I’ve had things come at me like “We’re so tired of this PC bullshit.” This isn’t PC! There’s all these funny women; I’m trying to figure out how to get more women’s ensembles together and get more of these people working and here it is. That’s it.

What was some of the worst sexist vitriol that you received?

Jesus, there’s so much. Just put in my address and look at the things that are addressed to me any day. The worst of it was always “Women can’t be ‘Ghostbusters’!” This flat statement of “this can’t happen.” I always try to find the germ of logic and, look, for a lot of guys — I was in my early 20s when I first saw it and I thought it was groundbreaking comedy — who saw it when they were seven, eight, nine, they kind of grew up playing it so I think to them it’s much more a way of life, like a religion.

Well, what does that say about them?

No comment on that [laughs]. It does become a bit of a religion for people, like “Star Wars.” All of our favorite movies are religious icons to us, I try to be sensitive to that and so, guys, I get that but I’m not going to destroy those first two movies. I can’t. I almost feel like it would possibly hurt them more if I did it as a direct sequel because it would almost back-poison the well. If you don’t like what I end up doing, you can say, “Well that was the new one. Fuck that. We have these other ones.” You can only do what inspires you and what you think will be fun and what you know how to do for an audience to make them laugh and have a good time. My intentions are nothing but pure.

What stage are you in now?

We start shooting June 15 so we’re still punching up the script, doing heavy prep of designing all our effects and our ghosts and nailing down what we’re going to shoot. It’s fast approaching.

This is the first time you’re working in visual effects. What can we expect? In what ways are you going to reinvent the wheel or not this time around?

I love the original ones so I want to do enough nods to it that the fans go “Oh, okay they’re aware of it! That’s fun that they’re twisting this and that!” But I also want to make it so that a new generation can make it their own too. We’ll make references but blow past them and go toward our own thing; I want to keep the same tone and style but I want it to be even scarier just because I think with the way we can do stuff now, we can really have fun with making it creepier. Comedy and scares go really well together. The original was very scary and if you look at it now, you still have that, but there’s a chance to go even further with it.

So you’re not doing camp.

No! As in “Spy,” the more real you play everything, the more fun it is. It’s funny people reacting in a real way and funny people in peril is always a funny equation.

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