Spy Interview: Paul Feig

2015 SXSW Film Festival

“There’s a beautiful bathroom background. I’m always on the side of a filmmaker… Well, welcome everyone. I suppose you’re all wondering why I called you here. Uncle is dying, we have to sort out his will… I’ll keep making these jokes all the time. That’s what we’re here for. The quality dad jokes.” This was how I met the man behind smash hits like Bridesmaids and The Heat. Already a fan of his since Freaks and Geeks, Paul Feig  has been making films for years and they’re all often centered around female characters. We talk about this, Ghostbusters, James Bond, and even a bit about his process when writing and casting. He’s such a gentleman and talking with him was a great time. The interview reads a bit long, but it’s more than worth it!

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Paul Feig and I after the interview.

 

Can you talk about why it’s important for you to work with casts that are predominantly female oriented? Bridesmaids, The Heat, and now Spy? Even Ghostbusters coming up?

I just like funny women. There’s no more of a secret than that. I grew up around funny women and all my friends were very funny ladies. I just saw, for so long, that the industry was not including funny women in any kind of quality comedy roles. They were always forced to be the mean girlfriend, or the bitchy wife. I think it was accumulated years of going “Oh, that’s not how it should be.” All these funny women aren’t getting these roles and then the other side of it is just that my brain works that way. I have guy friends, but even my guy friends and I have always been sort of the outsider sensitive guys. When forced to hang with a group of “Guys”, I’m not comfortable. Even when I was in High School, all the guys would be punching and insulting each other and all that, and I wanted to go hang with the girls because they were funnier. We could make each other laugh and it was all goofy fun. I’ve just never broken out of that. I’ve been sent scripts all through my career and they’re always about “a pack of guys going somewhere. The sensitive lead and his pussyhound best friend.” That dynamic– I don’t know any guys that are sensitive, who have that dynamic in their life. “My friend wants to get laid all the time!” I’ve always thought “Ugh, get rid of that guy. Let’s just go and talk about Sci-Fi.” It’s not my world, but I can still go see those movies and they’re really funny. Seth [Rogen] and [James] Franco and Danny McBride– all those guys are just masterful at it and I love it, but THEY’RE doing it. If I did it, it wouldn’t even ring true. It would feel fake.

On putting Melissa McCarthy in a Spy film and what was seen in her to decide she would fit the role.

When I wrote the script, I didn’t think that Melissa was going to be available. So, when I wrote it, I just wrote it for somebody funny, like an every woman. Then, when she read it, she loved it and wanted to do it. I always called this movie “Harry Potter for adults”, because it’s a person who’s working in a cubicle who had this skill set that she was convinced wasn’t real. She was under the thumb of someone charismatic person who browbeat her into helping her become better at his job. Then, when something happens, she has to go out. It felt very relatable to me, because I wanted it to be the person you would go like “Oh my God, I could do that. That could be me!” That’s Melissa’s power, other than being one of the funniest people on the planet. She’s such a great actor and she’s like your best friend. She’s not intimidating and you just love watching her. You never root against her because you’re so empathetic with her. On top of that, it’s just selfish for me because we have the same sense of humor. We play around and we do so much alternate material. The goal is just to make it feel real and she’s just the best at that.

Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig shooting a scene for 'Spy'.
Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig shooting a scene for ‘Spy’.

How did you bring on the other actors like Jude Law and Jason Statham, who aren’t big in comedy?

Statham I wrote the part for. I’ve been desperate to work with Statham. There are a few people in the industry whom I’ve watched their movies for years and I go “That person is funny. I know that person knows that they’re funny.” Especially when I saw the first Crank movie, I knew that Statham knows that he’s funny. I had to get him in a comedy, so this role is what I needed. I needed the over-serious guy who’s driven crazy that she [McCarthy] is out in the field doing his job. Statham just crushes it and everyone who sees the movie will be so surprised. As for Jude, I really wanted a James Bond type and I’ve been such a fan of his. It’s funny, when you’re a comedy person you reach out to “real” actors and you just never assume that they’re going to want to do it. Might as well take a chance and he wanted to do it. It was amazing. He’s unbelievable because the opening of the movie is this big action piece and a big part of it is fighting off ten guys. My stunt coordinator– we pre-visualize all the stunts with the stunt guys and work it all out, so we can have this whole sequence laid out. It was going to be the first two days of the shoot and Jude could only come in the day before and I didn’t think it was going to work. There is just so much fight choreography that’s very much like a dance and we’re dead. I thought I’d have to do it all with his stunt double, but he came in and just nailed everything. I knew he was a very physical actor from the stuff he would do with the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movies, but I had no idea to this extent. He should be the next James Bond, it’s unbelievable.

After Bridesmaids and The Heat, I think a lot of people just assumed that you wrote them and all your films. It has been 13 years since you’ve written something, so I’d love to know what brought you back to writing Spy?

When you direct, you always do a lot of writing with the writers. I always feel like I’m always writing, regardless.Bridesmaids and The Heat were these situations where these projects that just popped up. I don’t usually go towards projects that I don’t write– I was doing a lot of T.V. for a long time after Freaks and Geeks as a director. I was lucky enough to be working on one of the best shows on television at the time. I’m always coming up with stuff and when Bridesmaids and The Heat popped up, I had two scripts that were already hilarious. Spy came out of this void– It was during post with The Heat and I have always wanted to do a James Bond movie. I’ve loved the genre since I was a kid and I think it was when Skyfall came out, that it was in my head that I wanted to do one of those films, but I know they’re never going to let me direct a James Bond movie. Why would you let a comedy director do that? I thought to myself “I love funny women, so why don’t I just write my own Spy movie starring a woman?” It really came out of a project void. I’m thrilled, because I love writing and it’s kind of nice to get the writing credits. It’s very exciting to have a couple of things out after all these years.

The cast & crew of 'Spy' at the SXSW premiere.
The cast & crew of ‘Spy’ at the SXSW premiere.

Mentioning Katie [Dippold], you both are co-writing Ghostbusters together. Why did you decide to do that as the reboot?

Some of my favorite comedy writers have written the sequel, or Ghostbusters 3, and I read them all and they’re all great. They’re written wonderfully by these guys, but something always felt weird about starting a thing up 25 years later. Ghostbusters 2 had them fallen from grace five years later. When Harold [Ramis] was gone and Bill [Murray] didn’t want to do it, what I wanted was to come into a world where Ghostbusters didn’t exist. In our world today, if something paranormal started happening, it’s a completely different situation, as if it had been happening 25 year ago. I just like origin stories, so I wanted to see them develop the equipment because I think there’s fun in that. If the fans of the original ones just really think about it– I think it makes more sense. There’s already people up in arms about it, but you can only do what you think you can do best as a filmmaker and I’ve been lucky enough to have been given the reins to this. I just want people to have the best experience watching it that they can. You’re always going to hit the reset button for people and they’re going to come up with preconceived notions and all I can do is say “Here’s mine!” Hopefully, in the first five minutes, they get it and all that stuff leaves their head. It’s the chance you take.

Are they working in conjunction with you with the recently announced [Russo brothers] Ghostbusters film?

No. That’s a separate thing and I don’t even know what the timetable is on that one. I’d been contacted by Sony quite a bit and even Ivan [Reitman] to come on to do the sequel, but I just kept turning it down. I couldn’t figure out how to do the sequel and it was only when I started thinking of all these funny women and rebooting it that I really had my head wrapped around it. It was kind of sitting dormant until then. I’d like to think that the wave of enthusiasm that we got spurred them to keep going with more.

Given all this talk of James Bond, who is your favorite Bond and your favorite non-Bond spy?

My favorite Bond is, and this is heresy, Daniel Craig. I love Sean Connery, but to me– I’m a big fan of the Fleming books and to me, Daniel Craig is the embodiment of the way that Fleming writes Bond. He’s a dark character and there’s really no gadgets. There are no ridiculous watches that saw through ropes. He’s just this dark kind of guy who’s trying to get through with his skills. I love that and I’m also a big [Jason] Bourne fan. I think those movies are just great. I love that level of action and having to figure things out. I love thrillers because I find them so much fun. The goal with this movie was not to make it– some people are calling it a spoof. It’s not a spoof and I didn’t set out to make “Spy Hard”. I want real stakes in this and I tried to craft a story that felt real, had real danger in it, but then allowed for the comedy of a fish out of water. We get some characters that are extreme, but are not silly. Rose Byrne is just awesome. She’s so funny in this and while she’s scary, she’s funny because she’s just so cold.

Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig.
Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig.

Did the thought of casing Rose Byrne arise after you saw Neighbors, or was it based on your experience with Bridesmaids?

I had her in Bridesmaids, only because Nick Stoller had just done ‘Get Him to the Greek’. When we were casting Bridesmaids they were in post on that and I had wanted a non-comedy actress for that role. Judd [Apatow] said you should go down to the editing room and take a look at Rose Byrne’s stuff. I said “I love her, but she’s not funny.” He told me to take a look, so I watched her stuff and thought “Oh my God, she’s hilarious!” We had her audition with Kristen [Wiig] and then it was a done deal. She’s so versatile, which is the crazy part. I always compare her to Steve Carell, who I’ve worked with a ton, because they inhabit these characters in such a realistic way that they’re not trying to be funny when they’re playing these roles. They take on this funny persona and then it’s grounded and real. It took us a while to figure out what this character was for her, because the script was originally written for a 19-year-old girl who’s more of a spoiled brat type. We played with all the ways to do it and we told her to try an English accent and she gave us this cold accent and started insulting Melissa in the nicest way possible. That was it and she just slid right into it. It’s my favorite thing she’s ever done.

What’s admirable about your female characters is the fact that you go a step beyond just saying “Hey, look! I’ve got a female lead.” You put a lot of care into your characters and it’s evident looking back through your films. As a director and a writer, how important is it to you to tap into those emotions that they have and that you define who they are?

To me, that’s all you have. You can come up with a story, but it’s all about the characters and about how they react, how real they are, and what their insecurities are. Everything else falls apart if you don’t have that. You could have the greatest story in the world, which we’ve seen a million times, but you’re only engaged in the elements of the plot. I don’t care about that, really. I want that to drive those people. For me it’s like “Who is this person and what is the relatable thing about them. What are they trying to find?” As a writer, I think about what I would do in that situation. What insecurities would I bring to that? It’s a good litmus test. When you’re writing, a lot of times– especially when you’re in a genre, it’s very easy to predict what happens next. You have to ask yourself would that really happen next, or does it happen just because I’ve seen it happen a bunch of times in other movie? What makes this fun, is that it does play off of those things. What if you accidentally killed the guy who is trying to kill you for the first time? What would your response be? In this movie, it’s a very specific response. It gets a giant laugh, because I think it’s what everybody would do.

On keeping women close by to keep him honest.

I write just to make sure that it’s a real person. Then, I kind of deputize whoever’s playing the role and the people around me to call me on it.. I like to have a lot of women around to call me on stuff, because I’d like to think that I’m really in-touch with them. Plenty of times though, where I’ll make a suggestion and they tell me that they’d never say that. I say “Oh good, please tell me how you’d say that.” The last thing I want is to be the guy who says “Come on, ladies. You say this all the time.” It keeps you honest and you have to have the ego to admit that you were wrong and ask for help. The you get the give-and-take and that’s when it feels real.

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