Apart from being one of the most consistently dapper dudes working in Hollywood, Paul Feig is also cementing his reputation as one of the funniest filmmakers around. His latest work, Spy, is an espionage-comedy starring his frequent creative collaborator Melissa McCarthy as a mild-mannered CIA analyst who is forced by a series of increasingly unfortunate events to go out into the field for the first time ever. Alternately empowering and action-packed and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, Spy is an invigorating, spirited entry in a year that is shaping up to have as many espionage films as 2012 did people wielding bows and arrows. Plus it has Jason Statham, which automatically elevates a project to must-see status. (If you disagree with that simple rule of filmmaking, then I’m not sure we can be friends.)
Feig’s dance card is by no means empty, however. In addition to producing the forthcoming CG-animated Peanuts movie, Feig is launching Other Space, a sci-fi web-series through Yahoo!, and is spearheading the oddly controversial, female-fronted Ghostbusters reboot, which reunites him with Bridesmaids stars McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, as well as SNL‘s Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Though the last film came out in 1989, this Ghostbusters project has been subjected to truly baffling amounts of backlash and vitriol in comment sections across the land. The recent news that Sony is planning on developing yet another Ghostbusters film with Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt means that this is only the beginning for stripmining our collective nostalgia. Still, if there is anyone who can help push the franchise in a bold, new direction while still hearkening back to the spirit of the originals, it is Feig.
Recently, at SXSW, I caught up with the writer-director to speak with him about crafting the espionage story of his dreams, reuniting with Melissa McCarthy, why the whole damn Internet seems to have its hackles up about Ghostbusters, and much more.
Nerdist: I always love when you and Melissa McCarthy team together, because you guys have such a good creative chemistry. Why do you find yourself working with her on such a consistent basis?
Paul Feig: We just get each other. It’s very rare that you kind of find somebody who’s so like-minded, especially in comedy. There’s all different types of comedy, and I love all types of comedy. But this is my take on the world, and these are the things I care about. It’s real, but it’s funny, but we make sure that they’re truthful, and she’s just in the exact same world. So we’re always in synch, and we have such a shorthand. It’s funny, now, these days, when I give her–you could hear us, me giving her notes, and I’m always like [wildly gestures]–“OK, you got it!”
N: With just a gesture.
PF: Yeah, it’s like a weird, telepathic thing.
N: And this one you actually wrote and directed yourself. What was that like, taking on both writing and directing?
PF: I mean, it’s funny. It was an original idea, because it just came from wanting to do–I’ve always wanted to do a spy movie. I would have loved to do a Bond movie. I’ve always let my agents know, but it’s like, oh, yeah–they’re going to hire me after doing Bridesmaids. You know? That’s never going to happen. So I just wanted to do one, and after The Heat, I really got caught up with the minor action elements within that, and I was like “I want to do something bigger!”
And I thought, “I know a lot of funny women.” So I wrote my own spy movie with a lady lead, and it was just kind of as easy as that. And then I thought about it and I had a million ideas, wrote it up, and honestly, I didn’t write for Melissa, because I didn’t think she was available. I just kind of wrote it for, you know–all the funny women I know are very, very nice in real life, and down to earth.
And I just thought, yeah, the story was this nice, down to earth person, who then gets put into an extraordinary situation and has to be these different personas. There are a lot of people who could do it. But then when Melissa read and wanted to do it, it was like, “That’s a home run.”
N: Of course.
PF: Because you’re just so invested in her being out there.
N: I think there’s also just something fun and relatable about the film–it’s what everyone at the office thinks about all day. “I’m just a mild-mannered reporter by day, but at night I can go out and save the world.”
PF: Exactly. I always refer to it as it’s like Harry Potter for adults.
PF: You’re going, “I’m just a normal person, but I have an extraordinary person inside me!”
N: Yeah, and I also have a silenced pistol!
PF: [laughs] Exactly. Oh. that’s a thought!
N: So with an espionage film, it’s definitely been such a well-worn genre. How did you challenge yourself to find new, creative ways to tackle it?
PF: You know, it’s just–if you put yourself–I try to think of what story is going to have high stakes that would be a great setting for someone who’s never done this before in their life. So I kind of start with the stakes, like “OK–let’s say it’s a nuclear bomb.” There’s no more higher stakes than that, you know? And then, how do you navigate that? What would be the process? And I just write it very methodically from there. What would you know? You’d find out this, you’d find out that. Go into it. And then just write it.
I go, if I’m in this situation myself, how would I deal with that? I kind of go that way. And then I try to have enough surprises. I like to write a first draft knowing where I’m going, but then allowing myself to go at the end of the scene, like, Oh! I would never have expected to do this. Write that. Then, “Oh, that’s a surprise! Now how do I get out of this?” And that’s fun to box yourself in a corner. Sometimes you box yourself in a corner you can’t get out of. But more often than not, it’s like I wouldn’t let myself off the hook. I go, like, “OK, dig out. How’d you do it? Think, think, think. How’d you do it?”
And so it’s fun. You know, the problem with movies like comedies you don’t want to be so plotty that there’s no room to breathe and have the character breathe, so I kind of like to have just enough things where you buy it, but you never go “That’s dumb.” You keep her on mission and making smart decisions.
N: Nice. I feel like that approach might work well for spy genres, like “How do I get out of this?” “Well, what gadget would get me out of this?”
PF: Exactly. I’m a Bond purist. I come from the Ian Fleming books, and there were no gadgets in there. So we set up a thing where there are some things you can use, but they never generally end out working if you can get to them, so it’s like you’ve got to get out of this with your own wits.
N: I was also very excited to see is that Jason Statham is in the movie. I feel like he’s a sort of unsung comedic talent. But I’ve read that he does not think that he’s very funny. So do you like pushing actors out of their comfort zone like that?
PF: Oh, totally! Oh, yeah! Nothing I love more than someone who’s funny who doesn’t think they’re funny, because then it means they won’t try to be funny. There’s nothing worse than someone trying to be funny. But I’m with you–I’m an enormous Statham fan; ever since Lock Stock, I thought, “That guy is great!” But once I saw that first Crank movie, I was like “He’s hilarious.” He knows he’s funny, or he knows how to be, so my mission was to get him in a film. Then when I wrote this, it was like, there it is.
But I know he was a little nervous about it at first, because he has these really absurd speeches to make, about when all these terrible things have happened to him. He was kind of nervous about that, but he came to the first read through that I did with him, and I just kind of said “Here.” He just read it, and it was so funny. I was like, “We’re done. We don’t have to rehearse anymore. You are golden. Go away.”
N: Yeah, don’t think about this too much.
PF: As he walked out, I heard him go, “I really messed up,” but Melissa and I were there, and we were like “Oh!” As soon as he walked out, we looked at each other like, “I can’t believe this is happening!” Everybody’s great in the movie. He definitely makes a giant impression. Audiences just love him.
N: Shifting gears slightly, I want to talk a little bit about Ghostbusters. Obviously I’m very excited about it, and I apologize in advance about all the vitriol you have to read in the comment sections.
PF: I’m used to it.
N: If it’s any consolation, our eyes have rolled back into our heads so many times from reading them. It’s like, come on!
PF: Yeah, it almost gets absurd. It’s like, “Is this a joke?”
N: If I have to read the words “You ruined my childhood” directed toward anyone one more time, I’m just going to start auto-banning people.
PF: I know. Look, these things mean a lot to people. I totally get that. I’m producing the Peanuts movie. I could ruin multiple childhoods, I guess. [Laughs] But it’s like, what people don’t know, anytime these things get announced is how excited we are about this, and how pure we are about this, how we’re not going to be like,”Cool, let’s make a bunch of money.” No, I wouldn’t do any–I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have an enthusiasm for it, if I didn’t think I could bring something new to it and fun.
But I think that all you can do is just–it’s funny, whenever you put out a trailer for a movie, the comments you always get on that when you put out a comedy is “Well, clearly all the funniest jokes are in the trailer.” What I put in the trailer is a bunch of stuff that’s not even in the movie, so you go, “Ha, you fuckers–no!”
So all you can do is find something to like, I get it, they don’t know. Once it comes out and it gets killed, then you’re like, “Fair enough.” At least I had my shot. Go ahead and attack me. But before you know, don’t do it.
N: It bums me out that people are willing to attack things without giving it a chance first–without seeing it first.
PF: Yeah, that’s my only thing–don’t have a preconceived notion, and say that I’m a shit head.
N: And it doesn’t invalidate any previous movies. Come on, guys.
PF: That’s what you would think, I know. Apparently I’m going to destroy a real gothic.
N: Yeah, I forgot this movie was a time machine.
PF: [Chuckling] Exactly!
N: On a more positive note, the cast is awesome. Some seriously funny people! What about this foursome in particular spoke to you?
PF: It was the hardest thing in the world to put those four together in my head. I took months and months, walking around, when there are so many potential casts for this movie, you wouldn’t–some you’d be very surprised at! Some of them I couldn’t tell my wife, or Jessie [Henderson], or anyone else. They’d be like, “What?” And then it’s like, “I don’t know, I think they could be funny.”
But yeah, it was a slow mixing–I just can see, I had to see it. I always knew I wanted Kate [McKinnon], because I know Kate from SNL, and I’ve got to hang with her a bunch, and really just love her. But then she was one of the first people that came for a meeting right after I first signed on for the project. Just her talking, acting at what she wanted to do, I was like, it was such a home run, there was no way that I was going to do it without her.
And then Leslie [Jones] was this gift that dropped from the heavens. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know her work until I saw her first appearance on Weekend Update. It was like getting hit over the head, “WHERE did this person come from?” And I knew just like that, before her bit was even done with.
N: Yeah, she’s a real tour de force performer, especially on Weekend Update.
PF: Totally! Sometimes she’ll go very big, and I don’t tend to like things that are too over the top, but it’s so her. If I believe somebody means something, then I’ll go for anything, even if she’s just like, “AAAAAAAHHHHH!” screaming. It’s the funniest thing in the world, and normally I would not like something like that. So she’s just hilarious.
And then, obviously, Melissa and Kristen [Wiig] weren’t shoo-ins at all. I love them all, but I just had to know who was going to be the right mix, because there are tons of other women that would have been awesome, but those two together are almost kind of playing in the same energy, so who has four different energies? So that’s why when they eventually came together in my head. The minute I locked into it, it was like, “That’s it!”
N: Yeah, well, I think it’s a very smart mixture because I can already start imagining how they play off of each other.
PF: Yeah, we’ve written really well to their characters.
N: Obviously with the announcement that they’re making a second new Ghostbusters film, we get a sense this is a larger universe than we expected. Apparently there’s more ghosts in the world than we were anticipating or knew…
PF: Who knew? Apparently we have a lot of portals, huh?
N: [Laughing] That would explain the news cycle recently. So is there any sense of pressure or challenge or something you want to do with this film to sort of set the tone for the new Ghostbusters-verse?
PF: Honestly I don’t even know what they’re doing with that other one. I heard rumblings that it was afoot, especially when word got out that Channing [Tatum] and Chris [Pratt] wanted to do it. But it was a surprise when the announcement came out. [Laughs] All I can really focus on is mine, and that’s why I wasn’t viewing this is a reboot, because I just wanted to come to a world that hadn’t been through a ghost crisis before. I also wanted a world where they didn’t have the technology so that we could have the fun of seeing them develop the technology. So trial and error is more fun than…
N: “Oh, just get a proton pack from the store!”
PF: Yeah, well, that’s the thing. It’s like the difference between Iron Man and Iron Man 2. The origin story of Iron Man is f–king awesome, and the second one, you go, “OK, you can do all this stuff. All right. Let’s just watch a movie.” Iron Man 3 was awesome. But for me, it’s just like, I love Ghostbusters, and some of my favorite comedy writers wrote actual treatments for it, and they were some really well written and funny stuff, but there was just something that always felt, like, kind of sweaty about it. I don’t know, like they had been forgotten–I couldn’t figure out how to make it work, and I wanted to–I really wanted to.
People accuse me with the reboot to be lazy, but it’s like, “Guys, I really, really tried.” But you’re not making them. Funny people go, “Here’s how you do it,” and then people send me those ideas all the time. I’m like yeah, I see that, but I kind of considered that scenario and something bugged me.
So it’s a mistake that I made, and some people aren’t happy about it, but they gave me–they put me in charge of this property, and I could only do it the way that I could do it.
N: Exactly. They wouldn’t have hired you if they didn’t believe in your vision.
PF: Yeah, exactly. And then hopefully, it’ll work.
N: One thing that I like that I’ve read, and you’ve talked about this a little bit on Talking Dead–you mentioned that you want it to be scary. You want it to be more horror influenced, almost. Why do you want it to be more on the horror end of the spectrum?
PF: I think funny people in peril is the greatest–going back to Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It just puts funny people’s skills on display, because it brings out extreme emotions in, I think, the right way. But also, the original Ghostbusters, when I first saw it, was scary. The scary bits are really scary. So I was like, let’s have a few more of those. Let’s play with it. Especially with today’s–the way we can augment stuff, and make things look–let’s really kind of go for it. Make it feel real. That’s the biggest thing. You want it to feel real. If you really encounter paranormal activity, it’s really scary. You know–as much as we can do in a PG-13. It’ll still be fun, but fun-scary.
I’m excited. In my movies, we have things that are kind of horrifying. I would watch audience where they’re like, “AHH!”, but they’re laughing–that’s a real pure response. If I get more than one emotion out of you, then I’m really excited.
N: So with these more horror-tinged elements, are you guys relying more on practical effects or CG? Have you decided?
PF: A mix of the two. I would do it all practical, but there’s some point where costs–it’s very cost prohibitive. But I don’t want to make the entire movie with CG, because there are no stakes. It’s almost like watching a video game at that point.
N: So another project I’ve been hearing good things about is Other Space. What can you tell me about that?
PF: Yeah, I’m excited about it. It’s something that i developed a number of years ago for NBC, but it was before The Office and stuff. So single-camera comedies were just verboten. So then they were kind of like, “We can do it–we’ll think about it if you turn it into a sitcom,” so then they wrote it as a multi-cam, and I just didn’t like it as a multi-cam, and they didn’t know how to program it.
So it was something that I loved, and I lost control of it for years, because it was under the deal I had with Imagine. They owned it. So years I was trying to get it back, and I finally got it back a couple of years ago. Right around then, I got a call that Yahoo! was looking to put money into a couple of shows–real money to do shows.
And I was like “Now’s my chance!” So I brought it out and updated it and revised it and stuff, and they wanted to do it.
PF: Yeah, and then brought Owen Ellickson, who was a producer on The Office; I knew him from there. I brought him on as a showrunner with me. We just had fun. My edict for it was that I love sci-fi, and what happens with most sci-fi comedies is they tend to be parody or satire. And I like sci-fi so much, I want to make a funny sci-fi show that’s has goofy elements to it, but it’s all in the mode of serious sci-fi.
So that’s what this is. It’s got surprises in it and things, and kind of scientific funniness and all that. And an amazing cast. A new young cast, but then Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu–Trace is playing the voice of a robot. Trace was on the set the whole time. It was all done live, so he’s interacting and ad-libbing and stuff, so it has a real good feel.
They shot it kind of docu-style, and you can see that this station is kind of manned by these electron-cams, they’re always around filming, so it has that ‘fly on the wall’ feel, which I just think, to me–I think that’s the funniest way to do TV comedy. You have lots of entry points.
N: Yeah, it’s weird how that conceit has caught on, even with something like Modern Family, where it’s like it’s just assumed a camera person is there, but you don’t know–they don’t acknowledge it all the time.
PF: You always want to have a real logic to what it is. In The Office, we were always like you’re there–you have to put the two cameras where they wouldn’t see each other. In this, the conceit is they’re invisible cameras, so we can have them there and pretend that they’re not aware of them. So once I kind of justified that, it brings an energy you don’t normally get.
N: I have one last question, which my editor insisted I ask on pain of death: Have you heard anything about an Arrested Development season 5?
PF: Nothing. I’ve not heard anything. I hope they do it!
N: Me too!
PF: I haven’t talked to Mitchell [Hurwitz] in a while, but I hope [knocks on table]–fingers crossed. I don’t know if the movie’s ever going to come out, but…
N: I’d take a season 5 before a movie.
Spy hits theaters on June 5, 2015. You can read our review here.
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Featured image via SBS