Paul Feig knows comedy. Not only did he create Freaks and Geeks and helm several episodes of Arrested Development, Nurse Jackie, and The Office, he also happens to have directed one of the most successful and beloved comedy films in recent memory, 2011’s Bridesmaids. This year he directed another female-centric comedy, The Heat, out today on Blu-ray and DVD, and he spoke to us about packing his discs full of special features (including a commentary by the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 team), editing comedy, and creating movies about women who don’t need no men.
NERDIST: Not many filmmakers are putting in the time to make decent special features these days; What do you like about doing special features that made you want to pack your disc so full?
PAUL FEIG: It’s just the chance to get to showcase all the people who didn’t get enough screen time, and also a good chance to show off the stars and all the stuff they can do. We just generate so much material, some of it written by Katie Dippold, our writer, some stuff that I come up with, some of the stuff that the actors came up with, or we have guest writers with stuff they came up with. There’s so much stuff we can’t use, but we just want people to see that it happened, because it’s funny and that’s what’s always so great about DVDs. Before DVD’s you were agonized that people couldn’t see it. We couldn’t just jam stuff in because it would throw off the rhythm of the movie, but now we can say, “put it on the disc.” So, I think it’s actually (that) DVD is the greatest thing for the decision-making of the filmmaker. I’ve had a history of buying DVDs and (being) let down by the extras on them, that’s the chance where you can really — where I’m at the point I can record stupid intros — it’s a fun way for me to make it into a special event.
N: Those fireside intros are some of the best parts of the disc. How fun was it for you to shoot?
PF: I feel like sometimes these clips need a little bit of set up, so we thought, “OK, this is a good chance to do something when we do it.” The funny thing was — I thought I’d just make an intro as a different filmmaker each time and then right before we were going to put the DVD all together, I get a phone call from Fox legal saying, “Well you have to clear these with all the directors,” and I was, like, “What?! That’s just like a satire! We’re not saying anything bad!” So I had to go and contact all these directors and tell them that I say that I’m you and that I directed something you didn’t direct and they were all very nice about letting me do it.
N: I imagine Steven Spielberg was like, “Oh I wish I directed Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo…” You got some of the Cinematic Titanic people to be on the commentary — how did that come about and what can fans expect from that track?
PF: I’m such a Mystery Science Theater fanatic, when it first came on the air. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to befriend Joel [Hodgson] and Trace [Beaulieu] but also Josh Weinstein, who was the original Tom Servo, and I basically wanted to load the DVD so full, so I was, like, “how much space do I have of the video stuff, how many commentary tracks can I have room for?” and they were, like, “Five.” So basically I’ve always wanted to do this with the guys, and they were nice enough, and they happened to be in town at the time. There was nothing that they prewrote or anything; they just came in and riffed it all and I was just in tears half the time because my favorite type of comedy is making fun of others, and having them making fun of my movie was thrills beyond thrills. I just want word to get out there that this track is on there, because it’s really funny.
N: As a director, since you’re a big fan of improv, how do you decide when to let the actors go in a scene or when to rein them in a bit?
PF: I always let them go. The biggest crime of making a movie is not getting something on film because you never want to be in the editing room thinking, “gee, I wish we had done that.” In the scheduling for a movie, we make sure we’ve got enough time for each scene to be able to play. I want to exhaust the scene by the time we leave it. The crew half the time is just ready to murder me at the end of a scene, because we’ll just keep going and going and going, but again, I really want to make sure I get everything, because I don’t like to do reshoots. We’re so dependent on the test screening process. We have a test screening every week, starting a couple of weeks into my director’s cut; we want to have a lot of material, because we want to be able to be, like, “Oh, that joke doesn’t work; let’s try this,” or if this joke kind of worked, we can be like “This one can work better.” I just want a ton of options. I mean, if you shoot a comedy just with the script, you’re already in trouble.
N: In the editing process, do you often, on the day, go, “oh, that’s the take that we’ll use,” then find out that you were wrong and you should’ve used a different take?
PF: Constantly. Again, that’s why I shoot so much stuff. I like to laugh when I see movies about the making of movies, directors are always like “Cut! Print! That’s the one!” I’ve done that, but then it’s almost never the take I end up using. It all depends on how things intermix with other things you shot, and also when you get to the end, and as much as I stand by the camera, watch the actors and really try make sure I’m seeing their performance, you don’t realize half the stuff. When you have good actors, you don’t know what they’re doing; you’re like, wow, I didn’t even realize they were doing that. Just the chemistry between the actors and camera is so great, so that’s why you have to cover your bases, because, honestly, in The Heat, it was such a funny scene in the script about how she’s chasing Rojas and they fall over the fence, and then it’s the slowest chase in the world and we had all these gags in it, and everybody was, like, “Oh, we can’t wait; this is going to be the funniest thing ever,” and when we shot it, we had so many issues about locale and technical things that we literally left that scene, like, “I completely failed.” Everyone was bummed out, but when we cut it together, it got the biggest laughs. You just don’t know when you get into the editing room.
N: That’s an interesting thing about filmmaking; it’s so different from live theater, because you can direct to a certain point on stage, but then there’s so much about the editing process that actually makes the movie. Have you had it where there’s a cut of the movie and then, basically, you’ve had to pick completely different takes to make it essentially a completely different movie?
PF: Well, no, because, again, since we start testing so early, we’re making minor adjustments the whole time. The one time I had that situation, when I did the movie called Unaccompanied Minors, it’s a Christmas movie and I couldn’t get the producers or studio, (they) wouldn’t let me test-screen it when I was putting my director’s cut together. They were like, “it’s going to leak out over the internet.” They were so freaked out about that, so I had this director’s cut that I was, like, “I think it will work.” Then we had this disastrous screening in front of the studio execs that I had packed with all these kids, because I was, like, let’s pull the whole thing, and it just didn’t work, and that was a thing where they freaked out; I was like, give me a week, and at that point I had to completely readjust, and then we were getting these really high scores. But then again, that’s why the test screening process outweighs all that, because you just start slowly steering the ship, and you’re also not falling in love with something that’s been in there since the director’s cut. But you’re so in love with every cut that it’s really hard to have a clear vision of what didn’t work versus going like this to tweak it. Until you see it in front of an audience, we don’t know. Then you’re going, “okay, that didn’t work, take that out,” and it’s an easier way to not become an artist who has no flexibility.
N: You’re one of the few directors that I’ve heard that actually advocate the test screening. A lot of them seem to really hate it. Do you think that’s the difference between drama and comedy? With comedy you really need to see how it plays?
PF: Well, I directed a movie called I Am David, which is a drama. It’s harder to get something out of a test screening there. You’re just relying on the feedback you get from the audience afterward. I’m not a fan of focus groups and cards and all that; all I care about is the laughs I’m getting. I wanna hear what people are doing in the moment, if they laugh or something. I can make a movie full of gross things, and the comment cards will say they don’t like those scenes, but in the screening, people will be screaming with laughter. They’re going to say they didn’t like it because it’s like eating a big greasy hamburger; you eat and then 10 minutes later you’re like “Shit, I shouldn’t have eaten that.” That’s what I care about – for drama, yeah, it’s definitely harder with a drama. but at the same time, if you put something in front of the audience, you will know immediately if people are shifting in their seats and coughing and getting up and going to the bathroom, then you know something’s wrong. You really have to be held accountable in front of an audience.
N: Are you familiar with something called the Bechdel test, the cinematic quiz where you ask if movies have 1) more than one female character, 2) if they speak to each other, and 3) if they do, do they talk about something other than men?
PF: I certainly am, I live and die by it.
N: You’ve made two movies in a row that have completely passed it with flying colors. Why do you think Hollywood has such a hard time letting women run a comedy, specifically, but movies in general without it kind of becoming a rom-com?
PF: I think it’s just in the snowballing effect, because when Star Wars came out, that’s what shifted the whole industry, because movies were kind of for adults and there’d be kids movies, but most movies were trying to get my kind of adult audience, and then those movies made Hollywood realize, “Oh my god, fifteen year old boys are where our bread and butter lie, so we got to hit them first and if we bring anyone else along that’s great. But we got to hit those guys.” So that’s why I think those kind of schisms hurt. The decision was made, “women like love stories and this and that,” which may or may not be true, I mean we all love a good love story. Then it just became this self-fulfilling prophecy, which is where that’s all what women like to see, and the fifteen year old boys, they date girls to become men, “oh, women on the poster, ew, it’s a chick flick, they fall in love and kissing and getting their nails done,” and they don’t want to see (that) so these become this self-fulfilling prophecy. For me, it’s like, no, let’s halt that, because that’s ridiculous, because women are so underserved by the stories they’re seeing, and just as a movie goer, I’m bored of seeing women in these roles which fifteen year old boys see them; they’re sexual objects or they’re the mom figure who’s ruining a good time. I saw this beer commercial for guys who would happily trade their girlfriend for a beer, like, really? But that’s just the end result of all those years of conditioning, so for me it’s just, I like a good love story, but I want to feature funny women in stories that aren’t necessarily fuel in that mode.
You know, Bridesmaids had that whole mode going on, there’s definitely a little romance and stuff, but it was much more about female friendship, and then The Heat was just an expansion of that into the world where there are two women who are great at their job and they’re not going to be ladies who passed up life, who passed up a family; it’s awesome to you that they have a great time in the sense that they’re happy with what they’re doing. The odds are probably that you need a likeminded female friend to share that with that’s what it’s all about. I don’t think everything that I’ll do will pass the Bechdel test, but for me, it’s something that I always filter it through.
N: Do you think that some of that is that both of your movies were written by women as well? Do you think that also comes from male screenwriters not really knowing how to write for women all that well?
PF: I mean, it definitely helps, but at the same time, I’m not a believer in — I’ve seen plenty of movies that are done by women directors and writers and everything, and they’re bad too. I think there needs to be a balance. There needs to be every gender weighing in on stuff, so you don’t get stereotypical portrayals of anybody. For me, I have women writing these things, and a lot of my producers and people around me are women, so they’re giving stuff and I’m coming up with stuff and I’ll bet on stuff, like, they’ll go too far with a male character — like, we wouldn’t do that — but I’m always, like, would you guys do this? Tell me if this is a guy telling you to do something or this is something a guy’s vision of what a woman would say in this place, and we work with talented and funny people and we’ll make the people funniest, the most real version of something, and that’s why I think that balance works. You need to have everybody’s brains weighing in.
N: Final question: Who broke down laughing more on set — Sandra Bullock or Melissa McCarthy?
PF: [laughs] Sandra. Sandra’s an easy laugher. She’s so great. It’s impossible not to laugh at Melissa — she’s so funny — but Sandra is hilarious too. But Melissa has been around comedy so much that you get used to kind of being unfazed about other people, trying to make you laugh, but, you know, we just have the best time. They’re both wonderful.
See how many times you break down laughing as The Heat kicks down your door on Blu-ray and DVD today, packed full of special features.