Until he coproduced and directed the 2011 comedy blockbuster Bridesmaids, Paul Feig was known for creating the brilliant and short-lived TV classic Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000). Or, I should say, Feig (pronounced FEEg) created the show and is sometimes known for that; more often, his good friend and the show's coproducer, Judd Apatow — commander of the known comedy universe — gets the credit. (More on that later.)
Feig, who cut his comedy teeth as a stand-up (which is how he met Apatow), had a successful career as a character actor, mostly on TV shows, before he created Freaks. His experience on that show made him a natural go-to director for similar cultish comedies, like Arrested Development, The Office, and Nurse Jackie (as well as one iconic episode of Mad Men). But it wasn't until Bridesmaids, which turned the whole women-aren't-funny thing on its pointy little head, that Feig's particular sensibility — female-friendly vulgarity — blew up. His second film in that vein is The Heat, opening on Friday, which teams him with Melissa McCarthy again. She plays a tough, loudmouthed Boston cop forced to solve a case with an uptight FBI agent, played by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock.
I meet Feig for lunch at Keens Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan on an unpleasantly hot day. For a man who loves all manner of excrement, he is famously fastidious — sort of the Charlie Watts of directors. Today he's wearing a beautifully tailored Tom Ford jacket, cream pants, and all the trimmings. "You have to laugh," he says. "People think because of the way I dress that I'm classy." The tall, genial Feig, 50, is suffering from a mild hangover, which he blames on last night's premiere of The Heat — which, aside from his wife not letting him wear his bowler hat, was splendid fun. "But there's definitely too much of me out there at this point," he says. "I'm exhausted by me." Well, hopefully not quite yet.
When I watched The Heat, it kind of struck me that Bullock and McCarthy are the Astaire and Rogers of crass comedy. Bullock gives McCarthy class — relatively speaking — and McCarthy gives Bullock sex appeal.
I like that!
McCarthy seems like the closest we've come to another John Belushi or Chris Farley.
They are all like sumo wrestlers, in a way. They really train for physical comedy, and they share the same fearlessness and dedication to doing whatever it takes. Melissa is a superstar. When she came on the screen last night, there was this wave of excitement.
It's not that she was unknown before Bridesmaids; she was already doing Mike & Molly and had been a regular on Gilmore Girls, and she was something of a hero on the L.A. comedy scene. But Bridesmaids pushed her over the top.
I'd never heard of her until we were wrapping up casting for Bridesmaids, which is weird since I pride myself on being up on all the comedy. Kristen [Wiig] and Annie Mumolo, who wrote the movie, turned me on to her after we'd been through hundreds of actresses. Some of them were funny, but it didn't feel like a home run until she came in.
I don't mean to ignore Bullock, because she's good. In fact, until she gets together with McCarthy, the film wasn't really landing for me — neither of them alone were as interesting as they are together. As with Bridesmaids, the strength of the film is the friendship, and you don't see a lot of realistic female friendships in Hollywood films.
I was attracted to the idea of a film about two women who hadn't chosen the usual path of marriage and children, and how do you find support in that kind of situation.
Do you know how radical that is, and particularly coming from a man?
Well the script, which was one of the funniest I've ever read, is by a very talented young writer named Katie Dippold [Parks and Recreation]. So it's her point of view and world, but it's one that I feel very comfortable in. It bugs me that movies about career women are almost always about how they've missed out. I hate any professionals being chided for loving what they do. I'm married, but my wife and I never wanted kids. And some of my friends with kids give me a hard time about it, and I'm like, leave me alone, you know?
When I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show growing up, I just assumed there were lots of women who didn't obsess about men. Mary Richards dated maybe five times. She never talked about feeling incomplete or lonely. She was appealing and not in the least bit hysterical or neurotic, and no one ever questioned her choice to remain single and focus on her job. I soon came to realize that she was an anomaly in popular culture.
It's this feeling in Hollywood that women want romance. And obviously people do. But for me it was, "Can I do something different? Because this is boring."
That attitude goes right back to Freaks and Geeks. You once said that you never wanted that show to be about couples.
You're right, and that's why when we got to the story where Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) was dating Nick (Jason Segel), I got bored very fast. Teen couples making out — ucch. I didn't want to be one of those shows. When I was in school I didn't like to see other people making out. [Laughs.] That's cool that that comes across in The Heat, and I hope that doesn't work against us.
I think there's enough blood and violence to save you. But you have once again aced the Bechdel test.
I'm so happy!
You do seem generally excited about that. You might even be the only male director who knows what the Bechdel test is.
I think every film should have men and women working on it, to keep it from tipping too far in any direction. Each sex needs to call the other one on their bullshit. If my movies feel accurate, it's because I vet all the women on the set. And they're not shy about letting me know if something is not real. They often make it funnier. I don't know, I just love hanging out with women. I laugh more than I do with my male friends.
I was going to ask you if you've always had a lot of female friends.
Oh, yeah. I grew up next door to a family of eight kids and six of them were girls, and they were all my pals. That was my main group. And at school it was either all girlfriends or sensitive male friends.
Sounds like me!
[Laughs.] Honestly, part of it is about safety. I had bullies and I just wanted to get away from those guys. After Freaks and Geeks, I would get sent all these high school–ish scripts about a bunch of guys who were inevitably trying to get laid. But here's what always drove me crazy: The best friend of the sensitive guy, the lead character, was always a pussy hound. That dynamic never happens in real life! None of my friends were like that, and we wouldn't have hung around with those guys. Any of our friends who started talking that way, we were like, OK, they're funny, but ucch, get away. That whole world is ugly to me.
I was kind of surprised to read that you were a fan of The Hangover, which is that kind of movie.
Especially because poor Rachael Harris is stuck playing such a shrewish character. Have you ever seen Natural Selection? Rachael is brilliant. But I admire The Hangover for how it's done. It's not like I can't appreciate that kind of guy humor and like it. I thought This Is the End was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen.
In a way, you're partially responsible for that film since you introduced James Franco to Seth Rogen when you cast them in Freaks.
I'm so proud of those guys. And they have that kind of male comedy covered so hard-core. The world doesn't need me trying to do that when it's not my voice or what I care about. So I just like doing the lady version of that kind of thing.
The waiter comes to take our order. Feig orders a filet mignon. When the waiter asks for his sauce preference, Feig says, "Can I just do A1? Will the chef come out and put a knife through my hand? Actually, don't tell him. Tell him I had something else."
Are you worried that critics of The Heat are going to — as some did with Bridesmaids — say it's only funny because it's women doing what guys do?
It drives me crazy when people say that! Both movies were vetted by women, written by women. I think it's the fact that women are treated one way in most movies — you know, this is what women are like, and they do this and they do that. But this is based on what women I know actually do.
When you read both of those scripts, what was it that you were wanting to bring to them? Where does the Feig come in?
I want to make it as real and three-dimensional as possible and then I pass it to the women. A lot of times with Bridesmaids I would overwrite it, and Kristen and Maya [Rudolph] would do their version. It was almost like my version was the unsubtle one, the here's-what-I-want-to-hear version, and then they'd subtle it up. It's particularly important that I get the female friendships right. It's all kind of based on my wife, Laurie [Karon], who is a professional woman and has had a really hard time making quality friendships, or keeping a best friend.
Especially when one of them goes off to have kids and the other one doesn't.
Right. Everybody says a relationship won't change because of kids, but it always does. I mean, it has to, right? Unless the parents are monsters who leave the kids with a nanny while they go out and party. Which I fear would be me.
You're a big fan of improvisation, and you generally work with people who come from that world. Was that hard for Sandra?
We had Melissa and Sandra do some improv, during rehearsal, and Sandra's reaction was to talk too much. She would overtalk and overtalk. She wouldn't stop. Melissa was like, "You never shut up!" So we retrofitted the script to allow for Sandy's character to be very explain-y. But some of the best scenes in the film are entirely improv, like the scene in the bar; in the script it simply says "They do shots." All the other stuff, like the Scotch tape on their faces and the dancing, is them. The same with the diner scene in Bridesmaids. That's Kristen and Maya trying to make each other laugh. Improv is such a slippery thing because sometimes it just means "Knock the words around a little bit, make it your own."
I personally don't like anything that sounds written. It creates a distance with the audience. You know, I love my writing. I think everything I write is wonderful. But, you know what? It's one thing if you're writing a book, because that's your voice and you control it. But I don't want every person in a movie or TV show to sound like me. Some writers insist that actors do dialogue precisely the way it's written, but if the words aren't natural to them, then it's not funny. It's a preciousness that drives me crazy. Also, I like to work with really inventive people, so why would I hire inventive people and then just force them to do what I want?
Melissa has a great comeback in the film — she calls Sandra's character "Tattle Tits." Was that an ad-lib?
No, that's from Paula Pell, a longtime SNL writer. She helped us a lot on Bridesmaids, too. I got this Post-it note from her that said "Tattle Tits." That's pure Pell.
I have only one big quibble with the film: Melissa's character is the only one in her family without a broad Boston accent.
You know, weirdly, we never even considered it. I don't like anything that gets in the way of somebody's full powers. It's like when we put Matt Lucas [from the British sketch show Little Britain] in Bridesmaids. He was worried I was going to make him do an American accent, but that would kind of be like cutting Samson's hair; I wanted him at full strength.
What's with the "Gina's Boobs" credit at the end?
Jessica Chaffin [who plays the trashy girlfriend of one of McCarthy's brothers], who is one of the funniest women on the planet, said, "Can my boobs get a credit?" And I was like, "That's funny. OK, sure!" We had to fight the studio for it, because the legal department didn't want to set a precedent. So the crack team around me did all this research and found that there was a "Shit Held By" credit in Borat, which we presented to the legal department. I'm very proud of that.
Are you a fan of 48 Hours, which The Heat is already getting compared to?
I'll never forget seeing 48 Hours. I was a big fan of Eddie Murphy from SNL, and I thought, "Oh, this will be fun." And then there's a brutal murder, which kind of threw me. I eventually realized that that was why I responded to that movie so much, why it was funny to me, because there was a real danger. That influenced me for The Heat. I wanted it to have real stakes, so you invest. I don't like toothless or goofy.
Any other influences for this film?
I'm not that big a cinephile. I do love movies, but I love the movies that I love and I'll watch them over and over again. I'm really influenced by all the comedy I grew up watching. The buddy stuff I like is Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Some guys, when they start a movie, they'll watch every movie in that genre. But I don't; I've seen them, they're in my brain, but I never want to subconsciously copy anything.
Who are your favorite directors?
Woody Allen. Hitchcock. Howard Hawks. I love Frank Capra. There's that whole thing about Capra-corn, but I love Capra-corn. I have no problem with schmaltzy if you can pull it off right. I'm a big fan of Blake Edwards and early John Landis: Animal House, Blues Brothers.
And as we know from Freaks, you're a huge fan of The Jerk, written by one of your comedy gods, Steve Martin. I think he's also behind your decision to wear a suit every day.
He was the comic I most tried to emulate, and one of the ways was by wearing three-piece suits.
There is a resemblance — the gray hair for one thing, the kind of gawky, goofy demeanor. No offense.
Have you ever met him?
Not too long ago. He had this project he wanted to talk to me about, and I went over to his house. Right at the beginning he pays me this compliment, and I start to launch into my own compliment. "You know, I just have to say …" And he's like "Yeah, yeah, yeah." He so didn't want me to go there. And I really wanted to play it cool. And I didn't want that dynamic where I'm just this slobbering fanboy. I get very nervous around people I like. And then we had this hourlong meeting, just kicking ideas around. It was kind of heaven. I used to dream about being friends with these people.
Five years ago, in a New York Times Magazine interview, you said you felt like a failure, and it sounds like you still might, which is insane to me.
I'm a little better now. At that time I really did feel like a failure. I had done a dramatic film, I Am David, which didn't just bomb, it left a crater in the earth. I probably shouldn't have made it, but I'm proud of it. It's emotional and sweet, and just not a movie people wanted to see me do — or see.
Here's how I knew it was going to be a disaster: We got a print of the movie and it was looking great, so we did a test screening out in Irvine. And it goes great, the scores are really high, and we're all celebrating. Then, as I'm walking out of the theater, I notice somebody handing out little white envelopes to the audience. I said, "What's that?" "Oh, well, when we told people about the movie, no one wanted to see it, so we offered to pay them $5." And I thought, "Well, we're dead. We had to pay people to come to see a free movie."
And that was right after Freaks and Geeks was canceled after just one season.
It was. We got canceled two days after my mom died, so I was distracted with that. You know, I was proud that we did what we did; we didn't compromise. And then it was so critically well-received. But the worst part was that for four years after that, I was working on TV stuff, and Judd was doing really well, as well he should, but I got completely written out of the Freaks and Geeks history …
I just read something last week in which Apatow was credited with creating Freaks and Geeks!
They even continue to call me cocreator. I created the show! How many times can you mess that up? Judd was instrumental. I couldn't have done it without him, and he couldn't have done it without me. But that was really painful.
You know, when I was in film school, watching It's a Wonderful Life, I remember thinking, If I could make one movie like that, that means so much to people, I could die a happy man. And so with Freaks, all the response, the cult following it had, I felt like, I did it! But then it was like it wasn't mine. I literally didn't exist anymore. And it was a really bad period for me, of just calling newspapers, getting them to run corrections. And then the DVDs came out, and that at least brought my name on the record. I mean, you don't want to be desperate for credit, but when you have nothing else?
And I have to say, based on what Apatow has done since, that Freaks would have been a lot less affecting if it had been his show alone. Would you say that Judd's sensibility is more male and yours is more female?
Totally. But it goes back to that thing we were saying about vetting. Both sides were well represented. I just loved writing Lindsay.
I was going to say that Lindsay seemed more like you than her brother, Sam (John Francis Daley).
Well, Sam was me when I was a kid, and Lindsay was me when I was writing the show. Basically she's a mid-thirties sensitive male.
The casting of Freaks is kind of unparalleled. James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps. And that's just the stars: In supporting roles you had Lizzy Caplan, Shia LaBeouf, Ben Foster, Mike White — who also wrote for the show — Samaire Armstrong. How did you find all those people?
I work with Allison Jones all the time, and there should be a monument to this woman. She's discovered everybody. She is a genius. But it's also about how we do the auditions. I don't just give people a scripted scene. I don't learn anything from that. We write a monologue or a very one-sided dialogue, kind of like two pages, so I can really see the actor in motion. Judd does this, too. We let them change the words, make them their own, which shows you what they're capable of. At the end I'll do an improv section, so you can very quickly see if they have the right charisma and personality. Then you just wait for the ones that explode.
What were the more memorable explosions?
Seth Rogen. Melissa, in her Bridesmaids audition. But I don't cast anyone unless I love them.
I don't think there's any doubt that Freaks would be a hit if it were a cable show today. Look at Girls, which has a much tinier audience.
I think we definitely would have lived longer if we were on cable today, for a few reasons. One, you need a smaller share of the audience. Two, that tone is more popular these days. And three, everything is discovered through binge-watching. So if a show is critically acclaimed, the network is always going to give it a second season so that they can get the first out on DVD, for people to consume before the next season comes out. It's a much more fruitful time for TV.
Are you a fan of Girls?
Oh, yeah. I'm an enormous fan of Lena [Dunham]. Judd found Tiny Furniture when we were writing Bridesmaids, and we watched it one day in the writers' room, and I was completely blown away by it. I get really frustrated when people attack Lena. It's very frustrating when someone that age is so talented. It drives people crazy.
Speaking of watercooler shows, if there is such a thing anymore, you got to direct "Shoot," one of the best episodes of Mad Men. It was in the first season, and includes arguably the most indelible image of Betty, shooting the pigeons with the BB gun in the backyard. Creator Matt Weiner is an admitted control freak. How much leeway did you have directing that episode?
He was a huge Freaks and Geeks fan, so he was really excited that I was there, but he does have a very specific image of what he wanted. I storyboarded some stuff — the sequences with the pigeons. He wanted to know exactly what I was going to do, so I let him know. We had a little disagreement on that. I wanted to shoot some of the scene in slow-motion; I was going for a sort of Pleasantville, idyllic thing. Matt doesn't like slow-motion. So I said, if you don't want to use it, you can speed it up. He ended up using a tiny bit of it. A few of the pigeons are a little slow. I was like, yes, I was right! [Laughs.]
There was some talk of a romantic comedy starring Jon Hamm and Melissa McCarthy. What's happening with that?
Yeah, I wrote it, and the studio loved it, but Jon and Melissa didn't want to do it. It's one of my favorite things I've ever written. Maybe we'll relaunch it. I love funny Hamm. Before I directed Mad Men, they sent me the pilot. I obviously loved the style, but I was really shocked at how humorless Hamm was. I thought he was going to be so boring to work with. Then I show up on the set, and he's like this total comedy geek. I think I'm encyclopedic, but he knows the most obscure stuff.
You're arguably a bigger music geek than anything. The soundtrack for The Heat opens with that great Isley Brothers song, "Fight the Power," and goes on to tracks for Azealia Banks, Boston, Ted Nugent, LCD Soundsystem, Jack White, and Bill Withers, and on and on.
Music is so important; it's kind of my favorite thing, straightening out what songs go where. People do fight me on things. Like, I was really hung up on LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk" for the bar scene. And we started shooting, and Sandy came in and said, "Who picked this music?" And I was like, "It's my music! It's going to be in here. I don't care what you think!" [Laughs.]
Is there any music you don't like?
Not really. My parents didn't have me until they were 40. My mom was pretty cool; she liked almost everything. My dad just hated rock. And I thought, I don't ever want to do that.
You grew up in a suburb of Detroit, so I was surprised to read an interview in which you said it took you a while to get into punk music because there wasn't any where you grew up. Um, Iggy Pop and the Stooges? The MC5?
It didn't come into my world. It took my cousin's foreign exchange student from France to get me into the Ramones. Our house was very religious, Christian Scientists. I think my dad might have been OK with the Beatles. And I remember watching Saturday Night Live the first time Devo was on, and the first time the B-52's were on. I remember watching and thinking, The world is falling apart! It made no sense to me. Because it was all out of control, and they were making weird noises, and shouting. I was traumatized!
So the Ramones were your gateway drug.
Very much so. I was into Ted Nugent, so I got the guitars. And I was like, "Oh my god, this is what I want every song to be."
How did growing up in a Christian Science household shape your ethos?
I'm an atheist now, so I've gone completely the opposite way. But there are good things I took away from Christian Science. It's basically "mind over matter" at the end of the day, with a very religious slant to it. Things like, don't run to overmedicate. I never went to the doctor growing up. I'm still pretty antidrug, though I've finally come around to, if I have a massive headache, I'll take an Advil or something. But that kind of attitude flows into the rest of your life. Take care of things yourself. I even have a hard time calling my agents when there's a problem. And they're like, "Why didn't you call us? We could have taken care of that." And I'm like, "I know, but I feel like I'm weak if I ask people, 'Will you do this for me?'" I've never been a great delegator.
I read that your father converted from Judaism to Christian Science. Was that because of your mom?
No, it was actually my grandmother — my grandmother who looked like the most quintessential Jewish grandmother was this Mary Baker Eddy–spewing Christian Scientist. I've always wanted to write about this, but right around the turn of the century — in the teens and the '20s — a lot of Jews converted to Christian Science. I think it had to do with feeling ostracized — I don't know. I never got the full story from my grandmother about her conversion, but she went through something. Her husband had some catastrophic illness, and he ended up in an asylum. And apparently the Jewish community didn't help her, and the Christian Scientists did. And so she was weirdly down on other Jews because of whatever happened, to the point where when I married my wife, who is Jewish, my grandmother was very worried that she was going to take over my life.
Getting back to TV, you had some powerful impact on The Office, and were instrumental in turning the character of Michael away from the nastier Ricky Gervais model to the more vulnerable version everyone came to love.
I was part of it. [Office creator] Greg Daniels always cites "Office Olympics," which Mike Schur wrote, as being the moment things changed. It was the first episode I directed — the third in the second season. Michael Scott was still pretty mean and the show wasn't doing very well, and Judd had just done 40 Year Old Virgin, which was a huge hit. We were all thinking, "How do we capture that [Steve Carell]?" And in one of the scenes, the national anthem is playing, and Steve starts to get a little choked up. And I was like, My god, I didn't expect that. So I said to Steve, "Do more of that!" So he's all teary-eyed, and at that moment you felt such sympathy for this guy. And it feels like that cracked the wall on him. I'm excited to have had a tiny hand in that.
You also directed Pam and Jim's wedding episode.
I'm really proud of that. And I'll always be proud of "Dinner Party." I won the DGA for that — one of the most exciting things that will ever happen to me in my entire life. Greg wanted me to come on as the show's regular director, which like a dummy I didn't do. I told him I wanted to direct [the 2006 film] Unaccompanied Minors. Good decision! [Laughs.]
You directed a few Arrested Developments as well.
That was before The Office, when I had only really directed the finale of Freaks and Geeks, because they wouldn't let me direct any of the other ones. But once they knew the show was being canceled, they were like, "Do whatever you want." A chimp could have come in to direct it, as far as they were concerned. Anyway, our line producer went over to Arrested and sent me the pilot. My agent convinced me to do it because I wasn't sure. Do you see this recurring theme of terrible instincts? She also sent me the pilot of Breaking Bad, which I turned down because I'd just had a bad experience on another show. I'm still kicking myself over that.
Anyway, I ended up having so much fun. Mitch Hurwitz is so smart, and very much from the Mathew Weiner world in that he knows what he wants. We would do improv, but he would never use it. His stuff is so tightly scripted, and dense. So dense. Oh my god. You know, on other shows, if an episode runs long, you cut a story line. But he wouldn't do that; he wanted to get it all in. So you'd see him in the editing room, and he has a microphone, and he would watch and write new lines so they could tighten everything up. When you watch Arrested there's a lot of dialogue that happens on people's backs, and that's because he's just finding ways to condense. It was fascinating. But it's also one of the reasons that it had such a hard time finding a big audience.
It was hard to jump in once the show had started.
Totally. People watch TV comedy so weirdly. When something funny happens, they want to turn to discuss it immediately. And with Arrested, you just turned away to talk to someone and you'd miss three jokes and four setups.
It's like 30 Rock in that way.
It's comedy gymnastics. The show that has managed to ride all that perfectly is The Simpsons, and that will always be a master class, especially the first however many seasons, which I could watch every day forever.
What's the stupidest note you ever got from a TV executive?
It was a reaction to a line in Freaks and Geeks: "I tried to sneak it out. I thought it was a fart but it was a poop and then I had to throw my undies in the garbage." Something like that. And we got this note from standards and practices, or the network, that said, "Can you please consider changing this charming story to something else?" And of course we're like, "Now we're definitely going to use it!" Everything about it is wrong and hilarious — the poop, the way he calls his underwear "undies." I'm very proud that every episode of Freaks has at least a fart joke.
You had a tweet about how whenever you really need to get to an airline bathroom to release a fart, the fasten-your-seatbelt sign always goes on. I used to be really paranoid about farting on planes; I'd kill myself holding them in. But plane travel is so unpleasant now that I just let 'em rip. It's my editorial comment.
I'm with you on that. Two things happen on a plane: You get a lot of gas, and if you listen to music on headphones, you get really emotional. It must be the thin air or something, but it's the worst time for me to pick out songs for movies. [Weepy voice.] Oh, this sounds so great! And then the next day you're like, wow, this is not that great.
It's like being stoned with none of the benefits. Do you cry easily?
I do! I mean, I force myself not to because when I was a kid I was the biggest crybaby. Anything that happened at school I was the kid who burst into tears, and I didn't like having that rep. Now I force myself not to, but I still get choked up so easily — not about sad stuff. My favorite thing to do with an audience is to make them cry, but not with sad. If you can make someone cry because they're so happy? That, to me, is such a pure thing.
I'll admit then that I teared up at the end of The Heat.
Good. I meant for you to.
Mary Kaye Schilling is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City who would love to see more films about happy, successful, fart-loving women with no children.