Bridesmaids Ten Years on: “It Should Not Have Been Subversive”

Bridesmaids director Paul Feig on his female-centric comedy and how it shifted the landscape of cinema.

Bridesmaids
Photo: Universal

“From the producer of Superbad, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin” headlines the 2011 poster for Bridesmaids. It might as well have continued “comes a comedy starring… women!” While the producer in question, Judd Apatow, had nearly created his own subgenre of modern coming-of-age comedies featuring male friendships (regardless of the age his characters were ‘coming of’), a credible, genuinely funny, ensemble laugher starring all women was virtually unheard of. Or at least so it seemed at the time. Quotes on other posters included proclamations like, “Chick flicks don’t have to suck!” (Movieline) and “Better Than The Hangover!” (Cosmopolitan).

Ten years on, it seems both like yesterday when the film came out and also a whole era away: a time when women headlining a comedy movie was somehow strange, “chick flicks” were accepted to be a lesser form of cinema, and The Hangover was considered the pinnacle of hilarity. From a script written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig (who also stars), featuring a wedding where romance is in no way the focus of the movie, and starring a host of funny women, a smattering of gross-out humor, and some of the most honest and empathetic depictions of female friendship around, Bridesmaids was a beacon. And it shines just as strong today.

A week ahead of Bridesmaids’ 10th birthday (its original U.S. release was May 13, 2011), Den of Geek is chatting with director Paul Feig via Zoom. Feig is in Belfast and into week four of his fantasy adaptation The School for Good and Evil (based on the book). When we tell him we can’t quite believe it’s been 10 years he laughs, “You can’t? Imagine how I feel!”

While the movie itself remains fresh, funny, and sweet, that it was considered quite so daring just 10 years ago is a bit of a shock now. Certainly Feig never considered the movie to be subversive at the time.

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“But everybody kept talking to us like it was!” he says. “It just made me mad because the whole subversive thing was, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a movie starring women.’ And it was like, ‘Really?’ It was 2009 or 2010 at the time we were making it. It was like ‘Wow, if this is subversive, that’s kind of a sad indictment of the industry that we’re in.’ It was annoyingly subversive. It should not have been subversive. It should just have been a funny comedy starring funny people.”

He’s right of course. The fact is the movie was a benchmark. Feig explains that female writer friends who were pitching ideas for female casts at the time Bridesmaids was being made were all told across the board, “We have to wait and see how Bridesmaids does.” That is a whole lot of pressure for one movie—the idea that Feig’s comedy would influence the cinematic landscape for an entire gender. But the reality is, it did.

Feig is demure when we bring up how much the movie changed the film world, but he concedes that it did help to prove to studio execs that female-led films can make money.

“I’d been told in the years running up to that, when I would be pitching female-led projects, ‘Oh no, you can’t, because men won’t go see it. Internationally, it won’t work. Blah, blah, blah.’ All these rules, rules, rules, and you just start to go like, ‘Well, so we’re just going to accept those rules? So women can never have their own projects?’

“We were able to at least show them, ‘Look, if you do it, and it works, then audiences will show up. And not just female audiences. Men will show up.’ I think our movie benefited from the fact that women would bring their significant others to the film, whether they wanted to go or not, and then they could tell their friends, ‘Hey, you should see that. It’s really funny.’”

It worked. Bridesmaids was a massive success, both critically and commercially, grossing over $288 million worldwide (it’s the highest grossing Apatow movie to date) and bagging two Oscar nominations.

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Bridesmaids isn’t the first female ensemble comedy, but it’s undeniable that it was a 21st century game-changer. Without it we may not have had movies like Pitch Perfect and its two sequels (if you think that film isn’t influenced by Bridesmaids, check out the poster), Bad Moms, Ocean’s Eight, Girls’ Trip, Feig’s own Ghostbusters reboot, Rough Night, as well as Melissa McCarthy vehicles Identity Thief, The Heat, Spy, Tammy, and The Boss.

Not every one of those projects is gold and nor should they have to be. The fact that they are allowed to exist and stand or fall on their own merits is crucial. It’s the equivalent of the idea that women in various forms of employment automatically have to be that much better than their male counterparts. Women should have the right to create and star in terrible comedies just as much as men…

Though she was relatively famous before Bridesmaids—perhaps most recognizable for her TV roles including as Sookie St. James in Gilmore Girlsit was Bridesmaids that truly pushed Melissa McCarthy into the mainstream. Nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as sister of the groom Megan in Bridesmaids, since then McCarthy’s become one of the highest paid actresses in the world.

It’s quite astonishing, then, that Feig didn’t actually know who she was before he met her at a table read. 

“I had never met her before in my life,” he laughs. “We brought her in for an audition because she was friends with Kristen and Annie, and we were having trouble casting that role. Then she just blew me away. And I can’t believe to this day that I did not know she existed until the moment I saw her because she’d been working a lot before that.”

Feig’s first encounter with the script and McCarthy was at a table read back in 2007. Feig says he was in the middle of post-production on an “unsuccessful Christmas movie” called Unaccompanied Minors, which featured Wiig, when Apatow called up.

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“He said ‘I know you like to work with female characters, so you should come and see this.’” Feig recalls. “I remember just going like, ‘Oh my God, we can have an amazing vehicle for the funniest women we can find.” 

It wasn’t until three years later though that the project finally came to fruition. Feig says all the basic structure of the script was there but with some differences to the detail. The airplane scene wasn’t originally in the movie, and the women made it to Vegas. The character of Officer Rhodes (played by Chris O’Dowd) was a little different. And the infamous dress shop scene, where the group gets explosively ill after Wiig’s Annie takes them for a meal at a cheap restaurant was, according to Feig, “a little more of a competition about Helen [Rose Byrne] wanting an expensive dress and Annie trying to steer towards a cheap dress.”

The dress shop scene in the finished film has become notorious with food poisoning landing in full force during a bridal fitting, McCarthy’s Megan straddling a sink, and Maya Rudolph’s bride-to-be Lillian forced to relieve herself in the middle of the road wearing a wedding dress. Yep, not only is Bridesmaids a film about women, it’s a film where women have violent diarrhea, a massive taboo, even still. Feig recalls it was a delicate balance to make sure it was character driven and not just gross. 

“When we first came up with the idea and pitched it to Kristen, she was a little nervous, but rightly so. I mean, honestly, with Judd and I, two guys suddenly going, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ it could have been terrible,” Feig says.

“We like to have these outrageous scenes that stick with you, but they can’t be outrageous just because, ‘Hey, let’s just have something, everybody shits and farts all over the place.’ That’s not funny to us. What’s funny to us is the idea of she’s competing with somebody who has more money. She has no money. She’s going to try to compete by taking them to a shitty restaurant and saying it’s a good restaurant. And it’s going to blow up in her face. How does it blow up in her face?

“The funny thing is she’s not going to admit in front of her nemesis that this blew up in her face. And so now the comedy is like, ‘We’re just going to throw so much evidence at you that you’ve screwed up.’ The comedy’s going to be like, ‘I’m fine. They’re fine. Nothing’s wrong. I’m not sweating. I’m not about to die.’ And that’s why it’s funny. Then that allows us to go like, ‘And now let’s just have the evidence be hilarious and go crazy with it.’”

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So much of what works so brilliantly about the movie is the chemistry between all of the cast. Wiig and Rudolph were already best friends in real life, and the rest of the cast, who all came from the world of improv, had either worked together or at least seen each other’s work.

“The great thing about comedy people, in improv especially, is they’re not lone wolves,” Feig explains. “They live and die by the interaction they have with the people they’re working with. So you don’t get a situation where somebody is a diva or trying to be like, ‘Oh, they’re stealing my jokes.’ They want to make each other as funny as they can while they also make themselves as funny as they can. So it was just a wonderful, supportive set. I mean, we had so much fun. There were never any moments of anything other than just laughing and having a great time.”

Though most of the cast was recognizable, to a U.S. audience at least, from TV shows like SNL, since Bridesmaids their careers have boomed. As well as McCarthy’s enormous success, Wiig has most recently starred as a main character in Wonder Woman 1984 (with a chance she might return for another installment); Ellie Kemper is now best known as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmit; Wendi McLendon-Covey is the star of The Goldbergs; and Maya Rudolph seems to be in everything—we loved her as the Judge in The Good Place, among other things.

Pre-Bridesmaids Australian actress Rose Byrne was probably best known for serious roles in movies like Sunshine, 28 Weeks Later and Troy, and while her character, Helen, is something of the straight woman of the gang, she’s had plenty of opportunities to exercise her comedy chops since, with movies including Neighbors, Instant Family, and Like a Boss.

Though the antagonism between Annie and Helen and the effect it has on Annie’s friendship with Lillian is the central tension of the plot, it was always important to Wiig and Feig not to turn Helen into the villain of the piece.

“Helen doesn’t really do anything terrible,” Feig explains. “I always said, we have to face this from Helen’s point-of-view, which is: Helen meets Lillian. Lillian’s this awesome, smart person. And she then meets her friend who she’s heard all these weird stories about and the friend is kind of a mess. And so to her, she goes like, ‘That’s kind of a toxic friend. I’m going to, in a very lovely way, try to steer Lillian away from this bad influence in her life and towards better things, because I think she can go better places.’ So from Helen’s point-of-view, everything that Annie is doing is terrible because Annie’s trying so hard.”

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It means that Bridesmaids very clearly avoids the trope that women aren’t able to get along, and Feig and Wiig pointedly wanted to avoid any sense of it being a catfight.

“We like to redeem people at the end,” Feig says. “It’s really sweet to redeem Helen and go, no, she’s just this needy person who has a husband who was never home. And she’s trying. She clearly has no self-confidence whatsoever, no self-esteem and so she’s just trying to buy it. So it just makes everybody redeemable and lovely at the end.”

Feig says he’s always been fascinated by female friendships and says he’s mostly friends with women. It’s another reason it was always important to him that despite being a “wedding movie” that Bridesmaids kept the relationships between the women at the heart.

Says Feig, “I don’t consider this a romantic comedy, even with the Chris O’Dowd love story. To me, that’s just a prize at the end that Annie gets when she works herself out with her friend. But that’s what drew me to it. If you look at my other movies, I’m just obsessed with the idea of female friendship and exploring it on screen, because I just find it to be one of the most interesting and fun and sweet relationships in my life that I’ve experienced.”

It’s this authenticity that helps Bridesmaids still ring so true a decade on. Though a comedy about women, written by two really funny women, which isn’t a romance and contains farts and shits shouldn’t be subversive, it was definitely a trailblazer. And Feig concedes that it’s helped with “getting over that stupid hurdle of ‘chick flick.’”

“I despise that term because it’s just a way for guys to dismiss movies starring the opposite sex,” he says. “Hollywood is not an altruistic town. They’re not going to do stuff just to do the right thing. It has to make money. We were at least able to show: look, you can actually make money and do the right thing.”

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Bridesmaids is now exclusively streaming on Peacock.