Paul Feig interview: Ghostbusters, the web, Sony

Paul Feig chats to us about his new Ghostbusters film, the internet backlash, the Sony attack, and the last two years of his life…

“I felt the pressure”, Paul Feig admitted, as we sat down to talk about his new film, Ghostbusters. Feig, a geek of some vintage (his two books are sublime, Freak & Geeks remains a superb piece of television, nearly two decades on), has over the past half decade established himself as one of Hollywood’s most successful contemporary comedy directors, off the back of Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy.

And then he took on Ghostbusters, a project that has seen him in the crosshairs of some legitimate and some utterly vile comments.

It seems almost surreal, after the storm of the past year or two, to finally be at the point where we get to see the film itself. But here we are, and here – in full context, with no clickbait – is our full chat with Mr Feig, about what his past 18 months or so have been like.

Let’s start with something positive. Inevitably, a lot of the conversation about this film has gone beyond what’s on the screen, and we will get into that. But I wonder: can you tell us about some of the people who worked on this movie that we didn’t see or hear about? Who are the hidden heroes?

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This sounds like such a political answer, but everybody from top to bottom really pitched in. People were excited to be on this film. Everybody has just a love for the original properly, and I think that they came to it excited to be on it, and also wanting to guard it. Everybody pitched in. People worked so hard on this film.

Hence you defending them?

It’s why I get testy at times. You don’t realise how reverent we are to what we’re doing. This project came to me, I made a choice, and if I didn’t do it, someone else would have done. I just did it the way that I thought was the best. I didn’t want to make something that wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

Well, let’s deal with that.

Since Bridesmaids changed your movie directing career – I think I can safely say that – there’s been a two year release gap between your movies. This one is quicker – Spy was only last year. But how quick was it for you, and when did Ghostbusters come to you?

I was still in production on Spy, and was in Budapest. I got a call from Ivan Reitman [director of the first two films, producer of this one]. He called me because they had a sequel script that had been written for Ghostbusters 3.

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Not to do a ton of backlog, if we go back to 2008, I was working on The Office as a co-executive producer. Gene Stupnitksy and Lee Eisenberg [writers on The Office] were hired to write Ghostbusters 3. I couldn’t believe that, it was so cool. I was still deep in movie jail at that point [Bridesmaids hadn’t hit by that stage] but I thought if there was ever a point in my life where I could be asked to direct Ghostbusters… well, I couldn’t even imagine it.

To flash forward, getting the call from Ivan… things were going well. Bridesmaids and The Heat had done well, and I was making Spy, and was happy with the way it was going. And suddenly I was a bit more cautious. Back in 2008, I’d have taken any version of Ghostbusters, but now I was like, I don’t know.

So I read the script. I thought it was really good, and by writers that I really like. Etan Cohen, an amazing talent, worked on it too. But the core thing of the sequel was, in all the scripts I’d read, that there was a new team that had come together. The old team had been forgotten. Then the old team showed up, and gave them the stuff and trained the new team up.

To me, it felt like it’d been so long since Ghostbusters 2 even. It felt like a big gap. I love Ghostbusters 2, but even the way they had to start that up with them being disgraced – how would the Ghostbusters be disgraced after they’d saved New York? Because they left it in a mess? Would they be mad at Neil Armstrong for leaving a golf ball on the moon?

It all added up to me saying I can’t figure my way into this. So I passed.

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What changed?

Amy Pascal called me again [Pascal was head of Sony Pictures at the time]. And just as I was heading into post-production on Spy, she took me for lunch and asked ‘why don’t any of you comedy guys want to do this?’

I said it’s this giant thing. It’s like redoing The Godfather. And she said it’s this great franchise. It’s sitting there forever and it’s such a cool thing. But I left, saying no.

Yet I thought she was right. It’s such a great idea. I love the original movies so much, but there’s so much more you could be doing with that. The next day I got thinking: if I was going to do it, how would I do it? Let’s think positively. And I thought wait, I could do it with the funny women I know.

I’d been reading all these articles about the guys they were thinking of casting, and I know all those guys and I love them [the likes of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill had been linked].

You’ve cast some of them in the past.

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Yeah. They’re great. But at the same time, every time I’d read their names you’d suddenly start comparing them to Bill, Dan, Harold and Ernie. It clouds your head.

Was that your thing, then? You needed to find a way to make it distinct?

Yes. How to make it distinct. And for me, how I could have creative energy to do it. The minute I thought of that, I thought now I get it. That gets me excited. The idea of seeing four hilarious women in those roles, there’s a lot you can do there. But then it was like, it could be a sequel then. They could be their daughters? And I was like, I don’t know. I didn’t like the idea of a world that had seen two ghost attacks. The idea of here’s your equipment, on you go.

I like origin stories. Iron Man is one of my favourite tentpoles of recent times.

You did some writing on one of the Spider-Man origin films once?

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Yeah, I did some of the high school scenes for The Amazing Spider-Man.

I thought, can I reboot Ghostbusters? Start again, wipe the slate clean? It’s been so long, and that’s the way in. I told my agent, and then about 15 seconds later, Amy called me. She said ‘you’ve had an idea’, and I said if I could reboot it with women, with the story I wanted to tell, I’d be all into it. And she said done: that was it.

That quick?

That quick, yeah.

It’s a very fast response for a project that’s been around for a long time. I think it was the Charlie’s Angels original DVD release in the early 2000s that had an extra feature of filmographies for the cast. And for Bill Murray, Ghostbusters 3 was listed as an upcoming film of his. That was, what, 15 years ago?

It’s been forever brewing. But then that was the other thing in my head. Knowing that Bill wasn’t going to do it, knowing that Harold had just passed. Such a great guy. I love Dan and Ernie too…

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What I’d like to do is talk about some of the criticisms that have been aimed at the existence of this project. I do think that the hostility towards the films has clouded what I think are legitimate questions that have been raised about this movie.

100%.

What I wanted to do, then, is to put those questions directly to you. And let’s get those answered.

Please do. And please know: I’ve never said that all the criticism is misogyny.

That’s why I wanted to hit you with these direct. Let’s make this utterly black and white.

That’s great.

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Let’s start with the obvious one. There is a dissatisfaction that this Ghostbusters is being made at all. That Ghostbusters should live in the protected circle with Back To The Future. Touch it at your peril.

Totally.

What are your thoughts on that? Because I do think that’s a fair criticism.

Yeah. I completely understand it. If I wasn’t doing this, I would be so nervous. I would probably be like ‘how dare they’. It’s canon you’re touching.

All I can say is that it’s been sitting there. They’ve been trying to make it forever. Sony was definitely going to make it. They were going to find somebody to do it. I kind of went, I have this idea, I have energy for it. I see this.

I thought ‘I think I can do this’. And I love the Ghostbusters world. Again, there were too many things that were appealing about it. The idea of creating new technology, the idea of getting to up the special effects, and putting these funny people in this situation of peril.

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Katie Dippold, when we came up with the sequel to The Heat, she wrote that. We had the idea then of doing a scary comedy. The sequel to The Heat would have been a funny The Silence Of The Lambs. We were so bummed that we couldn’t make it, because Sandra [Bullock] didn’t want to. We were looking for a scary comedy.

To be clear, is there any crossover between the ideas you had for The Heat 2 and this?

No. That was about a serial killer. But the idea of dark places, and funny people in peril…

Let me put another of the main criticisms to you, then. Hollywood is running out of ideas…

They’re not. I would get insulted when people say that because it’s like everything I’ve done has been original. I’ve created shows, my films haven’t been sequels.

It’s a very easy thing to say, and I’m not going to defend Hollywood. Hollywood has got tons of problems. And in segments of Hollywood, there is a lack of originality. I can’t suddenly sit here and go there’s not. But to me, by rebooting this, at least I’m trying to be more original than not. But I cannot defend that I took a pre-existing giant property and rebooted it. It was just too appealing for me.

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Next, then: that this Ghostbusters film is just a cash grab.

Let’s be real. Anything ever made by Hollywood is a cash grab. Movies are not funded by the state. They are funded by businesspeople and corporations and people with money, who are trying to make more money. That’s always going to happen.

But then here’s a team of filmmakers who, from that situation, come in and say now we’re going to try and make this good. We’re going to bring in creativity, and art, and passion. And we’re going to take this, and we’re going to be the ones who are going to try and make it good. It’s why we’re always locked in battle with the studio, with executives. I’m not saying studios always have bad notes, but their eye is on making money.

But we’re doing this because we think this is good, and we want to entertain people with it. It’s not anybody’s job to understand and be sympathetic to Hollywood. But cash grab is an invalid thing. Everything’s a cash grab in Hollywood. That’s what they do.

A quick aside: are they legitimate comments from internet comments that make it into the final cut of the film?

No, no they’re not! More of a tribute!

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I’d also like to quote one commenter pretty much direct: “I can’t believe Paul Feig went into this not expecting the backlash online”. Can I put that to you?

I was a babe in the woods, I have to say.

Positivity does, in fairness to you, run through your work.

Yeah. I like good-natured stuff. My mother put in my head, don’t put negative things out into the world. When the Jerry Springer-style shows came up, it was like ugly negatively is the worst that humankind has to offer. It always stuck with me. I’m a positive person.

So turning back to the backlash. Did you go into the film expecting it?

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I guess I knew that some people would be surprised. Yet this makes me sound really stupid, but there was so much excitement, I honestly thought this was the perfect way to do a Ghostbusters sequel. Bill [Murray] wasn’t going to do it for instance, and there’s a void of him not being there. So if we wipe the slate clean, that leaves the original Ghostbusters films there as they were, and we’re not even touching them. We won’t do a sequel to those, that possibly wouldn’t be as good. Instead, we did a new one, and call me a dope, but I thought people would be excited.

Then I got cocky about it. I put a Tweet out, the original one that started everything. I was just excited that I was going to put these funny women in the film, and it just seemed really exciting to me.

I put a Tweet out, four hilarious women, that’s who I’m gonna call. The first day was insanely positive. Look through my old Tweets and mentions, and it was like ‘hurray’, a celebration. I was like, this is the greatest thing.

I was on this high, thought this was great. Because I’ve always had positivity on the whole about everything I’ve done. I’ve never really been attacked.

I’d always hear about people being viciously attacked on the internet, and I’d ask how does that even happen? With Twitter after all, you know who people are. It must be people with anonymous accounts?

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But when the second wave came in the next day, vicious things started coming in.

When the first one hits you, it’s like somebody walked up and punched you in the face. You’re like, oh, maybe it’s that one guy. Then lots of this stuff starts coming in, and that’s when you go ‘uh-oh’. Not that I would back down over it.

You’re still a human being, though?

Yeah. And I have such a hatred of bullies. It’s one thing I get really passionate about.

You’re written before about how you were bullied at school, and the impact it had.

Exactly. Most of us in the geek community were bullied. That’s partly why the geek community formed. And so I’m like, who are these people? Me and my geeky friends, we have plenty of opinions, and they are strong opinions. It was always a spirited discussion. But it was never schoolyard bully.

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I did read some of the stuff aimed at you.

It was crazy. And the thing is, look, we’re in showbiz. If you go into the public eye, you’re asking for it. I don’t say that’s not true. We’ve got a cool job, we get to put stuff out there, and I take it as part of the gig.

But: I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t mentally ready to go back to the playground, and have the worst bullies I’d had at school suddenly in my phone.

Do you ever wish you were ready for it?

No. No, I don’t.

That’s why that quote that came out – that was very upsetting to me – that was repurposed from a book interview I did eighteen months ago [Editor’s note: Feig was quoted as saying that “geek culture is home to some of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met in my life”].

The interview was done a week after I announced the four actresses, and I’d just been getting fucking pummelled. Ugly shit about them, about these wonderful women, and it was personal attacks after personal attacks. And when this guy asked me this question about geeks being so powerful, it was this release of saying there’s assholes out there.

I so regret that I said ‘in the geek community’, because what I know now, having sorted it out, is these are not true members of the geek community.

We’ve had quite a lot aimed at the site too, interestingly, by so-called ‘meninists’ for some of the material we’ve run. And one such ‘meninist’ told us – I don’t know if there’s anything to this – that there’s a secret Facebook group that cites certain articles on certain websites. Then, those articles are suddenly flooded with comments.

Oh yeah. It’s crazy.

Just the way that our dislikes on that trailer could be driven up as high as they were that fast? This is not possible. [Editor’s note: this refers to the first Ghostbusters trailer, that has a record number of downvotes on YouTube]

I only actually watched that trailer for the first time properly before this interview. I’ve watched the film, and liked the film. But it’s not a great trailer, is it?

No, no…

Can we move onto actually making the film, then. How does the mechanic change for you? You’ve done original films that, with the best will in the world, nobody expected to be as successful as they were. You paid your dues with earlier films before Bridesmaids that didn’t enjoy that much success. But when you’re then making a Ghostbusters film, it’s a franchise. A studio franchise film that they’ve been trying to get off the ground in some form for decades.

So, for instance, how much of this is Ghostbusters, and how much is you? Were there more cooks on this one, given it’s such a big franchise? How much autonomy do you get when it’s not yours?

In terms of marketing?

No: the film itself.

[Laughs] I cashed in all my chips with this.

It was very much like, you guys have got to let me do this the way I want to do it. To Sony’s credit, they were like, you do your thing, you do your film. Katie and I wrote the draft, and they all had notes. Ivan Reitman was in there too. We were doing all this work on this, but I was also cashing in the chips, saying you guys have got to let me do my thing.

And did they?

They did. They were barely around during production, because they were happy with the dailies. They were clearly monitoring them like crazy, as anyone would with a giant franchise film costing $150m, but it wasn’t that level of micro-management that you would normally get with a big property like this.

They weren’t expecting to get the film as quickly as they did. Because when I said I’d do it, they assumed I was going to take a year to develop a script. In their head, we were going to be shooting it this summer. But I said I want this to be my next project. That is what we are shooting for.

I said I think we can do this, I think me and Katie can pull this off. I told Sony we could have a draft for Christmas [2014], and that’s what we did. We got it ready, they loved it, had notes and thoughts, but overall were extremely positive. And suddenly were going, we can actually do this. Otherwise, they were going into this summer without a giant comedy summer tentpole movie like this. They obviously had Angry Birds and stuff like that. But this was the project that dropped in for them.

I was able to ask for space, because even though it’s a giant movie, I have to treat it the same way I treat my small movies. Otherwise, it’ll lose all that energy, comedy, my style.

This was all going on towards the end of 2014, and then the attack on Sony’s servers happened…

Well, that was a big bomb that went off in the middle of everything.

I’m in an odd position here, as I’ve not read the documents that were leaked as part of the Sony cyber-terrorism attack in the midst of The Interview’s release window back at the end of 2014. But I’ve been told lots of times that you’re in there.

Let me address all these head on. A few things went around.

One was us trying to keep Ivan Reitman away from this project. Let me say this. You find me any director, anywhere in the world, who says I want another director -who I idolise – standing over my shoulder looking at me.

I love Ivan. He was involved every step of the way, he is the king, he is the man that did this. But I had people saying ‘how dare he try and get rid of him’. All I can say is: any filmmaker would make sure they had autonomy. Look at JJ! George Lucas was not on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You need to be able to do this stuff.

Then there was the one where they more make fun of me. Amy Pascal was still running the studio at the time, and she had to meet with Dan Aykroyd and his people…

I do need to say: I’ve not read this or heard any of this before, nor have I covered it at Den Of Geek [here’s why]. I’m not necessarily asking you to give all the details here.

No, I appreciate that. But there’s so much stuff out there that I read and want to respond to.

Which is partly why I raised the question. I don’t think we’ve heard your voice fully on this yet, and I wanted to put this stuff to you directly, to give you a direct chance to answer.

Yeah. I want to talk honestly about it.

Amy and the meeting, then.

Amy Pascal had said can you write up a synopsis of all the stuff, so I can have it for this meeting. It was the idea I had at the time that Katie and I then morphed into something very different.

I wrote it all out, then – trying to be a guy working with a studio – I was talking about an early idea we had, about ghosts of aliens from other worlds. But I wrote, ‘in a billion dollar idea’. Because I’m doing studio speak, and that’s what the studio understands. That was when the hack happened, and that was the one thing I was like, ‘oh no’. I was sitting at my dining room table when I wrote it, thinking if anyone ever read this it’d be so embarrassing! But I left it in, thinking I need to be a salesman.

But then the hack happened. And I was like, is it going to come out? And there it was.

This is the question I wanted to put to you about it: what’s it like being a human being when your emails are leaked online?

It’s…

[Paul Feig paused for a few seconds here. It’s clear this isn’t the most comfortable topic, but at no stage were any of my questions not answered, or was I asked not to ask about certain topics. I think it’s important to point that out].

You try to go ‘I’m cool, I don’t care’. These are the trappings of it. But it’s so not who I am, because I’m an over-sensitive geek who was terrorised by bullies at school. So you go, I’m a professional now. But that’s why you crack occasionally.

[Another slight pause]

If you look at my history through all this, I was rock solid for a year. I didn’t put anything ugly out, I didn’t really respond too much to anything. All through production, I was told by the studio I was handling it well. I was putting out pictures, positive, positive, positive.

What happened, though, is that we wrap production, and my wife and I go on holiday to Italy. We go to my favourite restaurant….

I’ve said it publicly before. I do not block people on Twitter, I want to hear from everybody, because hearing the most vile stuff, you at least go I’m still getting everyone’s opinion. I’m seeing what’s out there. I’m a data collector! I like to know what people are thinking: it’s why we do test screenings. I want to know. So I’m not going to block anybody.

[Editor’s note: just to be clear, the inference here was that Feig didn’t used to block anyone].

But there were a few people who were just fucking hammering me. Just non-stop. My feed filled with it. At one point it was these three guys, who piled on. And what they do is they just leave your name in [their Twitter chat], so you get all their conversations coming in.

There I am, trying to sort through lovely nice people who keep writing [on Twitter]. Parents are sending pictures of their daughters who have made cosplay Ghostbusters outfits. And it was so inspiring, this is what we’re doing it for.

But then these guys were in there. So we’re at my favourite restaurant on the side of a cliff, overlooking the Mediterranean. We’re relaxing, I’m so happy, relieved to have finished the shoot. My wife goes to the restroom, and I quickly check my Twitter feed. And just at that moment, those guys said something that set me off. And I thought you know what? I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to fire back.

And it felt so good.

For how long?

For about a day, actually. And my wife said to me, you shouldn’t have done that. But I said I’m so happy I did this. I just got to strike out. And it was only when I woke up the next morning when I thought, I really should not have done that.

In social media terms, the game is always a little rigged against you isn’t it? That thousands of people can say anything they like, but if you say one thing back, that becomes the story?

Yeah. Because now I’m an asshole. Now I will always be the guy who attacked them.

The way the world works is that because you’re perceived to have 54 billion dollars, parties with movie stars every night, it’s assumed that you can take all of that, and that it comes with the job?

[Laughs] Totally.

But I very much regret I did that.

Where does all that leave you now? If I happened to have – and I don’t – a ready to go screenplay for a new Ghostbusters movie in my bag, has the last year or two put you off? Would you attack such a project now with a new wariness?

If you asked me this two months ago, I’d have said no way. I’m not touching this, never again, never again, never again. But we finished it. And I love it. I’m really proud of it.

Do you think you’d write about it, maybe in another book?

I’ve thought about that, and you know what, I don’t think I will. It was so painful going through it, but once it’s done, it’s water under the bridge. That’s why now I’m in such a Kum-Ba-Yah mood. That guys, we’ve had our differences. Check it out. If you hate it, you hate it. If you’re going to hate-watch it, hate-watch it. I get it. It’s fine. But I’m proud of it. It’s going to make people have fun in the cinema this summer.

When the credits starting rolling on the movie, I was digesting the film, and working out what I liked and what I didn’t. I found myself stopping, because it struck me I just had a smile on my face, that I was grinning.

I appreciate that. But look, no movie is perfect. The first cut of the movie was four hours and 15 minutes long!

One thing I wasn’t quite expecting – although I got this with the first film too – there was a moment in it that was really spooky, and I jumped out of my seat.

[Laughs] I love that.

It did get me thinking: when you did Spy, it got you directing action for the first time. This time, it’s special effects for the first time in earnest. I got a sense watching Ghostbusters that you’re a man a little frustrated by special effects in movies?

Yeah.

You can generally tell the filmmakers who are, as they give you special effects sequences where you can see what’s going on.

Right. Yeah, yeah. That is exactly what it is. I am frustrated by special effects, and by the way that people shoot action. My producing partner Jessie Henderson will tell you that I’ve said this a million times: we can’t just do mayhem, it can’t be meaningless, it can’t be that kind of movie. Because we’re a comedy, the fun and the action and everybody needs to contribute to the story, or a joke. We need to build all this stuff.

Also, I love Hong Kong movies. Where there’s a fight scene, the camera’s wide and down and those guys are fighting. They’re doing what they do, and you’re not trying to cover up someone who can’t fight. So even that [redacted details of sequence for spoiler reasons] scene, that’s stuntmen in there. They’re doing that, wearing lightsuits that we augment with CG. I didn’t want them fighting tennis balls, I wanted them there, doing that stuff. The ghosts were played by real people, even though we augmented them a lot with CG. Those were real people in there.

You get a Road House reference in there too…

It’s a classic!

We’re nearly out of time, so I wanted to ask you this: what do you say to the people who follow in your path now?

What you’ve done here, in making a stand for something – no matter what people think of the film – seems important to me. It’s led to no shortage of shit, granted, but you stuck it out and didn’t run away. But to the people tempted to make a film, to put their heart into something like this who have seen what you’ve been through, and want to take a similar step, what do you say? Having come out the other end of Ghostbusters?

Think about it and make sure you’re passionate about it. That you’re doing it for the right reason, that makes sense to you. Then you just have to do it. The bullies, or the people who don’t know what’s in your head: if you allow them to control what you’re going to do, then that’s a very bad play for entertainment and creativity, and I think that’s not a good thing. Let it be the thing that makes sure you are committed to it, and know what you’re doing. That you have that strong an opinion and a take on it.

If you do, and you can pass all those Litmus tests, then you just have to do it.

And anything specific based on what you’ve gone through?

Be sympathetic to the people who are worried for good reasons. And the ones who have a problem for bad reasons – so anyone who comes at me on this and their problem is that it’s women, making fun of their appearance, issues they haven’t resolved with women – that’s a non-starter. Their opinion has to mean nothing to you. It’s a weird, antiquated opinion. They’re bullies.

To everybody else who has legitimate things: then hear what they have a problem with. When suddenly people say that to me if it was a sequel rather than a reboot, they’d be happier? I get that now. But this is the only way I knew how to do this film. I feel terrible that people wish it was a sequel, but I can tell you a million reasons why I had to do it this way. This was the way I thought was the most respectful way to do it, to the original franchise. And they can tear me apart for that, say fuck you, and I get that, totally.

All I can tell you that, in my head, this is why I did it, and it’s good natured reasoning. I love everything about this world. But I also love doing original things. One of my biggest regrets in life is I didn’t invent Ghostbusters! [Laughs]

It seems sporting then, at this stage, that we end with you giving me an exclusive on Spy 2. Feel free to put it in your own words.

[Laughs] I would love to Spy 2, no doubt about that!

Maybe a Rick Ford/Jason Statham spin-off movie?

I have to say, of everything I’ve come up with in my career, Rick Ford is my proudest invention! Statham is my hero!

Spy is a masterclass in potty-mouth comedy…

I only do swearing in my movies when people can do it in a way that’s fun. Melissa, for instance…

Got to stop you there: Statham. Melissa’s good, but clearly we’re talking Statham.

[laughs] Oh my god. He was saying to me on the set of Spy, ‘can I swear?’ I’m like, ‘swear more! Swear more!’

That’s our guy. Paul Feig, thank you very much.

Ghostbusters arrives in the UK on July 11th. Our review of the film will be live when the official embargo – common for pretty much all big blockbusters – closer to release.

This interview was updated to clarify that Katie Dippold wrote the screenplay for The Heat 2, after she and Paul Feig came up with the story for it.