Paul Feig Interview: “I love challenges. I love a tonal tightrope”

Paul Feig talk to us about his new thriller, the fallout from Ghostbusters, and how Jason Statham swears...

It’s hard to imagine Paul Feig looking dishevelled. The director is returning with his first film since the rough and tumble release of Ghostbusters: Answer The Call in 2016. And if Feig was expected to look like he’d taken a bit of a pasting, or was emerging from some kind of wreckage, it seems no one thought to tell him.

He’s impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit with a flower on his lapel that appears to be made from a material with a floral print when Den of Geek sit down with him in a London hotel. I couldn’t stop looking at the flower thing. It’s impossible to imagine the man with a hair out of place, much less with with rubble on his cuffs or dust on his shoes.

Paul Feig is something of a Den of Geek favourite. From Freaks And Geeks to The Heat, Feig has been responsible for some of the TV shows and movies we revisit more often than is probably healthy.

A Simple Favour, his new film, is a brilliant and twisty black comedy that seems destined to join so many of his others in heavy rotation on the Den of Geek office TV. It was just ahead of its UK release that we caught up with him, and that he was kind enough to sit down with us to have a chat. Here’s how we got on.

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This film is coming out with, and we may as well jump straight to it, controversy from one of your previous films. And that is, of course, Jason Statham’s pronunciation of the word ‘twat’ in Spy.

(laughs) Exactly!

They discuss the difference in the word and yet he uses the American pronunciation!

The joke wouldn’t have worked without it. No, I had to force him to do it. He’s like ‘I don’t say it like that!’ and I said ‘I know, but you’ve just got to say it this other way’. But I knew I would have a hard time getting back into England after that.

This film, A Simple Favour, it’s billed as ‘From the dark side of Paul Feig’, and because of Ghostbusters previously, it conjures this idea that we took our nicest filmmaker, everyone was horrible to you and you went away and came back a goth, almost. But I don’t the film bears that out at all, because it’s light and playful, although here’s dark subject matter. You always had this tone for it?

Yeah. I love thrillers. It’s really my favourite genre. I watch those more than I watch comedies to be honest, just ‘cause I work in comedy. I just knew that this kind of a movie has to be that, it has to be serious to that genre and to the tone. You just have to go for it.

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Honestly, we switched studios. It started at one studio and then at the last minute they got very nervous about it, because they were worried that it’s too dark a subject matter and wanted to pull back. I was like ‘You either want to do this or you don’t. We’ve got to go for it.’

But I knew I could make it fun.

It’s interesting because when Big Little Lies was such a big thing, everybody kept saying it was this dark comedy, and I was like ‘man, I am trying hard to find the comedy in here’. Not in a bad way, but this is really dark subject matter. But people are just embracing the deliciousness of how far it went. So I was like ‘well, I can have even more fun than that! I’m gonna get people laughing even more’.

It’s dark, but it’s no darker than Spy, really.

What I really like, it’s quite audacious in its plotting. There are some twists in there where we really have to go with you, but it rewards us by being so entertaining. Were you aware that you might need to give the audience something in order to take some of that?

Well, the script came to me, it was a book but then Fox 2000 had bought the book and hired Jessica Sharzer to do the adaptation. So I didn’t read it until I got the script. It was was a Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the backyard, and every page was like ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ That experience. At one point I was like ‘It’s almost got to be over, oh, I’m only half way through.’ I was so happy with all the twists and turns, that I was like, this is exactly what I was looking to do. And then once I jumped on board I was like ‘oh, we can have even more fun as we go forward with it, in the second half.’

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Those are my favourite kind of movies, where you’re just like ‘What’s happening? Oh, oh, I think I know. Oh, I don’t!’ I always hate when I figure it out before the movie’s over, so I’m like, I’m just gonna twist this as much as I can.

It’s being referenced with, fairly I think, film noir. I haven’t seen loads of them, but I have seen a bunch and I like film noir, and I couldn’t place exactly what part of film noir in particular it was tickling for me. And then I realised it’s in this way, it reminded me of The Big Sleep. Were there particular films you referenced when you put this film together?

Well, I think it’s just all the old Hitchcock movies were such an inspiration. But Howard Hawks is my favourite director of all time because he navigated so many different genres. The Big Sleep, it’s funny, I hadn’t seen it in forever and I just rewatched it with my wife a couple of weeks ago and I forgot how funny it is. Because you’re in the drama, they’re playing it and treating it completely seriously, but the way they talk and the turns of phrase and the interactions, it’s just, it’s delightful.

And that’s what I wanted to bring back. I wanted to bring back that Hitchcockian thing where I would watch any of his movies, and you’re on the edge of your seat, and then you’re laughing, and then the side characters come in and they’re weird and quirky.

I just want people to have fun in the theatre. I don’t make movies that to try to win awards, I want people to have a good time.

It played really well at the screening I was at. I hadn’t expected from any of the advertising material for it to be as funny as it is. Was it funny when you originally sat down with that script?

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It had room for the comedy. If it had been a straight thriller, I don’t know if I would have responded to it. But from the first page, that Stephanie character that Anna Kendrick plays, I was like ‘this is my way in, I know how to make this funny’. Because she’s the same lead character as in all my other movies. It’s an awkward person who hasn’t found their place in the world, who everybody else undervalues, who then has to go through this experience and find out who they are. But the fact that she was this nerdy mom that the other moms didn’t like, she’s got this vlog that is so inherently goofy, then I was like, ok, this has room right from the beginning to make this funny.

Where it differs from your other movies, though, is yours tend to be about dysfunctional people forming very functional friendships. This one is something of a diversion from that.

It’s funny, because it starts that way. Then it takes that twist, which I really responded to because I love the theme of female friendship. It’s in most of my movies, as you say. I just thought it was a really interesting way to play with that, but in a way that still wasn’t just devolved into a cat fight.

That it was about two intellectual equals, one who is undervalued by the other, or underestimated by the other, who then starts to come up to the other one’s level. And they’re never, even though they’re at odds, they’re never fighting. They’re trying to one up each other, but there’s always a respect between them. That’s what I like. I think that’s a very positive portrayal of a negative relationship.

This is perhaps me projecting onto the film, but I got the impression that you never disliked the characters, even when they do very dislikeable things, perhaps.

Yeah, to me that’s the key to everything I do.

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There’s a George Bernard Shaw quote, I’ve quoted a lot in the past, but it is what I live by. It’s ‘All men mean well’. That to me is the key to make a movie work. I need to understand why everybody is doing what they’re doing, and I hate when somebody is villainous just because. If there’s a villain, then they’ve got to have a reason why they’re doing it. Everybody is about thinking they’re doing the right thing.

I can tell when filmmakers have contempt for their own characters, and what I find is that the movie becomes mean spirited. I can make the darkest movie in the world, but if I stick to the rule of, like you said, if I like the characters and I’m trying to find their inner logic, then that keeps it from being mean spirited. I think something is mean spirited when you can tell the filmmakers are just like ‘look at these terrible people, let’s just destroy their lives.’

So, doubling back slightly to ‘the dark side of’, the way this film is being sold. Now, obviously this film going to be viewed as a response to Ghostbusters. No matter what you did next, it was gonna be viewed as a response to Ghostbusters. Did that factor into your decision of what you were going to do next, knowing that everyone was watching?

Well, no, not really. I was just desperately trying to figure out what the next project was gonna be. I was writing several different scripts that I was very excited about, and I’m still writing them.

But it was really like, what do I think I can do the best at, and what I think is gonna be, not only the most fun to make, but the most fun to make that an audience will agree is fun and will enjoy.

Again, I just, I only made Ghostbusters because I wanted to entertain an audience. And all my movies are that way. When all that backlash happened it was easy to get caught up in it. But when all the smoke cleared, suddenly we won the Kid’s Choice award from Nickelodeon for best movie over Rogue One and Captain America, it was like ‘Ok, good. It did entertain the audience it was kind of intended for.’

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I was sort of hoping the older Ghostbusters fans would go for it. And then they did, the real Ghostheads really loved it. But the trolls and all that is like, I just can’t control their reaction to this stuff so I’m just gonna let it go.

But then I was like, what can I make next that tells the world I just want to entertain you. I’m literally here to entertain you, that’s all I care about.

You reference A Simple Favour being fun to make, but there is some stuff in this one that I imagine wasn’t that fun to make. The lake sequence, in particular, that’s very heavy. How was the set for that? Did you have the idea that you’d have to manage the set differently?

No, that was actually fun too. You know, everybody in a movie is kind of aware of what we’re doing and the tone we’re trying to create and what we need out of each scene. My biggest stress was just that I wanted to make sure that Blake Lively didn’t freeze in that lake, because it was really cold. So we had this little portable hot tub set up for her in this little tent so she could go and warm up and then get back into the water. We had heaters under her in the water but the lake was so cold that it did nothing, so she was freezing in that thing. So that was the only stress. I never want my actors to be uncomfortable.

But, no. It was actually kind of cool. How can we make this as realistic as possible? We have great stunt people that help us, how do we pull off, no spoilers, that this thing is happening between these two people?

I love challenges. I love a tonal tightrope, going ‘it is gonna be hard to walk this line tonally, but that’s the fun part. How do we pull this off so people believe it?’ I get really excited about that stuff.

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And I guess, even though you primarily have a career as a comedy filmmaker, you’ve made effects comedies. So did you feel well prepared?

Yeah, I have a good team that I work with, Furious FX, they’re out of Burbank. They’re a smaller house but they’re great. They’ve done all my movies. Ghostbusters we had a lot of other vendors involved too, because it was so massive.

Yeah, I love special effects. My favourite special effects are the ones that you don’t know are special effects. Where it’s just adding things, removing things or marrying things together.

Honestly, coming out of Ghostbusters, I would love to take on another bigger, effects driven thing just because I thought it was really fun to do.

Do you see yourself doing a Marvel film or something of that nature? Does that hold any appeal to you?

If it was the right property, yeah. I just need to find my way into that genre. Honestly, to me Ghostbusters was my superhero movie because it’s human beings who use their brains to build technology in order to take on the supernatural.

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It’s why Iron Man was always my favourite one, because ‘ok, that’s a guy, he has a problem so he invented this thing and now there’s a man inside that suit’ and you know, the science is all over the place, but at least my brain can process, if he’s not in that suit he can get killed, get his arm chopped off or whatever. That’s the kind of thing I really respond to versus when they have such super powers that you can get punched through a building and it falls on top of you and you can crawl out. I don’t know what your limit is, I need to know when I have to go ‘Oh my god, are you dead?’

So I’m open to it, but it’s gotta be the right one.

So, Ghostbusters. I love Ghostbusters, and because of everything, I feel quite protective of it. But I’ve always wondered, one of the things that’s interesting about it is that it has your quickest turnaround between movies, but scale wise it’s by far your biggest one. How did that come to be the case?

That was intense. We had literally just finished shooting Spy. Actually, when I was shooting Spy, Ivan (Reitman) had called me a few times about coming on board, and then right the week after we got back from Budapest were just starting the editing process, Amy Pascal called me, wanted me to do it and then I had the idea of how I wanted to do it.

I’m very much about, our company is called the Runaway Freight train, I want to get it and go. Because what happens is, you go into development for two years, and everything kind of mellows and ripens and rots. So when we were putting together Spy, which was tense because I wanted to make sure that was great, Katie (Dipold) and I were writing the script and then we were moving towards production.

What happened was, when we went into production on Ghostbusters, I was tired. I was definitely like, ‘Am I gonna make it through this? This is the longest shoot I’ve ever done and I’m just recovering from finishing Spy.’ Literally we were doing post right up until it was ready and then had it out.

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So it was intense but also, I think I was so in the mode, I felt like I could take on anything even though I was tired.

I had my whole team from Spy and I switched everybody over to Ghostbusters, and they were all spinning like tops, in a great way. The gears were going. Then I couldn’t have done it without Jeff Sage, my production designer, because he brought in these teams of artists who were so amazing and creative, and they just started generating so much stuff and so we really fed off of that.

So now, all in, Ghostbusters is a positive?

Yeah. Oh yeah. I am very happy with it. The only negative was just dealing with the trolls, because it was just a bummer. Especially because, I thought we were all past that way of thinking. To this day, there’s guys that take great pleasure in writing me and telling me how much they hate Ghostbusters, and like, fellas, it’s been over two years now. Now it’s just funny to me, because if you’re still upset about that, there’s nothing I can do to help you. If I make you feel better, by yelling at me, then whatever.

My favourite movie of yours is The Heat. I love it so much. I understand there’s a script for The Heat 2

There is.

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…but I understand that there has been a script for The Heat 2 for a while.

Yeah, ever since we did the first Heat.

Is that looking like a no at this point?

I don’t think… Sandra’s really the one who could decide to do it. But rightfully so, she’s nervous about doing sequels in general. But it’s a very funny script. It’s very dark.

Is there anything else you can tell me, other than that it’s got a Hannibal Lector, serial killer vibe to it.

It basically, they decide they have to find the real Red Falls killer. That’s what it’s all about.

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One of the things I find really interesting about your career, is Bridesmaids was only seven years ago, but it’s a lot of films ago. Seven years seems to have gone very quickly. Do you ever stop and take in how different things have gotten over those seven years?

Yeah. I’m just so grateful to be making movies. Bridesmaids is what got me out of movie jail, and before that I couldn’t get a movie made. I made a couple and they were so unsuccessful nobody would let me make a movie any more. Occasionally I just go ‘oh my god, I can’t believe I get to make movies.’ And honestly, every day I’m so grateful. It’s what drives me, because I’m terrified of going back into movie jail. So with every movie, it’s like ‘It’s got to be good!’ I’m slavishly looking at reviews and I’m slavishly following box office. I always want my movies to make a bazillion dollars just so that people will go ‘yes, keep making movies!’

But, nobody is more grateful for the career they have than I am for mine.

Paul Feig, thank you very much!

A Simple Favour is in UK cinemas now.