Paul Feig will always, always, always have a special place in our heart for creating the immortal TV series Freaks & Geeks. Now, however, he’s given Jason Statham his straight comedy debut in Spy, which arrives in cinemas this coming Friday.
Ahead of the film’s release, he spared us some time for a chat. It didn’t take long for Statham’s name to crop up either…
I was watching Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do the other day, oddly enough. It’s you in that, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Yes! The DJ!
I finally watched the extended cut. Have you seen that version?
I’ve always liked the movie. And Tom Hanks, of course, directed the film, having come from an acting background like yourself. What kind of tips do you pick up from someone like him?
It’s interesting. It was fascinating. I got signed onto it a long time before they made it, and they kept sending me updated scripts and pages. I had at least a page and a half of dialogue, so I was like, they’re clearly going to cut it. But it never changed. I got to the set, and I still had that long scene.
What was cool was just watching him with his DP and how they set up the shot. What I didn’t realise was that they set up this big long shot that came around me and reveals me. So I was doing the thing and going okay, and they were getting the coverage to do something different. Then they did the last take, and said ‘that’s it’.
Suddenly the whole crew was gone, they ran off to the next location. They did it as a one-r, which I don’t think I’d be brave enough to do! To shoot it in one take. In comedy, I need to be able to control things too much.
With Spy, what I really liked is you didn’t cop out. You didn’t do it as a spoof, or Mr Bean-style. Your central character, Susan Cooper, has a core of competence. That’s what makes it work. This is obviously your script, your idea, and utterly you from start to finish. So what was the seed of it?
I love spy movies. When we were doing The Heat, it was so much fun doing the little bit of action we had. I love action movies and stunts, so wanted to do something with a lot of that. I’ve also always been a fan of the Bond films, especially when the Daniel Craig series started. I was like, that’s how they should look. It all added up to wanting to do something like that. I realised that nobody’s going to let me do one of those, but then this is my opportunity to write something for the funny women I like. And I took it from there. A woman who becomes a spy, the brains behind the real spy. Everything came together.
How do you write it, then? Do you write the spy movie first, then put the jokes on top?
The spy movie has to work, or the film doesn’t.
Yeah. I didn’t want it to be a spoof or parody. I wanted to do a real spy movie with real stakes. That how I write everything I do. Even the scripts that I don’t write and come in and work on. Treat it like a drama. Certain things you think could be funny. I was putting myself in her shoes when she has her first kill. What would happen if I did it? I’d throw up. So then she does. You find the moments, and then you start putting the jokes in. You want a plot that really works. I don’t want it to be so complicated that I don’t have room for character interactions, and scenes where people can be funny with each other.
You’ve hinted there that you’ve gone in and done script work on other projects. I’m guessing it’s not on Transformers?
No, no, no! No, more that Bridesmaids and The Heat were credited to other people. Although I did do some work on the first remake of Spider-Man. I did some of the high school scenes. Which was… fun.
We talked in the past about how geek culture has changed, and has become popular. As a result of that, you said you moved your career, and instead you’ve gone over to the mainstream where no one else is, because they’re all off doing geek culture stuff!
Spy seems to be the extension of that. Is going against expectation still what interests you the most?
Yeah. It’s not even like a conscious thing. It’s just if everyone is off doing one thing, it’s less interesting to me. This one came from a lot of things. I keep making movies about working class situations, but I love style, and I love travel. I wanted to do something just in that world. It’d be nice to have a wardrobe person!
Howard Hawks is one of my favourite directors, because he worked in so many different genres! And you go, I get it now. It’ll be fun to dip into this, and put my spin on this. Then go, okay, I’ll try this over here. Kind of a kid in a candy store a little bit.
People like to categorise a lot of your work by the fact that your recent films are headlined by women. But I still think there’s a thread of positivity that underpins your movies., and they’re free of snark. How hard do you work at that? Is it conscious?
It’s how I see the world. I don’t like snarky stuff. I like a positive attitude. We’re having fun with negative characters and stuff, but still, I want it to be buoyant. Life’s too short to have this darkness.
I think it’s why I love working with women, and making comedy using funny women. Men’s comedy can get very aggressive. I think I was bullied enough when I was a kid that I’m like oh, they’re name calling, and that’s not funny to me. I feel like I’m back in high school, in the locker room, and people are threatening to beat me up.
When we chatted last, we briefly talked about Allison Janney, and our site also worships at the temple of Jason Statham. I can only assume that you’re taking your casting dues from us.
So, for the next one: how about Dolph Lundgren?
There you go! Good idea, good idea…
Steven Knight, when he was making Hummingbird with Jason Statham, said that it was David Fincher that had recommended Statham for the role. That he told Steven Knight that he has something in him that nobody had yet discovered. Hence, he got the Hummingbird role. Did you feel the same way when you cast Jason Statham in a comedy?
Interesting. I’m as big a fan as you guys are of Statham. I have seen Lock, Stock. I’ve seen every one of his movies. But it was when I saw the first Crank movie that I was like, he’s funny. He has to know it’s bananas. He’s in on the joke, but he’s playing it dead serious.
So I became absolutely obsessed. I have to put him in a comedy, but it took years to figure out what it was. When I was writing this, I thought I need this kind of testosterone-laden rival spy for her. This is it. Finally, I can write something for Statham. I put it together for him, but then thought he’ll never do this. Will he?
I was hopeful. But at the same time I had a general meeting with him, and I was so nervous before I met him. You don’t know Statham. He could be as he’s like in his movies. He could beat me up. But he comes in with this big smile, and we hit it off. I loved him. I put it to him, and he went for it. He was a little nervous right before we started, but I said I’m not going to make you look silly. Have fun with it, but you’ve got to play it dead straight. The character is a great spy, but he’s made a bunch of mistakes. He quits, so he’s lost that perspective on the world. Then he’s so angry that this woman he doesn’t think is qualified is doing his job, that he starts making really terrible decisions.
There’s a bit where he says all the things that have happened to him, and you don’t know whether they’re true or not…
He basically recites the plots to half of his films!
Blake Edwards always approached the character of Inspector Clouseau as very pure. That in Clouseau’s eyes, he believes what he’s doing is the right thing.
Of course. And that’s the only way to do comedy. The comedy I hate is where the person/famous comedian is playing that part, and they’re clearly going look what a dummy this character is. Let’s laugh at him. No. You’ve got to love these characters, even if they’re ridiculous.
You’ve said in the past in interviews that you consider yourself quite a shy and insecure person, and it comes across in some of the writing that you’ve done. But what does success do to that? Does it make it worse or better?
It makes it worse in a way. I have a weird perspective on it. I was in movie jail at one point, where I did my early movies, it looked like I was never going to get big movies again. Bridesmaids broke me out of that. Now that things are going – touch wood – well, it just makes whatever’s coming up, there’s this terror of falling back. It keeps you on track and working hard. But it’s so much angst.
I’m not complaining. But I do think why can’t I just enjoy this?
Do you find yourself running into conflict as a result of that? I don’t really want to talk about your next movie (Ghostbusters), but it’s unavoidable that the scale of that is going to ramp up even more. It’s like the end of level boss. There’s no comfortable choice.
There are ones with less outside pressure on things. But I’ve always done this in my career. I’ll get an idea, and before I can really weigh out the odds against, I’ll commit. Like jumping into a pool. I have to get myself into the middle of something. Then, when I’m half way through, I’ll go ‘why the fuck did I do this?!’
But then you’re figuring it out. As long as the initial passion for it is pure, and you see it, that’s when you carry things through. I’ve been in things where I’ve not been sure, dived in, and thought I’m not sure I should have done that. You then have to extract yourself from those. But when you have that initial ‘I know how to do this’, that should carry you through.
It’s all fear-based. You’re always up against it. You watch a great movie, and you think of course that’s great, because it was always going to be great. But then you realise it’s an organic thing. It’s what you make it.
I did an interview with Brad Bird a week or two again, and he talked about Chinatown, about how he always assumed it had gone entirely to plan. Yet he then talked to its screenwriter, Robert Towne, and it was a collection of will this work, will that work, the same kind of insecurities.
Yeah. It makes you slowly panic less! I’ve directed a lot of stuff, in television too, and I’ve been on a lot of sets. I’ve always gone into it with a bit of dread for the first day of production. Then you get in it, and it happens. It gives you a little more courage to plough in and get what you need, and get the best people around you.
That’s the thing. You hire great people. I hire these great actors, this great crew. Problem solving will then happen. You will get something. You may get something 180 degrees away from what you thought, but you’ll get something. The biggest problem I see with a lot of writer-directors, and I know someone this just happened to, is they go this is the script, these are the lines, don’t deviate from that. It’s worked over the course of entertainment, but I don’t think it’s a good way to do stuff. You cut off all the natural talents of all the good people around you.
When you get on that set, that’s when everything should happen. You work your ass off to get to that set. But then you’ve got cameras going, you’ve got talented people, you want them to do their thing.
So what strange magic was sprinkled on the Freaks & Geeks set? When we spoke before, it was noting how many screenwriters had come from the young cast of the show. Now, it’s directors! Seth Rogen directs, John Francis Daley directs, James Franco directs and now Jason Segal is going to direct! Is it a filmmakers union going on there?!
We talk occasionally! But not that much really. I just spoke to John Francis Daley during an interview, but I hadn’t spoken to him in years. But you know what? They were all such smart people. We were all so into it, there was an indie film spirit. I think they picked up on that, we brought them into the process. A lot of TV shows, much of it happens in the office upstairs, and actors aren’t allowed to interact. You want to change a line, you can’t do it.
But we wore our hearts on our sleeves. They saw the process, they saw how organic it could be. It wasn’t like we were an improv-heavy set, but scripts came out of playing around and watching them. Something they said behind the scenes would end up in a script. I think it just demystified the process for them.
You’ve talked in the past too about how the most interesting stuff is happening in television. But now it seems that online services are usurping television, which are in turn usurping film. You’ve done Other Space yourself now. But with your own career you’ve not been pulling the ladder up. You’re using the influence that you evidently have now to get other people’s projects made.
The stuff you do along those lines, is it material you just don’t have time to do yourself? And is it rewarding to hold that ladder in place for people?
Yeah. To take advantage of all the great things that are happening now, the new media, that’s the greatest. That’s why I was so excited to do Other Space. It was a project I had in my head for 10 years that I wanted to make, and finally had the rights back to. I didn’t want to cut myself off from anything, I wanted to create things. And I also wanted to create these farm teams of people. So I can create a lower pressure thing, like an internet series, and put these new actors and writers into it. Then let them go, and see who pops up. Then importing them into my films.
Again, the only thing you want to make sure is you don’t overextend. You don’t want to produce something that’s not good. I’ve seen that happen with people who have big names, and then their names are on everything. And then you go that’s not so good. That’s the fear.
So basically, this is a Paul Feig movie universe!
[Laughs] Exactly! They’ll all interconnect!
Well, you’ve got a post-credits sting on this one, you’re getting the hang of this!
Yes, yes! Exactly.
Two quick questions before I’m chucked out then. Firstly, your next book: are you going to find time in your schedule somewhere to write it?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a lot of stories collected. I will finish it, I will finish it!
Do you want to commit to a date here and now?
Please. I need a deadline.
I’ve nearly finished the book I’m reading at the moment, so Tuesday week is good for me.
And finally, apart from your own, what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
Oh man, oh man. The last one I’ve seen! It’s really hard to say, but I do think the first Crank. Oh my god, it’s just so nuts. It’s hilarious. But then the second one’s hilarious too. It’s nut, it’s nuts.
Paul Feig, thank you very much!