Paul Feig on The Heat, Freaks & Geeks, confidence

The creator of Freaks & Geeks, Mr Paul Feig, chats to us about his new film, The Heat, as well as the changing face of TV and geekdom...

We’ve only ever had the pleasure of interview Paul Feig once before, just as Bridesmaids gave him arguably the biggest hit project of his life.

With The Heat giving him two hits on the trot, we caught up with him again to chat about the film, pet projects, Bridget Jones(!), television, and the mighty Freak & Geeks...

-Can we start with Thomas F Wilson? You’ve cast him in The Heat, and it’s your fault I’m reading his book, The Masked Man, at the moment. You recommended it on your Twitter feed…

That’s right! Isn’t it great?

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Very much. And it’s a very intelligent way to go about telling his story. He’s taken a populist approach to telling his story, and then surreptitiously taken it to some dark places. There’s a parallel coming here…

[Laughs] I like that, I like that!

It’s always struck me that your work – the books, the TV, the films – is essentially happy. It doesn’t matter what you throw into your stories, there’s an inherent happiness running through there somewhere. But with a tinge of darkness?

Yeah. I think it comes from being an optimist. Which is you face everything thinking this is going to be great. The problem is that being an optimist, you’re just going to get knocked down constantly because you hold such a high standard of expectation that there’s nowhere to go but down. So you experience a lot of darkness in your optimism that you overcome, but it’s still there all the time.

I like that dichotomy of trying to keep the positive view. It’s so easy to go ‘I give up’, it’s horrible. But you can’t do that. You have to know that it’s there.

It’s weird. I’m an optimist whose mantra now is ‘expect the worst’. I’ve had to find a balance. I just got knocked down so much. But I never want to lose that side of myself. You have to admit that the bad stuff is out there, it’s going to hit, so how do I get through it? 

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You wrote the sweetest book I’ve ever read about a man trying to find a woman. Do you have plans for another book now that you’re this big international film director?

I’ve always wanted to write a third book. A trilogy. I’ve been putting it together, and I know the direction of it. I’ve just not had time to sit down and do it. But I would like to knock that out.

You said an interesting thing when we last spoke, that you had a collection of pet projects. Yet you said that when the doors opened after Bridesmaids, you didn’t want to do one of them. You wanted to do something else big while you had the chance.

Yeah. I was so happy when this script popped into my life and then doing it. Because this is exactly what I wanted to follow Bridesmaid with. A funny movie that could be as successful or somewhere around there. Plus working with big stars like Sandra [Bullock] and now Melissa [McCarthy].

I’m always afraid of the pet project, the passion project. I think those are things you pull along with you, and sometimes they should be made.

But other times it’s almost like a guy who becomes really popular who hates all the women who weren’t with him before. You know, “fuck you, I’m famous now, you should have been with me”. That’s not cool, you shouldn’t do that. I’ve seen other people do it, and thought they should have kept moving forward, and brought those themes from the pet project into the bigger things that they’re doing.

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And thus you’ve made a film effectively here about two nerds.

Oh yeah, totally. 

They both sit in different, ostracised places in society.

Yeah, they’re outsiders.

If I’ve got this right though, you were originally going to do Bridget Jones 3, not this film. Then Bridget Jones fell apart for whatever reason, and then this came along. Was The Heat just good luck for you?

This was total good luck. Bridget Jones fell apart, and I wrote this script for Melissa to do that the studio loved and she really liked, but we couldn’t quite work it out. The timing was off.

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Then I was going to do a remake of [the French film] Untouchable, and wrote a script for that which everybody really loved. And then I had a moment of angst over that, and thought do I really want to do a remake of a great movie? That’s the fear. It’s such a good movie. I can only make something that’s as good, that’s the best I’d be able to do.

So in the middle of all that, when I was really having a lot of angst, this script dropped out of nowhere. It was called The Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy, and the minute I saw that title, I thought that’s it, that’s what I want to do. But then you hold your breath and think it’s probably going to be a crappy script. But the script was hilarious. It was just so funny. And I’d heard that Sandra was interested in doing it, but there was no mention of Melissa whatsoever. So I’m reading it, and I go, “Oh my God, this is the role for Melissa to follow up Bridesmaids with”. Although she was busy doing Identity Thief at the same time. 

That’s interesting though, as I do think this is a more natural follow-on to Bridesmaids for her. She’s a great talent, and I’m the person who had problems with Identity Thief. For me, it was a film that fell into the trap of having a core that was quite nasty. Effectively, it was the same set-up as Planes, Trains And Automobiles, but we never got to love Melissa’s character in the way we loved John Candy’s.

I always face everything like I have to love the characters, and whoever’s playing the character has to love the character. A lot of comedy goes off the rails there.

I feel a lot of 90s comedy failed for me that way. I think some people playing these characters are just making fun of them. And I don’t like doing it. What I loved about this character for her is that she’s so earnest. She’s kind of misguided in how she does things, but it all comes out of such a pure place.

Even though she does things in your film that seem a bit off, at least I understood why she was doing them.

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Yeah. At least she had a reason. My favourite moment that explains her is when they’re tied up towards the end. when Sandra says she thinks the Red Falls killer might be innocent, and she gets really upset about that. Somebody like that wouldn’t be upset that an innocent man is locked away and that nobody might find out. She’s very pure of heart, both of them are.

We asked our Twitter followers whether Sandra Bullock is the finest comedy actress of her generation. And the general consensus is that along with Parker Posey and Allison Janney, she probably is.

They’re very good too! 

I go back to While You Were Sleeping. I’m not supposed, really, to love While You Were Sleeping. It’s not really aimed at me, but I like it a lot, and I like it because I utterly buy her. I think what Sandra Bullock does really well, which many actors and actresses can’t or won’t, is self-deprication extremely well.

Very much so.

And that’s hard, I think.

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Especially when you’re that beautiful.

I don’t really want this conversation to go down gender lines, but I think we have to acknowledge that if a man did what she did here, we wouldn’t be talking about it in the same way.

You have to judge things that way because there are different standards. I was always a big fan of Sandra’s too. What I liked about this project for her is that she gets to show a side that we’ve kind of seen, but she’s very funny, she’s kind of geeky, a bit of a nerd.

She is an accomplished computer hacker, to be fair.

That’s true, we’ve seen her do that! It was a joy to work with her. She really goes for it, there’s not a lot of vanity when she works, and she loves to do physical comedy. But it was fun to give her very contemporary comedy to do. Melissa is a very contemporary comedian. Her style is very reality based, and weirdly dramatic in its core. It’s what Steve Carell is so good at. You create a very realistic character and then you inhabit it. And you can’t believe they’re then doing what they’re doing.

From your personal point of view, are you more comfortable with movies now?

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I love it. I love TV, and the irony is that I think TV is way better than movies these days. 

It’s inverted hasn’t it?

Yeah, totally. But I always feel like they’re doing so well, I want to play over in this other world. The other thing is I really like challenges. I like the challenge of telling a story effectively in an hour and a half, two hours. It’s kind of the hardest thing in the world, because what you love in TV is you have all this time to keep exploring, but in a movie, you introduce characters, try and make the audience like them, take them through an arc, and then at the end try  and make them feel so satisfied that they’re happy. That’s tough math to do. You just work and work it.

The big cliche once you’ve had a big hit movie is that people take your calls. But my question to you is does it change the people you’re choosing to ring?

You know, what it changes is I’m very low self-confidence. If I see someone in public who’s my hero, I’m terrified to talk to them because I’m convinced they’ll be like, “Get the fuck away from me”, Now, it’s the realisation that now I could possibly call this person, or maybe have a meeting with somebody that I like.

You need to do an Argo. You need to do a fake film just so you can ring people up.

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Exactly. [Laughs]

I have to quickly talk Freaks & Geeks. It is interesting that television is in a different place to when you made the show. So is geek culture. You see the cool kids now walking down the street with a T-shirt saying ‘geek’ on it, and I’m sat there thinking have geeks come into trend accidentally? I’m not entirely comfortable with that!

Being out of the shadows?

Yeah, it’s oddly strange. And with Freaks & Geeks, I hope the reunion talk comes to nothing…

I’m with you, I’m with you…

But type Freaks & Geeks into Google now though, in quote marks, and you get millions of results. It does feel strange how this continues to resonate…

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Yeah. I really feel that. Especially with This Is The End, and there they all are, it’s crazy.

Three Hollywood screenwriters came out of the cast – the cast! – of that show.

I know. And now a very successful director. Seth and Evan, they nailed This Is The End so hard. It’s nuts, and I take great pride in that.

Judd [Apatow] and I raised those kids so well in the Hollywood world. We went into it saying we don’t want to ruin these kids’ lives, and let’s not treat them any differently, so they won’t get a big head. We kept them grounded. And then Judd was great to take them under his wing after the show and teach them how to write and everything. I’m very proud of that.

Paul Feig, thank you very much.

The Heat arrives in UK cinemas on July 31st.

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