Writers-in-Contention: Spy Writer-Director Paul Feig on Serious Genre Comedy and Ghostbusters Fatigue
To kickstart the Hollywood awards season, we will be speaking with writers from some of the most acclaimed films of the year every Monday to discuss their writing process.
One of this year’s most successful comedies was the Melissa McCarthy spy comedy simply titled Spy. Smart, funny, and happily embracing feminist commentary, the film earned more than $100 million and almost universal critical praise. This is Feig’s third time directing McCarthy (all three box-office hits), and they just finished the fourth … a little movie called Ghostbusters (out next year). Now that he’s become one of Hollywood’s go-to comedy directors, he’s also returned to his first love of writing his own films, having written the screenplay for Spy and co-written Ghostbusters with Katie Dippold (writer of The Heat who also appears in Spy). I spoke with the totally delightful Paul Feig about returning to writing, casting funny people to play deadly serious comedy, and his passionate desire to write good parts for women.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): When you started writing Spy, was there a specific James Bond or spy genre movie you were thinking about or that inspired you to make the movie?
Paul Feig: I’m a fan of spy movies, I’m a fan of most of the James Bond movies and Bourne movies. But I think Casino Royale was the biggest influence on me, because it was when James Bond had come back from being silly and over-gadgetry. Bond got pretty crazy for many years, starting with Roger Moore, and those movies are super fun to watch, but I’m a fan of the original books that Fleming wrote, and Bond was a pretty dark character. It wasn’t about the gadgets; it was about him living by his wits.
So when I saw Casino Royale, I thought, “that is the kind of James Bond I like!” And it stuck in my head, and I thought “I’d love to direct a bond movie while they’re in this cool zone.” But I realized fairly quickly, no one will ever let me direct a Bond movie. But while we were finishing post-production on The Heat, I thought, “Why not just direct my own spy movie, and then I’ll get to work with some of the women I love to work with and get to tell the story of a new spy, who happens to be a woman who finds her mojo?” And my brain just lit on fire, and I wrote the first draft pretty quickly.
TMS: Did you write the character of Susan Cooper with Melissa McCarthy in mind, or did she just happen to be the best person to cast in the role?
Feig: At first, I didn’t write it for her, because I thought she wouldn’t be available. I planned to shoot the film pretty quickly, and she would have been busy filming Mike and Molly. So I wrote it originally as sort of an everywoman that a number of smart, funny women I know could have slipped into fairly easily. So I wrote it originally for any woman that you wouldn’t think could play a spy—that would seem brow-beaten at work and had been manipulated by another spy who was benefitting from her expertise. Someone who could start out as this awkward person and realize their full potential, who had been talked out of things by someone who had manipulated to help them. Then Melissa was at our house for dinner one night and asked what I was working on, and when I told her, she said, “Oh, I love those movies. Can I read it?” And she called the next morning to say, “I love this movie. Can I be in it?” And that was music to my ears, so I decided it was worth it to push production back until the following summer, so she could star as Susan.
TMS: One of the biggest critiques of the James Bond character, starting with the original novels, is that they often seem inherently sexist. So it was so interesting that you would make a movie about a female spy. Did you think about how women had been treated in those types of stories before?
Feig: That’s why it felt like it would be so much fun to put this woman into this world. The Rick Ford character (Jason Statham) is there just to have this kind of unbridled machismo. His character is like every Internet hater in the world, who can’t even imagine that a woman could be good at his job. And the Jude Law character is the one who preys on her, because he knows she makes him better, so he’s manipulated her downstairs, because he knows she makes him look like the best agent. But he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with women in the field; he’s just used to seducing them.
So when I originally thought, “I want to make a Bond movie; I’ll just write my own, and I’ll make it about a woman,” that was when my brain lit up, because there seemed like there would be so many fun opportunities to play with gender expectations and play with the norms of what has come before. But it was funny; when people would ask about the movie before it was out, they’d say “So will there be Cooper boys instead of Bond girls?” And I was like, “Well there will be men in it, but I don’t really want to have hot guys running around in Speedos, because I don’t want to fall into the same pitfalls the Bond franchise fell into.” Because those movies can be, and have been, fairly sexist. I love all those movies and books, but I was always uncomfortable with the way it would become such boys’ club kind of stuff.
TMS: Was it kind of fun to write a character like Jason Statham, who is so over the top misogynist that he just comes across like an insecure buffoon?
Feig: Oh yeah. I figured that line of work must be filled with those types of guys. Any line of work that’s dangerous and has high stakes pulls in an interesting group of guys, and it can be like being in the locker room. The talk gets out of control, and you’re just like, “Oh my god, what planet do you live on?” So I figured that job would be like that. But his character is also fairly allegorical to showbiz, too. Some people are just so full of themselves, they can’t even entertain the idea that someone else could be good at the same thing they are. Any business that’s high stakes brings extreme personalities, so I just knew I needed a heavy duty doubter who could just be driven crazy by the idea that she can do his job. And Jason was so funny and just a prince to work with, and we wrote some many stupid things for him to say. We’d literally be writing on set because he was being so funny. We’d pitch these outrageous jokes for him, and I’d half expect him to refuse, but he’d just burst out laughing and earnestly do the line. I’m dying to work with him again.
TMS: Being the first movie you’d written since I Am David, was it a little nerve-wrecking to not have that second voice to collaborate with that you had with the writers of Bridesmaids and The Heat?
Feig: I liked it. As a director, you always do a lot of writing you never get credit for anyway. But facing the blank page vs getting a script and knowing how to make it even better and working with the writer is different. But I’ve always felt more like a writer-director, because I did so much writing on Freaks and Geeks, and if it were up to me, even though we had great directors on the show, I would have directed all the episodes. But at that point, I was still just an actor who happened to have written something people liked, so getting to direct the last episode of the series was a battle. But I loved writing and directing Spy, And the good thing about doing this for a few years, and directing other people’s screenplays, is I’ve learned that you can’t be so in love with the script that you can’t let the actors alter the words to make it better. That’s when the writer-director becomes a nightmare to work with.
And I’ve learned over the years, you have to have a great script going into production, and you shoot the great script. But as you’re doing it, you have to let ideas bloom and stay in the moment, to allow the actors to stay in the moment. And that’s when you have people doing things differently than you were expecting or saying a line that works even better than it did in the script. You have to allow filming to be this organic thing, and I know some writer-directors who are just so inflexible. I won’t name any names, but there are some comedy star friends of mine who did a movie with a writer-director like that, and I was like, “You must have had so much fun,” and they said, “It was a nightmare, because he wouldn’t let us deviate one word,” and they are some of the best comic minds working today, so I just thought, “why would you do that to yourself? You’re just making yourself look bad.”
When writer-directors do that, they end up cutting out this giant resource, which is the people playing the roles, who are funny and become the characters, and are there to make them fit on the screen, and differ slightly from just being in the writer’s voice. Because we all write with our own cadence that we think and talk in. When I directed TV, I would occasionally come up against a show runner who would say “they have to say the line exactly as written!” And I’d be like, “Their mouth doesn’t work that way. Let them tweak it slightly and make the line funnier,” and then I’d get in between the show runner and a comedy actor, who has a very distinct delivery. And being forced to get that actor to deliver the line as the writer wrote it, even if their voice couldn’t be less like the actor’s, that’s when it all blows up. They never got the laugh they wanted, and the actor became self-conscious and shuts down on set, and everyone ends up unhappy. So as a writer-director, you can demand people do the role exactly as written, but then the script has to be fucking awesome take into account every single actor’s delivery and voice. But in my experience, that isn’t the case, and you end up getting a product which is less than it could have been.
TMS: And you have tendency to cast comedians and improv actors in smaller parts, so I’d imagine some of their jokes aren’t even on the page before they’re cast.
Feig: Exactly right. And now the people I work with, like line producers and studio people, are used to it, but it used to be a fight. They’d say, “Just hire local people.” And I’d be like, “No, I’m not going to waste a frame of film on anyone that is less than great.” I have a hatred for the “They went that’a’way roles” when people become nothing more than a human prop in a film. I cast Zack Woods in the role of the guy who gets poisoned, and I hired him as the paramedic in The Heat. And in both those roles, he did my favorite thing and said, “Mind if I play around a bit?” And suddenly he’ll just do something hilarious. His part in Spy was written as very, very serious, about a guy who gets poisoned and just dies. But he made the decision that as he’s dying, he’ll keep flipping off Rose’s character, and it always gets a big laugh. And if I’d just hired a random Hungarian actor for that role instead of a comic, I wouldn’t have gotten the laugh. I found some great local actors with Spy and just recently in Boston for Ghostbusters. I found about 4 or 5 local actors on that who are really, really funny, but I just don’t want to waste a frame on someone who doesn’t have the potential to make you laugh or take an interest. Anyone good has a certain charisma, which makes them jump off the screen, and I can just sit there watching a movie and point out those local hires, the actors you can just look right through and there’s nothing interesting about them, visually or in terms of their energy. So I strive to avoid that.
TMS: Some of the funniest scenes are the women in the CIA basement, who are all hilarious, and they all manage to catch your attention and get big laughs, and every time you go back to that location, you are expecting something funny or random to happen.
Feig: That’s the goal. I always think of something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where you have this feeling, “Oh, this is my favorite scene. No, this is my favorite scene.” Because they’re playing all the roles, and therefore you know everyone will be funny, even if they aren’t doing something funny at that exact moment. And as a director, you have to have confidence, and so by putting a bunch of funny people on screen, that reads as confident to the audience, because they will think, “Oh, I like those people,” and if you don’t already know them, you’ll think, “There is something interesting about this person.” And then the audience will go along for the ride. I’m just trying to get audiences to stop judging as soon as possible and invest.
The first five or ten minutes is when audiences decide if they are going to like a movie or not. Honestly, I think people make the decision within the first minute or two, at least with comedies. My editor on Bridesmaids, Bill Kerr, coined the term “the angry villagers syndrome” because audiences don’t show up wanting to hate something they just paid for, but when they sit down, and the first joke isn’t very funny, and then the second joke isn’t very funny, pretty soon, people get angry and will want to burn down the village and turn against the movie. So our theory in editing is, we don’t want jokes that are just singles or doubles; we need to start the game with triples or home runs, and it’s better to not have a joke than to have a joke that underachieves. You’d rather have audiences waiting for the next joke than thinking, “That joke wasn’t very funny.”
TMS: Was it hard with a movie like Spy, which is funny because it takes the genre so seriously, to know when to go for a joke without sacrificing the story and characters you were establishing?
Feig: That was the biggest razor’s edge I had to walk on this film. The studio likes me, and I’d just come off The Heat, so they were eager to make another movie, and they were excited when I pitched them Spy. But you can read things a million different ways, especially a comedy, and people read the script, expecting the movie would be a spoof or cartoony. And with the character of Rick Ford, they assumed I’d hire a comedian, and I was like, “No, I wrote this for Jason Statham.” And they were just taken aback by that idea, and someone at the studio had a huge problem with Jude Law sneezing and accidentally shooting the guy dead, and then a few pages later reading Rick Ford’s line about getting into the Face-off machine.
They were like, “Tonally, the movie is all over the place.” And I was like, “No, it’s not. There is a world in which, if you are holding something at gun point, and you sneeze, you could kill them.” And that was the first scene we shot in the movie, so the minute people saw how we set that scene up, and how we were shooting it and the lighting and camera work we used, and how we were going to have the actors play the sceme, they were like, “I get it.” Because they were expecting Jude to be really hammy with the sneeze. But it’s much funnier if you play the funny situation seriously, and occasionally we’d have a case where I’d pitch a joke that was a little more absurd, and one of the actors would take it and play the absurdity, rather than ground it, and it would cause this downward spiral where everyone else would start becoming a bit too over the top.
And I would just be sitting behind the monitor thinking, “Oh my god, if we play things even slightly wrong, this movie could become a really bad parody sketch of a spy movie.” So I’d run in and just say, “Forget what I just said.” And I was constantly guiding everyone to play this movie seriously, because that is what will make the jokes and situations really funny, and I love the genre and wanted to make a real spy movie that happens to be funny. But I wanted to keep all the stakes and keep as much reality as possible.
TMS: Miranda Hart is so charming and funny in the movie, and she’s great on stuff she’s done in the UK but isn’t very well known in America audiences. How did you develop the role for her?
TMS: I became friends with Miranda few years ago, when my wife and I were producing a stage show in the UK, Ron and Beverly, about two Jewish women who are talk show hosts, and Miranda was one of the guests. I wasn’t there that night, but my wife was, and she called me and said, “I met someone you are going to fall in love with.” Because my wife knows the types of people I like and find funny. And I met Miranda at a party, and did fall completely in love with her and found her so funny. So, I watched her show, and I just thought, “She’s so amazing; I have to write something for her,” and right after Bridesmaids, I was going to direct the next Bridget Jones movie they’re shooting right now, but I developed the character of her best friend for Miranda
And the part was so funny, they got nervous that her character would be disruptive to the movie. But then my involvement fell apart for several reasons, and I was bummed out, because I had this great role for Miranda that I didn’t get to direct her in. So after that, I was constantly looking for parts I could put her in. So when I wrote this, I wrote the part of Melissa’s best friend for her, and I also felt Melissa and Miranda would be so funny together and get along, and the key to her character was to write for her voice, as I know her in my everyday life. I like to imagine situations people would never be in and imagining how they would react to them. That’s more fun than asking someone to just come in and play a crazy character. That’s why I tend to not make foreign actors use American accents: because if they’re funny in their own language, I don’t want to risk that and have them second guessing their pronunciations. I want funny actors to be at their full powers. The exception to that is Rose Byrne, who loves to play an accent and becomes even funnier when she has an accent to play with. So that’s always fun. But she’s one of the only people I’d let do that.
TMS: We are constantly hearing about the financial risk of making a studio movie that stars a woman or women, and that the margin for error is so small. Have you reached the point where, if you want to make a comedy starring women, you can get it made without having to jump through a lot of hoops and talk about risks?
Feig: Oh yeah. I’ve gotten a nice free pass. I just made a $150 million dollar movie with Ghostbusters, starring four hilarious women, so that is kind of proof. I would say that since Bridesmaids, I’ve gotten the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted. Before Bridesmaids, I was constantly trying to get movies made with female leads, and it was just impossible. So thank God Bridesmaids worked, because it gave me that free pass. But the problem is, I got the free pass, but no one else got it. It only feels like now that the industry is truly waking up, and I mean, within the past 6 months, with all these great actresses becoming activists, it seems to really be happening, and I’m so happy about that. It’s what we’ve been trying to do for years. But, there’s still tons of resistance. You can just look at my Twitter account every day.
— Paul Feig (@paulfeig) July 10, 2015
TMS: Are you surprised by that kind of anger on the internet from people who don’t want to see women given opportunities. At least with Spy, the movie was out so people could judge the physical product, but with Ghostbusters, they were so angry over casting and the simple idea of having women starring in the film?
Feig: I didn’t expect that level of vitriol at all. When I put out the first tweet, I never could have expected it. What happens is, the first wave of comments are so positive, and then later in the day or the next day, you start reading horrible stuff, and then some people respond and say, “Hey, just because I don’t want it to be rebooted, doesn’t make me a misogynist.” And I’m like, “Of course not. If you don’t want the movie to be rebooted, you probably wouldn’t want anyone to touch the material.” But a lot of the stuff that came out was so misogynistic. One of the most disparaging terms used a lot was when they started calling it “Girlbusters.” And I just thought, “Really guys?”
TMS: I was so shocked that even some professional industry writers made comments that struck me as misogynistic and talked about how they won’t be able to relate to the characters anymore if they were played by women, and I thought, “I loved Ghostbusters as a kid, but I don’t think I identified with Annie Potts or Sigourney Weaver’s characters. I connected to Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.” So if a little girl can connect to a male character, why can’t guys connect to female characters?
Feig: Exactly. It’s not like you were going “I don’t understand what these guys are talking about.” It was kind of amazing, and my answer to that is, I would like everyone to be able to relate to all the characters. We’re editing it now, and the ladies are so unbelievably good, and the chemistry they have is great, but if guys watch it and still can’t relate to the women, my answer to that is, “Women are half the audience.” So what is wrong with them having something they can relate to? They get dragged along to all your shoot-em-up movies and sit there having to find something to invest in. Guess what fellas, this is your chance to find something to like in a movie that might be pleasing the woman in your life.
But the problem with this, and the Internet in general, is people hear something and assume they know exactly what it is and what it will be, and they all react to what they assume it will be. It happened with my first movie, when I got into this conference call argument about music, and it was an hour long conversation about what the composer’s music should sound like, and an hour in, I said, “We’re talking about music that we haven’t heard a note of yet. How can we talk about music before we hear it?” And that is what this has felt like. I just want to say, “Gang, let this happen, and if you don’t like it, then we’ll have something to talk about. I’ll feel bad if you don’t like it, but at least then you’re rejecting something tangible.” So many people assume we took the original script and just changed the names to women, and that’s not true at all. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Katie Dippold and I worked really hard on the script to find a story we’re really happy with, and this whole thing can just wear you down after a year.
TMS: How did you get to know Katie?
Feig: Katie is fantastic. It feels like the heavens opened up one day and dropped her into my life. After Bridesmaids and the Bridget Jones thing, I was like, “I don’t know what to do next.” I felt out to sea a little bit, and I like to play with genres and was thinking of making some kind of cop movie, but had no concrete ideas. And then suddenly on my kitchen counter was this script called “The Untitled Female Buddy Cop Comedy” by Katie Dippold, and I was just like, “Hope it’s good.”
I didn’t recognize her name, but I’d met her when I directed the first episodes of the second season of Parks and Recreation. And I remember meeting her in the writers room and saying hello to her. But I didn’t have any interactions with her then. And I got on a plane and read the script, and was just doubled over with laughter. So the minute I got to New York, I called to say, “I want to make this and I want to meet Katie.” And we met at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and we just hit it off. The funny thing about her is, she’s so low key. All my favorite comedy writers, you would never think of as comedy writers, because they’re very reserved. She’s very serious, but says such funny things. Her comedy sneaks up on you. But I’m a writer, so I don’t like when writers are thrown off sets, but at the same time, you have to be a certain type of writer who won’t be like “don’t change that line!”
But coming from television, she’s used to the drill. She knows you get to the set and rewrite constantly, so you can’t be precious with your work. And so I said, I’d like to have you on set every day to write jokes. And she was invaluable and she was so much fun to have around. And she’s become my trusted person. She read Spy and gave her thoughts on that and wrote some stuff on it. And then when Ghostbusters came up, when Sony asked me to consider doing it, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do a sequel, especially to something 25 years old.”
But when I thought about rebooting it with the funny women I know, and called my producing partner Jessie Henderson about it on the way to Comic-Con. I said, “Let’s see if we can get Katie to work on it.” And she was like, “Katie will be at Comic-con too, go have lunch with her.: So I pitched her the idea that day, and she and I share a love for scary-funny. She wrote the sequel to The Heat as a parody of Silence of the Lambs, which is so funny, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day, because I don’t think I can get Sandra Bullock to do it. But it had that creepy quality to it too, so that’s why I knew she’d be perfect person to write Ghostbusters.
TMS: Besides there simply being a lot of funny women who should have the opportunity to be in movies, do you think there is something about your sensibilities as a writer and director that works best with female protagonists?
Feig: I think so. I seem to have a very feminine take on the world. It is just who I am. I get sent scripts all the time, and when it’s a typical male character who has things together but is faced with a problem, I zone out. I just get completely uninterested. I’ve realized after years of watching movies, I’ve tired of the problems of men. I’m tired of seeing it portrayed. Plenty of people do these movies, so it isn’t as if the world will fall apart without me doing them too. But personally, I don’t want to spend more than a year on something about some guy who can’t get his life together.
Movies about “a top lawyer who can’t find the right woman” make me go, who gives a shit? And over time, I’ve read scripts that I kind of like about a man, but my first question is usually, “Can I turn him into a woman?” Because then I’ll know how to do it. I know, Twitter likes to accuse me of having an agenda or being SJW (a social justice warrior), but this is just how I personally see the world. I’m interested in the problems of women. One theme I always have in my movies is the subject of female friendships, because those are more interesting relationships than even romantic relationships. There is something about female friendships I’ve noticed, watching my wife struggle with it over the years. When that friendship is strong, it’s really strong, but when it’s not, it will just fall apart. And I find that really interesting, and I think I relate to it more.
TMS: One thing that caught my eye with Spy, and the other films you’ve directed, is the sense that there is almost a throwback to the screwball women of the past, from the ’30s and ’40s. Are you a fan of those types of films?
Feig: Oh yeah, that is the definition of “what movies used to be.” Movies weren’t just the problems of men, with a woman who is either in the way or the prize. Women like Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn or Judy Holliday and Irene Dunne. All those hilarious, strong, interesting female characters. And that just happens to also be the glory days of comedy, because those movies are still so funny today. Look at a movie like His Girl Friday, and Rosalind Russell is so cool and together, and everyone seemed equal in that movie. I don’t know if it was because they were coming out of the war effort and Great Depression, but there wasn’t this sense that the girl is in the way or they aren’t as cool as the boys.
TMS: And those movies made male-female relationships look like they could be really fun and dynamic. Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy are women men and women wanted to be friends with those women.
Feig: They were what women are really like. I’ve spent my life surrounded by women. I grew up an only child, but grew up with a family next door of eight kids. Six of them were girls, and those were my pals. So I didn’t have that thing that I think a lot of guys fall into, where women are just the people who get in their way or ruin their good time. Because that’s the problem: most guys who see women that way have a little boy’s take on women, which starts with mom. Mom won’t let you always go out with your friends and makes you get dressed and clean your room. And then they get a girlfriend and get married, and maybe she doesn’t like your friends or want you going out all the time, and women become punitive things to men, because they don’t have real friendships.
But I should say, I always bristle at the term “strong female roles for women” because I really just want to write good female roles, and that means they aren’t always perfect. They can do the right or wrong thing, and they can be weak. A strong female role just sounds so boring and one-dimensional. I have more fun with a weak character who finds their strength, or someone who lost their confidence and finds it again. Audiences just have to relate to the character, and most of us can relate to people that have lost their confidence, because we’ve all been through that. So I just always think, why is this still an issue? Why are we still talking about? I just hope Hollywood is truly course correcting and this isn’t just some fad.
TMS: And then there is the concern that if one female-driven movie doesn’t succeed, it could be used to justify not making them. Which is so weird, because it isn’t like Spy beating Entourage opening weekend led to the cancelation of a lot of guy movies.
Feig: Right. Making Bridesmaids was a nightmare for that reason, because we got it made because of Judd Apatow, but while we were making it, I was hearing stories from female writer friends who told me they were going out to pitch female-driven comedies, and being told by executives, “We have to wait to see how Bridesmaids does,” and I’m just thinking, “Wait, if this movie isn’t great, that means women aren’t going to get their movies made?” No pressure, right? It just seemed like insanity to do things that way. And now that more are being made, I do think to myself, “I hope they’re all good,” but it’s so silly to even have to worry about it. Had The Hangover bombed, no one would have said, “Guess we can’t make movies about guys.” It’s crazy that we’re still having these types of conversations in 2015 in the good old US of A.
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