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Raised in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan, writer/director/author Paul Feig channeled his awkward adolescent experiences into the NBC show Freaks And Geeks, which aired just 12 episodes in 1999-2000 before being cancelled. The show has since become a cult favorite, and launched the careers of many prominent Hollywood stars, including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Busy Philipps, Linda Cardellini, and Martin Starr. It also started his partnership with Judd Apatow, who has become arguably the most powerful producer of comedies in Hollywood. After Freaks And Geeks got pulled, Feig’s career took a surprising turn when he made his directorial debut with 2003’s I Am David, an independent drama about a 12-year-old who escapes from a Communist concentration camp in 1952. He returned to comedy for his second feature, the kid-friendly 2006 film Unaccompanied Minors, and has directed frequently on television, including many episodes of The Office and Nurse Jackie, and such acclaimed shows as Mad Men, 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Weeds, and Bored To Death. He’s also released two painfully funny memoirs: 2002’s Kick Me: Adventures In Adolescence and 2005’s Superstud: Or How I Became A 24-Year-Old Virgin.
Feig has teamed up again with Apatow for Bridesmaids, a raunchy femme-driven ensemble comedy that’s designed as a vehicle for Kristen Wiig, its co-writer and star. Wiig plays Annie, a single woman from Milwaukee who’s trying to get overcome a number of personal and professional setbacks. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) asks her to be the Maid Of Honor at her wedding, Annie has trouble making the arrangements, mainly due to competition from Lillian’s new friend Helen (Rose Byrne), a wealthy control freak who constantly tries to undermine her. They’re joined by an assorted cast of wacky bridesmaids, including Melissa McCarthy in a breakout performance as a Zach Galifianakis-in-The Hangover type, as well as The Office’s Ellie Kemper and Reno 911!’s Wendi McLendon-Covey. Feig recently spoke to The A.V. Club about strong women, the wisdom of test audiences, and Freaks And Geeks.
The A.V. Club: How did Bridesmaids come to you, and what did you feel you could bring to it?
Paul Feig: It was actually something that Judd talked to me about four years ago, right after Knocked Up. He had Kristen [Wiig] and Annie [Mumolo] write this, and they asked me to come to a table read to consider possibly directing. He had in mind a couple of other directors, too. So we watched it and gave it a lot of great notes and stuff, and then it just never happened. Like a lot of projects in Hollywood, it sort of went away. But I always stayed interested in it, because I really like writing for and doing things about strong female characters. On Freaks And Geeks, my favorite character—and the one I liked to write the most—was always Lindsay. She was the only character that was really invented out of whole cloth. All the other characters were based on people I knew growing up. But I always liked her character, and came up with it because I was an only child and always wished I had an older sister. I grew up around a lot of girls, and most of my friends when I was growing up were women.
I always feel that women get short shrift in movies and TV and all that. And we know so many funny women, and I’m also such a big fan of Kristen’s, who is one of the funniest women on the planet, and so Bridesmaids always stuck with me. Then at the beginning of last year, it popped up again out of nowhere. I had just finished up a bunch of jobs, I was co-executive producing and directing Nurse Jackie and in the middle of directing this Internet campaign for Macy’s. And I just got a call saying it was alive again and Judd wanted to talk to me. I got on the phone with him and the next thing I knew the job was mine and we were getting ready to do it. It was great having someone like Judd to be able to protect you and guide it along. He had the power to let us cast whoever we want and not be dependent upon having to get big movie stars and all that. It was really the difference between us being able to launch really funny women who people may or may not be familiar with, so it was exciting.
AVC: You say it was a short period of time between when this project suddenly became alive again and when you had to start shooting. How did you occupy that time?
PF: We had to adjust to Kristen’s schedule, because the film had to be made when she was off for the summer from Saturday Night Live. So it’s always great when you have a hard date that you have to start at. So we started up in February and began to shoot in June and all that prep time was really filled with just fine-tuning the script, casting it, and then once we had the cast, to really bring them into the writing process by doing a lot of rehearsals and improvs off of written scenes, and getting their input. Kristin and Annie wrote very specific characters for the script, and people like Wendi McLendon-Covey they had actually written the part for, but then other characters were up for grabs. But then, for example, when we cast Melissa McCarthy, she came in with a version of the character that wasn’t really on the page. It was written as this nervous weirdo who’s kind of tagging along and wanting to be best friends with Annie. Then Melissa came in and laid down this powerful character who’s at first sort of ambiguous in her sexuality until you realize she’s kind of man-hungry and a force of nature. So then it was like, okay, we had to adapt everything to all these new women. And the process of that just made it more honest because we were really following their lead. It wasn’t a couple of guys telling women how to act and what’s funny; it was the other way around. We just made sure we were getting the story right and making the story as strong as it could be, and coming up with enough set pieces and themes that could make it both commercial and really funny. We’ve been getting really great response from men and women, but especially from women. Neither Judd nor I feel like we can say to women, “No, it’s this!” We can guide the story along and make sure the emotion all works and tracks and everything, but we really wanted their voices and their input, and they gave it to us quite well.
AVC: Related to the Melissa McCarthy casting, what is involved in getting all these pieces of an ensemble like this to work? Is it simply good casting, or are there other methods to have them cohere as a full group?
PF: It has to be a good script at the end of the day. It has to be a really strong story that has a good emotional core. A lot of comedies fall apart because they just go from joke to joke, and the characters are all sort of being crazy off on their own. We do a lot of improv, but it’s not the kind of thing where we’re saying, “We don’t know what the scene’s about. Let’s just kind of have fun.” That doesn’t serve anything. Then you get a movie that sort of has a bunch of funny scenes that don’t really coalesce in one actual story. Kristen and Annie gave us a script that had a really strong story in it, that assured that everything was moving in the same direction. And on top of that, the great thing about working with really good comedy people—and especially people who come from improv—is there’s not an ethos of, “I’m on my own. I want to get all the laughs. I don’t want the other person to get laughs,” because they’re all depending on each other. Every one of the women in the movie comes from the improv tradition. I don’t know how much Rose [Byrne] has trained in improv, but she’s like a master improviser. And she’s just such a good actress. Good actors and actresses know that you’re so dependent on the other person for listening and going back and forth.
The other thing was that by having Maya [Rudolph] play Kristen’s best friend in the movie, that allowed us to have a shorthand with the audience, and not have to have the first scene be, like, “Oh I’ve known you for 20 years since high school,” and all this clunky exposition. That first scene at the diner [with Rudolph and Wiig] I probably shot four or five hours of just all improv with them just talking about everything. Their natural relationship comes across so breezily that it just really pops on the screen. What happens is that you just invest in that friendship immediately because it feels authentic. And women seem to love it because they’re really talking like women. I’d go, “Okay, talk about sex right now,” and we got to throw in some joke and ideas, but they would take it and make it very real, and it feels like the way women talk when guys aren’t around.
AVC: Where can things go wrong with improv?
PF: I think things go wrong when there’s not a very specific plan and specific emotional roadmap. You need to know what a scene needs to get across, and what story point that needs to be advanced, whether it’s discovering someone for the first time or whether it’s seeing a relationship get strained. What I do as a director is really create a safe environment that everyone can feel very comfortable in and experiment within so that they don’t hold back anything. You never ever want someone to go, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that.” There isn’t anything you shouldn’t try. If it’s terrible, who cares? I would never say something was terrible, because, first of all, it wasn’t. But even if sometimes you get off on a tangent you know you can’t use, you just steer it gently back and go, “Okay that’s cool, let’s try this now.” It allows everyone to be at their best. And whenever possible, cross-shoot things, have both sides of the conversation on camera at once. I always feel in improv that nothing is ever as good once it’s repeated. When we were doing all the rehearsals and improv sessions and getting the script fine-tuned, the actors would come up with hilarious lines, and we would always transcribe the lines and have them in the script for the next rehearsal. Generally it was fine, but even though the line would be really funny the next time, it was never quite as funny as the first time it came out.
AVC: Between Freaks And Geeks and your memoirs, you reveal a lot about who you are, but you also have that ability to stand back and serve the material when necessary. Where do you see yourself in this film? Do you have a personal connection to it?
PF: Very much so. We all did a lot of writing on it, though it all went through Kristen and Annie’s typewriters and computers eventually. But I felt a very strong connection because everything I do is about people trying to figure out their place in the world, and if they’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Or are they the weirdo or are they not the weirdo, or is the world around them weird. This was why I think I related to the script so much when I read the first draft of it. It’s just a woman struggling to figure her life out. And the fact that she was successful at one time and then had a fall from grace, and has just found herself in a bad period… I really relate to those kind of stories. Anything about an outsider, that’s all I like to write about, whether they’re a super nerd or just a woman who’s in her thirties just trying to figure out what she’s doing and how to get her life back on track. It feels very personal to me, and I was also just really invested in wanting to make a really good woman’s movie. I felt the pressure of that too, because it’s not often that a studio will allow a movie that’s all driven by women to be made, and so I felt the pressure of, “If I screw this up, it’s going to fuck things up for women.” [Laughs.] And then just selfishly I want to keep making movies like this with strong female characters that aren’t just in service to the men in the movie. So all that combined to make me feel very invested in it.
AVC: One of the knocks on Judd Apatow since he’s become a force in screen comedy has to do with his treatment of women or the non-presence of women in the films he directs and produces. Bridesmaids strikes me as partly intended as a corrective to that.
PF: I know he gets that criticism leveled against him. And I don’t think it’s quite fair because those movies were about guys. He’s great with both characters, both female and male, it just depends what the story is, but I also feel one of my strong suits is writing for women and knowing about women just because that’s my history. So I can get through the part of me that felt like, “Oh good, I can help him dispel that rumor about his work by getting to be a part of this.” I can’t say, honestly, if that’s one of the things that drove him to want to make this. He’s just a superfan; anybody he thinks is really funny he wants to make a movie with. And we were both fans of Kristen. I cast Kristen in her very first movie, it was this thing I did called Unaccompanied Minors, and she was in it for about three frames, but I was always such a big fan of hers. So there was definitely a feeling like we could accomplish a lot of things with this movie, both in helping rehabilitate this unfair criticism of him and also making women more empowered in the movies. And I feel like I’ve wanted to see a movie like this because there are so many women I think are funny. I’ve always wished that Kristen would have a showcase to do everything that I think is funny about her and everything I think is a great actress about her. So it was fun to be able to guide this into a showcase for her and not just something where she is kind of in the middle of a bunch of funny women, reacting and not getting to be funny, which is a danger for this kind of thing, too, because you always think the lead has to anchor it, but it was fun for us to come up with the airplane sequence where she could get drunk and really show off. [Laughs.] And the bridal shop scene where she’s trying to pretend that nothing went wrong when everything went wrong.
AVC: When you think of Kristen Wiig, you think of her as a sketch comedian or a supporting player in a much larger comedic ensemble. But there’s a huge difference between that and being a lead actress that has to carry the film and has to be this character that you believe in as a human being. Did that take some doing on her part to get out of that one mode and shift into this mode?
PF: No. Honestly, she’s such a good actress and her instinct was to write this and make it very grounded, almost to let everyone else around her be funny and for her to be an anchor. Her natural instinct is to be very a grounded, real actor. I don’t think she looks at sketch comedy the same as she looks at something like this, which is an actual story. She’s really great at separating it. It’s funny, the whole time I was doing this movie and directing it and post, everyone’s like, “Oh, what are you working on now?” And I’m like, “Oh, I’m making a movie, it stars Kristen Wiig,” And I always see their eyes, like, “Oh, okay,” like it was gonna be the “Target Lady” movie or something like that. What’s so great is now that we’re doing these advance screenings, people are just so blown away by her performance. And I had no doubt that she could do it, because I just know that’s who she is. But it’s really exciting to get people to see that she has this other level.
AVC: Are you a believer in test screenings? With a movie like this, do you trust your instincts about what’s funny or does it help to see how an audience responds?
PF: I’m the biggest proponent of test screenings now. There’s two ways to face test screenings. For dramas, I don’t know if I would rely on them as much, although I still think you need them, because you’re making a movie for an audience at the end of the day. But with comedy… look, Judd and I are pretty good at comedy. We’ve been doing it for a while, but I wouldn’t and he wouldn’t deign to say that we can tell you at all what’s guaranteed to get a laugh. Anybody who tells you they know exactly what’s funny and they can guarantee will get a laugh out of an audience is full of shit. I can point to a million examples. You could go through a script or anything I ever worked on, where you go, “This is hilarious,” and you put it in front of people and you get nothing. And then the other side of it, is something you’re like, “I think this is really stupid,” and it gets a giant laugh. So the problem is when you’re the director and you’re editing the film and you get your ten weeks from the DGA, which is great to put it together, but you become so invested in every cut you’ve made because you’re agonizing over everything that by the time that that 10 weeks is up, you’re so in love with every cut that you really can’t see the forest for the trees. So you just start protecting what you have and going, “It’s perfect. Get away. Don’t touch it!” So the minute there’s a test screening, you’re like, “Oh shit, what do these people know? They don’t know.” But with comedy, all people know is if it makes them laugh. So it’s a much better method to say, “Look, let’s just go in, let’s edit for three weeks.” What it allows you to do then, after that three or four weeks, you just throw it up in front of an audience and you’re not precious about anything. You’re not like, [Adopting a bumbling, wimpy voice] “Oh no, that cut. I love that one thing.”
And then Judd’s got this system where they always record the laughs, then you put ’em in the Avid. And so when you’re going through, you can literally go, “Does this work?” And you cue it up, hear the audience, and go, “Okay, they laughed.” At least it’s good empirical data and evidence. A lot of people balk and say, “You don’t know if it’s a shitty audience or not.” And I go, “Okay, well, we’ll do a bunch.” And then it’s also fun to even try to top stuff. Even stuff that’s working really well, you go, “Okay, we have a different version of that joke or different scene here. Let’s just plug it in for the next screening and see if it does better.” And Judd actually has this whole thing they do with side-by-side screenings at two theaters right next door to each other and do a “P” version, which is a polished version, which is the one we think is close to what we want to have be our final cut. And then another one called the “E” version, the extended version, which is the dumping ground for everything we think might work, or we wanted to try, or we’re just curious if it’s gonna work. And out of all of those screenings, you’ll always get about five or 10 new things that you didn’t think were ever gonna work that go through the roof and you plug ’em into the polished one. It’s all fairly scientific, but I think if you’re doing a little personal comedy, then you probably don’t need to do it like this. But even then it’s a good thing to get the feedback of the audience in your process. But if you’re trying to do a big studio comedy that you want both work the most to tear down the house, this is really the way to go.
Because Bill Kerr, our editor, is always saying, “You don’t want to see if something works at the première.” And that happens a lot when you’re too precious about it. Our goal was, once we hit the première, there’s nothing that hasn’t been tested that we don’t know works. We’ll always keep in a couple of jokes, just for ourselves. Then you go, “Okay, if it doesn’t work, whatever. This is kinda for us.” But none of us are brave enough to wait that long to see if it works because you want to have something that you know is clicking with an audience. A lot of filmmakers will hate hearing that. To them, that feels very hacky, But the audience are the ones that are going to come and pay the money and they’re the ones who are going tell their friends if it’s good or not. I didn’t get in the business, and Judd didn’t get in the business, to make stuff that nobody sees. I’ve made a career making stuff that nobody sees, so anything that I can do to help make something that people are going to enjoy and want to see over and over again, then I’m there.
AVC: On television, you’ve directed a lot of major episodes, including some pivotal episodes of The Office like “Niagara” and “Goodbye, Michael,” which will have aired by the time this interview runs. Is there a reason why you’re entrusted with these episodes?
PF: It’s very flattering. They tend to call me for those. I really get along great with the cast and get along great with the writers. There’s a trust level that we all have. And also, I think I’m pretty good with adding things to the production, just coming up with lines, and coming up with different directions they can go within a scene. Greg Daniels is just very respectful if I have any ideas for the script or something we need. He’ll listen to me. He’s great. He’s a lot like Judd. He and Judd are two people I admire the most in the business because they’re the most open to input from other people. Nobody gets ahead by creating in a vacuum. If you have a real personal vision you’re trying to protect, then that’s fine. But there’s no harm in getting other people’s opinions on stuff, even if you don’t listen to it.
That’s how Greg Daniels runs The Office. He really empowers everybody around him to challenge everything. It’s great because then it allows you to get rid of things that may hang up certain people in the audience or a portion of the audience. Because when you’re in the process, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. You get so into the minutiae of building a house of cards. When I was starting in the business that was always my big thing. Scripts are a house of cards and you can’t just reach in the middle and pull out the middle card because the house of cards will fall down. But at a certain point you almost have to allow that house of cards to get knocked down a few times because you need to make it sturdier. How many times do you hear, “No, that doesn’t make sense,” or “Why would this happen?” or “There’s a plot hole,” or “That wouldn’t happen.” That was a mistake. That’s a house of cards that got built poorly. You shouldn’t have those moments, because the moment you’re knocked out of the story, then you’re dead. And all you can go is moment to moment, or special effect to special effect or joke to joke. And that’s just gonna wear people out.
If you’re not connected emotionally to a story, then you’re dead. You’re really just opening the door for people to lose interest and their minds to wander, for them to start picking it apart. That’s what people will do, people will naturally tear stuff apart because they’re trapped with it, they paid money for it. And they came into it wanting to love it. So all you can really do is piss off the audience. Unless you do things right. [Laughs.]
Our editor is full of quotes. Bill Kerr. He has his whole theory called “the angry villagers.” Which is basically if the movie starts out and the jokes aren’t funny or they aren’t laughing, they become angry villagers and they want to burn the whole town down. And we’re always like, “Okay this is an ‘angry villagers’ moment” where, like, two jokes in a row didn’t work and now people are going to start losing trust in us. Because that’s all you have at the end of the day as a filmmaker, is the trust of your audience. You think the same way when you go see a drama or a horror movie or something and the director is just letting stuff like jump out at you and scare the shit out of you in like, a cheap way, then you’re like, “Okay, I don’t trust this director anymore, so I don’t trust this movie because it’s just going do easy shit to make me jump.” Then you almost don’t want to deal with it anymore if that’s not the experience you went for, but there’s a way to scare people, truly, or just be the little kid who hides in the laundry and scares the shit out of mom. And that’s a cheap way to do it.
AVC: Do you ever see yourself returning to television as a creator and showrunner? Obviously, you’re very busy shooting a lot of different television and have been heavily involved in The Office and Nurse Jackie, but what about something more substantial than that or a bigger commitment than that?
PF: Yeah, that’s definitely something I want to do again. I went through a really weird period after Freaks And Geeks. Everybody wanted me to do stuff for them. “We want that Freaks And Geeks feel. We want your voice.” And then you develop something and it’s like, “Oh, no, we don’t want that, really.” I went through a number of years of failed development that I found quite demoralizing, so I stepped away. But what’s happened now is TV has gotten so much better because of all the good stuff coming out on basic cable and all of the HBOs and the Showtimes, and now all the networks are more open to stuff. It’s a much better time now. I’m just waiting for that idea that just drives me so completely the way that Freaks And Geeks did. I really put my heart and soul into everything and I don’t want a project that doesn’t feel real to me or I don’t get invested in. In order to drive a show for eight or 10 years or whatever the target for doing a show is, it really has to be a part of you. Because then I can come up with stories for seasons and seasons on end. I wish I had the ability to just like the idea and get people in and drive it that way through their enthusiasm. For me, it has to be a little more of a personal thing, even if it’s not a completely personal story.
AVC: Freaks And Geeks has certainly stuck around longer than most successes.
PF: I don’t always use the phrase “cult hit,” but I’ll use it because I think that’s sort of what we are considered. It’s really cool, but it’s one of those things where, like, if you’re in the middle of World War II, you just wouldn’t know if it would ever end or if you’ll get killed at the end of it. So it’s terrifying and really hard, but then, looking back at it, it’s like, “Oh that was great! We won!” That’s kind of what having a cult thing is. You’re just going like, “Oh my God, this is a failure. It just didn’t do well. It didn’t make money. It lost people money. Nobody watched it.” So when it slowly starts getting people back here, it’s really cool. All you can personally do is see it as a bit of a failure, even though you’re happy with the product. Because we’re in the business. It’s not like making an independent film. You know, this is a business of dollars and cents and they’re giving you millions of dollars to do stuff. You feel like, “Fuck. I wasted your money.” But that’s what’s so fantastic about DVDs and just the extra life that TV has it did not have ten years ago.
The British model, which I’ve always thought was great, is that you do a TV show and then they sell it. Then you can buy it at the video stores forever, so it never went away. But American TV used to be if you had a show and it got cancelled, then it never existed. It was just this thing you heard about and you couldn’t see it again. There is something so great about shows getting released and people getting to watch them over and over again. It definitely takes the sting out of it. But that wasn’t there for us when Freaks got cancelled, so for years I’d get, “Hey, how are ya? I heard that show was good. I never saw it.” [Laughs.] It’s enough that you’re well thought-of and well spoken-of, but it’s really depressing going, “Oh God, nobody’s gonna see it.” So I’ve definitely been able to be a lot more Zen since it’s gotten a more life now. It’s really heartening to see something you do keep getting people drawn to it and discovering it. It’s a real thrill. That’s the whole reason we get into the business, because we want to do stuff and we want people to see it.