Paul Feig, the director of movies such as Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, talks to DQ about life behind the camera, why history is the best critic and his efforts to back new voices for the screen.
As a writer, director, producer and actor across television and film, Paul Feig (pictured above) is better placed than most to judge the current blurring of the lines between the two mediums.
“We’re in a really interesting place right now, in a good way,” he tells DQ during a break from post-production on his upcoming holiday-themed feature Last Christmas. “TV’s in a great place, better than it’s been in a long time. Movies are playing catch-up a little bit sometimes but there’s still a lot of great movies.
“For me it’s just trying to figure out what is new for an audience, what’s going to surprise an audience, what will they be excited to see, what are they tired of, what don’t they want to see – it’s a never-ending question. It will never be answered by anybody that accurately. If it were, every movie that came out would be a giant hit.”
Feig jokes that he’s old enough to remember when Star Wars was an original movie, and says that despite the crowd of superheroes dominating the box office, he is always looking for the next big thing that doesn’t come from existing IP or a known franchise. “That’s what I get most excited about and I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out. What are the new ideas?”
Feig is speaking to DQ ahead of his appearance at the 2019 Banff World Media Festival in Canada, where he will give a Summit Series Keynote and be presented with the event’s Award of Excellence.
It’s that attitude to original material that has served Feig well across his career, which has seen him work on major movie titles including Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy plus TV hits such as Freaks & Geeks, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men, 30 Rock, the US version of The Office and Weeds.
Among his recent major directorial projects is 2016’s female-fronted reboot of classic 1980s blockbuster Ghostbusters – and taking a fresh approach to the existing and much-loved property certainly represented a bold move for the filmmaker.
Feig says the offer to reboot Ghostbusters excited him because he thought it would be fun to put a new spin on it for today’s generation, more than 30 years after Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd first battled the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in New York City.
In the run-up to its release, the new film was dogged by criticism, largely relating to either its departure from and lack of relationship to the existing films or its women-led cast, leading the trailer to become the “most disliked film trailer” on YouTube.
But despite the controversy, Feig says: “I’m very proud of it. It didn’t do what we hoped it would do [at the box office] but I’m very proud of it. It keeps finding a fanbase – it’s a pretty rabid fanbase. That’s the great thing about what we do; it exists for ever. I did a bunch of movies and when they first came out, they weren’t well reviewed or well thought of and didn’t do that well, but suddenly they’ve taken on a life of their own because they eventually just get judged on their own merits. That’s why I’m always drawn to ‘recorded’ media because it just exists. You get it right once, hopefully, and there it is for people to consume.
“I am annoyed [Ghostbusters] became such a lightning rod [for criticism] but I had a ton of fun making it. That’s all that matters to me. I still like it. I don’t turn it on and go, ‘Oh, this thing.’ I run across it on TV or sometimes on a plane and watch a scene. It’s one of my babies as much as one of my other movies.”
Feig might hope history will be kinder to Ghostbusters in much the same way it has been to his early television series Freaks & Geeks, which he created, wrote and directed for US network NBC in 1999. Though 18 episodes were produced in its first season, the series was abruptly cancelled after only 12 had been shown, drawing fewer than seven million viewers.
Twenty years on, however, the story of two siblings navigating high school is regularly cited as one of the best series ever made, making it into Time magazine’s 100 Greatest Shows of All Time. It also launched the careers of actors such as Linda Cardellini (ER), James Franco (127 Hours), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother).
“You do something, you make it the best you can and the one thing you can’t control is the culture around you at that moment; you can’t control what the audience is consuming,” Feig explains. “Freaks & Geeks came out at a time when the viewing public mainly were really into watching gameshows and really into Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and all that. So I can’t control that. I don’t make gameshows, so all I can do is make the best show I can.”
He puts a lot of the Freaks & Geeks’ success down to the decision to release the show and its soundtrack on DVD and CD. “Because of that, it’s found a whole life of its own – between that and starting to show up on various second-run networks. It’s a testament to making it and getting it right. Eventually, it will either find an audience or it won’t. If time rejects it, that’s a fairer assessment of what you did then, as opposed to what the critics, audience and competition you were surrounded by dictate at that moment. If something is right and enough people think it’s good, it keeps going, and that’s good.”
For a time, Freaks & Geeks was available in the US and UK, among other territories, on Netflix, which is also home to one of Feig’s most recent projects. He is an executive producer on the streamer’s original film Someone Great, written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, in which Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez plays a music journalist who sets off for one last adventure with her friends following a break-up.
Though he says his main focus for his movies is the cinema – “I love the theatrical experience and it’s exciting to have a movie in the cinema and that will always be what I’m shooting for” – Feig says he is excited about the number of opportunities to find an outlet for all levels of projects these days, whatever the budget and regardless of who is behind the camera.
“When we look at Someone Great, here’s a small script that was great with a first-time director who most studios would not take a chance on,” he says. “We went to Netflix and they took the chance, they saw the potential. That’s where having Netflix is great. They’re bringing back the romantic comedy, whereas a lot of theatrical studios have stepped away from it, while ensuring anything that needs to be made gets made while opening up opportunities for new filmmakers. That’s all that really matters.
“[If a movie can’t get made] because it’s too small or the person who wants to make it doesn’t have the reputation for the studio to take a chance on them, that’s bad. The only things that shouldn’t get made are things that aren’t good enough to get made.”
But whether he’s behind the camera, in the writing room or a producer, either in television or film, Feig says his approach to picking up new projects is always the same. He asks himself a simple question: does anybody want to see this?
“When you’re looking at different projects, whether it’s something I’m going to write or it’s a script that’s brought to me, the first thing is, is it any good? And if it’s great, is this something people will want to see or is it something we can motivate them to see?”
That’s the difference between making a movie for Netflix or the cinema, he notes. Filmmakers have to draw people out of their home to see a film on the big screen, while viewers only have to turn on their television or mobile device to see what’s streaming. “That’s why picking projects is just the hardest thing in the world, and then making sure the script is great is the big thing. Beyond that, it becomes all production and casting. But it’s always about the story. If the script’s not good, all the other stuff is window dressing.”
When it comes to TV, directors such as Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) have been at the forefront of the role’s evolution, helming every episode of a serialised drama. But Feig believes that, beyond series that are often described as eight or 10-hour movies, the small screen is still a world of multiple directors.
“You just have to do it that way,” he argues. “One of the greatest moments of my career was when I did the second season of Nurse Jackie. For whatever reason, I ended up doing like eight out of 12 episodes. TV’s not supposed to do that. You don’t have time to prep. So that’s why you do it with multiple directors.”
Even so, television “is the greatest school a director can go to,” he continues. “To anybody who’s starting directing, or even a working director, do some TV, because you can experiment with different genres. That’s why, now I’m a movie director, I’m so addicted to trying different genres every time I do a movie – because I really had fun as a TV director challenging myself that way.”
Despite his multitude of roles on any given film or series, Feig says he still considers himself a director first, though he adds that whatever his title, he uses every skill he has learned along the way. Producing, he remarks, is all about finding the right people and letting them “do their thing,” with support from him, his producing partner Jessie Henderson and Dan Magnante, VP of Feig’s production company Feigco Entertainment.
It’s through Feigco and fledgling digital company Powderkeg that Feig is now using his profile to champion new voices, particularly those of female, LGBTQ and diverse filmmakers, offering support to those who have a hard time getting their stories told. He is also an ambassador for ReFrame, which promotes inclusion in Hollywood, and supports the 4% Challenge to increase the number of women directing studio movies. The initiative takes its name from the fact that just 4% of the 1,200 top-earning films released between 2007-2018 were directed by women.
“They need to be supported by those of us in the industry who have worked hard enough and been lucky enough to be able to get things made,” Feig says. “I just don’t think you can just tent yourself in. I get excited every time I see something from a new voice or from a person or group that doesn’t necessarily get to tell their stories all the time. I’ve found it so invigorating. I’m tired of my own voice in movies; I love doing it, but that’s why I’ve been doing other people’s scripts [Last Christmas comes from writers Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson while Jessica Sharzer penned 2018’s A Simple Favor].
“And then, through our company, we can empower all these other writers and directors and people to do their thing.”
Feig’s latest projects include re-teaming with A Simple Favor star Anna Kendrick for WarnerMedia anthology series Love Life and musical drama Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which NBC has recently picked up to series. But he says he is particularly proud of Powderkeg six-part webseries East of La Brea, which tells the stories of two Muslim-American women living in LA.
“I want to be surprised by stuff. I want people to be able to tell their stories, because there’s such an audience out there for these stories that aren’t being told,” he adds. “East of La Brea is the type of story that need to be told, to help bring us all closer.”