If you’re a person with some level of interest in the world of screen comedy, chances are good you’ve been a Paul Feig fan for years without even knowing it. Until this month, Feig was probably best known for being the creator of the short-lived cult hit Freaks and Geeks (which starred some of today’s biggest stars, among them Jason Segel and James Franco, and which Feig co-ran with executive producer Judd Apatow). But he’s also written several books for adults and adolescents, directed memorable episodes of some of the best shows on TV (The Office‘s Olympics episode; Parks and Recreation‘s “Pawnee Zoo,” the first-season finale of Arrested Development, Mad Men‘s “Shoot,” and many, many more), and appeared onscreen in some unexpected places, including the TV version of Dirty Dancing and as Sabrina’s science teacher, Mr. Pool, on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
His latest project—and biggest to date—is the film comedy Bridesmaids, which in ten days of release has been championed by critics, feminists, and comedy purists, and which already almost doubled its $32-million budget. If Feig used to be screen comedy’s best-kept secret, Bridesmaids all but ensures he won’t be out of the spotlight for much longer. Somehow, he found time to stop by the Interview office last week to talk to us about his varied résumé, his own wedding, the collaborators who make what he does possible, his Tom Ford suit, and a whole lot more.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I was eight years old when the first season of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch aired.
PAUL FEIG: Oh, my God.
SYMONDS: And I remember that there was an episode where Sabrina put a spell on Mr. Pool so he could convert lead into gold—
FEIG: [laughs] Yes.
SYMONDS: I had that episode taped, and I rewound that scene over and over again, trying to get you out of the frame, so I could copy down what was written on the blackboard.
FEIG: [laughs] That’s hysterical.
SYMONDS: I took it to my dad and told him we were going to be rich, and that I had been working on this for a really long time, but in fact I had stolen it from you.
FEIG: Oh, my God. That is a fantastic story.
SYMONDS: So thank you for my family’s wealth, I guess. [laughs]
FEIG: Did it work?
SYMONDS: You know, I think the secret ingredient was arsenic or something, so that didn’t work out well.
FEIG: I remember, I was kind of trying to figure out what we should write up there. Whatever we put up is something—
SYMONDS: Yeah, something that wouldn’t have…
FEIG: Yeah. [laughs]
SYMONDS: Probably would have actually been pretty dangerous.
FEIG: If only, if only.
SYMONDS: So I checked Box Office Mojo last night and you were number one for Monday and Tuesday, and it looks like you’ve recouped your budget, so congratulations on all of those things.
FEIG: Thank you. I actually just got the report that we were number one again last night, too. Really, really exciting. It’s just a relief.
SYMONDS: Do you feel like you can exhale now and enjoy it?
FEIG: No, not yet. [laughs] I hate to be “dollars and cents,” but I’d like us to get to a certain level. I’d like to hit the hundred mark, just because that’s kind of where you get that validation—where people are like, “Wow, this really did its job.”
It’s become this thing, like if it performs, it’s going to prove something. It’s kind of silly that it’s become that, because, first off, there should be a million movies staring lots of women, so I don’t quite know why that didn’t happen. But then we really just set out to make a very funny comedy. I was definitely drawn to it by the fact that it was such a good movie for women, because I love working with actresses. I always have, I’ve kind of had my most fun and best luck working with female characters. I like writing them.
SYMONDS: You’ve worked with some really good ones.
FEIG: Yeah, I’ve been very lucky. So it all combined to be a project that was very important to me, and I’m such a big Kristen [Wiig] fan that I really wanted to see her do it. It would just be nice to have a movie that people didn’t think it was going to do that well, do really well, and hopefully help the cause of getting more funny women in the cinema, because there are so many funny women out there. We auditioned so many people, and there were just so many funny women we couldn’t fit into the movie who deserve their own films and deserve to be in other people’s films. So I just want to open up the world for them—and, selfishly, for myself, so that I can work with more of them.
SYMONDS: When you started production on this movie, did you have the sense that it would come to be this cause celebre among Internet feminists and other people interested in ladies in comedy—who haven’t even seen the movie yet, and were already championing it as this bellwether?
FEIG: It’s hard to say. I think it more dawned on us as we were starting to talk to people about it, when it was done, and getting ready for it to come out—when people would ask me, “What movie is it similar to?,” or “What came before that inspired you like this?,” and I was like, “Gosh, I can’t point to that many movies [like this].” I still think there’s some out there, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are, that starred this many women getting to be funny. Sex and the City, obviously, but I’m sort of hard-pressed.
So it slowly dawned on us that, “Wow this is actually…” It’s a weird feeling that something that seems so natural and not that absurd or different, is considered that. It’s almost like post-facto, you kind of go, “Oh, wow, I’m glad we did this.” It’s very bizarre.
SYMONDS: Were you happy to assume that pressure, or did you figure it was something overblown?
FEIG: It was a little nerve-wracking, because as it was dawning on us that something like this hadn’t been done for quite a long time, I felt the pressure of, like, “Oh, God, if I screw this up, then it’s going to fuck up things for all these other women out there.” That drove both Judd [Apatow] and I. Judd is driven just to make a great movie, as am I, but at the same time I was feeling the extra pressure of not wanting to screw up, and screw things up for all these female comedians and female actresses—all these people who I knew should be working. There was definitely a fear of that, but it just made me more open to letting them do their thing and we just gave them so much input—because neither Judd nor I would never pretend to know the inner workings of the other gender’s brain. I think I’m one of the most feminized guys in Hollywood [laughs], but at the same time I still don’t know. I’m a married man and all that, but to me, that’s the whole process, is getting people’s input.
I’m not a control freak, at the end of the day. I used to be, and I didn’t have good luck when I was a control freak, early in my career, and the minute I broke out of that—Judd helped me break out of that, when we did Freaks [and Geeks]. I came into that with a script I was really protective of, and he kind of wanted to tear apart, and open up to actors that came in—and we found people we loved. I immediately realized that’s how to do it, and it just makes you less precious about everything, and it also opens up this whole floodgate of talent, input, and creativity that comes from the people you’re working with; actors, producers, if you’re not directing, it’s your director, the studio. Everybody has notes that are good, and it’s up to you to sort through them, and make sense of them, and make sure they serve what you need. Without that input, especially from the actors…
SYMONDS: And you’ve worked with a lot of actors who improvise, too, right? When you were working on The Office…
FEIG: Oh, yeah.
SYMONDS: Was there a lot of improv on this film, too?
FEIG: Oh yeah, very much. We had a great script that Kristen and Annie [Mumolo] wrote, that we then went in and worked hard to make sure it was tracking emotionally, and making sure we had the comedy pieces on top of that. But then we really throw it to the actresses. As soon as we have the script in a place that we’re happy with, and after we cast but way before we start shooting, we’ll bring them all in and do a rehearsal and have them read through the scenes, and then say, “Okay, let’s go off on this scene now, keep it going and let sort of improv and see what comes up.”
We want them to define the characters for us. Kristen clearly knows her character because she wrote it, but Maya Rudolph playing the role of Lillian is going to be a different personality than someone else playing the role of Lillian, as with all the other women. The mistake is always, “Here’s the lines, and say it like this,” and try and fit their personality into this pre-existing thing, versus, “Okay now make it your own, show us what is funny about that character, show us what you want to do with that character.” We write it down, we’re taping it, as these improv rehearsals are going. I’m writing down whatever funny lines I think, and then we go back, regroup, and work on the script. Kristen and Annie will insert that stuff and maybe say there is a new direction for it—instead of Rita [Wendi McLendon-Covey] being one thing, now she’s a woman taking a lot of anti-depressants, and she’s a woman who has a love-hate relationship with her kids, and her husband always wants to have sex too much. Some of it we hadn’t thought of, some of it we had, and she’s elaborating on it, and we go and re-work it, do another rehearsal bring them back in, same thing, have them improv-ing on it. It slowly starts to flesh everything out and it makes the script more three-dimensional for us.
So we have all that, and we have all the alts that they’ve said, funny things that they’ve said that they don’t remember, we’ve taken record of, and have them all written down. I go into the scene and I have this list of extra jokes I can throw in, or dialogue, and then on top of that, then we do takes where I’ll say dealer’s choice and let them do their thing. The only thing you always want is to have a road map of the scene. You don’t want a scene that goes all over the place, because then you can’t use it. If, there on the road map, you go, “In this scene we need to see that there is a weirdness between the two of you,” or “We need to find out that her husband has this thing with their marriage,” there is your direction, and then [it’s about] letting them go. We end up with a ton of material, and then we go in the editing room and sort it all out. The whole theory—Judd’s theory, and it’s a great one—is you always want to, when you’re on the set, shoot as if you’re in the editing room, going, “Oh, I wish I had this, I wish I had that.”
SYMONDS: That’s smart.
FEIG: Sometimes, out of one take, somebody will do something that they didn’t do in any other take that spurs some thought or an idea that, if they play into that, you need other material to play with. When we did Jon Hamm at the beginning, when he’s trying to kick her out of bed, it was written to be a little more blunt, that he was trying to get her out. And on the set we really got into mean lines for him to be saying, and Kristen’s character was trying to pretend it wasn’t going on. She’s trying to stay in bed, trying to keep him in bed—it got silly. Even Kristen was like, “I don’t know, would my character be this dumb to not realize the signals?” When we edited the first version of that scene, we went with the meaner stuff, it was really funny. We just thought it was the funniest thing, and we showed it to a lot of our comedy friends, and they all thought it was hilarious. But we showed it to a general audience and they didn’t laugh at all, because I think they like Kristen so much that they were like, “Oh, he’s just being mean to her,” and all they could see was this guy being mean to this woman.
So we were able to go back, and we had all these takes where he was being much more passive-aggressive, kind of lovey-dovey, and at the end he just kind of says the line, “I want you to leave,” but even then, he’s trying to be nice. Judd and I come from stand up-comedy, and the way, as a stand-up, you adjust to your audience as you’re going, and if you see something’s not working you go this way because you feel they want that. It’s the equivalent of that, getting into test screenings and seeing, “Oh, people don’t want that to be too mean, and we have stuff over here that’s not mean but more passive-aggressive.” You’re able to build it, throughout all these test screenings, we’re able to go “Oh this works, this works,” and we’re getting a consensus of laughs and recording the laughs of the audience and putting them back in the editing machine. We can listen and go, “Did this get a laugh?,” and hear, “Oh, that got a huge laugh,” or, “It got kind of a laugh, I think we can top it, let’s look for some other jokes.”
It’s a very scientific way to do it, but I think for a big commercial comedy, and not just a little independent film, which you can be more auteurial in, I think it’s the way to go. You’re hedging your bets. You have a product that is, while not fool-proof, at least guaranteed to get a response most of the time, and that’s really what you need.
SYMONDS: Does it happen often that you’ll show something to your comedy friends and find out it doesn’t play as well in a regular audience?
FEIG: Yeah, totally. That’s a huge issue. I didn’t turn the phrase, but I call it “too hip for the room,” and you always have to be on guard against that. We had the same thing on Freaks, because the difference is we’re all, for lack of a better term, “comedy professionals” meaning comedy is our job. We are immersed in it, 24 hours a day. It’s all we watch, it’s all we’ve ever watched, so we are fairly encyclopedic with our knowledge of what’s been done. So we have a very strong opinion of what we think is hacky, old, tired, or dumb. But the general audience doesn’t have that. To them, comedy is something they get to watch or enjoy to have fun at the end of their workday. So for us to deconstruct things too much, it’s a way of saying to people, “You don’t know what’s funny, you’re kind of dumb, and we’re going to show you what’s funny.”
But I find that very unfair. For people in the business, it’s always, the punching bag is sitcoms, or like, Two and a Half Men, or that kind of thing, like: [in a mocking tone] “Oh, I can’t believe people watch that, oh, the idiots.” I’m defensive [against] that, because whatever I think of the show, I’m not going to say you’re an idiot for thinking this is funny. Because, again, you come home from work, you sit down, you want to watch something, you like to hear the laugh track because it’s nice to hear other people laughing, and it’s like being with people having fun, like a little party that comes into your living room. I’m not going to judge on that.
Whatever makes you laugh is fine, and all we can do as comedy professionals is try to steer you towards something that we think is a little better—but not put you down or just perplex you in the process. It’s no victory for us, like, “Hey, we made those rubes watch this sort of thing that all the hipsters think are funny.” It’s like, well, okay, that’s great, but they didn’t laugh, and they didn’t have a good time, and they’re going to flow over to the thing that we all think is crappy and that thing’s going to do really well. It’s not fun, in the moment, to do something that everyone thinks is hip and nobody watches. It’s validating, but it’s really depressing, too, because you are, in essence, failing. In the business side of it. It is a business, I’m not a painter who’s saying, “I want people to see my work when I die; it will be this and that.” That’s not satisfying to me. [laughs] Long-term, if I could die and come back and walk among everyone going, “Hey, everyone likes my stuff,” that would be great.
SYMONDS: [laughs] “Oh, remember me?”
FEIG: Yeah, exactly, because I want to get to make more stuff! If what you do doesn’t work commercially, there’s huge amounts of money being put into these things to get them made, so if you lose people money it’s not a good thing. It’s not looked at as a positive. People don’t go, “Oh, good for you man, you got a critical hit but no one came to see it.” What you want is the thing that critics love and audiences love, but that’s the hardest thing to do.
SYMONDS: Do you think you would ever be interested in being a showrunner again?
FEIG: Yeah, definitely. I love television, I think television is in a total second golden age right now.
SYMONDS: Oh, absolutely.
FEIG: I get so crazy, and I don’t know if it’s a hipster thing or a faux-intellectual thing to still put down television.
SYMONDS: That might be two sides of the same coin.
FEIG: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] That whole, “I don’t own a TV”—it’s like, well, you’re kind of dumb if you don’t own a TV now. There’s good stuff on! When we did Freaks, that was the tone of a show I wanted to do, it’s a tone of a show I love, but there weren’t other shows really on of that tone, so people weren’t into that tone at that time. I’m not saying we were ahead of our time; we were just in the wrong time. After that, I was developing in that style, but TV still hadn’t gone over to that style yet. It was much more—Malcom in the Middle style was more popular, so when I would develop something, FOX would go, “Can it be a little crazier, like that show?” And I’m like, “Mm, that’s not what I do.” So everyone wanted my voice and my tone, but they ultimately didn’t, because then you’d give it to them and it’s like, “Oh, can you kind of amp it up?” And I was like, “Well, no, that’s not my voice or my tone.” So I sort of separated from it.
SYMONDS: They like the idea of you. [laughs]
FEIG: Well, that’s kind of what it is. Again, not like I’m so great, but they latched onto what they liked of the show but… I kind of got out of development and gave up on trying to do another show, because I went through a number of developing shows that were very close to me and that I was into, but they wouldn’t even make a pilot for it. I started to transition more into directing television because great opportunities were coming up, with Arrested Development popping up.
SYMONDS: How did that happen for you? It seems like your CV in television is… every good show on TV.
FEIG: Two factors, really. Arrested happened because the people that ran the show, Mitch Hurwitz, had liked Freaks and Geeks, but then also Victor Hsu, who was our line producer on Freaks, went over to line-produce on Arrested, and called me up and said, “Hey, they like the stuff you did.” I directed the final episode of Freaks—I wanted to do more, but they would never let me, but when the show looked like it was dying, they said, “OK, go ahead and direct one.” [laughs]
So they were like, “Hey, we would love for you to direct an episode of the show.” I had watched it and really liked it a lot, so I jumped in there and really hit it off with everybody, like gangbusters, right in the first one. I did the third from the final one in the first season, and we all got along so well, they were like, “Do you want to do the finale?,” and I just jumped on it and kind of found a home there.
Once you get known, once they like you as a TV director, you can work quite a bit. I think the strength for them with me is, having run a show, I know exactly what you do and don’t want out of the television director. A lot of TV directors come in wanting to re-invent the wheel and put their big stamp on it, and when you’re running a show, you really don’t want that. You want a director to show up, have good ideas, to elevate what you have—but you never want them, when you say, “Here’s what I need,” to go, “Oh that’s bad, you’ve got to do this and that.” You don’t have time, you don’t have the energy, you don’t want to argue with things, and you don’t want people to change the style. You as the showrunner set the template, style, and the look, and you need to keep that consistent. Suddenly a director comes in and wants to do all these crazy camera moves, and you go, “Well, our show doesn’t have crazy camera moves.”
Freaks, I wanted to look like a show from the ’70s, where the cameras are planted, it’s only moving if the characters are moving, and we want these kids, who are so funny, we want to hang on their faces. So if they have some moment where they screw up or something happens, I’ve got it on film. And I’m not suddenly doing a scene where we’re at the geek table and the camera’s drifting behind them slowly, so suddenly I go behind Bill’s head and lose Harris’s face and Harris does something funny, it’s like, “Ah! Why am I behind his head?!” It’s not a very arty way of making it, but it’s all in service of the story, all in service of the characters. And you get to put the style on in service of that, but never to pull people out. So, long way of saying: showrunners know that I’m in tune with that, and they know I’m going to come in, give ideas, and if they don’t want it, it’s like, “No problem, let me know what you want.” And then it just kind of blossomed. From there, The Office popped up, and then other great shows popped up. The other big thing in the equation is I have this great agent, my television agent, Renée Kurtz, who has the ability to know what the good shows are. She, for so many shows, kind of talked me into them.
SYMONDS: Oh, really.
FEIG: Oh, yeah. She just knew. She knew The Office was going to be a big thing, she knew Mad Men was going to be a big thing, she knew 30 Rock was going to be a big thing, she knew Nurse Jackie was going to be a big thing. That’s what you need, is somebody really advising you who can steer you towards what’s cool. I don’t direct a lot of drama, so I was never drawn to doing any kind of cop shows or procedural kind of things, it’s not what I do.
SYMONDS: I would love to see your episode of CSI, though. [laughs] I think that would be kind of fun.
FEIG: [laughs] It would be kind of fun! But there’s guys that do that way better than me. I’m not going to mess with that. One job I would like to direct is Boardwalk Empire, I love that show.
SYMONDS: Oh yeah, that would be awesome. Do you feel like TV now is friendlier to your style? If Freaks and Geeks had been on four years ago instead of ten years ago, maybe it would have found an audience faster and had a longer life.
FEIG: I definitely think so. That’s why I’m very open to the concept of coming back to television, because I think the style has come around. The style that I like, and the style that Judd likes, and what we bonded over back when we were stand-up comedians, is the behavioral style of comedy. It’s all about how we interact, and it’s not about jokes, like, “Here is a hard joke, and setup, and boom boom boom.” To me, that’s just not how people talk, that’s not what I find funny in life. I love funny people, and when I’m with funny people, or people who are amusing in their weirdness, I love it. Because that to me is funny, as opposed to someone who stops and says, “Hey let me tell you a joke.”
That behavioral style has really taken off, to the point where people get weird about jokes because they feel corny now if someone is being too clever. That’s the thing I’m not really a fan of, is clever comedy. I like it if I see a great play or something like that, because that’s a slightly more heightened reality I’m watching anyway. But film, television, and working with a camera is such an intimate art form that if a camera is right on you, and I’ve got your face filling the screen, you have to be real. If you do anything that is fake, you’re not going to get away with it, because the camera is right there, and the story is being told in a very real way. So I think that’s great, but it forces you to do things differently. But it feels very honest because then the improv—we say improv, but sometimes I think it sounds to people like, “Hey we’re looking for jokes and we’re going to go for crazy stuff.” Improv, to me, just means we’re talking honestly, but we are smart enough in the comedy world to know how to say something in a funny way or what interaction is going to be funny. Sometimes it’s an awkward thing, or calling somebody on something, or not understanding something. The whole comedy of Bill on Freaks and Geeks was that, “Uh, what?” and looking perplexed. When you give that script to somebody and they don’t know the character, it’s like, “Why are there no jokes for him? ‘Huh?’ is not a joke.” But no, “Huh?” is going to be the funniest thing in the scene if he does it and it’s set up correctly. That’s what The Office does so well, that is a very behavioral comedy.
I personally think it all comes from the Internet. I think the advent of YouTube and real-life videos, look at what goes viral. It’s generally stuff that just happened, or somebody who’s weird, but it’s not generally trying too hard. Or if it is trying too hard, it’s trying too hard in a way where you go, “Oh, I see what they’re doing,” so again, it’s behavioral. Because you’re not laughing at exactly what they’re doing, you’re laughing at the fact that they’re doing it, and whatever their motives might have been for doing it, and that’s all very real. I think that and the advent of people with their cell phones and handheld cameras—you’re just used to that handheld style. I know when The Office first came on, people were very like “Ah, why is the camera moving, why is it all over the place?,” because they weren’t used to that. Now people don’t even think about it, which I love, because that adds another bit of realism to it. If you shot The Office more standard, you might have to change the style slightly. What that handheld camera does is it makes even something that’s a little bit big, feel real, because you feel like you are catching it in the moment, and it’s more of a fly-on-the-wall type of thing. Handheld camera is approximating what we’re seeing when we’re looking at each other, and kind of looking around, and your eyes whipping around. It adds an immediacy, where you feel like you are watching something through your own eyes, standing there with them. And that just allows you to take more liberties and have more fun with people’s behavior.
SYMONDS: I loved how in Steve Carell’s last episode of The Office there’s that aside where he’s in the airport and asks if the footage is over going to be aired. We’ve all forgotten that setup of the show is a mockumentary. It seems like most new comedies on TV are getting produced that way now.
FEIG: It’s immediate, which is what’s great about it. When you shoot standard, like you shoot movies, there’s a lot of pageantry to the technology, meaning it just takes a long time to set it up. You’ll take a whole day to shoot a scene, and what’s great about this handheld thing is there are two cameras that are getting everything. When we shoot on The Office, that’s why we can just completely improv a scene, because the way we’re covering it, we’ve got the whole scene. If some magic thing happens, and everybody goes completely nuts, and does something we never thought of, the cameras catch everything. That comes from having camera people who are almost like actors and writers themselves.
On The Office, Randall Einhorn, who is no longer there, who started as the DP, and Matt Stone, the DP now—they both came from Survivor. So they’re used to being in the bush, running around, so they don’t know what is going to happen. They are very much in tune with, here’s someone saying something intimate, they know when to zoom in, they know when to pull out. That’s how they go in, and that’s how we all treat it when we’re shooting. Even though we know what the scene is, we all pretend, especially them, like they haven’t heard it before. In a way, they’re becoming the audience, where, if somebody’s saying something—like, leaning in to hear something is the equivalent of zooming in on somebody.
That’s what I love about the mockumentary style, is the added thing of people knowing they are on-camera, which changes your behavior. That’s why we sometimes do what we call spy shots. Whenever you see, like, the cameras looking through blinds, that’s us saying, these people don’t know they are on-camera now. Versus when we’re in the room with them, then they know they’re on-camera, they’re altering their behavior. Michael Scott is very different when he knows the camera’s in the room than when he doesn’t think the camera’s in the room. He lets his guard down when it’s not there, and when it’s there, he’s always looking at the camera, and that’s what I love. That adds this whole other dimension to the comedy, and sometimes in the scene, we can change it up. Sometimes I’ll decide to do something as a spy shot that wasn’t written to be a spy shot, and it changes the whole tone of the scene. Sometimes I’ll say to the actors, “Just be more aware of the camera.” And to them, that means things were being said that they wish weren’t on-camera. Whenever Michael is saying something embarrassing, Angela is going to look at the camera, wishing this weren’t happening. It just makes it funnier. Michael will make a joke and then he is pleased with the camera, or if it doesn’t work he’s kind of embarrassed that the camera caught it. It just adds such a dimension to it. Not that everything should be mockumentary, but I do think it is a great style for television comedy.
SYMONDS: It seems like Arrested kind of set that in motion.
FEIG: Well the irony with Arrested was, we would try to do stuff where people were aware of the camera, and it didn’t work on that show. We had some scene where Will Arnett, kind of at the end of the scene, looked at the camera and said something. It really made known he was aware that we were watching this. It was weird because we never really did it on that show, even though we were kind of like a documentary, it was almost like we were playing ourselves as a documentary where people were so used to the cameras that nobody even remembered they were there.
SYMONDS: You can believe it with that family. It’s not the most absurd thing happening in their lives at any given moment. [laughs]
FEIG: Also, the different thing on Arrested was that we didn’t have hard and fast documentary rules. I could be shooting you, and we’re talking, and then suddenly have a shot where clearly, if it was a documentary, you would see the camera behind me. We just kind of didn’t worry about that. On The Office, we’re very concerned, we always have the rule. It’s funny, because we’ve never forgotten this was a documentary, we’re so in service to that, that you do forget that people just don’t think about that anymore. It’s tempting to go, “Let’s just shoot it the way we want to and not worry about that,” but to us it was always very important to keep that reality.
SYMONDS: To come back to Bridesmaids, I think one of the most interesting things about the movie is that it’s putatively a “wedding movie,” but what is supposedly the most important thing about a wedding—the union between the two people getting married—is not important at all. Do we ever even hear from Dougie?
FEIG: No. Dougie had a line at one point, when she first shows up at the engagement party. Tim Heidecker is one of my heroes; we were so happy to get him in it, but, yeah, that’s not what the thrust of the movie was. It was much more about, you’re losing your best friend to somebody else. It felt like it could be trite, if it was just like, “Oh, I’m jealous.” We definitely didn’t want it to be like, “I’m jealous that my friend is getting married.” Kristen was very adamant about that, and we all agreed. Like “Oh shoot, I want a man, now, too.” No, that’s not the issue. It’s about this female friendship, and I think that’s the thing we most relate to: “I’m losing my best friend,” and also the idea of the friend who is at the same level that you are. So when your life’s shitty, you’re like, “Everything’s shitty, but, okay, thank God my friend is not doing better than me.”
FEIG: And you love them, but it’s like, “Good, here is the one thing that is keeping me grounded.” So when, suddenly, that person hits the jackpot, it’s a very natural thing to get weird. And then on top of it, when the thing that’s pulling them away is everything you’re not—meaning Helen—to me, this was always a nervous breakdown movie. It’s a woman who’s a mess, who needs to completely deconstruct so she can get beyond what has brought her to this bad part of her life and come back to being the person who she was, and even a little stronger. That’s why it was very important to us to set up that Annie is not a loser. Annie is a bit of a loser when we meet her, but she is not a lifelong loser. She had a business, she had a boyfriend, she was doing it.
SYMONDS: She had savings—
FEIG: Yeah, she had it all and she took a chance, like we all do, and you should take a chance. And it didn’t work out and it kicked her to the curb, and she’s not processing it well. She’s allowed it to drive her down and kill her confidence. The whole movie is about, her confidence is low and she’s susceptible to this other thing, so you have to completely pull her confidence out from her, because she’s not in a place where she’s going to be able to build it back up. So we had to pull everything away from her and get all the old thoughts out. That’s why the Helen character was very important to me, that she not be a villain, because that would be very standard and very easy. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a real-life situation. That’s the thing with women’s movies—there’s so much about kind of catfighting. And my experience is women aren’t—look, we all get in fights with people, but it’s not that face-to-face aggression.
SYMONDS: Hair pulling.
FEIG: Yeah, exactly. It’s much more like everybody’s being passive-aggressive, “Everything’s great!,” but as an outsider you go, “She doesn’t like that person, and that woman doesn’t like that woman.” They’re all being nice, but they’re going to go away and talk about them behind their back. [laughs] This lesbian friend of mine says that some dogs don’t like the smell of another dog’s butt. These two women are just not getting along. [laughs] Same with guys. So yeah, it was very important that this was a movie about friendship and just about a woman’s journey. A woman falling apart and the circumstances that make fall apart. And a wedding is a great storytelling device because it is perfectly structured; it’s structured like a movie. A movie has three acts, and a wedding starts with an engagement, which is the big event that changes everything, then you’re put into this new situation with people you don’t know, and the only reason you’re there is because of one person who has brought you all together, so there is conflict. The conflicts grow as you try to figure stuff out and people are working towards this big goal, and then there’s obstacles in all that. And then finally it climaxes this big wedding that can either go great or go bad—
SYMONDS: And it brings all the characters together in one room.
FEIG: Yeah, exactly. So it’s literally like, “Okay, that part’s easy, we got that, now it’s figuring out how to execute it and what the character arcs are going to do.” But then you’re quote unquote “stuck with” … a wedding movie! [laughs]
SYMONDS: Is that frustrating? I think for anyone who has actually seen the movie, it’s pretty clear that it is not a “wedding movie,” in the sense that people think of that phrase. But it’s getting lumped in, like: “Something Borrowed, Jumping the Broom, and Bridesmaids, they’re all out in theatres right now.” Like, NY1 now has its piece for the end of the show.
FEIG: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I mean, I have nothing against those movies, I think all those movies are great, what I don’t like is just when people blanketly kind of write you all off. Because then you’re like, “No we’re different, we’re telling a different kind of story.” But we knew going in, the catalyst for the movie was a wedding and a bridesmaid, so there is no way that’s not going to be evident to an audience seeing a preview. You can’t hide that. [laughs] You can’t do a wedding movie and somehow cut around that and never talk about it—because then you have no plot!
Going in, we knew, we’re up against this, people are going to bring it to this no matter what, and we know it’s not that, and we’re going to do everything we can to fight all the clichés of it. But we’re gong to have to give into it at some point and just make it look so appealing that the target audience will show up and will like it so much that word will go out to everyone else. To me the touchstone was The Devil Wears Prada, because I love that movie, but when it first came out it’s kind of like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to see that, it looks like a chick flick, blah blah blah.” But you went and you were like, “Oh, it’s a great movie, it’s about a workplace thing,” and it’s very relatable to all sexes. So then I spread the word to everybody and we all started seeing it, and that movie did really, really well.
Judd was the one that said, “Let’s just call it Bridesmaids, let’s not be clever with it, that’s what it is, it’s what it’s about,” it’s quick and catchy. And then I knew, okay, we’ll call it Bridesmaids, but what’s going to sell it is whatever the photo will be, will tell that this is not one of those movies. The only drag was for a year, in production, “What’s your movie, what’s the name of it?” “Oh, Bridesmaids.” And you see their eyes and this panic in their face, like, “Oh my God, you’re making one of those.” And I would have to go into this whole song and dance, like, “No, it’s ironic and when we show the poster…” So when the poster finally came out, it was like, “Oh, thank God,” and I would go “Here it is,” and they would go, “Oh, okay, I get it.”
SYMONDS: I was wondering if there were any stories you would be willing to share from your own wedding; did anything go terribly wrong?
FEIG: I don’t like weddings. I never have. I find moments in them I really like, but I always look at them like, “Oh my God, we have to go to a wedding.” My problem with weddings is that they are just too long. I describe it as standing and listening to your friend talk on a really long cell-phone conversation, and they’re laughing, having a great time, and they’re looking at you, like, “Isn’t this funny?” And you’re laughing along, but you can’t hear what the other person is saying. So I’m not getting any joy out of this, but I want to make you feel good about this. That’s what it is. A wedding isn’t your day, you’re there in service of the person, like, “Oh, I’m so happy for you,” but at the same time it’s like, “Okay you’re going to go away for two hours and take photos now, and the wedding is an hour long. Now we have to drive over here, and okay, you’re gone again; when is dinner?”
SYMONDS: Cash bar, ahh!
FEIGH: Yeah exactly, like seriously, I have to pay for this now? And then it’s like, “When are we eating, okay, in three hours, okay, that’s great. And when does the band start, not for another two hours; when are you cutting the cake? Five hours!” I was lucky—my wife had been married before, so she had the fancy wedding and was done with all that.
SYMONDS: You are lucky.
FEIG: My advice is marry a divorced woman, guys. [laughs] So I set up our wedding to not to be everything I don’t like about weddings. We did it in Vegas, rented a big banquet hall, Treasure Island had just opened—we’ve been married seventeen years now, so it was like the new place. Invited a hundred and twenty people, everybody came in, and we set it up so we would get married in the banquet hall, sat everybody at their tables that they would be eating at. We had a friend of mine marry us, took like two minutes, and then we turned around and said, “Thank you everybody, food is served.”
SYMONDS: That’s awesome! [laughs]
FEIG: The buffet was there, and on each table we had an individual smaller wedding cake and said cut the cake whenever you want, all we ask is that—we put instant cameras on the tables—you take a picture when you do it. So it was fun. We had a band and an Elvis impersonator that came in, so it was fun from top to bottom. The one mishap we had was my friend who, I do this too, you join the Unitarian church on the Internet so you can marry people, so he was going to marry us. We get to Vegas, everybody is coming in, and we realize he’s not legal to do it because it doesn’t work in Nevada, so it would have been like a sham wedding.
SYMONDS: That’s like the opposite of the way things work in Nevada.
FEIG: Yeah, the one thing you can’t do, for some reason! You can do anything, except that! So in a panic, we found that out the day before the wedding, so as all our relatives are flying in. I grabbed my wife like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” So we grabbed her parents and my parents, and we all ran down to the courthouse and had a justice of the peace marry us in an office. So we got married the day before our actual wedding and then basically did a sham wedding. It caused a bit of a stir, because all the relatives had flown in, and somehow word got out of what happened, somebody leaked it, and there were a lot of unhappy relatives. Somehow it mattered to some people.
SYMONDS: In reviews of the Bridesmaids, I’ve seen it set up a lot as a movie that plays with the tensions between Kristen Wiig humor and Judd Apatow humor—understated awkwardness versus gross-out jokes. To me it seems like a Paul Feig movie as much or more than it is either one of those things. And also, no one ever talks about that Kristen had a co-writer—it’s as much Annie Mumolo’s movie as it is Kristen’s.
FEIG: Oh yeah, totally. It’s based on Annie.
SYMONDS: So do you feel like that dichotomy—Kristen instincts battling Judd instincts—is a false one, and how are you dealing with that?
FEIG: When you make something, if you do it correctly, it is a collaboration, and it’s everybody. And it’s very hard to say it’s this person’s or that person’s, because it is our movie. So I refer to it as our movie, I’ll never say “my movie.”
SYMONDS: You’re not going to be a guy that has “a Paul Feig film.”
FEIG: Exactly. No, not in this circumstance. If it’s a more private, personal thing from my life, I’d be more than happy to grab that auteurial mantle, but that’s still dicey because there’s still input. If you’re going to tell people, “Don’t tell me anything,” then I don’t think you’re doing it right.
Judd gets a bad rap because of the gross-out humor, but what does that mean? It just means that a real story is being told with some heightened moments, but that is called comedy. Look at Kristen’s characters on SNL, some of them are insane; but I love that. Here is what unifies it all: all of us come to it with a love of the characters, and when Kristen is doing the Target lady or any of the craziest characters she does on SNL, you never feel like she hates these people, you always feel like she has sympathy for these people or she is treating them very real. Judd and I are never going into something like, “Look at how stupid these people are.” It’s like, these people are misguided, they’re trying their best and they’re just failing. We love them because they are outsiders and they are imperfect people. It all comes together, and Annie Mumolo, she’s the one that went through the experience of being bridesmaids for all these different people, having no money and the bride saying, “Here for the party we are flying to this place, and it’s going to cost thousands of dollars,” and she’s like “I can’t afford it,” and showing up in a shitty car.
Where Kristen may have gotten nervous was like, here come these two guys, and you can look at the more outrageous stuff in Judd’s movies and go, “They are going to do this and that,” but very quickly realized this is all in service of the story, and we also want to make it commercial. Where we could tell this story point quietly or in a way that might not be as funny or exciting, but there is funnier or more exciting option to tell this.
The dress shop is the big controversial thing. What needed to be told in that scene is Annie will not admit she is wrong, she will not back down, and she’s in a battle with Helen for Lillian, and she’s going to be defensive about anything that Helen does and see it as something that is trying to steal Lillian away. Originally in that scene, they are talking about dresses and having a bit of an argument about the dresses, but then Kristen has this fantasy about her looking so beautiful in this dress, and how much better her life would be wearing this dress. There was this very crazy, funny thing of her running through the woods, men are fighting over her, and Christian Bale is like, “Here hide in my muscles,” and he hides her.
You know, very funny, but for Judd and I, we have to guard the tone of the movie. We like a very realistic tone. For us, it’s very hard within a realistic tone, even though it’s got crazy moments, to say now, “And now, we’re seeing inside somebody’s brain and seeing what they are seeing.” That was very funny, but it’s just not going to work for us, but we want to find out a way to get big laughs. Then it became looking at the structure, seeing how it flows, and saying it would be nice to have a big comedy moment here. You almost try to space them out so it tentpoles you along. That’s being very commercial, and looking at it like, we’re trying to engage an audience with big moments of laughs. We realized that same story point, where Annie’s head is at that moment, can be told by everybody getting food poisoning, and it’s her fault because she doesn’t have money and she tried to cheap out when she’s supposed to take them out. So she took them to a crappy restaurant, tried to pass it off like it’s hip, but it was cheap.
SYMONDS: I love the dog in that scene.
FEIG: That was one of my favorites, writing that. “A feral dog crosses the path.”
FEIG: But here Annie has fucked up, and it’s all starting to go wrong, and we’re discovering, in an outrageous way, one of Annie’s character flaws, which is she will not admit when she is wrong. So for us that was like, what is the funniest thing in the world we can do? Somebody is not admitting something is wrong, and everything is horrendously wrong, that’s funny. It could have easily just been, “And they vomit all over the white room, and shit’s flying everywhere.” But it’s like, no, we don’t want to do that, that’s not going to be funny, it’s just going to be gross.
But the comedy is two things. The first part of the comedy is “I’m fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine, is it hot in here?” so all that building, and everybody’s getting sweatier, and the comedy of “everything’s fine” and getting off the white carpet, and then in the private room, hell breaks loose. We wallow it in there, we have fun with it in there. It’s the payoff to what we wanted. The other part is the comedy of Annie not admitting that she’s wrong, and the showdown between her and Helen. In the times when people were most nervous about the scene, it was like, “We’re going to shoot all this stuff in the bathroom, we’re going to have it, I don’t know if we are going to use it or not, we may have an extended scene in the bathroom of just throwing up and shitting in the sink, or we might not use any of it, or we might just use flashes.” But we know the main thrust of that scene is the showdown between Annie and Helen, and then we can augment the comedy out there, so that’s how it built.
I don’t mean to be defensive about it, but sometimes critics are like, “This tacked-on scene” and I get insulted by that, because to us, it’s not a tacked-on scene. To us, it is a very integral scene expanding on this person’s character in a very funny way. I’m sure there were plenty of people in the audience horrified and not laughing, but that gets an enormous response, that tears down the house, that scene! What I love the most about it is, whenever I see it, there are women laughing like I’ve never heard women laugh before. There’s almost a joy to it, like, “I can’t believe someone is doing this and letting us see this,” and I almost get choked up when I hear that, because they are so purely having a good time in a way that I don’t think women get to have a good time at the movies.
SYMONDS: It’s almost cathartic.
FEIG: Yeah totally. And that makes me so happy, because I feel like women haven’t gotten to have that experience. When outrageous stuff has been done in the past in women’s movies, I find it’s done just to be outrageous, and “look how far we can push this,” and if you don’t have that character base under it, then it’s just silly, and you’re kind of like, “Why are they doing that?” That’s the worst thing in the world, that’s what takes you out of a movie: “I don’t believe they would do that.” I think everyone relates that buildup of, “Oh, my God they’re all getting sick but pretending they’re not sick,” and when they get to the bathroom there is no denying it, and it’s just a mess, because it’s everybody at the same time.
SYMONDS: I think for me the funniest thing about that scene was Kristen’s face when she was eating the almonds.
FEIG: That’s one of the funniest takes ever. Actually, in the editing room I had cut into the middle of that, and Bill, our editor, was like, “We just have to hang on that shot, it’s just brilliant.” The top of her cheek quivers right before she bites into it, the sweat coming down…
SYMONDS: I wanted to ask you about Twitter. Your Twitter is really funny, and I’m curious—as a comedian who also has a, barf-barf, “personal brand” to uphold, how do you approach Twitter? Is it a way to just blow off steam, or are you approaching it as this way to heighten your brand?
FEIG: I approach it as a way to get to be funny in public. I’m behind the camera now, so where I was a comedian and actor for a long time, I don’t have that outlet anymore. For me it’s just a public forum to try and make people laugh. There’s not much more to it than that. [laughs] I feel bad because with Bridesmaids, it’s been so much about promoting the movie, and I have great guilt of that because I don’t like when people do that. This movie is so do-or-die for me, because all my other movies have done so terribly, that I kind of exploited it.
SYMONDS: It’s weird how Twitter can affect self-esteem, too. Like you get one mean reply and it just ruins your whole day.
FEIG: Oh, I’m so susceptible to that. It’s so weird, and sad, and then I feel bad if I say something that somebody doesn’t like. I’m the same way with reviews. This movie has like 89 or 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but all I obsesses about is the bad one. I have an inability to enjoy things, but that’s why we’re in comedy. If we were happy, we wouldn’t be funny, I guess.
SYMONDS: You always use proper grammar and punctuation on Twitter. Was that a conscious choice, or just how you write?
FEIG: It’s definitely how I write. I remember back in the early days of AOL, going in the chatrooms. And I remember somebody wrote once, “Boy, you really like that capitalization and punctuation, don’t you?” I was like, “I’m sorry I’m being grammatically correct!” I’m very anal that way.
SYMONDS: Were you big into chatrooms?
FEIG: Not big into them, but I would do them occasionally because they kind of blew my mind. I always wanted to get into ham radio and stuff, so I thought it was the greatest version of ham radio, like, “Wow, I can talk to people.” It got weird really fast, where suddenly I went, “Ugh, I don’t like this.” But I had a blast of like a couple weeks where at night were I would go, “Oh who am I going to talk to?” But then you realize who you’re talking to was not that interesting, and then they’re so anonymous that people would start attacking and just saying mean stuff.
SYMONDS: I wonder if anyone is still doing ham radio. That’s a niche.
FEIG: Oh yeah totally, I think they are. There are still ham radio stores, but there is also a survivalist thing about that too. When the hammer comes down and society falls apart, ham radio operators will be keeping the world alive, which is cool! I’m all for that.
SYMONDS: Can you tell me what you’re wearing? I know you’re a stylish man.
FEIG: Oh, thank you. I’m wearing Tom Ford today, pretty much all Tom Ford, except for my shoes are Santoni with the double monk strap.
SYMONDS: Did you see A Single Man?
FEIG: It’s one of my favorite movies. That was my favorite movie that year, yeah. I actually just a did a little piece for New York Magazine’s Vulture about the five most impeccably dressed men in movies, and Colin Firth in A Single Man was my number two, topped only by Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½.
SYMONDS: Well, if you have to be topped by someone.
FEIG: Exactly—who is my hero. I’m actually starting this men’s lifestyle and fashion website called smartgent.com.
SYMONDS: Really, that’s amazing!
FEIG: Yep. It’s all built, I’m just getting my contributors together. I love it and I find it very fun. It’s my response to LA’s tyranny of the casual, as I call it. People are stepping it up a little more now, but not in general. That’s why I love being in New York. People give you a hard time if you’re wearing a suit in LA. People are like, “Why are you all dressed up? Did you dress up just for me?” I’m like “No, I dressed up because I’m an adult and I felt like putting on my suit.” But I love it. Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren are my two heroes of clothing designers.