Paul Feig Walks Down the Aisle With “Bridesmaids”
An exclusive hour-long conversation with the "Freaks and Geeks" creator about the Kristen Wiig-led ensemble comedy, his approach to comedy, and a wild career in directing.
Paul Feig is nothing if not open. As the author of two wonderfully observed memoirs – “Kick Me,” covering his childhood and “Superstud” chronicling his twenties, with his TV series “Freaks and Geeks” to semi-autobiographically fill in the rest of his early years — he’s let audiences grow up with him. With sharp, self-deprecating wit and warmth, he’s been the best teller of his own story, one that’s led him from an adolescence in Michigan where a respite from constant teasing in junior high was making TV commercials for his father’s hardware store before he eventually took center stage himself to the slings and arrows of being a standup comedian and actor. However, partly out of his considerable humility and just as likely because it would ruin some of his schtick, the one area of his life that hasn’t been as nearly well-documented has been the success he’s found as a director.
Since the demise of “Freaks and Geeks,” Feig has quietly left his fingerprints on many of television’s best shows such as “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Weeds,” “Mad Men,” “Arrested Development” and “Undeclared” (the latter two you may already know we’re fans of), as well as two features, “I Am David” and “Unaccompanied Minors,” that deserved better. That’s why it’s a welcome development that his latest film “Bridesmaids” is loud in many respects.
A brash, occasionally raunchy comedy that belies the messy yet emotionally acute story of a woman coming into her own, it is first and foremost a showcase for its star Kristen Wiig, who with Annie Mumolo wrote the film which places Wiig’s not-coincidentally-named Annie squarely at the crossroads of an uncertain thirties. While everyone around her is easing into comfortable domesticity, Annie has seen her own small bakery business fail and the only thing she’s settled into is a routine of casual sex with a handsome cad (perhaps in the only way a relationship with Jon Hamm could be considered unhealthy) and an untenable living situation with her British roomie (Matt Lucas) and his blustery sis (Rebel Wilson).
Although Annie’s many anxieties are crystallized by her friend’s invitation to become her maid of honor and ultimately face the responsibility of leading a motley group of women down the aisle, “Bridesmaids” does the reverse for its star and director, allowing both Wiig and Feig to confidently strike a balance between rangy and surreal humor that takes full advantage of the comedienne’s versatility with extreme behavior and the authenticity that’s been a hallmark of Feig’s work. Originally commissioned by Feig’s old partner-in-crime Judd Apatow after Wiig’s scene-stealing turn in “Knocked Up,” “Bridesmaids” feels as though it’s the first film that has permitted Feig to be himself, which in turn has let the director do the same for his actors.
Naturalism and honesty were terms that came up quite often in the hour Feig graciously took to sit down to talk about “Bridesmaids” and his directorial output thus far, a conversation which spans from the surprising first film he worked on with Apatow through what he’d like to do next as well as why the auteur theory doesn’t apply to comedy, his preference for strong openings and ambiguous endings, and when he realized he wanted to reach a bigger audience.
A burning question for me that I’ve never heard you talk about is your first film with Judd Apatow, which also featured Ben Stiller and many of Adam Sandler’s future creative team (Allen Covert, director Steven Brill, producer Jack Giarraputo) — “Heavyweights,” the 1995 Disney comedy about a kids’ fat camp. What was that experience like?
That’s funny… it was fun. My history with that is Judd and I were standups together, so we’d known each other since the mid-’80s and hung in the same groups. We all used to hang out at this place called The Ranch, which was like the Higgins boys (“SNL” head writer and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” announcer Steve and “Malcolm in the Middle” star David Anthony) and Gruber (Dave Allen), who played Mr. Rosso from “Freaks and Geeks,” Dana Gould, Judd, all those guys. We were all comedy nerds. It was like the comedy Algonquin roundtable in this place.
I always kept up with Judd and then he was writing movie scripts. He had done “Celtic Pride,” I had gotten into standup and was really pursuing acting. I remember he ran into my wife somewhere [while he was working on "Heavyweights"] and she asked, “Is there anything in it for Paul?” So I came in and auditioned for that part [of Tim, one of the camp counselors] and got it right away. It was nice. Then we just all went to North Carolina and made this movie. Judd was producing and Steve Brill was directing it and [we] just had a lot of fun. They cast a lot of kids [out of Hollywood], but then they found a lot of new kids just in North Carolina.
We stuck fairly close to the script, but we were doing some improv and it was a very open environment. Judd’s always very good creatively nurturing people to be funny, so if they have something they want to try, they can. It was just a really fun process with having Ben Stiller around and all the kids. I think we all felt we were making something that was pretty good and actually thought it was going to do a lot better than it ended up doing, which was kind of a bummer for all of us because we felt like we had maybe found a style we were enjoying. But it was a really nice launchpad for these kids and every once in a while, I’ll run into some of them and obviously, I see Kenan [Thompson] on “SNL” all the time and actually, we’ve reconnected recently with Shaun [Weiss], who played Goldberg in “The Mighty Ducks” movies. But it was a blast. I had no end of fun during that shoot.
Shortly after, you made your first feature “Life Sold Separately” as a director after that. Was that a moment where you realized you could take control of your own destiny?
I think it planted the seed for me because I had gone to film school at USC and graduated in ’84 from there and then was always writing behind the scenes. But I was a standup comedian, which is kind of like writing and directing yourself. Then when I was acting, whenever I’d be a regular on a show, I would write a script for it. But I remember always being inspired by Judd — once you see one of your group do it, you’re like oh, I guess we can do it. Before that, there’s always a feeling like oh, it’s a club I’m not allowed into — we’re not allowed to make movies. Judd was just bold enough to do it. That’s why I was always trying to figure out how to make my own indie film and then right around ’97, that’s when I wrote and directed and starred in [laughs] “Life Sold Separately,” which never saw the light of day, but at least it broke the logjam for me of going, “Oh cool, I know I can write a feature-length film, I can actually make it” even though this was going to be shot in only six days. I’m glad I took the leap away from acting into going behind the camera because it’s much more satisfying – I love acting and I still do, but it’s much more satisfying to be able to make the stuff.
Was that actually always the end goal for you?
My ultimate end goal was I really wanted to be Woody Allen. I thought I was going to write, direct and star in all my movies and then quickly realized I only had limited talent as an actor. I got really into the idea of getting really good people and then making them their best and having them do all the heavy emotional lifting on the screen and then to be able to support them and shoot them right. Because I had seen enough movies where I could tell someone was doing a good performance, but they weren’t shot right or the script didn’t serve them right or the storytelling, the tone was too big or too…just off. It always felt like I’d rather be in service of really talented actors, comedic actors and get the best out of them versus me having my limited abilities. I can almost live through all the people I work with in a way and make them better and yet get more satisfaction out of controlling the whole thing.
As a low-budget, down-and-dirty shoot that was your first feature, did it shape you as a director? [A diary of the film's screening tour is here.]
I was always a late bloomer. I was always the last one to learn how to ride a bike, the last one to learn how to walk according to my parents [laughs], so I always felt like I was behind the curve a little bit. When I was at film school, I was really into writing and helping out with stuff, but even making our little short films, when a big project came up — I remember I was supposed to do this big project that a friend of mine wrote and then couldn’t do, one of the big senior thesis movies — I kind of chickened out, partly because I had problems with the script, but then I got so nervous about being in charge of a crew I fabricated this thing of “oh, I want to change the script” and wanted to change it so much that I knew they wouldn’t do it. So I always felt like I didn’t know if I could really be in charge of people. I was afraid because to me, directing a movie always meant you’ve got to be firing people and yelling at people and all that. I can’t do that. That’s just not who I am. So I stayed away from it for a while and then the desire to do it outweighed the fear, so when I put “Life Sold Separately” together, I just thought I’m going to go for it.
The first day was a pretty good day. I really prepared everything and hit the ground running and everything was great. The second day, we got bogged down in something and I got way behind and my [assistant director], who was a great guy, but he’d been in the business longer and felt like I didn’t have what it takes to do it, was really taking advantage of that to get on me, like “you’re behind. You’re not going to catch up.” About halfway through our day, I remember having an internal panic attack, going, I don’t think I can do this. I might pull the plug on this because I’m not going to be able to figure my way out of this. All the actors were there and we were setting stuff up and everybody’s looking at me what to do and I remember just getting that flop sweat like, just walk away from everybody right now. So I said [to the crew], “Just one minute, I just have to figure one thing out. Everybody, hang on.”
So I remember walking off into this field because we were shooting in a field and thinking to myself, if I close this down now, I will never do it again. I will somehow have sent the signal to people that I’m a panicker, I will fall apart and that’s going to be it. I also remember thinking I want to do this. I want this career. I have to figure it out. So I take a deep breath and turned around and came back in. Basically, instead of having this big scene where I had all this coverage, I was like I’m just going to shoot this as a one-er and shoot it all, so I did and it actually worked out fine. It was not the greatest way to do it, but it got me right back on schedule. Suddenly, I just had this blast of confidence. Even sitting at lunch, I was giving my AD [grief], like “You didn’t think I could do it, could you? You’ve got to trust in Feig!” [laughs] I got cockier than I should’ve gotten, but it was what I needed because it was this moment where I left all my younger-life insecurity behind and like you know what? Everyone’s insecure about it. Just do it.
In recent years, you haven’t been writing as much, but a lot of people tend to get into directing to protect the writing. Was that the case with you?
I haven’t been writing as much. I do miss it. I did get into it partly because of that. I heard this and started parroting it, which is I don’t trust any writer who doesn’t want to direct because it means you’re not invested in your stuff. I still kind of believe that, but I’ve also realized…when I first got in, like any first-time writer, you get very precious about your words. There’s nothing wrong with that because sometimes you write something great, but I found that that’s actually the more destructive way to go into things because you get so inflexible that you don’t utilize the talents of the people that you hire, be they on the crew or if you have a good creative team around you, but mostly because of the actors.
Film students love to tell the Hitchcock stories about [the director saying], “run to the camera” and the actors saying, “What’s my motivation?” “I’ll tell you when you get here.” Ha ha, that’s so funny, actors are so dumb – that’s kind of the thrust of it, but that’s actually not cool because what that means is you’re not letting it come to life. You’re forcing people to say things in a certain way. Sometimes your wording is so clever or specific you need to hit it so that it serves the story and the tone, but you’re also cutting off this natural talent and realism that people bring to something.
I went into “Freaks and Geeks” like this is my life story that I wrote, so “don’t touch anything!” Judd was the one that really cracked me open. Certain actors would come in [to audition], I [thought] they’re great, but they’re not like what I envisioned. And he said, “yeah, but they’re great, so let’s tailor the part for them.” At first, I was like, oh, you can’t do that, but suddenly I realized he’s right. Let’s not get rid of a good person, let’s hang on to them and the script is malleable, especially for a TV series where it’s going to have to go for eight seasons hopefully. Why would you want to make it so specific that you’re not getting anything from the person that’s going to help inspire you to write the show?
There’s still a lot of projects I’m developing [as a writer], but I don’t feel like other than a general story sometimes, I’m the one that has the ultimate written word on it because I want the story, the emotions and the structure to be right, that’s where the writing needs to go. That’s why I’m almost afraid of stuff I write sometimes because I get so precious about it [and] I don’t want to be. It’s nice to have a great script that somebody else wrote or a great story, and to then go, okay, and now let’s get in there and really make it our own, the actors’ own. Writers hate to hear that because it sounds like they’re just fucking with stuff, but at the end of the day, if the story’s solid and it works and the dialogue’s great, then all we’re looking for is how to let everybody put their own spin on it so it becomes a living, breathing thing and not a record of something that somebody wrote.Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks, I Am David, interviews, Judd Apatow, Kristen Wiig, Open Chat, Paul Feig, Unaccompanied Minors
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