When Paul Feig arrives for an interview at the St. Regis Hotel bar two days before the release of Ghostbusters, he looks like he could use a drink, and orders a Hendrix martini, up with a twist. After making his mark as creator of the touchstone sitcom Freaks and Geeks, the writer-director almost singlehandedly made it OK for funny women to carry film comedies with Bridemaids, The Heat and Spy. He helped Melissa McCarthy embrace her gifts as a physical comedian, helped Kristen Wiig transition from Saturday Night Live. And in Ghostbusters, he has made the rare summer tentpole comedy headlined mostly by women who are over 40.
But a perpetual hammering by social media cavemen has taken a toll on Feig. This, despite the reality that a Ghostbusters sequel was an nothing more than an apparition; Sony waited years for Bill Murray to read the script that would have reunited the original cast, and hand the ghostbusting tools to younger actors. Feig not only got the franchise back on track, he even managed to get Murray to come back for a cameo, along with Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts. Feig was feeling good today. He said the online aggregating service RottenTomatoes.com had verified his film “fresh,” meaning 75% of its reviews are positive. I’ve known Feig for years, way before he became a film comedy hitmaking machine, when he was struggling to prove Freaks and Geeks wasn’t an anomaly. Feig has proven that several times over, and I cannot imagine why he allows unnamed web trolls to get under his skin. Here, he explains his journey, and answers that question and many others.
DEADLINE: You turned down the Ghostbusters sequel that Sony hoped would bring back the original cast. What was your pitch for this Ghostbusters?
PAUL FEIG: I turned down Amy Pascal at Sony a bunch of times. She said, “Why don’t any of you comedy guys want to do this?” I said: “Because it’s a classic, one of the greatest comedies of all time. Who would be crazy enough to do it?” I gave her a whole half-hour on why nobody should. She was just like, “It’s this great franchise, an amazing idea, just sitting there.” That stuck with me, because I remember how much I loved the original. I was there opening night when I was in film school, and I was blown away. There are occasional game-changing moments in comedy where things take a leap forward. You can go all the way back to Buster Keaton, but in more recent history, Animal House was a giant leap forward. Ghostbusters was an enormous leap forward, the first time you saw comedy could have scope and stakes and special effects. So I went home and thought, “I could have it if I want it, it sounds like. How would I do it?” The original worked because the cast was so awesome. They were the funniest guys working at the time. I thought, if I could get the funniest people I know … and since Ghostbusters is such a male idea, a male-dominated movie, I was thinking, “What guys would I hire?” But I work with funny women all the time, and it hit me: If I can just get the funniest women I know, that would be different. I got excited. Then it was, “Should they be daughters of the original team?” But one of the main reasons I didn’t want to do the sequel was, there something underwhelming to me about the old guard training a new team and going, “Here’s your proton packs.”
DEADLINE: It does feel a bit obvious, a little contrived.
FEIG: I like origin stories and underdogs. So it became, “OK, if I reboot it, then I can start with a team people think is crazy, total outsiders and underdogs, and yet … we get to see the origins of how they become who they are.”
DEADLINE: I’ve reported for years on the futile attempts by Sony brass to get Bill Murray to read that sequel script and commit. I don’t know that he ever read it but suspect he did, and this was his way of being polite. Why rehash when the work he does in indies is so original and interesting? How did you get him in this movie?
FEIG: Here’s the truth. It was incredibly easy. When I put out my infamous tweet — where I just said, “I’m going to reboot, I’m going to make a new Ghostbusters with an all-female cast” — I said I knew who I was gonna call, and one of the very first people to comment in the press about it was Bill. He said it was a great idea, and I think he even said it should have Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. He just completely gave it the stamp of approval. Then I ran into him at the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary party. I’d never met him before, but I thought I’d screw up my courage and go talk to him. He said, “It’s such a great idea to do it that way,” and was just a thousand percent supportive. The whole time I’m thinking in my head, we’d written the script. We realized he’d turned the other one down so much and my co-writer Katie Dippold and I thought, “What would tempt him in? Maybe as the guy who comes and tries to debunk them.” So I say, “Hey, Bill, I hope you might come and join us on the project.”
FEIG: He said, “Well, yeah” and seemed to get distracted and walked away. I was like, “I just blew it. Why did I do that? I shouldn’t have said anything.” But we had a lot of people with the production who were connected to him. Melissa just worked with him, so they’re close, and he and Kristen are close. A lot of people kept doing friendly check-ins with him, and I just kept hearing, he might do this. I’d say, ‘Will he do it?’ They’d say, “We don’t know, but sounds like he might.” Then I got the infamous phone number that you call. You hear him pick up, and there’s nothing there. So I go, ‘Hey, Bill, it’s Paul.’ And I make my speech and then it clicks off. Did I just get hung up on or what? So, we had no idea, to the point where…
DEADLINE: You never heard his voice?
FEIG: Never did. I just knew he got the script. I heard he was interested, and then we are at the point where it was time to shoot it, and we had no confirmation. I go, “If he doesn’t show up, I can’t lose the day. I got to get somebody to do this.” So, do I call Jon Hamm? “Hey, Jon, would you do this part, but if Bill Murray shows up, you’re fired?” I decided I’ll play it but thinking, “Please don’t let that happen.” The day came and it’s like, OK, he’s at the airport. And then he showed up and wanted to do what we had written. He played with it, definitely, and was so delightful. I usually don’t think the shooting of a movie is that interesting, and when you see the set photographer, I think, “What are they doing here?” That was the only time I felt like it was a big deal that Bill is on the set, and it’s iconic to have pictures. I was very aware this was the guy they’d been trying to get on a Ghostbusters set for almost 30 years. He made a speech, just gave his blessing and said how much he loved this cast. That will go out on the DVD. He’s my comedy hero, and he and Dan were two of the biggest influences on my life. I was a big sketch-comedy guy, a huge SCTV fan. Harold [Ramis] is another.
DEADLINE: In Melissa McCarthy, you have helped unlock a physical comedian who makes you think of Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, Chris Farley or Will Ferrell. You sure couldn’t see it in Gilmore Girls. Where did you see the potential for what she did in Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and in this film?
FEIG: You know what? I had never laid eyes on her before I auditioned her for Bridesmaids, even though she’d been working forever. We’d seen a bunch of people by the time she came to audition. I said to Kristen and Annie [Mumolo] there were great candidates but we hadn’t hit a home run yet. They said, “You got to see our friend Melissa; she’s in the Groundlings, and people line up around the block when she performs.” I said, “Bring her in.” Her take on the character was so different that I sat up, for the first 15 seconds, just staring at her. I didn’t know what was happening. And then suddenly I realize I’m watching one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen — this bizarre, funny take on this character. I always do some improv stuff in the auditions. She was playing it very butch, and I go, “This is cool, she’s willing to play this gay character. It’ll be really fun.” So I said, “Let’s do the thing where you’re actually trying to get Kristen’s character to hang out with you one night.” She says, “Yeah, we can go out, and there are all these men, and we’re going to tear them apart, man. We’re going to make a man sandwich!” I was like, “Wait, now, OK, so it’s not gay; she’s man-hungry.” And then you’re like, “God, there’s something wonderful going on here.”
DEADLINE: Are you saying this to her?
FEIG: No. This is in my head. I’m just sitting there watching this happen; she and Kristen are amazing improvisers. What I said was, “Holy shit, this is awesome.” We hired her, and then we did a bunch of rehearsals and improv sessions with all of them during the writing process. You just saw something there that’s so alive. So we just started writing more for her character. We wrote that thing where she kind of beats [Kristen] up on the couch, trying to get her straightened up. It was definitely written, “she’s slapping her around,” but I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be as physical as it was. Just seeing that scene and others like on the plane, her putting her leg up on the wall, all that stuff. You’re just like, “Wow, she’s like Farley or Will Ferrell, these great comics who has comedy in their DNA.” Kristen is like that; when she walks into a room, you can’t not laugh. You just want to hang on to these people forever, but Melissa and I never thought of doing every project together. Spy I wrote for somebody else, because I wanted to make it in the fall and knew Melissa was on her show. She heard what I’d written and wanted to read it. She liked it so much she said, “Can I please do it?” And I said, “I’ll wait.”
DEADLINE: When you write it for someone else, how much changes when McCarthy becomes the star?
FEIG: I didn’t have to change that much. I just had to tailor it to her voice. She’s such a good actress that she can take on these different personas with different tones. Bridesmaids, she was was a very aggressive character. The Heat, incredibly aggressive. You’d hear reviewers and other people go, “She’s doing the same thing every time.” I hate that they always say that about comedy people. You don’t hear it with dramatic actors. But I know how funny she is and how sweet she is in real life. Even though I hadn’t written the character for her, I knew she could show a side that will then make these people that say that eat their words, and say, “Oh, she can play a sweet person trying to be tough.”
DEADLINE: What’s the most useful thing you can do to turn her loose?
FEIG: I don’t have to do much. The thing she’s on guard against, and I am too, is creating anything that is not real, just to get a laugh at any cost. We weed that stuff out so she can be as funny as she wants, within the boundaries of a real character. Where comedy falls apart is when characters do things that people wouldn’t do, unless you establish early they are crazy and the rules don’t apply. Otherwise, you present this normal person in the real world, and then you go, “We got this joke — wouldn’t it be really funny if she did this bananas thing?” The audience goes, like, “Wait, what? Why would she do that?” You’re not going to get the laugh, and you’re going to subvert the movie and have people going, “OK, I don’t know what the rules are anymore.” She’ll let me know, “I don’t know if my character would do that.” I smooth that stuff out, and when we get to set, she can just kind of freeform and go for it.
DEADLINE: Kristen also played outrageous characters on Saturday Night Live. Why are she and Melissa more restrained than Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon?
FEIG: I wanted Kristen and Melissa to be anchors of a movie about a friendship that had gone awry because of one person’s desperation for legitimacy and the other person’s conviction of belief. I knew they could be funny in that and still give me the emotional core I needed. We had originally written the Leslie Jones role with Melissa in mind. But she had just done The Boss, which is hilarious but another big, extreme character. It seemed good to pull her in a different way, here. The role that Leslie Jones plays would have felt like a backtrack for Melissa. People would have said, “I’ve seen her do that kind of character in The Heat.”
DEADLINE: Your use of Jason Statham in Spy reminded of his early comedy work with Guy Ritchie in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, before he became the serious action star. Chris Hemsworth has been hi-and-miss in the traditional action and drama leads. What made you think he could be the strong comic actor in Ghostbusters, and what kind of potential do you see for him?
FEIG: Without hyperbole, I think he’s the next Cary Grant, if he continues on the comedy route. You saw Rush. He’s a skilled actor, but he’s got this crazy light touch. Here’s the admission: When I hired him, I didn’t honestly know if he could be that funny. We wrote that role as the guy who answers an ad on Craigslist, the bored slacker sitting there not answering the phone. Bryan Lourd is my agent and he says, “You know, Chris just wanted you to know, if there’s any little thing he can do in Ghostbusters, he’d be open to it.” I go, “Oh my God. Could we get Thor to be the receptionist?” That to me was kind of funny in itself. I met with him for lunch, and he was so charming and so funny and warm. I told him, “Play it with your Australian accent,” and he liked that. So he agrees, shows up and comes to my room the night before we start shooting. He’s nervous. He’s like, “I don’t know if I can — these women are so funny, and I know that you do all this improv and ad-libbing and it’s not what I do.” I said, “Chris, don’t worry, Katie and I will write you a million jokes. You’ll be hilarious.” We start with the interview scene and he’s riffing with the girls, and it’s so f*cking funny and it’s his own stuff. There’s this thing where he’s wearing glasses without glass in them. We were getting crazy reflections off of his lenses, and I thought, “I can’t digitally paint all that stuff out.” I said, “Just take the glass out of his lenses. No one’s going to know.” During a take, he reached through the glasses to scratch his eye, and we thought it was the funniest thing ever. So we started riffing on that. These are all things that he generated consciously. We did five-plus hours of just riffing. We’ll do a super-cut version of everything we did for the DVD. He wasn’t handsome-guy funny, he was destroying the girls. I mean, I will crawl over ground glass to work with that man again. He is unbelievable.
DEADLINE: There was no Bridesmaids sequel because Kristen didn’t really want to do it, no Heat sequel because Sandra Bullock didn’t seem to want to do it. Will we see more Spy or Ghostbusters, and how eager are you to be involved in them?
FEIG: I love both, and Spy is my baby. I’ve never been like, “I’ve got to do sequels,” but I’ve done three movies that could be sequel-worthy. Bridesmaids, who knows? Again, that’s Kristen’s baby. The Heat, we wrote a sequel for it that’s really funny. Katie wrote it. It was based on an idea we had. It’s like a Silence of the Lambs, which made us want to do a scary comedy.
DEADLINE: Will we see it?
FEIG: It’s so dependent on Sandra’s character that I don’t think it’ll ever happen, unless Sandra has a change of heart. I feel like maybe we’ve moved past it, but who knows? Spy is such a fun sandbox to play in that I’m definitely open to it. As far as Bridesmaids goes, or Ghostbusters, Melissa said it best: “When I’m in the operating room and I’m in the middle of labor and I’m squeezing a baby out, I don’t suddenly go, ‘I’m thinking of having another baby.” I just want to see how this one goes; it has been a very tough, taxing process.
DEADLINE: I’m an old print guy who moved into the digital space with Deadline, so people commenting on stories is relatively new to me. I’ve decided it must be Irish Catholic guilt or the fact that self loathing fuels me, but I am way more comfortable being condemned by commenters than praised.
FEIG: You poor man.
DEADLINE: Mostly, I don’t care. Maybe Freaks and Geeks holds clues, but what does it say about you that you allow these anonymous people to get under your skin?
FEIG: Well, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong geek nerd. I was an awkward kid growing up. Freaks and Geeks, that’s my childhood. I hate bullies, with a passion. You’ll never see me get mad at anything or anyone on my own behalf. Because of bullies I’ve endured, the idea of making somebody else feel bad about themselves over anything, is abhorrent to me. But if somebody goes on the attack against someone else who doesn’t deserve it, attacked for who they are or for something they can’t control, a switch flips in my head. I get crazy, and that’s what’s been so hard about this. I’ve always realized, you’re in the public eye, making things, and you get feedback from people. The most I ever got was, “Your movie’s no good.” OK, fine, you don’t like my movie. I’d never been attacked personally, on this level. When I see them going after my cast, whose only crime is that they were hired by me to do something … they’re being attacked personally about what they look like, who they are, physical things about them. Then, all bets are off. In this project’s history with the Internet, I was getting f*cking hammered from Day 1. Death threats, and then just horrendous attacks. But I kept my head down, all through production. Because 90 percent of the people I was being contacted by on the Internet were huge supporters. People with kids, who were excited, who had daughters who were so empowered, they were making their own Ghostbusters costumes and props. But mixed in was this horrendous vitriol. I got through production and the studio was like, “You did it!” I go on vacation with my wife to Italy. I’m sitting at my favorite restaurant in Capri, eating lunch, drinking wine at my favorite place in the world. She goes to the bathroom. I go, “Let me just look at Twitter.” I had never blocked anybody, thinking, “I want to know everything and it’s democratic.” There were three guys constantly up my ass, with the most horrendous, meanest shit. Every time someone wrote something supportive and I’d answer, there would be an attack on that person. They attacked moms, handicapped children. So there I am, drinking wine and looking at this beautiful view of the Mediterranean. And one of them said something that just set me off. In that moment I thought, “It would feel good to tell this guy to go f*ck himself. I did it, hit the button and felt a year’s worth of release. My wife comes back, I’m smiling and she says, ‘What’s up? You look so happy.” I was like, “I just told this guy to go f*ck himself.” She’s like, “Please tell me you didn’t just do that.” I will rationalize everything in like half an hour, and realize when I went wrong. Next morning I’m like, “What did I do?” That was so f*cking stupid, because what happens with the trolls is, they can attack you a bazillion times. And the minute you say one thing back and it’s, “Oh my God, how dare you?” And then it just f*cking fell apart.
DEADLINE: It reinforces my feeling that social media’s a good place to wish people happy birthday, and that’s it.
FEIG: My problem is that I see so many positive benefits, but so much of it is based on a false view of the world. I’m not for a moment saying that everybody against this movie is a misogynist, though it always gets reported that way. I can show you stuff that’s anti-women, just horrendous, and I’ve looked up who these people are and it says, ‘Proud father of two beautiful daughters.” I think, “Can I call child services, get these poor girls out of that house?” I think, “Are you f*cking kidding me? You have girls in your family and you’re doing this?” That’s when I get bananas.
DEADLINE: You formed a production company at Fox to make R-rated comedies. How challenging is that in a digital world where everyone sits in wait to feel like they’ve been offended? Could Blazing Saddles get made today?
FEIG: It’s hard. Comedy ebbs and flows. If you look at the history, we go through ultra-sensitive periods, and then we go through completely non-PC periods. It’s a natural evolutionary swing. Richard Dawkins talks about species survival and a famous experiment where there were these birds that survive by cleaning the ticks off each other. Certain birds realized they didn’t have to clean the ticks off other birds, and they would still get the ticks cleaned off of them. Soon, fewer birds cleaned the ticks until no one was cleaning the ticks, and they all started dying. And then they started up again. Comedy works the same way. Let’s offend everybody! How dare you! Let’s offend nobody. Well, now everything’s too pleasant. Norman Lear’s one of my heroes, and All in the Family is my favorite TV show of all time, because of it wasn’t afraid to offend anybody, in service of equality. That’s a big part of it. When comedy gets ugly and aggressive, I blanch. But look at Blazing Saddles. Its heart was in the right place, because it was making a commentary, in a very harsh way. You watch that movie today and you go, “Wow.” But Cleavon Little’s so great and Gene Wilder’s there to say, “Yeah, look at these people, they’re crazy,” and it becomes how much fun you can have, showing how terrible they can be.
We test the shit out of these movies, for months, going, “Is this funny?” At the beginning of the movie, one of the first jokes was something Zach Woods ad-libbed about how this rich person’s mansion is one of the earliest, most well-equipped mansions in the country. It included a face bidet and an anti-Irish security system fence. I was like, “Are people going to be offended by that?”
DEADLINE: It got a big laugh in the screening I saw.
FEIG: Huge laugh, every time, but I kept it out for a long time. I worried people would be offended. We tested it, and it got giant laughs. We tested it again, same thing. I thought, “OK, maybe it’s cool because clearly we’re not saying boo to the Irish. We’re saying, back then, there was a ridiculous period in our history where Irish people were discriminated against.” It’s a non-PC joke that is funny because it is in service of a good cause.
DEADLINE: I’ve probably grilled you enough here…
FEIG: By the way, I can never thank you enough for always being encouraging and supportive and being one of my champions, way back when. I don’t forget that.
DEADLINE: That is flattering, but you created this touchstone sitcom and clearly needed to find that next niche. How does that happen? Were you just at a point in your life where things clicked and resulted in to these last four films?
FEIG: It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but I got put in movie jail, and wasn’t allowed to. I had done two things that I knew weren’t quite in the right wheelhouse, but I did them to try to get to this level. When that got taken away, I was very lucky I was still allowed to work on some of the great TV series of all time. That kept me alive, but there was a part of me that felt like, “OK, I’m just running down the clock towards retirement.” For me, there was a weird guilt, having created something I loved in Freaks and Geeks, and then I’m in service of these amazing writers and other people’s visions, and all I take away is, like, “F*ck, I wish this was mine. I wish I could take credit for this.”
DEADLINE: Was there a rock bottom?
FEIG: This is going to sound so political, and it’s not. I got hired to do a series of Internet spots for Macy’s. There were different spokespeople — Martha Stewart, the designer Rachel Roy, Tommy Hilfiger and Donald Trump. I helped develop and write these funny spots. Normal-person situations, and here comes this famous person to use the power of their brand to make it better. Martha Stewart goes to a fraternity house and gives the place a makeover. I did one with Donald Trump, and he was fine and I don’t want to sound like I’m shitting on these spots, but I wanted to be making movies and here I’m making things for the Internet. It would be one thing if I was doing it on top of the stuff I loved. I was having a hard time with that. And Donald was nice, but they’re like, “He has to be out the door in an hour.” I’m running around killing myself going, “Please don’t let Donald get mad at me.” We got him out just in time, and he was happy, and I was just like, “Oh my God, he’s so happy.” All my energy had gone into getting Donald out of there, and I realized I had to shoot all this other stuff, and I’m almost having a breakdown and this poor ad agency is watching.
I remember going home that night and going, “I’m just miserable. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. What’s happening?” And it was either that night or the next day, my agent called and said, “Hey, that thing that you went to the table read for, that wedding movie, the one that was dead, it looks like it’s alive again.” That was Bridesmaids. But I was in such a weird place, I thought, “I don’t want to be saved by Judd Apatow, again. He was so instrumental in getting Freaks and Geeks on the air, and here I was, at my low point and I can’t have Judd pull me out of a hole again. So I said to my agent, “Do not pitch me for it. Here’s what you can do: Send them a list of potential directors, and put my name on that list with a bunch of other people.” He did, and five minutes later, I got a call from Judd. “OK, so here’s what we’re going to do.” And it’s just like, and it’s this moment of, like, “Oh my God, I just got another swing. And the whole time we were making Bridesmaids, I said, “If I blow this, it’s strike three and I’m dead and buried and gone.”
DEADLINE: Was it not obvious during that shoot that one of you would wind up the A-list director of Ghostbusters, the other the Republican Party nominee for president of the United States?
FEIG: Back then it was like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to work with Donald Trump? He’s this kind of interesting, extreme personality.” It was fun, and the spot’s very funny. It’s this cute little kid who was awkward and weird, and Trump comes in and turns him into a Trump Jr. with a Trump suit. Not long ago, Trump released this online thing, “And those female Ghostbusters, what’s going on with that?” I was like, “Hey, Donald, remember, we were foxhole buddies for a while.”
DEADLINE: It removes the guilt if he realizes who you are and asks you to shoot campaign spots.
FEIG: Which I will not do. But I liked the guy as a person.