2011’s Bridesmaids undeniably put female-driven comedies back on the map, but whether or not the film continues to have a ripple effect throughout the industry, director Paul Feig is here to ensure Hollywood’s funniest leading ladies get their well-deserved time in the spotlight.
Feig had been supporting female-driven art long before Bridesmaids, having directed a number of episodes of “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie,” but after snagging two Academy Award nominations and an incredible $288.4 million at the worldwide box office, Bridesmaids was an industry game changer, putting Feig in prime position to jump aboard The Heat, another feature with a pair of ladies at the helm.
Sandra Bullock leads as Ashburn, an FBI special agent who’s dedicated her entire life to taking down criminals and climbing her way up the ranks. All that’s standing between her and her next big promotion is a brutal drug lord. Ashburn saunters up to Boston ready to solve the case solo like always. Trouble is, this time around, the only way to get her target behind bars is by partnering up with a local cop who knows the streets. Even more jarring for Ashburn, this new partner is Melissa McCarthy’s Mullins. She’s foul-mouthed, brash, and as crude as they come. Essentially, she is the exact opposite of Ashburn.
While making the rounds in honor of The Heat‘s June 28th release, Feig sat down with ComingSoon.net to offer a sense of what makes him the king of female-driven comedies and what it took to ensure this film rocked a laugh out loud effect from beginning to end while also respecting its leads.
ComingSoon.net: You’re kind of like the king of female-driven comedies now. I think I even read an article that called you an honorary woman. Paul Feig: Oh, yeah! Jezebel called me that. I was very flattered by that! I’ll take it! [Laughs]
CS: What are the dos and don’ts of female-driven comedies compared to ones with male leads, if any? Feig: You want to make it true to women. This movie was not like, “Well, it’s written for two guys, but we’re gonna put to ladies in there.” That already, the math is off because there’s different ways that men and women process the world and different ways their story would take a trajectory, I think. And, you know, the fact that Katie Dippold wrote this and this was her brainchild, the DNA was there for it. But then, moving forward from that, my whole thing is just, I need to, as the man in the middle of it all, I have to deputize everybody around me to call me on it. All the women, as we did on “Bridesmaids” and we did on this, which is, I have an idea or something and if they go, “I don’t know if we would do that.” It’s like, “Okay. Then, good. Tell me how you would do it,” and not go, “Come on! Do it! Who cares?” It’s really as simple as that. It’s just a lot of heavy vetting.
CS: Can you talk more about putting yourself in that process? What do you think makes you the guy to direct this one in particular? Feig: Because it’s me. [Laughs] I don’t know! I mean, because I wanted to, I should say. [Laughs] I don’t know. Honestly, it’s just because I have such an appreciation for funny women. They really make me laugh. It’s my favorite thing in the world to be around funny women. Just last night I was hanging out with Jamie [Denbo] and Jessica [Chaffin] who play the women in the Mullins family and they’re just so funny. There’s something about woman’s humor that I feel very in-tune with. I think it’s just I hung out with a lot of women and a lot of girls were my friends growing up. I had a lot of bullies, so I’d always kind of run over to girls and like, “Let’s just hang out. Can I hang with you guys and let’s just laugh?” And it’s kind of carried through. For me, I just feel very protective of them and anything I do, I don’t want it where it’s making fun of them or putting them in a bad light. Obviously they’re gonna have conflict and they’re gonna have things that aren’t attractive that are happening, but at the same time, I never want it to be mean-spirited towards them. That’s something that I feel like sometimes in guy comedy there’s a mean-spiritedness towards the women.
CS: How is it walking the line between having an audience laugh with the characters and not at them? Feig: You have to be very true to the characters. What you don’t ever want is for yourself to be laughing at the people or the people playing them to be laughing at them. That’s what I’m very sensitive to is when I can tell an actor doesn’t like the character that they’re playing or have a contempt for the character they’re playing, then I don’t like it because you’re not being true to it. That’s what George Bernard Shaw said, “All men mean well,” so it’s really like everybody, even a bad guy, you’ve got a reason why you’re being a bad guy. Like Helen in “Bridesmaids,” we never wanted to make her a villain. I always wanted, “No, she has a very pure reason why she’s doing this.” She thinks she’s protecting Maya [Rudolph]’s character from this loser-ish friend that she interprets to be a loser and so she’s like, “Hey, come on, we just want to get you away from her,” but that’s a very pure instinct. It’s not like, “I’m gonna f*** this girl over,” and be mean. I don’t buy that and so, for us, if we’re being true to the people and they have a heart and their motives are real, then it’s harder to laugh at them. I think you are laughing with them even though you’re kind of laughing at what they’re doing. You’re not laughing at them as a person in a contemptible way.
CS: Can you tell me about packing “The Heat,” especially your two leads? Was it Sandra and Melissa or nothing? Feig: For me it was always them or nothing. When the script came to me I was told that Sandra was interested, so I was like, “Awesome,” because I wanted to work with her and then Melissa and I had been trying to figure out something to do for a long time and the minute I read it, I was like, “This is so great for her.” There was a moment where scheduling looked like it might not work out for either one of them and so the studio was like, “Well, who else?” Honestly, there’s plenty of women I love who I want to work with, but I was like, I don’t know. These two, for some reason, this combo feels like gold to me, and so we pushed it through.
CS: Were those two characters as we see them in the final film from Day One or did they change at all once casting was official? Feig: It was written very much for those characters, and what we do is, once we cast, we just kind of fine tune. And I do rehearsals and improv sessions with the actors very early, weeks and weeks before we start shooting, and Katie and I are there and that helps us to see what their instinct is and what they’re comfortable with and how they build the character. I really love my actors to build their characters organically because they’re the ones that have to inhabit it and they’re the ones that have to be funny inhabiting it without trying to be funny, and so if it’s very organic to who they are or who they want to play, then they can just slip into it. Again, going back to Rose, Rose Byrne who played Helen, who was not known as comedic or an improv actress, if she becomes that character then she just becomes very funny because it’s just the way she naturally deals with the world that’s hilarious. Sandra, who hadn’t done a lot of improv, same thing with her. The first rehearsal we did, the improv, she was either nervous or she just kind of makes this thing of like, “I’m just gonna talk,” and she kept talking and she kind of wouldn’t let Melissa talk, when she was talking she was doing things with her hands to illustrate things and Melissa would just be like, “You don’t shut up. You never shut the f*** up,” and it’s just like, that’s the funny! I like that! I know that then naturally on the set, they’re just gonna fall into that.
CS: It sounds like you’ve got your process down, but what about in terms of what they like to do? Can you be the same actor’s director for both Sandra and Melissa? Feig: Oh, totally! That’s one of the biggest jobs, as a director, is to figure out how each person works. When I worked on “Weeds” it was funny because Mary-Louise Parker is this amazing actress and the biggest compliment to me is, Oh my god. That was hilarious!’ I get really happy about when something’s funny and to her, it was just like that’s the last thing she wanted to hear because she’s so in the moment. She didn’t respond to it, so I was like, okay, I’ve gotta figure out more with my direction how do I make sure that I’m helping her as an actress, giving her the direction in the way that she needs to hear it, and that’s the way it is with everybody you work with, really. Everybody’s got a different thing they need from you.
CS: What about Sandra and Melissa specifically? What’d they need from you? Feig: Melissa and I have such a shorthand now. It’s very easy to work with her. I feel like sometimes I even come up and I don’t even say complete sentences. It feels very, very easy with her, and Sandy was great. She was really easy to work with, too. She liked when I would give her more jokes. We always had a lot of writers on the set coming up with jokes and they’re handing me Post-it notes and all that, so she likes a lot of input in that way, and giving her alternate stuff, which also she vets it really hard, too. She always needs to make sure that every joke or anything she’s saying makes perfect sense to her and feels germane to the character, which I love. Again, if somebody’s saying something that’s out of character, then I don’t want that and if we have a joke that bumps her that way, it’s like, well how can we say this in a way that will work for you? And then when we find it, it’s ten times funnier.
CS: There is clearly a good deal of improv going on here because from the trailer to the final feature, I picked up on a lot of different takes being used for each. Did you ever have a particularly tough time choosing between takes? Feig: I hate when the trailers wear out all the jokes in the movies and you see it and it’s like, “Oh, there’s that joke.” As long as the joke that is in the movie is as funny or funnier than the one in the trailer, then we’ll do it. There’s so many hard choices you have to make when you work this way because you get so much funny stuff. When they have the Scotch Tape on their faces? Honestly, I could have done a 10-minute scene on that. It was the funniest thing I ever saw. But now it’s on the DVD extras. We’re putting the whole take on there. I love the extra stuff so much. DVDs have made it much easier, because it used to be you had things you loved and you’re like, “If we don’t put it in, no one’s ever gonna see it” so you’re kind of jamming things in, there’s too much, and now it’s just like, “Put it on the DVD.” It’s great!
CS: A standout element of this film is the editing and pacing. Certain jokes hit so much harder, because they come with the perfect cut. Are you able to envision that while you’re on set or do those cuts pop up solely in the editing process? Feig: It’s both. There’s a lot of jokes you know like, “Okay, there’s gonna be a hard cut here. This is how we’re gonna make this happen.” It’s hard sometimes when people who don’t know the editing process come to the set because they’re watching complete takes like it’s the movie, so, “Well, that didn’t work because this and that,” and I’m just going, “Okay, I need that line. Okay. Got that line. I got that moment. I can cut to here. I can cut to there,” so I’m just really cherry-picking and just trying to get what I need. Sometimes I’ll do whole takes just because I need one line that I didn’t like the performance on. So there’s a lot of that, but then I have amazing editors I get to work with. Brent White and Jay Deuby who did this one, they do all of Will Ferrell’s movies, they do all of Judd [Apatow]’s movies, so these guys really know. You get into thing like B-side laugh on a cut where you cut at a certain thing and where you’re cutting to provides a laugh to just set up something like that. That’s fun when you’re watching with an audience going, “Cool.” It’s fun when you can affect something artificially. I really enjoy that.
CS: I told you before, but I’ve seen the film twice and really appreciate its re-watch value. Does that register for you at all while you’re making it? Feig: Oh yeah. I love sort of “The Simpsons” way where you make it so, dense is not the right word, but just make sure everything is great so then it is fun. That’s why I’m so reliant on the test screening process because every two weeks we’ll do a big recruited screening with people off the street and then we record the laughs because if something gets a big, solid laugh, it’s good. If it gets a chuckle, we’re like, eh, let’s try to top that. So by the time we lock the movie after like 10 test screenings, we know that all the jokes are really strong, and that’s what makes you want to watch something again because it’s all your favorite scenes. When I was a kid, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” every scene that comes up, you’re like, “Oh! That’s my favorite scene! Oh, no! That’s my favorite scene!” I always want to get rid of transitionary sort of, “And here’s where they set something up.” Everything needs to have a purpose whether it’s character based, it’s got a joke, it’s moving the story forward. What we get to do it so cool that why waste a frame of it?