SXSW: Paul Feig on Spy, Ghostbusters and Women in Film


Paul Feig Ghostbusters Spy

Back in 2009, Paul Feig directed then up-and-comer Melissa McCarthy to an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Bridesmaids. The two reteamed immediately thereafter for the buddy cop comedy The Heat and now have their latest, Spy, hitting theaters in June.

Featuring a massive ensemble cast that also includes Jason Statham, Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, Morena Baccarin and many more, Spy features McCarthy as CIA Agent Susan Cooper, who, despite yearning for some action in the field, has been stuck working an office job, playing second fiddle to Statham and Law’s super agents. That all changes, however, when a twist of fate puts Cooper in the crosshairs, giving her a chance to prove herself and, just maybe, save the day. caught up with Feig at Austin’s SXSW were, in addition to Spy, he also talked about his upcoming fourth feature with McCarthy: the much-anticipated Ghostbusters reboot. Check it all out below and come back later in the week for video interviews with Feig, Cannavale and Statham!

CS: Where did Spy begin for you?

Paul Feig: I love spy movies and I love action thrillers when they’re good. Especially the spy genre. I’m a big Bond fanatic and a fan of Bourne and all that. I always wanted to do one but was very aware that no one is going to let a comedy nerd direct a James Bond movie. It was when we were in post on “The Heat” and “Skyfall” was out where I was thinking, “Man, I really want to do something like that.” We had action elements in “The Heat,” but I really wanted to take it further. Then I thought, “Why don’t I just write my own?” I love working with funny women, so let me actually create this female character. What’s the most relatable way to do it? She’s someone who wanted to be a spy and then maybe her boss made her feel like she couldn’t. Then she gets this opportunity to go out and really be a spy. It really just kind of came together in my head.

CS: It’s a very interesting film to see coming from 20th Century Fox right after Kingsman: The Secret Service, because both films offer very different twists on the big screen spy genre.

Feig: I still haven’t seen it! I want to because Matthew Vaughn is one of my very favorite directors. We’ve just been so buried on ours. I believe that has more of a male vibe to it.

CS: You’re also taking an approach that seems to change the characters moreso than the genre conventions.

Feig: That was really important to me. I don’t like when comedy is trying to be funny. I think that the funniest way to do anything is to have the stakes be real and the danger be real. It goes all the way back to “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Funny people in peril is a very good, fertile ground for comedy. Especially for performers to have things to react to and to allow for moments of character fun. For me, I just love the comedy of human interaction and behavioral comedy. I just went through beat by beat and asked, “How would I deal with things if this happened to me in the field?” It was about figuring out the best obstacles to come up against. I also wanted to make sure that she was a smart spy. I did some research in the beginning about male versus female spies. A lot of research shows that women actually make better spies than men, because so much of it is about gaining people’s trust and being able to interact with people effectively. Being able to persuade them. Men are kind of a little more brawn over that. Women are really good at that. It was kind of a nice validation of this idea. It was really important to me and, obviously, to Melissa, too, that Susan always be smart. She’s finding her way and she does make mistakes, but they’re not stupid mistakes. When we first got announced, a lot of the reports said, “Melissa is going to play a bumbling spy.” She’s not bumbling. I don’t ever want to do that. That’s just silly. You have to feel like this person has a skill set. Melissa is like an everyperson. That’s what gives her such power. Audiences see her and think, “I could do that! That could be me!” or at least “I hope I could do that!”

CS: This is your third film with Melissa McCarthy with a fourth on the way. Is this a pairing that you think will continue for some time?

Feig: We just go project to project, mostly. We have so much fun together, though. I didn’t even write “Spy” for Melissa, because I didn’t think she was available. She was doing “Mike & Molly” and I was planning to shoot this in the fall of the previous year. She read it and just loved it so much. She really got the character and said she wanted to do it. I didn’t even really have to adjust the script that much. She’s such a chameleon and I wrote the part for this everywoman. She just slipped right into it. Then what we do is have like a rehearsal two months before we start shooting. She and Rose [Byrne] came in and read and improvised some stuff. We try to find their natural take on the character and then I rewrite for that. By the time they hit the set, they just slide into it.

CS: There’s also an impressive ensemble supporting cast in Spy and I realized that one of the sort of meta effects of seeing so many familiar faces is that one isn’t certain exactly how significant each part will be, making for some nice surprises. Is that intentional or just a nice benefit of working with so many familiar faces?

Feig: I really wanted to make people feel like they were watching a real spy movie. It’s funny. When I had people read the script, they’d read the part that Jason Statham plays and they’d go, “So that’s for someone like Will Ferrell, right?” They always assumed it had to be someone comedic first and foremost. I had actually written it for Jason. We need that level of credibility so that you’re not sure and that you can be thrown. Plus, it’s just funnier. I know how funny Will Ferrell is and he’d be hilarious playing a sort of over-testosterone’d spy off his game. To have an actual guy that you’ve seen in those kind of movies succeeding fall apart that way just makes it funnier.

CS: You mentioned that the spy genre is sort of an alternate expansion of the cops in The Heat. Does Ghostbusters similarly fall into that pattern?

Feig: The only real connection for me is that I’m having a lot of fun playing with genres. Especially since I like working with women. I like to ask, “What haven’t I seen women in that would be a cool role for them to play?” Ghostbusters kind of just came about because they were talking to me about doing the sequel and I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. You have to carry over something that started 25 years ago and you have an already-established mythology. I don’t know. I couldn’t get my head around it. I’m sure someone else could have, but it was sitting dormant forever. I was only when I realized that I love this property and I love the idea of this. I mean, I love the original film, but I also just love the idea of busting ghosts and kind of paranormal warriors. I thought, “You know, if I could do this with the funny women I know and kind of just do a new origin story…” I’m more interested in what would happen today. You know, you see things on TV about ghosts, but none of it’s real. What if, suddenly, something started happening? What happens when that just begins to happen to people? Also, how do they develop their technology? It’s not as fun if they’re just handed their proton packs. It’s why it’s not as fun to do a sequel. The fun is getting there. The first Iron Man is so much fun because the road to becoming “Iron Man” is so much fun. “Iron Man 2” wasn’t as much fun because we already knew what he could do. This just, to me, felt more fertile.

CS: When you’re approaching a new genre, do you immerse yourself in films you love or do you try to pull back from that?

Feig: I try not to do that. I know a lot of filmmakers do. What I don’t like is the feeling that maybe I’m copying stuff. I just try to remember things I’ve loved in the past and try to get it to twist me into new directions. I get a little nervous about studying too heavily. The hardest thing in writing is when you have “They do this and then they do this” and you have to stop and ask yourself, “Would they really then do that or is that just the plot convention that we’ve seen so many times?” You have to go back to the character. If I was that person, what would I honestly do in that situation. A lot of the time, it takes you on a left turn that people don’t expect and haven’t seen before. Then you get the laugh of, “Oh my god! I didn’t think she was going to do that!” That, to me, is everything.

CS: Spy also balances the notion of being a more movie-style spy in the field while simultaneously having CIA employees actually exist in a realistic office.

Feig: I’m glad you say that! I really enjoy the mundanity of what is glorified in movies and all that. The magic of editing makes anything exciting. I could film a bunch of people in their office and then add cool music and cut around and you’d go, “That’s the most exciting office ever!” If you’re there, though, it’s just people getting through their day, waiting for the minutes to tick by. I visited the FBI and I talked to CIA people and all that. Most of it is fairly mundane. What I wanted to do for this was have someone move from that mundanity out into the field who has kind of dreamed of that world and let them get out and go, “This is exciting!” But it’s also dangerous. That’s what makes it real to me.

CS: You always offer such great supporting roles. Are you constantly making note of talent that you’d like to potentially work with?

Feig: Yeah, it’s a long, long list. There are so many talented people. There are lot of funny women, especially, who are waiting in the wings. They’re doing their own stuff, but are just waiting to be bumped up. It’s really exciting to me that Amy Schumer is getting her shot here with what Judd [Apatow] is doing with her. There are so many women like that. The “Broad City” girls. The list is endless of all these talented people. For me, when I do a movie, I have a real aversion to wasting one second of screen time. You have these roles that are one line or two line parts. Usually that’s where the studio says, “We’ll go with a local hire.” To me, though, whenever anyone walks on screen that isn’t charismatic or doesn’t give me something a little more than I might expect, it’s a waste. Fortunately, I have this amazing team of people who are really great waiting to come in and do these one-liners. In “The Heat,” we had that whole Mullins family thing. That scene didn’t have any scripted lines, but Nate Corddry and Jamie Denbo, through improv on the set, suddenly had one of the funniest bits in the movie with the whole, “Are you a narc?” If I bring those people in, they’re going to give me more than I want. I don’t just want the lines on the page. I need those and I’ll fall back on those. Zach Woods can come in as the paramedic. He’s in “Spy” and he’s hilarious. He gets a huge laugh with a really small part. His lines weren’t scripted, but a really inventive person like that is going to bring you that actual second of screen time.

CS: I did want to ask about these rumors we’re hearing about an expanded Ghostbusters “cinematic universe.” Is that something that you’re involved in on beyond the first film at all? Are you building towards something bigger?

Feig: I’m just concentrated on mine. That’s kind of big plan that Ivan [Reitman] and Sony have. We’ll see if mine ends up tying into theirs. I’m not involved with that right now at all. My only goal is to get my ladies doing their thing.

CS: Do you think that things are getting better for women in Hollywood?

Feig: Not at the rate they should be. It’s moving very, very slowly. The projects pop up, but the projects are often mundane and drawing on the same characters and same situations. “My man cheated on me!” or it’s about revenge against a husband. You’re still not getting those things where — I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman. It’s almost like gender blind in the role itself, but then you have a woman act like a man. That’s why “The Heat” was so important to me. I wanted to have two professionals who are dedicated to their jobs. We’ve seen a million times cops dedicated to their jobs who aren’t spending enough time with their families and all that. I wanted to do that with women, but also hit real women’s issues. It’s two professional women who don’t have the support group of other women who are fellow professionals. But then, on the surface, it’s largely gender blind because it’s a buddy cop movie. It is slowly happening. It should be much faster, but there should be more female filmmakers allowed to do it. I have guilt that I’m a 52-year-old white male. I mean, I’m thrilled I get to do it and I would die if I couldn’t, but there should be more.

Catch Spy in theaters on June 5.

(Photo Credit: Andres Otero /