Dialogue: Paul Feig on Bridesmaids, Female Comedy and Surviving Movie Jail

Dialogue: Paul Feig on Bridesmaids, Female Comedy and Surviving Movie Jail

May 12, 2011

Judd Apatow has given a lot of young of up-and-coming filmmakers an opportunity to express themselves, including Greg Mottola, Nicholas Stoller, and Jake Kasdan. All of which is why it’s surprising that it took until the new film Bridesmaidsto reunite with his Freaks and Geeks co-creator Paul Feig, who’s certainly no first-timer but he has languished, as he himself confessed, in “movie jail.” Thankfully, their new collaboration is as funny and heartwarming as their work on the critically-acclaimed but ratings-deficient show that first brought them together. Movies.com recently sat down with Feig in Los Angeles to talk about his work on Bridesmaids; in addition to discussing his juggling act getting the film’s gender-neutral comedy to work, he talked candidly about his previous career doldrums, and the challenges of keeping oneself honest, both creatively and commercially.

Movies.com: Judd has sort of pioneered the way that modern comedies are, which is that it’s not as much about a discernible plot as these sort of set pieces that connect together. How do you make sure that everything fits together, and at the same time you don’t diminish the set pieces?

Paul Feig: It started on Freaks and Geeks, the way that we faced this. I’m not a big plot fan - I’m just not into the plot that much, because plot gets so confusing after a while, and you don’t need that much of a plot to hang people along. What you need is a story of somebody doing something that you care about, and you’re desperately rooting for them to overcome it. And what Judd has done brilliantly is he’s taken what you can get away with on TV and made it okay to do it in movies, through good box office and through early fights and through hiring hilarious people that people want to watch.

But it’s whatever gets you to the end of the movie and say, this is great, I’m telling my friends about it. That’s all that matters. Who cares about anything else? So he’s able to pioneer that thing, and [although] we haven’t worked together since Freaks and Geeks, it felt very comfortable because we’re just doing like in a way this is like a big episode of Freaks and Geeks because it’s a very simple story about somebody going through a crisis. And so when you’re writing it you’re just, you know, that’s how you just write the story. It’s like okay, what would you do next, what would you do next? If you’re in this situation what would be the next thing you would do? Just think very logically and not let it be event driven.

The thing about movies is, movies tend to be event driven. The plot of a movie is about this blows up, this gets attacked, then these things come in. And in the middle of that are people with stories going through that are being affected and it’s like ah, I’m falling in love with this person as I’m going through these events, which is fine because a great movie can come out of that. Television tends to be more about private epiphanies of a personal journey, of trying to figure this thing out. And like I’m concerned about this, I don’t know where my life is going and I make this… and I have this epiphany oh, I should do this.

And then this leads you off another way. And what he’s been able to do is take those, make those kind of plots commercial by hanging all this other window dressing on it which is funny people being hilarious, funny set pieces. So then what you have is you’re just invested in these people the whole time, and then you’ll follow them anywhere and you’ll kind of sit through anything and put up with them if you do it right you know.

Movies.com: You guys repeatedly manage to sort of subvert expectations for what will happen with these characters, such as how the flight to Vegas becomes the entirety of their Vegas bachelorette trip. Was that always meant to be the way it ends up in the finished film?

Feig: Originally there was a whole scene that took place in Vegas. It was all about going to Vegas and all this stuff going on and stayed there for a long time. And then because of the hangover and everything, it was just always eating at all of us like I don’t know, it’s just going to feel like the hangover again if we do that. They nailed Vegas so well that all we could do was like a pale represent—you know, kind of recreate what they did. And so I remember I just had a moment where it was just like what if they never get to Vegas. What if just everything goes wrong on the plane and they get kicked off the plane and they all got to go?

Movies.com: The first real sort of showdown between Annie and Helen is at the engagement party where they give the speech-off. How tough was it to make sure you didn’t outright hate Helen from the first moment the audience meets her?

Feig: I always faced that speech-off as it’s not so much Rose’s character, Helen, is competing with Annie. To me it was like Annie is competing with Helen to say this is my best friend before you. And Helen is such a perfectionist for parties, she keeps trying to create this perfect moment of “…and now the speeches are over.” So she was kind of, “and now we’re done,” and Annie would come back up continuously, and she had to come back up like, “…and now we’re done.” But she had to end it herself. So that’s to me how I could kind of justify that battle of them, that it was always them just kind of being competitive after different things, which you know, in giving it another layer. Honestly, whether it comes out or not, even with Helen, I also had this motivation for her in my head and I tried to put it in rewrites and all that, that she looked at Annie as being a toxic friend for Lillian. You know, you have a new friend, and you go, my friend’s so great. I don’t think this friend is probably best for them so I’m just going to try to very nicely ease them out of their life. So as long as there’s a motivation that’s real that I think you can kind of get away with that stuff.

Movies.com: It’s also interesting that after she plans the “perfect” wedding it’s still kind of weirdly tacky at the same time. You think that’s it’s going to be this super elegant thing and there’s all kinds of crazy stuff.

Feig: Yeah. Because we just liked the idea that even somebody that perfect has bad taste. That just felt very real to me.

Movies.com: This movie really has the cleanest scatological payoff in any comedy I’ve ever seen. Particularly in terms of ending the whole food-poisoning sequence, how tough was it to know how far to go without just completely disgusting the audience?

Feig: [We knew] we’ve got the payoff of Maya shitting in the street. But you see that they use it all the time in the trailers which is, there was another version of where she’s running and literally shits her pants so hard that it knocks her off her feet like she got shot in the back. It depends on… they keep using it that’s what you see in that ads, like she hits the ground. And it was funny because that was the first thought, and I remember Annie Mumolo going like or she could do this, and she literally acted it out in the room. We went “that’s really funny,” but we shot them all because that’s what it kind of comes down to when you’re doing comedy. And Judd’s the big purveyor of this and I have done it to an extent but not to the extent that he kind of got me into doing it, which is shooting so much extra material. Because the philosophy that he and I have always had is that you want to be armed with stuff when you get into the editing room. So when you’re shooting always be thinking in the editing room, [because] you never want to go, oh shoot, I bet I’m going to need this, or I’m going to wish I had this.

Movies.com: How much back and forth is there in fine-tuning in the editing then with exactly how things pay off, both comedically and dramatically?

Feig: We have this amazing editor, Bill Kerr, who did Superbad and Greek, who did Sarah Marshall, who’s able to take [on the footage] before I even get in there and I make my notes, when we’re in production and I think, here’s the way to do this or that. But we had over a million feet of film we shot, 220 hours worth of stuff or whatever. To just sit there and take all that and combine and recombine and try this, and then we make pods, like here’s a different version of the scene. And we have them lined up so then when you go into the test screenings this didn’t work, or, that worked pretty well, but let’s try to top it. Or that worked great, but let’s put another thing in and see if it works even better, and you’re mixing and matching and then you’re fine tuning. You know, it’s such a collaboration of a lot of different points of view.

Because none of us on our own. I don’t think any of us would be making stuff that was that good - and I think that’s the downfall of a lot of people who used to make great stuff who aren’t making good stuff anymore or as good - because you need input. It’s a collaborative medium, especially comedy, you can’t make it in a vacuum, because nobody knows. I mean all of us have had stuff we write and go, this is going to destroy, there’s no way this isn’t going to work, and you put it in front of an audience—nothing. And you’re like, what the fuck happened? But it’s just they’re bringing something to it.

Movies.com: Well, at this point are you consciously moving into doing more film stuff now, and away from the TV work you’ve done in the past?

Feig: Yeah. I very much hope to stay in movies. I mean, I loved doing television and I would love to again create another show. The fun about TV is that you get to create a group of characters in a situation, but most importantly a group of characters, that then you can explore slowly over a long period of time. But what’s hard about movies, and the challenge I love about movies or a play, or anything that’s like a set two-hourish kind of thing, is that you have to in the most effective way introduce people to people they don’t know, in a situation they don’t know, make them care about them so much that they will follow them for two hours, and at the end they will feel satisfied that they have been through the wringer with these people and come out on the other side.

That’s the hardest thing in the world to do because you’re just introducing a lot of stuff, and everything has to be kind of tight. So that to me is thrilling. And I’m still just a sucker for the theatrical experience. I mean it’s great that you can watch movies in your house and it’s great that TVs are getting bigger, but I like being surrounded by something. Especially with my love of kind of small plots and small things, when they’re large on a giant screen they become big, and that’s kind of exciting to have like a small thing that you don’t think about during the day become this giant thing, but then you know just ups the importance and ups the journey you go through. So yeah, I’m definitely hoping to stay in film.

But just on a political thing, I’ve been in movie jail for four years. After Unaccompanied Minors which I’m happy with but it didn’t come out the way it was supposed to because of politics, it was a terrible feeling to not be able to get another movie. Not that I’m saying oh, TV, I had to do it; I love doing television. The time I spent on The Office and on Nurse Jackie, getting to work on that, and all those things, it’s been fantastic and such a learning experience. But now I kind of want the next phase of storytelling, which is to do this type of thing.

Movies.com: You’re one of the few filmmakers I think I’ve ever spoken to who actually acknowledged that they were in movie jail. How hard is it I guess to be honest about the way your work turns out, since obviously you put so much energy and effort into them?

Feig: I think you have to be honest. I mean again, when you start cutting off opinions of people around you, that’s your downfall and that’s the downfall of everybody I’ve ever admired who’s gone off the rails. It’s the hardest thing in the world to read a bad review. It’s the hardest thing in the world to hear bad notes from somebody. But where sometimes it’s just mean-spirited and there’s sometimes when you’re like, I don’t know where you got that, everything has a nugget of truth in it.

You know, every filmmaker in the world will complain about every creative in the world. Oh, the studio notes, these executives want this and that. And I’ve always tried in my career not to fall into that, because sure, you get a lot of bad notes, but are they bad notes, or are they just not bad notes delivered poorly? That’s what it always comes down to because there’s always some glimmer of truth in the middle of something. The notes I like are, I didn’t get this, I didn’t understand this, I don’t know if I like this. Those are valid. I have no defense against those. And generally, it’s like oh, there’s a storytelling problem. I don’t like, well, if it was me I would have this. So if you say something, I go hey, that’s cool, maybe I’ll do that too. But call me on my bullshit because if nobody calls you on your bullshit then you just blithely make something that doesn’t work.

I mean, I’m always obsessed with what I call the fatal flaw. I think really bad movies or movies that have been disastrous have a fatal flaw that presented itself early, in one of the first things up. And everybody would turn a blind eye to it and then put all this hard work on something. You’re dealing with the fact that Robin Williams has a terrible, ridiculous hairdo in Hook. Or in the Godzilla remake, the Godzilla doesn’t look like Godzilla, so that’s a problem. It should look like everything falls in behind it. And so that’s why if you don’t have people empowered around to kind of call you on this shit then you just get into trouble.

But when the thing is done, the meanest thing in the world you can do to a filmmaker, is to go to his premiere and then come up to him and give him notes about what’s wrong with the movie. Because it’s kind of like the timing’s all off. Just tell him it was fine, or you don’t lie to him – go, ah, it didn’t work for me, whatever. But you have to be held accountable. One of the best things I ever went through was right before Freaks and Geeks, I did this movie called Life Sold Separately. It was this little independent film that I shot that still doesn’t exist anywhere except in my house. But I got put on this thing called Flicks Tour which was basically they would fly me with my film into the Midwest, bring me a car, and then they booked me at all these colleges, small colleges. And I’d drive around and show it and do Q&As. And what was great about it and painful about it is you are held accountable every night for your movie because you are sitting there with the people watching the movie, and then you get hit with the feedback from it. And it’s important because what happens is, when you’re sitting in the editing room with your movie you’d be amazed at the shit you think is great. You think oh no, slow it down, I need him to walk all the way to the door, I need him to walk all the way from the car. The minute you sit down in front of an audience, it’s just like, oh my God, this is endless. Why did I do that?

But you don’t get it unless you’re out there watching people in real time and how they react to stuff, what is important to them, what is not important to them, what you were telling them is important that they don’t care about. That’s the learning experience, because you should be making them for the audience and then giving them what they want in a way that pleases you and you don’t feel shitty about it. So that’s why you need that feedback. You need somebody at some point to sit down and go like okay, that last movie here’s, at some point, here’s what I think you did wrong - here’s what you need to fix.

And a lot of times it shouldn’t even be somebody telling you that. It should be you sitting down and saying here’s what happened - because I can tell you everything that’s wrong with the other two movies I’ve made and the mistakes I made. And I can have excuses for some of them, go well, so-and-so made me do this and they wouldn’t not let me do this. But at the end of the day, it’s like with my film school teacher when I was at USC, whenever we’d get up to show one of our little films, he would just go, “no disclaimers, no disclaimers!” He would shout you down. And it’s true. The audience doesn’t give a shit what your shortcomings were and what the obstacles were. They just care about if it’s good, so you’ve got to figure out a way to make it good within those constraints.

Categories: Features
Tags: Bridesmaids
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