Director’s Notebook: ‘The Heat’ Director Paul Feig on How Test Screenings Shaped His Favorite Scene

Director’s Notebook: ‘The Heat’ Director Paul Feig on How Test Screenings Shaped His Favorite Scene

Oct 15, 2013

In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to Paul Feig about his follow-up to Bridesmaids, the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy comedy The Heat (out October 15).


After years of directing episodic TV (ranging from Freaks and Geeks, which he created with the help of Judd Apatow, to Nurse Jackie) Paul Feig has established himself as a go-to for feature-length comedies thanks to the breakout success of Bridesmaids. He’s now followed that by reteaming with Melissa McCarthy for the buddy-cop laugher The Heat. McCarthy weaves spontaneous comedic gold as the hard-nosed Boston cop Mullins, while Sandra Bullock plays the “straight man” in this duo, Ashburn, a stuck-up, by-the-book FBI agent.

In Feig’s favorite scene, the two get to know each other at a dive bar, which quickly gets out of hand as the ladies get drunk and wreck havoc.

Here, Feig gives us some of the mechanics that go behind making a scene like this work, and why for him test screenings are an integral part in putting the final touches on it.

There’s nothing we need to accomplish here other than fun.”

“The bar scene was always something I was looking forward to shooting. I always like doing those scenes that kind of are in service of the story but also where you go, okay we can actually have fun here. In Bridesmaids it was the airplane scene. I knew it was just going to be fun to see Kristen [Wiig]’s character drunk and all the stuff we came up for her. It was the same with this because we just created these areas to work in. We knew we had our scripted thing where they are kind of bonding at the bar, but after that we just came up with stuff—like the dancing part, I just wanted to see them dance. [Screenwriter] Katie [Dippold] wrote a bunch of really funny scenarios and we shot those but they were a jumping-off point and one of my favorites is when they tape up their faces with scotch tape and make each other laugh. In the DVD I put in basically the whole 10-minute take of that.

“I wanted Sandra and Melissa to be comfortable [in the scene] but because of logistics we had to shoot it two weeks into principal photography. I kept trying to move it because I wanted them to know each other better, but it turned out to be great because it’s a scene of them bonding but they don’t really know each other, so the timing worked out really well. They bonded pretty quickly but they became even closer doing those vignettes together.

“We shot the bar scene over two-to-three days. You have to get all the dialogue in the bar right, and that’s a lot of playing. It’s very scripted but also everyone is writing jokes on Post-its and passing them to me, so that was fun. Then we got to the bits of drunkenness, then it becomes a free-for-all in a controlled chaos sort of way. With the Scotch tape bit literally the only line was 'Ashburn and Mullins take shots,' so to me that’s the scariest and most fun thing. There’s nothing we need to accomplish here other than fun. So originally I thought we’d do it all at the bar, we started at the bar and then I thought I didn’t want to stay at the bar, it would be visually boring, so I looked around and saw they had this checkered-board table on the set so I said let’s pull it over here and maybe they’ll just do shots checkers, that would be a different way for them to down shots. So I told Sandra and Melissa and they kind of gave me a look like that’s a lame idea, and I was like let’s just try it. I went to set up the camera and I come back and they had called for a roll of Scotch tape and they tapped their faces all up. So I just walked into that going okay this is weird and hilarious. They just started doing this stuff. I was just crying laughing. The bits are in the movie but you don’t get that same energy when it’s cut up, so that’s why I’m happy we have the extended take on the DVD. You can hear us laughing in the background when they discover the tape. That’s the stuff I live for. In the moment, two people just making each other crack up. If you can figure out how to get that in a film you’re in great shape. But there was a lot to manage in that drunken sequence. We had so much stuff and had to figure out what to cut.

“I’ve been burned so many times thinking something is going to be hilarious and then it doesn’t get the laughs that you want and you go, s**t, what happened? But I was pretty certain the bar scene would play because it was fun and I picked a fun song but we played with it a lot. There was a lot more dancing in the first cut. You can tell when people are getting fatigued. You want to go in with everything that’s funny but you can pay the price down the line because you wear the audience out. It was the same with the airplane scene in Bridesmaids, that could have easily been a 20-minute scene, but there’s a point when you know that’s too much.”

“…I want the laughs of a real audience.”

“It’s all about test audiences. I’ll let some people watch a cut but I’m much more dependent on a test audience. I start my test screenings two-to-three weeks into my director’s cut and then I’ll do them every two weeks, and not with friends or family, I want the laughs of a real audience. Our personal friends who are in comedy, they laugh at different stuff and I’ve been burned in the past by showing it to friends and family and thinking it’s all killing and then you get in front of your first test audience and they don’t laugh through half of it. When it’s comedy professionals we want to twist stuff, 'Oh, you see this all the time, you should twist this,' but with a real audience it’s too hip for the room. I know some people who are horrified by test audiences but I really rely on them. If you’re making a drama, yeah, it’s a different thing, but the 10-week director’s cut can be the worst thing you can go through, because you fall in love with everything. No one is immune to it, I’m certainly not. So if you start the test screenings two weeks in you think it’s working but you aren’t sure and you throw it up [on-screen] and see what people think.

“We did 10 test screenings [for The Heat] so we tweaked the scene 10 times, and by the end it was micro tweaks. But we record the laughs and that’s our bible. Test audiences fill out these questionnaires, which is whatever, and they do this focus group. We always go to the recording. It’s something that Judd [Apatow] started doing. I think people were doing it before. I know people who will record the audience on night vision to see if they are shifting in their seat or look bored, that’s too much information for my taste. [Laughs] It’s totally empirical evidence. You get in the editing room and you get notes from the studio, it’s very easy to resolve stuff, you go, 'Well, let’s go to the tape.' That happens to me all the time.”

 

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