Paul Feig is a champion of diversity in the film industry. The director/writer/producer has helmed some of the top female-led movies in the last few years, including Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat, and the remake of Ghostbusters. Sitting down with Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che, the two talked about diversity and film, but mostly comedy, at one of the Tribeca Talks during the Tribeca Film Festival presented by AT&T.
Many may not know that Feig, who rose to fame with the much-loved Freaks and Geeks, started his career as a standup comic. He started at 15 as a funny man, and admits he wasn't that good as a standup, which is why he ultimately found his place behind the camera. Still, he attributed much of his success to his standup days.
“I put a movie together the same way I used to do my standup set,” he said, adding that he films tons of material and then refines it in post-production, much like he would fill a set with more jokes than he could use.
“Standup is like swimming. It works out every muscle,” said Che. “It gives you the immediacy of ‘is this good or not’? (for your material).”
Feig stopped doing standup comedy because he said that when you get it right on stage, you know it and it’s great but you may never repeat that. On film, he said: “Do it right once and it can live on forever,” which is why many of his films and television shows have lasting power.
Still, it’s the characters that make his productions work best, and it just so happens that many of those characters are women. Feig noted that there had been strong women on film and television in the early days, like Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and others, but that the business devolved and the roles for women with it, so that the only roles were as eye candy or as mean women.
“Women had such terrible roles…all these funny women and not enough roles for them,” he said, noting comics like Sarah Silverman and other 90s comics had to settle for nothing roles or start their own shows.
Perhaps because of that, Feig loves telling the stories of women and even feels more comfortable writing for women.
“I really rely on the women around me; my wife, my actors, my writers,” he said.
Even though his Ghostbusters remake took some heat, essentially from uber-fans who didn’t like the fact that it was being remade in the first place (“I didn’t realize that it was the ultimate boys movie,” admitted Feig), he does credit the movie with helping to get more girls interested in the sciences. He also lauded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, plus a growing number of women portraying forensic scientists on television for furthering the cause.
Ultimately, it’s the characters that drive Feig’s stories, like Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious friend role in Bridesmaids, which led him to cast her as a lead in Spy.
“I rely on the actors so much. That’s why I hire funny actors,” said Feig. “I love to hire actors that have the same devotion, the same chemistry as their characters do.”
But those characters also need a great story, and it can’t just be comedy for comedy’s sake. It has to go beyond surface level.
“Great comedy has to have an element of drama,” said Che, adding that a funny movie like Beverly Hills Cop was also deep, murky and dramatic.
“I need a story to propel me forward…You have to drill down to that emotion. You have to have a strong story,” said Feig, while both admitted that sometimes fear can make comedy even funnier.
Che and Feig also talked about comedies not being as respected as dramas, especially when it comes to awards. Feig even laughed that comedies and musicals are in the same category for the Golden Globes, when the two styles couldn’t be more different. Still, they both said that comedy is very difficult to do well, sometimes more so than drama.
“When comedy is done right, it looks easy. That’s the reason why Steve Carrell never won an Emmy for his work on the Office, even though he was so good playing that role,” said Feig.
Awards aren’t something many comedy writers and directors covet, and Feig even said that the worst thing that can come to directors are awards, because then there are expectations beyond the comedy.
“Making people laugh is the ultimate reward,” said Che.
Feig will continue to make people laugh through his writing, producing and direction, and he’ll continue to cast and work with strong, funny women.