Filmmaker Interview with Paul Feig

Interviewed by Film Independent’s Maggie Mackay
Director Paul Feig reveals his long-time mission to bring funny women to the big screen in his charming and illuminating conversation with Film Independent about Bridesmaids.

Maggie Mackay: Just to kick us off, can you give us a little background on how you got involved with the film? I know you’ve had relationships with a lot of the folks involved, including Producer Judd Apatow.

Paul Feig: Judd and I had always been trying to figure out something to work on together, since we did Freaks and Geeks. But we’d both been off in our own worlds. He called me right after he did Knocked Up because he’d asked Kristen to write her own vehicle. So she and her writing partner, Annie Mumolo, wrote the Bridesmaids script. Then Judd was doing a table-read of it and said: “Hey you should come by, this might be a movie you’d be interested in directing.” I went and really liked it, the story was great, there was a lot of funny stuff in the script and I’m a huge Kristen Wiig fan because I’d worked with her (even before Judd) when I cast her in a film I did called Unaccompanied Minors. Kristen and I always liked each other, so it just felt like the right thing. But then we all got busy with other projects so it went away for a while and then at the beginning of last year Judd called up and said it was alive again and I jumped right on it.

MGM: Despite being a raucous, raunchy comedy, the film also deals with some very real, often difficult issues women of a certain age (myself included) have to deal with – watching your girlfriends get married and start families, and getting to this point in your life where you were expecting things to be different. Can you talk a little bit about your first thoughts as you were signing onto such a female-driven project?

PF: I was thrilled because I’ve always wanted to do movies with strong female characters. I never had any fear of doing a woman’s movie. I’d even been flirting around with certain romantic comedies that have come out and done okay, and I thought I could add my voice to those kinds of films – which is to make the women smart and funny and not just concerned with finding the right guy. So that’s why I really connected with this story, even though at first blush you go “eew it’s a wedding movie.” But the wedding just provides the catalyst – it starts with the engagement and then it builds and gets more pressured, people who normally wouldn’t get stuck together do, and so it’s a perfect, perfect thing to make a movie about, just as long as you can stay away from all the clichés.

Also, for me, I know from all the years of auditioning, and making television and movies, that there are a lot of funny women out there. And I thought “oh good, this is something we can really stock [with women] and show the world how funny they can be.” I can’t overstate what a mission it’s been for me for a while. It goes back to Freaks and Geeks, and that was the whole thing with the Lindsay character – I wanted to have this very strong but also fallible female character. Because you also don’t want to put women on a pedestal – you want to do a fair portrayal. I grew up with so many friends who were girls, and so many of the people I did comedy with were women, and the funniest people I always knew were women, so this just felt like a very natural progression.

And the women [in the film] were so wonderful because so many of them already knew each other and come from an improv background, and it’s very hard when you come from improv to be a real diva because you’re so dependent on the people around you. It was such a pleasant set, the women were always, always fun and funny and we just laughed the whole time.

MGM: That’s so nice to hear. Because, even though things have changed a lot in the last few years, that boys club of comedy, which Judd is largely part of, is still so dominant. So it’s nice to see the female side of it. This leads to my next question . . . Writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo were at Groundlings together and had been friends for a long time, can you talk about what it was like to join that fierce twosome and how the three of you worked together?

PF: They’re a really fun, approachable team, but I’m sure they were like any writers – worried about someone coming in and ruining their script. Then they had the added pressure of doing a movie about women and here come two guys. Especially Judd who’s known for his guy-centric comedy – even though its very fully realized, you could look at it and be nervous. But for me it was just always about never dictating anything to them.

Here’s the exact process – once I came on (and this was complicated by the fact that Kristen was off in New York doing Saturday Night Live, so we would send her stuff and she would work with Annie over the phone and on weekends), we would sit down, Judd, Annie and I, (and occasionally some other people to use as sounding boards) and just kind of break the script down and make sure the story was tracking correctly. We would make sure that we had the right set pieces and comedy scenes and that we didn’t have things in there that were funny but had nothing to do with anything. So we’d all work on stuff and then it would go back to Kristen and Annie who would put their stamp on it and make sure it was all honest and not reading like a guy wrote things that a woman wouldn’t say or do. So there was that constant vetting – Judd and I making sure we were getting the commercial stuff we needed for the movie and that the story was tracking honestly, and then Kristen and Annie vetting it to make sure it still remained honest.

MGM: And you all did such a great job of opening this very female-centric world to a larger audience without slighting the reality of those characters. Can you talk a little bit about how you did that?

PF: At the end of the day, people always engage with characters they like and we knew we were in good shape because Kristen is just naturally likeable. We knew we had a challenging character – this is a character who is her own worst enemy and who is also not doing the right thing a lot of the time. So we had to make sure that you cared about her, and one of the things we did to shore that up was to make sure that she wasn’t a total looser. We wanted you to meet a woman who did have it together at one time, but has had a fall from grace or is at a bad point in her life. But the audience had to know that she was redeemable, that there was hope for her, and that she could get back to that good place again.

MGM: I love that you handled that in such a subtle and truthful way and didn’t force everything to get resolved. As outrageous as the comedy is, this all feels so real, especially the female characters around Kristen’s – can you tell us a little bit about the casting?

PF: The casting was definitely my favorite part of the process, that’s when it really comes to life. Judd and I are both of the mindset that you can only work a script for so long before you cast the people. It’s the way we did Freaks and Geeks – once you cast actors you re-write the script for them and bring their personalities into it. It was the same thing with this – even to the point that we used Allison Jones as our Casting Director, whom we’d worked with on Freaks and Geeks and does all of Judd’s and my movies.

So what we do is throw the door open wide, we write up sample speeches that kind of define each character and allow us to see the actor’s personality come out. And we’re not religious about it at all; it’s more like a back-and-forth. Annie Mumolo would always be there and read with the actors, and we’d always do some improv with Annie just to see where the actors’ natural personalities were and what they could bring out [in the characters]. We definitely didn’t want have someone read lines, we wanted people contributing, we wanted their personalities and their senses of humor to come through so the characters could feel real, three dimensional, and fully realized.

We saw a lot of people – like I said, there are a lot of funny women out there – and we slowly started to see the cream of the crop or who was clicking, in context of the film and characters. Then we’d weed it down and pair up the actors or group them, say three at a time, and have them improv amongst themselves and see what the chemistry was.

As far as specific roles – Annie and Kristen wrote the role of Rita specifically for Wendi McLendon-Covey, she was even at that original table read I mentioned before. I knew Ellie Kemper from The Office because I was producing the show the season we cast her as Pam’s replacement. And she’s so funny and smart and a great improviser. And then Melissa [McCarthy] (whose role as Megan was always going to be the fun weirdo role) came on. We saw a lot of different types of women for that role and everyone was very funny, but we were always wondering if we really had it. It was right at the end of the process when Annie and Kristen said “we should see our friend Melissa, we were in Groundlings with her,” (people line up around the block when Melissa performs). Melissa came in and blew us all away – she’s such a force of nature. She came up with the look for that character and took what was on the page and made it so hilarious.

Rose’s part [Helen] was really hard to cast because I was adamant about this not being one of those arch villainous, “rich bitch” characters, because that wasn’t the tone of the movie. So we saw a lot of really good, funny women but it was always feeling a little arch. I didn’t know what to do, but we knew we needed a real actress in this role. Around that time, Judd was just finishing editing Get Him to the Greek and he said: “go down to the editing room and watch some of the footage of Rose Byrne.” I was like “I really like Rose Byrne but I only know her as a dramatic actress.” But I watched it and she was so funny that I said: “Yeah, she can do this.”

MGM: Once you had this amazing cast assembled and you got everyone on-set, I know you had a lot of people who are excellent improvers, can you talk about what it was like being the director and having to keep things reigned in? Especially coming from your own background as an improver and comedian and knowing how important that process can be?

PF: It’s a fun process, I love having improv happen, but you can’t have it without having a very strong script or blueprint that you’re working off of. We work the story really hard in prep to make sure it’s strong because you don’t want to go into a scene and say: “Okay you guys – be funny!” We’re in the rehearsal process we’re always filming it, writing down the funny lines, and always keeping a record of what happens so we have lots of written jokes when we start. And then when we get to the set we start throwing those things out at the actors. We had them improvise, then I’d get ideas, Kristen would get ideas, we’d have writers there with us, and everyone would be throwing in ideas and thoughts, and handing me little pieces of papers with jokes. And I just shoot everything. Judd and I both agree – you want have a lot of stuff so that when you get to the editing room you have ammo to work with. You don’t want to waste time or film, but I’m not afraid of having a lot of stuff and letting things get out of control sometimes. As long as you guide it and have that blueprint, it keeps everyone on point. Then you can have them make it their own, which I’d always prefer. Even if they’re sticking to the script I want actors to use their own wording because then it’s just very real, the interactions feel very immediate. I cross-shoot everything when we’re in those kinds of conversations so I’m getting both sides, and getting the actors’ natural reactions to each other and anything they say out of the blue. It’s all about capturing lightning in a bottle and when you capture it, then you’ve got it forever and that’s really nice.

MGM: Well you certainly did capture lightening in a bottle with Bridesmaids – we’re thrilled to be showing it next week and are looking forward to meeting you in person!

Directed by Paul Feig
Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Produced by Judd Apatow, Clayton Townsend, Barry Mendel
125 minutes; A Universal Pictures release. US release date: 5/13/11

May 4th, 2011 • No Comments

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