Director Paul Feig on His Budding Female Empire: ‘I Don’t Want to F— This Up’

Paul Feig is Hollywood’s most popular ladies’ man.

That’s not to suggest he’s a lothario or creepy man-on-the-make. It’s just that in his job as a top movie director, he arguably has done more in recent years than anyone else in the business to enable actresses to play the kinds of delicious characters that traditionally had been the domain of their male counterparts. There’s an encouraging shift under way at the box office with such female-driven hits as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Cinderella,” “Insurgent” and “Maleficent” burning up the bigscreen. And Feig, who has demonstrated a fondness for funny women, has played a central role part in helping to create and maintain that momentum, with a resume of blockbuster comedies.

The bawdy “Bridesmaids,” starring Kristen Wiig and breakout star Melissa McCarthy, took in $288 million worldwide, and garnered two Oscar nominations, for supporting actress (McCarthy) and original screenplay (Wiig and Annie Mumolo). Next, he paired McCarthy with Sandra Bullock in the buddy-cop comedy “The Heat,” which was a $230 million global blockbuster. “Spy,” which opens June 5, premiered at the recent SXSW Film Festival to rapturous reviews, and again features McCarthy in a leading role.

And then there’s the new “Ghostbusters,” set to start filming in June, starring an all-female group of ectoplasm-fighters that includes Wiig and McCarthy. Feig is directing and co-wrote the script with Katie Dippold, who also penned “The Heat.” News that it would be women busting ghosts practically broke the Internet with an unexpected backlash that smacked Feig in the face.

Brent Humphreys for Variety

“The amount of vitriol did surprise me,” the 52-year-old director acknowledges of the strong response on social media. “Some of the most vile, misogynistic sh-t I’ve ever seen my life.” He’s heard the phrase “You’ve ruined my childhood” so much in the past few months that he says it will be written on his tombstone. “It’s so dramatic. Honestly, the only way I could ruin your childhood is if I got into a time machine and went back and made you an orphan.”

Feig, who is being honored with the Comedy Filmmaker of the Year Award at CinemaCon in Las Vegas on April 23, can’t believe people still question whether women can be funny. “Can we please stop asking that?” he says. “We are talking about a human being who has a different set of chromosomes than half of the world, and that’s it. It has nothing to do with their sense of humor or take on the world. When people look at my poster, they should say, ‘They’re funny.’ Not, ‘Oh, its ladies.’ ”

During an interview with Variety on a soundstage at Fox Studios, where he’s putting the finishing touches on “Spy,” Feig is challenged to a game of Ping-Pong, with the rider being that if he wins, the cover headline to this story will be “The Sexiest Man Alive.” He does win — only by one point — but gracefully bows out of enforcing the commitment. But Amy Pascal, who greenlit “Ghostbusters” before being pushed out as head of Sony Pictures, and who will earn her first producing credit on the movie, says he deserves that accolade. “He loves women,” she says. “That should make him the sexiest man alive, if any woman has any sense at all.”

It was Pascal who long pursued bringing “Ghostbusters” back to the bigscreen. She approached Feig early on, when she was still studio head. “I was courting him for like a year,” she says, noting that the original film’s director, Ivan Reitman, was already onboard as producer, and both thought Feig was perfect. “The original movie is such a subversive love letter to ’80s New York. What it needed was somebody who was going to do an entirely different idea, equally brilliant and completely their own thing,” Pascal says.

Initially, Feig wasn’t interested in a standard remake, saying, “I just couldn’t get my head around it.” But every day, he takes a four-mile walk to clear his head, and it was on one of these constitutionals that the idea hit him to reboot the film with women. “I know how to do that movie, and I know all these funny women,” he recalls thinking. Pascal loved the idea.

Dippold was also thrilled by the concept, and even more excited when Feig asked her to work on the script. “I think things have come a long way, but even in 2015, I feel like there’s this thing where a lot of people, even feminists, will meet a female comedian and assume she isn’t very funny,” she says. “Paul would be excited thinking maybe this person is the funniest comedian in the world.”

Wiig, for one, can’t wait for filming to start. “Paul loves working with women, and women love working with Paul,” she enthuses. “He is incredibly smart, makes you feel comfortable and loves to collaborate.”

Many feel Sony undermined Feig’s film shortly after committing to it by announcing there also would be a male “Ghostbusters” starring Channing Tatum and directed by Anthony and Joseph Russo. Feig has nothing negative to say about that film, with which he is not involved, and adds he is a fan of both the star and the directors. Though he does quip, “Who knew there were so many ghosts to be busted in the world?” Instead, he’s focused on his own film and cast. “All I know is my ladies are going to kick a–,” he says. “And I would not want to go into battle without them.”

According to Feig, his world has been female-centric from an early age. Growing up in Michigan an only child, and with a father busy running a surplus store, he spent a lot of time with his mother. “Most of my friends growing up were either women or sensitive guys like myself,” he notes. Though his last name is pronounced “Feeg,” its close enough to a gay slur that boys his age teased him. “You know how guy comedy is,” he says. “They would call me names and punch me. And I would think, ‘I don’t enjoy this male bonding!’ And I hated the locker room, because that’s where I got beaten up.”

It also helped that his female friends were all very funny, especially a group who lived next door to his family. “I just wanted to hang out with the girls because we made each other laugh,” he says. “I’ve never had any other worldview than that.”

That’s why in Feig’s universe, you’re not likely to see women as killjoys. “There’s this thing, especially in movies, where guys act like women are the ones breaking up a good time,” he says. “It is a little boy’s version of what women are: ‘Oh boy, she’s calling. I can’t stay out tonight, she wants me home.’ It’s this guy bonding, combined with a world of insults and name-calling and talking about sex and sports that I can’t relate to.”

Brent Humphreys for Variety

Feig points out that he finds women can talk as dirty as men. “But it’s different. Guy bonding can get kind of ugly, aggressive,” he says. “I have so much swearing in my movies, but I have to find people who can swear right. Melissa can say ‘f—’ a thousand times and its poetry. A group of guys being bawdy and dirty and nuts, and a group of women being the same way, is a completely different feel.”

While “Spy” does have its share of ribald humor that could make “The Hangover” guys blush, there is also a very sweet female friendship at the center between McCarthy’s character Susan Cooper, a CIA desk jockey who goes undercover for the first time in her career, and Miranda Hart’s Nancy, a fellow CIA agent also trapped at a desk.

The role could be a breakthrough turn for Hart, a British comedienne best known in the States for the TV drama “Call the Midwife.” Feig originally met with her when he was working on a third “Bridget Jones” movie, which never came to be, and wrote the role of Nancy specifically for her.

“I’m completely unknown in America, and this is a big role, so I figured they would cast a name,” Hart says. “I’m sure there was a lot of, ‘Who is this strange, lanky, British woman?’ I don’t know how many hurdles he had to jump, but he stuck to his guns.”

Hart says she is aware how rare it is to see a pair of women buddies so front-and-center in an action-comedy. “That’s why I love Paul; he’s really tapped into how female friendships are basically relationships,” she says. “And he genuinely wanted to fly the flag for women in comedy. It’s his passion, professionally and personally.”

Rose Byrne, who plays an arms dealer in “Spy” (after her role as a suburban mom in Nicholas Stoller’s “Neighbors”), sees Feig’s work as celebrating the values of the underdog: “the freaks, the geeks — the women,” she says. “He makes them the smartest people in the room. When I went to Feigco, his pitch to me was his intention to make female-driven action-comedy vehicles at a studio level. And he’s delivering.”

Married for 21 years to manager Laurie Karon, Feig is soft-spoken with a calm demeanor. Dressed in a trademark three-piece suit — which he considers his director’s “uniform” — he looks more like a dapper bygone-era star than an A-list director in today’s Hollywood.

Feig actually began his career as an actor. While struggling as a standup comic, he was able to quit his day job after winning the top prize on “The $25,000 Pyramid” gameshow. TV roles trickled in, from a recurring part in the TV series “Dirty Dancing” to a slot on the sketch show “The Edge” opposite Jennifer Aniston. He landed a regular gig on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” as science teacher Mr. Poole, but was dismissed after the first season.

His luck was better behind the camera; after creating the 1999 show “Freaks and Geeks,” with Judd Apatow executive producing, Feig went on to direct some of television’s best shows, from “Arrested Development” to “The Office.” (He’s not done with TV; his new sci-fi comedy “Other Space” premieres on Yahoo Screen April 14.)

Feig occasionally pops up in acting roles, but says he doesn’t miss performing. “I realized soon enough that I was more comfortable behind the camera, guiding actors than being one,” he notes. Though he had directed films before (“Unaccompanied Minors,” “I Am David”), he jokes that he was in “movie jail” before Apatow brought him “Bridesmaids” and busted him out.

Feig values having women employed throughout his productions, not just as actors; casting director Allison Jones has worked on all his studio movies, and found plenty of fresh faces for “Other Space.” He also picked Dippold to write “Ghostbusters.” Women flock to sing his praises, including Pascal, who notes, “I’ve not talked to any press at all in a really long time, and I’m doing this because I love Paul.”

Dippold, who met Feig briefly when she was a writer and he was a director on “Parks and Recreation,” says collaboration is organic to Feig’s production style. “The Heat” was her first produced screenplay, and she says her “brain exploded” when she got word Feig was interested. “I had heard mostly stories of writers getting cut out of the process after selling a spec, so I had mentally prepared myself that someone else was probably going to rewrite it and maybe they would let me visit the set once,” Dippold says. “But I was on set the entire time, heavily involved from beginning to end, and I learned so much in those three months. That’s because of Paul, and I will forever be grateful.”

Feig’s most frequent collaborator, McCarthy, considers it special to have a relationship that’s akin to that between Scorsese and De Niro.

“He will never escape my clutches,” she promises. “His sets are truly a joy.”

In their previous films, McCarthy has, among other things, been sexually aggressive with a sandwich and thrown a phone book at a perp’s head. But “Spy” is a whole new game, a comedy about a secret agent that isn’t a parody, but more a homage. “No one’s going to let me do a Bond or a Bourne movie, so I thought I’ll write my own for one of the lovely ladies I love,” Feig explains. McCarthy performs action stunts both tough and comical, and puts herself in some remarkably unflattering disguises. She says she couldn’t do it without the deep trust she feels for Feig.

“I will try anything for him. It’s rare for me to say I’m not sure I want to do something, that it might be too crazy,” McCarthy admits. “But Paul always says, ‘We’ll push it as far as we can, and if it doesn’t work, it will never see the light of day.’ And we do it, and dammit, he’s usually right. It’s very irritating, actually.”

McCarthy described her moviemaking partnership with the director as a “Ping-Pong” match relationship.

“If something doesn’t feel right to either of us, we go back and forth and back and forth. If it doesn’t feel right to him, that’s a sign to me, and vice versa. Maybe it’s not green or blue, but by the time we’re done, it’s a shade of purple we both love.”

In addition to “Ghostbusters,” Feig jokes that he’s set to ruin even more childhoods by producing a CGI film version of “Peanuts,” which hits theaters in November. The announcement garnered backlash on social media, even from “The Incredibles” director Brad Bird, who snarked on Twitter: “Nothing will capture the simple genius of Charles Schulz’s distinctive ink lines like computer graphics.”

Feig says he understands the concern. “In the wrong hands, anything can turn into something awful,” he says, adding that he met with the Schulz family to get their blessing. “They wanted to make sure I wasn’t some kind of Hollywood a–hole who would have Snoopy twerking.”

Joking aside, Feig says he understands that he’s been put in charge of legacies. “I’ve been handed the keys to a few really beloved properties, and I don’t take that lightly,” he notes. “I am hyper-aware of it, and I don’t want to f-ck this up.”

Beyond that, there is talk of a sequel to “The Heat” — Feig says Dippold has written a very funny script that offers a twist on “The Silence of the Lambs.” And he’s in the early stages of developing a website that will spotlight women in comedy. “My intention is to create a place that highlights what I find funny about women,” he says. “But it’s tricky; you don’t want to do something sexist, saying women are on a different playing field from men. So it’s in the works, but we’re trying to figure out what it is.”

Whatever it does turn out to be, there are plenty of female childhoods out there that it will do anything but destroy.

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