Paul Feig, lionized creator of the cult favorite “Freaks and Geeks,” director of female-driven box-office juggernauts “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy,” and helmer of iconic television series such as “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Mad Men,” strolls through his Burbank office in a pinstriped, two-piece Ralph Lauren suit. Normally, the perennially dapper Feig wears a three-piece suit — Anderson & Sheppard on London’s Savile Row is his go-to for bespoke tailoring — but, as the filmmaker notes, “we’re in the middle of a heat wave and even though this place is beautifully air conditioned, you step outside and it’s like a wet hot blanket on top of you.”
Feig brings this expertly curated aesthetic — his line of anti-bullying men’s wear for J. Crew sold out in a flash last year — to his latest feature, “A Simple Favor,” a darkly comic heroine-driven murder mystery in the vein of Hitchcock-meets-“Gone Girl” that premieres Sept. 14. Anchored in Feig’s home state of Michigan and abloom with stylish touches recalling a 1960s Jacques Demy film — from the slick, high-concept clothes to a twinkly Francophone-inspired soundtrack, “Favor” stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie, a quirky, cutesy suburban mommy vlogger who sets out to track down her new best friend, Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, ever-boozy, enigmatic PR executive-cum-harried working mother who suddenly goes missing.
“It was a book [by Darcey Bell] that had been floating around, and there had been a big bidding war for it,” says Feig, whose films have collectively grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. “Fox 2000 first brought it to us to produce because we have a deal at Fox, and [Fox 2000 president] Elizabeth Gabler was like, ‘I don’t understand — is this a comedy? Is this a drama?’ Because it’s so bananas. And so I read it, and I loved it so much I wanted to direct it.”
Following a few humdrum scheduling conflicts that are par for Hollywood, the book eventually found its way to Lionsgate, with Jessica Sharzer, the three-time Emmy-nominated scribe of “American Horror Story,” attached to adapt.
“I love working in genres, and I’d always been looking to do a Hitchcock-ian thriller,” says Feig of the film. “I’d done the spy movie, I’d done the buddy cop thing, and then the wedding movie and then the sci-fi thing with ‘Ghostbusters.’ And then this movie just checked every box. If it had been a normal type of thriller, I don’t know if I would have done it.”
It was Kendrick’s character Stephanie, a perky single mom with endless reserves of energy for classroom projects such as birthday cupcakes and macaroni art that really grabbed Feig hook, line and sinker.
|Paul Feig and star Kristen Wiig don preppy tennis attire on the set of “Bridesmaids.”
“She’s just, she’s a nerd, you know?” he says. “And she’s like, you look at my movies, they’re all about somebody — usually a woman — who’s just kind of like an outcast or a weirdo who hasn’t found her place.”
Feig’s pension for plucky, feisty and sometimes off-kilter female characters has garnered him high praise among those in the biz — and those outside of it — and in “Favor,” Kendrick and Lively both topple stereotypes across the board about how women, and mothers, are supposed to act — and live their lives. As the movie progresses, we discover that Kendrick’s character isn’t all sugar and sweetness, and while Emily is, in Lively’s own words, “a total psychopath,” there’s something wholly relatable — and wildly hilarious — about her domestic insanity. At first, she may look like the picture of perfection with her long, flaxen hair, designer tuxedo pants and gorgeous adoring husband (Henry Golding, the star of “Crazy Rich Asians”), but beneath that shiny, slick veneer is a lost, flawed, complicated mess of a person. While far from perfect, Emily and Stephanie remain empowered throughout the film. More importantly, they are fleshed-out characters, as layered and complex as the male leads in cinema. Even if Emily and Stephanie are crazy after their own fashion, they run the show, and rule the movie.
“Growing up I was always watching movies from the ’30s and ’40s with my mom where the men and women were equals, you know, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant — I mean, the examples are just all over the place,” says Feig, who credits his parents, devout Christian Scientists for whom “civility” was of the utmost importance, as primary influences in his desire to help establish gender parity in Hollywood.
“As I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was seeing comedy and action movies, and it was always the men that were in charge,” says Feig. “The women were either trying to get the men to stay home or they were prostitutes or they were getting beaten up, and I was like, this is terrible — because these are not the women I know. I know all these really strong, smart, career women. And there was this abhorrent message coming out of Hollywood for so long about, well, ladies, you have to pick between your career or your happiness. And it’s like, well, f— that. Every woman I know is a career person. And some of them have families. My God! And they have kids. And they actually juggle the two, and actually make both work.”
Screenwriter Katie Dippold, who penned “The Heat” on spec and the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters” with director Feig, remembers how gobsmacked she was when she first saw “Bridesmaids,” a film that marked a watershed moment for women in big studio comedies.
“I have to point out what a big deal ‘Bridesmaids’ was,” says Dippold. “I spent my whole life laughing at the men on screen. When there was a female character, she was usually just mad at the men, sort of finger-wagging and disapproving. When I started thinking about writing ‘The Heat,’ I was told ‘Bridesmaids’ wasn’t tracking well and no studio would be interested in another ‘female’ comedy. This was not that long ago. That’s insane. I remember sitting in the theater watching ‘Bridesmaids,’ finally this R-rated big studio comedy starring women, and I was watching these female characters do the funniest, most insane, disgusting things I had ever seen, and it was pure bliss. [Paul] taps into the overall human experience and sees past the female character as ‘an angry woman with her hand on her hip.’ He looks at them like people.”
“If he sees any behavior that’s negative at all… it’s just not tolerated on his sets.”
Dippold, who calls Feig “a gentle soul,” says that when working together, there is no conscious divide between female vs. male perspective — it’s just two professionals getting creative together and making a movie.
“I used to spend so much time thinking about how I spoke in a writers’ room,” says Dippold. “If someone spoke over me, I would just shut down. I’d worry about how I sounded, how I was perceived. I’d think about how to try to speak with more authority. But when I started working with Paul, I never thought about any of that stuff again. I just didn’t have to. He always wanted to hear what I had to say. I don’t think he has ever once talked over me. He’s never made his voice louder than mine. And while I’d like to think I would’ve grown more confident on my own eventually, it is a very powerful thing when someone helps you find your voice. He knows that the loudest, most aggressive person in the room isn’t always the funniest. So it just felt like two people having purely creative conversations, without the baggage you usually get with traditional gender dynamics.”
“The biggest thing about the way he runs the set is that he approaches it being kind and inclusive to everybody,” adds Jessie Henderson, Feig’s producing partner at Feigco Entertainment. “If he sees any behavior that’s negative at all — from the lowest position to the highest position — it’s just not tolerated on his sets. He creates a real mood of acceptance.”
Feig, who cut his teeth on acting gigs in the 1990s ranging from bit parts in “Thirtysomething” to recurring roles on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” has a special connection to actors, says Henderson, one that allows him to draw very specific but also organically rendered performances from the actors he casts in his films.
|Paul Feig and DP Robert Yeoman confer on the set of the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”
“I believe that [Paul] knows exactly the movie that he wants to make and cut before he even starts shooting, but what’s interesting is that he allows for play and lets the actor shine within that framework,” she says. “Usually you get one or the other— there’s either too much looseness or too much rigidity on set — and he is just adept at handling both.”
Feig, says Henderson, “wants to entertain the audience — that is absolutely first and foremost. When he looks at the scripts or when he writes the scripts, he wants people to have a good time. He wants them to think a bit and he wants them to laugh. He wants people to enjoy themselves when they are watching his movies.”
Feig, who’s producing several projects under his Feigco banner, including the TV movie “Girls Code,” about an all-female tech company, and the romantic comedy “Someone Great,” written and directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, is, more than anything else, out to create “unique, zany, outrageous” content that leaves viewers happy, inspired and brimming with laughter.
His movies are not for him, he explains — they are for the audiences, his fans.
“Whenever I do a project I have just endless energy for it, all the way up until the premiere,” he says. “I love watching my movie and when I’m watching it at the premiere I’m like, I’m never going to watch this again. I watch it a bazillion times in the lead-up, and I’ll do a million screenings. But at the premiere it’s like, now it belongs to the world.”