Michigan native and quadruple-threat writer-director-producer-actor Paul Feig is still too lingeringly Midwestern to admit it, but he’s played a major role in shaping the face of modern comedy. As the cocreator of the cultishly adored Freaks and Geeks, he pioneered a humanist sensibility that proved TV comedy could be meaningful and emotional without being shallowly sentimental. As the director of Bridesmaids, he proved himself a fervent champion of the power of funny women—and kick-ass casting. As a producer and in his frequent role as a freelance director, he’s worked on nearly every notable comedy in TV’s current golden age, from Arrested Development to The Office.
Feig was a natural choice for the new reboot of the paranormal comedy classic Ghostbusters. His decision to go with an all-female team—Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones—has somewhat ridiculously been caught up in the culture wars over onscreen representation, but the remake is hands down one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year. We got Feig on the phone to explain how he didn’t fuck it up.
The original Ghostbusters is quintessentially New York. Why do you think that is?
It's so much a part of [Ghostbusters’] DNA. Just the fact that New York is this island and everything's kind of trapped there. There's no hiding the paranormal. If an attack is coming from the other world, it's a very concentrated thing. It ups the ante.
I think New Yorkers are all bound together by how shitty living in New York can be. The idea of having ghosts in the mix….
Exactly. It’s one more thing to have to be concerned about.
And yet you shot so much of the movie in Boston, which seems sacrilegious.
Well we shot one day in New York, and it was almost impossible because we just got inundated by people and the paparazzi. The New York paparazzi are unlike anything you've ever seen. They'll just walk right onto the set, like in the actor's face, clicking pictures, and the cops won't throw them out because technically they have a right to be there. So you just have to negotiate with these photographers, like, "Please get out of the way while we're shooting a scene." I hate to complain, but it's not cool.
It's mind-blowing that anyone thinks that's okay to do.
There's one guy in particular—I can't remember his name—but he's on every set every time I shoot there. And if you try to kick him off, he screams and yells and hollers. It's insane. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else.
You're best known for your ensemble works. What is it that makes you so well suited to collaborating with groups of people?
I guess coming from improv comedy and all that, you kinda get used to working with groups and having that dynamic. So I've never been afraid of it even though it's harder to shoot. I love when I can really cover everyone in a scene at the same time. I think the interaction of people is obviously the best thing about comedy.
Photograph: Hopper Stone
Is there any secret to putting together a team?
What you don't want to do is get people who have a similar comedic energy charismatic energy. You want to have people who complement each other but represent different styles of comedy. Like for Ghostbusters, Leslie [Jones]’s sensibility is just big and bold and brash and honest. And then Kristen [Wiig], her comedy comes from vulnerability and uncertainty, this side of all of us that’s trying to do the right thing but is nervous about not getting it right and not being the most competent person sometimes. Then Kate [McKinnon]’s got that just crazy energy about her that lets her throw out left turns and surprise everybody. Then Melissa [McCarthy] can be brash but is also very grounded.
You've worked with Melissa McCarthy a bunch of times. What's it like to watch her evolve as a star?
It's exciting! It's one of those kind of 20-year overnight success stories. She was around forever and just killing it. At the Groundlings, she was so popular that people would line up around the block whenever she performed. She was just this like pressure cooker of talent just waiting to be discovered. Ironically, I didn't even know she existed before she came in and auditioned for Bridesmaids and did this audition that was so different from what anyone else had done and was so left of center of how the character had been conceived that it was just undeniable. The minute she came in and we decided to hire her, we started rewriting the script to give her more stuff to do.
Promoting a movie in 2016, there's round after round of trailers and clips. Are you worried about giving away too much of Ghostbusters?
Oh yeah. When I grew up, pre-Internet, you didn't know anything about a movie before it came out. I remember when E.T. came out, I didn't know about it, and a friend of mine said, "Oh, there's this sci-fi movie opening tonight." So we go to see it and just have this mind-blowing experience, because you're like, "Oh my god, I had no idea." Same thing when I saw the original Ghostbusters. I'd seen a trailer, but if you look at the original trailer, it doesn't show you much. But we knew we loved Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, so we went opening to see it and were just completely blown away. This movie would be so fun if people came into it not knowing what's coming and didn't know that there were going to be cameos and didn't know what their suits look like or whatever. I just think this level of people wanting and needing everything is just harmful for their experience in the theater. It's just a bummer. It's like, Eh, that joke would be so much funnier if people didn't know it was coming. Fortunately I shoot so many jokes that I'll just trade it out for a different one.
Audiences are flocking to reboots, but at the same time there's this idea that the entertainment properties from your childhood are somehow sacred and shouldn’t be messed with.
Look, I get the whole thing of, This thing means so much to me, and it's been such a part of my life for so long, and here's somebody coming along to mess with it. For me, I kinda say, "They were gonna make it no matter what." If I do it the way I'm doing it with this different cast and everything, it’s sort of my way to not mess with the ones that came before. Because once you do a sequel, you're definitely potentially polluting that world. Our story doesn't backwash into theirs. Plus it's just such a fun world to play in. Comedy's all about emotions running high and how people react to stuff, and people being scared can be really horrifying or really funny. It's too good of an idea to let it sit there.
It's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Exactly. It's a classic. A funny person being scared and seeing something that somebody else doesn't see and they think they're crazy. It's Comedy 101.
Freaks and Geeks gave you a reputation as an auteur, but you also regularly work on shows and Ghostbusters and stuff where you're stepping into worlds that other people created. What do you get out of that that's different from building something from scratch?
It sort of teaches you to play within a set of boundaries without breaking the template that they have. As the creator of a show, you have the feel for what you want. It's funny, I have to laugh when I watch shows that I really like and I can always tell when one of the actors has directed [an episode] because suddenly there are all these really film-school kind of heady shots that are really weirdly composed. It's cool, but at the same time its like, What show is this? When did we need a shot of a hubcap that goes into the road and comes up under the car? Directing different TV shows, the fun thing with that was like, I want to play in some genres. When I took on Nurse Jackie, I was like, I've never done a medical show. I don't even watch medical shows. I have no idea how to do them. Let's do this! If I had time, I'd be begging to do a Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and Homeland. It’s so good to get outside of your little control freak space.
Speaking of Freaks and Geeks, one of my favorite scenes in the entire series is where Bill Haverchuck [Martin Starr] is eating a grilled cheese and dying watching a Garry Shandling routine. How much of that scene came from your experience?
That scene was pure Judd [Apatow]. Judd wrote that scene, he directed that scene, that was his experience as a kid. It came right from his life. I had just shot what was the finale episode because we shot them out of order, so I was dealing with that. I remember that scene coming in and going, "Holy smokes, this is fantastic." But we both knew Garry really well. Garry gave me my first break in show business when I was an actor when they hired me to play his brother-in-law on It's Garry Shandling's Show. And when Judd worked on The Larry Sanders Show, he learned so much from Garry, and Garry was such a hero to him too, so I know he really wanted to pay that back to Garry in [Freaks and Geeks]. Garry was at the Bridesmaids premiere, and he pulled me aside right after and just went on and on for 10 minutes about how much he loved the movie. That was a memory I'll never forget, coming from a guy who we were so in awe of. He really is the father of modern comedy, if you think about it. His style was so behavioral and so low-key, which is what comedy's become in the past 15 years. It's gotten away from being jokey-jokey, you know, high-energy, big, crazy characters and much more about the interaction of real humans and the weird behavior they have and the comedy of that. And you can trace that all from Garry.
Ghostbusters opens July 15, 2016.