When Paul Feig, the enormously successful director of the comedies Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, arrives on the set of the female-led Ghostbusters reboot he’s making in a cavernous football-field-size former Reebok warehouse off a lonely road in suburban Boston, it’s hard to know what to make of him. Among the crew in their sneakers and T-shirts, Feig—who’s six feet tall but so erect he looks taller and who speaks in a rich baritone that slices through the din—stands out in an impeccably fitted burgundy three-piece Savile Row suit from Anderson & Sheppard, with a matching polka-dot tie and a gold-headed walking stick. He’s so well gotten-up, in the sort of outfit nobody outside Downton Abbey wears anymore, right down to the boutonniere in his lapel, that you might mistake him for a parody of the well-dressed man. Or you might figure that anyone who dresses so meticulously and anachronistically, so 19th century formal (who carries a walking stick these days?), must be some sort of geek.
And on this last point you’d be right.
Feig (pronounced FEEG) is not only a geek, he’s a proud, self-professed geek. He earned this reputation with the much-loved and critically revered 1999 high school TV series Freaks and Geeks, which he created and which introduced audiences to James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. Now, at 53, Feig is a master of the Hollywood universe. Although he’s arguably the best comedy director around, he doesn’t look like a Hollywood heavyweight, doesn’t act like one and, he’ll be quick to tell you, doesn’t feel like one. The Beau Brummell clothes aren’t the only things that make him different, though he admits they’re another way he’s out of sync with Hollywood: He used to wear jeans and T-shirts to meetings with the so-called suits, then decided he’d meet them on their own sartorial turf by wearing suits too. It was the very moment the suits did a 180 and decided to dress down. “And it immediately became this thing,” he says, “where they’re like, ‘Here’s this rube who’s got his Sunday suit on.’”
But the other reasons Feig seems so un-Hollywood-like are his casual manner, his boyish diffidence, his accessibility and candor and niceness—all of which are remarkable in an industry notorious for its arrogance, machismo and secretiveness. To put it bluntly, for all his success, Feig is still a geek—the guy the popular kids bullied in school. But he’s a geek who discovered something on which he has predicated his entire career. Feig discovered that feeling like an outsider is universal and that there are a lot more outsiders (more of him) than there are cool kids.
That’s Paul Feig’s secret: He’s an outsider who makes movies about outsiders for outsiders.
Start with Freaks and Geeks. Feig says that when he began writing scripts in Los Angeles, he got it in his head that “if you’re writing about stuff that has happened to you or happened to people you know, you’re not really writing. A real writer invents everything from scratch.” Unfortunately, he found that the ideas that came from his imagination didn’t seem to work. He also found that when he was out with friends, regaling them with stories of his excruciating childhood in Mount Clemens, Michigan, outside Detroit—“the most humiliating stories”—he would “just destroy everybody.” And, he says of the stories, “I had a million of them, because they all happened.” There was the story of the time his middle-school classmates “dog-piled” him in the locker room because he was too modest to take a shower in front of them, or the time they pummeled him during a sadistic game of dodgeball. Or the one about finding a Nazi flag his father had brought back from World War II and innocently hanging it in the window of his house. Or the one about dressing up like a girl for Halloween. Or the one about taking a job announcing the high school football game and mangling the players’ long Polish names. And there were the ones about his cowardice, his germophobia, his mild case of undiagnosed Tourette’s, which he expended enormous energy trying to mask, and his detestation of athletics: “I enjoy playing sports about as much as I enjoy slamming my fingers in a car door.” And then of course there were the ongoing humiliations, being called everything from “Fig Newton” to “Paul Fag,” which became his unshakable tag throughout school.
It helps to understand that it’s highly unlikely anything good would have happened to Paul Feig if he hadn’t lived through adolescent torture. Sitting in that Reebok warehouse amid the sweet odor of sawdust, surrounded by 10 massive sets including a full-scale hotel lobby and a New York subway station complete with gum on the floor, he admits he takes a different approach from many other directors—the martinets who demand the upper hand. “I have a very hard time yelling at people or having any kind of ugly moment with anybody,” he says, “because those moments in my life were so terrible that the thought of browbeating anybody or being mean to anybody.…” The rest goes unspoken. This is, after all, a man who once moved across the country, from Detroit to Los Angeles, in large part because he didn’t have the heart to tell a girlfriend he wanted to break up with her.
The Feig directorial style is loose and happy and nonconfrontational, and he says he wants his pictures to feel like a party. On the Ghostbusters set, Feig shoots a scene a few times the way he and his co-writer, Katie Dippold, originally scripted it. Then he lets the actors play with the lines while he and the crew stifle their laughs. “Oh, that’s just an invitation for the annual flapjack breakfast,” Kristen Wiig says nonchalantly when Melissa McCarthy sheepishly proffers her an envelope from Columbia University she’s been hiding because she’s afraid it contains an offer for Wiig to go back to work there. “But you like flapjacks,” McCarthy says quietly. When Wiig rips up the envelope and tosses it away, she pauses nervously: “That was probably my last paycheck.” Or there’s a scene when another ghostbuster, played by Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live, is toying with a complicated contraption and proudly announces, “I call it the nutcracker.” To which Wiig says, “Because it will crack the ghosts?” “No, because I use it to crack nuts!” They may do as many as 15 takes. As Feig puts it, “I try to shoot as much as I can so things can just happen in the moment.” He realizes that’s the reason he and most other comedy directors aren’t likely to get much credit. “Comedy has to look effortless,” he says. “But in looking effortless, it looks like it was easy.”
Freaks and Geeks was a refutation of the “cool guy” teenage shows and movies. The script poured out of him.
It’s hard to ascribe the word easy to Feig, because so little has come easily to him. He was an only child of two parents who met at a Christian Science church social just over the Michigan border in Canada and got married late in life. His dad, a frustrated performer with a file of jokes he’d heard, ran an army surplus store. His mom, a housewife, was a frustrated performer too, but she channeled her ambitions into her son. Feig’s epiphany came in second or third grade during a school assembly when the class sang the calypso number “Yellow Bird” and, with a conga drum strapped across his chest and a straw hat on his head, he began to exaggeratedly pretend to play and, hearing “huge laughs,” kept milking them. A classmate told him later that their teacher, Miss Hill, on whom young Feig had a huge crush, was “laughing so hard she was crying.” He recalls, “That was when I said, ‘I want to do this.’”
His mother became his accomplice. With her encouragement, Feig took dance lessons, guitar lessons, drum lessons, even ballet lessons. At 15, after seeing stand-up comedians on a show called Make Me Laugh, he came up with his own act comprising terrible jokes ripped off from Johnny Carson. He had his parents drive him to a comedy club cum biker bar called Delta Lady in a rough section of Detroit, where he performed and got “hooked just being in front of a crowd.” In his room at night he would put on a white suit, pick up a RadioShack microphone, play Steve Martin’s album Let’s Get Small and pantomime the entire thing. He may have had no control over the abuse heaped on him in real life, but performing was a “way to control people’s perception” of him.
After high school, Feig attended Wayne State University in Detroit and took a screenwriting class. His teacher said she thought he was good enough to write comedy for a living, which is all the encouragement he needed. He applied and was accepted to the University of Southern California’s film school and, with a deep sense of homesickness, headed out to Los Angeles to become another Woody Allen.
The trouble was there weren’t many would-be Woody Allens at USC. “It was all about art films,” he says. “I would come in with these goofy comedies, and they wouldn’t even know what to do.” He made an animation about Pac-Man eating too many dots and throwing up, and his senior project was a film about a man whose girlfriend goes off to sea and leaves him with a gift that, she says, he must take with him everywhere he goes to prove he loves her: a giant stuffed albatross. A perplexed professor asked him if he had suffered some trauma that made him afraid of drama. “No, I just like funny,” he said.
Among his fellow students he was an outsider and a “kind of Midwestern yokel.” He gravitated toward oddballs, and his friends were, he says, “all shades of nerd.” Although he had many girl friends, he didn’t have many girlfriends and didn’t lose his virginity until he was 24.
After graduation he got a job reading scripts for producer Michael Phillips, discovered he could write as well as the folks who made a living at it and began to work his way back into performing stand-up. But he felt comedy required a full-time commitment that he didn’t have the resources to support. And then he found those resources in the nerdiest way possible: He won $29,000 on the Dick Clark–hosted quiz show The $25,000 Pyramid. With this grubstake, Feig began performing seven nights a week, doing a set that consisted less of jokes than of characters, including a humorless wood-shop teacher named Willard Schmidt who decides to do comedy.
After six months, Feig earned a spot on the TV show Paramount Comedy Theater, hosted by Howie Mandel, got an agent and a few small parts in such movies as Ski Patrol and Zombie High, and for the next several years worked as a comic on the West Coast circuit. He eventually left stand-up for acting full-time, landing small parts on a variety of shows, from The Louie Show starring Louie Anderson to The Jackie Thomas Show starring Tom Arnold to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, playing Sabrina’s odd science teacher. “They were big shows,” Feig says, “but they all bombed”—all except Sabrina. He took $30,000 of his earnings from that show to underwrite Life Sold Separately, a small indie he wrote and directed, finishing the film just as he was written out of Sabrina after the season one finale.
“That led to the worst year of my life,” Feig says. “I was fucked.” He couldn’t get the film into festivals. He had run out of money. His agent had let him go. And after a good 15 years of stand-up and acting, he saw nothing on the horizon. He was so desperate he contemplated leaving show business and going to work in a bookstore. And then he got Freaks and Geeks. And then it was canceled.
Feig was 37, ancient for Hollywood, by the time he realized the appeal of his teenage embarrassments. Feig was on a college tour for his film when, partly inspired by Felicity, a show his friend J.J. Abrams had co-created, he sat down in his hotel room and began to dash out the pilot for Freaks and Geeks. For him, the script was a refutation of what he calls the “cool guy” teenage shows and movies. “I don’t like bullies,” he says, “and I don’t like the confident guy who comes in kind of swinging his dick.” The guys he knew in high school never had any confidence. The script poured out of him. The timing couldn’t have been more propitious. His friend Judd Apatow had just signed a deal with DreamWorks to develop television projects. Feig sent him the script; Apatow loved it and said he wanted to make it. And as Feig puts it, “Everything changed there.”
Freaks and Geeks was Feig’s life story—the story of a small band of geek-nerds who love science fiction, film their own clay animations, make friends with girls, creep cautiously through the minefield of adolescent angst and, as a result of all these things, are the targets of teenage savagery. “We would sit around the writers’ room and everybody would be telling a terrible story,” Feig recalls of working on Freaks and Geeks, “and then I would tell the most horrendous story ever.” It was actually a great time, transforming humiliation into entertainment, and Feig got to write and direct. Then NBC scheduled the show during the Saturday night TV graveyard, then rescheduled it on Monday—against the ratings juggernaut Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Critical praise notwithstanding, the show tanked. It lasted 18 episodes, only 12 of which aired. Feig’s own postmortem: “It was just the wrong time for us to be on.” Still, with its cult status Feig could have expected to have finally arrived.
“Right after it, everyone wanted to work with me,” Feig recalls. “It was always, ‘We want your voice.’ But then I’d develop these things, and it was like, ‘Oh, well, we want your voice, but not doing that!’” He was sent scads of scripts about cool teenage guys with nerdy best-friend sidekicks, but he demurred, knowing firsthand that cool guys never had nerdy best friends. Meanwhile, Apatow had landed the new series Undeclared, and suddenly he was acknowledged as the creator of Freaks and Geeks. “I just kind of erased myself” is how Feig describes that period in the early 2000s. “I really went into a bad place.”
To make matters worse, Feig’s beloved mother had died just weeks before Freaks and Geeks was canceled. When a producer sent him a novel about a boy in an Eastern European Communist relocation camp who goes looking for his mother, hoping Feig would direct it, he took it. The movie, I Am David, bombed, putting Feig in what he calls “movie jail.” He went back to TV, directing episodes of Arrested Development, The Office and half a dozen other shows, which in turn led to another movie—a comedy based on a story from the radio show This American Life about children of divorced couples caught in limbo during the holidays. The trouble was that the studio head, who was divorced, thought the script denigrated divorced parents, so he demanded a rewrite that gutted the divorce element, which was the whole movie. If I Am David put Feig in movie jail, Unaccompanied Minors tossed him into solitary.
Feig is sitting in a small, dimly lit gray room in a storefront off a quiet Burbank street where he has been spending 11-hour days in front of three computer screens. There are hundreds of jokes in the new Ghostbusters, and Feig and his longtime editor Brent White will keep changing them in and out, finally testing them at eight or nine screenings to see which ones the audiences like best. His movies can be hysterically funny, but Feig would be the first to tell you that a movie can be too funny for its own good and that a joke isn’t just about getting a laugh; it’s about touching the audience’s own experience. The source of his comedy, he says, is sadness—“people trying to find out who they are and trying to do the right thing.” He believes he has been successful because all his films connect to his own mortification. When audiences laugh at a Feig movie, he believes they’re laughing at embarrassments he has suffered and, more important, that they might have suffered themselves. His is the comedy of humiliation, abuse, sadness and, finally, redemption. It’s the revenge of the outsider.
Fittingly, it was sadness that finally earned him his release from movie jail and catapulted him into the top directing ranks. It was 2007. He was 45 and directing a lot of TV, even an episode of Mad Men, but he still yearned to make movies. He had just directed a group of internet ads for Macy’s starring Donald Trump, Tommy Hilfiger and Martha Stewart in New York when he suffered what he called a mini-breakdown—a sense that he was just “running down the clock” on his career and had to come to terms with the fact that he would never realize his dreams. That very night he got a call from his agent telling him that a script he’d worked on with Kristen Wiig of SNL and her writing partner Annie Mumolo that had been left for dead was suddenly alive again. It was a dramedy about a maid of honor who humiliates herself in the run-up to her best friend’s wedding in a jealous competition with a richer, more chi-chi bridesmaid she thinks is usurping her. Feig could identify.
Apatow had commissioned Wiig and Mumolo’s script and asked Feig to tweak and direct it. Although Feig felt that having his old friend revive his film career was like “crawling back to Dad,” he also realized it was his last chance to direct again—his strike three, as he calls it. He hoped it would succeed, but he had no expectation it would be a breakthrough. “It was a wedding movie,” he says with mock derision. But it wasn’t like any other wedding movie, and the scene in a haute wedding-dress shop, where the bridesmaids suddenly find themselves suffering a serious bout of food poisoning, became an instant classic. “Something terrible is happening,” he says, “and everybody is trying to pretend it’s not. That’s what’s funny to us.” It is Feig in a nutshell.
The other funny thing about Bridesmaids is Melissa McCarthy. Feig hadn’t known McCarthy when her friend Wiig suggested she come in to read for the part of Megan, the groom’s dotty sister. Though nothing in the writing indicated it, McCarthy played the role as though Megan were butch. Feig recalls, “I was going like, what is she doing? Is she playing like a guy?” And then she suddenly pirouetted and became oversexed. When he showed the audition tape to Apatow, the producer said, “This is one of the funniest people we’ve ever seen.” McCarthy is the perfect Feig actress because, like Feig himself, she knows how to play humiliation and how to wring laughs out of her ability to withstand and even be impervious to it.
After Bridesmaids, which grossed nearly $300 million, Feig was determined not to make another career mistake. He signed on to do the third Bridget Jones movie, discovered he didn’t have the heart for it and then wrote a romantic comedy for McCarthy and Jon Hamm. When the two stars began to waffle, Feig was certain he’d blown another opportunity. Weeks later, he got an untitled script for a female-cop buddy picture that Sandra Bullock was interested in. He read it and immediately thought of McCarthy. They shot the film quickly, and The Heat, which doubles down on geekdom with two outcasts—one an officious neat freak, the other an incorrigible slob—became Feig’s second giant success.
He didn’t write his next film, Spy, for McCarthy, but she was having dinner at his Burbank home one night, asked if she could see what he was working on and called him the next morning to say she wanted to do it. He says he rewrote the role of the shy CIA secretary who’s enlisted for fieldwork to reflect the kind and decent woman he knew McCarthy to be, but one who doubts herself and is underestimated, which also describes Feig. (He says the film relationship between McCarthy and superspy Jude Law draws on his relationship with Apatow.) Spy became Feig’s third critical and financial success, and it made him and McCarthy the funniest comedy team in the business.
It was no accident that with Spy Feig had made three movies with female protagonists. “I’m not interested anymore in the problems of men,” he says. “I’ve seen them portrayed ad nauseam over my whole life.” Feig loves women—not in the sense that he’s a lothario (he says that he has slept with only three women in his life, including his wife), but in the sense that he loves who women are and how they act. “I’d go and hang out with the guys outside of my geeky friends,” he says of his childhood, “and I was like, Ah, I don’t like what’s happening here; it’s too aggressive. They were punching each other and punching me.” With girls it was different. He was more comfortable being with them. “I guess I’m just a feminine kind of guy,” he admits. Even when he met his wife, Laurie, through a mutual friend, part of the attraction was that she was a Jerry Lewis fanatic and thought Feig had a Jerry Lewis vibe. They’ve been together for 25 years, the first four of which she served as his manager, and married for 21. They have no children, in part because, Feig confesses, “I was terrified I would have a boy” and wouldn’t know what to do with him. “If I had a girl, she would be golden.”
I’m not interested in the problems of men. I’ve seen them portrayed and nauseam.
The irony isn’t lost on Feig that the leading director of women happens to be a man. Women relate to geeky Feig—his production partner, Jessie Henderson, is a woman—and they appreciate his sensitivity in an industry where men can be dismissive or even hostile toward women. Citing comments that women’s comic sensibility is different from men’s, Wiig, who has been in three of his movies, says, “Women like to work with him because he really doesn’t see them as any different. He’s always just been like, ‘Okay, funny is funny.’”
More, Feig resents the way women are treated in Hollywood, and just as Freaks and Geeks was his antidote to the macho way men are portrayed on screen, his films are an antidote to the way women are typically portrayed. “A powerful woman is an ice queen” is how he describes the ways most screenwriters depict women. “The wife is overbearing and keeps the hero from saving the world because he has to spend time with his family. The girl is a bitch because she won’t let you hang out with your friends.” Above all, as an outsider himself, he understands that women are gender outsiders in a man’s world. In fact, he thinks women are portrayed negatively either because most men in Hollywood are adult adolescents making films for adolescents who don’t take women seriously, or because they were once wronged by women and movies are their revenge. Feig is the women’s revenge. The logo of his company, Feigco, is a well-dressed woman (naturally) hiding a large and ominous pair of garden shears behind her back.
So now Feig is in his office at the Burbank editing room, on a conference call with the producer of Ghostbusters and the marketing arm of Sony Pictures, the film’s studio, debating a new teaser trailer that Feig isn’t happy with. They want to end it with a scare. He wants it to end with the ghostbusters standing bold and defiant. On the walls are a black-and-white photo of McCarthy with her hands clamped over Wiig’s breasts, a huge metal S&H Green Stamps sign, a Peanuts cartoon (Feig, a human Charlie Brown, produced the recent Peanuts movie) and a vintage World War II sign featuring a woman in uniform, with the inscription WHEN SOMEONE ASKS OF A FEMALE SOLDIER, ARE YOU A GODDESS, YOU SAY YES!
Ghostbusters is by far Feig’s biggest movie, but when Ivan Reitman, who’d produced and directed the first two Ghostbusters films, asked Feig if he might be interested in doing the third, he was loath to make it. Although ecstatic that he’d reached such a point in his career that he would be asked, he also saw the pitfalls of taking on a classic. He declined, then declined again when Amy Pascal, Sony’s co-chair at the time, tried to change his mind. And he wasn’t the only one who had doubts. No one seemed to want to risk the sacrilege of making another Ghostbusters.
Still, the prospect haunted him. He was out on his daily morning power walk when he got to thinking about how one could do a new Ghostbusters without violating the original. Let’s just think of the dumbest possible solution, he told himself. And what popped into his head was not making a third installment but doing a reboot showing what would happen if ghosts suddenly started to appear again and doing it with a female-driven cast. Sony loved it.
Not everyone was enamored of the prospect of casting women as ghostbusters, even women as hilarious as McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon and another SNL regular, Leslie Jones. Feig was excoriated in social media for daring it—the geek once again being bullied. “We would joke about it,” Wiig says. “‘Oh, people think we’re just breaking nails and running from ghosts, screaming.’” Feig and his cast were offended by the misogyny, and they fired back. To one especially nasty critic, Feig tweeted, “You’ve been ranting at me and my cast for months with misogyny and insults. So go fuck yourself. Good night,” and McCarthy organized a huge group photo of all the women on the set with the sign GIRL POWER in front.
It’s good to be king of the underdogs, but even after making Ghostbusters Feig doesn’t feel unassailable. An eternal pessimist, he conducted a personal study of how people he admires, mostly comedy directors, have gone off the rails and ruined their careers. But watching his comedy epic on the monitor in his editing room, wearing his three-piece suit, his walking stick at his side, and idly tossing a Hacky Sack in the air, he has a wide smile on his face that no one can wipe off. For the time being at least, geeks rule.