If writer/director Paul Feig had only been responsible for creating the cult hit "Freaks & Geeks" that would probably be enough to endear him to cinephiles forever. Loosely based on his experiences growing up as an outcast in suburban Michigan (and shepherded to the small screen by pal Judd Apatow), Feig's magnum opus is still finding viewers over a decade after it was unceremoniously cancelled by the network. Though it only ran for 18 episodes, to this day the series frequently pops up on Best-Of lists and its cast of former unknowns -- James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, John Frances Daley, etc. -- are practically Hollywood fixtures. Hell, two-thirds of them just co-starred together in "This Is The End." After his show went off the air, Feig also mined his awkward experiences growing up for two hilarious non-fiction books ("Kick Me: Adventures In Adolescence" and "Superstud: How I Became A 24 Year Old Virgin") and has probably directed at least one episode of your favorite show ("The Office," "Nurse Jackie," "Bored To Death," "Weeds," "Mad Men," "30 Rock," "Parks And Rec," "Undeclared" and "Arrested Development").
After striking out on the big screen at his first three outings he knocked it out of the park with 2011's megahit "Bridesmaids" and found himself with a whole host of projects to choose from (including "Dumb Jock" for Melissa McCarthy, a comedy vehicle for Jon Hamm, a remake of "The Intouchables," a pair of Reese Witherspoon comedies, a third 'Bridget Jones' entry and a host of potential TV projects and eventually landed on "The Heat," a female buddy cop comedy (the first of its kind?) from "Parks And Rec" writer Katie Dippold. The action-comedy (not a spoof as Feig was quick to point out) reunites the "Bridesmaids" helmer with his breakout star Melissa McCarthy and teams her up with Sandra Bullock as a pair of mismatched cops in Boston. Our own Gabe Toro gave it a solid "B" saying, "fans of the Bechdel Test will be delighted that this film passes it early and frequently." To help drum up some attention for the picture, Feig stopped by the 92Y Tribeca in New York City last week week for a 90 minute conversation about his new film, his comedic influences and how he believes "Freaks & Geeks" would have a better chance on TV today. Here are some of the highlights.
"It's so great when you're ahead of your time because what it really means is that you died early," Feig said recalling the fate of his beloved cult series "Freaks & Geeks" which was cancelled after just one season. As has been widely reported, Feig wrote the pilot script on spec as a reaction to the teen shows and movies at the time and it was his wife who encouraged him to send it to friend Judd Apatow who was immediately interested in producing it. What makes the show continue to connect with so many fans even a decade after it went off the air is that it was the blueprint for Feig and Apatow's funny-but-real sensibilities. Like Apatow and his 'Freaks' actor Seth Rogen, Feig also began performing standup at an extremely young age (15) and began honing his timing even earlier by reciting Steve Martin's routines in the mirror.
"For me ['Freaks & Geeks'] defined what I think is funny. I don't like comedy that's really crazy or in-your-face, I mean, I can enjoy it but I don't want to make it. Because I never like when [I'm watching something and] I go, 'Ah, c'mon, why is that guy acting like that? Why are they doing that? Why are they saying that?' And so, I wanted to have all these litmus tests of 'Do I believe the characters?' and the biggest test that I run everything through to this day is, 'Does the person playing that character like that character? And does the person writing that character like that character or feel it's a real person?' Because when you have a contempt for your characters, even your bad guys, then you create these stereotypes or archetypes that aren't real," he said. "I've quoted this a million times so I apologize but there's this George Bernard Shaw quote I read that says, 'All men mean well.' And for me, that's the key to everything. As long as everyone thinks they're doing something good and right, then everybody feels honest. Even a bad guy."
"I think TV is way better than movies these days to be honest and I work on movies," Feig said candidly even as he knew he had shown up to promote his new film. Unfortunately for him, 'F&G' came just a few years before the current second Golden Age of Television which has given critically acclaimed shows with limited audiences other avenues to stay on the air. Feig believes that if the show had been picked up just a few years later they would've at least gotten a second season which NBC never granted them at the time. "Why we would do better today is that tonally we're more in line, everything [on TV] is a little more behavioral now, especially comedy. When you have a critically acclaimed show now, even if it's not highly rated, you know that people are going to catch up by binge-watching it. So I think a network or studio would be much more interested in keeping it around to get that first season out on Netflix or on DVD so people can catch up. So I think we would've at least gotten another half season and then they would've waited to see what happened and hopefully people would've caught up to it."
He relies heavily on structured improv.
Though the Apatow extended comedy clan has a reputation for heavily improvised films, Feig says that the key is to use it within a tightly structured script. "True funny people know where the line is. And people who aren't good at comedy don't know where the line is, so they're just off in the ether. But I wouldn't hire those people. You have to have the people with that internal governor but then you can set them loose." Like on "Bridesmaids" where co-writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo were constantly on set to throw out new jokes, write Katie Dipold was on set every day for "The Heat" to allow the cast the room to play around within the structure of each scene. "It's all about capturing that lightning in a bottle at the end of the day."
"When we were casting 'Bridesmaids' we saw a lot of funny great women but we hadn't quite hit the soul of [her character] Megan. And really late in the process, Kristen and Annie said, 'Oh you've got to see our friend Melissa, she works at [famed LA improv troupe] The Groundlings and people line up around the block when she performs. It was like, 'Well, thanks for telling me now! Why didn't you tell me earlier...' and Melissa comes in and blows us all away," he shared. "It was a very funny role [on the page] that was slightly nervous and wanted to be [Wiig's character] Annie's friend all the time. And Melissa comes in with this kind of butch thing and we thought, 'Oh, that's kinda cool. She's playing it gay. That's kind of a cool take on it.' So she goes through and she's cracking us up and we started to do the improv thing. So I said, 'Try this thing where you're trying to get Annie to hang out with you.' And she goes on this whole tear about getting guys and man sandwiches and we were just like, 'Oh, so she's not gay. She's man-hungry. That's so brilliant! Okay, she's in.'" Feig went on to praise McCarthy as "one of the best improvisers I've ever worked with" on a list that includes SNL alums Wiig and Maya Rudolph, Steve Carell and Zach Galifianakis, that certainly comes as high praise.