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Paul Feig Keeps Filmgoers Guessing

Paul Feig Keeps Filmgoers Guessing
08 Sep
1:43

“A Simple Favor” comes with the tagline “From the Darker Side of Director Paul Feig.” It turns out that even the filmmaker’s dark side has a comic streak.

The genre-bending movie opening on Friday has all the red herrings, twists and deceptions of a psychological thriller. Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, a mousy suburban widow whose sophisticated friend Emily (Blake Lively) suddenly vanishes.

But Mr. Feig has infused the suspense with humor that comes from touches like Stephanie’s chipper video blog that starts, “Hi, Moms!” and Emily’s ennui. “You are so nice,” she tells Stephanie. “I have no idea how you’ve survived so long.”

Mr. Feig’s last four films—in different genres but all starring women—have made more than $100 million apiece. The raunchy wedding comedy “Bridesmaids” was followed by “The Heat,” a buddy-cop movie with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, then “Spy” with Ms. McCarthy as an unlikely international espionage agent, and the rebooted “Ghostbusters.”

As a boy growing up in Michigan, Mr. Feig’s interest in writing, directing and performing was sparked when he saw Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.” “I found out that the guy who’s funny in it actually wrote it and directed it, too,” Mr. Feig says. “I didn’t know that was possible.”

Several years later, a Time magazine cover called Mr. Allen a comic genius. “I remember thinking—wait! You can actually be a funny person and be considered a genius? It didn’t make any sense to me. I thought comedy was just something I loved because it was goofy,” Mr. Feig says.

He is about to work in yet another genre. His next film, “Last Christmas,” is a holiday movie he calls “a romantic comedy that’s also a big love letter to London,” with a screenplay by Oscar winner Emma Thompson.

Mr. Feig spoke with the Journal about why his movies play with genre and why laughter to him seems like hard-core realism. Here are edited excerpts:

Why did you decide to mix comedy and suspense in “A Simple Favor”?

I love genres because there are all these established tropes you can subvert and reorder, so you can bring the audience something unexpected. I’ve been dying to do a thriller, because those are my favorite movies, but I’m not drawn to do a straight thriller because I just can’t make a movie without putting something funny in it. It doesn’t feel like real life to me if there’s not levity and humorous moments. I’m also very influenced by old Hitchcock movies. They’re dark and have all this danger, but they have really funny side characters.

How did you balance the comedy and the darkness?

The key is that it’s a thriller first and foremost, and anything comedic has to be in service of that. You have to treat it dead serious. Occasionally people will refer to one of my movies as a spoof, and I’m hugely insulted because I try to make real movies that happen to be funny. “Spy” is not a spoof, it’s a real spy movie that has funny, quirky characters, and the same with this.

The soundtrack for “A Simple Favor” has a lot of 1960s French pop, including a bouncy, obscure song, “Ca S’est Arrangé,” under the opening credits.

My wife and I are giant fans of Italian and French pop. That is the most fun song. I remember thinking I’ve got to get that in something, before I even saw the script for “A Simple Favor.” When we were putting the movie together, I wanted to be serious on the thriller aspect but also let the audience know upfront that it’s OK to laugh. You can’t hear that song and not think it’s OK to actually have fun in this movie.

You’ve done spies, detectives, even a comic sci-fi series, “Other Space.” Are you deliberately trying to run through every genre out there?

Pretty much. I’m dying to do a musical. I’m dying to do a big sci-fi epic, a western, a gangster movie, it goes on and on. I’m a commercial filmmaker. My movies are for studios because I want to make sure they get distributed, and I want people to see my movies and have fun. Genres provide that because they’re inherently entertaining, sort of comfort food. I come to all my genre films basically going, “I love this genre, but what are the things in it I don’t like?” I love thrillers, but sometimes they’re too mean-spirited for my taste.

Early in your career you directed “I Am David,” about a 12-year-old boy in Bulgaria who escapes a labor camp. Do you ever want to do a straightforward drama again?

I almost consider my movies to be funny dramas. The mistake I see in a lot of comedy people, both performers and behind the camera, is this desperation to be taken seriously, then they eliminate the thing that makes audiences love them. When comedic actors take on dramatic roles, I feel them fighting so hard to not be funny. But funny people—it’s in their DNA, they can’t help it. You walk across the room funny sometimes, it’s just who you are. I get so sad when I see somebody desperately trying to not use the gifts they naturally have.

You started out as a stand-up and an actor. Was acting your main goal at first?

I started doing stand-up when I was 15 in Detroit because Steve Martin was my hero, and I was always working towards writing and directing and starring in my own stuff. But I came out to L.A. just wanting to be in showbiz. I called all the studios to see if they needed actors, and obviously they said, “No, we need accountants.” When I called Universal, they said, “We need tour guides.” I’d taken the tour as a kid, so to me that was showbiz. How could you not get discovered being on the lot, being funny on the microphone, driving around? And I found out you can’t.

Who Is He?

  • Name: Paul Feig
  • What He Does: Director, writer, producer
  • How He Got There: Moving to Los Angeles from the Midwest after his first year of college, performing as a stand-up and getting small roles in TV comedies, including a stint on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”
  • His Big Break: Creating the 1999 television series “Freaks and Geeks,” about high-school misfits. The show, which lasted less than a season, quickly gained cult status and is now considered among the best comedies of its time. “I wrote ‘Freaks and Geeks’ just as a spec because I’m always writing something. Without it I would probably be out there trying to get acting jobs or be the sixth lead on a sitcom.”
  • His Obsession: Travel and food. His mother’s cooking was bland, he says. As a boy, “I was walking around going, ‘I don’t like food, that’s such a weird thing.’ ” He credits a Mexican restaurant in suburban Michigan for waking up his taste buds, and his wife for leading him out of his safety zone to travel. “Now my whole life is this quest for great food experiences and great travel experiences.”

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Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-feig-keeps-filmgoers-guessing-1536411594

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