‚ÄúA Simple Favor‚ÄĚ comes with the tagline ‚ÄúFrom the Darker Side of Director Paul Feig.‚ÄĚ It turns out that even the filmmaker‚Äôs 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‚Äôs chipper video blog that starts, ‚ÄúHi, Moms!‚ÄĚ and Emily‚Äôs ennui. ‚ÄúYou are so nice,‚ÄĚ she tells Stephanie. ‚ÄúI have no idea how you‚Äôve survived so long.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Feig‚Äôs last four films‚ÄĒin different genres but all starring women‚ÄĒhave made more than $100 million apiece. The raunchy wedding comedy ‚ÄúBridesmaids‚ÄĚ was followed by ‚ÄúThe Heat,‚ÄĚ a buddy-cop movie with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, then ‚ÄúSpy‚ÄĚ with Ms. McCarthy as an unlikely international espionage agent, and the rebooted ‚ÄúGhostbusters.‚ÄĚ
As a boy growing up in Michigan, Mr. Feig‚Äôs interest in writing, directing and performing was sparked when he saw Woody Allen‚Äôs ‚ÄúTake the Money and Run.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúI found out that the guy who‚Äôs funny in it actually wrote it and directed it, too,‚ÄĚ Mr. Feig says. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt know that was possible.‚ÄĚ
Several years later, a Time magazine cover called Mr. Allen a comic genius. ‚ÄúI remember thinking‚ÄĒwait! You can actually be a funny person and be considered a genius? It didn‚Äôt make any sense to me. I thought comedy was just something I loved because it was goofy,‚ÄĚ Mr. Feig says.
He is about to work in yet another genre. His next film, ‚ÄúLast Christmas,‚ÄĚ is a holiday movie he calls ‚Äúa romantic comedy that‚Äôs also a big love letter to London,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄúA Simple Favor‚ÄĚ?
I love genres because there are all these established tropes you can subvert and reorder, so you can bring the audience something unexpected. I‚Äôve been dying to do a thriller, because those are my favorite movies, but I‚Äôm not drawn to do a straight thriller because I just can‚Äôt make a movie without putting something funny in it. It doesn‚Äôt feel like real life to me if there‚Äôs not levity and humorous moments. I‚Äôm also very influenced by old Hitchcock movies. They‚Äôre 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôm hugely insulted because I try to make real movies that happen to be funny. ‚ÄúSpy‚ÄĚ is not a spoof, it‚Äôs a real spy movie that has funny, quirky characters, and the same with this.
The soundtrack for ‚ÄúA Simple Favor‚ÄĚ has a lot of 1960s French pop, including a bouncy, obscure song, ‚ÄúCa S‚Äôest Arrang√©,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôve got to get that in something, before I even saw the script for ‚ÄúA Simple Favor.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs OK to laugh. You can‚Äôt hear that song and not think it‚Äôs OK to actually have fun in this movie.
You‚Äôve done spies, detectives, even a comic sci-fi series, ‚ÄúOther Space.‚ÄĚ Are you deliberately trying to run through every genre out there?
Pretty much. I‚Äôm dying to do a musical. I‚Äôm dying to do a big sci-fi epic, a western, a gangster movie, it goes on and on. I‚Äôm 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‚Äôre inherently entertaining, sort of comfort food. I come to all my genre films basically going, ‚ÄúI love this genre, but what are the things in it I don‚Äôt like?‚ÄĚ I love thrillers, but sometimes they‚Äôre too mean-spirited for my taste.
Early in your career you directed ‚ÄúI Am David,‚ÄĚ 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‚ÄĒit‚Äôs in their DNA, they can‚Äôt help it. You walk across the room funny sometimes, it‚Äôs 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, ‚ÄúNo, we need accountants.‚ÄĚ When I called Universal, they said, ‚ÄúWe need tour guides.‚ÄĚ I‚Äôd 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‚Äôt.
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 ‚ÄúSabrina the Teenage Witch.‚ÄĚ
- His Big Break: Creating the 1999 television series ‚ÄúFreaks and Geeks,‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúI wrote ‚ÄėFreaks and Geeks‚Äô just as a spec because I‚Äôm always writing something. Without it I would probably be out there trying to get acting jobs or be the sixth lead on a sitcom.‚ÄĚ
- His Obsession: Travel and food. His mother‚Äôs cooking was bland, he says. As a boy, ‚ÄúI was walking around going, ‚ÄėI don‚Äôt like food, that‚Äôs such a weird thing.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúNow my whole life is this quest for great food experiences and great travel experiences.‚ÄĚ