DVD Talk Interview: Paul Feig
After nearly 20 years in development hell, a brand new Ghostbusters movie is finally here to save the world this summer, and Paul Feig, director of the smash hits Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, has brought along his previous leading ladies Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, as well as current "SNL" breakout stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. DVDTalk had the opportunity to talk to the filmmaker over the telephone for a brief chat about improvisation, advertising, and an early scoop on how much more Ghostbusters he'll be scaring up on a future Blu-ray and DVD release.
DVDTalk: You have a reputation for making very improv-heavy comedies. When you are hearing or writing improv, what is most important to you: the concept of the character that you wrote and developed with the actor, the tone of the film as a whole that you have in your head, or just whether or not it gets a laugh when you finally test the movie?
Paul Feig: Really, it's hard to separate out all those elements. They're all really part and parcel of everything. We always just try to write the strongest possible script we can so if we get to the set and it's just a day that everyone goes brain dead, we still get a good scene. Basically, the script is a blueprint for the emotional arcs of the story, and obviously the plot, but also the jokes, and tone, which allows us, when we get to the set, to start shooting what we wrote, but for me, I very quickly start to let people change stuff, and I start changing things. On this one, when I'm working with Katie Dippold, she's always on set with me, writing jokes and handing them to me on a Post-It pad, and throwing stuff in.
We try everything, really. I always try to guard the tone. If somebody has a specific idea, yeah I'll let them do it, but...when we were doing Spy, we had one scene where Rose Byrne's character is holding Melissa hostage, she's tied to a chair. That's a hard scene anyway, because the tone had to be so razor's edge on it. We did it a couple times, and then I pitched a couple of jokes, and everybody started getting very silly with what they were doing, having fun, but suddenly I went, "Oh my God." It was chilling. "Boy, If we slip into this tone at all, we suddenly become a spoof of a spy movie." So, very quickly, "All right, everybody stop, let's not do that." But then, once we found the tone of the scene and everybody was in it, I was actually able to re-feed some of those jokes back in, and they ended up working, because they were being played very seriously.
That's all I ever ask of any actors, is to just treat it dead serious, even if it's funny and goofy. If the circumstance and the situation is absurd, it's all about how the characters face it, and they can be extreme characters, but they have to be real characters. We all know real people who are very extreme, who if you wrote them in a movie, people would go, "Nah, come on, that's over-the-top," and you go, "No, this is this person's personality!" But it has to come from the actors believing in who they are and what they're doing, and not looking down on that person that they're playing, and not having contempt for that person. Even if you're playing a villain, even a bad guy has his reasons for why he's doing what he's doing. Whether they're terrible or not, to him or her, they're saying, "this makes sense to me, and I'm doing this for a good reason."
So, it's really just managing the three-ring circus and getting everything. The editing room is where we sort it all out. But I also work with people who don't go off the rails. It's the difference between working with professional comedy people versus actors who don't normally do comedy. Some can get the tone and play it straight. With Statham, he just got immediately, "Oh, just play this dead straight, don't try to be funny." If you get people who try to be funny, that's usually just deadly, which is why you have to be careful what non-comedy people you work with that you want to turn into comedy people. It becomes clear very quickly who knows how to face it the right way and who doesn't.
DVDTalk: In Roger Ebert's review of Ghostbusters, he points out that the nature of special effects, which is very technical, and the nature of comedy, which needs to feel improvisational, are kind of in opposition to each other. This is your first big special effects comedy. I know that you had real actors on set playing the ghosts so your cast had something to bounce off of, but on the whole, did you find balancing those two things more complicated than you thought it'd be going in?
Feig: I was prepared to have to balance them, because I really study movies that go off the rails. What you see in a lot of these tentpoles, even if they're not comedies, and most of them aren't, is that the effects and the mayhem overtake the filmmaker, and they get enamored with that. So, you see all this of stuff where you say, "I know this makes sense to somebody, but I'm just watching a bunch of mayhem." That makes for movies that still make a ton of money, but when you're doing comedy especially, if people aren't invested in the characters, in their emotions, and their arcs, and their story, then you really fall apart, because nobody shows up to a comedy to be wowed by long action sequences that are full of CGI. They're expecting laughs. But I like that, because it keeps you from going off the rails.
It starts with the writing, like, "Okay, these scenes are our big setpiece scenes, but we have to figure out what's funny, what's the core of this?" If you're writing a comedy like this, you can't just say, "They fight!" or "They have a battle!" because then you are inviting mayhem. It has to be very moment to moment: this happens, which leads to this joke, which leads to this character moment, and then you design your effects and get everything ready for that. You have to be very aware of that, because there has to be an internal comedic logic or emotional logic to any of that stuff. But I don't think that only applies to comedy, and that's why there are so many tentpoles where you go, "Well, that looked cool, but I don't really know who I was rooting for!"
DVDTalk: You have a sequence that's in several of the television commercials where the Ghostbusters fight haunted parade balloons. I listen to the Interdimensional Crossrip podcast with Chris Stewart and Troy Bejnamin. They were talking about how this was a level in The Video Game that didn't get completed, and that it might've been a Harold Ramis idea that was unused from the original movie. I was wondering if you knew anything about that, if that in there for that reason...
Feig: No, no idea! I didn't realize that. Our third act is basically, at one point, the bad guy turns New York into its old, worst version, when it was more dangerous, so it's not quote-unquote "friendly corporate New York of today", but the rougher New York. So, the team goes through the streets of Manhattan, they encounter different eras, and we were doing research on old New York and found all these photos of these parade balloons from the 1920s which were just the creepiest things you'd ever seen in your life! "Oh, my God, we've got to use those!" So no, it did not come out of Ghostbusters lore. This is the first time hearing of that. I guess I should've said yes! I should've taken credit for it! It was just an idea that we thought could be cool and visually stunning.
DVDTalk: That parade balloon sequence is all over the commercials. In a recent podcast interview you talked about the marketing and how you'd prefer for it all to be a surprise. Are you completely out of control of that process or do you have some say it what goes in?
Feig: Well, it's a little like trying to hold back the ocean! Everybody gets excited in the marketing department, because there's stuff that just plays with an audience, from our test screenings, jokes and sequences that people just go crazy for, so obviously that's what everybody wants to put in the advertising, but I say, "Well, that's stuff that was really fun because nobody knew it was coming."
Look, I have a never-ending love-hate relationship with how a movie is promoted, because obviously you've gotta get people to show up, so you want to show off the cool stuff they're going to see, but at the same time, I'd rather people have a pure experience and not know anything that's coming. It's the downside of living in the internet age. People just consume so much and want so much, and I always feel like I'd rather...you know, if you leave a bunch of kids, if you let 'em loose in a candy store, they'd eat every piece of candy and pass out. It'd be nice to go, "Yeah, I know you guys all want this, but let's hold off. Come see the movie."
That's how I, as a guy growing up...I’m now 53 years old, and when I saw the original Ghostbusters, I didn't know anything about it, other than we'd kind of seen a trailer that didn't really show much of anything. We just knew the guys we loved were in the movie, and it was Ivan Reitman, we'd loved all his movies, and we knew it was a comedy, and that was it. So, sitting down in that movie, from frame one, it was like, "Holy shit, what's happening?" You were just kind of blown away by everything, and I miss that!
I think it's a huge bummer that audiences don't get to have that kind of experience anymore, if they're at all on the internet. You have to actively avoid things, avoid the internet, and avoid advertising to have that experience. With social media, God forbid you don't watch "Game of Thrones" as it airing, because then it's just like, "Oh, fuck!" It happens to me constantly, you're scrolling, and you go, "What's that picture? Oh, God damn it. Now I just saw the surprise from the end of the episode." If it was up to me, we wouldn't even advertise, but you gotta get people to show up.
DVDTalk: You're working on a sequel to Spy, and I know Katie Dippold wrote a sequel to The Heat that's in development, and Ghostbusters might get a sequel --
Feig: It's not in development. The Heat sequel's not in development, it's a great script that's...sitting, waiting.
DVDTalk: Comedy sequels are really hard. Do you have a philosophy on how you approach these movies to avoid the traps that comedy sequels usually fall into?
Feig: Yeah, well if you notice, I've kind of avoided doing them! The problem with a sequel is, what's great about the first film is that it is an origin story. It's so fun to see something come from nothing, to see a circumstance grow, and what happens when you do a movie right, and it works, it means you have done a complete arc with this character or characters, so at the end they are much better off, or complete, or in a place where you wanted them to be at the beginning of the movie. So, when you do a sequel, then you're suddenly forced to either knock them back down, which sort of invalidates the first movie, or you have to find a situation where they either get a new problem, or a new thing they have to overcome. That's why they're so hard to do, you have less investment in someone who's already kind of got it together, and at the end of most movies, those lead characters have it together. You'd have to do a thing where, suddenly, someone who is a hero at the end of the first movie, you come back and they've fallen from grace, which I always think is tough to pull off, because it's like, "Well, they saved the world, so why are they now not liked anymore?" Or now they're going into a situation that's much more extreme that's going to give them a new challenge to themselves as human beings, where they're going to have to overcome something that wasn't solved by the original.
Genres are a little better for it. For instance, if we were to do another Spy, it's another mission, but at the same time, it's not just about the mission. Spy was fun because it's about this woman coming out of her shell, and rediscovering who she was. It's a tough balance to hit. But The Heat sequel that Katie wrote is really great. Just...Sandra Bullock has to want to do the movie!
DVDTalk: Wrapping up: given your previous three films all have extended cuts on home video, it might be too early to answer, but are there any plans to do a long cut of Ghostbusters?
Feig: We are literally, as I talk to you, I'm on lunch break from doing our extended cut of the movie. There will be one, and it will be a good 15 to 17 minutes longer than the theatrical feature.
DVDTalk: Finally, for my colleague Francis Rizzo III, who works at DVDTalk, any update on the hunt for a new home for "Other Space", and is there a Blu-ray in the works?
Feig: Oh, well, thank you so much for caring about it! All still in the works, all still trying to figure it all out. I desperately want to do another season. I'm so proud of that show. We're trying to figure out what kind of afterlife the first season has right now, whether we are going to put it out on DVD or Blu-ray, or if we're just going to try and post it...you know, it's been geoblocked all over the world, so that's the bummer for me. When I travel around the world, I go, "God, there's so many people who would really like this show." So I'm just trying to figure out, either we can just put it out for the world to see, or put it out on Blu-ray. But yeah, I love that show, and if we can get another season, I would be so happy.
Ghostbusters opens in US theaters on July 15th.
DVD Talk Interview: Paul Feig
Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion
DVD Talk Interview: Samantha Bee and Jason Jones
The Top 10 Releases of 2015