Guest of Honor

Paul Feig on Portraying Female Friendships and Fine-Tuning Gross-Out Comedy

The dapper director shares insight on testing the limits of raunchiness, the creative freedom that came after "Bridesmaids" was a hit, and more.

Paul Feig is beloved for creating and producing the cult-favorite tv show “Freaks and Geeks,” along with his friend Judd Apatow. In addition to its excellent writing and direction, the show was known for launching some huge Hollywood careers: including those of Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen.

These days, Paul’s probably best known for his feature films. Most of them R-rated comedies featuring female heroes, like for instance “Bridesmaids,” with Kristin Wiig and “Spy,” with Melissa McCarthy. His latest comedy is in the same vein. It’s called “Snatched.” And it stars Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as a mother and daughter duo who get kidnapped while on vacation.

In the audio above, Brendan and Paul chat about everything from how the director became such a dapper dresser to why McCarthy’s rage as Sean Spicer works so well. (Be sure to check out Brendan’s almost unedited chat with Paul, where the director talks about his early standup days and his affinity for walking sticks.)

Interview highlights:

On how he became such a dapper dresser

Paul Feig: It’s what I call the “tyranny of the casual,” out in L.A., which is this sort of enforced, “Oh, you don’t get it.”

Here’s, actually, what happened: I mean, back after we did “Freaks and Geeks,” I started taking meetings because people liked the show and wanted me to work on other things. So, you go to these meetings, but you meet with these suits — “The Suits” — the heads of everything.

So, there you are, and I remember sitting on the couch, and they always put you on this really low couch where your knees are in your face. And I go, “I don’t like the power structure here.” Like, they look powerful, and I look like the artist they’re just sort of prescribing things to. So, I went away from that. [I] always used to wear a suit and tie when I was a kid. I used to love it.

So, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to do it again. I’m in my mid-30s now. I’m an adult, you know, fairly successful.” “Let’s start dressing like the enemy,” basically, I thought. And so, [I] went out and got a bunch of kind of cheap suits at the mall and started going on my meetings.

Well, the minute I started going on my meetings, for some reason, a memo went out around the town that they didn’t want to be “The Suits” anymore, so they were going to start dressing like the artists.

So, I get into a meeting, and I’m in my suit and tie, and they’re all wearing jeans and t-shirts, and it was crazy. But here’s the thing: this is the hubris of Hollywood. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we feel weird now that we abandoned our uniform.” They immediately took on this air of superiority, and it was like, “Oh, look at the rube who doesn’t know that, you know, he’s not supposed to put on his Sunday, go-to-meeting clothes.”

On how the trend of arrested development in comedies like “Snatched”

Paul Feig: When Katie Dippold first pitched this project to me — even before she wrote it, and then when she wrote the script — I remember going like, “How do we pull this off?” Because it is the hardest thing to kind of get an audience to sort of get behind the arrested development kind of character.

So, the minute we found out that Amy was interested in it, it was like, “Oh, that’s perfect because she’s kind of one of the few people I know who can pull it off, who can be sort of bratty, and yet, you find her kind of endearing at the same time.

And, when I did “Freaks and Geeks,” the fun about that is, in your teens, you’re allowed to be a mess, and even kind of into your 20s, you’re allowed to be a mess. The minute you get into characters who are in their 30s and they’re a mess, the audience gets much less patient.

On testing the limits of raunchiness in his comedies

Brendan Francis Newnam: In this movie, as well as “Bridesmaids” and some of your other R-rated movies — and these are R-rated movies — there are some jokes that are pretty raunchy and raw. I’m wondering if there’s a joke in any of your films that you thought maybe went too far and, in retrospect, you would maybe have excised.

Paul Feig: No, nothing that got in. There’s definitely jokes we shoot that were like, “Ooh, yikes! That was too much!”

But the thing is, you really don’t know. I mean, I’ve had so many times where people would be very offended by a joke that I think is completely innocuous, and then, at the same time, they’ll just love a joke that I’m like, “That’s way too hardcore. We can’t pull that off.”

So, I mean, that’s why we do so many test screenings. Because the process that we do is: early on, we put together a cut of the movie, and then we screen it for people off the street, like 300 people. And we record their laughs and then get their feedback, and then we do that every two to three weeks for months. So, it allows us to go, like, “Well, those jokes didn’t work. Let’s flip in these. Let’s try this, let’s try that.”

It is kind of mathematical the way you work it, just because we’re making movies to try to entertain the largest swath of the audience that you can. And so, you really need to make sure that stuff works because, as one of my editors would say, you never want the premiere to be your test screening.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s funny to think that there are all these people who attended screeners who’ve seen versions of your movies that are even grosser and more profane scenes that ended up in the final cut. Like, “I was at the Grove last week, and, man, I saw Kristen Wiig…” I don’t even know what you probably left on the cutting room floor.

Paul Feig: I’m telling you, there were some cuts that were extremely gross. I mean, Kristen even, when we were putting that dress shop scene — you know, we’re going to shoot it — she was very nervous about it. And Judd Apatow and I said to her, “Look, we’re going to shoot everything. We’re going to shoot stuff that’s too much, but we will not put anything in the movie that is not good.”

On the creative process behind the food poisoning scene in “Bridesmaids”

Paul Feig: Well, you have to face it just from the very beginning, even from the writing. The mistake is to go, like, “What’s just the most outrageous thing we can do just to shock the audience?” You’re really on thin ice when you do that.

But what you do is go, like, “OK, here’s the thing we want to illustrate.” With that scene in particular, it was like, “OK, here’s a woman who’s in a battle with a woman who’s much richer than her. She doesn’t have any money, so she’s going to take them to a restaurant she can afford, but she’s going to kind of pass it off like it’s a great place, even though she kind of knows it’s not a great place. And then there’s going to be consequences to this.”

And to us, the funniest thing was always not, OK, they’re going to be just throwing up and going to the bathroom everywhere. It was: what happens when everything is about to go wrong, and everybody around you is trying to pretend it’s not happening?

So then, the fun is to go, “OK, now how can we illustrate this very human and relatable point in the most outrageous way possible?”

On feeling more freedom to write honest women characters after “Bridesmaids”

Paul Feig: I mean, my obsession in storytelling is: I love female friendships, and I love professional women, and I always feel like those are the two things that just never got shown in movies.

Like you say, it was always a romantic comedy where it’s about finding a guy. Or the thing that I always hated for so long is that Hollywood always moralized with these movies in which it was… basically, the story was: you’ve got to choose between your job or your happiness, which I always found so offensive because I know so many women who are professionals who are happy. They’re happily married, they have a family, and they love their work. But it always this weird kind of judgment that was coming down from the storytellers.

Look, I love a good romantic comedy, and I’m hoping to do some of those, too, but I never want that to be the main motivation for any female character that I portray.

On what makes Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression work

Paul Feig: It is so take-no-prisoners. And it’s also just spot on for what sketch and caricature and comedy should be, which is you take the things that are the most either irritating or funny or surprising about a character, and then you blow them up.

But what’s so funny about her is just the rage is so funny. Nobody can meaner and angrier funny than Melissa McCarthy, and she’s found the perfect conduit because Sean Spicer — you know, he’s even backed off.

Honestly, he’s trying to behave himself so much, but he laid the groundwork when he did that very first press conference where he was defending the attendance at the inauguration. And so, his goose was cooked after that because once you do something you’re known for, that becomes a thing we parody endlessly.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]