Few directors—male or female—could please both genders with a film named Bridesmaids. But Paul Feig's done the near-impossible. Feig, co-creator of the cult television show Freaks and Geeks (along with Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow) has made a career of shaping funny, sympathetic, interesting and multi-dimensional characters, be they men or women, freaks or geeks, Seth Rogen or James Franco. Working from a script by star Kristen Wiig and her partner Annie Mumolo, Feig forges a balance between comedy balls—out enough for men, yet warm enough for women. Boxoffice sat down with Feig for an exclusive chat about how he collaborated with Bridesmaids' female cast and crew, plus insights into his comedic creative process.
These comedies tend to be girl versions of guy movies, but Bridesmaids is its own unique film. How careful were you to make sure that it wasn't just the girl version of 40-Year-Old Virgin?
It was definitely something we were concerned about, all of us, and Kristen was obviously very concerned about that. Because what happens is they just kind of take a guy script and change all the names to girls' names and then just have them be rude and crude. What we did to really guard against it was it was a number of things. One was just to really empower all the women around us—Kristen and Annie being the main ones—to really call us on stuff. But then, Lisa Yadavaia was one of our associate producers on it, and she was always in the room with us taking notes and then weighing in. It was important to us to always kind of throw it to the ladies, like, you know, "We need like a set piece—would that happen or what would be the version that you guys would like of it?" And then we would steer: okay. well, we need this in it. It was back and forth of balancing commercial with keeping it honest.
But then once we hired the actresses, it was doing a lot of rehearsals and a lot of improvs, and really just studying how they were talking, how they were interacting, and then saying, "How would you do this scene?" Or, here's the scene we need and it's scripted this way -- now take it and run with it. And by doing that, they were just talking as very honest, funny women. But very honestly as women—not trying to be like guys, just interacting that way. And so it just very quickly showed us the route to just being honest, which was us not imposing dialogue and emotional moves on women. It was just us going we need to get these things across to move the story forward, but you show us how you would say it. And then that all carried through. We would transcribe funny moments and lines from those improv sessions, put them in the script, then rehearse again and they would do it again. And when we got on the set, we let them improv and still do everything fresh, and then throw curve balls at them and do it that way.
Kristen Wiig's Annie is so relatable that if you made a male version of this movie, Seth Rogen could easily be that character without any real changes.
When Kristen wrote the script, it was in there. But I find in everything I work on that's the main thing of it—someone trying to figure out their place in the world—because I think that's the big question. In my life, that's always been—and I think that's the question in most people's lives. Nobody knows exactly what they want to do. Even people who are highly successful, I think are still going, "Should I be doing this?" So I think it's a very relatable thing. And then on top of that, you know, just like Seth, Kristen's strength is playing an everywoman. The people we love are the people who are like us, and that's why Seth is great. That's why Kristen is so great because she is the ultimate everywoman: she's got all the foibles we have. And I think it's a very relatable story. I like that she's a woman in her mid-30s. This could very easily have been a story about girls in their 20s and it would have been completely understandable and worked.
And yet, I think it would have been missing something because that's the time when you should be pulling it together. What I like is this is about a person pulling it together in a time when society says you should have it together. You're allowed to be nuts in your 20s, but by the time you hit your 30s, you better start honing in. And by the time you hit your 40s, you'd better be set-- and then whatever comes up and throws you. The universality of that theme is so great.
I personally am always looking for ways to show that. I've never been drawn to scripts that get sent to me about a guy who's on top of the world and then he loses everything because the stock market crashes. I can't relate to the guy that's on top of the world, and I don't take that much pleasure in seeing his downfall even if it results in him being a more humanized person. I'd rather see a guy take a fall who thinks he's on top of the world, but personally he's not sure—he's pretending he is. You just need that vulnerability because that's the only thing that kind of gets you in and makes you relate to a character. Then you can have a rich character, but you still feel that at least you understand their inner turmoil.
Something also relatable is Annie's cringe-worthy hook-up at the beginning [with Mad Men's Jon Hamm], and how she discusses and acknowledges it to Maya Rudolph's character.
We knew everything hinged on whether the audience was going to like them as friends or not. We did like five hours of improvs on everything: talk sexual, talk this and that, push this and that. And [Kristen and Maya] were so funny together because they're friends in real life, so that helped too. But there was always a worry like that scene is too long—and it is long. That's kind of ballsy to have that long of a scene up front. We kept trying to cut it down, but it just lost the moves it needed, which is: they're being funny, she's hiding something from her friend, her friend busts her and then her friend supports her. And then you just see their language of them having fun. Also, that scene where they're stealing the boot camp from Terry Crews. We shot that and then took it out immediately before the screening just because we felt we don't need it, we're going to get enough out of the diner scene. The minute we restored that scene of just them just doing that it, was just such a fun thing that you go okay, they're fun, they do fun crazy stuff together, and now we're going to hear the back story of them. It's this weird math you don't get until you get in front of an audience and start seeing what they're putting together.
When Kristen's jealous of Rose Byrne being her best friend's new best friend, that's authentic. But at the same time, she's got this jokey moment where she gloats about the fact that Rose Byrne looks ugly when she cries.
Yeah, totally. That was the one character that I was always nervous about, the Helen character. Because we've seen that character a million times and these movies always degenerate into a battle between two women which always turns into a cat fight. And I think it's not entertaining any more because we've seen it so many times—that's not a fun thing to watch. It's very shrill. It gets very like, "Come on you guys, just work it out, stop being crazy." So what was most important to me is that this is a movie about a woman who is her own worst enemy going through an emotional crisis that is made worse by a circumstance she's put in: being the maid of honor at her best friend's wedding. She loses it because of all this extra stimuli, so the Helen character is not the driving force. I never wanted Helen to be the antagonist. She is an antagonist, she is a part of Annie's problems—she's definitely got her issues—but Annie is in such a vulnerable place and the only thing she has in her life is her best friend, and now suddenly that's being threatened. That's making her nuts, and it's fun to play with. We definitely wanted to play with Helen but I never wanted to make her a villain. I always wanted it to be like she's just an oddball—she's that type who's controlling and tries to be perfect and is passive-aggressive. But enough of a needle and a thorn in Annie's side to let her put all her angst onto that one thing.
Part of it came into the writing, but then the biggest part was casting. And we saw a lot of very funny women who were really good at playing a little more arch, playing a little more of what you would expect out of that role, which is "I'm kind of bitchy." And it was Judd, when we had gone through all these women and we were kind of like, "What do we do?" He was the one that said just watch Rose Byrne's stuff from Get Him to the Greek. And I'm like, "Rose Byrne, really? Is she funny?" He said, "Just go watch it." So I watched it and she's funny and she gets it,because she plays it real—and I'd rather bring on somebody who wasn't quite as funny so that they would ground the character. The bonus we got is that Rose is incredibly funny in a very real way, the same way that when I work with Steve Carell, everything he does has to be out of reality, and then he can put stuff on top of it. And I think Rose has that ability, too. She could just spin stuff where you almost wouldn't know she was doing it, and then you get to the editing room and it's like, oh my God—look at what she did that I didn't even pick up on.
On SNL, Kristen creates these iconic characters. How tough did you make sure that what she was doing didn't become too unrealistically comical?
It was really just kind of getting her to a place where she could use all her talent. And she was very open to this, obviously, but it's a big deal when you're starring in your first film—it's make-or-break time. If it doesn't work, then you're never going to get to do it again. So it was a fun discovery for me to get to figure out exactly how to give her everything she wanted, and give myself and the audience everything we wanted out of her. But she's a really good actress. I've had to put up with for a year now [seeing] everybody's eyes going to this like they think it's going to be the Target Lady movie. So I've made this speech so many times: "No, trust me, it's not what you think. Wait till you see it, just trust me." Especially with the name Bridesmaids, too. We wanted to call it that because we wanted it to be simple. But until the poster, and we all knew we were going to have a cool photo that was going to make the title ironic slightly, there was a year, "What's it called? Bridesmaids. Oh." People's eyes glazed over again. Now that at least it's coming out, I can stop making all the caveats I've made for a year.
This movie really has the cleanest scatological payoff in any comedy I've ever seen. How did you handle that given that women aren't usually as receptive to that kind of humor as men are?
It was very weird. It was a calculated risk. We knew we wanted some big set pieces. The dress shop scene was originally more kind of a comedy of fighting over which dress is better. We needed something more there. I remember Judd just blurting out one day: "Fuck it, they all get food poisoning." How do we handle that? So numerous versions were written and some were just out and out insanity—I mean like vomit everywhere. And then others were woo-woo and this and that. But basically the philosophy was: let's set it up and let's shoot the hell out of it. Let's shoot a lot of bathroom stuff going on and we'll only use what we think works. But the one thing we did know is let's not wallow in the shit. We know it's there. I mean, it was pretty much scripted as you see in the bathroom now with, you know, Rita [Wendi McLendon-Covey] misses the toilet, and Megan [Melissa McCarthy] is shitting in the sink. And it was very funny, but as we were putting it in, it's just being able to pull back and go: when are we going to cross the line? We want to hit the line hard right up front because you don't expect it. So you're going like ,"Oh shit!" And then go to the absurd of Megan shitting in the sink, but let's not put any sound effects on it, let's not have it be like a big fart sound because, then we're doing "the joke." It's exhibiting restraint.
Have you guys thought about presenting alternate versions of these scenes?
There are extended cuts of scenes that we're putting on the DVD. I guess you have to wait to see if the movie is a hit or if anybody cares, but there is a version to put out of all the rehearsal materials we did, all the auditions we did, for filmmakers to kind of see the process because it was a very interesting building process. And Judd loves to record everything—he's got a full-time team that does that. They show up at any meetings we have, any big meetings, any big rehearsals, and kind of tape everything. So I think we're putting a lot of really great stuff on that's all deleted stuff, and those "Line-O-Ramas," I love those because they get to show you how funny these people are that are doing it. I mean, when you finish a movie, some characters don't get to do as much as others. Like Wendi McLendon-Covey has these runs where she'll go off on how bad her house smells because of the kids. And they're so fucking funny that half of the time you're going, "Oh shit, we should have put those jokes in." But they didn't quite work in service of the story—it's so exciting to get to have them out there so people can see how funny these people are.
In Judd's movies and especially your work on Freaks and Geeks, you feel as if these actors are not only playing the scene but they are acknowledging the scene that they're in. How much you can encourage the actors to be able to react honestly about not just what's going on in the scene but how this scene fits into a cinematic universe?
You know what it is: it's just setting up safe situations for them on the set with a very specific goal for the scene. And that's where the writing comes in. You have to have a great script, the script has to structurally work, because there are plenty of improv movies that are just free-for-alls. So this scene's funny, this scene's funny, this scene's funny, let's jam in an epiphany moment, and it's over. Which I don't like because then I just feel like nobody's in charge here. My main goal as a director is to create a very safe environment so you can say and try anything. I'm never going to go, "Why the fuck did you do that?" Or, "Come on, we're behind schedule, don't mess around." No. Try it. If it doesn't work, we won't use it. I'd rather have it. And so then any of the actors can be comfortable enough to just say what they would normally say. Or I think they're commenting on it because maybe they're even being put in a situation. Like here's the situation you have to be in, so now you have to make it natural and how would you react if you're in that situation. To me, that's fun because then people are reacting normally.
Judd has pioneered a style of modern comedies that are not as much about a discernible plot as these set pieces that connect together. How do you make sure that everything fits together and not diminish those set pieces?
It starts in the writing. The mistake that a lot of comedies make is that the set pieces are tacked-on events that don't necessarily advance the plot, or advance the plot in a very iffy way. And what's important is to make sure that those set pieces are representing something—they're advancing the story, they're advancing the character. Again, the dress shop is a very important scene because it illustrates in a very funny way what Annie's problem is in life, which is she will not admit she's wrong. She will be inflexible. So she made this mistake. She took people to a crappy restaurant because it was cheap and everybody got food poisoning, and she will not admit to Helen that it was because of it.
But that's the comedy. You're kind of advancing the character while outrageousness is going on. And then it's a bit of a showdown between Helen and her, but also it's one of the strikes that counts against her with Lillian later on. One way is to write the set pieces first and then try to connect the story around them, but it's more fun to say: here's the story. When I've been developing stuff, sometimes people tune out the comedy. They're like, "Well, it's not funny. It's like a drama." And I'm like, "Don't worry about the comedy. The comedy will come." So it's really just making sure that it all flows. It's okay to go into a script knowing the set pieces you want, but if you can't fit them into the story, if they don't fit organically in the story, then they're not the right set piece. And then maybe let it go—you have it if you need it, but then just delve around.
Two days after I saw Bridesmaids, I was sitting in a room with my buddy like we were supposed to be working, and we were just cracking up quoting lines from the film.
Oh, I love that. I mean that really means a lot because it was a scary project—you never know with these kind of things. I've got my hand on the jail door, but they haven't unlocked it yet, so it's so nerve-wracking right now. I appreciate that. I know to me it feels like exactly the step I wanted to make from Freaks and Geeks, with ten years stuck in between them and the evolution of kind of that storytelling, so it still feels pretty good.