Exclusive Interview: Paul Feig on The Heat
Paul Feig makes strong comedies about strong women. After the surprise multiple Oscar nominee Bridesmaids in 2011, he turned his interest in the female buddy dynamic to the cop genre-infused The Heat, which managed to earn over $226 million in an already crowded summer season. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy star as mismatched law enforcement officials who bond over the course of a criminal investigation. It's a simple set-up, but simply putting two strong female characters in a film with no romantic subplots feels revolutionary in this day and age.
With The Heat hitting DVD and Blu-ray on October 15, we thought it would be a good time to get Paul Feig on the phone to talk about his approach to women in comedy, playing off of Melissa McCarthy's now-famous comedic persona, and answer the question of whether comedies are too long these days. Paul Feig's answers are below, along with his explanation for why Sandra Bullock seems hesitant to make The Heat 2, which is already in development.
CraveOnline: It’s so nice to see a movie even blended with the cop genre that passes The Bechdel Test.
Paul Feig: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m obsessed with the Bechdel Test, I have to say. That’s why I was drawn to this project in the first place. A) The script is hilarious, but B) you’re like, “Oh good, there’s not a love story we’re saddled with, and we can just have fun showing the issues that two professional women have.” Not in a way that’s like, “Oh ladies, you missed out,” more like, “Yes! Do what you love, but it would be nice to find a friend who is in a similar situation that you can have a support group with.”
You have Marlon Wayans in there, and there’s a little flirtation with Sandra Bullock.
I thought that’s where you were going. Was there an earlier draft where that was more fleshed out, or was that always sidelined?
No, it was always just kind of a sideline thing. There’s this guy helping out, and [it’s] more that he had a kind of crush on her. It was more to show that she’s just shut down all aspects of her personal life, and it was also a fun way to have Melissa’s character be the one who’s a little out there in the world, and push [Bullock] to do something. But we never wanted it to overtake the story. We just thought it was fun to have an extremely handsome man after one of them.
Is Melissa McCarthy a “Manic Pixie Dream Friend?”
[Laughs] That’s funny. She is a force of a nature, that one. It’s really fun, now I’ve done two films with her, to let her take a character that’s already funny on the page and let her run with it. I always let her set the look of the character. We usually do a lot of early, early rehearsals, read-throughs, just to let them improv and hear where they’re going with it. Let them build it organically, so by the time it hits the screen it’s something that is so fleshed out and real to her that she’s just able to slip into it and just be that character. So it was really fun, in Bridesmaids and this, to watch those characters evolve from the outside in.
I always love the process of figuring out what she’s going to wear because we’ll do research photos and send things around, see her trying on different versions of the costumes. I’m off doing something and they’ll send me pictures from the wardrobe sessions, and I can always tell if she’s standing there stiffly it’s not the right costume, but as she starts to get looser and starts doing goofy poses and funny faces and physicality, then okay, she’s finding it. She’s finding it. By the time you get photos that make you laugh out loud, okay, she found it. [Laughs]
What sort of outfits were considered that didn’t make the cut?
She had it very much in her head that she liked the idea that Mullins was influenced by 80’s lady rappers. Like the Queen Latifahs of the world. So there’s a lot of different ways that can go… track suits and this and that. And also there’s the hair, trying to figure that out. We found this old reference photo of Patti Smith with her hair kind of wild like that, so Melissa really locked in on that, but what is the incarnation of those two worlds? Rock ‘n roll and old hip hop coming together. [Laughs] Of course our great costume designer [Catherine Marie] Thomas came up with the idea of a vest, which Melissa loved, so it really just honed its way into the zuma pants. Once she found the comfort level we were off to the races.
You’ve done two movies with Melissa McCarthy, and in both films she’s a force of nature, she’s broadly funny, but at the same time she’s irrepressibly strong as a person. She’s well put together as a human being.
Are you ever tempted to give her more vulnerability, or is it funnier – or more empowering – if she’s got all of her shit together?
Well, for these two projects I like that she’s the most confident one in the room, because I think that’s a great message to send for women in general with a character like hers. But this new project I have with her, which is like a female James Bond, it’s about a woman who’s kind of lost her confidence and has to get it back. What’s great about Melissa is she’s such an amazing actress that she pull the shades off. In the first two, it was nice to see a strong character then have a moment where you’re like, “Oh, there’s actually a bit of vulnerability there,” like obviously in Bridesmaids when she fesses up on the couch about all the stuff in her life, and this, wit her brother getting shot, you just see that side of her where she really cracks and crumbles a little bit. […] I think so many movies are about strong women, you find out they’re… I dunno, they’re weak, or… and I wanted to steer away from that a few times. But with this new one, there’s shades of, basically, a woman who’s lost her confidence and getting it back. But in a strong way. Again, I don’t want… Melissa’s s funny when she’s confident, or has the veneer of confidence or strength, and you never want to cut Samson’s hair, the thing that audiences love about them.
I was watching The Heat and couldn’t help but wonder how well Sandra Bullock can dance in real life.
[Laughs] Very, very well, actually. She’s quite an adept physical comedian, and also just very in touch with her physical being. She loves to do things that are very physical. We were always trying to figure out more physical bits for her.
Does she have a signature move? Does she just always default to the robot?
No, she was always surprising me with the dance stuff. What’s fun about that was, that wasn’t in the script. I was just like, “I want to see you guys dance, like when you’re drunk. I want to see a dance number out of the two of you.” So first they were kind of like, “Really…?” But then the compromise was, we won’t choreograph it. We’ll do it, but we wanted it to feel real. So Sandra came up with some stuff before we shot, under the guise of some dance that she used to do in high school and now, in a drunken state, she’s teaching it to Mullins. So that’s why we just turned on the camera and started doing it. I wanted it to be imperfect, and I wanted it to feel like a drunken dance lesson, and that’s what I got.
Was there ever any concern that the tracheotomy scene might be too “dark?”
[Laughs] It’s interesting because, in our test screenings, that was consistently the things that audiences would write on their cards [that] they didn’t like, or they didn’t want in the movie, but whenever we do a test screening we record the laughs in the audience and every single screening they were laughing hysterically and screaming. It’s why, in marketing research, you never ask which you would rather have, because they’ll never give you an honest answer. I think there’s a slight guilt that you were laughing at something that you feel you shouldn’t have been laughing at. I always loved the tracheotomy scene. Some people look at it like it’s a gratuitous thing, but for me what I love about it is, it’s at a point where Sandra’s character has been slowly ground down out of her overconfident place. Now, with things going wrong, she’s grasping for straws, like “I do know what I’m doing.” So I just needed one thing where she takes it too far and says, “I know how to do this,” and it’s literally life-threatening, what she’s doing. [Laughs] So it was the most fun way to give her the final kick in the pants.