There are few gentleman who are more enjoyable to talk about the art of comedy than writer-director-occasional actor Paul Feig, who finally became a much-in-demand director thanks to the mega-success of 2011's BRIDESMAIDS, a film that also turned Melissa McCarthy into not only a bankable actor, but practically a household name.
The two are back this week, along with Sandra Bullock, in the buddy-cop comedy THE HEAT, the rude, crude, and extremely charming story of an uptight FBI agent (Bullock) and a rough-around-the-edges local Boston detective (McCarthy) who are forced to partner up to solve a crime. Once the film makes it past the obligatory "odd couple" set up and the two women--both looked down upon by the male counterparts--find a way to work together and even become friends, the film really ups its game as both a comedy and a surprisingly violent action movie.
Feig will always be something of a hero to me, if for no other reason than he and Judd Apatow created the short-lived series "Freaks and Geeks." He's directed some of the finest episodes of many great TV comedies, including "Undeclared," "Arrested Development," "30 Rock," "Weeds," "Parks and Recreation," "Bored to Death," " The Office," and nearly the whole first season of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie." Hell, he even directed an early episode of "Mad Man."
As for features, Feig has only done the weirdly serious I AM DAVID, about a young boy who escapes a communist prison camp; the kind of terrible family film UNACCOMPANIED MINORS (Feig admits in our interview that this is not his best work); and BRIDESMAIDS. Since that hit, Feig has been attached to quite a few projects, but THE HEAT came almost out of nowhere for him, and it gave him an opportunity to team with McCarthy again.
This was my first time sitting down to actually interview Feig, although at last year's Butt Numb-a-Thon, he showed up very early in the morning with a handful of raunchy and very funny clips from THE HEAT just to tease the crowd. I was initially asked to introduce him and chat with him for a while about the film, so I stepped out into the Alamo Drafthouse lobby, and we chatted for about 30 minutes, him looking very dapper in a wonderful purple suit, me looking like I'd been awake for nearly 20 hours at that point. The studio publicists decided they wanted Harry to introduce Feig at BNAT, but we had a great talk, during which he informed me that he'd be touring with the film, and that we'd definitely see each other in Chicago. He's not only a great conversationalist, but he's a man of his word. Please enjoy my chat with the great Paul Feig…
Capone: Hello, again.
Paul Feig: Hey, now we’re talking!
Capone: How are you?
PF: Good. What’s going on?
[The two get seated.]
Capone: Good. It’s been since Butt Numb-a-Thon, right? We had a long chat.
PF: I didn’t look at my schedule, so I didn’t know who I was meeting. I could not be more thrilled to see you, sir.
Capone: Well good. Hopefully I’ll live up to your elevated expectations.
PF: [Laughs] Up to your own hype.
Capone: Seeing those clips at Butt Numb-a-Thon that really tapped us in to what you were up to with this film. I think a lot of people probably though, “What is he doing here with this?” And they saw it and they loved it.
PF: Oh good.
Capone: You start it out as what I would consider a fairly standard-issue, buddy-cop comedy where they are not getting along. The film takes off, for me, once they start working together. It’s not a secret that once you inject some sort of emotion into a comedy, even the rudest, most R-rated comedy, it makes us care about these people. Talk about that, because not everyone gets that.
PF: It’s frustrating, I find. Comedy can’t go joke to joke; it just never works, because you just get tired. A, your jokes can never be that good. They can’t consistently be that good, and B, there’s nothing to latch on to. So this is how I’ve always worked, and Judd’s this way too, which is why we always got along. You’ve really got to treat that initial story like it’s a drama and figure out the beats of it like a drama, and go “Why do I care about these characters? What are their arcs? What are their problems? How are they feeding off of each other? How are they helping each other?” and really kind of make sure that infrastructure is right, and then you can grow the comedy on top of it.
I’m always saying to people, “Don’t worry about the funny. I’m going to hire funny people. It will be funny.” But how do we latch into it? What I love about doing a cop thing is that it has a strong driver of a plot in the middle that just keeps things going, because you’re unspooling a thing, which is nice, because that allows you to now worry so much. When you get more character based comedies, you have to make sure that the emotional moments and procession are interesting enough to drive you forward, whereas this has an artificial thing driving it, where we’ve got to find out who the bad guy is and all that, which I like, but then it is up to me and [screenwriter] Katie Dippold and the actors to really find the heart and the soul of it.
For me, the soul of this movie was always professional women in the workforce who are dedicated to their jobs in some way give up other parts of their lives, but I never wanted it to be seen as a negative. I think it’s positive what they're doing, to know that sometimes it’s hard to find a like-minded friend and make those strong female friendships with like-minded professional women. I know my wife went through that when she was working. It was always hard for her to find a best friend, because just naturally you’re dedicated to your job, you’re working hard, sometimes you’re in a man’s world. That to me was what I really latched on to. I always need to find some core that I go, “This is going to be it,” especially since I like making movies that I hope women will respond to and feel like they're being served in a way that other movies might not be serving them.
Capone: In both of these women’s careers, one has people scared of her, and the other her male co-workers look down on even though she’s the smartest one in any situation. The opening where the FBI agents are missing all of the hiding places in the house, that seemed like “Hey, this is Hollywood. Start realizing that women are showing you they way.” That wasn’t very subtle, but no one else is saying it.
PF: [Laughs] Exactly! And that goes to my whole core philosophy of Why are we still having to fight these fights? This is ridiculous. "It’s 2013, why are we having to fight these fights? Why are we still having to prove ourselves, that women are funny?” It’s such a no brainer, but it’s still the one area that Hollywood is lagging behind on. They are definitely catching up, and television is completely caught up and has actually surpassed.
But movies still creak along, because there are enough business models they have that show: “People don’t go to this… International audiences don’t respond to a women’s movie.” If it’s true, “Okay, so why are we just accepting that it’s true? Why are we not trying to do something to change it?” I’m just selfish; it’s really because I know so many funny women. I want to see these funny women getting to be funny and not having to just play the asshole girlfriend or bitchy wife, complicating things for the funny men.
Capone: In the last couple of years, I’ve interviewed many women actors, who said, “I’m not getting offered the parts that I want, so I’m going to write my own.” And you see people like Kristen Wiig, Brit Marling, Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, or people like that who are just saying, “I can write something for myself.” They don’t make it sound that easy, but that’s what they are resorting to, and it’s paying off, it seems like.
PF: It’s completely true. I always say, “If you’re sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, things aren’t going to change.” Hollywood is not an altruistic place. It pretends to be, but there’s no motivation to do something unless they go, “Oh, it’s going to make shitloads of money.” So yeah, you really have to be proactive, and that’s why I love that Kristen and Annie Mumolo wrote BRIDESMAIDS. I love that Katie Dippold, out of her frustration with all the male-driven cop movies, went, “Why can’t women have this?” She wrote it, and it was hilarious and made its way to me and then immediately we were in production on it. It was the fastest turnaround ever.
Capone: Seth Rogen’s wife, Lauren Miller, did it too [with FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…]. And this process has churned out this great pool of writers.
PF: Oh my god, totally. People always ask, “How do I get into the business.” These days you’ve just got to do it. With the internet, you can make short films. I know people getting discovered off of Vines, which couldn’t take less time to make.
Capone: So how did you slip into this selective group? How’d you get a pass? Are you worried that as soon as they discover you're not a woman, you're in trouble?
PF: [laughs] Exactly. I'm the fox in the hen house. I think I’ve just always related more to women and women’s comedy and understood it and was fortunate enough to do BRIDESMAIDS and was able to showcase my understanding of that or at least be simpatico with women’s comedy. Going back to"Freaks and Geeks," Lindsey was my favorite character. She was the one I liked to write the most. I just respond to those types of characters, but I would just like to see more women getting to do this. I get it: "Paul Feig’s not a women.” I like to do it, but let’s have other people doing it. It has to get out of now being like something surprising or unique or a niche. It’s like “No, let’s let it be about funny people.” That’s all I care about, at the end of the day. I would like to break down where men don’t look at a poster with women on it and automatically go like “Ugh, check that out. I don't want to see that.”
Capone: I had forgotten, until I was doing research for this, that you directed practically the whole first season of "Nurse Jackie." I love that show. I just watched the finale last night.
PF: Again, built around a strong woman.
Capone: Television has long discovered this. Sandra obviously is a very talented actress, but I’m not aware of her history, if there is any, of this kind of improvising. Was there a learning curve for her, or did she pick it up pretty quick?
PF: Yeah, she even admits it in interviews I’ve read. She’s good at improv. She’s good at being loose, but she wasn’t prepared I think for the level that we do. We never go in without a really rockin' strong script, but then it’s just kind of “How do we play within that?” I’ll cross shoot and I’ll feed Melissa jokes that I won’t tell Sandra about, to surprise her, but she caught on very quickly. She realized it was sort of do or die and she’s just so talented. It’s kind of crazy to be able to play around with an actress of that caliber who has won an Oscar and who is so beloved, but it was also fun. I mean I almost called this movie “CORRUPTING SANDRA BULLOCK.” We get her to start swearing at a certain point. [Laughs]
Capone: Well she did come up in comedy and moved over to drama and got an Oscar for a drama. Was there a certain scene that you remember thinking, “Okay, she’s there now. She's where we need her to be”?
PF: Yeah, honestly it was the bar scene when they're getting drunk. We were only like two weeks in on that, and she was dong great before that, but that was one where she really just fell into this natural, surprising me with stuff, and that whole drunken dance just came from me saying, “I want you guys to dance. Maybe we'll get a choreographer,” and she was like, “No, I don’t want to figure anything out. I’m just going to go off on my own and figure out a dance, and then when you roll cameras, I’m going to teach it to Melissa, and that’s going to be the scene, just us trying to learn it.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s great.” So you get that weird, naturally drunken energy. And them doing the thing with the tape on their face. That was completely them. I turned around and suddenly they has scotch tape on their face, and she’s doing ventriloquism with Melissa’s face. That’s where you’re like, “Okay, they're completely in sync now.”
Capone: I’m sure it wasn’t, but it looked like the scene where she broke the glass was real. The blood looked legit.
PF: [Laughs] We pulled that off pretty well actually.
Capone: I was like “Is this like what Martin Sheen did in APOCALYPSE NOW?”
PF: She sells it though, that’s why it’s so great. And yes, she did pull a Martin Sheen; that’s how dedicated she is to her craft.
Capone: It could have just been an accident that you just happened to have on film, and that would have been awesome. I don’t think anyone more than you--and I think the films you’ve done with Melissa prove that--have a gift of tapping into what she is really capable of. Clearly the Oscar nomination proves it. What is the key to unleashing her as a force of nature?
PF: It’s creating a real character for her that is completely three dimensional. It’s letting her find it organically. It’s letting her build the look for the character, letting her drive that, and then getting out of her way and creating the cross shooting and ways in which you're capturing lightning in a bottle. She’s lightning in a bottle. The first time she does something, it’s hilarious. So you want to make sure you get both sides of that and you don’t have to go, “Can you try that again? We didn't get your side of it.” She's great and she can recreate it, but there’s nothing like that first inspiration where it’s like it’s coming out of nowhere. So many times, she'll leave the set going, “I don’t even know what I just did,” which is good. She'll just get in this zone.
Capone: There is a fire in her eyes, and it seems like the meaner and more dismissive people are to her in a scene, the better she is. She gets that weird look in her eye, it’s almost feral.
PF: Oh, I know. There’s one shot at the bar, it’s just a reaction shot, but when Sandra is coming back after her keys go missing, and Melissa just tilts her head like “Oh man, you are just so ready to kill this person.” She’s just a really inventive hurricane of comedy. You just need to guide and get out of the way.
Capone: I get obsessed with timelines here, and it seems to me that she would have made IDENTITY THIEF during her summer break last year [from "Mike and Molly," so when did she fit this film in exactly?
PF: Well, this was crazy. After BRIDESMAIDS, she and I had been trying to figure out a movie to do together, and I had written one for her, but we couldn’t get the timing right. So when she got IDENTITY THIEF… She lives in my neighborhood, and I saw her the day she was leaving and I was just so bummed out, like “Shit, I missed the summer window. I wanted to make another movie with her on the break.” I was really bummed out.
Then like two weeks later, the script called “THE UNTITLED FEMALE BUDDY COP COMEDY” lands in my kitchen, sent to me by my agents,, and I was sold completely on the title at first. They said that Sandra was interested, so I was excited about that. I read it on an airplane and had this epiphany of “Oh my god, this is so great for Melissa, but shit, I missed the window. She’s shooting that movie.” I got in with her agents, and basically she was going to finish the beginning of July, but had to be back on "Mike and Molly" at the beginning of August. So everyone was just like, “There’s no time. It can’t happen. She’s got like maybe five or six weeks tops available.” And I would literally, from the day I read the script, eight weeks later have to start production.
So I just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and the people over and Chernin Entertainment wouldn’t take no for an answer. So we just kept working and working with everybody. Basically, we had to work out a thing where we were going to shoot intensely for six weeks and then save all of Sandra’s solo stuff for after that, shoot all of that, so Melissa would go back to LA. Then on her off days, she would fly back and keep filming with us.
Capone: From LA to Boston?
PF: Yeah, so she had three weeks where she was working seven days a week, flying red eyes at night to get back to work with us. So without her dedication we couldn’t have done it, but she was such a trooper. I mean we really got down to the wire. [Laughs] It’s a miracle this movie exists.
Capone: Was there any hesitation on Sandra’s part to be a part of something like this?
PF: No, she was excited at the idea of doing Melissa’s first movie after BRIDESMAIDS. At the time, we didn't know when IDENTITY THIEF was going to come out, but she was a huge fan and was really into it. So she was really in for penny, in for a pound. She couldn’t have been greater and more accommodating of all of the craziness with Melissa’s schedule.
Capone: She seems like the kind of person now, maybe not always, but certainly now where if the idea of playing a particular kind of character scares her, that might make her want to do it a little bit more.
PF: Yes. She’s pretty adventurous, and I know she was really drawn to this. She’s even aware that she played FBI in MISS CONGENIALITY and yet knew that we were going to treat this much differently, and she really went for it. I admire that. You think movie star is going to be very guarded, but she was game for anything.
Capone: The secret weapon in the film is Melissa’s family. As I was watching it, I was thinking “They're similar to the family in THE FIGHTER, but even funnier.” The guys who you have playing her brothers, in particular, are just so good. Talk about assembling that sequence.
PF: I’m so with you on that. It was one of the funniest things in Katie’s script, that first dinner scene. It just read hilariously, and I remember thinking, “Okay the pressure is on me to cast this right. We’ve really got to nail it.” We set he movie in Boston and just felt like we wanted to get real Boston guys. So basically everybody in it is a Boston native. I mean Jane Curtain is from there, Bill Burr, Nathan Corddry, Joey McIntyre, obviously. You have the girls, Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo.
Bill came in and auditioned, and I saw a tape of his audition that was just hilarious. I’m such a fan of his from stand up anyway, and then my friend Jessica Chaffin who plays Gina, the one who is coming down the stairs with her bags, she's hilarious. She and the other girl, Jamie Denbo, have a comedy team that I work with a bunch, but they had made for FUNNY OR DIE this thing called “Ma-Men,” so it’s like a Massachusetts Men. It was like a Boston version of "Mad Men," and it was the two of the girls and Nate Croddry and Joey McIntyre. They were so funny that I was like, “I’m just stealing them.”
Capone: The casting is done for you.
PF: I’m telling you man. Michael Tucci is a friend of mine who was in GREASE, and I worked with him on "It's Garry Schandling's Show" back in the old days, and he’s a New Yorker, but his wife is from Boston, and he has spent so much time in Boston--he knows it. Then Jane was the last piece of the puzzle, and we never thought she'd do it. She just loved the idea of it.
Capone: And you know she’s great with accents.
PF: She’s so funny.
Capone: Why is that accent so funny?
PF: It’s just funny. It’s crazy. It’s the accent in combination with how they express themselves. Joey McIntyre puts it best when he said, “Boston people don’t let you get away with anything. They will call you on everything.” So it’s the combo of that, the way they are talking, and the phraseology. It’s just hilarious.
Capone: That whole fixation they have about Sandra being a man; I don’t even get it. She’s beautiful.
PF: It’s crazy. She’s one of the most beautiful women in the world, which is why it makes me laugh, but that was Jamie Denbo. We were doing improv. The whole first half of that scene is really scripted heavily, but them interrogating Sandra was just letting them all do their thing, and Jamie just did this whole thing on “Are you a boy or a girl?” It sounds so funny, and those guys just took it and ran. I love having things happen organically like that.
Capone: The buddy-cop formula: What do you like about it, and what did you want to stay away from as you were putting this together?
PF: Well what I like about is it’s this classic comedy setup. Comedy is about conflict, and there you have it. It’s THE DEFIANT ONES--two unlikely people chained together. So it’s just perfect for this kind of comedy, especially knowing how Melissa is funny, getting her around an uptight person just seemed very funny to me. What I try to avoid is a goofy version of it. I was inspired mostly by 48 HRS. or BEVERLY HILLS COP, where the danger is real, you know, they execute a guy and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is not a comedy like I’ve seen. The stakes are high. There is danger. Technically, our heroes could get killed or hurt.” So I think that just adds a whole other layer to it. As much as I like some more comedic versions of these movies, sometimes they have the toothless villain who's goofy, but he’s not really dangerous, and then again you’re just going joke to joke and there are no stakes.
Capone: Especially when you have the uptight character part of it, that can go really bad. Typically the uptight character isn’t funny. At some point you realize, “There could be no jokes for half this movie.” Sandra does it really well. I thought she pulled it off.
PF: That’s why I kind of bristle, because sometimes people will refer to her as the "straight man," but it’s like “No, she’s the straight character, because she’s straight laced and uptight, but she's doing such funny things.” As a director, I’ve seen it a million times when trying to put it together, so sometimes I just focus on various things, and you’ll see this multiple times, really focus on Sandra, because she's pulling off such funny stuff in setting up Melissa, but also holding her own.
Capone: There is a level of violence in this film, but no more violent than of course the tracheostomy scene, which has nothing to do with the story; it’s just a Sam Peckinpah moment where you just want to spurt blood at people.
PF: It’s “The deconstruction of Ashburn [Bullock's character]” I call it, because she thinks she’s so smart. It’s kind of my favorite thing, because we set it up that she thinks she’s so smart about everything, and she’s watching a tracheostomy on television. My favorite line of that thing is when Mullins [McCarthy's character] goes “Do you know what you’re doing?” “Technically no, but I’ve studied it and I’m fairly confident I know how,” which to me is like the key to all of Ashburn’s problems. She’s a little too enamored with herself occasionally.
Capone: She’s like the person that who has read all of the book criticisms without reading the books.“I get he essence of it.”
PF: Yeah, exactly. So I was like, “What’s the most graphic and weird way we can show her she's wrong?”
Capone: I don’t think you’ve played with blood quite like that before.
PF: No, I’ve had vomit and shit, but no blood. [laughs]
Capone: I assume that there were stunt people around, but Melissa is so physical. It looked like her most of the time. Does that just come naturally to her? How does that play into her comedy?
PF: She’s weirdly athletic. She can run, she’s jumping around, which is great, because like any great comedian they always have to have the physical side of comedy in their wheelhouse, as we know from the stuff on "Saturday Night Live" and all of that. She just really expresses herself from head to toe and she'll go for it; there’s hardly anything she didn’t do. Just that one shot of her hitting the ground falling off the fence, that was a stunt person, because that would kill you if you did it. But that’s her climbing up. She’s flipping over the fence. I love it, but then Sandra is obsessed with physical comedy, so anything she could get or any time we could get her falling over something or smashing her face into a window. Again, funny women really go for it. There’s not a lot of vanity when they are actually filming.
Capone: Stepping back to your post-BRIDESMAIDS experience, either before or after the Oscars, how did that film's success change things for you in terms of getting people to listen to your ideas or the number of scripts coming to you?
PF: Definitely, it changed. I mean as nice as the critical response that I always got from "Freaks and Geeks," there’s always this element of like “We love what you do,” but in the back of their head it’s like “It didn’t make a lot of money.” So it’s kind of like, “Hey, you’re great. Let’s have lunch some time,” but you don’t get put in charge of a big ship. So BRIDESMAIDS changed that up, because then it was like “Here’s my sense of humor. This is what I do. I did it with women, and it made money.” That’s written large in giant letters, “IT MADE MONEY.” I don’t say that as like a putdown on Hollywood. Hollywood is a business. If you lose people money, you don’t get to keep making stuff.
So that just made it nice, and then a lot of scripts start coming in, but the only downside is there aren't that many good scripts out there, so you kind of go like, “Now I’ll get all of the great stuff,” and you just kind of sit there waiting and waiting. Again, it goes back to “write your own thing.” You’ve got to develop your own stuff, because if you don’t, you'll just sit there. The fortunate thing is, as I’m writing and developing all of this stuff, Katie’s script comes in, which was great. It’s like, “Okay, it does occasionally happen, but thank goodness it got sent to me first.”
Capone: There have been a lot of things that have your name near them or on them in recent months. You had written a script for THE INTOUCHABLES remake, which is a phenomenal film, but it doesn’t sound like you’re going to be directing.
PF: I was going to. I was preparing to do that when this one came in, and during the course of making this I just…I mean, I love that. The French movie is so good, and I had this moment where it’s like, “Do I want to remake a movie that’s so great?”
Capone: It did pretty well in this country. Wasn’t it the most successfully foreign language film?
PF: Over there, it’s made like almost $300 million.
Capone: Relatively speaking, but I think it was one of the most successful foreign films in America. In the theater it played in in Chicago, it was there for months.
PF: I felt like all I could do was make one as good as that, and the other thing is I just feel like I’m really finally finding my voice and finding my brand, and I love doing this. I love doing these original pieces and I love to be really women heavy with these. There’s just so many funny women I want to keep making into movie stars, who are already stars on their own, but like an Amy Poehler, to break her as a big movie star. I want to do something great with Emma Stone and let her be funny in something, and then Jennifer Lawrence. The list goes on and on.
Capone: Do you know what you are doing next?
PF: Yeah, hopefully. Timing wise, it's all about everybody’s schedules. Katie is already writing a sequel to THE HEAT, just in case it does well [laughs]. We’re not saying it will, but just in case, it’d be nice to keep that momentum going. But I also wrote and am in the middle of casting this female James Bond movie that has been a passion of mine for a while. I love spy movies. I love James Bond stuff and I was always like “I want to direct a James Bond movie,” and then it’s like, “No one is ever going to let me do that.” Finally I was like, “Fuck it. I’m going to take that and I’m going to make my own character, let it be a women, so I can get a women into the role.” It’s not JOHNNY ENGLISH. It’s not a parody. It’s the tone of this where it’s real, but funny.
Capone: I remember reading something that you and Melissa were working on something else as well.
PF: Yeah, that’s still kicking around. It’s definitely a script that I’m happy with and love.
Capone: Is that the one where Judd is involved somehow?
PF: He was a producer on it. It was an idea I had called DUMB JOCK that I’m hoping will eventually come to light. It’s one of my favorites.
Capone: So you don’t get Melissa this summer?
PF: No, Melissa is off doing her passion project right now, TAMMY, so I’m glad that she and Ben [Falcone, her husband and the film's director and co-writer with McCarthy] are doing that.
Capone: As a director, you’ve latched on to so many great TV shows over the years when you were in between movies and before movies. Was there something you learned from that process of directing and writing television that you’ve been able to carry over into filmmaking? I’m assuming efficiency might be one of the things.
PF: Yeah, I learned how to be loose. I learned to be ready for anything and be in the moment as a director. Before I started doing a lot of television, I was very storyboard heavy and planning stuff out to the point where you get to the set, and you weren’t ready for any variables, like “No, it has to be this, and you have to sit here and you have to get up this far,” and you’re immediately cutting off a lot of creativity by doing that, especially working on something like "Arrested Development," where sometimes I would get he scripts the day of. I’d show up, “Here’s the script.” “Alright, what are we shooting today?” but it was great.
It really freed me up, because you want to hire the right people who are funny and creative and inventive and improv based, then ideas happen on the set, and you just need to be like “Try that. Oh my god, that’s great. Let’s change everything to do that. Let’s add another thing, so we can now capture that. Let’s just get all of this stuff. We know what we need out of this scene, but let’s be open to everything.” That really has changed everything for me, because it has allowed me to capture lightning in a bottle all of the time and get it the first time, get both sides of it, and also know how to get on a roll with it. I get a lot of ideas, I'm calling them in; the actors are doing ideas; I have Katie on the set with me, and she’s passing me Post It notes. We have other people and other writers would come in who are hilarious. BRIDESMAIDS was like this too, so it’s a real freeform thing, so that by the time you leave a scene, you’re like, “Okay, we got a lot of stuff and we can always find a funny version of this scene once we go through the test screening process.”
Capone: Speaking of "Arrested Development," have you caught up with the new season?
PF: I haven’t been around, and all of the hotel internets are so terrible, I can’t stream anything. So I’m dying; I want to see it.
Capone: I'd forgotten how many of those you actually directed, and considering how many episodes there were--there weren’t really that many--but you did a fairly sizable percentage of them.
PF: I’m really proud of my work on that show, I have to say. It was like being around a really special thing where you knew it was special. The hardest thing for me was not laughing any time Will Arnett would do anything. He just kills me.
Capone: I’ve talked to a few of the Apatow crowd of actors and writers and him about the history of growing up a comedy nerd. Were you one of those?
PF: Oh my god, yeah.
Capone: What was your sort of area of specialty?
PF: I was big into the older movies, like Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy and Three Stooges, and the silent movies like Harold Lloyd, because my dad was older and he was really into that stuff. He really turned me on to that, and so I got an appreciation for physical comedy. But then also Monty Python, I was fanatical about that and Looney Tunes cartoons, all of the Warner Brothers cartoons. I honestly think I learned a lot of my comedy sensibility from the old Warner Brothers cartoons, because those are just in a league of their own. If you watch TOM & JERRY, they have a shelf like, but those things are still funny and they're acerbic and they're adult, but they are also accessible. Then again, I always say that Charles Schultz and PEANUTS was a big influence on me. I used to read those veraciously. I learned half my vocabulary from those things, the word “sarcastic” and all. Who knew? [laughs]
Capone: I smell a doctoral thesis here about the influence of Looney Tunes on your work.
PF: That's right. Start digging around.
Capone: When you were college age, I know for a lot of these guys, Steve Martin was a big touchstone for them, his albums in particular.
PF: Steve was one of my biggest influences. It’s funny, I was just back in Michigan, and my old friend and I pulled out some super 8 films we did, and all I’m doing is the old Steve Martin like “Whoa, hey hey!” I discovered him because I was a big fan of SNL. Before his album even came out, he used to be on "The Tonight Show" doing the magic tricks, and so I got his album right when it came out and memorized it, and no one else at school had heard it, so I was doing his routines, but not crediting him for them, and people were like “Oh my god, you’re genius. You’re so funny.” And then when he got big, then suddenly everybody realized that I had stolen all of his material.
PF: I know, such a fraud. I learned a big lesson. I just recently in the last few months got to have a meeting with him, and it just takes everything in your power not to go “Oh my god!” But I had to play it cool, because he’s such a cool customer. I remember saying at one point, “Steve, I just want to say…” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” almost like he didn’t want to deal with that, because what’s weirder than hearing stuff like “I love you.”
Capone: Is there any shot that you’d ever get to work with some of these heroes of yours or have you? I know Judd gets to pull Albert Brooks, Harold Ramis, and some other people like that into his films.
PF: I would love to. There’s a part of me where I’m still such a super fan that I get crazy nervous around my idols. I think if I ever met Woody Allen, I’d have a stroke. There’s just certain people I elevate to these levels. That said, now that I’m getting to make more stuff, there are these moments you’re like “You know, I could actually try to get so and so for this part.” I don’t know what you would call it, but I’m convinced that I’m going to walk up to my heroes and it’d be like “Get away from me,” like I have no legitimacy around them whatsoever. I don’t know what it’s called. I think it’s called “very low self esteem.”
Capone: How bad did the comedy nerdism get? Did you ever seen any of these guys perform?
PF: Well, yeah. Steve Martin came to Pine Knob, which was a giant amphitheater right when he was hitting, and I went and I took my mother’s camera with me. It was like a slide camera. We had terrible seats, and I just took all of these pictures of the concert and I was so excited about them. Then I took them in to get them developed. It was like at the JC Penney or something. The truck that the photos were on had been stolen, so it was the summer of going, “Where’s the truck now?” “Well, they think they found it in Alabama.” So just waiting for these picture where I was like, “These are going to be the greatest pictures ever.”
Finally I got them three months later, and they were terrible. I mean they were like a field of black and a spec of white in the middle. My comedy nerdism got so bad that I bought a white three-piece suit like Steve had--I bought Steve Martin’s outfit. I bought a banjo and bought a microphone and bought a mic stand at Radio Shack and would put on that first album every night for years and stand in front of that microphone and act out the entire album, every night like a crazy person. That's how bad it got.
Capone: How many years of therapy followed that?
PF: I know, exactly. I’m still waiting to go into that.
Capone: Be sure to tell him that at some point.
PF: I wanted to tell him that, but I think he was cutting me off. [Laughs]
Capone: As you watch him run screaming from the room.
PF: “How’d I get in a room with this man?”
Capone: Speaking of "Arrested Development," it was fun to see Tony Hale in this film. He’s in a movie that’s just out now called THE KINGS OF SUMMER, but he’s literally got like one scene, maybe three lines, but they're hilarious. What you were saying about Will Arnett, that’s how I feel about Tony.
PF: Oh no, Tony is money in the bank. I did a movie that was not well received called UNACCOMPANIED MINORS.
Capone: I saw it.
PF: Exactly! [Laughs] Tony was in that, too. He has this dumb little part, and people go crazy when he’s on the screen.He's so solidly funny. The script had this thing for a John, and I was like “Who would be funny playing this? Tony! Who expect Tony Hale to be picking up a prostitute?" He came in and embraced that. The two of them was written funny anyway, but that expanded into what it is there. He'ss a master. He’s under used. He should be working every single day of his life, because he’s just brilliant.
Capone: He is so funny on "Veep." They have let us go 10 minutes longer than they told me we would, and I'm not complaining.
PF: For you, anything.
Capone: I remember a while back reading that you were going to do something with Reese Witherspoon?
PF: Yeah, we flirted around with that one.
Capone: Was that after BRIDESMAIDS?
PF: Yeah, that was right there in there; it’s called WISH LIST. It’s a great idea that I like, and I would love to work with Reese, it just never got far enough in the deal-making process. There’s a way I wanted to do it that I think Disney was a little too afraid of.
Capone: Oh, it was Disney. Okay.
PF: I don’t know if I’m Disney material. Never say never, but…
Capone: Yeah, well who knows? Anyway, it was great to see you again.
PF: You too. I always look forward to talking. Have you seen THIS IS THE END?
Capone: I’m seeing that tonight, finally.
PF: It’s really good.
Capone: I kept missing the screenings. I was actually on the set in New Orleans.
PF: Oh really. I just went to the premiere, but it’s funny. Seth and Evan did such an amazing job. It’s what you think it is, but then they take it to this next level. It’s actually really sweet at the end. It’s really cool.
Capone: It was the funniest comedy set visit that I have ever been on, just watching the six of them go at each other like that.
PF: They're all brilliant, and Danny McBride has never been funnier. He is off the hook funny in this. You'll enjoy it. It’s a really good time.
Capone: Hell, it must have been so fun for you because it's a mini-"Freaks and Geeks" reunion, at least of the guys. And all of the visual references to the show in the art work.
PF: Yeah, I know. Literally everybody I know is in that movie at some point. I was like “Hey, why couldn’t I have been in it?” I would have given anything to have been killed in that movie.