He’s been in Australia for a few days to promote his latest film, Last Christmas, and I was fortunate enough to speak with Paul Feig about the film and his approach to filmmaking…
Matt: We all know the saying dying is easy, comedy is hard. You’re someone who has made some terrific comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy. I’ve gotta ask, what’s the secret?
Paul: You have to find really talented, funny people and you need a great script that is funny… and then you have to play it dead serious. You don’t want to try to be jokey or funny because the only thing that can make something not funny is people trying to be funny.
Matt: One feature of all your recent films is that they’re female-driven with some great actresses in leading roles. Is that something you always set out to do?
Paul: Yeah. I’ve always loved working with women and I also love stories about women. I’ve seen such poor portrayals of women over the past few decades on screen, especially in comedies, where they’re often relegated to being props and supporters of the funny men. It never felt fair to me. The women were one-dimensional whereas the men got to be three-dimensional. There’s really nothing else I want to do to be quite honest. There are so many women’s stories to be told and I love doing it.
Matt: You’ve been ahead of the curve in that regard. Do you think Hollywood is getting the message? Are we going to see more female-driven comedies to even the balance up?
Paul: Yeah, they’re definitely waking up. It’s still ridiculous that they’ve been asleep for that. More than half of the population of the planet are women and they somehow thing people don’t want to see movies starring women. It’s getting better. Bridesmaids helped by showing there’s an audience and that money can be made. That’s the only thing that Hollywood ultimately understands. There’s still a long way to go because the percentages are very low.
Matt: Let’s talk about Last Christmas which we now have the chance to see. I believe it was Emma Thompson who came up with the first semblance of a storyline. When did you become involved with the project?
Paul: I only got involved about a year and a half ago. Emma had been developing the script with Bryony Kimmings and her husband, Greg Wise, for about 8 years. At one point, she had the opportunity to sit with George Michael and talk to him about it. He read some stuff and really loved it and wanted to be involved with the music when it was finished but sadly he passed away.
It’s been a long road. When it got to me, it was in really good shape. As a director, you go through it with the writer who just so happened to be Dame Emma Thompson and we tried a few things. She was a great collaborator and we just kept making it better and better.
Matt: So what was it about the script that jumped out at you when you first had the chance to see it?
Paul: The whole thing worked. It was compelling. I loved the lead character that Emilia Clarke plays. She’s a very challenging character in a way that women don’t often get to be on screen. We’ve seen movies start out with men who are misbehaving and lashing out and audience go along with it. If you dare have a woman do that, they’ll say “she’s not likeable”. It’s not fair. Why can’t a woman be three-dimensional and be misbehaving and start out in a place where she needs to find out who she is. I really responded to that. The script was also funny and emotional and I loved how dramatic it was. It kind of all came together as part of a perfect storm.
Matt: There are reasons but Kate’s self-centred and a very hard person to like before she starts to wise up. Is that tricky as a filmmaker? Working out how to push and illustrate the character’s flaws before they start down a different path?
Paul: Yeah, you have to be careful. Whether a character is male or female, people will go “okay, I’m so frustrated with this person and I can’t invest in them”. You have to walk the line a little bit. At the same time, we wanted to make sure we pushed it right to the edge. We all know these people in our lives who are in a bad place. If you see something in them or know something in their past that is redeemable, you want them to be healed and you want them to work things out. That’s kind of the feeling we wanted with this. Emilia Clarke is wonderful on screen. You do invest in her even when she’s misbehaving.
Matt: I have to ask about the store and there’s a great line where someone says to Kate “oh you must love your job” because it’s a Christmas themed place where everyone is supposed to be happy and festive when that’s not really the case. It says a lot about how we perceive the season.
Paul: Yeah, that’s why Christmas movies are so interesting to do. It’s this clash of forced happiness with getting together with family and friends. It sounds lovely but often it’s not. A lot of issues come out but you’re still surrounded by love and rebirth. It’s a nice, beautiful clash of everything. This movie could exist if it wasn’t set at Christmas time and I think it would work just as well but there’s something about that backdrop and being able to do it in London that is wonderful.
Matt: You’ve mentioned that the film is shot in London and part of Henry Golding’s character is to find some hidden, secret parts of London that he shows off to Emilia Clarke’s character. How did you settle on which locations to use?
Paul: It was both easy and hard. I’m a lover of London and its one of my favourite places in the world. I see it through the eyes of someone from the outside and not somebody who lives there and has gotten used to it. It’s like a Sophie’s Choice of which locations you use. There are so many great places around.
I didn’t even know if we’d be able to do it because a lot of the film is set in Covent Garden because that’s where the Christmas store is. I remember thinking that I’d have to find some place that looks like Covent Garden because they’d never let us shoot there but then it turned out the city was very welcoming to us. We just had to shoot at very odd hours when no one was out. A lot of our shooting on the streets of London started at 2am in the morning and would go through to sunrise. It was tough. We were tired a lot of the time.
Matt: So is the Christmas store a real place?
Paul: No, it’s completely made up. If you go to Covent Garden, there’s a couple of passageways that go through and so we built the store into one of those passageways and the interior was built on a sound stage.
Matt: You’ve thrown yourself into cameos in some of your films. Did you think about it for this one? Or where you in there and I missed you?
Paul: No. I’ve done that in the past but now I’m not doing it as much. I too much respect for this movie than to sully it with me. With these amazing actors, I wouldn’t even dare share the screen with the likes of Dame Emma Thompson.
Matt: A lot is being said at the moment about Netflix and other streaming services. Big movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is largely avoiding cinemas and going to Netflix. Are you a fan of that or will you always be making movies for the big screen?
Paul: Yeah, I’m a big screen guy. There’s nothing like the experience of seeing a movie in a theatre. That’s why movie stars are movie stars. They’re up 50 feet high doing things in front of you. The streamers have a great place. I produced a movie called Someone Great that’s on Netflix now. It’s an $8 million movie with a first-time female director who also wrote it. She wanted to direct it, I wanted her direct it, but I don’t think a movie studio would do it and take the chance. Netflix are great for that but when it comes to big movies, they’ve got to be seen on the big screen.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
Paul: I’m hoping it’ll be a monster movie that I’ve written for Universal Studios. It’s based on the old movies of the 30s like Frankenstein and Dracula. I love the feel of those old movies because they’re scary but also really fun. It’s called Dark Army and I really hope the studio wants to make it.