Director's Chair: Paul Feig — 'Spy'
Issue: May 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Paul Feig — 'Spy'

After laboring for over a decade in the TV trenches, where the Emmy-nominated Paul Feig created the cult hit Freaks and Geeks and directed everything from The Office to Arrested Development and 30 Rock, the director/writer (and sometime actor) joined the major leagues in 2011 with the breakout hit Bridesmaids, which grossed (pun intended) over $288 million. “People think it’s my first movie — it’s not, but the other two did so poorly I wish it was my first,” he notes dryly. 

Feig followed that smash with yet another hit, The Heat, starring Melissa McCarthy (also in Bridesmaids) and Sandra Bullock, and reunites once again with McCarthy for Spy, an action comedy James Bond homage that he also wrote and co-produced. The actress plays a deskbound CIA agent who ends up being assigned a dangerous undercover mission in Europe after her hunky field agent partner (played by Jude Law) goes missing. 

Here, in an exclusive interview withPost, Feig talks about the challenges of making comedy, his love of post and visual effects, and taking on Ghostbusters.

Successful comedies are tricky to pull off. How did you approach this project?

“The reason most comedies don’t work is that they don’t keep a consistent tone. Usually people will abandon and jettison tone for the joke, and this film was particularly hard to do as we were always on a razor’s edge regarding the tone. If it’s a spy spoof and the villains are silly, then you’re not invested in it — and you can do that, but it has to be like Austin Powers, which has a very consistent tone — it’s silly the whole way through and works brilliantly. But I wanted to do a comedy that had real danger, and then you have to be realistic and let the comedy flow from that. Same with the score, and I told the composer ‘Do not treat it like a comedy at all.’ And then it’s funnier, as you’re treating it all very seriously.” 

Where did you shoot? 

“It was all done in Budapest, Hungary, partly because of tax breaks, but I also wanted these glamorous European locations, as I’d originally written it as taking place in Paris, Venice and Capri. And once we started scouting, we realized that Budapest could double for a lot of places, so I just rewrote the script so that most of it happened in Budapest. I did the same thing with The Heat, where Boston originally doubled for New York, and then I thought, ‘Why not just set it all in Boston instead?’”

What were the technical challenges?

“Shooting any big action movie has its own challenges, but we were really on top of it. I had a great stunt coordinator who’d previs’d nearly all the fight scenes and a lot of the chase stuff with his stunt guys, and then he gave me a videotaped version of it already cut together, so I could go, ‘Let’s try this, let’s add something here,’ so by the time we hit the set we were pretty lean and mean. 

Regarding the car chase, I’m not a big storyboarder as they limit you sometimes. And with comedy, we improvise a lot and add new lines all the time, and when I get to the editing room and we’re cutting comedy, we’re not going to stick to the order of some storyboard. We had a great 2nd unit director who shot all the car-chase scenes, and it’s more about getting the cool angles and the most dynamic shots and not me having to police it and go, ‘Where’s the joke?’ I don’t just want random fighting and mayhem. For me, it needs to be in the service of the story and characters, but also have some funny pay-off along the way. And being in Budapest made that easier, as we had more access to things and these fantastic local crews.”

Your DP was Robert D. Yeoman — Oscar nominee for The Grand Budapest Hotel. How tough was the shoot?
“Not bad. All the scheduling and all the logistics were the tough part, and getting the actors in and out on time. It was a 55-day shoot and the great thing in Europe is that we could work French hours. That’s the greatest thing ever and it’s ludicrous that we don’t have it here. It’d save so much money, and safety and so on, because everyone’s hyper-focused for 10 hours, and then they get to have a normal rest of the day. So that makes it far more pleasant dealing with all the stress of the action stuff, and we stayed right on schedule. The big challenge for me is, no matter what I’m shooting, I want to have room for extra jokes and improvising, so that when you edit and start test screenings, if something doesn’t work, you have back up.” 

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

“We started off at Catalyst Post in Burbank, where we did The Heat. I love it as it’s this very modern building and every edit suite has windows — it’s very important for me that post isn’t this usual dungeon-type environment where you never see the light of day. We spent about six months there, and now we’re doing the final mix on the Fox lot with Andy Nelson, the re-recording mixer, and the other mixers. Post was quite long as I shoot so much extra material, so we do a lot of versions of the movie. I’ll start test screening three or four weeks into my director’s cut to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. My goal is always to not fall in love with any one cut, which is what happens the longer you work on one cut. So we’ll do test screenings every few weeks, and pull stuff out and change stuff. The difference with this film is that as it’s such a big action film, Fox post rigged it up so we could have full temp mixes on a stage, as it really needed that scope.” 

Do you like post?

“I love it. It’s my favorite part of the process, as you have everything, and I go into post with all these choices, and it’s where the magic happens. Post is where we’re experimenting and building jokes — that we didn’t even know existed — in the editing room, just through juxtaposition and cross-cutting scenes. I sort of suffer through production a little bit, as every shoot day’s a chance to screw it up or miss something."

You re-teamed with Heat editors Brent White and Melissa Bretherton? 

“Brent and I’ve been together since Freaks and Geeks, and we always use multiple editors and assistants as there’s so much material, and they deal with putting effects together in the Avid and building green screens. Brent would visit the set for the big sequences, to make sure we had coverage, but I don’t like having editors on location as once I’ve finished shooting, I’m done. I don’t want to then go off to the editing room. So they’d be cutting back here while I shot, and I had my first screenable cut ready in just three weeks.”

How many visual effects shots are there? 

“A lot, maybe 1,200, all done by Flash Film Works and Furious FX. I’m a big fan of in-camera stuff that then just needs paint out, as it feels real.” 

What was the most difficult VFX shot?

“The whole weightless plane sequence, as we never really had the budget for it. It was originally meant to be a much bigger sequence with two Lear jets chasing each other through the Alps, but I shot it so the action was all inside the plane, and then when we began cutting it together, we were able to add some exterior VFX plane shots. And I fell in love with the Dolby Atmos system on post, so we designed a lot of things flying around and overhead just to showcase it.”

How important are sound and music?

“For me, they’re the most important aspect of post, and I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a director, I’d probably have gone into sound as I love sound design and effects so much. And it all starts with the music. Often I’ll write scripts around specific songs, but this is the first time I’ve done a full score. I usually like to find source music, but on this we began scoring as we cut.”

Where did you do the DI?

“At Technicolor. I love the DI, having suffered through the old way of color timing. Now you can manipulate anything you want so easily.”

You also produced this under your Feigco Entertainment banner. Do you like producing?

“I do, because I know what I want and then bring on people I trust. The problem with most producers is that they just become the middlemen between the director and the studio, and my first loyalty is always to the audience — which is why we have all the test screenings.” 

Bridesmaids was hailed as pioneering a new genre — the raunchy, gross-out comedy for women. Do you agree?

“No, I don’t really. There’s the one scene, but it’s mostly implied. I don’t see it as a gross-out comedy.”

There have been rumblings about a sequel. What’s the latest?

"That all falls on Kristen Wiig really, and if she wants to do a sequel.”

What’s next? 

“The big Ghostbusters movie, ironically enough with Kristen, along with Melissa McCarthy and Dan Aykroyd, and a great cast. We’ll start shooting in June, so it’s been really tough finishing post on this and prepping that at the same time, but I’m very excited about it. And I’m also doing this TV sci-fi series for Yahoo! that I created and wrote the pilot for. They wanted to air one episode a week, but I said I’d only do it if we put out all episodes at once. That’s what’s so great about TV. So my plan isn’t to do all movies all the time now. I love TV and I want to go back and forth, although I plan to do very limited amounts of episodic directing now. I’m more interested in creating my own shows again. When you think about it, TV’s kind of like long movies that just get chopped up into 30-minute sections. The kind of storytelling you can do on TV now has changed so radically from what it used to be.”