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A Tightrope Walk: Paul Feig on the Balance of "Spy"

The summer movie derby thus far has offered moviegoers any number of startling sights and sounds but when it comes to laughs, the pickings have thus far been somewhat slim (unless you count the inadvertent ones found in the likes of "San Andreas"). That is happily about to change with the release of the very funny new action comedy "Spy." In it, Melissa McCarthy portrays a smart but under-appreciated CIA analyst who, following a massive security breach that leaves the regular agents (such as those played by Jason Statham and Jude Law) out of commission, winds up going out into the field herself to follow a bizarrely bewigged Bulgarian baddie (Rose Byrne) who is involved with a particularly nefarious plot with worldwide implications. Far more clever and witty than the knockabout silliness promised by the coming attractions, this is a film that is more interested in character comedy than slapstick and gives Melissa McCarthy the most appealing role of her career and allows Jason Statham to deliver one of the most unexpectedly hilarious comedic turns in recent memory.

"Spy" is the brainchild of writer-director Paul Feig, whose previous credits include such small-screen favorites as "Freaks & Geeks," "The Office" and "Nurse Jackie" and his previous film collaborations with McCarthy, the box-office smashes "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat." The two will be working together again very soon on another project that you might have heard something about--the all-female reboot of "Ghostbusters." Before setting off to work on that eagerly anticipated film, Feig sat down to talk about "Spy," making a spy comedy from a female perspective, transforming a straightforward action hero into an inspired comedian and yes, that "Ghostbusters" thing. 

Was the spy movie parody a type of filmmaking that you had an interest in before coming to work of "Spy"?

No. I mean, I always liked the Matt Helm movies and "In Like Flint" and that kind of stuff. For me, I wanted to do "Spy" because I liked the James Bond movies but I am not a dramatic filmmaker—I'd like to do a Bond movie but they aren't going to let me because I am a comedy filmmaker. I don't look at it as a spoof at all—I just wanted to make a funny spy movie that would have a real story, real stakes and real danger and then put in characters that are operating at extreme levels. It is the comedy of miscommunication and finding how to make it funny without subverting the stakes and the danger. It was a real tightrope walk but that was what was fun because as a director, all I really try to do is guard the tone and the consistency. We will do tons of jokes on the set and figure out which one will put us too far this way or that way because the minute that I lose the audience and they go "Oh this is stupid," then it is all over and you are just going joke to joke and I had no interest in doing that.

Much of the humor in the film is of a character-based variety, which kind of surprised me in a good way because the first trailers seemed to suggest a more knockabout comedy with plenty of sight gags like Melissa McCarthy falling off of her motorcycle.

That is kind of how I approach everything. Even if you look at "The Heat"—though that had a much lighter story to it—I was really trying make sure—you know, Mike McDonald is a goofy villain but he is still killing people. You just have to care about the characters and make sure that the story has to have enough stakes so that you don't disengage. What happens with so many comedies is that you disengage because the villain shows up and he is sort of a nut and goofy and you think "Oh, I don't have to worry about that" and just go along for the ride. If you are going joke-to-joke and it doesn't come out of the character, then the jokes all have to be awesome and I don't think you can sustain jokes for that long if you don't care.

Unless you are doing something like "Airplane!" where virtually ever single joke does actually work. . .

Totally. When that came out, we had never seen anything like that before. I remember going to see that as a kid and thinking "Holy shit" because it was that aggressive level that kept you going. Now, it is kind of hard to get away with that, I find.

Along those lines, one of the funniest things in "Spy" turns out to be none other than Jason Statham, who I have been a fan of for a long time. In the past, he has been action-film funny in deploying the occasional quip between beatings but he has never really been asked to be funny-funny before. If you put an overtly comedic actor like Will Ferrell or Jason Sudeikis into his role here, that would be one thing but since Statham has spent most of his screen career playing the straight version of this role, it makes his performance even funnier as a result.

That was important to me. When everyone from the studio on down read the script, they just assumed I was going to cast that part with a comedian but I knew that it was going to be Statham. Like yourself, I have been an enormous fan of Statham from "Lock, Stock" on but it was when I saw "Crank" that I thought "Okay, he knows that he is funny"  or that he at least knows how to play things funny. Then it became an obsession that I had to get Statham and let him be funny and when I was writing this, it seemed to be the perfect role for him. It just goes back to the tone. If you keep all the tropes true and you realize that he would really be in that role, that makes it more legitimate to you and when he is being funny, he isn't being crazy even though he is saying crazy shit. He isn't a bad agent--he is actually a good agent when he has Sharon in his ear and he is on point. Then he quits and takes his earpiece girl out of his ear so that he is already off-center and is then completely thrown off his game by the fact that a woman that he considers to be nothing more than a secretary is now doing his job that he starts making terrible decisions. To me, it is a very realistic character--I buy that such a testosterone bag would lose his mind and start doing stupid things.

Unless you are doing something specific like a "Modesty Blaise," women in spy films are often little more than decoration and even after the success of movies like "Bridesmaids," female-centered comedies are still somewhat of a rarity. Can you talk about constructing a film like "Spy" that puts women front and center in two genres that have often pushed them to the side?

What I find, since my favorite thing in the world is to work with funny women, is that I like to look for things where it hasn't happened in. This came out of the fact that I have always loved spy movies since I saw the first "Casino Royale" and thought "Fuck, I want to make one of those!" because that was like a perfect movie to me. Then "Skyfall" came out while we were in post-production on "The Heat" and that just rekindled the fire to make a spy movie. It really just came out of this thing of what I had the best take on--if I had a great female spy who was trying to figure all this stuff out and who was relatable—and my brain kind of went on fire because I knew how to do that movie. It was no more political beyond that—it was just all the stuff that I knew I was good at and was excited about doing. A female spy comedy—it was done! My head suddenly flooded with ideas and I went to the studio, even without the story worked out, and they loved it. Then I wrote it and it just kind of took on this snowball effect.

Considering that you have worked with both Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne in the past, did you write the screenplay for "Spy" with the two of them in mind for the lead roles?

When I was writing it, I thought I was going to be shooting it in the fall of that previous year and so I didn't write it for Melissa because she wasn't available then. I think that all of the funniest women that I know are generally just kind of normal people—they are not fashion models. I wanted the kind of person that you would see and think "Yeah, that's the kind of woman who would work in a cubicle." I wrote it in a way so that it could have been Melissa or a number of other people and then when Melissa got wind of it, read it and wanted to do it, I was then able to go back and full-bore tip it towards her. However, there was not that much of an adjustment because it was really about an Everywoman who gets put in extraordinary circumstances and Melissa can do an Everywoman so perfectly.

With Rose—talk about somebody that I didn't write the role for. When I wrote that part originally, the character was like this 19-year-old rich girl who was kind of an asshole and I thought I would get one of the young up-and-coming actresses that I think are really good. Then I had a meeting, just out of the blue, with Rose and I was so happy to see her and I remembered how great she was that I had to put her in this somewhere. I thought of the Raina part but that was so different that I knew that I had to engineer it differently. I had her and Melissa come in months before and had them just start reading the scenes. She was doing a variation of what I had written and it just wasn't right, for her or for anything. We tried different things and danced around it and then she started using an English accent and she started doing the insults—there were insults in the script but she started doing them in this English accent in a matter-of-fact way—and it was so funny that I figured out the dynamic and went back to rewrite the script to accommodate that. She helped create the look of her character with the hair—that was all her. I knew I wanted her to have big, Eastern European hair but the first time I went to see her in makeup, I was thinking "Is she doing Marie Antoinette—what is going on?" She found the character when she had that and I said "Cool, as long as you are okay with us making jokes about it." This is my favorite thing of hers that I have seen—you see a film a million times when you are making it but every time I watch it, there is something else that she is doing that I pick up on. That is why she is so deep as an actress—it is kind of amazing.

"Spy" also finds you directing a number of large-scale action sequences, the kind of thing that requires lots of advance planning and logistics that are the antithesis of comedic filmmaking, where things work best when they at least appear to be done in a looser style. How much of a challenge was it for you as a filmmaker to strike a balance between those two particular directorial extremes?

My whole edict going into it was that I didn't want mayhem. I didn't want it to be "Oh, here is our car chase!" and have it go like that for the next five minutes because I knew that it would not hit my target audience. It was really about being in the writing process and thinking of gags that could happen within it that are not going to hurt the character but are understandable mistakes that could happen as you are contending with being in a car chase for the first time or a knife fight for the first time and then plotting them out. With the knife fight in the kitchen, my stunt coordinators, J.J. Perry and Walter Garcia, got together to pre-viz everything with their stunt team and they filmed their version of what it should be and brought it back to me so that I could add gags to build on it to find the funniest, scariest, most action-packed thing that we could do. That was kind of my favorite part of doing this film--getting to really delve deep into that in order to figure out how to do funny action.

With all of your previous films, you were able to make them more or less under the radar without much in the way of advanced hype or attention. That is clearly not going to be the case with your next project, the all-female "Ghostbusters" reboot that you are about to start filming and which inspired a furor on the internet from the moment that it was announced. What is it like for you to be working on a film where so many people have been passing judgement on it without a frame of it having yet been shot, let alone seen by anybody?

It is weird. I don't want to work in a vacuum but I can't work with everybody's voices in my ears either. I hear all the stuff and I read the worst tweets that are sent to me—if you have sent me a mean tweet, I have read it. I want to read them because I want to know what the extreme fans are saying and find out their fears and conceptions of what they think I am going to do to get some kind of consensus. Then I go into the thing that I was going to do anyway, but with that knowledge in my head because it does affect you. Then I go into the vacuum to do what I was going to do, but with the knowledge that I now have because I do get it. What I don't want to go is just go into it blindly and act like I don't care because it is a beloved thing and while I am not recreating it, but I want to be true to the feeling that I had the first time that I saw it and it blew my mind. That is all you can do and all I can ask people—it isn't even asking them to trust me. I have been given command of this ship, I am going to do it and I hope that they will love it and go along for the ride. If they don't, no harm, no foul and they still have the original movies—I am not touching them. I just think it is a fun opportunity to take a new bend on it.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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