This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” is a comedy-thriller both shaken and stirred, as set in a glossy world of suburban moms who have their own secrets. It starts with an unlikely friendship: Anna Kendrick’s straight-laced mommy vlogger Stephanie gravitates to the hyper stylish and enigmatic Emily (Blake Lively), the two making for obvious opposites. But the surprises soon kick in, starting with Emily’s sudden disappearance, and the uncertain intentions of Emily’s charming husband Sean (Henry Golding). As Stephanie learns more about Emily, and makes some reckless choices of her own, she gets pulled deeper into Emily's world, through a plot that packs plenty of twists.
Feig may not be the first person you think of to direct a thriller, but his previous films help make sense of this new direction: his focus on stories of outsider women brought into crazy worlds, and the emphasis on respect when it comes to women who become adversaries. Plus, his work with very funny and multifaceted actors in comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” "Spy," and “Ghostbusters” echoes through the robust character work that helps the nutty developments in “A Simple Favor” ring true. In Feig's hands, a comedy and thriller are not too different from one another.
On the occasion of the film's Blu-ray release (click here to get your copy), RogerEbert.com spoke to Feig about "A Simple Favor" after a day of him working on his upcoming romantic comedy "Last Christmas" (starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding). We talked about a dance sequence finale that got cut from the movie, the editorial advantages of Blu-ray/DVDs, the lack of catfights in his stories about adversarial women and more.
Where are you calling from, Paul?
I’m in London. We just finished shooting our new movie now, finished our day about an hour ago.
How was today’s day of shooting?
Great. This one is going really, really well.
Thank you in advance for giving Emilia Clarke a role in a romantic-comedy. I feel like she’s going to be great.
We’re two weeks in and she is spectacular. I mean, get ready. She is just unbelievable in this movie.
It’s slightly serendipitous that we’re talking this month—Chicago’s Music Box Theater is actually playing your 1995 acting gig "Heavy Weights" the weekend of December 28th. Do you have any memory of your impromptu dance scene in that movie? It’s an iconic moment.
That was really fun to shoot because the kids were all great, and my friend Judd [Apatow] was producing, Steve Brill was directing. I had so much fun. I remember the thing about that is that we were running out of time, and we had a bigger dance scene kind of planned for me, and it was like, “Quick, come over to the camera.” And I did this crazy dance, and I knew they were shooting me from the waist up, so I was trying to get my legs up and trying to do as much as I could above the waist to make it play. But it was fun, and occasionally people send me gifs with that on it, and it really cracks me up. I always forget that I did that. [laughs]
The true embodiment of cutting loose.
Thank you. It’s “blowing a microchip,” as one of the kids says.
And going to “A Simple Favor,” there’s a flash mob scene for this movie that didn’t make the cut.
But you like to have dance scenes at the end, like “Ghostbusters” in the credits. Is that more of a coincidence? And I consider the flash mob ending of “A Simple Favor” the director’s cut ending, if I may.
Please, go right ahead. [laughs] No, I love dancing, and musicals, and my wife got me into Bollywood movies, and all that. But there’s something about human emotion that makes me happy, and there’s something about a dance scene that’s joyous and great. But what happens is that I have to keep cutting them out of my movie [laughs]. The one in “Ghostbusters” is in the director’s cut now but it didn’t fit, and with this one the only reason that this one isn’t is that when we tested it, even though they loved the dance number, they didn’t want Anna to get married, they wanted her to ride off into the sunset as a hero. Which I completely understood but we were so bummed because we worked so hard on it. Stephen “tWitch” Boss, he choreographs all of these things for me and they keep getting cut out. I hope to god he’ll keep working with me, he and Allison [Holker] his wife, and I keep not using it [laughs]. God as my witness, the next time I shoot a dance scene, it’s going to go in the goddamn movie.
Are you thinking of having, or can you say if there’s a dance scene in “Last Christmas”?
Ehh … there isn’t at the moment. Now that you say that, maybe I’ll jam one in.
I love listening to director commentaries. So I’m curious for you, what does a Blu-ray mean to you as a filmmaker? Is it like the last statement?
Well, I love it. I mean, you know, look. We make movies to be seen in theaters, but we’re not being realistic if we don’t realize that 90% of the world is going to see the movie in after market and on TV and DVD and on their phones, a lot of times. I just know now, that a lot of people just wait for movies to come out on home video. So once we get to the theatrical run, I’m like oh good, I can’t wait until we come out so that more people can see it. I wish they’d go to the theater, but you can’t fight city hall, so.
But what I also love about it, is the ability to add all this extra stuff. Honestly, DVDs and Blu-rays and this type of thing have changed filmmaking in the sense that, you used to not take stuff out of movies, because like, “people have to see this! I’m so proud of this, I refuse to take this out where nobody will ever see it.” Now, you go like, if something’s not working for the story you go, “Oh, we’ll put it on the Blu-ray.” So it really makes you more even-headed, I find, at least for myself, it’s less of a heartbreak to cut something out. When you used to cut something out it was like, “Nobody is ever going to see this, and it’s going in the garbage can.” I think it’s a good thing, personally.
So when the flash mob piece was removed, there was some peace that it would have its own special feature.
Totally. I was like, “This will be seen, it’s gonna get out there and people can decide if I made a mistake by cutting it out or not.” I felt most bad for Henry, because he put so much time into that dance routine, just like Chris Hemsworth on “Ghostbusters.” There must be a pay-off.
Do you know how long Henry Golding prepared for that dance scene?
Yeah, it took him a number of weeks. He was always going off to dance rehearsals, he’s not a dancer. And on top of that, the whole cast. Even Jean Smart flew in. I did not cut it out, lightly.
The magic of movie-making, killing a lot of babies or something like that.
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I’ve killed a lot of babies.
Did you go about testing it differently than with your comedies? Especially as a movie that relies on audience reaction and participation, twist-by-twist.
No, no, the exact same process. We just put it up when we think we had it right, and we keep doing it. With this one though, since it wasn’t a joke-based comedy, we actually tested it less that I test my other movies, because my other movies we will do eight or nine times because we’re constantly shuffling jokes in and out. But with this one, the script was dos tight that we played less with alternative improv kind of jokes, and more with performance levels. But the thing with a thriller, is that it really tells you what works and what doesn’t very quickly. And so we really ended up doing only three test screenings for this, which for me is nothing. But the first screening went great, and then we had these two scenes at the end that just threw the audience off, and they were very vocal about it. And then the second one ended up being the final cut, because the body rejected all of these things that just weren’t working in the thriller genre. And then we did one final one trying to put some things back in, and found a few things we could put back in and the body rejected a few things we were trying. And it was like, you know what, I think we did it. Let’s get out.
But I love the test screening process because of that. You really get to find out how people react.
With that being said, do you like reading reviews? Or reading responses? You’re on Twitter so they’re coming at you, but do you enjoy reading the discussion?
I like reading the nice ones [laughs]. I’ll always take praise. But yeah, reviews—I sort of scan reviews. I’m not a person who says “Oh, I don’t read reviews,” you definitely read them. I’m just as guilty as anyone of being obsessed with my Rotten Tomatoes score, we just sit there and it’s like, “OK, we’re above fresh. No, we’re below fresh. Now we’re above fresh!” And a movie especially like this is partly review-driven, to get people to come out to a film of this size, it’s not a superhero movie. But I enjoy it, I love feedback. I just don’t like people who are mean.
And your movies lack a mean-spirited nature, which goes to one thing I really wanted to talk about: even if women are sort of adversaries in your films, they respect each other. I was curious to pick your brain on the importance of that, or if you still see that in a lot scripts in Hollywood.
Yeah, it’s something that I’ve just never wanted to portray women in this sort of stereotype version, that they’re having catfights. Hollywood’s message for so long was just, “Women can’t get along.” And it’s bullshit, because all my friends are women and they get along great. Yeah, somebody gets mad at somebody else, but this whole portrayal of “Joe, get ready …” You know, even when I was going to make “Bridesmaids,” some producer said to me, “Oh boy, get ready, that stuff’s gonna be crazy, they’re going to be fighting the whole time, these women.” And I’m like, “The fuck? What world do you live in where women are fighting all of the time?”
So it was important to me to never have that. This one was a tough one, because they were going up against each other, but very quickly you realize that no, this is a total cat and mouse between two equals, and they actually start to respect each other because each one is getting the upper hand at one point or another. And I love that kind of healthy respect, like in “Spy” we had that too, at the end where Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy tell each other to fuck off, but it’s in a very kind of like, they respect each other. That’s the message I wanted to get out there.
What was the most surprising new challenge for this movie? What did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker making "A Simple Favor"?
Comedy can work in almost every genre, it just depends on how you approach it. This was never going to be a joke-driven thing, so when you watch this with an audience, you get laughs all the way throughout, and it’s all intended, because they’re laughs we found in the script-writing process and then finding we were shooting. And it’s just behavioral, that’s why I’ve always loved behavioral comedy. Even when I say that were switching jokes in and out, they’re not jokes like gags, they’re how somebody is responding in real life in a way or a quirky way, just hoping somebody else does.
It was really just that ability to be have that while keeping the stakes, and keeping the drama. A lot of that comes from the fact that you can’t water down the dark elements of it, you can’t water down the violence, you can’t water down the more disturbing elements. You just have people react to those things in a very realistic, but sort of quirky and relatable way. And that having funny, quote-unquote kind of funny characters playing them kind of real but then playing into their funniness. And what I loved about the script, when I first read it wanted to do it … if it was a straight-up thriller I don’t know if I would have done it, but I saw Stephanie’s character and was like, “God, this is a funny character.” A classic character that I could relate to, a totally nerdy person who is ostracized by all the people around her and can’t get her life together and doesn’t really know what her place in the world is. But then you have fun with that character, putting her in these very dark situations, you know, kind of like Melissa McCarthy in “Spy,” this sort of woman going out to this really dangerous world. She’s reacting in a way that we all would react, and that makes us laugh. We see ourselves in that person.
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