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Director Paul Feig on taking comedy seriously

Writer-director Paul Feig says comedy is at it’s best when it makes the public aware of something they didn’t know before.


When the organizers of the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival wanted a comedic filmmaker to take part in an onstage interview with funnyman Bruce McCulloch, who were they going to call? Well, Paul Feig, a long-time friend of the Kids in the Hall comedian and a highly successful writer-director (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, Spy) and comedic actor himself. The Globe and Mail spoke with Feig from New York.

I finally got around to watching Spy, and, I have to say, I was quite impressed. You packed a lot of one-liners into the script, and yet the dialogue felt natural, and not jokey.

It's one of my favourite things I've done, I think. I like doing stuff where the tone is a kind of tightrope balance. I never want to do silly. You have to treat the story seriously. The characters can be weird and eccentric, but the stakes have to be high or else it just becomes a spoof.

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Spoofs are bad?

No. I enjoy a good spoof. I just don't want to make them.

When I first heard about Spy, I understood it to be a spoof with Melissa McCarthy in a James Bond role. But that's not what it ended up being. What happened?

The idea was always to do what the movie actually is. I think some of the initial reporting was confused. Everyone assumed it was going to be a spoof, because Melissa was going to be playing a spy. It can be frustrating. The same thing happened with Ghostbusters. People make this assumption of what they think it's going to be. And when they hear it's a comedy they go to the lowest version of what it could be. They assume a comedy is going to be silly and over the top and broad.

It's a lack of respect, isn't it?

Well, we are sort of the red-headed step children of the arts. We're looked upon as being something easy or lowbrow or not artistic. The dramas get the acclaim. We're the clowns that prop up the artistry, I guess.

You mentioned Ghostbusters. It had a lot going for it, and the reviews weren't all that bad. And yet it was a disappointment at the box office. What went wrong?

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I just think it had so much negative press around it for two years running up to its release. Audiences don't do a deep dive into what's going on with a movie – the background or whatever. They just kind of hear stuff. So if you add up two years of hearing all this controversy over Ghostbusters, when it comes out then they think, "Oh, that's that movie, it's not supposed to be very good." I think that was it.

The Village Voice said the film suffered from the anxiety of influence of the original. Do you have a response to that?

[Co-writer] Katie Dippold and I are enormous fans of the original movie, and we knew people had grown up with this film. What we said to ourselves going in was: "All right, if we went to see this movie and we didn't make it, what would we be sad about if we didn't see it in the film?" You want to see the Proton Pack, you want to see the Stay Puft, and you want to see Slimer and the Ecto-1. We stacked those up and said: "But now we want to tell our own story with our own characters."

Do you think it worked?

Every time I saw the film in the theatre with audiences, any time a reference to the original films was made made, the people went crazy. So, critics can sit there and have an issue with it, but I'm in service of our audience. Every test audience loved all the references to the original. So, to us, it was a way to be respectful of the original one and also say to the people: "Look, we're not pretending that one didn't exist. We all know that movie existed. We're just trying to do a new origin story for a new group of Ghostbusters." We're not so out of touch we would throw out beloved things.

I know you follow politics, so what's your assessment of the job Saturday Night Live and the satirical news shows and the talk show hosts are doing in response to the Trump administration?

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I think everybody's doing a really great job. It's important. Comedy is a great vent for people. And it also can be an interesting educator, too. There's a danger in being completely cynical and making fun of everything, but I think comedy is doing as good a job as journalism is doing, in calling things like they are and making people aware of how absurd things are.

We should take the clowns seriously.

Well, that's when comedy can be at its best. When it's making you think and making you aware of what's going on, whether it's hypocrisy or something extreme that doesn't normally happen. So, thank God for comedy right now. Without it, things would be even more upsetting than they are.

For the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival (March 1 to 12), Paul Feig is interviewed by Bruce McCulloch on March 10, 8 p.m., $39 (available online only). Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst St.,

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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