As the director of the hit comedy Bridesmaids, Paul Feig helped prove to Hollywood that women could be funny (not to mention profitable). Creator of the beloved Freaks & Geeks and an executive producer of The Office, the writer-director was at Montreal's Just for Laughs comedy festival this week. The Globe caught up with him as prepared to deliver a master class.
A master class - you're like James Lipton.
Oh god! I so wish they didn't call it a master class. It's just me talking to an interviewer. All I foresee is disappointment from everyone in the audience.
Do you find people ask really specific questions, like do you write jokes in pen or pencil?
When I've gone to these things, I get really hung up on those things too. When you're a writer you're always desperate to know if people are having as hard a time as you are. I would always be obsessed with "How long do you write every day? What time do you start writing? Do you feel bad about yourself at the end of the day?"
Did you go to many classes like this when you were starting out?
Yeah, I went to film school at [the University of Southern California]so I was lucky enough to get to meet and listen to a lot of really respected professionals. It's always fun to then cherry pick and put together your personal philosophy. That's how it should be: You want to bring your own voice to everything.
Do you remember any good or bad advice?
One of our teachers was this guy Edward Dmytryk, who was one of the blacklisted directors from Hollywood. He was old school. His advice was that if the audience ever realizes what you're doing with the camera, you've failed. I took that to heart right when the industry completely changed and it was all about the camera flying all over. Early in my career, people would say "It's too bad you don't know how to move the camera." That's an example of a really good piece of advice that might have hurt me early in my career. So don't listen to what anybody says.
Is it possible to teach people to be funny?
You can teach people the rules of it and give them advice, but you can't make somebody be funny. The world is littered with scripts by people who think they're hilarious and they're not. A lot of people when they're first starting out go too far with stuff or inadvertently copy things they've seen before. My advice: Anything you have a character do just stop yourself and say, "Would that really happen?"
A lot of the press surrounding Bridesmaids focused on who was responsible for what, which parts were producer Judd Apatow and which were written by the star, Kristen Wiig. Is that how it worked?
It was totally collaborative. It was us all holed up in a room. Kristen and [co-writer Annie Mumolo]worked on that script for four years, getting notes from Judd. A writers' room is very much someone having an idea and then someone else jumping in and refining it. I do remember very clearly when we were dealing with the dress shop and Judd said they should all get food poisoning. But then we all wrote versions of it and the actors did their thing.
Was Kristen's penis impression in the script?
No, that was totally in the moment. I kept pushing them to talk more about sex. She did that impression and then I said 'Do it again with your eye closed.' That's how comedy should be. You take the funniest people around and build from there.
Did you learn anything on set about women and comedy, either their taste or their abilities?
No. I've been around so many funny women my whole life. More than anything it was the desperation to prove to Hollywood that they can do it. I was aggravated over the years that the funniest women I knew would pop up in a movie and they'd just be the mean girlfriend, not funny at all. That's such a waste.
Many of the actors from Freaks & Geeks, like John Francis Daly, Seth Rogan and Jason Segal, have gone on to be writers, too. Did you nurture that?
Crazy, right? I think they just saw the power of it and they were also just really smart kids. John Francis Daly was always making little movies. And when we got picked up, before we even started shooting the show, Seth had the Superbad script. He said to Judd and I that he and his friend wrote this script about guys trying to buy beer. We were like, "Good for you, 16-year-old boy!" And then it was one of the most successful comedies of all time.
Are you working with Apatow on anything now?
Yeah, I sold a project to Universal that he's going to produce that I'm writing and directing that is not officially for Melissa [McCarthy]and John Hamm yet, but that's who I'm basing the characters on. And then there's another project that may go this fall, but I can't say what it is yet.
Are you seeing anything else at Just for Laughs while you're in town?
I'm going to see my buddy Andy Kindler, who I've known for ever. He does a state of the industry address. Whatever I can see, I will, because I love the festival. They've got really great people here.
This interview has been condensed and edited.