Not So ‘Simple’ — Interview with ‘A Simple Favor’ Director Paul Feig
Paul Feig’s last four movies—Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat, and Ghostbusters—each earned more than $100 million at the box office. Now the director is crossing genres with the thriller A Simple Favor, in theaters September 14. In the film, Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie, a mother and aspiring internet star investigating the mysterious disappearance of her friend Emily (Blake Lively). Joined by Emily’s husband, Sean (Henry Golding), Stephanie discovers her friend was hiding far more in her past than her seemingly-perfect life let on. Feig spoke to BOXOFFICE about transitioning from making pure comedies, directing in a suit and tie even while shooting in a muddy field, and attending 1981’s first-ever showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
You come from a comedy background. Were you deliberately seeking out a new genre, or did the studio come to you?
It was actually sent to my producing partner, Jessie Henderson, and me by the studio [Lionsgate] to produce. They basically called us and said, “You know, we have this script, we optioned the book. It’s so crazy that we don’t know if it’s a comedy or if it’s a drama.” So my ears perked up. Jessie read it first and she was like, “You’ve got to read this, it’s really good.” I read it and I was like, “I don’t really want to produce this, I want to direct it.” To me, it was always—I don’t want to say it was always a comedy, but it was definitely one of my movies, because of the lead character of Stephanie that Anna Kendrick plays.
Because if you look at all my movies, there’s a very similar character that I’m always drawn to, which is an awkward person who doesn’t know their place in the world yet is trying to figure out who they are and trying to find their happiness. The character of Stephanie just made me laugh, because she’s kind of a nerd. She started her own vlog, which I find very sweet. She’s self-propelling, taking matters into her own hands even though it’s not going very well. All the other parents make fun of her, because they think she’s goofy and trying too hard. She’s this very earnest person who’s trying to do the right thing, but she’s also carrying around this terrible secret of something she did that caused a lot of problems for people. So she’s trying to cover that up by being positive, dressing really happy, being the perfect mom, being a perfect Martha Stewart–type person. That, to me, is just captivating.
Then on top of it, I go, “I can make this fun.” It has a script that has so many twists and turns in a way that I probably couldn’t have written from scratch, but I love thrillers so much that I was like, “This is my chance to do the thriller genre, but in the way that I like to do movies.” Because if you look at all my movies, they’re all genre movies, really. A wedding movie [Bridesmaids], a buddy cop film [The Heat], a spy movie [Spy], a science-fiction movie [Ghostbusters]. So I’d been dying to do a Hitchcockian-style thriller. When this script showed up, oh my God, here it is. I can do it, and I can make it fun. I can give it some laughs too, and yet still treat the genre with respect and make a real thriller.
Were you inspired by other directors who had successfully transitioned from comedy to thriller, like Jordan Peele?
I love Jordan. I was really enamored with what he did with Get Out. But I really don’t look at it as being that different from doing comedy. I directed a lot of episodes of Nurse Jackie. I always liked the tone of that show, because it’s dramatic and there’s high stakes but it’s also very funny too. I always had so much fun shooting that show because of that. So I think for me, when I found the script, I was like, “I can exercise that Nurse Jackie muscle again.” But I could do it on a bigger scale and play with it even more.
I admire any filmmaker who can cross genres. Howard Hawks is my favorite director because he worked so deftly in so many different genres. And did all of that fantastically, from screwball comedies to Westerns to gangster movies, in such a seamless way. That, to me, is what a director does. Or at least that’s the kind of director I want to be.
This movie was based on the novel by Darcey Bell. What did you decide to omit or change from the book, and why?
I wanted to have a more satisfying ending. Her book ends very cynically. I always want my movies to have, for lack of a better term, a happy ending. I never want to present a world where there is no hope, where the bad people win. Even if that’s what’s really happening these days, I don’t want to perpetuate it on the screen [Laughs]. I want to give people hope that eventually good people can win. I’m still a cockeyed optimist.
I also wanted to add a bunch more twists in the third act. [Screenwriter] Jessica Sharzer and I really had fun with twist upon twist. One of the other big changes Jessica made, before I even read the script, was that in the book Stephanie has a blog that’s just written. She changed it to being a video vlog, which I thought was the greatest device ever, because it allows you to have your lead character narrate the movie in a way that is justified by talking to her little audience on the internet. Also, it’s a great way for her to manipulate the situation once she is onto what’s happening and wants to confront her tormentors.
How familiar were you with the subculture of “mommy blogs/vlogs” before this? The biggest ones have millions of viewers, but you’re hardly the target audience.
Whenever we do our press junkets for our movies, there’s always a session with the mommy bloggers. I think they’re so much fun and they’re so cool. I also just admire that they’ve done this on their own. It’s really like starting a business. They’re so successful with what they do. I just really had fun talking with them. When I first read it, “Cool, I can make a movie about all those women who I really enjoy talking to when I do the junkets.” So I was already kind of tapped into their world. Once I took on the project, I started watching more and more of the vlogs, really being in awe of how different they all are yet how good they all are. Some are super slick, some are super “garage band,” but they’re all completely compelling and provide a great service to other moms.
You famously always wear a suit and tie when you direct, but I understand you may have broken that rule for a scene shot in a muddy field?
Well, half. I did wear jeans and boots, but I still had a tie on, a jacket, and a dress shirt. So while technically not a suit, it was still what I would call “suit-esque.”
Talk about this apple box the crew made for you. [Anna Kendrick posted a photo on her Instagram that got more than 156,000 likes.]
That was so wonderful. I don’t really like sitting in a director’s chair, I don’t find them comfortable. I like being close to my cast and close with the cameras, so I’ll usually sit on an apple box. In the past they’ve made a pad that goes on top of it for me, so it’s not completely uncomfortable.
I showed up on the set halfway through the production, and they presented me with my very own apple box, which they had painted like one of those T-shirts that looks like you’re wearing a tuxedo. It looks like the apple box is wearing a jacket and vest and tie. It’s now one of my favorite possessions. I’m going to take it to every movie I do from now on.
Which other films did you look to as inspiration here?
For me it’s all about the old classics. Those movies were funny and quirky, but still real thrillers with real danger. There was a fun quality to them that I’d been missing in movies. I just wanted to bring fun back to that genre, because I love the thriller genre so much. They are mostly patently absurd at their hearts, so why not have a little fun with that?
Henry Golding is having a big moment right now, thanks to the success of Crazy Rich Asians, but he was far less famous when you cast him. Why did you pick him to play Sean?
I really wanted to have an inclusive cast for this movie. My wife has been a big fan of the Crazy Rich Asian books; she knew that they were making a movie and had read that they discovered this guy Henry Golding from this worldwide casting search. She said, “You should look that guy up.” He had no acting that you could see, so I went online, found out that he was a travel show host and watched a bunch of his travel shows. I just fell in love with the guy, because he’s just so charming and likable—and handsome as anything. But it was really the charisma that he had, the fun quality that he had. I was kind of curious how the shooting went on that other movie, so I called up [Crazy Rich Asians director] Jon Chu. “Is this guy the real deal?” He said, “Yes, he is. Everybody loves him. He’s a complete natural. He’s completely directable. He just wants to give a great performance.” I skyped with Henry, he did an audition that he taped of himself, then we flew him in to audition with Blake Lively a couple times and do a chemistry read. He’s just the greatest—I could not love this guy more. He’s so talented, and one of the nicest people you’ve ever met in your life.
AT THE MOVIES with Paul Feig
I can tell you exactly what it was! I was living in L.A., had just moved to L.A. to be a tour guide at Universal Studios in summer of 1981. My friends said, “Hey, there’s this really cool movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark that’s opening today. Do you want to go to the very first show?” And I said, “Yes, of course I do.” It was at Mann’s Chinese Theater.
We got in there, it was the very first show—it was like 10 in the morning or something—packed audience. I had never had an experience like that in the theater, before or since. Just pure excitement, joy, surprise, completely in a movie, completely buying everything in it.
Now we’ve all seen that scene a bazillion times, when that big boulder comes rolling after Indiana Jones in the first five minutes. Well, none of us had ever seen that before. That thing came rolling down and the audience literally jumped out of their seats and started screaming. I remember just thinking, “This is what a movie director can do.”
I never recovered from that. I had always wanted to be an actor before that, but that made me end up going to film school and made me want to be behind the camera.