September 13, 2018
‘A Simple Favor’ Director Paul Feig on Adding More Twists to His Thriller, ‘Ghostbusters’ Sequel Ideas, and the Play-Doh Movie [Interview]
Paul Feig has become a major name in comedy over the years. His last four movies have been blockbusters: Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and yes, Ghostbusters. To some, his latest movie, A Simple Favor, may seem like something different, but it’s more of a Paul Feig movie than you may be expecting.
Based on the novel by Darcey Bell, the story follows single mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), who becomes friends with Emily (Blake Lively) when their sons have a playdate. One day, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son during a work emergency. Emily never returns, and this is just as surprising to Emily’s husband (Henry Golding). The plot thickens and the trailer definitely teases the film’s twists and turns, but there are still moments for macabre humor and outright silliness.
Feig spoke with /Film by phone about his take on the thriller genre, what a Ghostbusters sequel might have been and development on the Play Doh movie. A Simple Favor is in theaters this Friday.
I know you always dress up. Are you still wearing a suit while we’re talking on the phone?
Of course. Come on. If I’m awake, I’m in a suit.
I of course know you can do more than one thing, but was it a tough sell when you told a studio you wanted to do a movie that’s more of a mystery/suspense thriller?
The interesting thing was the studio sent the script to my company to produce because they had bought the book, developed the script and called us up and said, “We’ve got this script but it’s so bananas, we don’t know is it a drama, is it a comedy, a straight thriller? What is it?” They figured since we do comedy we can figure out the best way to do it. So I read it and I was like, “I love this so much I want to direct it.” I love thrillers and have always wanted to do one. I really wanted to write one but I just realized I didn’t have the right skill set. I’m not really good at writing a thriller from scratch I don’t think. I didn’t try. I was just intimidated by it basically, but I thought, “God, if I can ever find a great thriller script, that would be so much fun to do.” All my movies are genres. Howard Hawks is my hero of directors. He just went from genre to genre and one day had them all. I always felt like that’s the way to do it, to play in all these different worlds and get to play with the tropes of the different genres, then subvert them or bring other things to them. That, to me, is what’s really fun. It was just irresistible to do this. All I thought once I read it, Jessica Sharzer did an amazing adaptation of the book, but it just got my brain going, “Oh, we can add another twist here. We can add another twist here.” We just started adding even more. I don’t like it when I see a thriller and I figure it out before it’s over. I thought let’s just make this one so twisty and turny that nobody has a chance of figuring out what’s going on until the end.
Is this mystery counting on the fact that we know the mystery tropes, so it’s manipulating us?
Yeah, totally. Hitchcock brought the whole red herring thing in. That’s what’s so fun. I was always in awe of red herrings because that’s something I was never really great at writing. The fact that this book had so many, that Jessica Sharzer added more, then I was like oh, that’s how that works. This is the stuff you think, and that’s going to happen. That’s what I love about thrillers. You expect everything and you don’t trust anything about them. The only thing you have to make sure with a thriller is that you pay it off in the end. The fun part and sometimes the easy part is just to feed everybody, but then they’re getting so invested in trying to figure out what’s going on, if you let them down with the ending, that poisons the entire story and makes them hate you even more for putting them through that and not having the courtesy to give them a great ending. I didn’t even realize that going into a thriller until I was piecing it together. It’s like oh man, this is scary. If we don’t get this right, this is really going to blow up in our face.
Does the comedy serve a different purpose in A Simple Favor, as more of a misdirect?
It’s a bit of that. Here’s the thing about thrillers. They’re inherently kind of absurd because so many crazy things are going on. While I love modern day thrillers, I think sometimes they take themselves way too seriously. They don’t nod to the fact of going, “Look, we know this is nuts.” That’s what I loved about Hitchcock movies because they kept their sense of humor about them. Not in a comedy way and not in a spoof way by any means, but just having the quirkiness of the characters and these extreme situations and how people are reacting to these extreme situations. The side characters come in and out of their lives and in and out of the story, that help create even more oddness and misdirections. I just want it to be fun. That’s all I wanted to do with this movie. I have to love when any critic is trying to take it so seriously and their criticism is really serious topics, you’re like, “You know, we were just really trying to have fun. We all admit that this movie is bananas.” That’s why I start the movie with that John-Paul Keller song that’s just super fun. We’re taking it seriously because we’re making a movie. We’re being very serious about the thriller genre, but at the same time, we’re also letting you know it’s okay to laugh. If extreme stuff happens and ridiculous stuff happens it’s there because we know it’s nutty. We want you to go along for the ride. It all comes from the characters really. When I read the script, had it been a straight thriller I don’t know if I would have done it, but the fact that I saw the possibility for how fun and funny Anna Kendrick’s character could be. It’s the classic lead character for any one of my projects which is always an awkward sort of nerdy person who’s underappreciated, undervalued and doesn’t really know their place in the world. Then whatever situation they go through, they blossom and figure out who they are but never lose their humanity and what’s wonderful about themselves. I always want everything to be good natured at the end of the day. We can go super dark and violent sometimes, but as long as the end message isn’t: human nature is terrible, people are terrible and you can’t win so just give up. That’s never the message I want. I want winners at the end, and even the bad guys, when they get their comeuppance, sort of get it in a way that we’re not running them over with a train and chopping off their head. We’re sending them to a better place where they can thrive with their villany.
The trailer is really selling the drama, not the comedy. Is that what marketing thought was the best selling point?
No, that’s what we all thought. I came in saying, “Please, we cannot market this as a comedy. If we’re saying this is a comedy, it’s not funny.” This isn’t a straight up comedy. It’s a quirky thriller and if we were to advertise it as a comedy, everybody would think it’s a spoof which it’s not. That was my issue when we did Spy. Spy got advertised too much like a comedy and everybody assumed it was going to be a spoof of a spy movie. The minute they saw Melissa McCarthy fall over on a scooter, they’re like, “Okay, I know what this is. This is Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” In the movie, that’s a funny moment because she’s actually become a capable spy and has one miscalculation that slows her down for a second and then she regroups and does something great. So it’s really steered me away from advertising anything comedic as a comedy because people bring a lot of baggage to that. People seem to always assume that if you’re saying something’s funny that it’s really stupid, or it’s not realistic or it’s going to not have stakes and not be about the story and the characters first. It’s going to subvert things for a laugh and be silly. I don’t quite know when this started happening for people, but there is a hostility that people have when they see a comedy trailer. I’ve seen it with my other movies. They kind of cross their arms and go, “Oh, clearly, the funniest jokes are in the trailer.” They’re very hostile towards it. I love doing this movie because it’s comedy but the comedy is kind of hidden in there. Here’s the other thing. The only way you can pull off any genre like this is you have to keep the genre dead serious. This is a thriller first and foremost. Then on top of that, we go, “Okay, where are the places we can have some fun with this and find some comedy.”
I think that’s what I responded to about Spy, and probably going back to The Heat with cop movies and Ghostbusters with supernatural movies. Are you satirizing the tropes of the genres without sacrificing the genres?
I just respect the genres too much. People bring an expectation to them, so if you treat them seriously, you’re still giving them what they love, but then I’m able to go, “Here’s things that I’ve always wanted to change in the genre. Here’s things I always expect but now we can have some fun because we all know the language of these genres. We know the rules.” So you go okay, here comes that thing. Oh wait, that’s not what I thought it was going to be, or that’s making fun of or having fun with that thing that we always expect. I think my movies will always continue to be genres that I can then bring my own voice to. This is a fun way to work.
As a thriller fan, did you have to have a microfiche scene, even when libraries probably converted to digital by now?
Yes, totally. To not have a microfiche in a movie like this? But also you can justify it by going okay, it’s an old paper, it’s a small town. At that time, they were still putting out the paper in the ‘90s. I can justify anything if I really want it in a movie. It didn’t feel like such a stretch because it was a small town but yeah, what’s better than looking up something on microfiche? What’s worse than watching somebody on a computer? Like these movies that try to make it exciting when somebody’s typing on the computer, which we had to do in our movie when Stephanie’s sending e-mails and all that. So it’s like how do we move the camera around her where all her fingers are typing? Let’s get a cool closeup of the fingers typing? You’re still just watching typing.
Seduction has been a trope of mystery thrillers from Double Indemnity to Basic Instinct. Now in 2018 are audiences desensitized to sexuality? Is it more challenging?
Well, I think they’re more sophisticated now when it comes to that kind of thing than they were probably back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, just because of the internet and everything you can see now. I think it’s good if it helps the story. It’s a basic human emotion, something everyone can relate to, how you get manipulated that way or get pulled into something that way. Execution is everything. As they say, there’s only so many stories in this world. I think there’s like seven or something when you get right down to it. It’s just the way you can tell it. There’s only so many keys on a piano and yet there’s an infinite number of songs that can be written on that same pianos. That’s really what movies and storytelling are.
Will you have to CGI out the vagina painting for TV and airline showings?
Yeah, that’s the big mystery. You can’t even bleep it. You have to come up with an alternate painting. We’ll probably come up with an alternate painting that has the feel of it. We’re being released in China and they wanted to censor that too so we had to come up with this very bizarre painting. It’s still the same painting but she’s almost wearing like a Ghost in the Shell bodysuit. It’s very, very strange.