When Sony Pictures announced they were making a new Ghostbusters movie, some 30 years after the original, the Internet and its merry band of critics didn’t take it well. But when it was then announced that the movie would be directed by Paul Feig — well, that didn’t go over all that smoothly, either, at least among some dudes who were certain that Feig was going to, somehow, retroactively ruin their childhood with an all-female team of Ghostbusters.
Feig has been working in show business for decades, first as an actor (if you came of age during ABC’s still-unsurpassed TGIF lineup, you might remember him as Mr. Poole from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), but more recently as a writer and director. Along with Judd Apatow, he co-created Freaks and Geeks, a short-lived high-school comedy/drama that launched the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel, and that stands as a near-perfect work of television, despite lasting only one season. Feig went on to direct on some of the best shows of the early 2000s (Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock), but his big break came when he teamed up with Apatow again for 2011’s Bridesmaids. That movie smashed comedy box office records, all while proving a point that should have been obvious: that women can be both funny and bankable on the big screen.
Since then, Feig has been cast as the man who makes female comedies — or rather, comedies starring women as leads (it’s an important distinction). And he’s relishing the role by making as many of them as he possibly can. For his version of Ghostbusters, Feig reunites Bridesmaids stars Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, along with SNL’s Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. It’s the can’t-lose movie of the summer. And those women-fearing Internet haters? For Feig, it’s all pretty funny — because, after all, it’s 2016.
It seems people are having a hard time getting that your Ghostbusters is a whole new story. Do you worry about how a reboot like this will be received?
People are very passionate about this franchise; it’s such a big part of their lives. It’s a seminal film. It’s canon. Partly that makes you think you shouldn’t touch it. But then again, it’s such a great idea, and that’s why I felt the better way to do it was just to reboot it, so I’m not potentially harming people’s memories. My co-writer, Katie Dippold, and I asked ourselves, “If we were going to see this, as fans of the original, what would we be bummed if we didn’t see?” Well, we want to see an Ecto 1, we want to see a proton pack, we want to see slime, we want to see ghost traps. But after that, we figured, let’s make a whole new thing with new characters and a whole new adventure — so that people who don’t know the original can have a complete experience, too.
And part of that was casting these funny women. For whatever reason, you’ve become the poster boy for women in comedy. Is that a role you’re comfortable with?
Oh, I love it. I’m thrilled. I mean, it’s so silly because any other filmmaker who does movies that star men, nobody goes, “Oh! So you’re a man’s filmmaker!” You just don’t hear that. So it’s all endemic of the idea that, God, women have been so marginalized in entertainment, especially in movies, the fact that it’s even a thing — that they call it an “all-female reboot” — is ridiculous. They didn’t call the first one the “all-male Ghostbusters.” So it points to this problem of: who cares? I want to cast the four funniest people I know in this movie, because that’s why the first one worked. That movie would not have been anything without that cast of hilarious people. You remember the ghosts and all that, but what you really remember is Bill Murray being funny, and Harold Ramis being funny, and Dan Aykroyd being funny, and Rick Moranis being funny. So for me, who are the funniest people I know? Oh! It’s these people! They happen to be women!
So it’s not so much an active choice about equality, it’s just about what’s funny?
For years I’d watch comedies and see hilarious women in them — but not being funny. They’re written in these shrewish roles, or they’re just boring, one-dimensional characters. That definitely started to get me angry, because when you see Sarah Silverman or Rachel Harris show up in a movie and she’s just a bitch and all the guys around her are being hilarious — and all the jokes are about “Oh my terrible fiancé!” or “My girlfriend’s the worst!” — that’s fucked. And then, I would go out and pitch female-driven ideas, and immediately be told, “You can’t star a woman in these things because…” Actually they wouldn’t even go, “because,” they’d just say, “We can’t have a woman starring in it.” I accepted it at first, because you assume they know more about show business than you do. They say, “Well, men won’t show up to see it, and the foreign markets won’t show up to see a movie starring women…” So that means we’re just not going to let women star in movies? I think that all went into my desire to do this. And then when Bridesmaids popped up, that was the moment I was waiting for.
But even after Bridesmaids, is it still hard to make a female-driven movie like this?
It totally can be. Fortunately I’m known for doing this now, so there’s a level of expectation and trust on that. But when a movie costs as much as a movie like this costs, to take a chance on four women, three of them in their forties — they’re all balls-out funny and talented and great, but they don’t pass the usual litmus test for Hollywood stars — I really credit the studio for being cool enough to push it forward.
It’s funny that it’s such a risk. I don’t know if you follow Canadian politics at all…
I do actually. My mother was Canadian. She was from Windsor, Ontario.
Cool! Did you spend any time up here when you were a kid?
Oh yeah! We spent all our summers at our cottage in Canada, and my grand- mother lived there so we were always going back and forth. I had a lot of friends in Toronto and I’m really close friends with all The Kids in the Hall, so I’d come up to visit them.
Why did we get on this…? Oh, it reminded me of Justin Trudeau’s “Because it’s 2015” answer…
He’s the greatest, by the way. So cool. Can you ship him down here for us in the US?
Sorry, you guys are on your own. So let’s backtrack. Did you always want to be in show business?
From the age of five I wanted to be an actor. I loved making people laugh. I did some school play and got laughs for the first time and it was just like a drug.
“Who are the funniest people I know? Oh! It’s these people! They happen to be women!”
Do you remember that first laugh line?
It was two things: one, I was playing an elf in a school play. I got big laughs because my costume was so ridiculous. My dad used to own an army surplus store, so my parents cobbled it together out of army stuff: boxer shorts with suspenders, socks stuffed with foam so my feet were enormous. I walked out on stage and the place went crazy. Even though they were laughing at me, I was like, “Wow! I’m killing!” So when I was in second grade, our choir did a performance in front of the school, and they did this calypso song, “Yellow Bird,” where a couple of us stood there with bongos. I was doing it, but then I started doing this goofy dance, and the place went crazy again. Afterwards, this teacher I had a crush on —Miss Hill—one of the kids came up to me and was like, “Miss Hill was laughing so hard she was crying!” and I was just like, “OK. This is awesome.”
Do you get that same feeling as a director?
Oh yeah. That’s why I love test screenings. When you put the movie in front of an audience and things hit — and the things you actually thought would be funny score giant laughs — that’s as addictive as being a stand-up in front of a crowd. I mean, it’s what you live for.
Do you see a through-line from Freaks and Geeks and your earlier work to Ghostbusters?
They’re all underdog stories. People who have to prove themselves. That’s what Ghostbusters is, especially the way we’re doing it; they’re four oddballs who come together and everybody thinks they’re crazy, and then they end up saving the world. Spy was about a woman who was undervalued, who steps up and does it. The Heat was about two cops who are undervalued. Bridesmaids was about this underachieving woman, who was an achiever at one point but who went off the rails. She’s losing her best friend because her best friend’s new friend thinks she’s toxic and doesn’t want her to bring down this person that she likes. Underdogging is all I ever do. It’s all I can really relate to.
Do you still feel like an underdog?
Totally! With Ghostbusters, Jesus, having so many people on the Internet firing at you? The danger of the Internet is that you get your inbox filled with 50 to 100 people who are angry about something, and you’re like, “Agh! The world’s against me!” but that’s really just 50 to 100 people. It’s not representative of the population as a whole.
Does that kind of stuff actually affect you? Do you really read the comments?
It can. Here’s the thing: I love Twitter. I’m a big social-media guy. I was an early adopter of reaching out to fans, and Freaks and Geeks had one of the first interactive TV websites where we had an active comment board. It became a support system — a way to communicate with people who like what you do. It wasn’t until Ghostbusters when suddenly, into this happy world burst all the people that used to beat you up on the playground. This is the new normal. But when you’re a comedy person, a thousand people can say nice things to you, and you focus on the one person saying something bad.
What’s great about the Internet is that it gives a voice to everybody. It used to be that, especially in showbiz, you had to go through a phalanx of people to get to the person who you wanted to know your opinion. Now, somebody, if they want, can drop an email or a tweet into President Obama’s box and he may go, “Hey, I’m going to look at my responses,” and see it. That’s unheard of.
So there’s the good and the bad. I love it because I get to hear what people think. Even if people are contacting me with the issues and problems and things they hate, you go, “Well, sometimes it’s good to know that.” From there, you weed out whatever random meanness or attacks come in. I always prided myself that I never blocked people, ever. About six months ago I had to start, because some people just contact you over and over and over with the same point. I don’t need my inbox filled up with that stuff.