“I’m never looking for strong female characters, because I don’t like that term,” Paul Feig tells me. “It feels two-dimensional. I like women who are strong and weak and funny and vulnerable and scared.”
The director of Bridesmaids (2011) and the all-female Ghostbusters reboot of 2016 – targeted by a now-infamous internet backlash – is sitting in a chic London hotel, discussing his latest project A Simple Favour. It's a film whose two leads are so multifaceted that to simply label them "strong female characters" would be to do them a disservice.
A wry and gloriously self-aware twist on the thriller genre, it adapts Darcey Bell’s novel from last year, in which dewy-eyed blogger Stephanie, played by Anna Kendrick, becomes enraptured by her polar opposite: an impossibly glamorous, rich, mysterious (in short, Gatsby-esque) figure named Emily (Blake Lively). Their friendship is rocked by Emily’s sudden disappearance. And down the rabbit hole of her secretive life we go.
Stephanie and Emily sit comfortably within the pantheon of female characters which have come to dominate Feig’s films: women who are all charismatic, but not always aspirationally so. Take, for example, Lindsay Weir, played by Linda Cardellini, in Feig’s first TV series, Freaks and Geeks (cancelled after one season but now a cult favourite). She’s smart, but also a self-conflicted burnout.
Then there’s Kristen Wiig’s Annie from Bridesmaids, whose own personal crisis culminates into a public meltdown and a punch-up with a giant cookie. “I got tired of seeing how women were being portrayed in movies. It just got so bad, especially in comedies. They’re props basically,” Feig says.
A Simple Favour marks a small excursion from the norm for Feig. He’s a director best known for out-and-out comedy, frequently collaborating with Melissa McCarthy to showcase her trademark slapstick, yet here the thriller elements share an equal stage with Feig’s sense of humour. The mix makes perfect sense, as Feig explains: “It’s such an inherently absurd genre, because everything’s so heightened, and there’s so many twists and turns. But, I like people to laugh. I always want the audience to feel like they can have a good time.”
The idea of Feig simply wanting the world “to have a good time” seems like a fairly good summation of his character. There’s a sense of generosity to him. He’s unfailingly polite, quick to encourage every thought or question, and will, in an almost automatic response, murmur “thank you” at every compliment.
It’s well-known that Feig wears a suit for every occasion, even on set, and today would hardly be any different. He’s opted for a rich blue number, complete with the obligatory pocket square and a small flower lapel pin. His sartorial formality seems almost like an attempt to reassure those he meets that, yes, they are worth dressing up for. In that light, it’s tempting to see Feig, a self-confessed geek, as the antithesis of the Ghostbusters trolls who hounded him; as the poster boy of ideal geekdom.
The director admits he hadn’t realised he’d stepped on “the hornet’s nest” of fanboy venom when, in 2016, he took on Sony’s reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise and cast four women in the lead: McCarthy, Wiig, plus Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. To him, he’d simply chosen the four funniest people he knew.
But awaken the patriarchal beast it did; the film’s trailer became the most disliked in YouTube history, as misogynistic comments crawled in from every nook and cranny of the internet. Opprobrium – both sexist and racist – rained down on Jones, the only black woman of the four leads, much of it at the behest of alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopolous, who was (eventually) banned from Twitter.
Ghostbusters had ceased to be a film. It was now a political battleground. And it’s a transformation that still frustrates Feig to this day. “It became a political thing,” he says. “I think that’s why we didn’t do as well at the box office as we should have, because it’s a fun, summer movie. Some people were, like, we should make it every woman’s duty to go out and support this movie, but nobody wants that. I don’t want to go see a movie that’s, like, you have to make a statement by going to see this movie. I just want to go for fun.”
He admits, however, that the experience proved to be an eye-opener. To him, this wasn’t the normal reaction of the geek community – he’s familiar with those kinds of “spirited conversations” – but of something sinister, what he labels a “Trumpian” approach of “destroy them at all costs, ruin them” – a world entirely alien to him. “I didn’t grow up in a family that did that. Or even a community that did that,” he says.
The world Feig grew up in (Michigan, to set the scene) was rich with female mentors and friends. An only child, he was close to his mother, while also living next door to a family with eight children, six of them girls – he was friends with pretty much all of them.
“I think the key to a healthy male is for them to be friends with girls when they’re younger,” he adds. “I would always steer clear of the bullies and the jocks. Anything that had more toxic masculinity, or even just overt testosterone.” He also credits his father, who would regularly lecture him on the moral codes of relationships and marriage. “So, I always just lived my life terrified of doing anything that would be the wrong thing to do around women,” he says. “Even to the point that, I trained myself as a kid to always put the toilet seat down.”
Little has changed, it seems. Except the boy who once trained himself to put the toilet seat down has now become the man who trained himself to become a better ally to the women of Hollywood. The director’s production company, Feigco, is among a handful that took up Frances McDormand’s cry from the Academy Awards stage earlier this year, when she closed her speech with two words: “inclusion rider”.
What it boils down to is a contractual provision that guarantees a certain level of diversity within cast and crew. Although Feig says the company has always sought to be inclusive, the adoption proved to be a useful challenge to what he calls “default settings”, in which there’s a tendency simply to hire from people you know.
“The most onerous thing that happens all the time with the inclusion rider is, somebody will always go: 'Yeah, well, we just have to get the best person,’” Feig continues. “It’s like, when did I say: ‘let’s not get the best person?’” It only shoots me in the foot if I don’t get somebody who’s going to be great at what they do. I’m saying, 'Let’s just keep looking. Did we exhaust everybody? Have we looked at everybody else before?' That’s the thing. I think there is this sort of creeping laziness that goes into it. There’s lots of excuses not to do it, and we’re just trying to get rid of all the excuses.”
Feigco is currently completing production on Someone Great, a Netflix romcom written and directed by newcomer Jennifer Robinson, starring Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez; according to Fieg, it also boasts a production with all-female department heads.
He’s also busy with Powderkeg, a new digital content company specifically established to support underserved voices, currently working on East of LaBrea, a web series about the Muslim-American experience.
The latter’s a key part of Feig’s realist approach to the industry. Movie-making is an expensive business and studios, above all, are hesitant to take a risk on a new voice. Powderkeg, he hopes, will help to establish those voices and finally open up a path between them and the big leagues. “If we can’t grow the pool by giving people jobs so they can become legitimised in the eyes of a studio, then it’s not going to change,” Feig says. “A lot of people talk about it, but talk is cheap.”
A Simple Favour is out now in UK cinemas
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies