by Craig Kennedy, Living In Cinema
Up until this past summer, Paul Feig was probably best known for his work in television, either in front of the camera on such shows as Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or behind it as the creator of the short-lived but critically beloved cult favorite Freaks and Geeks. Since then, Feig’s been honing his craft with a steady stream of gigs, directing everything from episodes of Arrested Development to Weeds to Nurse Jackie, Mad Men and The Office. A lifetime of work in the entertainment industry all paid off this year for him as the director of the summer sensation Bridesmaids, a movie that forced audiences and studio executives to rethink their narrow ideas about comic roles for women, helped launched Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy as viable big screen stars and earned Feig himself the kind of cachet that in Hollywood only comes from having your name on a $170 million box office hit.
The job sprang in part out of Feig’s professional relationship with producer/director Judd Apatow, the Hollywood heavyweight who executive produced Freaks and Geeks. Following her funny and memorable role in his comedy Knocked Up, Apatow had convinced Kristen Wiig to write her own starring comedy vehicle and Bridesmaids was born. Feig, who had been following Wiig’s rising career since he’d cast her in one of her first big screen roles (Unaccompanied Minors), was a natural fit to direct. The rest as they say is history.
I recently sat down to talk with Feig at a sidewalk cafe on West 3rd near Beverly Hills, a lively commercial stretch studded with clusters of boutique storefronts and trendy restaurants. The tall, thin actor-turned-director has a reputation built over the last decade or so for always wearing a suit to work (even in Hollywood, a town with a decidedly casual-leaning sartorial style) and on this occasion he did not disappoint. He wore a gray Glen plaid number with a black knit tie and a purple pocket hanky for a little pizzazz. It wasn’t a power suit designed to intimidate with status like you’d see on a Wall Street banker or lawyer, but a dignified, reassuring, almost retro suit that said, “this is a guy who is put together, takes himself and you seriously and he knows what he’s doing.”
And Feig definitely knows what he’s doing. He’s a fast talker, bouncing back and forth from one topic to the next, but it’s not the nervous, void-filling chatter of the insecure. It’s the confident, engaged, enthusiastic rap of someone who loves what they do and enjoys talking about it. If there’s a takeaway, it’s that Feig is a really nice guy with enormous respect for his actors. It seems to be his mission to support them as much as possible and to create an environment where they can be their best.
After the customary pleasantries and background, we got right into talking about the unique difficulties of a movie like Bridesmaids and avoiding the pitfalls of ordinary romantic comedies.
Paul Feig. I’ve seen enough of those that I had a pretty good handle of what not to do and what to avoid. But look, those movies are popular anyway so you don’t want to drain out all the stuff that people like. You just want to bring it up to the next level, to try to take it beyond that one audience and to really make it something that women are going to relate to, but in a way that guys will also like. At the end of the day you want to make a movie that everybody loves, but we knew it was going to look like a lady’s movie no matter what because it’s all women and it’s about a wedding, so you’re stuck with that. But at the same time, you can use it as a springboard for the comedy we like and for the really grounded emotional stories that we like to tell. It also works with the style that Judd and I like to do with a lot of improv and a lot of looseness in the shooting and the performances.
Craig Kennedy: What’s the hardest part of doing a movie like Bridesmaids?
PF: The hardest part about a movie like this, other than getting the story right and the script right is finding the right cast. It took a number of months. We always kind of start casting while we’re in the middle of writing so we can then tailor the roles to whoever we find. It becomes a part of the writing process for us really. So, we saw everybody, every funny woman in town and there were so many great ones. It was just about finding the ones who had specific personalities that would work with each other and who were great at improv.
CK: What’s the audition process like?
PF: We always do very loose auditions. I don’t usually like to audition with scenes from the movie per se because they don’t show you enough, so I’ll always write up very specific sides that are like 2-page dialogues between the characters. Then we’d always have an improv component at the end to see how they work off the cuff. It really shows you a lot and it also helped us refine those characters and make them very fleshed out. I think that’s what people respond to most with Bridesmaids, especially women when they watch it, is that these are very funny women talking in a very real way like women talk amongst themselves.
CK: Did the improv from the writing and casting process carry over into the production?
PF: Yeah, very much so. I mean, you know, it’s not one of those movies where you just kind of go, “let’s see what happens today.” It’s a very structured blueprint with really good dialogue to fall back on, but I was never hard core about getting a scene exactly the way it was scripted. That’s your guide and sometimes the actors would stick to it and other times they’d just fudge it. In those cases I’d just keep rolling. Try this, try that. We’ll throw in jokes, we’ll have written alternate jokes and on the set we’ll come up with more jokes. It’s easy to get a lot of stuff.
In order to facilitate that, I always cross-shoot too whenever possible so that you’re getting the character’s true first-time reactions to what the other is saying and it feels very much like real life. I think that’s why that opening scene in the diner with Kristen and Maya works so well, because that was just them for four or five hours improvising dialogue off of this written scene. They’d just come up with these things that were so funny and then it’s up to us to manage it in the editing room, to make sense of it all.
CK: It seems like there’s a danger with improv where it can become self indulgent. It just becomes a group of people who find themselves funny but who forget to bring the audience along. How did you keep that from happening on Bridesmaids?
PF: That’s the pitfall. For us the improv is only… like we know the information we need and the path we need to go down, but now feel free within that to improvise. It’s not like we’re going off on these tangents. It really comes down almost to having a lot of alternate jokes and alternate ways of saying the same thing. In that sense it stays very contained. I’ll always let people at some point do their thing though. The girls would all laugh because I’d say “dealer’s choice, whatever you want” and sometimes they’d go off on a tangent. Sometimes you can’t use it because it’s all over the place but a lot of times it would just be something like, “That’s fantastic. We just gotta make sense of it in the editing room.” It has to be controlled chaos in the service of story and character.
But I never tell somebody no. If they have an idea, even if it’s insane, it’s like, “Try it. We’re here. We’ve got the cameras. Let’s do it.” I’d rather have it and it doesn’t work than not have it and it could’ve been awesome.
CK: Through much of your career, whether it’s writing or acting, you’ve been funny yourself, but how then do you direct someone else to be funny?
PF: You don’t. That’s why casting is the most important thing because you find out very quickly who’s really funny, who has that skill. I don’t like working with people who I have to go, “eh, bring it down, bring it down. Don’t go too big.” The funniest people I know have a natural governor that stops them from going too far. If anything, I’m always telling them to take it a little farther because I know they’re not going to give this big over the top terrible performance. The people that I love to work with are so subtle and grounded and concerned about realism that I can push them a little bit further so that they’re just a more extreme version of a real person, someone who is real, but at a more heightened state.
CK: Is there a way to create an environment that helps comic actors do their thing?
PF: That’s 90 percent of my job on the set, creating that nurturing safe environment. I made my living as an actor for 15 years plus and in that time I’ve worked with great directors who created environments like that and I’ve worked with those who didn’t, who created a very tense environment. Those times were terrible. I mean, your acting toolbox would just close up. That’s why the cross-shooting is so important even though it drives DPs crazy sometimes. It’s like I’d rather spend the extra time setting it up so they can move the cameras around and keep on both people so that when they’re in there they can just not think about it and go and just play and stuff happens.
And like I said before, it’s also never saying no. Even sometimes if they go off on a weird tangent, I’ll be like, “Alright, maybe let’s steer it back in. I think that’s funny, we got that now, but let’s maybe steer it this way. ” I never want anybody to try something and feel like “Oh shoot, I shouldn’t have done that. Oh, I’m so embarrassed.” The deal I have with all my actors is that we’re going to go for it. Don’t hold back on anything. Just know that you can trust that we’re not going to put in anything that’s going to embarrass you, unless it’s just so awesome you wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. Maybe it’s a moment you let your guard down, but you will like it because the audience will love it.
CK: Like you said, it’s better to do something that doesn’t work than miss something that could’ve been great.
PF: A hundred percent. Nothing makes me crazier than wishing we had something we don’t. It’s kind of Judd’s mantra on stuff to just shoot for the editing room and give it over to the great editors we have. The editors are storytellers too. And the film becomes a living breathing organism. It drives screenwriters crazy because things change, but to fight against that is bad.
CK: Films are uniquely collaborative, aren’t they?
PF: That’s what I love. I love that, but that’s why you need that strong core of a script because if you lose that through-line, that’s when things gets terrible. That’s why in the early stages of the writing, we face it like a drama. Plot it out like a drama and in the editing room do the first cut like a drama. Don’t worry about the comedy. Makes sure that the drama tracks because that’s what pulls people along. We’ve all seen movies that are hilarious, but half way through you’re not engaged and you’re just waiting for the next joke. I’m not that funny. I’m not so funny that I’ve got so many jokes that you’re going to laugh so much you won’t care that you’re not engaging with the story. You have to engage with the characters, because what makes them funny is if you care about them.
It’s the difference between if you and I and a bunch of our friends are around and we’re talking about someone we know and just cracking each other up. We’re laughing because I know what’s funny about you and I know what you like and don’t like and I know what’s awkward about our friend. We know the context and we’re invested in why it’s so funny, but the person sitting next to us who doesn’t know any of us, it’s just obnoxious because they have no investment in those characters or situations. As a filmmaker you have to immediately create that investment in the audience. It’s the hardest thing to do.
CK: Do your ideas about audience investment come through working in TV? It seems like sitcoms especially depend on that. Like in Seinfeld, Kramer can just walk into a room and the audience laughs because they know this guy.
PF: Very much so. The greatest example is Friends. That show works because those are your friends. That’s why Cheers works. But it’s hard with movies. You don’t get a pilot and 6 episodes for the audience to grow to like your characters.
CK: You don’t have the luxury of time with a movie that you get with a series.
PF: That’s why, again, the casting is so important. There’s just this quality that people have. I can’t describe it, I just know it when I see it. Somebody comes in and you just go “That person’s funny and they’re compelling and I immediately want to watch them.” You see plenty of talented people and they’re pretty good and they could be this or that, but then somebody comes in and blows you out of the water and it just erases all of those other ones. You always want the one where you’re like “Holy shit, that’s it!”
CK: You had to have gone “Holy shit” with Melissa McCarthy…
PF: Totally. Totally, and that’s what I love working with people who aren’t famous stars yet, because there’s no baggage. I love in the film the first time we meet Melissa’s character Megan. She looks kind of odd with her weird outfit and her weird drink and the audience doesn’t know what to make of her, but then she starts her speech about falling off the cruise ship and you hear slow building laughs from the audience and by the end of her speech they’re like “Who is this person?” That to me is the thrill and excitement of launching somebody new in something like this. Feeling people engage the way you would on the street or at a party and you meet someone and you’re like, “I like this person. I don’t know why, but I really I really like this person 30 seconds into knowing them.”
CK: At the same time it must be fun working with more established stars and playing against the image the audience has of them. I’m thinking of Jon Hamm in Bridesmaids.
PF: Very much so, and Hamm is one of my heroes. I got to know him when I directed Mad Men and we became buddies. The fact that he’s such a comedy aficionado and loves it so much, yeah that’s really fun too. But then, that’s not the same as working with the A-list star who comes in with his team and he has to guard his image. That’s not as fun because you don’t have the freedom to play. Like Hamm, my God! The funny stuff he would do for us in that opening sex scene. We shot so much stuff. Talk about two people with no egos and no worries about how they looked or what they were doing. And you love them for it as an audience member because you get such funny stuff.
CK: They’re fearless.
PF: Absolutely fearless.
CK: Speaking of Melissa McCarthy and Jon Hamm, you talked about a project last summer, a romantic comedy that you want them to be in. What’s going on with that?
PF: I just finished the first draft of the script last night so I just have to clean it up in the next couple of days and give it to Melissa to get her feedback on it and show it to Judd and everybody who’s going to produce it at the studio. I’m really excited about it because I’m trying to do a movie about the building of a very real long term relationship between two fairly unlikely characters. The challenge of it is making sure that it works realistically, that it’s not just a joke of coupling up Jon Hamm and Melissa McCarthy.
It’s kind of based on this couple I know in England. Physically, they just…. you look at them and you can’t even believe they’re a couple yet they’re the greatest couple I’ve ever met because they’re just so in tune with each other. And it’s also based on my own marriage. I’ve had a very happy marriage for 17 years. It’s important to me to show like, “here’s how you really build a relationship.” It’s early stages. I’ve literally just finished the first draft so there’s a lot to be done to build it the same way we built Bridesmaids. I want to get the input of Melissa. Bring her in and hopefully, I don’t know if Jon is going to do it or not, who knows, I don’t know what his availability is, but whether it’s him or whoever I want to build this thing organically so that it’s funny and it’s real. It’s a real passion project for me to do this.
CK: Ok, let’s go back and talk some more about Melissa specifically for whom Bridesmaids was a huge breakout.
PF: I get so happy that Melissa is having this big moment because people like her are the people I want to work with. Real people who are so talented and have so prepared themselves for this moment and have honed their craft. You know, I was at SNL to go watch her and I was in the front row for both the dress rehearsal and the on air show. I got so excited. I got really emotional and I get really emotional when I talk about it now because it’s that thing where they’re working so long and they’re so good and they waited for their moment and then they got it and just ran with it. Years of preparation all paid off. I mean, her doing “the woman in the office” and the “Hidden Valley Ranch lady,” that stuff she’s done forever, but to expose that suddenly to the world… Steve Higgins runs the show under Lorne Michaels and I was talking to him about it and he said like, “Suddenly Melissa comes in, it’s our dream come true because you don’t have to do anything. She just takes it and runs with it. She’s got the stuff and she does her thing.” She was great in dress rehearsal, but to see how she stepped it up to unbelievable levels once that live show was going was really exciting to behold.
CK: To those of us who don’t know her, Melissa seemed like an overnight sensation, but she’s really put in her time, hasn’t she?
PF: She’s ready for it and she’s grounded. The closest thing I can relate it to is Steve Carrell who was been around forever in Second City and doing various TV shows and stuff. Both of them are the nicest people in the world and they’re so happy about their success and so appreciative of it. That’s what’s so exciting versus the 20-something who comes in and feels like they deserve it. Hamm was the same way. Hamm’s a guy who was knocking around for a long time. He was a waiter. I remember him being my waiter at Ciudad. I remember hitting it off with this really handsome and funny waiter and the next thing I know I’m directing him in an episode of Mad Men and I’m like “Wait a minute! I remember you!”
CK: With all the different things you’ve done in the business, you don’t strike me as a guy who likes to repeat himself. Yet, with the huge success of Bridesmaids, there’s the inevitable pressure from the audience and probably the studio to do a sequel. How do you feel about that?
PF: I’m open to it, but I don’t think any of us are like “yeah, it’s a thing we’ve gotta do.” Kristen I know is on the fence about, but it has to do with how busy we are and what other pet projects we have and also if we were going to do it again, it would have to be awesome, as good or better than the first one. I always get nervous about the idea of trying to revive Freaks and Geeks or trying to do a movie or a reunion show because I feel like we nailed it and so… But I’m very open to another Bridesmaids. Just to get to work with those women again. I almost feel like that movie was like a TV series that didn’t get to go to full season because I fell in love with these characters and there’s so much I still want to do with them.
CK: It’s been long enough now that the sting has probably worn off, but how did you bounce back from having your passion project Freaks and Geeks cancelled before its time?
PF: It was devastating, but at the same time it was no surprise. I mean I’m a realist and I always have been. When you’re the lowest rated show on NBC for a number of weeks in a row, you can’t get mad at the network. You wish they could take the critical acclaim and use that to keep it going, but this was even before there were DVDs of TV shows. These days I think if we were on and we were low rated but had all that critical acclaim I think they would’ve at least taken us all the way through a first season and into a second season just to see if we caught on in the break when the first season DVDs came out. But that structure wasn’t around then. It was a time also when game shows were going through the roof at a fraction of the cost. That’s what killed us. They put us up against Who Wants to be a Millionaire and we died. So it’s really sad and I always felt like we left those characters before we got a chance to fully explore them, but at the same time… I mean almost weekly I’ll get some email or a tweet from somebody saying “I wish there could’ve been more because then you could’ve ended the series and we could’ve seen what happened to everybody” and I always feel like we did end it. The last one, “Discos and Dragons,” was written to be the final episode of the whole series and I’m very satisfied with that ending. The only way you could see what happened to all the characters is if you did like Six Feet Under where you see how they all died. Think about all the people you went to high school with and God only knows what they’re doing. It always keeps going. So, I’m not sad about it, but there are still moments when I get a little bummed out.
CK: There was an assumption in the media before Bridesmaids came out that a raucous R-rated female comedy wouldn’t work. Did you get a lot of hand wringing or pushback from the studio about that?
PF: No they were great. I had the greatest time working with Universal. I really fell in love with them. It helps that Judd is producing because he offers that level of safety to them, but the only moment when they expressed anything was when I did my sort of walk and talk which is where, right before you go to production, you kind of show all your costumes and your set plans and all that and you sort of walk [Universal co-chairman] Donna Langley and the gang through it. After she walked through it all, she pulled me aside and said, “the only thing I ask is don’t let it be crude.” And I was like, “I completely get that.” What she meant was that it shouldn’t be dirty just for the sake of the R rating. We didn’t want that either. Judd and I went into it not sure if it was going to be R-rated or PG-13 so we made the decision to also shoot PG-13 version of scenes, you know to kind of get the swearing out. We knew we wanted to be R, that in a perfect world it would be R just because we could go for the jokes, but we were really aware that we could put it in front of a test audience and they’d reject it that way. The good thing was, we never ever had to dip into the PG-13 stuff because the very first test screening we did, we cut it for an R and it just scored really high and got great feedback from women. The rating was never an issue. The studio was very supportive of us just doing it the most honest way. We found in the PG-13 versions of the scenes, it felt like the actors were holding back a little bit because then they weren’t talking like real friends, like women friends would talk.
CK: They weren’t talking like adults.
PF: Exactly, and that’s why I go for the R-rated thing. Making R-rated comedies is great, not because you can show nudity and boobs and all that stuff, but because it makes it more honest and the characters talk in a more real way that the audience can relate to. That’s the great thing and to have that freedom is just so good.
CK: How did you feel about the marketing which sort of positioned Bridesmaids as Hangover with girls when it’s really nothing like that at all?
PF: We were pretty happy with the marketing campaign. Universal did a great job because it was a very hard movie to figure out how to market. The tone of it is outrageous, but it’s also very grounded and emotional. It offers up these two worlds. If you go just for the outrageous comedy, it just looks balls to the wall and over the top, but with the emotional stuff it looks like it’s just going to be another chick flick. We decided to push the comedy more because it would draw more people in, but that was very hard to figure out. I can’t say anybody did a bad job because we were stumped over how to do it.
CK: And the strategy obviously worked. Bridesmaids was expected to open around 13 million…
PF: …and it did 26. Exactly. None of us were that happy with the fact that we started getting labeled… and the studio didn’t do this at all, just word of mouth and articles and reporters started to kind of put the female Hangover thing on it… but at the same time I didn’t mind it because The Hangover was such a huge success. The only thing that I worried about was when we were referred to as a gross-out comedy. You’re completely missing the point if that’s what you latch on to. There’s one scene that could be considered gross.
CK: You mean of course the food poisoning at the dress shop scene. It’s the big laugh out loud moment of the movie.
PF: Yes, but it’s also to illustrate a point. It’s the funniest way we could think of to get across that Annie has fucked up. It’s her first assignment and she doesn’t have any money so she takes them to a shitty restaurant passing it off as a cool place and suffers the consequences of that. It was a funny way to show that mistake and also to show that her character just won’t back down.
CK: Annie is a very difficult character, isn’t she? Most of her problems are her own fault. Part of the movie is her overcoming those flaws and getting to a point where she could grow, but before that happens she’s at times kind of unlikable. You risk alienating the audience, especially if they’re just showing up to see her repeat one of her Saturday Night Live characters.
PF: Very much so. That’s why, if it were up to me, Kristen would get nominated for all the best actress awards. That’s one of the hardest parts to pull off because at its core its a very unlikable character. You know, she leaves Officer Rhodes after their perfect night together and then she busts up her friend’s shower… Those are very unlikable things she does and the danger is that the audience will be turned off, but Kristen is so likable right out of the gate. People just like her the minute they see her on screen. In that opening sex scene when Jon Hamm is trying to get her out of the house, we wrote all this stuff with him being really mean and we thought it was so funny and all our families and all our hipster friends thought it was hilarious, but we did our first test screening with a real audience and there was just silence. They hated it because they liked her so much. They didn’t want to see her being pathetic or to see him being mean to her.
Also the big thing for us was, if she was just a loser I don’t think the audience would’ve put up with her. So the most important things we have in the movie are seeing that she had a business and the most important shot as far as I’m concerned is where she’s in her bedroom by herself looking at her wall of accomplishments. There’s that shot of her looking sad and then you see the picture of her in the newspaper on opening day of her bakery and she looks proud and together. That’s when you realize who she used to be and that she wasn’t always a mess.
The other really important scene is where we see her making the cupcake because you realize she has a skill and she’s really good. That’s what gets you through all those rough spots because you see really she’s just fallen from grace and you want her to be the person she was. That’s why you stick with her. I feel if we didn’t have that stuff in there, I think more people would’ve felt like they couldn’t deal with that character and they wouldn’t have felt like at the end that she really was going to be ok.
CK. You get the feeling that she’s just a character for whom plan A didn’t work out and that she doesn’t really have a plan B. She’s just kind of floundering and I think a lot of people can identify with that, especially in these times when things aren’t working out quite the way our parents told us they were going to.
PF: Totally. All the comedy aside, that’s one of the reasons I think we did so well, because it’s such a relatable story of somebody hurt by the economy and somebody hurt by bad relationships and bad choices. We’ve all been there. Kristen portrayed Annie in a way that was the funny version of us going through that, but always grounding it. That’s something I can’t drive home enough. The key to this movie, all the comedy and big set pieces aside, is the fact that you care about her.
At the same time, I wanted to see Kristen Wiig be Kristen Wiig. That airplane scene wasn’t in the original script, but I wanted her to do something where I could see the Kristen Wiig I love, so we get her drunk on the plane and it’s just balls to the wall Kristen Wiig being funny. So you get everything, but it’s also illustrating the point again that she fucked up. It wasn’t her fault, but she fucked up. It’s all in the service of the character and in service of the story, but it’s the funniest way to do it.
CK: That humanity and that grounding I think is what elevates Bridesmaids to the level of a movie that deserves to be in the awards conversation, but historically awards have been an uphill battle for comedies. Why do you suppose that is?
PF: Because comedy is not filmically showy, generally. The movies that tend to get really recognized are ones that are big important stories with very showy performances in them and showy visuals and camerawork and direction and a bigger scope. Though smaller ones like a Winter’s Bone or something catch on and that’s great because those are very real, but they’re very showy roles. The kind of comedy that I love to do is very grounded and real even though it has heightened moments to it. Because of that, it plays very effortless sometimes where you almost don’t give it the credit for how much work goes into making it that way. It’s successful because people say “that’s me and those are my friends and I recognize that world and I know that world” and that tends to seem easy and to not get as much recognition.
And I think too, the minute something is kind of crowd-pleasing in a comedic way, it feels less serious for people. I think we’re good enough to at least be considered in that world for the awards, but honestly most people could just point to the dress shop scene and go “Eh, see? You’re not a serious movie because someone shit in the sink and somebody threw up so it’s more like a crazy over the top comedy. ” I don’t have any defense of that other than to say, “Yeah, but it’s all in the service of the story.” It would be great if this amazing cast got recognition, but even if we can just start the process of legitimizing comedy a little bit more so that down the line it won’t be a big deal to get considered, then that would be great too.
CK: In this case, not just comedy, but comedy about women.
PF: Yeah, exactly. That’s still the most important thing to me because I want more movies like that. I want women to have more really good movies that portray them honestly. The scariest outcome of this movie, and I see it occasionally in some of the scripts I’m being sent now, is the lesson everyone is taking away that’s like, “Oh, if we get women and have them swear a lot and put them in outrageous situations and have really gross things happen and if we double that, we’ll get double the box office.” That’s not the take-away from this. The take-away has to be let them be honest and let them be funny the way women are in real life. That’s my only fear, that a bunch of women’s comedies come out that are outrageous and people will reject them and they’ll go, “See? They did it once but we can’t do these movies anymore.” There are so many funny women out there. We saw so many women who I would have loved to put in the movie, but we didn’t have enough roles. Half of them deserve to have their own projects or half of them deserve to be in those big ensembles. I just want to do more of those.
CK: You’ve done so many different things in the entertainment industry. You’ve acted, you’ve written, you’ve directed, you’ve done standup, you’ve been a show runner. What was the thing that originally drove you? Did you imagine yourself more in front of the camera or behind?
PF: I wanted to be Woody Allen. My goal was to write, direct and star in my own stuff. That was like my ultimate goal. That’s why I went to film school and everything. I did well as an actor. I made my living at it for 15 years, but I was always limited in what I could do. Also when you’re an actor you have this natural competition with other actors and you kind of shut out the talents of other people because you want their roles. The minute I let that go, I wanted to be in a job where I needed those people. I want to help them be their best. It’s so much fun because you almost become like a fan who gets to help their favorite performers. When people offer me an acting role, I love doing it, it’s so much fun, but there’s a satisfaction I get from getting to make sure that I guard performers I love and showing them in their best light. I’ve seen so many good performances killed by bad camera work or bad editing or just not capturing it right that I get more satisfaction over making that work. I get to be an actor who has a million different personalities and talents because I’m living through all these people and working with them. There’s nothing more thrilling than having an idea and giving it to an actor and they carry it out in such a great way and you’re like, “Holy shit! I didn’t even know that could actually be done!” I walk away like I’m on cloud nine, as if I’d given the performance.
CK: Do you find that your experiences as an actor have informed your ideas about directing?
PF: It’s the most important training I have. When I talk to people who want to be directors, I always say, “Take acting classes. Be in plays. Be in improv classes. Try to do stand up. Do anything to put yourself out there because that’s the only way you can realize how hard it is.” Acting is really hard because in order to be good you have to be so uninhibited and so exposed. That’s why I have to create those safe environments where you can be exposed and not then have somebody come up and punch you. That’s why I love working with actors. I get why so many of them are insecure and why some of them get a bad reputation because it’s all insecurity and it’s all fear and it’s all guarded and I’m asking a lot when I say, “I really want you to try something that you might not want to do,” because they’re the face out there. In the industry, they’ll blame the director or the writers for stuff, but out in the public, all they see is someone not being good. The actors are on the front line and I have a huge respect for that and a huge sympathy for that.
At the same time I want to keep people from guarding themselves too much by letting them know they can trust me. Only having been in it can you know what an actor goes through. I have no patience for directors who don’t like actors. When I was in film school it was very cool to hate actors. Everybody loved that Hitchcock story where Hitchcock is on a tower or something and there’s a guy way down there and he has to run toward camera and the guy’s like, “What’s my motivation?” and Hitchcock says, “I’ll tell you when you get here!” It’s very funny, but they took it like gospel. Like, “oh these actors with their motivation,” but I actually side with the actor. Even if the shot is crazy wide, somebody is still acting and it’s up to the director to help them out.