There’s not a single mean-spirited bone in Paul Feig‘s Bridesmaids. This is a rare comedy, in the sense of how sweet and clearly in love the director and cast are with its characters. This is a film about genuinely good people who make terrible, but understandable, mistakes. Whenever the tone skirts towards taking a mean turn, Feig reverts back to honesty and realism. The writer-director is no stranger to that type of grounded comedy; just look at his cult classic show Freaks and Geeks.
The only character that many will find despicable is one: Ted (played by Jon Hamm). Ted is that moronic jock who thinks he can take and have whatever he wants. Nearly every other line he says reeks of an idiot, and yet he’s still oddly likable. Someone so narcissistic should never be this charming.
Here’s what the friendly and talkative Paul Feig had to say about mean-spirited comedy, shooting comedic sex, and having characters talk like real people:
To start off, could you talk about the decision of making the film a little more kind-hearted than mean-spirited?
It’s the way we all see the world; Kristin [Wiig], Annie [Mumolo], Judd [Apatow] and I. It seems like a lot of these types of movies seem to suffer because they’re so ramped up that they have fighting all the time. I don’t find that pleasant and I don’t find that funny, really; it’s people acting in ways that I don’t even believe. I just like fun stories. You want to invest in these characters and you want to sit with them for two hours in a theater.
You’re sitting around with your friends and someone tells a story of something terrible — not tragic, but bad, funny, or embarrassing — and you laugh all the harder because you know that person and you like that person. You know how that person usually is, so you invest in them. It becomes funnier for you thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you went through that!” I think that’s how we all face comedy, it needs to come from a very real place. There just aren’t that many high stakes, tempers running high, or people screaming at each other moments we get into in our lives. If you do, it’s exhausting [Laughs]. We don’t want them fighting all the time, because that feels very boring.
I feel like for a long time comedy got like, “Look at this crazy, stupid character. Let’s all laugh at him!” I’m too sensitive, since I grew up as a geek and was tormented by bullies. I don’t like laughing at people, and I like to laugh with them. I love Annie’s character, and I feel for everything she’s going through, and that’s what pulls you through. Just like Freaks and Geeks, we just face them all that way.
It’s nice to humanize people. What I don’t respond to is arch characters that are just bad to be bad. Everybody has a motivation. The worst guy in the world has a motivation, and it makes sense to them. All characters are kind of that way. The character of Helen can’t be one of those cartoon villains who’s just a bitch, because we’ve seen that too many times. Also, where’s the fun in that? How do you rehabilitate that character?
You always want to try to rehabilitate people, but in a movie if what they’re doing is so terrible and hard, then it just comes off dumb and you won’t believe it. It’s just keeping it real.
Do you think Ted has a motivation for being such a dick?
[Laughs] Yeah, because he’s the handsomest man on the planet and he doesn’t need anything. He’s one of these guys that just needs ladies around. Whenever he does something mean, he always kisses you first. He’ll snuggle and all, but then he’ll deliver the news of “get out” or “I don’t want a relationship” [Laughs]. Ted is not a monster. He knows what he wants and he thinks he’s doing it the right way, and I find that very fun.
[Laughs] He did give her a ride.
Exactly, he picked her up [Laughs]. He was just expecting payment, but he couldn’t believe she wouldn’t go along with it. That’s classic Ted logic right there [Laughs].
Was it an idea already in the script to have Ted be incredibly un-smooth?
[Laughs] That’s Jon Hamm. He’s one of my favorite people in the world because he’s this incredibly handsome man, but he’s a total goofball. He’s a comedy nerd. He loves comedy and he can quote us under the table, and we’re the kings of being able to quote comedy. He’s gregarious and goofy, in a fun way. He just overtook the character. So many times it’s about how the actor interprets stuff. First of all, we knew it was going to be him, so we were writing towards him. But he improved a bunch of that stuff and we were on the set just throwing him jokes, and it was just the way he would deliver them that would make them so fun.
We also had him do them in meaner ways. In the first screening we did, his first scene was a much meaner scene. He was really trying to get her out while she’s trying to stay in bed, and even Kristen was worried about that when we were putting it together. She was worried about what point she would become pathetic.
We thought the scene was really funny and we showed it to some of our hipster friends who thought it was funny, but then we showed it to an audience and they didn’t laugh. I think it was because that they like Kristen so much that it was not fun for them to watch a guy be mean to her. We were able to take other takes we did with it and cut together a very passive-aggressive version.
Even when she’s having sex with him, he’s so unappealing.
It’s us having fun with the idea of if a guy’s that handsome, he doesn’t have to be that good in bed. And I love the fact he thinks he’s great [Laughs]! He’s just flopping around.
There’s obviously a lot of deleted scenes from the ads, but I noticed a few bits from the sex scene that didn’t make it in. When you’re shooting a scene like that, do you shoot a large amount of positions?
You have no idea how much we shot for that scene [Laughs]. All of what was in the script is that they were in multiple positions and there were some funny lines in there, but we just knew we were going to free-form it on the day. Our crew had a camera-crane and when they asked what we wanted to do, they quickly choreographed it like a fight scene. With a half hour rehearsal, we slowly built this five-minute sex scene that I had the camera going up and over them for. They were just really going for it. There’s so many ways we could have cut that scene. Actually, on the DVD, there’s an extended sex scene that is extremely funny.
I think we probably went through about 15 positions – you’ll see the outtakes of it. You can only get that if you have two cool, comfortable and funny actors doing it. I’d be hard-pressed to think of two people who would go for it completely and so comfortably.
I’d say the only part that comes close to being malicious or mean-spirited is the relationship early on between Helen and Annie. Was there a lot of discussion about how far that rivalry could be pushed?
Well, it all boils down to us wanting to make sure we weren’t doing something that felt arch or stuff we’ve seen before. We’ve seen women before at odds with each other in these kinds of comedies. I think it was a litmus test for what would really happen and how far would they really go after each other. For us, the comedy is always what people aren’t saying. I think that’s the difference between a “guy” comedy and a “girl” comedy about guys and girls.
Guys are very confrontational, and that’s why you can have these hilarious runs, like in Judd’s movies, of Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd calling each other all kinds of names. In general, that’s not how women interact. They can talk super dirty and be really honest with you, but it’s not the verbal equivalent of a punching contest; it’s more like everyone trying to get along. Everyone knows who doesn’t like who, but rarely are they at odds and fighting with each other. It’s more of everyone trying to be cool and putting on a game face, but then they go off with other friends and discuss it on the down-low.
Kristen, Annie, and all the women on the set were helping us out on whether or not something was too big. Actually, I was pushing really hard for it not being confrontational at all, but they would tell me that, in this situation, Annie would take Helen on or that there’d be more back and forth.
When you think about it, they don’t really get in a fight at all. Annie is the only one who blows up, and Helen just takes it. Helen also knows Annie blowing up is good for her, because it’s her way of showing Lillian that her friend is crazy. She sees Annie as a toxic friend holding Lillian back, and in her own passive-aggressive way, she’s trying to move Annie out of Lillian’s life. Again, it comes back to a very grounded, real motivation for Helen. She’s just not being evil or trying to fuck over her friend — if she was, then we’d ask why she’d be doing that. There has to be a reason why she would be doing that.
Would you say it’s a constant battle of finding that balance in the editing room?
Yeah, that’s where it all comes to roost. I’ll tell you, the very first scene we meet Helen and she comes over and talks, we shot tons of stuff with them. It would be her trying to relate to Annie, but not even saying mean things. There’s a million different versions of it. At the end of the day, they’re about to have this speech contest where they’re trying to one up each other. If Helen showed all her cards in her intro, then it’s not going to be as fun as when we see it slowly building in the speeches scene. Everyone at the studio had jokes they loved in that first scene, but we just decided that it was hurting the next scene. We kept enough Helen things where you’re thinking: Is that weird or not? You can’t tell whether or not what she says is a compliment or a slam.
That’s what we always liked about Helen: You don’t know if she’s slamming you. It made it about Annie going through a problem, Annie being a mess, and Annie focusing on Helen so much. If we had a scene of Helen saying she’s going to steal Lillian from Helen, then everything is arch and no fun. Since the movie is from Annie’s point of view, it’s much more fun thinking whether or not that person’s an asshole or not [Laughs].
I know you probably get asked about improv a lot, but do you see that process as being important not only to have a lot of options, but also when it comes to finding a realistic spontaneity in the humor?
Very much so. We had a great script going in, but when we’d cast these women, we’d have these improv rehearsals. Out of these improv rehearsals would come these hilarious lines the girls would pull off, so we would write those down and put them in the script. When we went back and rehearsed the next time, even though they’re very talented and very funny, it was never quite as funny as the first time it came out. We always have those on backup and use them, but I’m just obsessed with trying to have stuff the first time, and that’s why we cross shoot everything.
Cinematographers hate that, because they have to light two people at the same time and they feel as if they can’t do as nice of work. I’ve had enough incidences in my career where we’d be doing in an improv situation, but I’m only shooting from one side of the conversation and you would just lose a golden moment if a person that is off-camera gives some hilarious retort or reaction. By the time you turn things around, relight everything, and ask them to do that line again an hour later, it’s never as funny.
For me, shooting and directing comedy is all about capturing lightning in a bottle. You want to get that first time when it happens. It’s a great compliment that you said that, because that’s exactly what I want: That moment where you think something felt real, because that makes it ten times funnier.
If it’s not jokey or overwritten — that’s my problem with so many romantic comedies. They feel so written, and the lines aren’t even natural. When you’re typing at your computer, you get very clever. You think that you found such a great or clever wording – and that’s cool and I have no problem with that – but sometimes it distances you. Sometimes the best actor in the world can’t pull off those types of lines. The history is full of those lines where you think, “Who talks like that?” I just don’t find clever people that funny. We’re blurters; humans are blurters, and that’s why we get in trouble.
Bridesmaids hits DVD and Blu-Ray on September 20th.