Features and Columns

6 Filmmaking Tips From Paul Feig

Advice from the comedy master behind ‘Freak and Geeks,’ ‘Bridesmaids,’ and ‘Spy.’
By  · Published on September 11th, 2018

After competing on the game show The $25,000 Dollar Pyramid with the intent of making enough money to pursue stand-up comedy full time and quit his day job — and succeeding — Paul Feig spent over a decade working as an actor before turning his attention behind the camera. He broke out in a major way as the creator of the short-lived but beloved cult series Freaks and Geeks and spent the 2000s building up an impressive resume as a TV director, working on such shows as Arrested Development30 RockMad MenParks and Recreation, and The Office.

In 2011, he struck Hollywood gold with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Bridesmaids, and since then he has established himself as a major name in big-screen comedy, following up his breakout comedy with back-to-back hits The Heat and Spy. With more than 30 years of industry experience as an actor, writer, director, and producer, Feig has plenty of great advice to share. The following are six of his best tips.

You’ve Got To Be Open

Speaking with Fast Company shortly before delivering the USC School of Cinematic Arts commencement speech back in 2016, Feig discussed the lessons he learned working on Freaks and Geeks. He admitted that early in his career he was quite strongly opposed to the idea of having his writing modified by others (“I didn’t want to let people come in and change my words”), but working with Freaks and Geeks executive producer Judd Apatow and pilot episode director Jake Kasdan quickly changed his perspective on things:

“It suddenly cracked me open to realize, ‘It’s so much better when you can get input from people you trust.’ To any up and comer I would say, ‘You’ve got to be open. Just be open. Have a strong opinion, make the work as strong as you can, but then find people you trust and listen to them.”

Paul Feig Spy

Dress To Impress

While Steven Speilberg and the “New Hollywood” generation redefined the typical director’s wardrobe as a jeans and t-shirt affair (baseball cap optional), Feig is a strong proponent of the more formal and traditional suited approach. While he has spokn of wearing suits on set as a gesture of respect for his cast and crew on multiple occasions, he revealed another worthy benefit to showing up to work in style in a 2011 interview with Esquire magazine:

“With a suit, even if you’re having a nervous breakdown, you still look like you’re in charge.”

Paul Feig Bridesmaids

Encourage Improv (With Limits)

Addressing the important role of improvisation in Bridesmaids in a 2011 interview with The AV Club, Feig noted a crucial caveat to successfully utilizing the technique:

“You need to know what a scene needs to get across, and what story point that needs to be advanced, whether it’s discovering someone for the first time or whether it’s seeing a relationship get strained. What I do as a director is really create a safe environment that everyone can feel very comfortable in and experiment within so that they don’t hold back anything. You never ever want someone to go, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have done that.’ There isn’t anything you shouldn’t try. If it’s terrible, who cares? I would never say something was terrible, because, first of all, it wasn’t. But even if sometimes you get off on a tangent you know you can’t use, you just steer it gently back and go, ‘Okay that’s cool, let’s try this now.’ It allows everyone to be at their best.”

Paul Feig Spy

Keep A Consistent Tone

While humor is highly subjective, Feig noted a key element that often separates winning comedies from the rest in a 2015 interview with Post magazine:

“The reason most comedies don’t work is that they don’t keep a consistent tone. Usually, people will abandon and jettison tone for the joke, and this film was particularly hard to do as we were always on a razor’s edge regarding the tone. If It’s a spy spoof and the villains are silly, then you’re not invested in it—and you can do that, but it has to be like ‘Austin Powers,’ which has a very consistent tone—it’s silly the whole way through and works brilliantly.”

Paul Feig Bridesmaids

Write Responsibly

Feig may be known for directing female ensemble comedies, but he’s still cognizant of the fact that he doesn’t know the female experience firsthand. While sticking to the “write what you know” approach is decidedly limiting, trying to craft stories and voices that embody other life experiences in a genuine, responsible way can be intimidating. The following piece of advice regarding character development, which Feig brought up in a recent Newsweek interview, is specific to being a man dealing with female characters, but the same basic idea (i.e. when in doubt, ask an expert) can be easily generalized:

“Respect your characters, and don’t be mean-spirited. Also, have women vet everything! There’s been plenty of times where the women in my cast, or my producing partner Jessie Henderson, will say, ‘Look, women wouldn’t do that.’ I say, ‘Awesome! Tell me how you WOULD do this?’”

Paul Feig Spy

Embrace Happy-ish Endings

Speaking with Stephen Saito for the IFC Channel’s website in 2011, Feig elaborated his thoughts on what makes for a good ending:

“I’m obsessed with the end of any romantic comedy [where] they’re happy and they kiss and everybody applauds, but I’ve been in enough relationships in my life to go like okay, but that changes five minutes after you stop kissing. That’s why to me the greatest ending for a movie like that ever is ‘The Graduate.’ The fact that, hey, they did this thing and then at the end, they look like, ‘What do we do now?’ That’s what life is all about. You want a happy ending, but not such a ridiculous happy ending that it doesn’t mean anything to anybody.”

What We Learned

Like many of the other filmmakers profiled for this column, Feig’s original ambitions weren’t necessarily focused behind the camera, but his work as a director is stronger for his experience in other roles. There’s a nearly overwhelming number of considerations to take into account in the making of a movie, from writing to casting to how to dress on set, but if there’s one theme that threads through all of Feig’s advice, it’s respect: respect your characters, respect your cast, respect your crew—and, of course, don’t forget to have a good time.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.