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How Paul Feig Busted Genres And Activated Melissa McCarthy In “Spy”

The director–and writer–of Spy talks to us about the challenges of making a comedy that’s still death-defying, and shooting his favorite scene ever.

How Paul Feig Busted Genres And Activated Melissa McCarthy In “Spy”
[Photos: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Pictures]

Seeing a film through from idea to viable entertainment property is never exactly easy.

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But with his latest film, Paul Feig assigned himself a project with an almost absurdly high difficulty level. Out of the gate, he faced the daunting task of following up the success of back-to-back hits Bridesmaids and The Heat. And with his chosen project, Spy, in theaters June 5, Feig had to satisfy two very distinct briefs: making an action-packed spy thriller and making a big comedy. Each had to deliver on the promises of its genre, and the two had to cohere into one narrative unit. He also chose to write the film as well as direct (Bridesmaids was written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig and The Heat by Katie Dippold, who will also co-write Feig’s upcoming Ghostbusters remake). Oh, and while he was at it, why not throw in a message of female empowerment that feels organic in both action and comedy modes.

Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response–Spy stands at a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes–Feig cleared the bar without putting so much as a wrinkle in his trademark killer suit.

Spy sees Feig reunited with collaborator Melissa McCarthy, who stole scenes in Bridesmaids and shared billing with Sandra Bullock in the buddy cop comedy The Heat. Here, McCarthy has the lead as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who acts as the invisible, in-earpiece advisor to agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). While Cooper is a desk-bound analyst lacking all spy-like attitude (her mother’s childhood advice, recounted to a coworker, ranged from “blend in, let someone else win” to “give up on your dreams”), the suave, oblivious Fine is straight from the Bond catalog. When things go wrong for Fine in the field though, and other agents become compromised, Cooper becomes the agency’s only option. She steps up and into an international mission to find villain Rayna Boyanov (a sublime Rose Byrne) and a rogue nuke.

Paul FeigPhoto: Larry Horricks, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Pictures

The plot sounds like straightforward spy fare. But Feig cleverly tweaks the format and characters, adding delightful layers instead of descending into dopey parody. Cooper is an unexpected spy, but in unexpected ways. That is, Feig doesn’t just paint a bumbling fish out of water. She may be in over her head, but as we learn in the film when her boss (Allison Janney) shows an old academy training video, she’s actually a fearsome fighter. She’s mousy and unassuming, and she’s given a comically unglamorous fake identity, but she also becomes the object of crazed sexual obsession of an Italian agent named Aldo (played with abandon by Peter Serafinowicz). McCarthy gets to inhabit the many facets of a multi-dimensional character, as Cooper journeys from desk-jockey to deadly field agent, in between improvising spy maneuvers and holding her own (mostly) in chases and even a thrilling extended knife fight with an enemy female agent.

And Feig has created more than a handful of meaty supporting roles–Serafinowicz, Byrne, Law, and Janney are just four of the notable co-stars here, along with Miranda Hart, who plays Cooper’s best friend, and Jason Statham who’s earned some strong reviews for his comic portrayal of Rick Ford, a cartoonishly macho spy whose exploits are trumped only by his unending monologues about them (look for Feig himself in a cameo).

But the film is at its best when Byrne’s uber-bitchy Euro villain and a field-toughened McCarthy are facing off. Those scenes, hilarious and hair-curlingly profane, show that Feig doesn’t need two women to be buddies to mine the magic in their relationship.

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Here, we talk to the Feig about writing across genres, creating a new kind of Spy that’s just like us, and McCarthy’s gift for pupil-dilating insults.

Co.Create: You’ve said before that you had it in your mind to make a female James Bond movie. As a writer, how did you congeal that into a script–what was your starting place?

Feig: I wanted to just make sure that it was a relatable story, not a story of somebody who’s a machine but where it’s more a matter of asking: If any of us who wanted to do something in life that we weren’t allowed to do and suddenly we got to do it, how would it go? She was somebody who wanted to do this but she got convinced that she couldn’t because Jude Law’s character manipulated her into being in his earpiece and then suddenly gets this opportunity but her skills are long dormant.

Like everything I write, I kinda go, “what would I do?” Because I haven’t been in that world and I would be afraid to be out there. So you really just kind of logically go and set up a situation and then say how would I deal with that, set up a situation, how would I deal with that, and so on.

And I also did a lot of research into male versus female spies and what I kept finding were these things where they basically said that women make better spies than men just because of the ability to interact and about gain trust, and be in touch with human emotions, where guys tend to be more about brawn and all that.

It was really just trying to be true to that idea and then trying to figure out where can the comedy come from that’s not silly but out of these real situations.

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It’s an action packed comedy–with serious chase scenes and fight scenes. Did you feel like you were operating in a kind of left brain / right brain way when you were writing–switching back and forth on two very different things?

Yeah, weirdly I had to unify that because what I didn’t want is a bunch of kick-ass action scenes that didn’t have any humor in them, but at the same time you don’t want a silly action scene because then the stakes fall out.

(I looked for) ways of finding how to make this funny without subverting it. Like, when she throws up on the body (after throwing an enemy agent off a roof)–it’s like to me that feels like a very real thing. She’s got this instinct to be able to beat him up and when she accidentally pushes him off the roof, it was, well, what’s the aftermath for a normal person like us? If we did that and, oh my god, you saw you impaled someone, yeah the odds are you would throw up.

Some people would call that broad but to me it’s only broad in the sense that it’s a big event. To me it’s a completely real event that’s just pushed to the edge. And that’s what I find funny because, if the audience goes like “well that’s stupid,” then we’ve lost the audience.

It was interesting to see Melissa, who obviously has a gift for physical comedy, translating it into more serious fighting scenes and things like that.

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Well it was really important to me to get her doing that because she’s such a good physical comedian, she’s almost athletic in that way. And I wanted Susan to be kicking ass but at the same time I didn’t want it to be where she could beat up 400-pound guys and things like that.

So the knife fight is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done on film because to me it feels very real. The first half is just about “get away from me, get away from me,” and then she finds her mojo a little bit and then kind of gets empowered from it. We see what she can do because we’d seen in the beginning when we see that old training video that she had these skills that went dormant. To me that’s just a fun, funny way to see (the fight) because there’s just the comedy of a funny person being like, oh my god, this is not fake-y peril, this is like somebody’s got a knife and they’re gonna kill me. But then the way she’s blocking, you get the joke in that, which is Jackie Chan-inspired.


Did a lot of training go into that?

She worked with a fight choreographer for a week before she came out. That’s the very first thing that she shot in the movie was that big, two-day fight scene. She’s very in control of her instrument as they say in the acting business.

Because this is such a familiar genre, how did you balance using the tropes and adding something new? The story unfolds in a fresh way.

I think the key to that is having come up with a character who is out for the first time because that is what allowed me to take those turns that are unexpected. Because literally, when you see a spy movie you go “okay well, they do this next.” And it’s like well wait, would they? Or is that because I’ve seen that a bunch of times?

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So it’s easier to go, okay this person who has never been out doing this before and who is undervalued by everybody and she’s not sure if she can do it, how does that person deal with a situation? And so it’s it’s very intuitive to go, wait what would really happen? What would you do? And so all you can fall back on is what we would do.

And so that’s why as a writer you have to be an actor. You have to be able to put yourself in shades of your own head–what is the scared version of me, what is the cool version of me, what is the insecure version of me? And then you have to switch on those modes and go, what would I do if I was that person, what would I do as that person? And that’s when you get these turns that are unexpected because you’re not just going well let’s do that because they always do that.

But it’s hard and you really have to be vigilant as you write to make sure you’re calling yourself on stuff. And then also empowering the people that you work with also to call you on that stuff too and the actors that you work with. Plenty of times Melissa’s like, I don’t think I would do that. And it’s like, oh cool, well how would you do it or what would you do? I’d do this. Great. Let’s figure out the best way to do that.

Speaking of that, how much was improv? You’ve talked in the past about not wanting things to seem too written down, and leaving things open, especially working with actors like these.

There’s a good amount of improv and alt joke writing. I always have at least one extra writer on set with me with a post-it pad–they’re just writing jokes as they think of them and handing them to me and if I like it I’ll call it in. And I come up with ideas and I set them loose and let Melissa do her thing. A lot of time improv just means changing the wording, it doesn’t mean like go off on a complete tangent. And that’s what Melissa is really great at, just taking these little twists and just making them their own.

I just had that recently with a script we were reading and it’s, I mean it reads like a dream, it was so funny. And then we sit down with the people and they read it and it reads fine but you’re still kinda like yeah but it’s still–there’s no life in it right now because it’s still just lines on a page. But then you can’t wait to get that to the set because then when we let (the actors) start molding it then it’s gonna get really funny. So as long as you’ve got that solid, solid blueprint base then you play off that.

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But the worst thing you can do is go in and go ‘these are my words, don’t mess with them.’ And there’s plenty of people that do great work that way but it’s just a different tone they’re going for.

Some of the crude banter between Melissa and Rose is just–I laughed out loud at one particular line. (Readers, we won’t spoil it for you, and it probably doesn’t translate when taken offscreen, but it happens during a plane ride and all you need to know is that it’s unbelievably profane and funny.) I just have to know, how did that moment come about?

That was, that’s such a funny line. That was an improv that Melissa came up with. She’s very funny because I’ll push her, I’ll go, like you should really slam into that or really make that a point. And so my favorite moment is she’ll start a line and she’ll go, “Oh, I can’t say that!” And I’m always like, “Say it, whatever you weren’t gonna say, you’ve gotta. You’ve gotta say it.”

That was one of those ones. She started to say it and she started to laugh and she was like I can’t, it’s too mean. And I said, “I’ll kill you if you don’t say it.” And she did and that was, that came out and that was the only time she did it and it was like, oh my god, it’s one of the most perfectly crafted jokes I’ve ever heard.

Did you have Melissa in mind when you first started with this?

Not when I first wrote it, no, because I didn’t think she was available. She was doing Mike and Molly and I was originally going to shoot it in the fall when she was busy so I kind of wrote it just for a funny everywoman type because there are so many funny women that I’m dying to work with. But when she read it and decided she wanted to do it, we didn’t really have to adjust too much just because, I mean all the women I know who are funny are very just sweet, normal people, you know? Kristen and Melissa and Amy Poehler, everybody I know, they’re really just pleasant people. So I think I wrote it just like oh I’ll just write it the way these people really are and then they have to go into a situation where they have to be tough, they have to play different roles.

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And so it really just fit into who Melissa really is. And then I got really excited about the idea because, you know there’s this shitty thing about comedy in general and especially for women in comedy. Like when The Heat was coming out I saw so many reporters on the news saying, “well I mean doesn’t she just do the same thing all the time? She’s just being mean.” And I was like, first of all, well fuck you, every male comedy star, they have the kind of the same thing they do; we all do shades of what we do, we have some things that make us funny.

So then I thought, oh well, this is a great opportunity to go, okay, she’s going to be funny in a completely different character, this meek person who then has to kind of pretend that she’s tough but she’s really not tough, she’s just acting it out because she has to, to be good at her job. And so I got really excited about that because it was like oh good, I’m going to show people that she can be funny as a meek person.

And she’s so funny as just Susan Cooper before she snaps into Amber Valentine (her made-up alter ego) and she’s swearing up a storm. She’s hilarious when she’s chasing the bad guy through France and dealing with Jason Statham. It’s fun to see her that way. It’s all her awakening.

Was the Jason Statham character, the exaggerating spy, a poke at something?

Oh, it built slowly. I always wrote the role for Statham but, I go for this George Bernard Shaw quote which is “all men mean well.” So I never want characters to just be an asshole because they’re an asshole. I like the idea that his character probably is a great spy but because he gets so thrown by the fact that they’re putting somebody who he considers to be a secretary out in his job, he quits, so now he doesn’t have his earpiece girl in his ear and so he’s off his game a little bit and he’s starting to make really bad decisions.

And it was really Katie (Dippold) who was doing some punch up on the script who was the one who first wrote some really absurd lines that he would say and then we just kind of went like, oh my god, that’s so funny. Ironically when Jason was gonna do the movie, he was the most nervous about those speeches because they were very long and wordy and he was kinda like “I don’t know, that’s not quite how I talk.” I said “just try it.”

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And so the first time we had a read through and he just read them, we were like, oh my god. Melissa and I were in the room with him and it was like this is the greatest thing ever. It was the fastest rehearsal ever because he came in and just read them and I was like, I don’t want to rehearse anymore, let’s not do anything. Come to the set and we’re gonna do this now.

And then it just became the most fun thing on the set just writing more absurd things for him to say. And he would just commit to them hardcore. I mean half those jokes are written on the set and it’s him being such an amazing guy and an actor that he just went for it and sold them dead serious.

You’ve also talked in the past how, and it’s something that I think would surprise people, about how much you use testing. Did you do that for this movie?

Oh yeah.

What did you learn? Were there any surprises?

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I mean, we do it just to make sure that everything is working as we go along and we started early in the process here. We did nine or ten of them over the course of several months because every time we show it we’re adjusting something or changing something.

The biggest surprise for me, and this sounds terrible now, is that it worked (laughs). Because, no, I was convinced it would work but at the same time when we put together our first version of it I just had all these moments. I remember saying to my editor, is this going to work or is this going to bomb?

But the very first screening was like a rock concert. From that very first moment when (Fine) sneezes and shoots (the bad guy), the place went crazy. But you didn’t know, because tonally we were on this razor’s edge where you’re like is it too subtle? And that sounds ridiculous because there are such big things in it but it was just a question of, is this just a tough tone to pull off? So I think that was just the biggest thing because we scored a ninety-two on our first screening, which is fairly unheard of.


Did you feel that when you were writing? Trying to find the tone, or going back and forth?

No. I was really convinced that I knew exactly what it was. I was really confident about it. It was only when you just put it together and you sit back and it’s all in front of you and you’re like okay this is exactly what I said I was gonna do, so, if this doesn’t work.

But, i’s just fun. I like scope, I like entertaining an audience. I’m really into it for the escapism part of it. I want to tell stories that mean something to people and where people engage in the characters but I also want them to come in and, I want my movies to be like a party, like just have fun, even if it’s intense or violent or you can still walk in and go that was fun, I had a good time. That’s all I care about.

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So do you see a franchise in this a la Bond?

I hope so, yeah, yeah. Just ’cause I love the world, I love the character and I just love having something where I can have her in, a nice setting. I love travel, I love style, I love everything. So it’s one of these things that now we can go to these international locations but to do it through a person who, every time they go somewhere is like oh this is really cool versus like a jaded spy showing up like I don’t care about this. I love her character because there is still an element of a Midwestern tourist of like, oh my god, I can’t believe I’m here. And then you have to stay on point. I think that’s fun ’cause that’s me every time I go anywhere.

About the author

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Co.Create. She was previously the editor of Advertising Age’s Creativity, covering all things creative in the brand world.

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