How the director behind Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy unlocks comedic brilliance

Paul Feig, the writer-director known for coaxing breakout performances from casts and crews, has useful tips for managing talent.

How the director behind Seth Rogen and Melissa McCarthy unlocks comedic brilliance
Paul Feig says that a director’s natural inclination is to control things when working with actors. He tries to do the opposite. [Photo: Radka Leitmeritz; Groomer: Helen Robertson at Celestine Agency using Emma Hardie]

From his late-’90s TV show Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Seth Rogen and James Franco, to female-driven comedies such as Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, which did the same for Melissa McCarthy, Paul Feig (pronounced Feeg) has demonstrated a knack for eliciting memorable breakout performances. His latest film, out this month, is the comedic whodunit A Simple Favor, which stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as feminist oddballs whose humor is laced with an ominous edge. As he gears up for his next producing projects—the women-in-the-workplace TV pilot Girls Code and the Netflix romantic comedy Someone Great, starring Gina Rodriguez—Feig shares his tips for unlocking creativity and creating a more balanced workforce.

Blake Lively in A Simple Favor [Photo: Peter Iobino/Lionsgate]

Get out of the way

To draw the best performances from his actors—and the most laughs for audiences—Feig creates a loose, almost free-for-all atmosphere on set. He eschews rehearsals and avoids telling actors what he envisions for a scene. “I set it up, and we just roll the cameras and go for it,” he says. “Because what’s in my head isn’t necessarily the best thing, and would limit [the actors].” With the plot-driven A Simple Favor, there was less room for the kind of improv that typically takes place on a Feig set, but the director made sure to let Kendrick play around physically. “She’s always throwing her arms out, putting her hands on her hips, and flapping her elbows around,” Feig says. “I wouldn’t know how to direct that. It’s not like I would go, ‘You know what you should actually do? Use your hands more!’ ”

The cast of the short-lived, much-loved Freaks and Geeks.

Make every person count

For Feig, even the most minor of characters is as important as a lead. He is adamantly against what he calls “they went that-a-way roles”—the kinds of perfunctory characters whose only function is to respond when one of the stars asks, “Where’d they go?” He cites Alfred Hitchcock as his inspiration: “A lot of his comedy came out of interactions with those secondary and third-ary, if you will, characters.” Indeed, Feig frequently casts comedians in seemingly inconsequential parts. Silicon Valley star Zach Woods has appeared in three of Feig’s films (in Spy, he was simply “Man in Purple Tie”). “Every time I put [Woods] in, he ends up improv’ing something,” Feig says. “So we’ll get, like, three extra jokes for a role that would normally just be a burnt-off” character.

Ditch your preconceptions

Feig says he owes his reputation for discovering quirky actors to “throwing the doors open wide” when he’s casting. “There’s a real predisposition to go, Okay it needs to be somebody in their early thirties who looks like this and has this ethnicity and [is] beautiful. And you just limit yourself so much,” he says. To fill out the cast of teenage misfits in Freaks and Geeks, Feig and producer Judd Apatow held open casting calls in Vancouver. One of their finds was Stephen Lea Sheppard, who played über-geek Harris. “I was just walking through the room to see if there was somebody who looked interesting, and I saw some weird kid with his head down and hair hanging in his face, reading a book in the corner.” Feig brought Sheppard in to read for a part and fell in love with the teen’s disaffected manner. Not only did Sheppard land a role, he became something of a muse. “We kept writing more and more stuff for him,” Feig says. “He’s all over the series.”

Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy on the set of The Heat.

Hold yourself accountable

Feig has proven to Hollywood that female-driven comedies can, in fact, be blockbusters, and even when they’re not (see: Ghostbusters), they can prompt important dialogue. But even he didn’t see the real-life gender-equality picture until a couple of years ago. “To be honest, I spent so much time concentrating on getting women in front of the camera that I haven’t been as good about getting them behind it,” he says, admitting that his mostly male crews have historically been made up of longtime friends and collaborators. Feig has since committed to using inclusion riders—a stipulation that at least 50% of a cast and crew be comprised of women and people of color—on all of his future TV and film productions to challenge what he calls the industry’s “default setting.” On Someone Great, all the department heads are female, as is the director, director of photography, and production designer. “We have to put our money where our mouth is,” he says.

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety