He may have a lot of successes to his name, but make no mistake: Paul Feig’s career was forged in failure.
As an actor, his part got cut out of Sabrina the Teenage Witch just after the show became a hit. As a creator, his high school dramedy, Freaks and Geeks, was famously canceled after one low-rated season, despite glowing critical and fan reception. While some degree of failure is expected in volatile Hollywood, what matters is how one responds to it.
In the case of Paul Feig, he responded to losing the Sabrina gig by writing and directing his first feature film, Life Sold Separately, which eventually led to a relationship with Judd Apatow and the creation of Freaks and Geeks. And when Freaks and Geeks got canceled, Feig developed other projects and put in work directing TV shows until he eventually got the opportunity to helm Bridesmaids. The rest, as they say, is history. Now, Feig’s future is coming into focus.
The filmmaker’s latest feature, A Simple Favor, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, is his biggest departure yet. Although Feig’s comedic fingerprints are still visible, this project is more of a funky thriller, deeply indebted to Hitchcockian noir. (Kendrick and Lively play two very different moms, connected only through chaperoning duties, whose lives are forever changed once Lively goes missing.) Feig stopped by Fast Company HQ to talk about his new film, in the video below. He also offered five tips on creativity that he has learned the hard way over the course of his career.
1. You’re not Shakespeare
“The biggest learning curve of having your own show that you wrote is that I was very much kind of a control freak when I came into it,” Feig says. “The network basically said, ‘We love it so much as is, don’t change a thing,’ which is every writer’s dream. So I was walking around like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever. I’m a genius.’ Then as we started working, Judd Apatow said, ‘Alright, let’s tear the script apart.’ And I was like ‘Whoa, whoa, the network said not to touch it.’ Judd said, ‘Let’s just do it. We can only make it better.’ He was a disciple of Garry Shandling’s, and Garry Shandling’s feeling was always, ‘Be hard on something. And if it doesn’t work, you have the old script.’ So we went through two weeks of absolute hell. But as we were tearing the script apart and I was rewriting it, it was getting better and better. So what I got from that was realizing: just don’t be religious about this stuff. One of the things I always keep in my office is a bust of Shakespeare to remind me that I’m not Shakespeare, nobody I work with is Shakespeare. We can change the words.”
2. Bounce back from any major setback by plowing forward
“You absorb [a failure], and it can take you down or you can say, ‘What’s the next thing?'” Feig says. “The good thing was Freaks and Geeks was so well-respected and reviewed, a lot of networks wanted my next idea. So at least I was able to go out and pitch the new thing. You just have to keep on trying. Because after my first follow-up project didn’t get made, I was just pitching a lot of TV shows. Everybody wanted my voice, but they didn’t necessarily want what I was bringing them. But you just have to persevere. In the middle of all that, I had directed the last episode of Freaks and Geeks, and the line producer on the show ended up on Arrested Development. He told me, ‘They really like you over here, if you want to come direct an episode.’ And I was able to then transition into TV directing while always still writing. The way to bounce back from any major setback like that is to plow forward. Because if it does knock you out of it and knock away your ambition, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Every successful person I know in show business or any other business is just driven, driven, driven, and won’t take no for an answer.”
3. Know when to walk away
“I would rather have 18 episodes of a show I’m really proud of than five seasons of a compromised product,” Feig says. “I finally had a hit movie with Bridesmaids, and just like with your first novel that does well, it’s that sophomore effort that’s terrifying because you know what worked for you. I struggled for a bit. I was actually on one other movie that I was going to do. I was living in London developing it for a number of months in the aftermath of Bridesmaids. And it just wasn’t working, and I was too nervous again about having whatever I was gonna put out next not be up to the same level of quality. And so I actually left the project and I found myself without another movie. I was trying to write and figure out what I was gonna do, but I was actually floundering a bit–needing that perfect vehicle. It was just out of the blue that I then got [Katie Dippold’s] script that became The Heat.”
4. Be open to the creativity of other people
“The only pressure I felt while making Spy was about getting the story right and making sure it worked as an actual spy drama that we could also make funny,” Feig says. “But I was working with such talented people that I just vet everybody–especially the women I work with. I’d say, ‘Just make this as honest and fun as you can.’ I’m still a guy. I’m writing dialogue for you. I want to make sure I’m not writing a guy’s version of what a woman would say. And all the women I work with are so great at saying, ‘Oh, it’s actually this,’ or, ‘I don’t know if we’d say that.’ And it’s such a great collaboration that way. My biggest angst is just making sure I get the script right so that what we’re making can be made better by these talented people.”
5. Lean into the darkness
“I’ve never been afraid of going dark,” Feig says. “If you look at most of my movies other than Ghostbusters, they’re R-rated. It’s not because they have nudity and sex all over them–it’s because I want them to be honest. I want them to have swearing, because that’s how people really talk in real life. And if I need to have something that’s kind of violent or gory or off-putting, I want that in there because it raises the stakes. It makes the situation more real if there’s real danger there. Making a thriller is just an extension of that. But you need more dark elements to make that story real. I didn’t necessarily set out to make a dark project, but once I got the script, I realized that to be true to a thriller, it needed to have this darkness, and I just found it absolutely delightful to play with that.”