Paul Feig Wades Into the Gender Wars With His Ghostbusters Reboot

UNICODE Photo: Emily Shur

The Los Angeles sound studio where Ghostbusters director Paul Feig is making final tweaks to the most divisive movie reboot in recent memory could double as a fanboy’s lair. A neon sign of the Ghostbusters logo glows from the back wall. Sound technicians are hunched over mixing boards in well-worn no-ghosts T-shirts. Action figures of Feig’s quartet of lady Ghostbusters — Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon — are perched on tabletops, proton packs at the ready. And in the middle stands Feig, offering me a juice box of ghoulishly green Hi-C Ecto Cooler. “If you like sugar, you’ll love the Ecto Cooler!” he says. The drink, too, is a reboot, originally released as a tie-in to 1986’s The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, which, of course, arose from the beloved 1984 comedy-sci-fi blockbuster that taught a generation to fear marshmallows. It was brought back after lobbying from nostalgic fans and initially sold out, though you could buy it from profiteers on Amazon at $130 for a 12-pack. 

Today, a little more than six weeks before Ghostbusters’ July 15 opening date, Feig is in good spirits, mostly because the kind of devotion that compels people to buy novelty juice packs has, per the results of test screenings in Arizona and California, been rewarded with an entertaining movie. “Women are giving crazy-high scores, and men are almost as high,” says Feig. “That’s all I care about, the true reaction.”

As we’re talking, Ivan Reitman, the director of the original Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II and a producer on the reboot, stops by to tell Feig about another screening, this one for some of the stars of the original: Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray, who was famously allergic to all attempts — and there were many — to make a third Ghostbusters movie. (Founding Ghostbuster Harold Ramis died in 2014.)

“I wanted to tell you: The guys loved the movie,” says Reitman. “Bill really liked it.”

“Oh, he did?” says Feig. “What a relief. I wasn’t able to go to that screening, and part of me was like, I don’t want to go, because I couldn’t sit in there with them. It’s too nerve-racking.”

“It’s too scary!” says Reitman. “Anyway, I smell it turning around.”

The “it” that Reitman is referring to would be the two years of internet hate that’s had Feig feeling under siege ever since he announced he’d be rebooting the franchise, complete with a new backstory and four female leads. All the movies that Feig has previously directed have been original stories, including his hits Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, but this is the first time he’s worked from what Hollywood calls “existing IP,” property that turned out to have a particularly vocal fan base of cyber-knuckle-draggers. In 2014, he tweeted that he’d be directing the all-lady cast. “The first wave of reactions was ‘Oh my God! This is the best thing ever!’ ” he says. But a day later, “the second wave was, ‘How dare you make this with women?’ I mean, straight-up misogyny. ‘Hope you die under a bus and taste your own blood.’ Stuff like that. And you’re like, ‘I was just going to make a comedy about ghosts!’ ”

Feig certainly isn’t the first person to reboot an iconic cultural artifact, but to lump Ghostbusters in with, say, Planet of the Apes is to discount just how huge it loomed in the Zeitgeist of its time. “What people forget,” says Reitman, “is that Ghostbusters, a movie that nobody was talking about prior to its release, ended up being No. 1 almost all summer.” Ray Parker Jr.’s movie theme song, with it’s “Who ya gonna call?” refrain, topped the Billboard Hot 100. The tie-in toys were everywhere. Then came the Saturday-morning cartoon. As a 6-year-old girl in 1984, I personally spent every day after school for at least a year running around a playground pretending to fight imaginary specters. This was a movie that defined childhoods, that inspired comedy careers, and that some men, it seems, feel belongs only to them. “I didn’t realize that for certain older guys, the original Ghostbusters is the equivalent of a tree house that has the no girls allowed sign on it,” says Feig. “And I think they look at me as the guy who came up, took the sign, lit it on fire, and then painted the inside of the tree house pink.”

Reitman tells me that the vitriol has him confused, too. Casting the original movie, he says, “There wasn’t even a thought about gender. It was just, ‘These guys are all funny. We’re going to do it.’ I never thought it was male-exclusive. None of us did.”

Whoever these haters are, they’re organized, and they’ve already launched a successful campaign to make the movie’s trailer the most disliked in YouTube history. “Look, if you want to take something down, that’s a brilliant way to do it,” says Feig. But the 906,000 YouTube jeers hardly seem significant, given the admittedly underwhelming trailer’s 34 million total views, and it’s tough to imagine the outcry actually hurting the movie’s box-office potential in any real way. “We have to remember there are like 13 people who are very vocal,” says McCarthy of the online antagonists, “and I hope they get a friend, or a hobby, or at least come out of their mother’s basement.”

To be fair, the trolls have been picking at some low-hanging sour PR fruit. There was an early email of Feig’s, leaked in the Sony hack, in which he called his take “a billion dollar idea” and promised “ghost aliens.” (That’s been scrapped.) And there was also a leak about Sony simultaneously developing a presumably all-male Ghostbusters with Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt. “I don’t know where that came from,” Feig says of the latter. “But somebody thought, Let’s say, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a guys’ one coming.’ Which is insulting to womankind.” And then there were ads during the NBA Finals featuring Kobe Bryant, Spike Lee, and Carmelo Anthony as Ghostbusters — but none of the film’s actresses, prompting speculation that the studio was so worried about getting men to the theater that they were willing to trick them into thinking the movie doesn’t star women.

The smart move would be to disengage from the chatter, but that goes against Feig’s desire for discourse. He didn’t block anyone on Twitter for a year and a half, and the only time he really lost it was when he got wine-drunk on vacation in Capri with his wife, Laurie, a former talent manager, and told one of his most persistent harassers to “go fuck yourself.” “I sent it and I felt so good,” says Feig. “And then, when I was in bed that night, I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ ”

Now he constantly has to explain that he doesn’t think all people who are against his movie are women-haters. Nor does he believe the geek community is full of assholes (which he did say, but in a different, benign context). Even today, as he fine-tunes the audio for an epic Times Square ghost battle orchestrated by a megalomaniac who’s possessed the body of the Ghostbusters’ hunky receptionist (played by Chris Hemsworth), Feig can’t escape his own, not-so-private war. He glances at his phone, and there it is again.

“A new one,” he says, sighing. “There’s a website, Scified, that hammers me.” He opens the link and reads aloud: “ ‘From its conceptualization, this movie was intended to offend …’ ”

“Okay,” he says sarcastically, “that was my intention.”

The pop-culture-loving outcasts of America ought to know by now that Feig is one of them. He did, after all, create the revered, short-lived 1999 TV series Freaks and Geeks, based on his teenage years as a member of the drama and forensics clubs in a Detroit suburb in the late ’70s. “I always think it’s funny that Paul made Freaks and Geeks, about all these childhood humiliations,” says Judd Apatow, who was the show’s executive producer, “and then as soon as it was over, when we thought he’d told us everything, he wrote a book” — Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence — “with like a hundred more humiliations we had never heard. There’s a deep well.”

Now 53, Feig has been going to ComicCon annually for over 20 years, for no other reason than that he likes to be among his people. He doesn’t do cosplay, i.e., dress up as his favorite characters, but he does read Cosplay magazine and made sure to release blueprints for proton packs early on so that people who wanted to make costumes for the movie’s opening would be properly prepared.

Feig himself looks like a cartoon illustrator’s creation. He wears a custom-tailored three-piece suit to work every day — an affectation he picked up because he believes it gives him an edge on executives in pitch meetings. On set, he’ll carry one of the 60-some antique walking sticks he has in his collection (though he walks just fine). On the Ghostbusters set, he favored a 19th-century snakewood cane adorned with a silver skull that had originally been a graduation gift to a medical student. A shipment with two more arrives during my visit, one topped with a snake, the other with a fish eating another fish. “Just like Hollywood,” Feig says.

As an only child who considered his mom his best friend and hung out with six sisters who lived next door, Feig found that, growing up, he was bothered by how movies of the 1970s and ’80s portrayed women. “Like in 48 Hrs., the guys are cool,” he says, “but the women are running around getting their tops pulled off while they’re screaming.” Even in more contemporary comedies, he’d noticed a pattern of women getting cast as the bitchy foils to the male heroes. He points to Rachael Harris’s mean-girlfriend part in The Hangover and a similar Sarah Silverman part in Richard Linklater’s School of Rock. “I love that movie, but I was like, ‘Why is she not getting to be funny?’ ”

He thought he could offer something different, comedy from a female perspective and with an underlying warmth, “versus a bunch of guys together, and it’s name-calling and homophobic references and punching.” But other than via his memorably flawed and funny Freaks and Geeks characters Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly, he hadn’t had a chance to try. After that show’s cancellation, he spent years failing to launch another show. Then the first movie he directed for a studio, 2006’s Christmas comedy Unaccompanied Minors, flopped, and he found himself deep in what he calls “movie jail,” with studios refusing to approve him even for low-stakes kids’ movies. He resigned himself to directing TV — Mad Men, Arrested Development, The Office — and, at his nadir, a 2009 internet commercial for Macy’s in which Donald Trump marches into a kids’ bake sale, finds a protégé, and turns him into a winner. (As he tells this story, Feig pulls out his phone to show me a photo of himself with Hillary Clinton.)

“It was really Judd [Apatow] calling me up when no one would hire me and asking me if I wanted to do Bridesmaids that dug me out of it,” he says. Since that movie’s game-changing success, Feig has strategically been trying to up the spectacle factor of each of his films — a buddy-cop comedy (2013’s The Heat, with McCarthy and Sandra Bullock), his version of James Bond (2015’s Spy, with McCarthy and Rose Byrne), and finally, in Ghostbusters, a bona fide summer tentpole — all with the goal of making women-led comedies that can also translate overseas. “Because,” he says, “all you hear when you’re trying to make a movie with women is ‘They don’t sell internationally. Foreign audiences won’t go see women in a movie.’ I don’t believe that’s true.”

McCarthy, the actress with whom he is most closely linked and has had his biggest hits, credits Feig with her movie career: “There’s a reason I’ve done four movies, and I hope to do 40 someday, with that spectacular fella,” she says. “He not only gave me the opportunity, which was massive, but also gave me the confidence and the technical skills to at least give it my best shot. I don’t even know how to qualify it, it’s so important to me.” And Byrne, who first worked with Feig on Bridesmaids, says he’s a big reason she ever gets to act with other women. “As far as I’m concerned, having more than two females in a movie is like seeing a unicorn.”

Or a ghost. Feig, who saw Ghostbusters on opening night in 1984, while a film student, had actually been offered the keys to the franchise before. He turned down the chance to direct a Reitman-approved script for Ghostbusters 3 — which would have had old cast members training a new team of three men and one women. Twice. And he wasn’t the only one to say no. “People were really nervous about taking it on because it was the movie that made this whole generation of directors want to be directors,” says Amy Pascal, then head of Sony Pictures, who is Reitman’s co-producer. Feig recalls that when Pascal asked why everyone was treating the movie like kryptonite, he “went on a half-an-hour diatribe about why nobody would touch it.”

Still, Pascal was convinced that, in this era in which most comedies are either R-rated or cartoons, Feig had the right sensibility to make a genuinely funny PG-13 film. “There’s an innocence to him. He finds the funny in the humanity of people,” she says. “And he always has that outsider’s view, and that’s what this movie needed to be about. It needed to be about true believers who are undaunted regardless of what anyone else thinks.”

Reitman was warier, but Feig, he says, “said very smart things about what he thought was the reason for the success of the two Ghostbusters I directed, and seemed very respectful. I felt he could be trusted with it.” Feig has since gotten the endorsement of nearly every member of the original cast — Aykroyd, Hudson, Potts, Sigourney Weaver, Ramis’s son, and even Murray — in the form of a cameo. And he’s heeded Reitman’s postproduction notes, including ones related to issues with the specifics of the slime. “I’m happier with its color now,” Reitman says.

In taking on what he calls “sacred canon,” Feig and his co-writer, Katie Dippold, who also wrote The Heat, rewatched the original two movies and made a list of everything they’d be bummed not to see if someone else were making a new one, including the Ecto 1 car, ghost traps, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and, of course, fan-favorite apparition Slimer. Feig even tried to make Slimer a puppet, out of nostalgia for homespun ’80s-era special effects, but decided it wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of a new generation. Most of the ghosts, however, are played by stunt actors covered in LED lights, and Feig hopes it looks that way. “If everybody thinks we actually shot these with people in costumes,” he says, “I will be so happy.”

Feig and Dippold envisioned the movie, at its heart, as the story of two estranged paranormal-scientist friends — Wiig’s Erin Gilbert, now tenure-track at Columbia in a more “legitimate” field, and McCarthy’s Abby Yates, ever a believer — who must come together when a mystery villain starts harnessing the energy of the dead and awakening them to ravage the city. They’re joined by McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann, the group’s mad equipment master, and Jones’s Patty Tolan, an MTA worker with a vast knowledge of underground tunnels and New York City history, who’s been spotting ghosts at work. “Well, it looks like they’re going to Queens,” says Patty in one fight scene as a ghost tries to escape on the subway. “He’s going to be the third-scariest thing on that train.”

The cast, too, understands how seminal this all is. “The 12-year-old version of me was passing out,” says McCarthy about getting the call. And Wiig, who hasn’t been a lead in a studio comedy since Bridesmaids, and not for lack of offers, reached out to Feig about being involved. “I said, ‘If you need anybody to help with craft services, I’ll be there,’ ” she recalls.

But, really, they just wanted to work with Feig, who’s both a master at encouraging funny performances and a great appreciator of them. “Paul’s the first one to ruin a take because he’s laughing so hard,” says McCarthy. Plus he and his wife often rented a boat on weekends to take the cast and crew out for dance parties on the river in Boston, where the film was mostly shot. “He dances like an official white man,” says Jones. “It’s just like the Funky Chicken, in the wrong way.”

As opening day approaches, Feig can’t help but think about the stakes of making a $150 million movie. “A movie like this has to at least get to like $500 million worldwide, and that’s probably low,” he says. “But the thing I care about most is the industry looking for an excuse to say, ‘See, a tentpole can’t be carried by female leads’ ” — three of whom are over 40. “I cashed in all my chips,” he says. “I had to use every chip to make this happen. And if this doesn’t work, I will probably have to go back to movie jail.”

So why risk it? “I wanted for little girls to be able to see themselves up on the screen,” Feig says. “The original one exists, so you can see boys doing it, but how fun for girls to have this experience!” That’s why he pushed so hard for new Ghostbusters action figures. “There was some resistance,” he says, “because there’s a fear that boys wouldn’t buy toys from a movie starring girls. But guys have such great feelings of nostalgia because the original had a lot of gear. I’d like girls to be able to put on a proton pack and run around.”

He then tells me about one especially bright moment that arose in the midst of all the misogyny, when he checked his Twitter and saw a photo of a 6-year-old girl wearing a Ghostbusters uniform that she and her dad had made. “This little girl, she looked so tough and cool,” he says, “and I burst into tears, because I was like, ‘That’s why we’re making this movie!’ ”               

*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.