Paul Feig’s comedies — Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters — are a balancing act. They have jokes, but not so many that they exhaust the audience or lower the stakes of the story. They have action and danger, but so much that the audience doesn’t laugh. Maybe the best example of this is the knife-fight scene from Spy.
The scene is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and those who tell them. Recorded live at Vulture Festival L.A., Feig talks about balancing action with comedy, finding room to improvise, and falling in love with Melissa McCarthy’s talent. He also sings a little ditty he wrote many years ago. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the talk below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
In the script, how much are you writing out a fight scene?
I write it in great detail. I would never put down “they fight,” because that is where those mayhem sequences come from. Like, sometimes the second unit director goes off and he shoots a bunch of stunts and then you put it together. I want logic behind the moves because it needs to track a story that escalates.
Watching all of your movies again, I’m reminded of a quote from Crimes and Misdemeanors said by Alan Alda’s character, who was meant to be a parody of famous comedy writer Larry Gelbart: “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny.” Woody Allen was making fun of this line, but I do think it’s really fitting for the sort of balance you create. How do you calibrate that?
A lot of times, if there is a problem with one scene, it might not actually be a problem with it, but a problem with something ten minutes earlier. Bridesmaids was a perfect example of this, because when you first meet Rose, when she turns around in that ridiculous giant dress and comes forward, we shot so many funny things that went on and on, but when we were testing it and putting it together we realized that was really hurting the speech contest, because you go like, “Okay, she is already hostile to her, so there’s nothing there” versus “Oh, if we just keep her completely benign, people still hate her, but you slowly discover it in that speech contest.”
Also, sometimes there’s joke fatigue. It’s why a lot of studio comedies have fallen down. You deal with this all the time because the studio is like, “Let’s put all the jokes that we like in,” but they don’t realize the jokes don’t mean anything anymore if there are too many. We’re constantly throwing out jokes because you want the ones that land to land. My editor and I always say, “We don’t want singles or doubles, everything has to be a triple or a home run.” You line up enough singles or doubles and everyone starts to lose faith in you and the audience goes, “I think that was supposed to be funny.”
In this Spy scene, how did you make sure the audience felt like she was in danger, but not so much that they couldn’t laugh?
This is the first time she’s doing hand-to-hand, so you’re really invested in her. You’ve seen her do some things, but you still haven’t seen her majorly kick ass yet. What works about the scene is she finds her footing as she goes along. In the beginning, she is completely freaked out. By the end, she’s doing a wrestling move.
You walk a line of having the audience take this thing seriously, but not so seriously that they can still laugh at it. It reminded me of how some of the difficulty with Ghostbusters stemmed from people taking it so seriously. Obviously the people who hated it for no reason took it seriously, but even the people who wanted to support it.
I think that hurt us a little bit because we became so much of a cause. A summer audience is like, “Well, fuck you. I don’t want to go to a cause. I just want to watch a funny movie.” It’s a great regret in my life that that movie didn’t do better. I love it and I know it’s not a perfect movie — none of my movies are — but it was only supposed to be there to entertain people. Since then, it’s settled into being a movie. The greatest moment was when we won the Kid’s Choice Award, beating Star Wars and Captain America. It felt like kids were just watching it and not bringing all the baggage.
You make big comedies — comedies for a lot of people, comedies that make money internationally. In so much as there are people who want to make cult comedies, what is it about you that wants to make comedies for large audiences?
When I did my first indie film, I tried to inject some comedy into it, but you work so hard no matter if your movie is giant or if its small. I want the most amount of people to see my movies and I want the most amount of people as possible to be entertained by them, so I realized early on, let’s try to service everybody with this, while still trying to inject the personal things I want to have into them. That’s why I love the test screening. There are things that I would keep in movies that I think are really funny that a test audience doesn’t. I want to entertain the audience. I don’t want to be the asshole going like, “Ugh.” In stand-up, there’s always the guy who tells the joke and if the audience doesn’t laugh, they go, “It’s over their head.” I go, “No, it’s right there. It hit them and it wasn’t funny. Don’t be a dick, thinking you’re funnier than they are.”