(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
You probably wouldn’t imagine Paul Feig, the creator of the short-lived NBC classic “Freaks and Geeks,” staring death in the face during a ride-along with cops. And you shouldn’t.
“I’d be absolutely useless,” says Feig, whose directorial follow-up to “Bridesmaids,” the buddy cop comedy “The Heat,” opens Friday. “I’d be crouched down under the seat. No, I’m not a brave guy, but the good thing with this is we got a lot of the Boston PD and Boston FBI, who came on and consulted and were keeping us honest the whole time.”
The word “honest” comes up a lot during our chat at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The 50-year-old Feig—dressed, as is his custom for any work-related endeavor, in a dapper-looking suit—even brings back his love of scenes in which characters get drunk and honest. In a key scene in “The Heat,” FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Boston detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), polar opposite partners in an investigation, bond over a drink and then another drink and then another drink at a bar. All the drinking leads to some spontaneous dancing, another Feig favorite.
The Detroit-native, whose wife grew up in suburban Highland Park, talked about knowing where to draw the line with comedy, his advocacy for movies starring women, and feeling like a “proud father” for the “Freaks and Geeks” alums.
When you grew up in the Midwest and visited Chicago, what do you remember doing?
I was into magic, and back 1,000 years ago [at] Marshall Field’s the toy department used to have a magic counter. There was a guy who ran it; he was a magician, and he would do a show every hour. We’d come twice a year, and that was when I’d come and get my new magic tricks. My heart would be pounding whenever I’d walk into Marshall Field’s [Laughs]. So that’s how big of a nerd I was.
You’ve talked about both of the “Heat” characters having to be real badasses. How much authority did you have in instructing Sandra and Melissa in how to be a badass?
[Laughs] They’re pretty badass anyway. I just got out of the way so they didn’t go badass on my ass. They’re both real actresses, even though they’re comedy actresses. They really put everything through a very rigorous test. “Is this real? Would I really do this? Is this really in my character?” And I love that. What I don’t like is anything that’s silly or, “I’m just going for a laugh; it kind of hurts my character. It’s not really what a real person would do.” You never want an audience to go, “Oh, come on.” That’s the worst moment you can have when somebody goes, “That wouldn’t happen.” Or, “Why are they doing that?” Then you lose the audience.
How are you careful about that sort of thing? Melissa McCarthy’s so funny and talented, but you can look in the past few decades at people who, either because of the filmmaker or the project, just go completely overboard. How do you make sure it doesn’t go into that broad place?
My feeling is that people who are really good at comedy don’t do that. I think a lot of that comes from people who comedy isn’t their main thing, so there’s a tendency to [say], “Oh, bigger, bigger!” There’s a feeling of weird power you have on the set where, “I can make people do anything I want!” You can get somebody and have them go over the top and it seems really funny in the moment to the crew ‘cause you’re like, “I can’t believe they’re doing this crazy thing!” But the minute you get back onto the screen, it’s like a clown show going on. What I’ve found in my life is that anybody who’s great at comedy has this natural governor inside them. They can go up to a line and then when they hit that line, they will not go over it. It’s almost my job sometimes as a comedy director, [instructing] those people to go like, “You can go a little further. You think your line is here, but watching you I think you can go a little bit higher, and it’s not going to be unrealistic. It’s just going to give it an extra bit of funny.”