The Spy and Bridesmaids director talks about his passion for funny women, smart suits and Jason Statham

Paul Feig has been credited with almost singlehandedly transforming the cinematic landscape for women in comedy. In 2011 he directed the female-led box-office smash Bridesmaids, starring Kristen Wiig, Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy, which raked in more than £190 million at the global box office.

Five years ago, though, the 52-year-old thought his movie career was over. In the late Nineties he'd made a name for himself in television, co-creating with Judd Apatow the short-lived cult comedy Freaks and Geeks, which kickstarted the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel.

But his big-screen efforts - I Am David (2003) and Unaccompanied Minors (2006) - tanked. “I was in movie jail,” the director says, when we meet over tea in Los Angeles.

Judd Apatow proved to be his saviour, bringing him on to Bridesmaids. Next came The Heat, with McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. And Feig’s latest comedy, the uproarious Spy, reunites him with McCarthy once again: she plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst forced to go into the field on her first spying mission when her debonair, 007-style colleague Bradley Fine (Jude Law) disappears.

Looking dapper in a pinstriped suit and matching purple shirt, tie and socks, Feig, known as one of the best dressed men in Hollywood, talks about his passion for funny women, Jason Statham and the importance of sartorial flair behind the camera.


How much has changed for women in film since Bridesmaids?

Someone alerted me to the fact that there are six female-driven comedies out this summer, including Pitch Perfect 2 [with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson] and Hot Pursuit [starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara], so that’s a nice change from the drought that was happening.

But realistically, half the movies out there should be starring women. It is not happening fast enough. Part of me hoped that Hollywood was going to crack open more after Bridesmaids, and that more people would be doing what I was doing.

Credit: REX

We need to get back to how movies were in the Thirties, when Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant were going toe-to-toe; or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, films where people were playing equals. It wasn’t just: "there’s the token girl."

Do you think you understand what makes women tick?

My closest friends have always been women and my best friends growing up were girls. I am a very feminised guy, I guess. I find the female sense of humour much funnier than male humour, because it's less aggressive and I find it supportive and fun.

For years, the funniest women I know have been forced to play 'the mean girlfriend'. That makes me very sad

For years, the funniest women I know have been forced to play "the mean girlfriend" or "the wife who doesn't understand". That makes me very sad, seeing women get terrible roles in comedy.

What kind of film did you set out to make with Spy?

It's a funny spy movie with all the high stakes and the danger and world-threatening issues that a classic spy movie has. It is definitely not a spoof. We treat the action seriously.   

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved the Ian Fleming books. And I've always loved spy movies: James Bond and the Bourne movies. I remember seeing the Daniel Craig Casino Royale and thinking, "I’ve got to do a spy movie". I love that world of casinos and tuxedos and Martinis. And I obviously love men’s style.

But I knew that nobody was going to let me direct a James Bond movie, because I'm a comedy guy. Then when Skyfall came out in 2012, I thought: "why don't I tell a story about how a woman becomes a super-spy?" Once I came up with that idea, I wrote the script very quickly.

The women are the heroes and the male spies are less than heroic...

Well, guys have dominated everything in movies forever and actually, there have to be some guys who aren’t great at everything.

It's proven in the intelligence community that women make better spies than men, because it's all about gaining people's trust

When I was researching this film, I read several articles which said that it is proven, at least in the intelligence community, that women make better spies than men, because it's all about gaining the trust of the person you are trying to get onto your side.

What does Melissa bring to the role?

What Melissa brings to everything is a humanity and believability. We both want the audience to go: what would I do in that situation? So you go: "if I were a spy and I accidentally killed a guy, I would probably throw up." Melissa knows how to play everything so it's not forced.That's why people want to be friends with her.

Melissa has different aliases for her assignment, but none are exactly stylish.

You immediately think spies are going to be really glamorous. But Susan is given the frumpiest possible tourist-looking outfits. They make her into a cat lady and a woman who’d be at a Grateful Dead concert; like someone who makes candles in Sedona.

Melissa McCarthy in 'Spy' Credit: Larry Horricks

Jude Law has never been this funny. How was he to work with?

He is a dream. And he has such a healthy attitude towards fame. When we were filming in Budapest we would get mobbed occasionally and Jude would sign every autograph and take every picture. I think that’s lovely because there are a lot of actors who push people away if anyone tries to approach them. I tell actors: "think back to when you were struggling, you would have died to have people ask for your autograph and take your picture." It’s funny how quickly people become jaded.

Jason Statham is hilarious too, but he's hardly an obvious choice for a comedy. Why did you cast him?

I'm a giant Statham fan. My wife and I have seen every one of his movies, even the ones he hates. It was when I saw Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and then Crank, that I thought, "he's funny." It became a quest to find a role for him.

I really enjoyed feeding him all these ridiculous lines. Rick Ford is a good spy but the idea that somebody like Susan would be sent out to do the exact same job that he does basically makes him unhinged. I just kept telling him, "as far as you’re concerned, this is a straight movie." Jason was gold right out of the gate.

You appear in the film yourself; is it fun doing the odd cameo?

It was. When Susan shows up at a dodgy hotel in Paris, she comes into the hall and a drunk man walks into the wall behind her and passes out. That's me. There's nothing I like more than a stunt.

What does your acting experience bring to your work as a director?

It's probably the greatest training I've had, because directing is about figuring out how to shoot and it is about the camera, but at the end of the day it's really about how you interact with the actors.

If anyone has an idea I'll let him or her do it, even if I think it's terrible. Sometimes what I think is terrible will end up being fantastic.

You're known in Hollywood for being well-dressed...

Style is a passion of mine, I love it. I think the way men present themselves has become a lot less outstanding-looking. I look at that as being a desperate attempt to hang on to youth, with everyone trying to remain a teenager. But I like being an adult. My teen years were terrible; I didn’t enjoy them at all.

'Spy' director Paul Feig Credit: Action Press/REX Shutterstock

The world is not going to get to know you as you walk down the street, because you can’t stop and talk to every single person, but through your appearance you can go: "this is who I am and this is what I care about."

I’m not saying everyone should be wearing suits and ties by any means. My obsession is that everyone should have a style that presents who they are to the world.

Who specifically has inspired your style?

I grew up seeing pictures of my favourite directors wearing suits and ties. To me the touchstone is Marcello Mastroianni, who actually played a director in 8 ½. But I admire everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger.

What I don’t like is seeing a movie I love, and there’s the director hunched over in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. We are very lucky to be in this business and I want to give it the glamour that people love about Hollywood.

The director Paul Feig

Crew guys wearing dirty T-shirts, because they're working with greasy machines all day, come up to me on the set and shake my hand. They tell me they like the fact that I dress up, because I’m the captain of the ship. I always say: if you get on a boat and the captain walks on in sweatpants, unshaved, wearing a baseball cap, you’re going to get off that boat.

How are things shaping up with the all-female Ghostbusters remake?

We have some really fun ideas. Katie Dippold, who wrote The Heat, and myself wrote it together. And the technology we have now means we can have really good ghosts, although we don't want it to go too far away from the original.

You're producing The Peanuts Movie, an animated CG version of the iconic Charles M Schulz cartoon. Were you always a fan of Charlie Brown and Snoopy?

A: Peanuts has been a big part of my life from when I was a kid. It was important to me because I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t going to get modernised in a way that would ruin what I and everyone I know loves about Peanuts, which is its innocence. It's also very funny and smart. Schulz’s son and grandson wrote the script. 


You seem to be the busiest man in Hollywood at the moment.

It's just fantastic. My head is spinning. I’m not sleeping enough but I’m absolutely thrilled because I have had periods of my career when things were not going well. When I was in my early to mid-forties I had resigned myself to the idea that I was just going to continue on as a TV director, working on other people’s shows.

What happened?

I had done an independent film called I Am David which bombed horribly. Then I did a film called Unaccompanied Minors that didn’t do well either. If you have a movie that doesn’t do well, there is no reason why anyone should hire you again, and the door was shut on me in a chilling way.

I remember saying to myself: I’m just running down the clock. I have a nice life, I’m happily married, but I’m not doing what I dreamed I was going to do

I was very lucky that I was working on some of the best shows on television. But they weren’t my shows and it ultimately wasn't fulfilling because I had stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to keep making movies but my movie career was over as of the end of 2006.

I remember saying to myself: I’m just running down the clock. I have a nice life, I’m happily married, but I’m not doing what I dreamed I was going to do.

And then came Bridesmaids …

Yes, then along came Bridesmaids and I have to hit up my friend Judd Apatow here. We made Freaks and Geeks together, and whereas other producers and studios wouldn’t hire me because I was in movie jail, Judd knew what I could do.

Will you try drama or stick with comedy?

I’m happy in comedy. To me comedy is drama; it’s just funny drama. I have no desire to do anything that’s without laughs, because that’s not what life is to me. You know, you're laughing one minute, and something terrible happens the next minute.

Spy is on general release from June 5