Paul Feig is a geek. And he is proud of it. The creator of cult NBC series Freaks and Geeks even goes so far as to say that he helped make geekery “cool” (which may actually be anti geek if you think about it but we see what he means).
But there’s no doubt of his geekiness, and pride in it. You only have to look at him with his carefully brushed hair, smart suit, glasses and boyish good looks to believe him. He turned up to the recent London premiere of his film The Heat in a bowler hat and pinstripe. And as for cool? Freaks and Geeks, still fondly remembered, made stars of both Apatow behind screen and Seth Rogen on. So we’ll give him that.
“I think the internet has made geekery kind of cool in the sense that before the internet there were geeks everywhere we were all squirreled away in our schools saying is it just me and our three friends who are into this,” he tells me.
“And then what happened with the Internet is you see there’s a community for everything. And it empowers you and you don’t feel ashamed of your geekery, you feel ahead of the curve.”
Feig, who has just launched the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy cop buddy comedy The Heat on UK audiences, admitted when we met that there is a dark side of the Internet – a subject with an ongoing resonance now with all the rows about online misogyny. He finds much of what he reads “frightening” but warns people not to lose perspective over the madness of a few. And he tries not to read what people say of him, hard as it is.
“I try not to any more. I stopped doing that a couple of movies ago. Even if you get a couple of nice comments and get an excoriating one it will destroy your mood and take you down.
“You get fifty really mean emails and responses on something you think everyone hates it but you realize these are the people who used to send mean letters to companies
“You know you find you way around it. I operate by just trying to be as nice as I can. I am not a confrontational guy. I try to kill them with kindness.
“But if you are in comedy, the whole reason you are in comedy is to kind of please people and it comes from a deep-seated feeling, The reason I did it in school was to stop everybody being mean to me and to like me. And it’s like having one bully and you go oh shoot. I have always struggled with my confidence.”
He’s a sweet guy, this Paul Feig. In many respects he is a kind of supreme anti-misogynist. In Bridesmaids and now The Heat women are at the centre of two funny (in the case of Bridesmaids extremely funny) and engaging films. So what is it about this married, unassuming 50-year old and the fairer sex?
“All my friends were basically women when I was young. I was the geeky kid. I had a lot of bullies and I saw a refuge in them and I thought all my female friends, you’re not going to bully me although there were a few girls who were kind of mean at my school.
“I had my guy friends and were all really geeky and stuff. I find the comedy of women to be much kinder. There’s an aggressiveness to male comedy, a lot of putting down which are kind of fun but I like more there’s a goofy quality to when women are being funny that I really enjoy.”
Dopes he not find men as funny then?
“I do, I do, I do … I have just seen This is the End which is hilarious, but it’s just not how my brain works so when I try and do that it just feels fake to me, I don’t sound like other guys. I really like funny women.
There is, he adds, also a flipside: “I have seen things that are written and directed by women and sometimes it tips the other way oddly, sometimes it will be the men who look ridiculous.”
The Heat is an engaging film which follows Bullock’s uptight FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn and McCarthy’s Boston Detective Shannon Mullins who team up to take on a mobster.
It has taken around £140m since opening in the US in June and went on release in the UK yesterday [Wednesday]. It follows the stock tread of having two people who first hate each other before realising what makes the other tick and coming together. Both characters seem quite lonely at the beginning and find in each other the comforts of company and companionship that by the end feels quite sisterly. Feig admits that alternative families is a “theme which has run through even unsuccessful movies I have done.”
He and his wife – a “populist” who vets all his work – do not have children, prompting some of their friends to accuse him of begin “selfish”. It seems like he doesn’t rule out having kids, but is clearly quite happy without them
“I love my family and I like families but thing the family you’re at with friends is the strongest bond and for me the most fulfilling because it’s people you choose to let into your life rather than family which are there and you have to adjust to them and to me that was the thing I related to in this movie.
“They are two dedicated professional women who have forgone traditional families whether it’s raising an family and that in the movie it’s not saying don’t do that but when you do that you have to find like minded friend to have a support group.”
Still, there is one famous US comedy that was supposed to offer the modern alternative to the family – and it is not one which seems to tickle Feig’s funny bone.
“We are all amazed that Friends is so big over there. Friends was big in our country but the level with which it is embraced in this country makes you go wow but I guess….
“It’s a good show, a fantasy version of living in New York. We are amazed that that broke through when you think I thought this would break through.”
What may have surprised him about the British love of Friends, one of TV’s gooeyest comedies it has to be said, is was what he sees as the British penchant for meanness in our comedy, something he saw when he worked as a director on the American Office.
“What we found was the British Office had a very rabid following in the US among comedy fans but when the American Office tried to recreate that same feel with Michael Scott being as mean as Ricky’s character will it didn’t work for American audiences.
“They get very nervous about anything that seemed that mean spirited.”
He believes British audiences like anti heroes more than Americans but Americans don’t like cringe in the way we do, which is one reason why Freaks and Geeks were cancelled by NBC in the middle of its run.
But the director is hopeful about the TV landscape generally and is hoping to make a “ great serialised comedy” for TV. He is also hopeful of realising his dream of making a female James Bond for fox
“I have always been a James Bond fanatic and I have always wanted to do one but I thought I would like to be working with women again and I would love to know what a woman’s take on this would be.
“We are figuring out who we would cast at the moment. It will be a comedy but not like a Johnny English kind of parody it will be like The Heat where it’s a real story and funny things happen with in that.” McCarthy is one of the names in the frame to play the lead in the film which currently has the working title Susan Collins.
“What I like is the challenge of being able to tell a story in an hour and a half two hours because that honestly is the hardest thing to do. Any three-act form is the hardest thing to do. In television you can string it along.
“The nice thing about having had some success in television is there are some people who want to do a TV series with me because Freaks and Geeks was so good I want to make something which is as good.
“My heroes who I have watched fall in a similar world. I don’t want t name names but I am thinking of directors who used to be great but are not doing great work. And I think the minute you go now I have got it wired then you start to go downhill because you stop listening to everybody.”