First of all I’d like to thank Devin and all the other CHUD regulars for being too damned busy to make this trip. Ordinarily I would chalk up their lack of availability/enthusiasm to the set’s lackluster location (Salt Lake City, Utah), but since I know everyone at CHUD has a major crush on Paul, it’s safe to say I lucked out with this assignment. Anyway, on to the Mormons, the mountains and the mullets! (Bear with me here, I had an entire afternoon and evening to kill before going to set the next day so I passed time exploring and observing.) I do have to say, however, that Salt Lake City is beautiful. The air is clean, the people are friendly and the Wasatch Mountains are practically in your back yard, they’re so close. If I hadn’t grown-up in Colorado, I’d be inclined to comment further, but that’s enough for now.
The day of the visit I was shuttled to an arena-turned-airport-terminal where they were shooting what Paul affectionately calls his ‘mayhem.’ I’m told it’s the point at which the kids are fed-up with being confined to one room, so they take their own action. Basically it’s a free-for-all and at least 50 kid extras are running around a cafeteria-like room, whilst being pelted with candy and food from all directions. Mayhem is certainly the appropriate description; though it’s obvious the mayhem is organized and meticulous.
Paul is so gosh-darn likable it’s ridiculous. Whether he’s giving notes, focused behind the camera or rearranging a shot, you can tell that everyone working on this film adores him. I hate to be so cheesy, but it’s a feel-good, laid-back environment, and an energy I’m certain Paul carries with him constantly. That, and it’s impossible to dislike any Director who wears a suit and tie to set every day. I sat down with him during one of his breaks to talk about that very subject, along with a few film details.
Q: We know Sam Raimi wears a suit as a nod to Hitchcock, what’s your inspiration?
Feig: Its two things. First of all, my dad wore a suit everyday of his life. He worked in an army surplus store in the warehouse and he always had a suit and tie on, so to me that’s what you do when you go to work. Plus, it’s a nod to old Hollywood. I love the old pictures of Kubrick walking around in a suit. And honestly I feel more comfortable running a set dressed like, I don’t know, like the boss. I think it shows respect for the actors and the crew and everything. You know, these guys are here helping me, the least I can do is dress for the occasion.
Q: You traveled a lot when you were an actor. Is that where the idea came to you, from being in a lot of airports and seeing a lot of people?
Feig: Well actually, the idea was brought to me. It was a script that already existed. It was a This American Life story that they, Warner Bros, had developed through two sets of writers. They sent it to me and I really liked the idea. I thought the script had a lot of great characters and the structure was kind of cool but then I wanted, (a) I wanted to make it my own and (b) I really wanted to make it a bigger film. I wanted to make it much more physical because I’ve always been dying to bring back the John Landis, Blake Edwards, big physical comedy and so I thought this was the perfect one to do it with. So I did a very major rewrite on it and added big scenes, a canoe chase down a hill and this scene where the kids get caught in a big luggage sorting machine, just a lot of the mayhem and running around. More than anything it was selfish, I wanted to do that kind of thing and I feel like there’s not a lot of that around now. I wanted to bring back a nod to the comedy I grew up with, but try to do it in a modern way, I don’t even know what modern way means, just bring it back so that people aren’t watching an old movie like that, they’re watching a new movie with those kind of gags in it.
Q: Obviously we don’t know a ton about the movie… these kids are traveling, they’re stuck in the airport, so they shove them all in a room?
Feig: Yeah, basically what it is, is when you’re flying and you’re an unaccompanied minor. If something happens where everything shuts down, they just put all the kids away into one room, because legally, if they lose any of these kids they’re really in trouble so they have to lock them away. So what happens is that’s fine for the airport, but you’re a kid stuck in there. Talk about my nightmare as a kid, Darwin’s nightmare, to be stuck with all these kids you don’t know and most of them want to beat you up. From there they escape and get caught and then they really escape and then the main kid wants to get to his sister because she was taken away to a hotel that they miss the tram for. He wants to get to her because he knows she’s expecting Santa Claus at 4:30AM so he has to try to get to her and get her a present to save Christmas for her. It’s sweet.
Q: Have you worked with the airlines at all to understand the whole unaccompanied minors thing, or did you just feel it out?
Feig: People kind of felt it out; I mean a lot of it came from the This American Life story that was based on the UM [Unaccompanied Minors] room. Basically that story was about the kids getting taken to the UM room and what a nightmare it was and then being taken and having to bunk with this older stewardess. That’s kind of where it ended, but that to me set the whole mood. If that happened to me, I would want nothing more than to get out of there so, we all created sort of a mayhem of what would happen then as you tried to get away and then here comes the quote unquote bad guy who’s trying to stop you.
Q: It’s got kind of a Breakfast Club feel to it…
Feig: Yeah, the irony was that it started out being much more ‘Breakfast Clubby.’ By the time we got into production it became more Animal House than Breakfast Club. It’s like Animal House meets Home Alone, if I may do the studio talk. The Breakfast Club element is still in there but it moves a lot faster than it used to. It used to have more introspective scenes, which was nice but we also realized that this is just kind of a ride and we’re going to put the heart into the ride because I never want to have something that’s all action and doesn’t mean anything. At the end of the day I want to try to move the audience and ‘get’ them, because I like being ‘got’ in a film. So when I read the original script, the ending was so sweet and it’s got the comedy in it that does that [‘gets’ you], so hopefully it will all come out.
Q: Your kids are saying, the ones we’ve talked to so far, that you are just like them…
Feig: Oh excellent, excellent. That’s I think why I like doing things about kids, I probably have the maturity level of maybe a sixteen year old. I’m the one always pushing the fart jokes and the studio’s like ‘back off on those.’ It’s like what are we doing, making a Merchant Ivory film?’ It’s fun if it can be done tastefully, in a way that is natural because it’s a part of everyone’s life, that’s how I feel about comedy in general. There’s two schools, because there’s so much bad kid comedy because it’s so over the top and the kids over-enunciating and everyone’s all filled with energy, and that to me is horrible because it’s not like real kids. For me, if you kind of create an absurd situation but then you put the kids in it and they’re acting the way kids would act in the real situation, then you’re great. For me it’s just really staying away from that amped-up kind of… There’s nothing wrong the Nickelodeon, Disney kind of thing but it’s just, I never think I’m making stuff for kids, I think I’m making stuff about kids for adults that kids will enjoy too. It’s a comedy about kids as opposed to a kid’s comedy because I didn’t want to dumb it down. I think there’s such an onus that goes in when you say you’re going to make it for kids… it’s like people think different, and it’s like ‘Oh, well you can’t do this because kids won’t get that.’ No, kids will get it; they get a lot of stuff. We’re not making some big heavy thing, but let’s treat kids like they should be and let’s cast kids who look real and have real personalities and have their own thing going on, as opposed to finding the models and saying ‘Be like this.’ That’s where I think so much bad casting comes from. They’re like, ‘I want her to look like Britney Spears so let’s find the girl that’s like Britney Spears and then we’ll make her say these lines that a guy in his forties wrote,’ because he thinks like ‘Man, if I were this age back then, I would say this.’ It’s all this kind of righting the wrongs, so it’s fun for me to come with something real.
Q: So is directing kids as difficult as it looks?
Feig: No. The thing is, I think directing kids is only difficult when you don’t cast the right kids. You know, a scene like today where you just have kids going crazy, it’s less hard then it is sort of an accounting nightmare, you know when you have a good A.D., assistant director team, they kind of tell the kids where to go, and you’re like, ‘I just want mayhem over here and let’s have everyone throwing stuff over there,’ so if they kind of sort it out, I can just sit behind the camera and wait. Directing kids is not that tough because if you’re using the kids I like to use, which are really smart kids, but they’re not precocious, they’re just kind of… they’re themselves and then you let them be themselves. I’m never about, ‘Say this line like this,’ unless it’s a very specific joke. If a kid’s ever having trouble saying a line, for me, there’s something wrong with the line it’s not something wrong with the kid, it’s not written in the kid’s voice, or it isn’t the way the kid talks. So that’s once again where these bad performances from kids come from, the ‘Say it just like this,’ [direction]. So this kid has to unnaturally kind of torture out this sentence and then he’s not a kid anymore, he’s a guy in his thirties or forties funneling the words of that person and then it just all falls apart.
Q: It seems like you relate to them so well, like you’re a grown-up kid yourself.
Feig: Yeah, I think my wife can attest to that. Yeah, I just find it really fun; I just like their energy. I think maybe our references are a little different because of the different times we grew up but I feel like we all kind of have the same sense of humor, so things that they suggest that they think would be of funny, usually 90% of the time we’ll try it.
Q: We’ve heard that you’ve been allowing a fair amount of improvising, is it fun having the kids bouncing off people like Lewis Black?
Feig: Oh yeah, the kids are really good at it. You’re always kind of surprised, you never know if kids will be good at it or not, but they’ve amazed me, Gina Mantegna especially. We’ve done a couple of scenes where I just say, ‘Here, hit A, B, and C’ and she’ll come in and every time do something different and it’s so funny and they’re all really good at it. Tyler Williams is an amazing kid. He just kind of hits everything, nails everything. And then Quinn [Shepard] just brings this fresh energy because she hasn’t done much. She’s just like a force of nature running around. And Dyllan [Christopher], Dyllan is basically me, the awkward guy in the middle trying to figure this all out.
Q: Did you need to audition Brett [Kelly] because I know he played, as far as we know not a dissimilar role in Bad Santa?
Feig: Right, what happened was that Brett ended up, when we were casting, a tape came in from Toronto, because we had casting directors all over the country auditioning people for this. And Brett’s came in from Vancouver and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the kid from Bad Santa,’ and his audition was hilarious. And so, this part is a little different because he’s more of a stoic kid, the kind that doesn’t talk and goes off on this journey and discovers who he is, his ridiculous journey to find a Christmas tree. I put the poor kid in a big snow mobile suit so he’s very hot during the day. I feel bad.
Q: In talking about casting, how quickly can you cast now? Can you look at someone in the first thirty seconds? I’m sure you’ve got great instincts…
Feig: It’s amazing how fast you know, especially with kids. Because what you do is you throw the net wide and say, ‘Bring in a million kids.’ And everybody you see, you’re like, ‘Yeah that person, okay, I can see that.’ But every time the right person walks in, forget it, all those other people can just blow out of your mind. That’s how it was on Freaks too, with all the roles really. You just know and then the biggest thing is will the studio go for it, or can I talk the studio into it, or how am I going to talk them into it? Fortunately, I had the greatest thing happen on this because they hired me because they liked my work from Freaks and Geeks and yet they get nervous. They also know that, ‘You’re the guy that casts kind of weird,’ which is weird. I thought, ‘Really?’ and they said ‘Yeah, you cast weird kids, really charismatic kids.’ It’s this nervousness and they’re like, ‘But Britney Spears’ sister, maybe she could…’ and I’m like, ‘No, let’s not go there.’ Right when I was just gearing up to kind of push through my cast, Time magazine out of nowhere did this article about where four of the Freaks and Geeks kids are now and how they’re famous, so I literally just had them send that in to the guy, so then they let me cast who I wanted.
Q: Can you talk about casting Wilmer [Valderrama]?
Feig: Yeah, it’s one of those roles where at first glance you go, ‘Okay, this is going to be this big, nerdy guy,’ but Wilmer contacted us and he and his manager got a hold of the script and they loved this role. They were like ‘He would love to play this role.’ At first I thought ‘Wilmer?’ who I’m reading in the papers is the coolest guy and he’s dating all these women, ‘he’s going to be my nerdy guy?’ But he came in and he met with us once and I wasn’t really sure, but he called again and said, ‘I’d love to sit down with you and talk about the role’ and by the time he was done I was like, ‘He’s the guy.’ First of all, it’s not the way you would expect to go with the role and secondly, he just brings this whole kind of fun, funny energy to it. And we ended up cutting out, there was this whole thing where he was in love with this flight attendant and he didn’t have the nerve to talk to her. That was the only reason I was pulling back, I was like ‘Am I going to buy that Wilmer Valderrama is afraid to talk to a flight attendant?’ But then we ended up cutting that part out so he became one of the kids. He’s in charge of them, but he’s actually one of the kids more than the kids are, and so it just worked out perfect. He’s been great, another great improviser. We pelted him with all this food and crap in the room the other day because the kids were all throwing stuff. Today he gets dog piled on by a bunch of kids. He’s great. He’s like Jason Segel used to be on Freaks and Geeks. Jason would be like, ‘I’ll do anything.’ Will you stand in your underwear? ‘I’ll do it’. Will you disco dance? ‘I’ll do it.’ So Wilmer’s like, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ I love that. That to me, for comedy, there’s nothing greater when somebody’s like, ‘Whatever you need, I’ll do it.’
Q: You have some of the greatest improvisers in the world in this film. I’ve seen half of these guys at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. You brought them in, I’m assuming, to improvise?
Feig: Oh yeah. For me I hate to waste any role, even if it’s one line. I always call them the, ‘they went that-a-way’ roles. Which are, you know, you usually populate the film with these known people, people who are really good, but then with all the people with one or two lines it’s like eh, let’s grab ‘Local Joe,’ or whatever and I feel bad because I was an actor for years so I was always the guy trying to get those parts but at the same time, I don’t want to waste any of those parts. We had Sandra Tsing Loh come in and do this flight attendant who was stuck in the UM room and Sandra’s hilarious, and she brings her own weird energy to it. Once again, I just want people’s personalities. I want people who are going to bring something extra. You know we’ve got Cedric Yarbrough from Reno 911 playing Charlie’s dad. He literally got one line, but Cedric’s great. Even just when he’s reacting, you know as an audience member, you trust the filmmaker because you go, ‘Well that guy’s great, okay now I can relax.’ I feel like it just legitimizes everything and, like you say, they can improvise. So we have a lot of stuff where it’s like, ‘Go ahead you guys, do what you want.’ We have three of The Kids in the Hall, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Brian McDonald playing security guards who are guarding the kids when they get locked away. I just wrote these scenes, we keep cutting back to them arguing… they’re playing Name That Tune with Christmas carols. It’s like, just bring those guys in and I’m going to say, ‘Do what you want.’ We’ll just shoot a ton of it and then pick and choose and then find it, but that’s the kind of gold you want. I don’t want to waste a moment. You want every moment to be funny.
Q: You brought a couple of actors from Arrested Development…
Feig: Yeah, Jessica Walters plays sort of the irresponsible stewardess who’s put in charge of Spencer’s little sister and she’s got the nightmare girl with her giant braces and stuff, who kind of torments Mary Lynn. So Jessica’s great and we’ve got Tony Hale, who comes for this quick little bit at the end where Santa’s handing out gifts to everybody who’s by themselves and you know, he [Santa] says his name, ‘Allan Davy,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m 36 years old, and Santa says, ‘Hey you here by yourself?’ and he’s like ‘okay.’ So once again Tony’s face and Tony himself will bring this extra fun energy to it.
Q: Will anyone ever cut Dave Brown’s hair?
Feig: He’s like Sampson, if you cut his hair, his powers all go away. He’s the crazy gas station attendant. The first time you see him, he’s a chainsaw artist. He comes up with a chain saw and scares the crap out of Rob Corddry.
Q: Is it fun for you to direct stuff like The Office and Arrested Development?
Feig: Oh yeah, that’s a blast. In some ways it’s almost like a vacation because shows like that are so great and the cast is so good that literally, you almost feel guilty collecting a paycheck for it because they’re so funny, I just laugh all day. Really, my only responsibility is to make sure I capture it correctly so it’s as funny as it is on the set, but shows like that are so much fun. The Office is just laughs because on top of everything they allow us to improv and come up with stuff on the spot like in the Halloween episode that I directed, the whole thing where Dwight’s talking to Michael and he’s got the hood. We were just shooting and all of the sudden I thought, this kind of looks like The Emperor and so I worked with the cameraman and suddenly this big scene came out of it. It wasn’t in the script and the writer Greg Daniels was so great, he ended up cutting out another scene just so they could have that extended homage to Star Wars in there. Nerds rule. I was in with my people.
Q: Has it been gratifying to see Freaks and Geeks have this cult-following that just keeps growing?
Feig: Yeah it’s so cool. Getting it out on DVD was the greatest thing for us, because there was a long time we thought for sure we weren’t going to get it out because of the music clearance and all that. It’s just really heartening and it’s really nice also just working with the kids and you can be like ‘Here, check this out,’ as opposed to before there were the DVD’s of TV shows, you had to say ‘Oh, I had a TV show and it was good.’ ‘Really?’ ‘ Yeah.’ So it’s fantastic and the more people discover it, the happier I am.
Q: Speaking of Geeks, were you ever into Revenge of the Nerds?
Feig: Kind of. I actually, believe it or not, didn’t buy that movie as much as other people did because that to me, represented – I thought it was really funny – but also represented what I thought was the archetype of the nerd which, I don’t know, we were all nerds and none of us were like that. I still think it’s really funny and it kind of gets funnier to me as I get older, but at the same time that was also what I wanted to fight against, which is the tape on the glasses, snorting guys, so for me that was one of the many motivations for doing Freaks and Geeks. I knew a couple of guys who were super nerds, even we didn’t hang out with them because they were like clinical, you know. But as much as I can, you know sometimes you can’t, but I try to break the stereotype and try to go a different way so at least, I think you relate to it more as opposed to being the archetype. All that’s funny but, you think, ‘I guess that’s what they’re like.’ We all kind of know everybody; we all know all different types of people whether we know them well or not, so to introduce the type of person or character you don’t know almost feels kind of fake to me because when you really break it down, there’s not that many different types of people.
(Don’t worry, this is just the beginning. There’s more to come from the young stars of the film, mega-producer Lauren Schuler-Donner and Latin Lover Wimer Valderrama.)