'Heat' attack: Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy collide in Paul Feig's crime comedy
At the CinemaCon theatre owners convention in Las Vegas this April, a panel discussion on women and movie box office featured four women (including Oscar winner and activist Geena Davis and Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson) and one man. Why a male? It all comes down to one word: Bridesmaids.
With that 2011 smash, director and producer Paul Feig decisively proved that a comedy written by and centered around women could break through all those perceived Hollywood “quadrants” and attract a very wide and raucously entertained demographic.
Feig has done it again with his newest film, The Heat, which lets two extremely gifted comic actresses take the wheel of the venerable action-comedy genre. Sandra Bullock stars as Sarah Ashburn, a hard-driving, punctilious New York City-based FBI agent whose murder investigation takes her to Boston. There, she butts heads with foul-mouthed, boisterous Boston cop Shannon Mullins (Bridesmaids Oscar nominee and Identity Thief star Melissa McCarthy), who’s also working the case. After a series of wild personality clashes, the two eventually figure out how to work together, as Ashburn learns to loosen up and Mullins becomes a little less reckless. Feig and screenwriter Katie Dippold, meanwhile, don’t dial down the danger simply because this is a tale of two women: The villains here are ruthless, just not as savvy as the dynamic, sometimes dysfunctional duo of Bullock and McCarthy. Opening in theatres on June 28, the 20th Century Fox release is looking like a surefire summer hit.
Feig, whose pre-Bridesmaids career includes the little-seen features I Am David (2003) and Unaccompanied Minors (2006), has been a major force in television, most celebrated as the creator of the short-lived high-school series “Freaks and Geeks,” which introduced such future stars as James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel and has since become one of the most highly regarded TV shows in history. He has also directed multiple episodes of acclaimed series like “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie.”
One of Hollywood’s most dapper dressers (and certified so by Esquire magazine), the amiable Feig met with Film Journal International the morning after the successful screening of The Heat at CinemaCon.
Film Journal International: You’ve been a successful TV director, and now you’re a very bankable film director. What’s that experience been like?
Paul Feig: It’s nice. I love movies, I always have. And I love television—television is in a great place these days. But to me movies were always the mountain I wanted to scale. I had my time in movies a while ago, where the projects didn’t quite take off, and so there’s a period occasionally where you’re in what we call movie jail: “I’m in movie jail!” But the great thing was I had the outlet of television. I was experimenting with a lot of different styles and figuring things out, and it weirdly helped me figure out a better way to do movies. The fact that now I’m getting to do them and I’m someone people will actually go to is a thrill. I pinch myself every day that I broke out of movie jail.
FJI: You’re so fortunate with the casting of these two great physical comedians.
PF: Oh my goodness. It was a thrill. I’d never worked with Sandra before, and when the script was sent to me it was mentioned that she was interested in one of the roles, but there was no mention of who would play the other role. About ten minutes into reading it, I thought: This is Melissa. I’d just worked with her on Bridesmaids and we kept trying to figure out something to do together ’cause we had so much fun. I read it on an airplane and the minute I got off I called her manager and said, “There’s a script she has to read.” He said she had it but hadn’t read it yet. I said, “Read it!” And 12 hours later he called and said she loved it and wanted to do it.
FJI: When did you first become aware of Melissa McCarthy?
PF: On Bridesmaids.
PF: I make it my job to keep up on all the comedy people, and somehow she had completely gone under my radar. And she was working—she was known from “Gilmore Girls” and she was on “Samantha Who” and she was one of the stars of The Groundlings. I’d worked with her husband, Ben Falcone—he was one of my regular stable. Towards the end of the casting process for Bridesmaids, we were finding really funny people but it didn't feel like we had the home run yet for the Megan role. And Kristen and Annie [Mumulo], who wrote the movie, said, “Oh, you have to see our friend Melissa. People are lining up around the block when she performs.” I’m like: “Why didn’t you tell me?” And she came in and just destroyed. It so was inventive, I never got over it. There was a way that everybody had done that character and she came in with this whole other take on it. It took me a minute to almost process it.
FJI: It was kind of a radical take…
PF: It was a very radical take! It took me a minute: I don’t even know what she’s doing! But it was hilarious…once my mind readjusted to it. And then I’ve just been her number-one fan ever since.
FJI: When did you know there was chemistry between Sandra and Melissa?
PF: It was literally when we did the first rehearsal. I don’t normally work with big movie stars, I like to kind of get people who are on their way. So we always audition everybody. But you’re not going to do that with Sandra Bullock. It seemed like a perfect cast on paper, but then when I was flying to Atlanta to do a rehearsal with them, I suddenly had this moment of [deep breath]: What if there’s no chemistry? What if they hate each other? And we get there, it’s a hotel conference room, and they immediately start bonding over the fact that they both have young kids. And they’re just really getting along, and they start reading and it just clicked. It was such a relief for me. And then for me it was just studying them and seeing their personalities as they were reading the characters. We did some improvs and then I got to crack how to fine-tune it for their voices. That’s why I think their chemistry works so well and the movie works so well—it’s been very tailor-made for them.
FJI: You have to tell me about the day or days you shot their drunk scenes [when Ashburn and Mullins finally bond in a bar].
PF: Those were fun. That was early in the shoot, about two weeks in, and I was hoping to let them bond more. But they were so close. It was almost like they were really getting drunk. They weren’t, but they really fell into it. It was a very comfortable set—the bar felt real. We had controlled madness for about three days. To me, the funniest moment was…there’s a slug line “Ashburn and Mullins do shots,” and there’s a table with a checkerboard there, so I thought: OK, we’ll have them play “shots checkers.” I walked away to get the cameras set, and I come back and they’re sitting at the table with scotch tape on their faces and Melissa has taped forks to her fingers, and they do 20 minutes of goofing off. It was so funny! I put a full version of that take on the DVD. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, because they’re cracking me up and cracking each other up.
FJI: I’ve never seen an Oscar winner blow a peanut out of her nose.
PF: I was very proud of that. There’s a very funny outtake where she’s resetting another peanut in her nose and Melissa says, “I’ll put your Oscar up here for you.”
FJI: Is directing action scenes novel for you?
PF: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always been obsessed with the genre of the action comedy. I had developed a few in the past. But this was fun! We don’t have a ton of action in the movie, but it was fun to do. It’s not like it's a James Bond movie with lots of units, but it was an interesting thing to think about. It’s got a female bent to it, and I didn’t want just mayhem. When my wife and I watch an action movie and the big action sequence comes on, she’ll kind of get bored and leave the room. So I wanted to make sure the action was character-based, funny and in service of the story, and keep it to its bare minimum.
FJI: You’re a big part of proving that women can drive a big audience. You must be very proud of that.
PF: If I have no other thing I accomplish in my career, I would be happy with breaking down that wall. It's a ridiculous wall and I’ve run up against it in the past—so much so that it’s presented to you that women don’t bring in an audience and you just start to accept it. But around Bridesmaids, we said: Why are we accepting this? There are all these hilarious women, and they don't have to just be the bitchy wife or the mean girlfriend to funny guys. Bridesmaids really helped turned that around, and I just wanted to keep that going. This felt like the perfect follow-up, to erase genres from being male or female-driven.
FJI: Your TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” like “The Wire,” has acquired this great post-run reputation. Is that more rewarding for you, in a way?
PF: Oh yeah. As much as you would like it to be a hit when it’s on, I’d rather have something that has longevity. You want both ultimately, but I think this is much more satisfying to me. We all do stuff so that people will enjoy it for as long as possible, and I just get a thrill that 13 years later people are still discovering it.
FJI: Although it’s heartbreaking that those characters couldn’t continue.
PF: Oh no. It's very sad. It was really depressing when it ended, because I had so many more stories I wanted to tell about those characters and they were like my kids. But I’m glad we didn’t jump the shark or pollute the legacy.
FJI: And everybody went on to decent careers.
PF: I think they’re doing OK.
FJI: So I hear you’re preparing a female James Bond movie…
PF: I just finished the first draft and Fox has bought it, and I’m hoping to make it go pretty quickly. It’s an original idea of mine. I’m obsessed with James Bond and spy movies in general and always wanted to do one, and then I was like: Why don't I just create my own? I thought it would be fun to do a female spy who was not like Angelina Jolie beating up guys double her size. No, what would really happen? But in a very funny way.