Ghostbusters Director Paul Feig Talks Haters, Slime, and Sexism

TERENCE PATRICK

Who would have predicted that the most controversial movie of 2016 would be a sci-fi-comedy about a quartet of women who team up to fight some ghosts? Such is the seemingly otherworldly situation of director Paul Feigs Ghostbusters, which opens next week, and which stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the titular spook-chasers. From the moment it was announced, Feigs reboot has been the subjected of debate and concern among diehard Ghost-boosterssome of whom are simply worried about the franchise being handed off to a new generation, and some of whom don’t want to see their beloved proton packs in the hands of female characters (not surprisingly, it’s that latter, smaller group that’s been loudest online, giving the film’s trailer nearly a million YouTube down-votes).

Still, there’s good reason to believe that the new Ghostbusters will be anything but a disaster of biblical proportions. After all, the last time Feig assembled a team of smart, quip-equipped women, the result was 2011s Bridesmaids, the Oscar-nominated comedy that launched McCarthys career and transformed an innocent bridal-gown showroom into a overpopulated poopitorium. Earlier this year, the 53-year-old writer-directorwhos also responsible for such recent summer hits as The Heat and Spyspoke toWiredwhile putting some of the finishing touches on Ghostbusters, and talked about tracking down Bill Murray, fending off Twitter haters, and his friendship with the late Garry Shandling.

A new Ghostbusters movie has been the subject of online speculation and dissection pretty much since the Internet was invented. Why get involved with a series whose fans have such high expectations?

I’d turned it down several times, because when the script was first brought to me, it was a sequel. And that’s just not as interesting as an origin story. Amy Pascal, who was then head of Sony Pictures, was the one who kept pushing: Why don’t any of you comedy guys want to touch this? I was like, Because Ghostbusters is canon! But I thought if I could cast all the funny women I know, it would be a nice way to avoid comparisons to the original iconic castso you’re not saying, Oh, is that character supposed to be Venkman?

But the other thing is, if I could reboot it, I couldnot be beholden to some conceit of The Ghostbusters have been forgotten!Even with Ghostbusters II, whichI really liked, they had to use the conceit that theGhostbusters have been disgraced, because they ruined New York at the end of the first movie. I didnt want to have the team crawling out from under [that kind of backstory]. Its kind of like saying, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, but he left the Rover up there, so now everybody hates him, because he left garbage on the moon. So it just felt likeif we reboot this as an origin story, then I can have all these fresh characters, see them developing their tech, and see them discovering stuff for the first time, and see New York dealing with them for the first time. That interests me, and when I called Amy up and said, Heres the idea, she said, Lets do it.

Reactions weren’t exactly subtle.

I was a little surprised when we announced it. But I’m also thrilled because, when you make a movie, all you’re trying to do is get people to care about what you’ve come up with. And this is the first time I thought, Oh Godthey really care.

There was an implication that youd somehow be tampering with the Ghostbusters masculinity. I never thought of those guys as paragons of dude-ness.

No, theyre a bunch of outsider nerds! And thats what I love about them: Theyre the underdogs. Theyre smart but very fallible people, and for me thats catnip—if you look at all the stuff I’ve done, it’s about people who cant find their place in life.

How did the blowback manifest itself?

There were two waves: The first was balls-out, straight-up misogyny. And that is a nonstarter for me: Youve gotta work out your own problems, guys. But there was another wave of people who were nervous about us touching a classic and who were not happy with it being a reboot. I get it.If I wasnt doing it, Id very well have the same concerns.

But what happens on the Internet now is: Well, [Feig] said anybody whos against this movie hates women. And I did not say that! I think theres a group of you, yes, that has real issues with women. But theres also a huge group of people who are just concerned about the property, and I completely understand. Im completely sympathetic to that.

You’ve been on Twitter for almost a decadeso it’s not like you could dodge all of this.

I wanna hear from everybody—good or bad, even if its said harshly, or if its fucked-up, at least I know that take exists. So up until about a few months ago, I just took it all. But I then started to notice a small group of people who would just hammer me over and over again. So I got into it with them, and I probably shouldnt have. There was one guy I went afterwhosestuff was just hatefulhed go on a screed against anyone who was supporting me.Like, mothers would tweet me, thanking them for their daughters, and hed go off onthem. I was on vacation after the shoot, and a tweet of hisjust hit me the wrong way. I just fired off aGo fuck yourself tweet.It felt so good in the moment, but as the day went on, I was like, God damn it, why did I do that?

So I just block them now.Because I dont need it. Ive always been obsessed with Richard Dawkins work on the human gene and all that stuff, and he would always write that humans just dont have the ability to deal with large numbers; our brains just can’t process that. And thats the problem with the Internet: I open up my inbox and theres 100 angry tweets from people. I started going like, Oh my god, everybodys against this movie. Thats not the case at allthese are just the people who take them time to write to you.

I gotta put it in perspective, because, look—Im a comedy guy. I was a stand-up comedian, and we live or die based on the feedback and approval of people. Its one of our shortcomings, its why we do what we do. Were always looking for validation, were always looking to people-please. So when the Internet is working in a great way, its fantastic. Ive been on Twitter for eight-plus years, and six and a half of those years were just the greatest time ever. You find your people, and youre entertaining your people, and theyre interacting with you, and youre able to tell them about stuff. So the controversy has been eye-opening, but I cant give up on social media. Though, to be honest, I was probably spending a little too much time on social media.

Is there any particular day of shooting Ghostbusters that stands out as a highlight?

There are so many. Those four women are so funny, and nobodys playing a game of tennis by themselves. They all realize they need each other; they set each other up. You cant be funny on your own.So doing the first camera test was really fun. We did it a day or two before shooting, just to get them all in their costumes, and to see how they look on-camera. And when they all came out together with their Ghostbusters uniforms on for the first time, it was pretty exciting. We all we all got kind of emotional about it. And then they immediately started goofing off with each other to make each other laugh and youre just standing behind the camera going, Well, were in great shape. Because if everything else goes wrong, this cast is amazing and their chemistry is so good, well get by on that [laughs].

In the first trailer, a ghost pukes on Kristen Wiig. You’ve had a barf scene in most of your films. Is there some Stand by Me-like vom-trauma that youre working through here?

I never thought about it! But I’m a big fan of high and low comedy. If youre hanging out with your smart friends and somebody farts, it’s the funniest thing in the world. But for Ghostbusters, it felt like Well, if she’s gonna get slimed, she should really get slimed. And we don’t know exactly how Slimer slimed Bill Murray in the original movie

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Speaking of Murray: His role is a secret, but we know he showed up for filming. How did you get him to return?

We figured he would like the part we wrote for him, because its so different than what anyone would expect him to play in the movie.But it was always like, Will we be able to get him? I ran into him at the 40th anniversary Saturday Night Live party last year. He had alreadymade that statement about who he thought should be in the movie, so it was on his radar;when I saw him, he was lovely, congratulating me on doing it and all that. And at the very end I said, Well, Bill, wed really love it if you would join us. And he was all like, Oh yeah, yeah , and just sort of extracted himself. So I was like, Oh, nodid I blow it?

But then we sent it to him. We were working it all from our backchannels, including calling that mystery numberI left this message, and I didnt know where it went. It could have gone into a black hole, for all I knew, because it just clicksand youre like, Did I just get hung up on? So we didnt know.A couple of weeks before [shooting], we were like, Should we be lining up someone else as a back-up, just in case? What a terrible thing for an actor: Youre hired, but if Bill Murray shows up, youre fired.With about a week to go, we heard, It looks like hes going to do it. And when Bill came on the set, it was really emotional and completely nerve-racking. I collapsed when we finished that day, I was so exhausted.

You’ve been outspoken about big studios favoring male directors over women. Why do you think this is still happening?

What I’ve found is that it’s not a conspiracy—its lack of imagination. In general they look at a bunch of people whose work they know. They draw from a pool, and since so many women haven’t been given the opportunity to direct at these levels, there’s less chance the studio will say, I like that movie—lets bring in the woman who directed it. It’s the pool being too small, but also it’s the banality of people not thinking beyond their default setting. People in Hollywood just have to force themselvesI hate to say force, but they doto say, Let’s bring in men and women and people of color, and let’s throw the thing wide open.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Garry Shandling, who died earlier this year, and seemed to serve as a mentor to pretty much every comedic performer in the industry.

Garry gave me one of my first breaks. I was a stand-up who was just getting into acting, and got brought for the final season of It’s Garry Shandling’s Showto play his brother-in-law. I was just out of my mind, because he was such a hero to me. On the first day we did the table read, I was so nervous that I was jiggling my leg up and down the whole time. At one point Garrywas pointing over at me; I could read his lips, and saw him say, Look how nervous he is. He was kind of sweetly amused by it.

I learned so much from him that week. Id ad-lib something that was really funny, and Id be nervous, that I was goingto get in trouble—and he said to me, My hero was Jack Benny. He surrounded himself with the funniest people, and he had those people be as funny as they could be, because he knew the next day around the water-cooler, people would say Hey, did ya watch Jack Benny last night? Wasnt that funny?

Later,when we put together Freaks and Geeks, [the studio said], Shoot that script. Its like a writers dream: Dont change anything! Then, on the first day of preproduction, I get in the room with Judd Apatow, and hes like, Lets tear the script apart. And Im like, No, wait—they love it. And Judds like, Lets see if we can get it better. He said he learned that from Garry: Just keep working on it. If we make it worse, the old script exists, and its awesome—but why would we not try to make it better? It was a hard lesson to learn, but the minute I realized they were right, I started rewriting and finding new stuff. It worked. Via Judd, that was the gift I got from Garry.

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