'Heat' director Paul Feig won success a step at a time
05:00 AM, Jun 25, 2013
DETROIT — Growing up in Mt. Clemens, Mich., in the 1970s, Paul Feig set out to conquer show business, one talent at a time.
He could do impersonations, including a really good Ernie Harwell. He played the drums and guitar. He did magic tricks. He tried stand-up comedy at open-mic nights. At night in his room, he put on a white suit like Steve Martin’s onstage costume and recited along with Martin’s albums.
“Anything he put his mind to, he would just work at it until he was extremely good at it,” says longtime friend Mike Sampson, who lived next door and now works for Ford Motor.
Another Feig pursuit was writing scripts. “I could swear one of them was going to be a bowling musical,” says Sampson with a laugh.
The world may never experience that particular Feig brainstorm, but the ones it has seen have helped change the face of comedy. Freaks and Geeks, the classic 1999-2000 TV series that was inspired by Feig’s youth as a comedy-loving geek at Chippewa Valley High School, won critical acclaim for its unsurpassed exploration of teen angst.
Now with new movie The Heat, he’s poised to repeat the success of Bridesmaids, the 2011 box-office hit he directed. It’s the only major studio release of the summer led by two female stars.
Breaking the mold
Once again, Feig, 50, is at the helm of a movie that’s out to break the glass ceiling of male-dominated comedy this time in the buddy cop genre. The Heat stars Sandra Bullock as a by-the-book FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as a renegade Boston cop who are thrown together to investigate a drug kingpin.
“They’re not women acting like men, and it’s not a script written for two men that we just inserted two women into,” says Feig. “It was written by a female writer (Katie Dippold of NBC’s Parks and Recreation) who wrote it because she got tired of watching all the men cop movies where guys are riding around on mopeds with hot girls on the back in bikinis. Kate’s whole thing was, ‘Why can’t women have this?’”
The raucous, surprisingly tender R-rated movie has been testing extremely well with audiences, according to Feig, even better than “Bridesmaids,” which earned almost $300 million worldwide and represented a long overdue settling of the outdated question on whether women can be as funny as men.
“What is nice is we are a crowd-pleaser, and men and women are liking it equally,” says the director, who returned to Detroit recently for a screening of The Heat.
Before Bridesmaids, Feig already had a respected career as a writer, producer and director. Besides Freaks and Geeks, which has lived on through DVDs and put both him and fellow executive producer Judd Apatow on the map, he was a co-executive producer and director of NBC’s The Office a perfect fit for his comedy style grounded in life’s awkward moments.
But even after the massive success of Bridesmaids, he credits his roots with shaping his comic sensibilities.
“We in the Midwest have a low tolerance for things that feel dishonest or feel fake,” says Feig. “That to me is what angle all my comedy is. Everything has to feel real to me; it has to feel grounded. The characters, even if they’re doing crazy things, have to act the way people actually act.”
Steve Martin obsession
An only child, Feig absorbed the full spectrum of comedy styles from his late parents. His father was a community leader who owned Ark Surplus in Clinton Township, a now-gone Army surplus and sporting goods store like the one run by Sam Weir’s dad in “Freaks and Geeks.”
“He loved jokes, really complicated jokes that required a good performance and delivery,” Feig says.
His mother was a fan of silly, goofy comedy. “Her claim to fame was she won some talent show imitating Charlie Chaplin when she was a teenager,” he says.
Early on, Feig was obsessed with comedy, from old Warner Bros. cartoons and Marx Brothers movies to sitcom reruns like Gilligan’s Island that he watched after school. As he got older, he moved on to envelope-pushing shows like SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
Feig’s idol was Steve Martin, a comedy god of the ’70s. While other kids were buying Martin’s albums, he took his devotion a step further, purchasing a three-piece white suit and setting up a microphone in his room. “I would literally dress like Steve Martin every night, stand in my room and put on the album and lip-sync through the entire album in front of a microphone,” he recalls.
His parents encouraged his showbiz dreams. When he was 17, his father asked whether he wanted to write, direct and star in ads for Ark Surplus. That led to three TV spots, including one in which he imitated Groucho Marx and another in which he played Tarzan.
“I thought I was really going to become a big local celebrity,” he says. But his visions of walking down the street and being attacked by fans fell far short. “One sobering moment was when some guy said, ‘Hey, you’re the kid on those commercials.’ I said: ‘Yes, I am. Thank you very much.’ He said, ‘Hey, I didn’t say I liked them.’”
Walt Tycholiz, who taught radio and TV broadcasting to Feig for two years at Chippewa Valley High, recalls Feig as an energetic, committed student who seemed destined for success. In the late 1990s, Tycholiz came face to face with proof of that assessment when he spotted two guys, one with long hair wearing an Army jacket, wandering the halls of Chippewa Valley High.
“I stopped them and said, ‘Can I help you?’” Tycholiz remembers. It turned out the freaky-looking dude was James Franco, who was on a research mission at Feig’s old school not long before the debut of Freaks and Geeks.
Feig may collaborate with A-listers like Bullock and McCarthy and be friends himself with some of the biggest names in movies, but he remains the boy from Mt. Clemens who’s fascinated by comedy at heart.
He still can’t get over a recent meeting he had with his childhood idol.
“Talk about coming full circle,” he says. “There I am, for an hour, just chatting with Steve Martin about this project, and I’m just going, ‘Oh my God, I’m talking to Steve Martin, whose posters covered my walls, whose routines I obsessively recited every night.’”