By Edward Douglas
Paul Feig has made all kinds of comedies from his days as creator of “Freaks and Geeks” to the 2011 hit comedy “Bridesmaids” and the attempted “Ghostbusters” reboot in 2016. Last year, Feig took a hard left turn by making the thriller “A Simple Favor” with Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding.
Now, Feig is back doing comedy with “Last Christmas,” a holiday rom-com centered around the music of George Michael with a screenplay co-written by the wonderful Dame Emma Thompson. It stars Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones” as Kate, a problemed Londoner who works at a Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh. One night she meets Henry Golding’s Tom, and the two of them form a bond that leads to a few wonderful moments that will easily put you in the Christmas spirit however hard you might try and fight it.
Next Best Picture spoke with Feig when he was in New York to talk about his movie a week or two back.
Next Best Picture: I know a little bit about the movie because I was at CinemaCon. I know there was a George Michael song, and I think his estate was involved, and Emma got involved. How early were you involved yourself?
Paul Feig: I only came onto this about a year and a half ago. Emma has been working on the script for almost eight years. We were supposed to do the movie “Late Night” together. I was supposed to direct, and then just the scheduling fell apart, so I wasn't able to do it, because I went and did “A Simple Favor.” We stayed friends, and we would always write each other like, " We have to figure out something to do," because we really bonded when we were prepping that movie. One day I was literally signing on to do another movie, and this popped up, and she was like, "Hey we should do this. I think we'd have a lot of fun." I read it and was just like, "Oh my God." So I jettisoned the other movie and just jumped on board.
Was George Michael still alive when Emma first got involved with it?
Yeah, she had actually met with him one day and then talked to him about it a couple of years before he died. He read the treatments, and she told him all about it, and he really loved the idea of it. He wanted to suggest songs, he was looking forward to working on it with her, once it was moving towards production. So it was very sad that he…
Of course, especially since it turned out so great and it brings his music back to light.
Well, that's the thing. To me, it's exciting to bring his music to a new generation.
I don’t think I realized this when I saw “Spy,” but I get the impression you’re a big Anglophile. Seeing “Black Adder” on TV in one scene really clinched it for me.
This has been the greatest year of my life, making this movie, because my wife and I got to live in London for a year, and now she actually wants to move back. So we may be moving there permanently. We'll see. It's so great, especially for the way I dress, so.
All you need is to wear a top hat all the time.
Yeah, a bowler. I've got a bowler, and I've got a top hat, trust me. I was into ascots this year, so I went full English.
Let’s talk about Emilia Clark because I think that was probably the most daring choice. She is really amazing in this movie, but you wouldn’t expect that from seeing her in anything else she’s done. How did you come to her to play Kate? Was she already attached before you?
No, it's my favorite way to do things, which is, I don't audition people. I just have meetings with people, and if I'm a fan of somebody, I go like, "Hey, can I meet them?" Four years ago, you know, big “Game of Thrones” fan, and she was on Broadway and getting these amazing reviews, and I was like, "I have to meet her." She happened to be in LA, so she came by our offices, and we had like an hour meeting. I was expecting this very serious, staid British actress, and she's delightful. She was funny. She just kept making us laugh. I was going, "Wow, she just has to be in a comedy." She left town, and I said to my producing partner at the time, Jessie Henderson, I was like, "We've got to get a comedy for her."
I was writing a script at the time, and I was trying to write her into it, but I wasn't happy with the script. When I read this one, it was like, "This is the one, this can showcase her comedy. We can do physical comedy, but it also has the amazing acting that she does." It was an absolute no-brainer for me. I mean, I was just on fire about it the minute I thought of it and found out then that she read it, and she wanted to do it.
And she could sing?
Yeah, although this is my dirty secret. I was so excited that she was going to do it, and wanted to do it, that we made the deal. It was only after the deal was made, that, I think our line producer, goes, "She can sing, right?" I was just like, "I don't know if she can sing," I looked around, and she had this Dolce & Gabbana commercial she had done. It was on the internet, where she's singing this Italian song, so when she came in, I was like, "Emilia, so that's you, right?" She goes, "Oh yeah, I sing." I was like, "Oh my God. I don't want to have to dub you!”
It's like that skating scene where she auditions for an ice show, and I’m sure those often get people in auditions who can’t really skate. sWhen did you actually shoot the movie? I wasn’t sure if you had to shoot in the summer, as I’ve sometimes seen fake snow in New York in August when people are trying to film a movie for the holidays.
No, we shot this at Christmas. We started shooting the very beginning of December last year because I knew I wanted to get as much of London's natural decorations. We had three weeks, and that's when we shot all of Covent Garden, Regent Street, all that stuff where there are all the big decorations up, and then we took two weeks off for Christmas, and then we finished up all the way through February.
I was wondering about that, because I live in Chinatown, and they’re always dressing it up as if it’s New Years.
The fake show?
No, not snow. Just the decorations.
It was nice to get the real stuff. Also, we were very lucky, because normally Regency, they decorate it like crazy but it's usually like "NFL Comes To England" or "Disney Princesses" or whatever. But this was the year, there were just these angels with no advertising, and it's like, "Okay we're in good shape."
That’s wild. I had not realized there was so much advertising involved in holiday decorations.
Oh, yeah. That's a big sales corridor there, usually, so it was just complete luck that they didn't do that this year.
You had probably cast Henry Golding in “A Simple Favor” before “Crazy Rich Asians” came out, but then you have Michelle Yeoh in this, so most people are going to assume you’re a big fan of that movie.
No, it completely had nothing to do with it. Although "Crazy Rich Asians" did bring us all together because, when we were shooting "A Simple Favor" in Toronto, she was in Toronto doing "Star Trek." And so Henry called me up one day because we were buddies by that point. He's like, "Hey, I'm having dinner with Michelle Yeoh." I was like, "What?" First of all, there are certain people that you go like, "They don't really exist, right?" Michelle Yeoh has always been somebody who doesn't exist, for me, because she's in all my favorite movies. But they're the Hong Kong things, and they just feel like, from another planet. And so he's, "I love Michelle Yeoh, but I can't even imagine seeing it." He goes, "Oh, she's really nice. Come on over. I just played her son." I was like, "Oh okay" So then I go to meet her and she's warm and wonderful and another just like Emilia, where you go like, "Oh my God, you're so funny." She made me laugh the whole night. And so it was really that, and we bonded so much that we were like, "We have to do something together. We have to do something together." So when I read the script, I mean, honestly, the first person I cast was Michelle, because that was like Santa's, "This is Michelle," almost to the point where I was kind of like, "Oh shoot, I wish they weren't both in "Crazy Rich Asians," because it's just going to look like I raided the cast." But it was completely organic.
And as I said, you got Henry for “A Simple Favor” before “Crazy Rich Asians” had come out.
They had only wrapped "Crazy Rich Asians" I think two or three weeks before we started shooting. I wanted to get somebody new in that role, and my wife was like, "You should look at that "Crazy Rich Asians" cast because I know they found some guy for it." I looked him up online, and I found all these videos, he had a travel show, and he had this reel of all highlights from his travel show. And I was like, "This guy is so great because he was so charismatic and he had this funny energy and all that." Then I called John Chu and I was like, "I'm thinking of casting Henry. How was the experience? Was he good?" And John was like, "He's the greatest, you're going to love him, he's just so open, he'll take any direction. He just wants to be great." I really had to convince the studio, because there was no evidence whatsoever if he was good or not. But I knew there was something there. Then, we put him through a million chemistry reads with Blake and all that. He came in just holding his own, and he's a confident cat.
I look forward to seeing him in that Guy Ritchie movie that also was at CinemaCon.
No, it's crazy. He plays a total villain in that, too. I'm dying to see it. They've got him all hair slicked back and cool clothes and stuff.
Had Emma already decided that she was going to play Kate’s mother?
No, she wasn't going to play anything in the movie. But when we said we were going to do it, I said, "Look, I always want the writers with me. I want you with me every day, all day." We were trying to cast that role, and we were going very authentic because we got Boris who plays her husband. We went to Zagreb and cast him out of a bunch of people, and we were looking at women. I was having all of this angst because I go, "Okay, I'm going to have Emma Thompson, one of the greatest actresses of our generation with me. How am I going to explain when you and I are sitting here at a press junket, why Emma Thompson's not in the movie" I was like, "This is crazy. Would you play the mom?" She goes, "I thought about it, but I don't think I should." I said, "Look, let me release you from that guilt. You're going to play it," because it's a home run. She worked so hard to get that right. We had this consultant who was Serbian and was helping us with the language and all that. She was always off with him, running her lines, and working on her accent, and learning the language from him so she could have little expressions that added to the... It was really interesting to watch somebody of that talent prepare.
I came up with a new saying after seeing her at CinemaCon. "I want to have as much fun as Emma Thompson had on her first trip to Las Vegas." She was having a blast. When she came back out for “Late Night,” I thought she might be drunk.
Oh yeah, she was on fire. She lives life. That's what's so nice about Emma. She's just a real free spirit.
What are some of your own favorite Christmas movies?
My favorite movie of all time, period, is “It's a Wonderful Life.” It always has been. I've always thought that movie checks every box. It does everything that I think a popular movie should do. It just entertains. It's funny, it's dramatic. It makes you cry, makes you feel great at the end. I've always been kind of looking for my “It's a Wonderful Life.” I remembered saying in film school, "If I can just make one movie like that, I would just be the happiest guy in the world." When the script came in, it really influenced me. But I love Love Actually, which I'd only watched for the first time probably about four years ago, and was like, "Holy shit." I got to know Richard Curtis because of it. I'm always like, "How did you do that? How did you manage to balance all those stories in a way where I don't go, like, "Oh no, not this storyline," because I don't like multiple stories. I always just go like, "Wait, I want to spend time with one character," but this one you're just like, "Oh good. Oh good. We're back with them. Oh good. We're back with them." That's the biggest tightrope walk ever. Then my other favorite Christmas movie is Die Hard. It's a Christmas movie. Jumping into the fray.
Are you inviting Richard Curtis to the London premiere of the movie?
You know what? I've got to make sure I did. Thank you for telling me.
You've got me really curious to see what he thinks of it, because, obviously, of the movies you watch, you think of Elf, you think of that movie. I remember when Love Actually came out, I think it did better than people were expecting, but it was just very like-
Yeah, it didn't go through the roof here
No, but it found its audience afterward, and it’s an insanely big audience, too.
“It's a Wonderful Life” is the same way. It didn't get good reviews, and I don't think it did well.
Where do you go from here? I feel like you're one of these directors who is actually diversifying. Every director I talk to says they want to do that, but from “A Simple Favor” to the movies you’ve done with Melissa, you’ve checked off a lot of boxes, as you say.
I'm just working my way through the genres. One of my favorite directors of all time was Howard Hawks. He went from Western to screwball comedy to gangster movie to horror movie, with “The Thing” and all that, so effortlessly. I think it comes from the years I was a TV director. Like you go, "Now I'm on a medical show. Now I'm on the crazy comedy." I love that. I get bored with doing the same thing all the time. You know, my next movie is a monster movie, so I’m very excited about that.
What's that called?
It’s called the “Dark Army.” It's out of the Universal Classic Monster Universe. I've taken a few classic characters, side characters, and repurposed this new story with some new characters.
Oh wow. I love the Universal monsters, and I’ve been dying for them to do something more with them.
I want to bring back the old James Whale feel of how those used to be.
Universal has been wanting to do something with the Monsters for a long time, but it hasn’t really come together.
Sometimes it turns into action movies versus monster movies, and they have to be monster movies first and foremost. I'm very excited about that. I finished the first draft, and hopefully, we can get in production on that, beginning next year.
Personally, I love “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
It's a great one. The tone they hit is really fun. I love those movies so much.
Are you still trying to do a sequel to one of these other movies like “Spy” or “The Heat”?
We wrote the sequel to “The Heat” right after we finished it, and it's great. Sandra, she didn't even read the script. She doesn't like to do sequels, because she's had bad luck with them. You know, like “Speed 2.” I think she was kind of not into it. We really wanted to do it, but I don't chase sequels because I do feel a little bit like "been there, done that." And also, it's hard. The reason movies work is because you discover a character, and you watch this character become who they are. Everybody says, "You have to do a sequel to Bridesmaids.” But the reason “Bridesmaids” works is because Kristen Wiig repairs her life, so you can't make “Bridesmaids 2,”… her life's a mess, and she repairs it again? It's just the artifice of a crazy wedding. It could be funny, but that's harder. Characters drive these things. That said, I think it'd be fun to make another “Spy,” because that feels more franchise-ey.
It feels more like now that Melissa McCarthy is a spy, there’s a lot of funny stuff that can still happen to her.
I recently spoke to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and they’ve done okay with “Deadpool 2” and “Zombieland 2.”
They've really figured it out.
I’ve spoken to a few filmmakers who have done sequels, and it must be the hardest thing especially when the first movie does well because there’s so much pressure for the sequel to do as well. If the first movie does poorly, then why are you bothering to make a sequel?
It's hard. And also, audiences don't necessarily jump at a sequel. That's why there's been sequel-itis. We did a lot of deep dive on this when we were putting together "Ghostbusters" and all that, and the audience, their big thing is like, "Why? Like I saw it. Why do I have to see it? Just because I liked the first one doesn't automatically mean I'm going to rush out and see the second one. Tell me why I need to see this." A lot of people can't answer that question.
It’s tough, and unfortunately, you can’t get people to commit to buying tickets before you start making a movie. I guess that’s what crowdfunding is all about, and yet, those who fund those movies don’t always go see them.
It's like going to get SiriusXM at the beginning, and go like, "If you pay 500 now, you have it the rest of your life."
"Last Christmas" is currently playing in theaters. Check out the trailer below.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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