Producer Paul Feig has an 'unheard of' hit rate. Here are his secrets to success.
Some will remember Paul Feig as biology teacher Mr. Pool on "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," but his real adventures in pop culture began with the creation of "Freaks and Geeks," which launched his career behind the camera.
Afterward better known as a director of film ("A Simple Favor," "Bridesmaids," "Spy," the gender-flipped "Ghostbusters") and television (notably "The Office," "Arrested Development" and "Nurse Jackie"), he has been recently busy as a producer of both, through his FeigCo, and of digital content, via Powderkeg, an "incubator" he co-founded with Laura Fischer, "dedicated to elevating female and LGBTQ creators and filmmakers of color."
Though he has not had a show of his own creation since the 2015 sci-fi comedy "Other Space," Feig's production company, which was also behind "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist" and "Love Life," recently had two series premiere on the same day. Fox's faux documentary "Welcome to Flatch," developed by Jenny Bicks ("Sex in the City," "Men in Trees") from the BBC's "This Country," stars Sam Straley and Holmes as cousins, immature yet striving, proudly critical residents of an eccentric Ohio small town. "Minx," on HBO Max, is a period aspirational workplace comedy from Ellen Rapoport, about the first erotic magazine for women, sort of like "The Deuce" crossed with "Good Girls Revolt" crossed with "GLOW."
It's worth exploring the Powderkeg productions as well. These include the short films produced under the banner Powderkeg: Fuse and set among less-represented communities of Los Angeles, among them Talia Osteen's "Shabbos Goy," Thembi Banks' "Baldwin Beauty" and Lizzy Sanford's "Freckle and the Shih Tzu." The company also has produced the Snapchat series "Everything's Fine," about a young woman with bipolar disease trying to make it in the music business; and "East of La Brea," which can be seen on Powderkeg TV's Instagram account, about the friendship of two young Muslim women, one Black, one Bangladeshi. Powderkeg also is producing "The Doctor Is in," a comedic drama in podcast form, starring Alison Pill as a veterinarian dealing with supernatural creatures.
Q: It seems natural to begin talking about your producing career by talking about Judd Apatow, who produced "Freaks and Geeks." What did you learn from him?
A: What I learned with Judd is that a good producer has creative thoughts, helps dig you out of holes that may occur either through feedback from the network or when you get tied up in something you can't figure out. They're good protectors of your vision, willing to fight the battles on the front line so you as the creator can do your thing and not get overwhelmed by politics; they're supportive and keep the train moving. As a producer, you want to balance your ideas with the creator's and not just dictate a different voice to the show.
A good producer teaches you the realities of the business, and is good at tamping down the natural instinct of someone who's a first-time showrunner or creator — or is just on fire about their ideas — to explode at any moment. Someone gives you a note: "How dare they!" And a good producer's like, "All right, calm down. There's something in that note, let's listen." It's not to compromise your vision, but you're in a business. If you're just a person that says no no no to the people in charge, you're not going to work anymore. I tell students or anybody I work with, "Look for the germ of truth in the note." If it's "We don't understand this, we think it could be stronger," that's a valid note, usually. Sometimes it's not, but let them have a few victories.
Q: Were you and Judd ever at odds?
A: We were really in sync on the whole thing. We cruised through the selling process — I wrote the script, on spec, and sent it to Judd, and he had a couple of small notes, but that was it. And when NBC got it, they were like, "Don't change a word." And who ever hears that in this business? It's every writer's dream. The eye-opening moment for me was when we were moving towards production, Judd was, like, "OK, let's tear the script apart." And I was like, "Wait, what?" And it was really this two weeks of growing up. His whole thing, and he learned it from Garry Shandling, was, "You've got the script, it's in great shape, if you're hard on it and try different things, all you can do is make it better, and if you don't, you've got the original script."
Q: Was "Freaks and Geeks" different from what you experienced with producers afterward?
A: Well, after "Freaks and Geeks," I couldn't sell many shows, so I was working more as a director on other people's shows. But I've been pretty lucky to get to produce a lot of the stuff I've done in my career, or work with a producing partner of my choosing, or another producer who's on an equal footing with us, so they're giving input but not dictating to us.
Q: When you're producing your own projects, do you find it necessary to have some kind of outside critical voice?
A: I do; I just want to make sure it's always of our own choosing. It sounds a little like stacking the deck. But my producing partner in movies for seven years was Jessie Henderson, and now it's Laura Fischer, and they're both super-smart, realistic, tough-on-material people who are never going to go, "Oh, sure! Whatever!" I deputize everyone around me — just call me on stuff. And that was really something I learned when I worked under Greg Daniels on "The Office." He deputized all the way to the catering people; he would grab the security guy from the parking lot and pull him into the editing room and ask, "What do you think of this?" And he would listen, because everybody's a valid member of the audience. If you go into it that way, you're not just in your own head and up your own ass, which is the easiest thing to have happen.
Q: You have a well-deserved reputation for promoting women in film and films about women. The Athena Film Festival gave you its first "Leading Man" award.
A: They're the only stories I'm interested in telling, really, at the moment — and I feel like it's been most of my life. Maybe it's just that growing up I didn't see that many done, except for old movies, I've always been friends with women and enjoy their senses of humor and the way they interact and tell stories. But now with Powderkeg, it includes filmmakers of color and LGBTQ people. I've seen enough stories about white men.
Q: Do you think there's a Paul Feig brand, that when people see your name they expect anything in particular?
A: I'd hope they'd first say, "Oh, it's going to be really fun, even if it's dark, it'll be good-natured and be uplifting ultimately." I hope they'd expect an underdog story, 'cause those are the stories I'm really interested in telling. I want to be a mark of quality, but I don't want to be a mark of boring quality. If my career were summed up in one word and that one word was fun, I'd be really, really happy.