50 years after her first appearance on Broadway, Elaine May won a well-deserved Tony Award.
Students of The Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City Training Center in Chicago recently got a visit from bona fide comedy badass Paul Feig. If you live on a planet where there is no laugher, you might not be familiar with his copious list of credits, including creating cult TV fave Freaks and Geeks and, more recently, directing Bridesmaids, The Heat, and last summer’s Ghostbusters reboot.
The prolific director, writer, producer and performer spent a hands-on day at The Harold Ramis Film School, where he is on the advisory board, discussing his work and giving feedback on current students’ projects. The day wrapped up in Judy’s Beat Lounge, where he participated in a Q&A session with Training Center students. “Professor” Feig’s advice was invaluable, but he warned, “What I’m saying isn’t gospel.” He’s adamant that any advice you get about working in entertainment and–more specifically, in comedy–should be taken with a grain of salt. “People tell you rules all the time in this business, and they say, ‘This is how it is.’ And then somebody breaks all the rules, and they’re successful.”
Read on for a few more of the best solid gold nuggets from his first (but not last) visit.
Improv actors rule
Feig’s films are known for starring actors who often have strong backgrounds in improvisation. “They’re my favorite actors, the ones with improv training,” he said. Feig spoke about how he uses improv to not only ensure that actors are reacting in real time, but to find out what they themselves can bring to the role. He continued, “As we’re working on rewrites and all that, we do these sessions where [the actors] will improv. I’ll start to see what they’re naturally leaning towards–where their comedy is–and what part of the character they’re funnier with. [I see] what I didn’t even think would be there.”
According to Feig, Melissa McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids was largely fleshed out this way, a role that resulted in McCarthy receiving an Academy Award nomination.
Collaboration is what’s up
It sounds kind of sci-fi, but minds need to meld when making a film. “You become one brain, when it goes well,” said Feig about working with his team. “The coming together of two visions, that’s how it should be. I find when filmmakers have a vision–and they are so dead set on that vision–they limit themselves because they’re not feeding off the talent and creativity of the very talented people they’ve picked. Your ‘main’ vision is going to become much richer through the visions of these other people.”
Real life is real funny
“Use people’s experiences; use your own experiences,” Feig advised. He definitely practices what he preaches, too. Most of the plot lines in Freaks and Geeks (a show Time magazine named one of the Top 100 TV shows of All Time) were real things that happened to the writers.
“We sat around for two weeks after the show got picked up and put together our writing staff, and I just did this big questionnaire of what was the worst thing that happened to you in high school? and what was the best thing? We got most of our plots for the season just from those stories.”
Set attainable goals for stacks on stacks of results
“I set a goal of five pages per day once I’m in script mode because then in less than a month, you’ll have a draft.” How does he make it happen? “When I’m writing, I have a very set routine. I try to start right around 9:00 AM and I try not to stop around 6:00 PM.” Sounds like a lot, but Feig explained, “It doesn’t mean I’m just head down writing, writing, writing all the time. I just clear the day so that I’m ready to receive whatever inspiration may come in.” If this sounds like tedious work, he agrees. “It never gets easier, and it’s never pleasant and it’s never fun. I always say I don’t trust anybody who really, really loves writing.”
Find your theme…and never let go
Feig shared some insight into what drives his films and talked about developing an individual strong creative voice. “I think all of us as filmmakers and writers have one thing we say over and over again and explore in different ways. It’s interesting to look at every different filmmaker and go, what is their thing? For me, it’s always about outsiders and people trying to find their place in life.” He continued, “There’s always gonna be one thing that is kind of your theme in life.”
Feig wrapped up by touching on how new technology has shifted the power dynamic in the ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-adapting world of entertainment. “You are in the greatest time to begin doing this,” he said. “It used to cost a fortune to make anything, ‘cause you had to shoot it on film. Production is now completely open and democratic to everybody…and distribution, too. You can now upload something and click a button and the world can see what you’ve done. So there’s never been less of an excuse to not make what you’re gonna make.”
You heard the man. Go get creative.