By Jeffrey Buck
Thirty years ago Paul Feig took off west in his Mustang with one goal: to make it as an actor in Hollywood. Thirty years later, the successful actor, writer and director, continues to make people laugh while remembering his humble roots back in the Midwest.
The Woodward Spine had the chance to speak with the highly successful director of 2011’s critically acclaimed hit ‘Bridesmaids’ and the upcoming film ‘The Heat’ (opening in theaters June 28th) about his life in Michigan and his journey to break into show business.
Jeffrey Buck: How often did you and your family visit Detroit?
Paul Feig: The only time we really went to downtown Detroit was to go to Greektown like everybody else in the world. We didn’t spend too much time downtown. My dad, while I was growing up…actually not when I was growing up, before they had me, even before he met my mom owned his first store, a pawn shop. It was down in Cass Corridor. He was in like the roughest part of Detroit. When he got out of there and moved his business to the East Side he was always kind of hesitant to go back down to Detroit. So consequently, we never went down there that much except to go to Greektown. But the irony was when I went back to Michigan, on a book tour a number of years ago, I was suddenly like gosh I never used to hang out in downtown Detroit, this time I just want to hang out down there this whole time. And I did and it was a lot of fun discovering Detroit and finding the fun places, cool restaurants and just kind of seeing it again. I used to go down to the Fisher Theatre too and we had a cottage in Canada. Right outside of Windsor. So we drove through Detroit a lot. So we were only going through it and by it. But yeah never really spent too much time downtown, which was unfortunate.
JB: What was your reasoning for transferring from Wayne State?
PF: I wanted to get into showbiz my whole life; I was in theatre and all that. Coming up on the summer of my freshman year in college I decided I wanted to try and make it as an actor in Hollywood. I got a job as a tour guide at Universal Studios, so I drove out to L.A. and worked that summer at Universal Studios and went back to do my sophomore year at Wayne State. When I was out as a tour guide I discovered the USC film school, found out about it and decided I wanted to go there. While doing my sophomore year at Wayne State I applied to USC film school and got in so that’s when I headed off. When I was at Wayne State I was a communications major, but kind of quickly realized I wanted to go and train where I could get the most kind of professional training in a place that knew the industry. It’s one thing to write and make movies in Detroit, it’s another thing to kind of learn how the actual business works and the politics of the business. That’s when I got out here in the fall of ’82 and have been out here ever since. So I’ve been out here for 30 years.
JB: When you left Wayne State, was it your goal to be in front of the camera? Or behind?
PF: I wanted to be in front of the camera. My goal was to be like Woody Allen, where I would be writing, directing and starring in my own movies so I would be both in front and behind, and I did that. Because when I went to film school I kind of went in as an actor trying to learn about filmmaking, but once I graduated I started doing standup comedy and did that professionally and then had a pretty long run as an actor for about fifteen years where I made my living being an actor. And I actually did make a movie, a really low budget feature that I wrote, directed and starred in that still hasn’t been released but it really showed me that I was better behind the camera. There’s just more to do and I like the control of it more. When you’re an actor there are only so many things you can do because you’re either right for a role or you’re not. But if you’re a director or a writer you can kind of write or direct about anything and it’s all just about whether you hire good people and actors and can get them to be their best. And that’s what I love because I understand actors, having been one, that I think that what I really have going for me is I really know how to work with actors. I really know how to get the best performances out of them and make a really safe environment for them; make them comfortable, so they can do their best work. Then [I] shoot them correctly and make sure the script is servicing them well so they can do their best. I like the challenge of that. As much as I love acting still, [and] some people still put me in some things, I don’t actively pursue it because I get more satisfaction out of what I do now.
JB: Did you know anyone the summer you worked in Hollywood at Universal Studios?
PF: No, I didn’t know a soul. My dad was kind of distant friends with this guy that lived out here who was a manager. Your older readers may possibly remember this: there was an infamous bad show that got cancelled pretty quickly called “Pink Lady and Jeff.” It starred this comedian Jeff Altman and these two Japanese women who were known as Pink Lady and my dad’s friend managed Pink Lady. So when I told my dad I wanted to figure out this thing about moving to LA and get into the business, he called him up to get some advice. The only thing the guy ever did for me was send me a copy of Daily Variety which had a production chart in the back that had the numbers and addresses to all of the movie studios. So I called all of the movie studios seeing if they needed actors because I had no idea how the business worked and obviously they all thought I was crazy or said, “no, we need like CPAs,” and stuff like that. But the last one I called was Universal Studios and they said well we’re only looking for tour guides and as a kid I had taken the tour and also at the end of most universal movies, like Animal House and Blues Brothers, there was a thing at the end which was like, “When in Hollywood take the Universal Tour.” And so to me it was like getting into showbiz so I said “yeah, I’ll do it, I’ll come out.” So I had to drive out after my last final. I took my last final and had to get out to LA in 36 hours, so my friend, who lived next-door, and I drove my stuff out and I did the interview and got hired into the training program. I was in the training program for two weeks and then from that they accepted me into the actual tour guide position. So then I stayed out here but I didn’t know anybody out here at all.
JB: What was your first car?
PF: My grandma gave me her Plymouth Fury, which was like the world’s biggest car ever. It was this big wide giant thing. I was terrified to drive because I went to Chippewa Valley High School and the road, Utica Road; I forget if it was Utica Road, I think it was. It was a super windy, two-way street and with that car it absolutely terrified me to drive down that road. I remember even doing driver’s education and having to deal with that road. I learned a good lesson early driving an enormous car on a very windy road.
JB: Do you remember what car you drove out to California? Was it the same car or something else?
PF: By that point I had this little Ford Mustang, when they made the real small Mustangs that weren’t cool anymore. It had no air conditioning or anything so when I got out here it turned out to be like the hottest summer in decades out here. I was absolutely dying in that car and we eventually put in an after-the-fact air conditioner which is always like the worst way to do it and it never worked. So I definitely sweat my way through that summer.
JB: Do you travel back to Michigan at all?
PF: Not that often but I do get in, [and it’s] generally work-related more often than not. Mainly for book tours I’ve been back there. I miss it. I love going back and whenever I do I really go around and visit the old places and stuff like that. I don’t get back as much as I’d like to.
JB: Were you a Detroit sports fan?
PF: I was a big Tigers fan. I was a big Red Wings fan back then because of Gordie Howe, and the kind of glory days of that era. I used to go to Tiger stadium, the old Tiger Stadium a bunch, which was always kind of scary as a kid because it was so old and the parking was so weird down there. I went to a number of Pistons games back when it was like Bob Lanier and those guys playing. I used to love going to Cobo Hall because I was a big car nut back then, so my favorite event in Detroit was always the AutoRama, They always used to do that at Cobo Hall, not sure if they still do. I think they would. But it wasn’t like going to the auto show; it was funny cars and custom cars. There were always some movie stars that would come down and make appearances and sign autographs. Once I got Leonard Nimoy’s autograph. You would kind of get these celebrities that would go around and make appearances and sign autographs. So to me that was like the best thing ever and when they would roll around I would get very excited. I felt like I was a part of Hollywood when I went down to that.
JB: I’ve read you’ve used a lot of stuff from your childhood in the Freaks and Geeks series. Can you tell us about that?
PF: I mean really everything, the references… I say they live in Chippewa, Michigan because of Chippewa Valley. The thing is filled with references to Parkway Plaza which was the shopping center by our house where we went to see movies all of the time. Faygo pop is in the show and just a lot of references to stuff back there. And we really tried to recreate the look of Mount Clemons in the show. We based the whole school, the politics of the school, and the layout of the school on Chippewa Valley. We had a smoking patio there. We even had one at our junior high, so we recreated that but we weren’t allowed to call it that on Freaks and Geeks so we just referred to it as the patio where the freaks hung out. It was all based on the school back there. The whole dynamics of that show are completely based on my childhood in Mount Clemons.
JB: Do you think you will ever make a movie or comic book with those characters?
PF: I don’t know. Never say never. I’m not sure. There’s always been talk once in awhile about a reunion or to reboot the show with a different cast. My feeling is like, I’m so happy with it, it came out so well that it would have to be a really great idea to open that up and take the chance of ruining the memory of it. But again I don’t count it out. I mean everyone from it is famous now so that would be the biggest thing. I don’t think we could afford them. I never rule out comic books or that kind of thing. But at the moment I’m so busy with so many other projects. I kind of want to let that one lie because I’m really proud of it and it’s still getting fans all of the time and people still watch it. Kind of like it to be what it was. Leave it alone.
JB: Is there any show you’ve directed recently that’s your favorite?
PF: I’ve loved all of the shows I’ve worked on. I’ve got to work on some great ones. I really liked working on ‘Nurse Jackie.’ I had a lot of fun on that one because I got to experiment more with the camera and they were open to a little more filmy the way I shot it. But “The Office” was just so much fun to shoot because the cast is so great — working with Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski and the whole gang. It was just so much fun. I mean I guess I’ve been really lucky. I’ve gotten to work on [some] really good shows, it just happens that my agent has steered me to good shows. So I’m sort of proud of them all!
Be sure to read “Part II” of Paul’s interview with the Spine tomorrow when he tackles questions like what movies did he watch as a kid, who’s his favorite Detroit musician & athlete and what does he miss most about Michigan.
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