This weekend, after a preamble of ads and backlash that feels like it’s been going on for the majority of my lifetime, the new Ghostbusters movie finally bows in theaters — a gentle lady bow; a curtsy, even. The premiere of the new movie will be a benchmark moment for how long a movie can be considered Coming Soon, and its success could cement its all-star cast as the top of the industry. But while the focus has rightfully been on the women who have carried both the movie and its backlash, Ghostbusters will also be a benchmark moment for its director, Paul Feig, who has spent his career exploring the plight of the little guys, only to finally find himself a top dog.
Though he wrote and directed a film called Life Sold Separately in 1997, Feig’s breakthrough came in 1999 with the legendary TV series Freaks and Geeks in 1999. Freaks and Geeks followed an ensemble cast of high school students through their daily trials — from dances, to relating to parents, to class disparity between peers, to being almost fatally stung by bees. At the time, Freaks was a critical darling, and Feig received an Emmy nomination for his writing in the final episode. But the show was canceled after its first season — like its spiritual gone-too-soon sister My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks's combination of humor and heartbreak anticipated the peak-TV era stylistically without having the stability of audience demand to support its depth of storytelling.
The failure of Freaks and Geeks would start off a string of troubled projects for Feig, whose focus on outcasts was starting to look a bit meta. While his Freaks collaborator Judd Apatow was getting his series Undeclared — kind of a college version of their canceled show — on the air at Fox, Feig wrote and directed I Am David, a film adapted from an Anne Holm novel of the same name, which centered around a child in a Bulgarian labor camp. It ultimately bombed with critics and audiences. His return to comedy with Unaccompanied Minors unfortunately was no smoother than his foray into drama. The film was produced through Warner Bros., which waged a war of attrition on Feig’s script, which initially was closer in style and substance to Freaks and Geeks. By the time Minors released into theaters it was almost completely generic — Catch That Kid, but without a young Kristen Stewart. It failed to make back its budget, and at a price point of $26 million, its failure was much more significant than the more anonymous failings of I Am David.
In the end, Feig went where we all go when we need to restore our energy and get our groove back — television. He became involved as a director on the first three seasons of Arrested Development, and from there he moved to The Office, directing episodes through the entire series run. He was also responsible for the stellar episode of Mad Men in which Betty shoots her neighbor’s birds, the episode of 30 Rock in which Liz Lemon goes to Cleveland, and the episode of Parks and Recreation in which Leslie performs the marriage ceremony for a pair of penguins. He then took on work directing Nurse Jackie. The shows that Feig fit into were a diverse bunch in terms of style, setting, and tone, but among the skills his work on TV helped him to hone was his knack for collaboration with women. And when his once-partner Apatow came calling for a project with rising Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig, Feig was a natural fit.
The film they made was Bridesmaids — a comedy about a depressed, jealous, frequently drunk, and woefully out-of-work maid of honor. Bridesmaids was developed from a script Wiig had written with her creative partner Annie Mumolo, and by now everyone knows, quotes, rewatches, and recognizes the movie as a classic. It’s still Feig’s best film, and probably the best studio comedy of the last decade. For Feig, it was a return to the themes that connected with fans of Freaks and Geeks, as the protagonist Annie’s struggles with joblessness, loneliness, fear of intimacy, and friendly jealousy recalled the feelings of his adolescent characters on an adult scale.
For the most part, Feig’s visual approach to comedy is hands-off. He’s not a formalist like Wes Anderson or the Coens, using the camera to make jokes alongside the actors. Instead, maybe unsurprisingly, Feig followed the stylistic footsteps of Apatow, whose comedies are rambling affairs that reflect the looseness of their sets, where actors riff at the camera at length, trusting that the editing will break up and pick out the best of those improvisations later. In the same spirit, Feig has said that the first edit of Ghostbusters was almost four and a half hours long. Even in their final cuts, both Feig and Apatow are purveyors of the two-hour-plus comedy, but Feig is more likely to vary the means by which he gleans laughs, including more physical comedy and full-body wide shots. Of course, when you’re working with physical comedians of Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy’s caliber, you probably want to take a step back to see what they’re actually doing, but this tendency toward broadness works in Feig’s favor. Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy were all international hits, where reliance on dialogue is often seen as a barrier to success. While Apatow has used recent projects like This Is 40 and Funny People to dig deeper into the malaise of his characters, Feig’s tendency is to let his characters break themselves out of their funks with outlandish physicality — they're saved by their weirdness, which in turn saves the movie.
Feig’s career-long sympathy for that weirdness makes him a natural collaborator for performers like Wiig and McCarthy, since their comedy favors freaks, geeks, Target ladies, identity thieves, and other hilarious misfits. It’s no small part of Feig’s success that the underdogs at the heart of the movies he makes now are women, since the continual underrepresentation of women in Hollywood has had the effect of pushing 50 percent of the human population to the margins of mainstream entertainment. But Feig’s films have been a parade of hits — with The Heat and Spy following in the gilded footsteps of Bridesmaids — where similar movies by other directors that share his actors (like The Boss or Welcome to Me) have sometimes struggled with audiences, despite the massive goodwill for their stars.
What sets Feig apart is that he has spent 20 years digging in on the underdog archetype, and whether it was the disappointment of movie failures or the repetition required to earn TV success, he has developed an eye for what works and what doesn’t work in making sad sacks lovable to more than just the people who wrote and performed them. It’s not necessarily that what appears onscreen in Feig’s style is so far off from the Seth Gordons or Ben Falcones (incidentally, McCarthy's husband and writing partner) of the comedy directing world, but Feig is a better guide to what translates off of the set and into the theater — or, more likely, the home streaming service — where audiences will actually watch his movies. It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that the success that comes fastest is sweetest, and no one wants to miss their shot, but Paul Feig is an example of the career that comes when you’re willing to wait until your skills are actually needed.