When “The Office” has a big emotional moment on the horizon, chances are good that Paul Feig is the man called in to direct.
Feig, who was behind the camera for Jim and Pam’s proposal, the Niagara wedding and a dozen more memorable “Office” installments, had one of his most important assignments with Thursday (April 28) night’s episode, orchestrating the departure for Steve Carell’s Michael Scott.
Over the past decade, Feig has carved out an amazingly discriminating TV directing resume pretty much limited to the best of the best single-camera comedies, including “Undeclared,” “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” “Weeds,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Nurse Jackie.” While he’s still awaiting his big break on the big screen, early buzz indicates “Bridesmaids” may do the trick.
Oh and did I mention that Paul Feig created a little show called “Freaks and Geeks”? Even if it isn’t directly germane to the topic under discussion here, it’s always worthy of mention.
I got on the phone with Feig to talk about Thursday’s super-sized “Office,” but also the progression and evolution of his directing career and why he hopes “Bridesmaids” will let him out of “acting jail.”
Click through for the full interview.
HitFix: This is your first “Office” episode since the wedding pair last season, right?
Paul Feig: Yeah, I went away and did “Bridesmaids,” so I’ve been working on that for the whole time. Actually, it was looking for a while like I wasn’t going to be able to do Steve’s final “Office” episode, because we were heading into our sound mix, but we were able to move stuff around. It would have killed me to not be able to do Steve’s last one, so we were able to make it work out. I’m thrilled that I got to do it.
HitFix: How have you come to be the guy who gets approached to do this sort of Very Special Episode?
PF: I don’t know. They just very nicely offer these to me. I got to do the wedding. I got to do the proposal. I ended up getting to do the dinner party, which was a big episode. I think I’ve just done so many. I think I’ve done 20 now, because every hour I’ve done, they basically break into two half-hours and count those as two. I’ve definitely done a lot of them and I really get along great with the cast, like all of the directors, but I feel like I really understand the style of the show and I’m able to add little bits of stuff.
HitFix: Was it instantly that you had that feeling for the show’s tone and that rapport with the cast?
PF: I remember really falling into it very quickly. It’s just a style that I love. I love things that are loose. I love improv. I like being able to add that little thing. When I was an actor on sitcoms, I’d always just throw in stuff at the last minute, just because I’d have an idea. A lot of shows aren’t like that. A lot of shows are very religious about their scripts and don’t want you to mess around with wording or anything and the fact that Greg [Daniels] set the show up to be very loose with the documentary style, so you’re shooting and the cameras are just catching stuff as it happens, it frees you up to really create a very safe, fun environment for the the actors to play and expand and experiment and I just fell in love with it and they liked me. It was pretty immediate that a love affair between us began. My only regret… They wanted me to do a lot of the episodes in Season Two, but I signed on to do some movie and got busy with that, but part of me always wishes that I’d done more in the second season.
HitFix: We’ve had bunch of episodes leading up to Michael’s departure, how would you describe the tone that you guys wanted to achieve with the actual exit episode?
PF: We wanted the tone to be very real and honest and in a way how this would really happen. The danger was always that in the real world, Steve Carell is beloved and the most kind man and such a joy to work with and the cast loves him so much and the show’s so sad that he’s going to be leaving and that brings a huge amount of emotion to it. But Michael Scott has a weird relationship with his employees and he loves them probably more than they love him. He’s a weird boss who’s done weird things to all of them and now he’s leaving, so that’s a very different emotional tone than Steve Carell leaving the set of “The Office” for good. So you really had to be careful that we hit the right balance of realizing that this is an emotional thing for the audience, but it’s got to play real for the characters. You can’t do an episode where suddenly Stanley’s crying because Michael’s leaving. Basically, you just had to make sure that it felt real, that it felt like this is what happens when a boss who is neither beloved nor hated, but tolerated and liked begrudgingly, leaves. What happens? How do you play out his different relationships with all the different people, because he has different relationships with different people in the office. It was just being careful to make sure that we hit the right tone and didn’t get too maudlin and didn’t let our real-life emotions ruin the reality of the actual office emotions.
HitFix: Then there’s also that third level of it, which is that it’s Steve Carell, NBC’s biggest star leaving NBC’s top-rated comedy on an episode airing on the first night of sweeps. How did you keep the possibility for extra “stunting” out of the equation?
PF: It was pretty easy, only because there was so much to be covered. Greg wrote this, I didn’t write it, but there was so much ground to be covered that it didn’t allow us to have stunting in it, because there just wasn’t enough time. As it is, we’ve expanded it out to a super-sized episode. There was just so much ground to cover. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes of it, if there were pressures in that regard, but the feeling was that Steve is big enough star that this was a big enough episode. You don’t need much more than saying “Steve Carell is leaving ‘The Office’ forever.” That gives you a lot of juice.
HitFix: As you were shooting it, did you know it was going to have to be super-sized?
PF: No, we had no idea. It’s funny. There moments on the set where we’d be like, “This needs to be an hour long” and other times we’d be like, “No, this only needs to be a half-hour.” Then we needed a little more time, so I find it interesting that it ended up being right in the middle of those two, being super-sized. We actually did shoot a few more things after they made the decision to super-size it, just to add a few more scenes and flesh out a few more things, which I actually think was great, because it provided a little bit more connective tissue between some storylines. I’m happy with it. I think it’s just the length it needs to be.
HitFix: What was the on-set emotion like?
PF: It was overwhelming. I was there prepping and Mindy Kaling was directing the episode that aired last Thursday and that was definitely the one where it really started to land with people. I would hear stories from the set of people getting very emotional and I know when they did the song from “Rent” to him, that was a real flashpoint for when it really hit everybody in the group. So there was a lot of emotion in that. But by the time we got to the last week, there was so much emotion around it that people were almost making the decision to kind of keep it in check, because it was just too overwhelming otherwise. So what would happen is that it would just boil up in different moments with different people, myself included. Suddenly you’d just get choked up in the middle of a take or in the middle of a rehearsal, just because it would hit you and then you’d be like, “OK. Put it away. We’ve got work to do.” And that was keeping with that feeling of, “I don’t want this emotion to get so into the show that we have a show that we don’t believe.” So it was a lot of weird amounts of sadness and denial going on, denial for self-preservation. But it was very emotional.
HitFix: As you mentioned earlier, Michael’s probably going to miss these people more than they might miss him. How much emotion did that mean Steve was about to let out?
PF: That’s the great thing about Michael Scott. Michael Scott’s an open wound. That’s what I love about him, is that he gets to go through a range of stuff and he does it so brilliantly. That’s also what the script is so brilliant at doing. It lets him go through the seven stages of whatever that is, but in a very uplifting way. It’s a very sweet episode. It plays very honest. Steve’s just the master. There are very few comedic actors who have the talent that he has, because everything he does is based in reality first and comedy second. All of his comedy is the comedy of reality. It’s behavioral. The joke never comes at the expense of the character. The character only enhances the joke and makes the joke funnier.
HitFix: And does anyone behind the scenes ever casually mention that Steve’s never won an Emmy for this show and boy it’d be nice to put him in position to do that?
PF: Well, everyone’s very aware of it. Every Emmy season, every time I watch the Emmys it makes me want to kill myself when he doesn’t win. So yeah, people are aware of it. Look, awards are awards. Whatever. The show’s going to live on forever and an award doesn’t mean anything. But, that said… We would all be so extremely happy if he won and if/when he wins, they should give him six other Emmys for the all the years he was robbed.
HitFix: From what I understand, the season ends with things at least somewhat up in the air on the issue of Michael’s replacement. Do you have a personal opinion/vote/preference?
PF: I don’t, because honestly I thank my stars that the decision is not up to me. I would be paralyzed. I honestly don’t know what to do, because there’s a case to be made both ways. There’s a case to just promote from within and just have the gang do their thing, but then there’s a case to bring in somebody new, just to give it a left turn or an infusion of a different energy or just if it helps the writers. Hey, after seven seasons, it gets hard coming up with stories. If it helps them to bring somebody new in, then they should do that. Yeah, I’m not being political or hedging. I honestly have no clue what I would do. It’s a tough one. There are plenty of people who I think are hilarious and who I’d love to see on the show. I love Will Arnett. I love Rhys Darby. I think there are some hilarious women out there who could do it. But yeah, I would not be able to make decision about that.
HitFix: Do you have a wariness, though, about the “Let’s get a big star!” approach that some people seem to be suggesting?
PF: Yeah. Definitely. You don’t don’t want to throw the dynamic off. But even with having Will [Ferrell] on, I think they’ve found a nice mix with Will. The style definitely doesn’t allow people to just go bananas and really overshadow. They come in with the same toolbox and just play within it. But yeah, I’m personally not a fan of just bringing in a giant, giant name. You just don’t want that to take over the show, because this cast is so amazingly great. You don’t want somebody like Urkel comes in and everyone’s just like, “Oh cut it out, you!” and here’s this character in the middle going bananas.
HitFix: Obviously we’ve gotten to see all of the supporting actors/characters shine at different points, but do you think there are still secret weapons in the case? People where we haven’t seen half of what they can do?
PF: That cast, every single member of that cast is great. That’s why I say there’s no shortage of stuff and it’s really only up to the writers if they feel they need the inspiration of having somebody new there to stir the pot a little, but they’ve got such a deep bench on that show. There’s Meredith stories. There’s Creed stories. There’s Kevin stories. There’s Angela stories. It’s all there and now that they have Gabe in there, who’s an amazing talent… There’s no shortage of talent and character arcs that can be explored and that haven’t been explored.
HitFix: Changing gears a bit, do you have a sense of how you’ve become this sort of director-for-hire, rather than writing your own stuff so much?
PF: It was actually a very conscious decision on my behalf. After “Freaks,” a lot of people wanted to do another show with me and I did a lot of development deals. I developed several shows and then none of them ended up being made, because people said they wanted my voice and then when confronted by my voice decided they didn’t want it. At the same time during that, I started doing “Arrested Development.” I did an episode of “Undeclared” and then I did a bunch of “Arrested Development” episodes and I just got spoiled, because I was working on these great shows with great scripts. I also just realized that as a director, there’s a lot I needed to learn. With writing, you can always keep learning, but I felt like I had written something that I loved and made a mark, but I never felt that confident as a director, even though I went to film school to direct. So it just became this thing where it was almost just like putting myself back through film school, with the bonus of getting to work on amazing shows and I was satisfied with that for a long time. Look, I was always writing. I’m never not writing. I’m always developing stuff, but I was concentrating on movies and books. I’ve written four books and a lot of scripts. But now I’m definitely feeling ready.
With “Bridesmaids” coming out, I’m really happy to kinda get into… I’ve always been trying to get in the movie world and I’ve had a few movies in the last 10 years that didn’t do that well, but “Bridesmaids” feels like it’s going to at least do better than those. But the next project I’m doing is a movie project that I’m writing and developing, so yeah, I definitely want to get back to doing my own stuff. I feel like I went through the training course that I wanted to put myself through and feel very strong coming out of it, because I’ve gotten to work on such a diverse amount of shows. “Arrested Development” and “The Office” have a very different style from “Nurse Jackie” and “Mad Men” and getting play that way and work with really talented people and getting to experiment has been invaluable and it’s just made me that much more confident and feel like I’ve found the second layer of my voice now.
HitFix: Forgive me if I’m forgetting something, but is “Mad Men” the only hour-long you’ve done since “Freaks”? Is there a reason for that?
PF: Yeah. I’m not interested in most hour-longs, because procedurals and cop shows and stuff, I like to watch them, but they don’t interest me. I don’t know if me directing a “24” is the best use of my talent or the best use of their time. I love doing comedy. I love trying to find realistic comedy. I’d rather experiment with comedy. I don’t feel like there’s a lot that I want to learn from directing just straight drama. What was so interesting for me about “Mad Men” was the look and the style, both the visual style and the fashion style of it, and that amazing cast and just how different those scripts were. That was very appealing to me. But to just direct a procedural, while those shows are great, I don’t know if there’s anything that I would learn that I would need for the path that I’m trying to pursue, which is to do more character-based, yet commercial comedy or comedy-drama.
HitFix: Though I could certainly imagine you directing an hour-long like “Shameless” and you have that relationship with Showtime…
PF: Oh no, definitely. And actually it was down to myself and Mark Mylod to direct that pilot, but Mark had directed the original one, so of course it made sense that he would do it. That kind of show is very interesting to me, too. And then there’s the British show, “Downton Abbey,” I would *love* to direct one of those, just because I loved that show and I find that style and that era and those emotions very interesting.
HitFix: And not the sort of thing American TV does so much…
PF: No, not at all. Not at all. But they’re flirting with it more on HBO and Showtime with “The Borgias” and “The Tudors” and all of that stuff. But I also look as “Downton Abbey” as being the British version of “Mad Men.” It’s about a very transformative time when two eras are clashing and the toll it takes on the people on both sides of it. I find that very interesting. That’s real emotion you’re dealing with and real interesting topics and stakes.
HitFix: I’m hearing really good things from people who have seen “Bridesmaids” and people seem to think it has the potential to be a real sleeper. If that movie is big, is there a dream project in your back pocket where you’re ready to go, “OK. I’m now gonna cash in and get this made”?
PF: There are several. My goal is to do another big studio film, to follow up “Bridesmaids” with another bigger studio film and then do the smaller smaller film that I want to do. But for the bigger studio film, there are a couple already, one that I’m just finishing up the treatment for that involves a couple members of the “Bridesmaids” cast that I would do with Judd [Apatow]. I can’t talk about it just yet.
Yeah, I’ve got this backlog. Look, I’ve trying to get out of movie jail for a while. I was definitely in movie jail after “Unaccompanied Minors,” which was what it was. There was a lot of studio politics that went into that movie that made it not exactly what it should have been, but I was still proud of it and kids love it It’s definitely found its following, but it didn’t do me any favors, because it didn’t do very well at the box office and it was, at the end of the day, kinda a kids movie. It was thrilling to get this second chance, to have Judd pop up with this project, which I had been flirting with four years ago. He’d come to me with it back then and it had just sorta fallen apart and then it popped up out of the blue at the beginning of last year and it’s getting such a good response now that I’m feeling very good about it.
I’ve done a lot of television and I love television, so now I feel like I’d really like to get back to what I always wanted to do, which is movies. I don’t say that like television’s s***y. I think television’s in a second Golden Age right now. If you really look at the good stuff on, there’s so much good stuff on. But I like format of movies a lot. I like telling a singular story, one story as opposed to getting to getting to tell a story week after week after week. It’s another challenge, how do you tell a story in a finite way, it’s very interesting to me. I like the timeline of movies, too. Sometimes TV movies very fast when you’re writing it and producing it. But we’ll see. Never say never. I’m up for anything.
Steve Carell’s final “Office” episode airs on Thursday (April 28) night at 9 p.m. on NBC.
Also, How ‘The Office’ boss Michael Scott went from zero to hero