Wide Angle

The Other Sides of Paul Feig

The lesser-known works of the A Simple Favor director.

Photo illustration: Paul Feig and posters and stills from various Feig projects, including Other Space and I Am David.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for CinemaCon.

A Simple Favor, a tart, twisty, darkly comedic mystery starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively has been advertised as a film “from the darker side of director Paul Feig.” That Feig’s name can now be used to sell a movie is a relatively recent development. It wasn’t that long ago that he had to struggle for recognition as the creator of the beloved cult series Freaks and Geeks, his name sometimes overshadowed by that of his better-known collaborator, Judd Apatow. All that changed with the 2011 hit Bridesmaids, which established Feig as a sure-handed comedy director with an affinity for working with actresses (and a particular affinity for working with Melissa McCarthy).

That’s been the Paul Feig story ever since—sort of. Broadly speaking, it also describes Feig’s Bridemaids follow-ups The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters. But it doesn’t tell the whole story, as Feig has been involved in a diverse array of projects as a performer, director, and producer both before and after he became a brand name. Feig may have a darker side, but that’s not the only other side to his work.

Early in his career, Feig was easier to find in front of the camera than behind. In fact, if you lived in Michigan in the 1970s, you might have seen a 15-year-old Feig dressed up as Groucho Marx advertising his father’s Army surplus store in an ad recently unearthed by James Corden’s Late Late Show.*

Perhaps sensing that he only had so far to go as a Groucho impressionist, Feig began a career a stand-up comic, a pursuit that landed him a spot on a 1988 episode of An Evening at the Improv:

It’s a bit shocking now to see a young Feig wearing an untucked shirt, rather than the immaculate suits that have become his trademark, and not that easy to discern an emerging sensibility from the act, an aggrieved, high-strung variation on the sort of observational comedy that filled clubs in the ’80s. It’s not a bad set, however (even if one line—“Who was the demographics genius that came up with this marketing ploy?”—feels distressingly close to Adam Sandler’s stock response as a Stand-Up and Win contestant on Saturday Night Live).

Feig also worked as an actor, landing small roles in projects like Three O’Clock High, CBS’ attempt at turning Dirty Dancing into a series (where he played a stand-up comic), the Julie Brown–starring sketch show The Edge (whose cast included Jennifer Aniston and Wayne Knight), Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Heavyweights, a film co-written by Apatow. At the same time, he developed his skills as a writer, including work in front of and behind the camera for a largely forgotten project called The TV Wheel.

Created for HBO by Joel Hodgson as his first project after leaving Mystery Science Theater 3000, The TV Wheel’s single episode ultimately aired only once on Comedy Central. A sketch comedy show tied to an unusual conceit, it featured a fixed camera in the middle of a rotating stage. It also doubled as a convergence point for a lot of emerging comedic talent who would go on to work with one another frequently over the years, including Feig, Apatow, writer Nell Scovell, Doug Benson, David Cross, and Andy Kindler. The show is hit-or-miss, but Feig’s appearance as an old-timey magician brought to life from the pages of a magic catalog is a highlight.

Freaks and Geeks began its too-short single season in 1999, but Feig was already marshaling his own projects a couple of years earlier, making his directorial debut in 1997 with Life Sold Separately, which might provide an early indication of the filmmaker he’d become. But unless you’re one of the handful of people who caught it when Feig toured college campuses with it in the late-’90s, it’s impossible to say. Feig produced and funded the low-budget movie about strangers, including one played by Penn Jillette, who converge on a field for mysterious reasons, but he couldn’t find any traction with it. It’s currently impossible to see, though Feig told USA Today in 2012 that he would like to “do something with it” in the future.

There’s not that much of the filmmaker Feig would become on display in his second film as a director, the 2003 drama I Am David. Made for the family-friendly Walden Media, best known for its Chronicles of Narnia adaptations, the film adapts a 1963 novel about a boy named David (Ben Tibber) who escapes from a Bulgarian labor camp in an attempt to reunite with his mother, leading to a transcontinental journey across Europe. Dour in tone—though Feig has a funny cameo as an American tourist—it’s an oddly stiff effort that never quite finds the resonant emotional pitch that would come to him much more easily in his comedies.

He’d veer a little too far in the opposite direction with his next feature film, the 2006 Christmas comedy Unaccompanied Minors. Loosely adapted from a This American Life segment, it follows a bunch of kids stranded in a Midwestern airport who slip loose of a grumpy airport employee (Lewis Black) and run amok during a blizzard. Kind of a cross between Home Alone and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, it’s funniest when at its least manic and features a who’s-who of mid-2000s comedy talent (the movie includes appearances from Kristen Wiig, Mindy Kaling, B.J. Novak, Tony Hale, Rob Riggle, and Rob Cordry, to name a few).

Beyond feature films, Feig spent much of the 2000s honing his craft as a TV director. He helmed Freaks and Geeks’ finale, one of the series’ best hours, and worked on Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, Arrested Development, and most frequently, The Office. In many ways, it’s from these projects that the Feig of today emerged, one less concerned with the fussy camerawork and straightforward narrative of I Am David than with what happens when talented actors get the space they need to explore the possibilities of their characters.

That might also be why Feig hasn’t yet left TV behind. You can see him playing an impish, possibly cracked version of himself in most episodes of Netflix’s The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale (a now-canceled revival in all but name of McHale’s The Soup). He’s made a couple of passes at adapting comedians Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo’s long-running (but now apparently on hiatus) characters Ronna and Beverly into a TV series, first as a scripted series for Showtime, then as a talk show for Sky Atlantic. Both projects are hard to find online apart from a few clips, but it’s easy to see what attracted Feig to the characters. Quick on their feet and deeply committed to their creations, Chaffin and Denbo inhabit a pair of fiftysomething Jewish mothers who share a deeply fraught best friendship and a willingness to speak their minds, even when what’s on those minds is wildly inappropriate.

But the great, semi-lost Feig project remains Other Space, which aired for eight episodes on the short-lived Yahoo! Screen service in 2015. Set in a future in which the public has grown weary of space travel, it follows a young, inexperienced crew thrown into an unknown corner of the galaxy. At heart, a classic sitcom, the Feig-created show reunited him with Hodgson and Freaks and Geeks’ Trace Beaulieu but mostly featured a talented bunch of newcomers as they squabbled and bonded over the course of encounters with mysterious aliens and other cosmic mysteries. Feig has suggested a revival isn’t out of the question, but if that never materializes, the show wouldn’t be his first one-season wonder.

So what unites all these projects beyond the Feig name? If anything, it’s a compassion for his characters, an affinity for misfits and underdogs, and an attraction to characters who break out of the boxes into which they’ve been put, threads that run from Freaks and Geeks through his recent comedies. A Simple Favor is being marketed as a film that will change viewers’ expectations about what Feig can do—Feig, Lively, and Kendrick even made a funny video co-starring Thomas Lennon and Annaleigh Ashford that sends up how each has been typed by Hollywood—but all those threads are there as well, and the film’s final twist is that Feig’s darker side isn’t that dark. There’s a big, beating heart powering his projects, even when they’re spurting buckets of blood.

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Correction, Sept. 16, 2018: This article originally misstated that Paul Feig grew up in Southern California. He was raised in Michigan.