‘Ghostbusters’ Director Paul Feig on the Film’s Misogynistic Trolls: ‘It’s Not for All These Guys!’
The acclaimed filmmaker behind ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘The Heat,’ and ‘Spy’ opens up about his all-women franchise, Kate McKinnon’s character’s sexuality, and going to war with trolls.
Paul Feig’s Twitter bio is simple and to the point, prefacing a modest rundown of his major accomplishments in Hollywood. He’s the guy who co-created Freaks & Geeks, the high school series whose cult status outlived its short-lived broadcast life and spawned a generation of young talent. He directed Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, three comedy hits that redefined the female-driven R-rated comedy genre and landed him his high-profile gig helming Sony’s Ghostbusters reboot.
Feig is also the filmmaker weathering the toughest fan scrutiny in years, precisely because said reboot scraps the cast of the 1984 original in favor of four new female heroines. Not even the directors resuscitating the Star Wars franchise have it as bad. “Paul is a guy who wears suits,” his bio reads to 1.89 million followers and the countless trolls he started attracting as soon as the Ghostbusters project was announced, “and tries not to screw things up.”
He sports one of his signature suits as we sit for a chat in Beverly Hills, a deep blue three-piece ensemble accented by a lapel pin designed after the classic Ghostbusters logo, only bejeweled. Peeking out beneath his pants cuffs is the knit face of Abraham Lincoln, gazing stoically from his socks. Feig smiles, warmly and confidently, bolstered by supportive first reviews that have just come in.
“I’m proud of the fact that you have four women starring in a movie and three of them are in their forties,” he beams. “I really credit [former studio head] Amy Pascal and Sony for letting me do this. It’s crazy that that would be a big thing now, and it’s sad that it is. But thank god.”
Ghostbusters is a plum vehicle for comedy stars Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, both past Feig collaborators, and rising SNL talents Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Like Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson before them, these new Ghostbusters battle skeptics and ghouls in contemporary New York City, forming their own squad of paranormal activity exterminators to save the world from an invasion of ghosts.
As a fan of the original, Feig knew it would be a challenge reinventing a franchise as beloved as Ivan Reitman’s first films. But despite its obvious affinity for those classics and a nonstop barrage of references to its predecessors, 2016’s Ghostbusters has different end goals in mind.
“The biggest theme in the first movie, because it was kind of in that mid-Reagan era, was that it was really about entrepreneurs,” he says. “I’ve talked with Ivan [Reitman] about this, too. It was about starting a business and going against the government because the EPA was going to shut them down. Me, I care more about underdogs and the idea of people trying to find their place in the world. And on top of that, the idea of legitimacy: How important is it to be legitimate publicly versus getting fulfillment from being legitimate privately?”
That’s a thread carried by Wiig’s Columbia University physicist Erin, whose belief in the supernatural has been doubted her whole life, and in turn, has caused her to doubt herself. Pairing Wiig with McCarthy as the group’s leader, Abby, Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold built Ghostbusters around the characters’ friendship and the idea that these heroines have to believe in themselves, even if the world doesn’t.
“The first version of the movie was like three and a half hours long,” he says. “We really delved pretty deeply into that whole thing. But we realized there’s enough of it there, but it’s a summer tentpole movie—you don’t need all of that handwringing. But for me, that’s the theme that I’m able to latch onto which is the idea of, what is legitimacy?”
As they wrote their first draft, Feig and Dippold found themselves in the laser sights of diehard Ghostbusters fans the validity of their own vision for a brave new Ghostbusters questioned—vehemently, violently, and with an unmistakable whiff of bald misogyny. The backlash has continued online ever since, fueling such hatred that the first Ghostbusters trailer became the most disliked trailer in YouTube history, and worse: Jones told Indiewire that one response she received was “a picture of a guy shooting a black woman in the head.”
So it’s with no small satisfaction that we see the Ghostbusters flame their trolls right back in the film with lines like, Didn’t anyone tell you not to listen to what crazy people say on the internet? “Some of it was always there—that moment was always written in,” says Feig with a sly smile. Others came organically as the cast riffed on set, like a befuddled Erin reading one vitriolic online comment out loud: “Ain’t no bitches… gonna bust no ghosts.”
“I’m very reactive in my comedy, and you want to be able to take advantage of those things and call it out,” Feig explains. “So it was always kind of, what do we do? I didn’t want it to rule us. I just wanted to go, ‘Yeah, we hear you, and we’re going to move past you.’ I never want anything like that to disrupt the flow whatsoever. But it’s a little Easter egg for anyone who wants it.”
Feig happily dismisses the haters, overjoyed that so many young girls have already latched onto these new proton pack-toting women. “It’s so funny. With all the angst and stuff and everybody getting yelled at by middle-aged men for two years now—whose new favorite thing is, ‘Well, my wife thinks it looks terrible!’ Like, ‘See, I’m legit!’—you forget there’s a new generation we’re trying to make this for, too. Why can’t these boys and girls have these new heroes?”
He recalls a moment during filming that heartened him even while haters kept hounding him online and the studio, whose own leaked emails revealed strife behind the scenes on the Ghostbusters reboot, came to him with their own notes.
“We were in the middle of production and getting hammered on all sides just trying to make this funny movie and I get sent this picture on the internet of this guy who made his daughter the jumpsuit with the orange stripes and a proton pack,” he remembers. “This little girl, looking fierce. I burst into tears. This is why we’re doing it. It’s not for all these guys!”
Those fellas are welcome to join the Ghostparty, so long as they don’t ruin it for everyone else. “We want the guys who loved the original to come along for the ride, but there’s a whole new generation that I want to have that same experience that we all had when we were younger, when we got the Ghostbusters fervor,” says Feig.
“Here’s the funny thing: When I took this on everything I’ve done was an R-rated comedy. I got so many emails from moms saying, ‘I just hope you can make this family-friendly like the original movie.’ I was like, wait a minute! They say ‘shit’ constantly, there’s a blowjob scene, they smoke endlessly…”
The original Ghostbusters theme song, I add, is still the dirtiest movie theme song ever made. Just ask Ray Parker Jr. “Exactly!” He laughs. “I wanted to do that same tone—it’s adult, but kids can enjoy it. There are a couple of jokes that we had to lose, that I had to negotiate with the studio on and lost. Just the language things, one Holtzmann joke in particular—but it’ll be on the extended cut.”
One joke he fought the powers that be to keep in was a particularly naughty fart joke, memorably delivered by McKinnon’s Holtzmann, as she cheekily tests Erin’s threshold upon their first meeting. “Those are my favorite kinds of jokes,” Feig laughs. “There was a lot of consternation about that one, too, but I was like, ‘NO, I’m not giving that one up! It’s too funny.’”
Speaking of Jillian Holtzmann: McKinnon steals the movie as the zany engineer who constructs the team’s ghostbusting gadgets and struts through Ghostbusters sporting goggles, a shock of unruly blonde hair, and undeniable confidence and charisma. She’s the sexiest thing in Ghostbusters—sorry, Chris Hemsworth—and it’s no coincidence she’s stolen the hearts of men, women, and children who’ve seen the film.
But while McKinnon is SNL’s first openly lesbian cast member, Ghostbusters offers only hints on Holtzmann, who spends her free time shamelessly flirting with Erin. I ask Feig: Is Holtzmann gay?
He pauses, smiling. “What do you think?”
I’d like to think yes, I say. He offers a grinning, silent nod. “I hate to be coy about it,” he offers. “But when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing…” He shrugs apologetically.
“You know, Kate is who she is and I love the relationship between Kate and Melissa’s characters,” he says. “I think it’s a very interesting, close relationship. If you know Kate at all she’s this kind of pansexual beast where it’s just like everybody who’s around her falls in love with her and she’s so loving to everybody she’s around. I wanted to let that come out in this character.”
“I wasn’t like, ‘And now you should wink at them.’ This is stuff that is coming out of Kate! That’s why you connect with those characters. They’re playing versions of themselves. That’s what makes a comedic actor fantastic, when that personality comes out. That’s why it’s so terrible when writer-directors say, ‘Stick to the script!’ Why would you hire these people who have these enormous personalities and then just cut them off?”
By that same token, he admits, he understands why some people were critical of Jones’s character Patty as playing into racial stereotypes when the first trailers came out. “I hire people that I think are great and I think, what are the roles they would be at their full powers in?” he says. “I felt bad that people have locked in on the fact that she’s the only one who wasn’t a scientist. I’m embarrassed to say that that never crossed my mind.”
“We originally wrote that role for Melissa,” he reveals. “It was that big personality, the one who calls bullshit on stuff… then we realized Melissa’s done something like that, especially just having done The Heat and Spy. No, let’s make Melissa the leader of the group—the defiant nerd. The minute I found Leslie it was like, ‘Oh my god, Leslie can just destroy this part.’ Then once you get somebody in the part… again, I let them do their thing. She’s phrasing things, she’s taking the lines that we wrote… I say to all the actors, make them your own.”
You’d think that Ghostbusters might have taught Feig not to read what his haters say online, but “I read everything. I read everything,” he smiles ruefully. He vividly remembers how his troll-busting career began, right after production ended, after he’d managed to stay silent for an entire year of being inundated with Ghostbusters hate.
“I was reading it all,” he says, “and it was heavy on my soul. I’ve always had a rule—had—that I don’t block anybody, because even if somebody’s giving you shit about something, I just need to know.”
The temptation was too strong to resist, however, after a few glasses of wine in his favorite restaurant in Capri during a post-filming vacation with his wife. “I’m having wine, I’m just so relaxed, and she goes to the restroom,” he begins. “I open it up, and there were these two or three guys who were just hammering me for a year—just the meanest, ugliest, misogynistic shit you’ve ever seen. It was just this moment of, you know what? Fuck you.”
“A year’s worth of angst!” he continues. “My wife comes back and says, ‘Why are you smiling?’ ‘I just took these guys down.’ I was so proud. She was like, ‘Should you have done that?’”
Since then he’s taken opportunities on the Ghostbusters press tour to call out not only the rampant sexism that’s plagued the film as it approaches theaters, but the gender imbalance that dominates Hollywood studio filmmaking. The ‘Go fuck yourself” tweets, however, have abated.
Maybe he learned the hard truth we must all reckon with in the age of social media: Never drunk tweet your haters. “Judd Apatow had seen it and he wrote me saying, ‘You shouldn’t do stuff like that! Those guys have like 90 followers.’ The next morning I woke up and went, Oh no,” he laughs, shaking his head. “It was so cathartic, though.”