The Heat, the new action flick starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, is brash, funny, and memorable. Though McCarthy, the star of Mike & Molly, became famous with her role in director Paul Feig’s last movie, Bridesmaids, the film that supposedly proved that women will pay big bucks to see smart, irreverent comedies, The Heat can in no way be called a chick flick. In fact, The Heat is the first lesbian buddy cop comedy ever — it just doesn’t know it yet.
It’s also the first (or second if you count Rebecca De Mornay’s Feds, which purists don’t) female buddy cop action comedy and it’s so funny that it’s guaranteed to stand the test of time on the video shelves (or digital libraries?) alongside classics like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. Bullock plays Sarah Ashburn, an uptight FBI agent sent to Boston to find a killer; McCarthy is Shannon Mullins, a anything but by-the-book Boston cop who’s sort of a female Dirty Harry with a heart. And though first-time screenwriter Katie Dippold might not agree, the flick includes all the elements of a classic lesbian love story: the initial culture clash, the intimate bonding, the shared outsider status, the emotional merging, and entry into the sisterhood of Sappho.
Even though the film establishes that the two women have either had sex or relationships with men, there are no classic straight girl tropes — neither gets the geek-to-goddess makeover a la Miss Congeniality; nobody falls for the guy and has an emotional awakening a la The Proposal; neither realizes that all they ever needed was a man a la any Meg Ryan movie.
So we put the question of the film’s lesbian subtext and plenty more to director Paul Feig, the man who won critical cred after cocreating Freaks and Geeks (with Judd Apatow) and great financial success after directing Bridesmaids.
The Advocate: There were some great buddy cop movies that I loved when I was younger, like Running Scared and 48 Hours. Were you a fan of the genre?
Paul Feig: Yeah, I was. The ones that I was the biggest fan of were 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. What I loved about them was they were real; they were funny, but they were real. And the danger was real and the violence was real, in a way that made you invest in the story while you were also having a good time. That kind of blew my mind at that point because I hadn’t really seen comedy done that way. You know, either comedy was really crazy and funny or it wasn’t. For comedy to have these dark elements but still you’re laughing hysterically at the performances was really cool. So that’s what I wanted to bring to this one.
Someone asked me if buddy cop comedies in the past usually had the same mix of drama and comedy, and I said, well, let’s take Beverly Hills Cop and break it down. And we I could see so many of the touchstones that were really similar.
Yeah, no, it’s a tone that’s gotten lost in the mix in that last, I don’t know, 10 years or whatever. Everything I do I want it to have a very realistic quality to it, even though it’s going to be funny. It’s that through-line that grounds the characters and makes them not silly that really helps me connect to a story like this.
Those films share a similar bent in terms of their take on violence. Of course, the bloodiest scene in The Heat had nothing to do with violence.
Right. It was just about deconstructing Sandra’s character.
It’s kind of amazing that this is the first real female buddy cop movie.
Yeah, it is crazy, right, in 2013? It just kind if illustrates how slow on the uptake Hollywood has been with women.
I’m wondering, why do you think Hollywood has green-lit more buddy action comedies about male cops and police dogs than they have about women cops?
[Laughs] I think they have a business fear that women won’t respond to these types of movies, that they won’t show up; I feel like there must be equations all over Hollywood and data that backs this up, but the same time I can put only so much credence in that, because I’ve had things in my career where I’ve gone, “I want to do this,” and [studio types] go, “Oh, no, you can’t do that, it won’t work." And then somebody else does it and it’s a huge hit, and you’re like, “You said they couldn’t” and it’s “Oh, well, you know, they did.” And you think, Psh, thanks for nothing! Like, why couldn’t I have tried it too?
I would really just like to break down that wall between kind of you know, a chick flick — it’s like they think women in the movies are chick flicks. No, there are chick flicks and the romantic comedies that are a little bit more poisonous to guys, but that doesn’t need to be the steady diet that you’re being fed by the movies.
And since you know, this is an action comedy, I’m wondering — that’s the kind of genre that men and teenage boys go to in droves — are they going to go to a film like this that has two chicks in it who aren’t all about T&A?
Well, that’s my hope. This is part of the breaking-down process. because what I want them to do is look at the posters and see two women and go like, “Oh, they’re really funny.” That’s why our trailers and our commercials are really important to us, even more so than the posters or anything like that, because that’s where you see the tone and see what we’re going for and just be like, “Oh, that looks funny.” I mean, that’s all I really care about, I just want them to come and laugh.
Well, the Spanx scene is going to make women laugh, at least.
[Laughs] That’s right!
And it’s exactly the kind of scene that you wouldn’t find in a buddy cop movie with two men.
[Laughs] That’s right. I mean, that’s why I love doing comedies that were written by women for women. It’s not pandering, but at the same time it’s really fun to find those elements that women just really respond to.
Oh, my God, yeah.
I mean, Bridesmaids was so fun when, you know, Maya [Rudolph] is just sinking down in the street in that wedding dress. To hear women literally just scream with laughter is really the most satisfying thing. They’re getting comedy that they felt so underserved on for so long, and it’s really fun to find that, that’s why its fun to work with funny women, they go like What are the areas that are kind of fun. The Spanx thing came out organically just from talking about the scene — I don’t remember who it was, one of our female writers or contributors was like It would be funny if she was wearing spanks. And I was like, that sounds really fun
Did you even know what Spanx were?
Yes, I did.
’Cause you’ve been married for 17 or 20 years.
Exactly. I know all about them. I’m looking into a pair of Manks right now.
So what I like about the movie, obviously coming form a queer perspective, is that it’s a movie about strong women finding their place in the world, but nobody gets a makeover to attract a man, nobody runs off with a man. And even though both of the characters are established as women who either have had relationships or sex with men, there’s a sort of subtext of lesbianism in the relationship. Am I reading too much into it?
I like that. I mean, maybe, but I like that, though. I think it’s an interesting take on it. You know, for me it was really about two professionals who are so dedicated to their jobs and not compromising about it that they kind of back-burnered that part of their lives, but not in a bad way. I hate movies that sort of scold women for being too into their jobs or too profess —
Of which there are many, that really is the trope, even.
Oh, totally. It’s always why they’re not — things aren’t going well. She’s the ice queen who needs to find a man. You know, fuck that. You know, people are — women can love their jobs and be dedicated to their jobs, and if they choose they don’t want to have a family, that’s great, no one should be judging anyone in this world. But so I think what you’re point is coming from is I’m very much into the idea of the female friendship and how strong that can be and how difficult that it is sometimes to forge. Watching my wife, who was a professional for many, many years, she had a hard time finding those meaningful close friendships with other women, because you know, whether the women gone off to start families or just into a different world where there’s not a common thread to talk about, and so I really like the idea of two women who dedicated themselves to the law enforcement profession, like any specialized profession, you have to talk to your peers or else you can’t have that common language of like here’s what bothers me, here’s why my life is hard, here’s the problems I go through, and someone going, yeah, I got the same thing. I find that level of female friendship very inspiring, and I get really happy when I see characters forge that. We get a lot of that in Bridesmaids too where you go, that friendship, how strong that is.
Yeah, and how it is a very loving relationship when you can develop that. They’re harder the older you get to develop them anew. And so that’s really nice to see.
No, totally, and also, you know, again the women — like a strong friendship between women, I think, is sweeter than a strong relationship between men sometimes. Because it’s so supportive when it works well and I really respond to that. I just find it really — that’s what guys should kind of aspire to be.
Yeah, that’s nice to hear you say that. So you know, I don’t want to give a spoiler. It’s clear that these women sort of falling in love with each other as friends and they show a sort of commitment in the end, with Sandra staying in Boston and stuff. If the script would had gone one step further and gotten the two women together romantically, would it have been picked up at all?
Um, that’s a great question. Odds are probably not, which is very, you know, not cool, because that shouldn’t matter at all. That would have been a real cool twist. [Laughs] Hollywood is going very incrementally. Look, I m still having to fight to get women in movies. I mean look at the schedule, all the studio films in the summer, we’re the only one with women in the lead roles, so, you know, that’s tough. But that said, I’m also developing a gay wedding movie, that’s a real passion of mine ’cause I think —
Yeah, ’cause I think that’s the next underserved group in this town, and so to break that wall down, that’s something I’ve been excited about in the works.
From left: Jessica Chaffin, Paul Feig, Jamie Denbo, and Katie Dippold
What can you tell me about that?
I mean, basically I sold the idea to Fox and I’m in the process of writing the first draft now. But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, I have so many friends who are gay — men and women — and again they’re so funny, I’m always looking at like, who’s funny? I just love that the comedy of their groups and their community, and also feeling just like, yeah they don’t do this anymore. I mean, it’s never, you know, there’s definitely that world — the indie world, the world of gay cinema, but let’s make it more mainstream. My whole goal is just to get people to stop having preconceived notions about what they will or won’t watch or what they think something is. If I can do a real hilarious movie about gay people, that would be great. ’Cause then they’ll be like, “Yeah, they’re just like us.” To break down this weird — these walls. I’m just tired of these walls and you feel them cracking anyway with gay marriage, you know, getting finally passed with all these laws.
And getting majority of supporters in this country. I mean, ’cause the majority of Americans actually support same-sex marriage, at this point, so maybe they’re ready to see it at the box office.
Oh, 100%. I mean, 100%, but again in a way that is fun. Because nobody likes to be preached to by anybody, you know, and I don’t like preachy comedy at all, I don’t like comedy with a message at all. I mean, we slip messages in, but we do it so subtly that you don’t realize you’re getting it. But you know, the time has come.
Yeah, that’s great. So there’s this great article that The New York Times did on you, I think it was in 2008 or 2009 and you told the writer that you were a failure. That you did great on other people’s projects — I’m paraphrasing — but you did great on other people’s projects but not on your own. You struck out because the project wasn’t well received or you were forced to make changes to it to soften the edges, so to speak. Did Bridesmaids change all that for you?
Yeah, completely. I mean, that was such a gift to do that movie. I have to give a shout-out to my friend Judd Apatow, who asked me to direct it. I floated around that project for a number of years. I went to the first table read back in 2007 that actually Melissa was part of in a completely different role. I really liked the project but was busy with other things and didn’t have time to shepherd it the way that he was hoping I would. Then it just all came back in 2010. And um, yeah, it changed everything. He knows I had a very feminine sensibility, and we’d kind of click into it. Because Lindsay Weir was always my favorite character to write about on Freaks and Geeks. It changed everything, it got me out of movie jail. Because I was very hard-core — especially when that article came out — I was really in movie jail. I just had a movie come out and it bombed. But I love my career and everything I got to work on has been awesome. I’ve been so lucky. Every TV show has been great, not because of me, but I’ve just been lucky to get on these things with all these writers. I’m very proud of Freaks and Greeks that I created, and you know, I’ve been very lucky, really I do feel lucky enough to pinch myself to think that at 50 years old I got to go back in the movies. Being well thought of in the moment. But it can change at a moment’s notice. That’s why you’re always so tense, I cannot be more tense abut this movie coming out next weekend. I don’t want to go back to movie jail [laughs].
[Laughs] So, discovering talent seems to be one of the things that is important to you. Freaks and Geeks launched the careers of many people. James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, and then Bridesmaids made Melissa a star, and if The Heat goes well, you sort of launched Katie’s career as well.
Oh, well, if anyone should be launched, it should be Katie. She’s one of the most talented writers I’ve ever worked with. I mean —
Well, that’s what I wondered — after Bridesmaids, you were able to write your own checks, so to speak, why bank on a script from a woman with no real credits?
Well, you know what? When I read that script, it made me laugh so hard. For me, it’s all a meritocracy. I will only work with people if they earned it. because it all reflects on me. My reputation is sullied if I hire someone that is not great. And we have plenty of people that are like “Can you do me a favor?” And this and that. It’s like, you know what, if you can’t nail it, I can’t do it — it’s just going to make us all look bad. [Laughs]
And this script from Katie was so funny, I mean, I cannot impress upon you just how much absolutely I fell in love with it. I was on an airplane flying to New York and pulled it out of my bag to read it and was just laughing out loud the entire time. I couldn’t wait for the plane to land to give it to my wife for her to read and call my agent and say I want to do this. Um, yeah, it was the biggest no-brainer of my career.
That’s great, and next up, you’re writing and producing a spy comedy called Susan Cooper?
Yeah, that’s my hope. We’ve still got to make sure we get the cast right and the timing right. But yeah, that’s something I wrote. I love spy movies and have always been a James Bond fanatic and always thought like, Oh let’s have a lady do it. But you know, not in the way where, you know, she’s a little girl and can kick the ass of 300-pound guys, no, but to do it realistic and to do it in a funny way. Very much like The Heat, where the story is real and the danger is real, but then it’s how she’s reacting and interacting and the people around her that’s where the comedy is going to come from. So I’m very excited about that one. You know, you always want to make them, they don’t always come together. But this one I really want to make work.
Do you have a dream person in mind?
I do. I do, I can’t say, just in case we don’t do it [laughs]. but fingers crossed, we’re closing in. So I hope to have an announcement soon.
That’s great. One last question, I think you’ve been married just as long as I have — I’ve been married 22 years.
I know, for me, that has influenced the choices I’ve had in my career. In creative choices, has that been the same for you?
Yeah, I mean my wife has been such a great, not only spouse and romantic partner and best friend, but also a great business partner. Just in the sense that she has a very populist eye. And you know, she’s my litmus test for everything. Sometimes annoyingly so. I’d be like, “I want to do this, this is so cool.” And she’d be like, “No one wants to see this, I’m bored.” And it’s like, come on! But then you’re like, you know what, she’s right. No one wants to see me doing something turgid or arty like that. But she’s just great, and also she was my manager in the beginning of our relationship, and so what’s nice is, in the past I’ve had relationships where you’re dating like, if I was an actor, you were dating another actress, and it was just a competition all the time. And what’s great is we both have the same goal, which is that I’m doing this kind of work. It just couldn’t work better, she’s the best. She’s a good protector and puts up with a lot of my artistic weirdness. But yeah, we’ve been together 23 years and married 19 years coming up in September.
Oh, that’s great. That itself is a huge accomplishment in Hollywood.
I was going to say, exactly. That’s what we all should get awards for. [Laughs] But it’s literally like — I mean you’re married too, it’s the same thing, you go, like, “Have we been together this long? It feels like it’s only been a couple years.”
Yeah. it starts flying. When it’s right, it just starts flying.
Oh, totally, to the point where you go, “Can you slow down a bit? I don’t want to be old yet.”
Right. [Laughs] Yeah, I think that ship has sailed for both of us.
Exactly. [Laughs] I hit 50, and I was like “Oh, boy, here were are.”
Here we are, there you go. I always say, “Yeah, I got married early because I wanted to lock it in while I was still young and beautiful.”
Exactly. We did and now we won’t let them escape.