Can You Help? Paul Feig Needs A Simple Favor

Director talks cameos, thrillers, and mommy vloggers

Paul Feig on Anna Kendrick as Stephanie in A Simple Favor

Wasn't it inevitable that, when Paul Feig made his first thriller, he'd have a little Hitchcock-esque cameo in there? But if you think you've seen him, he said, you're probably looking in the wrong place.

In his new thriller, A Simple Favor look for the tall, well-dressed gentleman with a shock of silver hair walking across the offices of a high-end designer. See him? No, that's not Feig, although he understands the confusion. "That's not me," he said, "but every time my editor sees it, he goes, is that you?"

The film is his homage to the classic, somewhat campy, sometimes menacing era of suburban murder mysteries, where dark secrets are revealed between widowed mommy vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) and the enigmatic Emily (Blake Lively). And, of course, there's that Hitchcock-style background appearance from Feig himself. "There's a shot where a bus goes past a motel in the foreground, and I'm reflected in the bus, which normally we would paint out digitally, but I was like, ah, just leave that in. That's my cameo."

Paul Feig at Cinemacom for A Simple Favor (Photo by Eric Charbonneau)
Austin Chronicle: Even by thriller standards, this film it goes to some incredibly dark places, with some really unexpected themes. What attracted you to it?

Paul Feig:When it came to me, it had already been adapted into a script. Quick back story: It was a book that floated around town, and was kind of a hot property. There was a big bidding war for it, and Fox 2000 got it. They hired Jessica Sharzer to write an adaptation, and then when she turned in her script, they sent it to my company. They said, "We can't figure this script out, because it's crazy. It's a drama, but it's also funny, and it's over the top." They wanted our guidance on what is the exact tone of this script.

I'd been looking, at the same time, for a number of years for a Hitchcockian thriller, because I love playing in genre. If you look at my movies, they're all basically genre films that I can take and twist and play with. But thriller, which is my favorite to watch – and I watch tons of them – is not necessarily in my wheelhouse to write from scratch. So when when I read this, I went, oh my god, this is exactly what I'm looking for, because it's got all the twists and turns that I want, and now that I have this base I can work with the writer and add even more twists and turns to it.

I wouldn't have gone to it if it was just a great thriller, because everything I do, I need to have some comedic realism I can find – just because I think a lot of thrillers take themselves too seriously these days, versus the old Hitchcockian thrillers which were funny. I just rewatched The Big Sleep last night, which isn't necessarily a thriller, but it kind of is. That movie is funny the whole way through, even though the stakes are really high, and it's dangerous, and people get killed, and it's emotional. That's what I love, that old style of pure entertainment. And I also like to walk a razor's edge with tone. That's why I wrote Spy. "OK, let's make a real spy movie, and let's try to make it funny without ever subverting the genre. This just felt like the next, even more dangerous tight rope.

AC: And then there's the vlogger aspect, which becomes so core to the narrative. It starts off as something that proves how suburban Stephanie soon adds a real twist.

PF: Honestly the vlog was the first thing that reeled me in. When I started reading the script, right on the very first page, there was this vlog, and I was just saying to myself, this is the greatest device ever. It allows your lead character motivatedly to talk to the audience, and give exposition, but then slowly start to use this form of exposition that we've established to start to play with her adversary. That was a real master stroke that Jessica Sharzer came up with, because in the book it's written blog that she does. But the idea of it being a mommy vlog, and there's so many mommy vloggers out there. Whenever I promote one of my movies, we will always do an event with the mommy vlogger community, and they'll all be in a room, and I always just love them, because they're so much fun, and earnest, and great, and fun loving. So it was really great to let one of them be a hero in the movie.

AC: It's almost impossible to imagine this working with anyone other than Anna Kendrick as Stephanie. That combination of awkwardness and likability.

“When I started reading the script, right on the very first page, there was this vlog, and I was just saying to myself, this is the greatest device ever.”
PF: Stephanie was the key to the whole movie. Blake [Lively] had come on first, just because I'd heard that she wanted to work with me and she'd got wind of the script. So I went and got coffee with her, and we really hit it off, and just I could see how much she wanted to go for it in a way that she hadn't done something like before.

But then it was, hey, who's the perfect Stephanie? I was not sure who to go to, because it really needed to tread a needle. You need somebody with really great comedic chops, but you also need someone who's a really great actress too. I love everything that Anna Kendrick does, and I really like when she plays roles, like in 50/50, where she's sweet but funny, and has all those things. She's one of those actors where, when she's playing a character like that, you go, oh, I can't wait 'til they're back on the screen. I want them, back because everything about them is charming and lovely and real. Since the role of Stephanie was basically going to be in every single frame of the film, you needed somebody who could do that. So when Anna's name came up, it was like, who else can possibly play this role?

It was really something, every day, just watching her navigate that thin line between the comedy and the drama, and the awkwardness and the confidence. It's such an arc that her character goes through, having to come into it as a really insecure person who's trying to put on a front, trying so hard to do the right thing, and start her little business and her blog.

AC: She's got this real fearflessness about the material she'll take.

PF: She's just lovely, and she's such a pro, always the first one on the set, and between takes is just sitting on a couch, reading a book, and gets up and just nails it every single time.

It's funny, this is one of the movies where I had hardly any outtakes, just because she was so good. She would nail it every time. But what she's great at is doing – we're not doing a lot of alt jokes or improv on this – but she's really great at doing physical improv with it. "OK, try it a little more manic in this one, try it a little more contained, let's try this one a little more nervous, let's try this one a little more awkward," and each time it was, oh my god, what did she just bring to this take that was so good. It was really fun to be working in the editing room with everything that she gave me, because it just allowed me to play all the different shades, and all the different moments of this script, to get the balance right.

Because a movie like this is such a tonal tight rope. If you go too funny, it falls apart. If you take it too seriously, it falls apart. A movie like this always has to let the audience know, we're taking this seriously, but it's OK to laugh with us.

A Simple Favor opens this week. For review and showtimes, see our listings page.

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Paul Feig, A Simple Favor, Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively

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