Why Paul Feig Aimed to Revive the "Hitchcockian Thriller" With 'A Simple Favor'
The director and producer of the comedy thriller talks about poking fun at the genre tropes, revisiting Hitchcock for the modern times and why Hollywood needs to challenge its "default setting."
Lionsgate's A Simple Favor may seem like a new venture for Paul Feig, but the thrilling mystery is nothing out of the ordinary for the comic director.
Moviegoers recognize Feig for his collective résumé of comedies, notoriously creating cult favorite Freaks and Geeks and helming female-driven comedies such as Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy. On paper, A Simple Favor is a wicked mystery that can appear as a surprising departure for the director, but looks prove to be deceiving as the film honors the thriller genre while still implementing comedic quips that are common throughout Feig's work.
Feig's new endeavor centers on a budding friendship that quickly turns into a sinister game between two matriarchs. Based on Darcey Bell's 2017 novel of the same name, the film focuses on mommy vlogger Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), who forms an unlikely friendship with enigmatic Emily (Blake Lively). After Emily mysteriously disappears, Stephanie grows frightened over the whereabouts of her best friend, who she soon learns has a menacing past and secrets. The story's premise of examining all "shades of what humans can do and how bad they can get" attracted Feig to the project, but the director says that his "good-natured" style will be visible throughout.
Though the film pokes fun at traditional thriller genre tropes, Feig says he didn't want to make people laugh "at the expense of the genre." Instead, Feig wanted to revive Alfred Hitchcock's signature equation for suspense: a sense of alarming thrill combined with amusing fun. Paying homage to films such as North by Northwest and Rear Window, Feig categorizes his film as a "behavioral comedy" that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats while keeping a smile on their face.
Feig talked to The Hollywood Reporter about paying homage to Hitchcock and why Hollywood has to "challenge the default setting" of male-driven projects.
This film is being pegged as something new for you due to its darker storyline. How did this movie come about for you, and would you say it shows the darker side of Paul Feig?
Fox 2000 had ordered an adaptation that [screenwriter] Jessica Sharzer wrote and then they got the script and sent it to us, because of our producing deal there. And they said, "We don't know what the script is, because it's a thriller but it also seems really funny. It's also dark and seems kind of crazy." So they were like, "Maybe you can figure it out!" I've been dying to do a thriller, like a Hitchcockian type thriller. I could also see the comedic potential in this film, because of Anna Kendrick's character being this nerdy mom. It's my favorite kind of lead character, which is an awkward person, in the middle, who feels undervalued and doesn't really know where they're going in life.
This film is dark definitely, but to me it doesn't feel any different than any of my other movies. We don't go for quite as many hard laughs, because I just want it to be true to the thriller genre first and foremost and then let the comedic moments add to the thriller and fun. I just want it to be fun, like an old Hitchcock movie. You laugh during those. You don't take it too seriously.
This film serves as both a thriller and comedy. What were the biggest challenges in balancing those two genres?
The challenge is that the film has to be a thriller first and foremost. You can never try to get a laugh at the expense of the genre. Where the laughs come are [from] playing with the tropes of the genre and also just playing with the characters' quirkiness and extreme reaction to sometimes the absurdity of what's going on, but always taking it seriously. It's very behavioral comedy and it comes from the quirkiness of these characters and all the supporting cast around them.
It's easy for the audience to assume this film would resemble Gone Girl. Were there any films that you personally wanted to emulate or used as inspiration for this film?
I think sometimes I approach genres knowing what has been done in the genre but also wanting to correct some things that I always wished that they would do or things that I missed that they don't do anymore. For me, it just kept going back to Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest and Rear Window. It's a thriller and there's danger, but you still laugh because, with these kind of movies, we want you to take them seriously. But we also want you to have fun. We really want to entertain an audience and I wanted to bring that back in a way that I haven't seen in a while, while keeping everything good-natured. Sometimes I've seen a movie end in vain and sometimes they tend to be slightly mean-spirited. I like happy endings. I like everybody to be sort of be in a better place toward the end of the movie, even the villain.
The thriller genre has a lot of memorable female characters — from Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca to Annie Wilkes in Misery — why do you think the thriller genre, specially, has brought such complex and lasting women to the screen?
The genre itself requires everybody to be smart in it, because it's all about figuring something out. Over the years, women went from being strong smart characters in these movies to being victims but then going through the experience [in which] they would not become victims.
Onscreen it's clear that there is great chemistry among the cast. How did you go about casting this film, and did you have anyone specifically in mind?
The first time I read a script, I'm kind of blank, but then I start getting images of people. I had that with Anna Kendrick. A few years ago, we really hit it off and we always wanted to figure out something to do together. The minute I started reading this [script], [I realized] the lead character is inherently comedic — because of how nerdy she is — but she also has to be a great actress. So it's like, who's funny and a great actress? Well it's gotta be Anna Kendrick. Who can just hit all those notes? She's just perfect for the role.
Then I got wind that Blake [Lively] wanted to work with me and knew about this script. I'm a big fan of hers and I've never seen her play any role where she wasn't the heroine and ... she was just so up for going for it — really leaning into the deliciousness of Emily's villainy — but in a way where it wouldn't be one-dimensional. I want to understand why a villain is being a villain. As we were working on the scripts and rehearsing, she really wanted to create more sympathy in the backstory for Emily so she was a big part of adding that extra layer. They're [both] such smart, thoughtful actors that you just get such good stuff.
It's clear that each of the film's characters have their own struggles and while there's tension between them, there's also tension existing within themselves. What did you feel were each of the character's biggest challenges with their personal identities?
Loneliness hangs huge over this [film], especially for Stephanie but also with Emily. Guilt is also a giant thing that hangs over this movie, because Stephanie has been carrying around this enormous guilt about what she did in the past and works so hard to hide it. Yet I just love the idea that everything with Stephanie is bright and colorful. She dresses happy and she has little cats all over her dresses in a way to tell the world, 'Look, you got nothing to see here.'
As far as Blake's character goes, this is somebody who's been hiding and who is such a survivor. She is happy to settle in [somewhere] if she thinks she's in a safe situation, but she's already ready to change her persona. She does wear these suits of armors that keep people away, but are still so enticing that they still lure them forward. That's Emily. She's kind of a push and pull at the same time.
Female friendships onscreen can often be one-dimensional, but Emily and Stephanie share a complex relationship where they're each other's best friends and worst enemies. How did you want to convey their relationship onscreen?
They're very similar people at the end of the day who are running and hiding from things. What I never want in any of my movies is for women to be at odds in a catfight sort of way. I never want any characters to lose their dignity that way. Even though their relationship is adversarial, there's a mutual respect that never goes away. They both know that the other one is very smart. Even though they're both manipulating each other, they are doing it out of respect because they know the other is smart.
Being that the whole film centers on a mystery, how did you go about determining each of the characters' endings?
I'm a softy for a happy ending. I never want my movies to be mean-spirited and never want the message to be: "You can't win. Just give up. Human beings are terrible." I'm just too much of an optimist, but I do like to see all the shades of what humans can do and how bad they can get. I also like to see how they dig out of it. I don't like to see people to give up.
Throughout the film, neither Stephanie nor Emily are necessarily trustworthy beneath the surface. Who would you be most inclined to trust, and why?
I would always trust Stephanie. Part of the inspiration for Stephanie, to me, was my mother who is no longer with us. She loved professional women and ... she was in awe of any woman who had a career and took control of her life and got really enamored with women like that. She thought they were so cosmopolitan and sophisticated. That's why I really relate to Stephanie. I'm always a fan of whoever is the most optimistic person, because that's me. Optimists are the ones that tend to get kicked around a lot, but that's why I always want them to win in the end. I want that optimist to be rewarded.
As a director who champions female-driven projects, what do you think still needs to be done in the industry to further promote multifaceted female characters onscreen?
It's up to the pipeline. It's up to the studios who are developing projects. It's up to the filmmakers who are developing projects. It's up the writers who are coming up with the stories. It's up to agencies signing women writers in getting them jobs and getting them out there. There just needs to be more parity in who is telling the story, who's coming up with them but also who's betting them; making sure all the voices are being told in the most accurate way and you're not making a stereotype out of any one gender or race or philosophy or lifestyle. Hollywood just has to actively challenge the default setting that makes them go "Oh I'm writing a movie. It's about a guy who …" That's all I hear! My first question in any of these pitches is: Can it be a woman? We just got to break out of this "one group gets to make everything."
A Simple Favor is in theaters now.